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Video: Park Avenue potato peeler

By
TODAY contributor
updated 10/2/2008 2:50:43 PM ET 2008-10-02T18:50:43

As the sun peeks over tall buildings, a dapper old gentleman, dressed impeccably in a $1,000 suit, squats on a New York City street corner. He is talking to himself, apparently absorbed in the joy of peeling carrots and potatoes.

Soon a woman headed to the farmer's market in Union Square stops to watch. Then another.  And another. The old man ignores them until the three are joined by a circle of people.

Only then does he look up, holding a long carrot. “Here,” he says quietly to the woman, "try for yourself. Just pull the peeler along the carrot. Easy.” His cultivated British accent makes her grin.

The old man continues his demonstration. People at the back of the crowd cannot see because he remains seated. “Come closer,” he whispers. “I’m not going to ask for money. You can keep your watch.”

Even the people in front have to lean in to hear. “This peeler is the finest ever made. Comes from Switzerland. Costs only five dollars. You can't buy anything from Switzerland for five dollars these days.”

The woman rummages through her purse, pulls out some bills and dangles them in front of the old man. He ignores the money. “Now, why would you buy four peelers if they last a lifetime?” he asks rhetorically.

His eyes finally make contact with the woman. She's holding five dollars; she only wants one peeler. “Well, you have four friends,” the old man replies to his own question. “That’s why you buy four peelers!”

And she does. Others buy, too, as fast as the old man can pull the peelers from a box.

In the garden of life, big things can grow from small beginnings ... provided you use enough fertilizer.

Park Avenue warehouse
The  man in the thousand-dollar suit sells his $5 potato peelers on New York City street corners six days a week. Ten hours a day. His name is Joe Ades, pronounced AH-des.

Joe Ades could talk a starving dog off a meat truck.

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You won't believe his warehouse: a Park Avenue apartment. Boxes of peelers are stacked in what once was a maid's room off his kitchen. Joe leads me down a beautiful hallway filled with art. "Never underestimate a small amount of money gathered by hand for 60 years," he says with a grin.

Joe's business makes him something of mystery man in this posh neighborhood. "Some people suspected he might be Sean Connery," says Kathleen Landis, a pianist at the plush Pierre Hotel. Joe would show up each evening to hear her play, and buy an expensive bottle of champagne. Regulars figured he probably owned the place.

But one of the gawkers, watching Joe at work out on the street, has another idea. "He's got an English accent, but he's probably from Mobile, Alabama," Frank Rosado says.

Learning the trade
He's wrong: Joe's accent is as real as the bombs in his boyhood backyard were. Joe grew up in Manchester, England, during World War II, learning his craft from pitchmen who set up in the rubble. They had lyrical names that Joe still remembers like lines from a cherished song: "Joe Squinters.  Black Dougie. Heckle and Peckle. They were brilliant."

Soon the poor kid from Manchester started attracting his own crowds — first in England, then Australia and Ireland before moving to New York City in the 1980s. "What's the most unusual thing you've sold?" I ask.

Joe savors the question like a sip of wine. "Unusual?  Ah, Christmas trees in February."  He smiles. "Sold them for Chinese New Year's!"

Joe taught his daughter, Ruth, how to hawk children's books on the street, so she could put herself through Columbia University. "What's the key to your dad's success?" I ask her.

"Tenacity and patience," Ruth replies.

Joe adds, ""I think that's the secret of happiness.  Not doing what you like, but liking what you do." 

Women in his life
The dapper Mr. Ades has had the kind of life most of us only see in movies, but he wanted to share it with someone. So he took out an ad looking for a new wife — his fourth.

Joe got 600 proposals and picked three "maybes." But the next evening, he met the woman he would marry. She had not seen the ad.

"Ah, that was the happiest time of me life," says Joe, looking at a photo of his wife, Estelle. Sadly, she died of breast cancer last November. Now Joe works for the other women in his life: his granddaughters Gala, 17, Stella, 14, and Nina, 9.

Nina leans across the dinner table to tell her grandpa, "Me and my friends went to a river and caught minnows!"

"Minnows!" Joe exclaims, beaming. Later he confides, "I want the kids to go to the best colleges that it's possible to go to. And I want to pay for it."  

That's why Joe is up before dawn every day. At 74, still pushing potato peelers down the street.

"Do ever take a vacation?" I ask, sprinting to keep up.

Joe laughs. "Life is a vacation! Every day is a vacation." 

To be savored.

Keep those ideas coming.  Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my TODAYshow.com mailbox .

Joe Ades does not have a computer. If you’d like to write him a letter, send it to his daughter Ruth Ades Laurent in care of the restaurant her family owns:

Mr. Joe Ades
C/O Ruth Ades Laurent
La Ripaille Restaurant
605 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014

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