The Joe Ades Myth Deconstructed

Posted by | February 03, 2009 | Uncategorized | 26 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.

26 Comments

  • [...] When I read it, the first thing I thought of was that day in lower Manhattan. It was several years ago and I was on my way to hang out with David Galbraith. Sure enough, Jason Kottke had linked to David’s take on the Ades story. [...]

  • Nick Spanos says:

    I would see him almost everyday. One of our offices was on Union Square South, 853 Broadway, we would say a few words almost everyday. I kept trying to get him to sell buildings for us at Bapple, but he said to me “I like you Nick Bapple(not my real last name)so I will let you in on a little secret. Cater to the classes and you will live with the masses, cater to the masses and you live with the classes.”. I don’t think he had a lot of money and I don’t really care, all I know he made thousands of people smile everyday, that’s ultra-rich to me. God bless you Joe Ades. Wonder what your selling in heaven.

  • Renee says:

    That was very well said Mr. Spanos.

  • growler says:

    Not trying to be mean here, but you’re wrong about his clothes, and probably don’t have an eye for what’s expensive. I saw him all the time, and that was some high-end stuff he wore. And the supposed clashiness of his shirts was something that a dandy often indulges in.

    That said, rest in peels, Joe.

  • urnmoney says:

    (its a pile-of links-like his carrots)

  • David Berkowicz says:

    I, too, was charmed by Mr. Ades and I own 2 of his wonderful peelers. I was fortunate enough to take a couple of picture of him – they are visible on my flickr web site (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dberkowicz/3252502208/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/dberkowicz/3252502006/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/dberkowicz/3252501728/in/photostream/). Unfortunately, his shoes are visible in none.

  • urnmoney says:

    Oh, but this one you HAVE to watch:

    Today Show Special on Joe Ades

  • nick s says:

    his accent was neither Mancunian or upper class English, but blue-collar London.

    I’m going to quibble with you on that: my ear detects a good bit of Mancunian Jewish there (think: Howard Jacobson) which is a close relative to that working-class East End / north London Jewish accent you pick up. Ades is a Sephardic name, usually associated with Aleppo, and there was a mercantile Ades family in Manchester in the early 20th century.

    All that’s just speculation. A commenter at Gawker once asked him if he was from Manchester; his reply: “I am from many places, my friend”. Which is why you’re right that the NYT flails and fails when trying to define who Peeler Man was. Just as he moved from city to city, then from pitch-spot to pitch spot, he won’t be pinned down.

  • admin says:

    I think you are right about the accent, Nick. And I had no evidence to suggest he was Ashkenaz other than statistical likelihood. So poss right on both counts.

  • [...] Group The Gentleman Peeler – Flickr Pool Vanity Fair profile, 2006 A notice in the New Yorker Joe Ades, Deconstructed Filed under: NYC, events Article tags: [...]

  • Irene Kaoru says:

    Food for thought, interesting post. I’ve been surprised and warmed to see how many of my friends knew and loved this guy…so many that we’re planning a memorial on Saturday in Union Square. Maybe you’ll join us?

  • admin says:

    I am in France, unfortunately, however, that sounds like a fine idea.

  • Joe M says:

    Peelin’ Joe… We’ll Miss Ya!

    Billy Mays the TV OxiClean man could take a lesson or two or three from Joe!

  • Martin Hale says:

    Sadly, I read of the passing of Joe Ades “gentleman” street vendor in New York.

    Joe worked in the early 1950’s for my father Bert Hale, selling “swag” from a lorry at markets in the North of England. Joe was one of many “grafters” at that time, that enlivened markets either pitching swag or demonstrating household tools. My father having worked on fairs from four-years old, pitched “off a lorry” and later demonstrated on markets or in stores, opened shops and then manufactured for stores and market traders in the UK. Many of these “grafters” had their own line of patter and learnt (or stole) good lines from one another. I remember my father telling me how well Joe spoke as a younger man and how much he could earn, in those days for that time.

    These traders were big earners, many had a passion for the “good life”, with a penchant for good clothes, with Brills of Leeds, later popular with TV and sports stars, being a favourite store. Many Americans stars including Floyd Patterson, Billy Eckstine, Billy Daniels, Buddy Greco also shopped here when in the UK.

    Many of these traders, mainly of Jewish origin,exceptions being my father (Yorkshire fairground family) and his brother in law George Watson (Jamaican descent), founded retail or wholesale businesses, in time becoming wealthy. Joe was descended from Spanish Jews I recall. My father who retired in the 1980’s, passed away recently aged 89 but he would have been amazed to read of Joe’s New York celebrity status.

    As for Joe’s accent, he was raised in Manchester, but later worked in London, Australia and USA, so over 60 years or so it would have changed.

    Joe Ades was one of a dying breed, a character popular with onlookers, but never with the “non-spieling” traders; without these characters, our outdoor markets here in the UK appear to have died too. CCTV surveillance and heavy fines (merely for obstruction) means that his type of street trading, away from the markets is gone for ever. RIP Joe.

  • [...] for a more critical lens on the lore of joe ades check out david galbraith’s piece. [...]

  • Justin Shubow says:

    According to one old Jewish Lady with the same surname, “Ades” is Sephardic in origin:

    “Ades is an old Sephardic name,” she explained. “It’s from the name of the port city Cadiz, in southern Spain. Way back when, the town was called Gades: Take off the silent ‘g,’ and it spells ‘Ades.’ This is where we come from–your peddler guy, too. He may not know it, but what can I say? He may not even be Jewish at this point. My kid sister once met an Ades in England who had been in one of those monk type things.”

    http://www.nypress.com/article-11703-searching-for-j-ades.html

  • Tracy says:

    second try here:

    I came across your website accidentally while looking for another David Galbraith.

    I used to live in Berkeley, where the streets were full of displaced souls. One man used to stand on a street corner daily spouting a continuous litany of mathematical equations with intermittent interjections of “whooooo…..”. I found out later that he had been a professor and had published books which could be found at the local bookstore.

    I believe there is a fine line between genius and insanity and that line is the ability to communicate one thoughts and ideas with others.

  • [...] If you’ve been to NYC anytime in the last decade you probably saw, or at least heard, Joe Ades. NYC now has one less character roaming the streets. [...]

  • [...] the Second Great Depression | Information and Evolution | What Comes After Lofts and the Suburbs | The Joe Ades Myth Deconstructed | Goodbye Dubai (on [...]

  • Hamden Rice says:

    Most of the obits miss the single most memorable thing about Joe Ades — that he sold the best damned vegetable peeler! I’ve had mine about 6 years, and it hasn’t dulled although the blade pops out now and then.

    The big question for me is, now that Joe is gone how the heck am I going to get a replacement “Swiss” vegetable peeler?

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  • second try here:

    I came across your website accidentally while looking for another David Galbraith.

    I used to live in Berkeley, where the streets were full of displaced souls. One man used to stand on a street corner daily spouting a continuous litany of mathematical equations with intermittent interjections of “whooooo…..”. I found out later that he had been a professor and had published books which could be found at the local bookstore.

    I believe there is a fine line between genius and insanity and that line is the ability to communicate one thoughts and ideas with others.

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