Joe Ades, New York City's "Peeler Man" dead at 75
February 3, 2009 6:55 AM   Subscribe

Joe Ades, New York City's "Peeler Man" is dead at the age of 75.

If you lived in New York anytime in the last, oh, two decades and you frequented New York City's Union Square Greenmarket, you probably know Joe Ades. He was the guy almost hiding in the corners. He looked like a bit of a lunatic, peeling carrots in a polyester suit, sweating like a track star in the 80 degree summer heat. He'd shout and howl and you'd think, "How good can that vegetable peeler really be?" and almost as if on cue some passerby would note, "I have one and it's just like he advertises".

After watching that spiel 5 or 6 times, I finally got one of Joe Ades' mystery peelers. I have never owned a better kitchen tool in my whole life. It is the king of peelers, it may as well be forged from Damascus Steel. It came with no identifying information, a little bit of magic in a brand saturated world. I had promised my mother I'd pick her up a peeler next time I ran into Joe- Now what?

He was the last of the real salesmen. An honest to god working man, a consummate showman and a living treasure of the city. The city is a less well off place without a man like Joe. In the low tide of the global economy, Joe has some good advice:

“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.”

Even if you've never heard of Joe, give the above few links a view. He is a captivating person, like someone out of a storybook. It'll be a nice way to spend the morning hours.
posted by GilloD (45 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This is a pretty good debunking of the "rich beggar" myth around the guy, written by someone that lived near his corner for years.
posted by mathowie at 7:52 AM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yes, following up on mathowie's comment, it's pretty clear, from reading between the lines in these charming links, that Joe Ades wasn't the eccentric English toff he may have superficially appeared to be, but rather firmly in the tradition of the Jewish peddler (also a fascinating read):
I came to Worthington, where I met a peddler named Marx ... married and an immigrant . . . Wretched business! This unfortunate man has been driving himself in this miserable trade for three years to furnish a bare living for himself and his family. O G-d, our Father, consider Thy little band of the house of Israel. Behold how they are compelled to profane Thy holy Torah in pursuit of their daily bread. In three years this poor fellow could observe the Sabbath less than ten times ... This is religious liberty in America.
posted by orthogonality at 9:20 AM on February 3, 2009

Also: Best Salesman in the World
posted by nitsuj at 9:28 AM on February 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

I used to see him on the UES sometimes. Loved the guy. I have two of his peelers, and they really are the best ever. I tried to talk to him once, but he was deep in the selling zone. Sad to see another charming eccentric gone.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:29 AM on February 3, 2009

Not someone out of a storybook, but off New York City's sidewalks, whose economy is as representative of the metropolis as Wall Street's or the Diamond District's and whose salesmen are as essential to the city's continued existence as the ravens of the Tower of London. Although the VF piece embellished his shabby genteel persona as much as he embellished his own hawking technique, it's good that attention has been finally paid to such a person.
posted by Doktor Zed at 9:30 AM on February 3, 2009

Aw jeez, I live a block from union square, and do most of my shopping at that farmer's market, I see that guy probably 4 times a week.
I really loved the sound of his voice. Amazing that a salesman loudly hawking his wares could be pleasant or welcome, but it was.
I am going to shred hella carrots for my salad tonight.
Here's to you, Joe.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 9:30 AM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love that guy, and I love love love my peeler. I had one and then I lost it, and was in deep mourning until we were able to track him down and buy another one. Guess I can never lose this one :(
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:32 AM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

You can still get the peeler via Amazon.
posted by thewittyname at 9:37 AM on February 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

I saw him at least 3 times a week for the last few years. I'll miss him.

Also, the rich beggar myth seems to be perpetuated by people who never saw him, don't understand his legend, never lived in New York, or are just plain old haters. His appeal wasn't that he was a rich man who worked for fun. His appeal was as a hard working salesman who became rich by selling peelers on the street at 5 dollars a piece. He sold a fine product, had a great sales pitch, and worked for his money. Any cubical dweller who walked by him couldn't help but thing "hey I could do that" which was part of his appeal. And the fact that he sold a great product also helped (seriously, the peeler is fantastic).

He was a regular at Upper East side restaurants, would purchase an expensive champagne bottle every evening while listening to Kathleen Landis play, and then head home to his 4th wife which is how he got his Park Avenue address. He didn't start rich, he became "rich". But how rich? We don't know but he sure seemed to live a heck of a life.
posted by Stynxno at 9:41 AM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

My girlfriend bought a peeler last month from him. We're gonna peel some potatoes tonight in his honor.
posted by chillmost at 9:47 AM on February 3, 2009

I saw this guy work a crowd several times over the span of ten or more years. I never realized until now that he had been written about, and am amazed that he appears to have been even more of an eccentric than I could have imagined. RIP.
posted by ornate insect at 9:52 AM on February 3, 2009

I've seen him peeling carrots on Canal St. Certainly one of the most unappetizing things I've ever seen, but you can't knock his hustle.
posted by milarepa at 9:52 AM on February 3, 2009

Here, peel some right now.
posted by gman at 9:53 AM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite] a polyester suit...

No way, he was always impecably dressed in fine suits.
posted by racingjs at 9:58 AM on February 3, 2009

Ades was an interesting guy, and I'll miss hearing his voice, but calling him (or anyone, for that matter) "the last of the real salesmen" is maudlin horseshit.
posted by saladin at 10:00 AM on February 3, 2009

posted by Navelgazer at 10:07 AM on February 3, 2009

He sold his peelers in my 'hood sometimes--Broadway and Chambers. It's interesting the little bits of fame some New Yorkers have.
posted by Mavri at 10:16 AM on February 3, 2009

posted by orville sash at 10:18 AM on February 3, 2009

Joe Ades was NOT a rich begger for God's sake. Jesus H. Christ, people are so frikkin paranoid about being ripped off they don't use their common sense.

The guy was SELLING something, not begging. And, as far as I know, selling something one is allowed to prosper.

Here's a calculator.
If he sold 40 peelers a weekday, not a stretch in the least, he made, EARNED 71 thou a year before cost and taxes. If he worked every week the last 15 years, that's $1,077,000.

If he invested even a little in the 1980's he could have made some decent money then.

It's quite possible on good days he sold 100 peelers a day. $500 in earnings. Or more. If one of his late wives rented that apartment on Park Avenue before 1974, which is quite likely, she would have had a rent controlled apartment (very cheap) and he, as her widower, would have inherited that.

Since he was elderly, he would have been receiving Social Security money as well, which was his right.

New York weather is harsh, it's very hot in the summer, very cold in the winter. It could not have been easy for an older guy to do this year after year, sit-squatting down the way he did.

How awesome he supported his kids through school. My condolences to them and to his friends. May he rest in peace.
posted by nickyskye at 11:44 AM on February 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

aww, the Amazon reviews of the Swiss peeler honor Joe Ades' schtick and him.
posted by nickyskye at 11:53 AM on February 3, 2009

If he sold 40 peelers a weekday

He'd sell that in an hour. He was terrific. So were the peelers.
Also, the stories suggest he married into some money. I always got a vibe from him that he was doing this more for fun and showmanship than anything. He never seemed desperate.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:56 AM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

If I knew how to cook, I probably would've bought a peeler from the old guy

posted by Calloused_Foot at 12:10 PM on February 3, 2009

A flood of comments at the Gothamist post. There's even a Facebook group! Is this how one mourns now?
posted by CunningLinguist at 12:35 PM on February 3, 2009

He use to sell children's books on John Street outside my office prior to 9/11. I used to love to just watch him. Some kind of Dickensian anachronism. Totally fascinating. A city with these kinds of characters, that's the city I want to live in.
posted by spicynuts at 12:44 PM on February 3, 2009

I've used those peelers. They're OK, but they're no OXO peeler.

Also, all peelers last a lifetime. There's nothing on them to break. It's like saying a spoon lasts a lifetime.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:48 PM on February 3, 2009

Don't be silly. Spoons don't have blades that can dull.
posted by CunningLinguist at 12:50 PM on February 3, 2009

nickyskye, do you know the Mitchell Dumier book, Sidewalk? It is kind of an ethnography of the NYC book traders? I found it an extraordinarily interesting book, and mentor figure who ran the black book stall was also a fascinating character. The account of his motivations for street trading were very enlightening, imo.

If you don't already know it, it's well worth keeping an eye out for.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:01 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Spoons don't have blades that can dull.

Peelers don't really dull either though. I'm not sure why that would be -- perhaps because they've got a small cutting edge, perhaps because the edge isn't really exposed because of the parallel bar, perhaps because they aren't used to cut anything harder than vegetables -- but even the most ancient potato peeler will work perfectly well, in my experience.

I'm pretty sure that it's the grip, rather than the blade that makes most difference to their useability.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:06 PM on February 3, 2009

PeterMcD - Peelers can to turn to crap. I've tossed several lame peelers over the years so a good one is worth holding onto. Maybe you've only had experiences with good ones. And grip for me is neither here nor there. What matters is does it peel well, around an apple, down a potato without hacking and gong down a carrot I shouldn't have to lift until the tip.

Bottle and can openers can also turn really crappy.
posted by shoesietart at 1:32 PM on February 3, 2009

What an inspiration... I'll keep him in mind when I graduate from college

posted by JoeXIII007 at 1:36 PM on February 3, 2009

I've never heard of him until now, and I miss him. I feel like I just lost a friend.
posted by czechmate at 2:04 PM on February 3, 2009

I've used those peelers. They're OK, but they're no OXO peeler.

I like my OXO peeler. It's about the only thing OXO makes right, perhaps, but damn it's a good peeler.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:38 PM on February 3, 2009

PerterMcDermott, Thanks for the great book tip about sidewalk. Never heard of it and it sounds right up my alley. Will take it out of the library pronto.

And I'm so math impaired I miscalculated Ades gross income. If Joe Ades worked every weekday and sold 40 peelers a day that would be 200 a day take, 53,000 a year before cost and taxes. If he worked only 9 months a year but made 500 a day, that would be 135 thou a year before cost and taxes. It's quite feasible he made between 70 and 100 thou a year in his pocket. Decent money.
posted by nickyskye at 3:57 PM on February 3, 2009

Oh, I think you'll like it a lot. Here are the details on
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:05 PM on February 3, 2009

wow! i've been going to the Union Sq market on a weekly basis for at least 20 yrs. am gonna miss the guy :(
posted by liza at 4:57 PM on February 3, 2009

"Perfect pitch" - Here's Joe Ades' short but very interesting autobiography as a "grafter". He bought a Rolls Royce and would park it next to his pitch.

That reminds me of the late Francis Paraison, a street vendor-artist from Haiti, who sold by the Museum of Modern Art. He came to work selling on the street in 400 buck Botticelli shoes and a gold Mercedes.

I'm glad Joe Ades died peacefully in his sleep. Nice way to go.
posted by nickyskye at 5:23 PM on February 3, 2009

I never made it to New York on time. Anyone know where I can get one of those peelers!?
posted by MrChowWow at 5:46 PM on February 3, 2009

Amazon link is upthread.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:49 PM on February 3, 2009

Sorry, Cunning. I should have RTFC better. Thanks.
posted by MrChowWow at 6:10 PM on February 3, 2009

It makes chips AND fries?! I have to get one of these.
posted by DU at 4:57 AM on February 4, 2009

Via Facebook, fans are planning a memorial:

on the south steps of Union Square,
Saturday, February 7th, 2009 at 1:00 PM.
Bring a peeler, carrots and potatoes.
Traditional memorial offerings are also welcome.

posted by CunningLinguist at 11:11 AM on February 4, 2009

I always thought he seemed like a really interesting guy that I'd like to talk to. Too bad I walked on past, every time I saw him, instead of stopping to chat & buy a peeler. Constantly being in a hurry has its drawbacks.

Does anyone know where I can get one of those peelers?
posted by TreeHugger at 12:54 PM on February 4, 2009

A not-quite laudatory but respectful tribute from a friend of mine: Dispatches from the Brooklyn Bureau. I have used the very peeler he speaks of, peeling potatoes for Thanksgiving, and I confess that I could not get the knack of it. It just seemed too long and wide for my hand to get a proper grip on it. Nonetheless it's the only peeler I've ever met with a history, and those things matter, I think.
posted by felix grundy at 8:21 PM on February 4, 2009

Ades's memorial service at Union Square on Saturday afternoon that CunningLinguist mentioned sounds like it was a pleasant, fitting event, from the spieler testimonials to the wreaths made of carrot peelings.
Also present were Ades' daughter Ruth and son David, who announced that their father had just received his U.S. Citizenship last Friday, fulfilling a lifelong dream. As an answer to questions of how Joe's legacy of unique salesmanship would be carried on, Ruth answered “My father always told me that my inheritance would be forty cartons of peelers, and it was. He left them all to me. I'm going to go home and practice on some potatoes, and then come out to his old spot on 17th and Union Square West and show all of you.” David, who had flown in this week from his home in Australia, closed the ceremony by saying “Thank you, New York, for falling in love with my dad.”
posted by Doktor Zed at 9:14 AM on February 9, 2009

Ades Daughter Keeps Tradition Alive

"Some parents leave their kids buildings; my dad left me peelers," Ms. Ades-Laurent called out at one point, as if to punctuate for passersby why she'd spend her Saturday crouched in front of a construction footing.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:35 AM on March 1, 2009

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