Joe Ades demonstrating the use of his $5 vegetable peeler outside the Union Square Greenmarket. He died on Sunday.
His Stage, the Street; His Rapier, a Peeler
By JAMES BARRON • From the New York Times
Somehow, Joe Ades got people’s attention as the crowds swirled by at the Union Square Greenmarket, on their way to eyeing and buying the produce. He was the white-haired man with the British accent, the expensive European suits and shirts — the man selling the $5 peeler. For carrots. Or potatoes.
“He talked constantly,” said Clover Vail, an artist.
“He was very excited about carrots,” said Sara Mason, a merchandise assistant at Barnes & Noble.
“He made it look really fun,” said Julie Worden, who dances with the Mark Morris Dance Company.
“The voice — you couldn’t help but notice it,” said Gordon Crandall, a mathematician who teaches at La Guardia Community College.
His was a particular kind of street theater in a city that delights in in-your-face characters who are, and are not, what they seem. For he was the sidewalk pitchman with the Upper East Side apartment. The sidewalk pitchman who was a regular at expensive East Side restaurants, where no one believed his answer to the “So what do you do?” question: “I sell potato peelers on the street.” Mr. Ades (pronounced AH-dess) died on Sunday at 75, said his daughter, Ruth Ades Laurent of Manhattan. She said he never talked about how many peelers he sold in a year, or how many carrots he had sliced up during demonstrations. She said he stashed his inventory in what had been the maid’s room of the apartment.
There were those at the Greenmarket who had heard the spiel, and heard the whispers. “Supposedly his wife is mega-mega-rich — we’ve done fashion shoots in that building,” said Rose-Marie Swift, a makeup artist, as she shopped at the Greenmarket on Monday.
The facts? He was a widower. The apartment had been his wife’s — his fourth wife’s. And besides Ms. Laurent, he is survived by two sons, Sam, of Sydney, Australia, and David, of Byron Bay, Australia; two brothers, Dennis, of Toronto, and Andre, of Sydney; a sister, Vida, of Toronto; and three granddaughters.
He had been selling things during his fourth marriage, and his third, his second and his first. David Hughes, the operations manager at the Greenmarket, said that Mr. Ades had been a fixture on the edges of the market for years. (He stayed on the fringes because he never obtained a permit to do business there, and if he staked out a spot too close to the vendors, someone would complain and security guards would be alerted.)
First he sold children’s books, Mr. Hughes said. “Then he moved into potato peelers,” he said. “He told me books were too heavy to carry around.” The Greenmarket was not his only open-air stage; he had places near Radio City Music Hall and in Brooklyn that he liked, Ms. Laurent said.
She said that he had learned the tricks of salesmanship as a teenager in Manchester, England. “He’d sold all kinds of things from when he was 15 and saw the old-time English grafters, I guess here you’d call them pitchmen,” Ms. Laurent said.
He sold linens, textiles, jewelry and toys, and broadened his inventory when he went to Australia in the 1970s. “We had a huge truck that we sold off the back of,” recalled Ms. Laurent, who worked with him, selling clock radios, cassette players and electrical appliances along with other household goods.
He followed Ms. Laurent to the United States. “One of his marriages, I guess his third marriage, had broken up,” she said. Making the rounds of state fairs, she said, “he discovered the peeler — someone was selling the peeler and he saw it as a fantastic item for the street.
“He loved the street more than anything.”
It helped that he had a voice like a radio announcer’s. “His voice really carried,” Mr. Hughes said. “Joe would say to me, ‘You have to not be afraid to talk to yourself out loud.’ He said that once he started talking out loud, somebody would stop, and once he had one, he’d have a crowd, and once he had a crowd, he’d sell peelers.”
Like an actor, he had a sense of pacing and timing. Ms. Laurent said that the peeler would slice “practically anything” but that he limited his repertory to carrots and potatoes when selling on the street.
Ms. Laurent said she sometimes went to look for him at the end of the day, but he would have packed up and left after selling out. She could tell where he had been.
“He cleaned up really well,” she said, “but still there were these little shreds of carrots that said, ‘I was here.’ ”