With peeler’s passing, a slice of life is missing


By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke 

Joseph Ades, known as the “Gentleman Peeler,” was a fixture at the Union Square Greenmarket for more than a decade. He was always at the northwest corner of the square, where, clad in his signature three-piece suit and silk tie, he sat in a low crouch and demonstrated a superior type of Swiss peeler. Ades’s British-accented sales pitch could be heard from across the street.  

“I could always hear him even before I saw him,” said Ades’s daughter Ruth Ades Laurent. “He taught me everything I know.” 

On Feb. 7, an unseasonably warm Saturday, more than two-dozen people gathered in Union Square to remember Ades. He died of a heart attack early Sunday morning Feb. 1, according to Ades Laurent. He was 75. 

Due to construction at Union Square, the memorial was held on the 14th St. side of the square, across from Whole Foods Market, rather than on the corner where Ades sold his peelers. An impromptu memorial has sprung up where Ades used to sit, and his many fans have decorated it with flowers and posters, messages and carrots.

“He was especially fitting for the Greenmarket” called a voice from the crowd. When prompted, the speaker identified himself as Barry Benepe, the founder of the Union Square Greenmarket. Benepe is the father of Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.  

The memorial was run by Reverend Billy and his choir. A blanket was spread out on the ground for people to peel their own carrots and potatoes in tribute to Ades, and the peelings were then put onto a wreath. Small cups of Champagne, reportedly Ades’s favorite beverage, were handed out. Large, blown-up photographs of Ades decorated the memorial, and people passed around smaller 4-x-6-sized photos. 

Ades Laurent announced her plan to continue the family legacy. 

“He always told me my inheritance would be 40 cartons of peelers,” she said. “I am going to practice with a bucketful of potatoes and then come out. It will be a pleasure to carry on the legacy, even though my father will be a hard act to follow.” 

Ades Laurent worked with her father selling various things, including children’s books and household goods, until, she said, she stopped and had children. She lives with her husband and three daughters on Hudson St. 

“My mom and I would stop by and bring my grandpa coffee from Starbucks,” said Gala Ades Laurent, 17, a senior at the St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights. “All my friends knew about him and read about him. He was a celebrity.

“One time he did a demonstration for my sister Nina’s fourth-grade class when they were reading ‘The Pushcart War.’ He gave them all peelers. Nina said she was the most popular girl after that.”  

Reverend Billy introduced David Ades, who is visiting from Australia, noting the strong family resemblance.  

David Ades revealed that his father had been sworn in as a U.S. citizen on the Friday before he died. The elder Ades grew up in Manchester, England, where he learned the art of “grafting,” or selling. He lived in Australia for many years before moving to New York in the early 1990s.  

“I plan on coming back in the summer, maybe I will help Ruth push the cart or something,” David said.

A local resident named Alexander George read a poem he had written for the occasion entitled “Says Joe”:

“Says Joe: ‘One for five. Five for twenty.’/ O how we miss you plenty!….Says Joe: ‘You haven’t gotten any friends? Nor do I.’/ O Joe, not so. Raising our carrots, we say bye.” 

Reverend Billy and his choir sang a song composed in Ades’s honor called “Oh what a peeler.”  

“Joealluah!” exclaimed Reverend Billy. “Peel on!” 

“He was an iconic figure in defense of free speech,” Reverend Billy said, praising Ades for exemplifying the First Amendment. 

“Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez spoke on this plaza,” said Reverend Billy, alluding to the long tradition of Union Square as a haven for free speech. “Joseph Ades was not only defending the right to sell peelers but the right to speak.”  

A female police officer looked visibly upset at the memorial.

“The man made me laugh,” she said. “He was always happy.”  

She denied the charge that police often made Ades move because he did not have a permit.

“He was such a sweetheart,” she said.

Among Ades’ many fans were children who could practically recite his sales pitch. Eight-year-old Jack and 5-year-old Millie said that they had bought a peeler for their grandparents this past Christmas.

“It is so great because you can’t cut yourself with it and you can make French fries!” said Millie.

“It is a two-in-one because there is a thing on the side where you can scoop out the potato eye,” added Jack. 

“The kids in the area thought of him as Santa Claus,” said one neighborhood resident. “My children are teenagers now and they grew up watching Ades at Union Square.” 

“I never go anywhere without my peeler,” said Chris Santoro, who lives right near Union Square. After reading of Ades’s death and learning of the plans for a memorial service, Santoro made posters announcing the memorial and put them around the park and on bulletin boards in Trader Joe’s and N.Y.U. dorms surrounding Union Square.  

In addition to many people who came specifically for the memorial, there were many who, still unaware of Ades’s death, took advantage of the warm weather and had come simply to watch Ades.  

Each semester, Parsons professor Carmile Zaino assigns the students in her presentation class the task of observing Ades. She had come out to scout Ades’s location so that she could give the assignment. Instead, Zaino saw the memorial tribute.  

“I saw the carrot peels and thought maybe he had moved to this side of Union Square. But this is so sad,” said one passerby.  

“Thank you, New York for falling in love with my Dad,” said David Ades.