The Joe Ades Myth Deconstructed

Posted by | February 03, 2009 | Uncategorized | 70 Comments

joe ades

The front page of the New York Times website features a tribute to Joe Ades, one of New York’s true characters:

“Joe Ades got people’s attention at Union Square: the British man with expensive suits and a radio announcer’s voice — the man selling the $5 peeler. He died on Sunday”.

There is a meme that exists on both sides of the Atlantic about people who beg or sell on the street that they are somehow secretly rich. This is used uncharitably to denounce beggars as frauds and to romanticize the lives of flamboyant and charismatic salesmen.

The rumors about Ades were that he lived with on the Upper East Side and was independently wealthy. Vanity fair describes him as he dines “with his fourth wife at exclusive restaurants, sips Veuve Clicquot at the Pierre, and goes home to a three-bedroom Park Avenue apartment.” Somehow Ades was selling for his love of the job rather than needing the money. If this is entirely true, it is romantic, if not its a bit patronizing. The Joe Ades story has all the ingredients of one which will become embellished as it becomes part of New York folklore, so its worth dissecting in the interests of historical accuracy, and to understand how myths originate.

Ades used to sell on the corner of my street, so I saw him nearly every week day over a period of years. Dave Pell bought me one of his peelers when he came to visit, which made me like Dave even more because he appreciated there was something special about Ades.

The Times story tells us that Ades wore “…expensive European suits and shirts”. European has been dropped on the front page to read “expensive suits”. I suspect that European suits is accurate and via a two step mutation within a single New York Times report, ‘European’ became ‘expensive European’ which became ‘expensive’. In defense, the 2006 Vanity Fair article is specific: “Joe cut a noticeably soigné figure in his classic, British-made Chester Barrie suits and bold shirts and ties from Turnbull & Asser.” However, I’ve witnessed the process of journalistic profiling enough to know that one swallow makes a summer in profiles, and people can become characterized by their Sunday Best rather than their less interesting, everyday attire.

Ades wore suits which were well worn and did not look particularly expensive to me, they also looked like they may have been from the early 80s as can be seen by the width of the lapel in the photo in today’s Times. In addition Ames wore the same suit most of the time (either a gray or tan one) and with mismatching shirts suggesting that he did not or could not spend a fortune on clothes. These suits would surely have been European if they were the same ones he owned when he came to America, but the phrase “expensive European suits” is loaded with different connotations which are misleading, allowing the story to morph into a more exaggerated form. The most noticeable omission from the Times’ description is the fact that Ades wore old beaten up soft shoes or sneakers with his suits, they are absent in the picture but were conspicuously jarring in reality.

The second feature that the Times mentions is Ades’ ‘radio announcer’s voice’. This could mean that he spoke resoundingly clearly but given the focus on the fact that he was British the inference is more likely that he had the antiquated dipthong-ridden vowels of the upper classes as personified by Pathe News reels and the pre-war BBC. To most people, many English accents may sound similar, but to an anally retentive native, like myself, they are an object of endless fascination in both their variety and the obnoxious English attachment of status to them. Although Ades was apparently from Manchester, his accent was neither Mancunian or upper class English, but blue-collar London. In fact Ades had a very interesting and specific accent, one that has become more associated with North London but originated in the East End. To hazard a guess, Ades accent may have been an example of that of Jewish East Enders whose families settled in the UK having fled eastern European pogroms and migrated north as they became more affluent, from Brick Lane to Hackney to Stoke Newington and eventually Hampstead and Golders Green. Many Ashkenazi families who progressed up the London social ladder by hard work, often as street salesmen, have success stories which are familiar in New York and are no doubt why Ades resonated on a subconscious level.

None of this myth busting denigrates the fact that Ades was a charming and charismatic New York character. But if, in future, Ades is remembered as an aristocratic, fancy suited, upper-class English dandy that hawked vegetable peelers as an ironic hobby, that would be wrong and actually less interesting.

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