My Dad Joe Ades “The Peeler Guy”

The Album “A Glorious Uncertainty” is inspired by my father Joe Ades, a one in a million character who lived his whole life of his wits. He was one of the greatest grafters or pitchmen who ever lived. He died in Feb 2009 in New York, with a huge tribute to his work and life celebrated at Union Square, one his favourite places to work. There is much to be read about him and you watch him at his best on you tube. here is an article written about him that appeared in Vanity Fair 2005.


The Gentleman Grafter

By night, Joe Ades dines with his fourth wife at exclusive restaurants, sips Veuve Clicquot at the Pierre, and goes home to a three-bedroom Park Avenue apartment. By day, he is something else altogether. At 72, the “peeler guy” in the Turnbull & Asser shirts is a New York legend.

In the early 90s a man named Joe Ades began showing up in the bar at the Pierre, Manhattan’s famously posh hotel on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 61st Street. Joe liked the crowd at the Café Pierre, but the real draw for him was Kathleen Landis, the dimpled, piano-playing house chanteuse who still entertains there five nights a week.

Joe was a five-nights-a-week man as well, always seated at the same round table with a front view of the baby grand and a back view of Landis. He drank only champagne, and never alone. His usual brand was Veuve Clicquot. On most nights he casually ordered a bottle, which always appeared with two champagne glasses—one for himself, the other for Landis.

Even by the standards of café society, Joe cut a noticeably soigné figure in his classic, British-made Chester Barrie suits and bold shirts and ties from Turnbull & Asser. The clothes went well with his English accent and late-period Sean Connery salt-and-pepper beard. He looked so distinguished and was so free with the bubbly that the Café Pierre crowd, Landis included, at first had him pegged as one of the “owners”—the tycoons who actually live at the Pierre in stupendously high-end co-op apartments.

The Café Pierre was way off about Joe, or so it decided after some probing. If no one was brave enough to ask him where he lived, quite a few people asked him what he did for a living.

Holding his glass of champagne by the stem, Joe would say simply, “I sell potato peelers.”

The probers had a good chuckle over that. “Right,” they all said. “Now pull the other one.”

While walking the streets in the months that followed, some of the probers, who may have still doubted him, came upon Joe in the middle of a spiel with a crowd gathered around him at some busy corner. He sat on a campstool, peeler in hand, and performed all manner of surgical wonders on carrots, zucchini, and Idaho potatoes. A long slab of Lucite served as his worktable, which rested on storage bins filled with all his produce. The table and his campstool were so low to the ground that he worked from a perpetual crouch, like a catcher. Meanwhile, he kept up a constant patter of inspired stretchers and persiflage belted out at the top of his lungs in a scratchy, theatrical Cockney singsong. After three or four minutes—not before—he announced the price of his “machine,” as he called it, produced a wad of bills from his left coat pocket, and began dealing peelers as fast as he could to the outstretched hands flapping money in his face. As if all this weren’t astonishing enough, he had on his beautiful café attire, only now bits of potato peel flecked his lapels, and sometimes, when he bowed his head low over an operation, sweat from his brow coursed its way down the ridge of his nose and dripped onto the cuffs of his Turnbull & Asser shirt.

Joe is still working the peeler in New York. This past December he turned 72, but unless there’s snow on the ground he’s out pitching.

Joe loves the peeler, which he sells for $5. “I love it for several reasons,” he says. “It’s portable; it works; I never get a complaint. Never ever. When people first see it they don’t believe it. They buy it skeptically, cynically. They can’t believe it’s going to do what I say it’ll do, but they take a chance and they buy it. And during the course of the sale, somebody will walk past—always do—and say, ‘I got one of those. They’re great!’ And it’s true—they’re not shills. You don’t need a shill with something like this.”

The Swiss-made article is a gleaming frame of stainless steel that fits in the palm like a carpenter’s plane. Joe is the only one in the city who has it—a true boast he saves for that moment in the pitch when he names his price and the wad comes out (in the street game, a moment known as “coming to the bat”). In private Joe says, “The company in Switzerland that makes the peeler will only supply people who can demonstrate the product. There’s a minimum number you have to buy, and the minimum quantity is far more peelers than one store could handle in 20 years. If you saw the peeler hanging up in a store—for a dollar—you’d walk right past it. It has to be demonstrated.”

His selling locations have no fixed pattern. One never knows where Joe will turn up. “I like to be an event,” he says. “Boredom sets in when people expect you.”

In part, Joe is making a virtue of necessity. He has no license to do what he does, and he often gets moved by the cops, who all know him. “All of them have nicked me in the past,” he says.

Joe pushes his gear through the streets on a hand truck, which he in his English way calls a trolley. He and the trolley are often stopped by strangers ready with a heartfelt line: “Sir, you’re the greatest salesman in New York!”

He likes the recognition and is never ungracious, but privately he quibbles over the use of the word “salesman.” “I couldn’t sell one to one,” he explains. “I couldn’t sell real estate or cars, for example. What I like to do is pitch to a crowd, draw a crowd together and have them give me their money.”

Joe’s career as a pitchman, or grafter (the argot term he actually uses), goes back to Manchester, England, his birthplace. A poor widow’s child, the youngest of seven, he was only 15 when he started in the business. He had dropped out of school and was working in an office when the firm sent him out to post a letter one day. His route happened to take him straight through a bomb site, a still-fresh souvenir from World War II smack in the middle of downtown Manchester. It was there amid the rubble that Joe found his calling. An impromptu market had sprung up from nothing, and for the first time Joe witnessed grafters at work.

“It intrigued me,” he says, recalling that day. “They were pitching their wares: shoelaces, cough mixture—all kinds of things. They were mostly men a lot older than myself, but very good at their game—they were showmen.”

He started pitching in the markets himself (beginning with secondhand comic books) and was still in the markets a year or two later when an older grafter named Ronald Goldstein opened his eyes to pitching on the street. Goldstein was a very tall, very thin man who sat so low when he pitched on the street that his bended knees came up to his chin. All the street grafters worked sitting down—a deliberate tactic, as Joe found out.

“It’s a much easier way to get a crowd,” he explains. “When you’re down low, people walking past can see the backs of people but they don’t know what they’re looking at. They have to stop and look to see what those people are looking at.”

Most of the items sold by the street grafters were small everyday things priced very cheap. There was a valuable lesson in this, put into words by the all-knowing Goldstein: Never underestimate a small amount of money. It was a lesson his young protégé never forgot.

“I’ve sold things for far less than the peeler,” Joe says. “People say, ‘How can you make any money selling something for a dollar?’ You sell a lot, that’s how. There was a fellow in Trafalgar Square who sold packets of birdseed to the tourists. They were a shilling a packet—to feed the pigeons. He owned blocks of flats, so the story goes.”

Joe was married for a number of years to an Australian with a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Before this wife quit the marriage, his third, she gave him a book that became his bible:London Labour and the London Poor, a work in four volumes by Henry Mayhew.

Mayhew was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, whom he knew. In London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew explored—as sociology, in in-depth interviews—the same scruffy professions met with in Dickens: mud larks, ragpickers, rat killers, chimney sweeps, beggars, prostitutes, thieves.

In a category all to themselves were the street sellers, whom Mayhew divides into two main groups: the patterers, as he calls them, and everyone else. The patterers were the brainy, sophisticated ones—the self-proclaimed aristocracy of the street. In “dress and appearance,” Mayhew writes, many of the patterers resembled the “gent.” Some wore mustaches, others beards. For the most part—unlike the costermongers, say (itinerant fruit and vegetable sellers who generally were born and bred to the trade)—the patterers willingly took to the street “from a natural love of what they call ‘roving.’”Mayhew and the patterers might have been surprised at just how far Joe has taken this gent thing. At the end of each day he returns with his gear to a commodious three-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue, the home that he shares with his present wife, Estelle. (In spite of the polished ways of the patterers, their typical abode was the “vagrant hovel.”) Then it’s out again for an early dinner in a style unheard of in London Labour. Six nights a week, accompanied by Estelle, he hits some of the biggest-name restaurants in town—Elio’s, Jean Georges, Milos, Centolire. He never has trouble getting a table. In the soft light his hands glow pink from the half-hour hot-water-and-nailbrush treatment he performs as part of his evening toilette.One of Joe’s favorite spots to work the peeler is Union Square on a market day, when stalls appear with tight-lipped farmers who would never dream of pitching their wares. The trouble is—unlike the farmers—Joe lacks a permit to sell in the market, and he often gets chased by security. The only vendors permitted in the market are farmers who sell what they grow themselves, or bakers and the like, who sell what they make.This past fall Joe tried something out of character for an unregenerate maverick like himself. He made a formal request, in writing, for permission to “demonstrate” his peeler in the Greenmarket. He offered to pay rent—just like the farmers—and “to work all the days the market is in operation” (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday). What his letter didn’t say was that, should he win approval, he had plans to introduce a couple of new kitchen items to offset his repeated exposure in one spot. In other words, the Peeler Guy, as everyone knows him, was contemplating nothing less than a change of identity. A part of him was hoping his request would be denied. He certainly didn’t act like a humble petitioner. Even as he waited for an answer to his letter, he continued to show up and pitch in the Greenmarket—and was just as often repulsed by his foes.After one such rebuff on a Saturday morning, he returned with his gear that same afternoon and surveyed the market from the edge of the square at a latitude corresponding to 15th Street.“There’s a big hole up here,” he said after a moment. “I’m going to stick it down there. You’ll see some fun now.”A few minutes later the singsong started:“When you peel a potato, it doesn’t matter whether you’re right-handed, left-handed, or, like a politician, underhanded. All you take off that potato is a thin layer of skin. You’ve got no waste; you do it in record time. When you come to an eye, you scoop it out—there’s the scoop.“Come up a yard. You’ll see better. Come on, don’t worry. I won’t ask you for money. You’re quite safe. You don’t have to buy to watch. You may already have one of these—I’ve sold thousands. I’ll give you a refresher course … ”Standing conspicuously off to Joe’s right was a hulking figure in black named Tony, a professional panhandler with a collection table at a nearby corner on Union Square West. He is also, in Joe’s words, “officially on the firm”—a paid assistant at Joe’s beck and call whenever Joe happens to descend on the Greenmarket.While the singsong continued, Tony kept an eye out and made conversation in a gruff, lowered voice: “Joe lets me eat—you know what I mean? As long as I run into him or see him that day, I still get paid. He’s a good guy that way. My actual duties? I clean up after him; I warn him when the cops are coming; I step in the middle when anybody from the market hassles him. Because of me, instead of just going to call the cops, they’ll come and say, ‘He’s gotta go.’”

Tony lowered his voice even more: “One of the managers of the Greenmarket—you would be amazed. All he does is get phone calls all day: ‘Peeler man in the vicinity.’ They all got walkie-talkies. Listen to me. Come here. See that big truck over there? That’s the buffalo guy’s truck. He used to be on the other side of the square, all the way on the end. He sells buffalo meat. They told him they wanted to give him a chance at the more upscale area of the market. But the real reason is very simple: Joe. With the truck over here, it blocks Joe out of his usual space.” (The Greenmarket denies moving the truck to thwart Joe.)

Tony returned to his former spot and regarded his boss with admiring eyes. “The more they bash him, the tougher he gets. I just know he wanted to bust right into the middle of the market today because they broke his chops yesterday. Everybody thinks he makes $9 million a day. He really don’t. And it’s hard work. Look, look, look at the tension in his back, his neck. It ain’t that he’s hunched over. His whole body is tense. He’s all fuckin’ business, that guy. Even me, I can’t talk. He yells at me—‘You’re talking too loud! Go away!’ See him looking at me? He’s mad at me. He always gets mad when he hears my voice.”

Estelle, the fourth and current Mrs. Ades, is a fine-boned lady of independent means who first met Joe at the Café Pierre. She was not one of the probers who asked him what he did. Joe at that time was living on his own in a one-bedroom apartment not far from the Pierre. A week or two after meeting each other, Joe asked her up for a drink one night—“He does things quickly,” Estelle explains—and that was the first time she heard about his work. And not just heard about it. Joe grabbed a peeler and, right there in his living room, put on a full demonstration for Estelle.

Prior to their marriage, in October of 2000, Joe moved into Estelle’s apartment (the one on Park Avenue he now calls home). Boxes of peelers straight from the factory made up the bulk of his personal effects. Estelle made room for the peelers, which are now like a permanent member of the family, new boxes arriving by the gross each time the inventory starts to get low.

Recently, Joe and Estelle agreed to open their home for a peek at the boxes. The visit began at the kitchen table, where Joe brought out a handful of snapshots showing him at various stages of his career. Mixed in with these was a vertical postcard of Harrods of London as seen from the street. “This is a postcard that you could buy anywhere that sells postcards in London,” he said. “Somebody’s took a shot of Harrods, the famous department store, and that is my pitch on the postcard. You can’t see me. I’m sat down on a stool pitching jewelry. But that’s my outside man, Darky Pat. He was the best outside man I ever had. If anybody came and spoke to him—‘I’m workin’,’ he’d say. ‘I’m workin’. Can’t talk.’ And these are all Gypsy ladies here. They’re selling flowers—heather. These women invented women’s lib. Invented it! None of their husbands work. They are such unbelievable money getters. Brilliant.”

Just off the kitchen, in a room of their own, with nothing but a single bed in the way of furniture, 23 boxes of potato peelers rose from the floor in five-foot columns, effectively obliterating half the space, which years ago was the servant’s room. “Now it’s Joe’s nap room,” Estelle said demurely. “But when more shipments come in with more boxes, he cannot nap there.” She seems not to mind the boxes or the trolley, which just then was parked, swollen with gear, on the threshold of her otherwise pristine living room. “Well,” she said, speaking of the trolley while Joe looked on with a smile of contentment, “when he’s out working, it’s not there.

Next, I stopped in the lobby of the building, where Benny the doorman was watching the street. Benny has a personal acquaintance with the boxes.

“I handle the delivery,” he said confidentially. “It’s about 60 or 70 boxes sometimes. I think the last delivery was towards the end of the summer. The boxes go up on the luggage cart and we leave them inside the door of the apartment.”

None of the other tenants in the building are in the habit of receiving freight. “Joe’s the only one,” said Benny. “I’ve worked here 16 years. I have lawyers, bankers, doctors. He’s the only one.” Some of these tenants have spotted Joe at work—and breezing through the building with his trolley. “The tenants are always amazed,” said Benny. “They ask me, ‘Isn’t that the guy who lives here? Benny, I saw him on the street!’ Because sometimes he does it right around here. He does different locations. One time he was on 86th between Lexington and Third, and one of the tenants says”—here Benny dropped to an incredulous whisper—“‘Benny, I just saw that guy who lives here. He’s out on the street selling peelers! And he lives here? He must do good if he lives here.’”

The magazine published a postscript to this article in the April 2009 issue.

This is Howard Kaplan’s first article for Vanity Fair.

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *