From Union Square to Borough Hall, Joe Ades was known to millions as that crazy old man in the rumpled suit selling potato peelers. That crazy old man died on Sunday, a reasonably wealthy man.
With a long slab of lucite laid across large tubs of carrots for a stage, Ades would squat on a stool, selling his humble $5 potato peelers to curious passersby who were first caught by the smooth voice and then hooked by the magic he would perform on potatoes and carrots.
"I love (the peeler) for several reasons,” he told Vanity Fair in 2006. “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.”
Cases of the Swiss-made peelers were stashed in what was once the maid's quarters of his Manhattan apartment. The home was left to him by his fourth wife, Kathleen Landis, whom he began courting after spotting her tickling the ivories at the bar in Pierre's, the swank 5th Avenue hotel.
Ades' stumbled upon his calling as a teenager walking through the bombed out streets of London during WW II, when he happened upon an open-air market that had sprung up among the rubble. A group of grafters were selling anything they could find.
"It intrigued me," he told Vanity Fair. "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."
Following the break-up of his third marriage, Ades followed his daughter, Ruth Ades Laurent, to the U.S.
Though his was a wildcat operation -- he worked without a license, often getting chased off by police -- Laurent said he was very conscientious about not leaving behind a mess..
"He cleaned up really well," she told the New York Times, "but still there were these little shreds of carrots that said, 'I was here.'"