CHERRY HILL, N.J. — People tend to think it is easy work to be an organ grinder -- basically, turn the crank, count the money -- and that drives Joe Bush crazy.
When he first got into the business 31 years ago, Bush tied himself to his monkey every night for three weeks. His wife would say goodnight and shut him in the family room and turn up the volume on the television.
"Look, this is the real McCoy here, pal, just me and you," Bush would say to the monkey, a white-faced capuchin named George.
Then the monkey would holler at Bush and Bush would holler at the monkey until they were both so exhausted that they passed out. After three weeks, they started to develop a mutual understanding.
The wife left him, and Bush and George performed together for 15 years. When George died, Bush did not want to pay top dollar for taxidermy, so he had George freeze-dried, and set him on a shelf in the study, where he still sits today, paws extended in mid-air. That, as Bush would say, is another story.
Now, with his 65th birthday approaching, Bush is the only organ grinder left in the New York area. He is barrel-chested and mustachioed. He wears red pants. On his shoulder sits George's replacement, George II, reaching out for dollar bills with the tapered fingers of a tiny old man. The crank organ tinkles out something like "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here," high-pitched and tinny, the sound of gaiety or false gaiety. With a few exceptions, his listeners do not remember what it was like to see organ grinders on street-corners. But they listen with sweet smiles, as if they remember.
Consequently, Bush can charge a lot for his services. Recently, when someone from Major League Baseball asked him to appear at a gala in Pittsburgh, strolling and doing tricks with George II for three hours, he asked for $5,000, and was startled when she said yes.
"You ain't getting my business for less than $600" is something Bush likes to say. If that sounds opportunistic, consider his 19th century precursor, who would stand on a corner playing the same six songs -- the six that came with the barrel -- until someone paid him to stop. It's something Bush admires about the lost brotherhood of organ grinders, whom he refers to, fondly, as "greasy little hustlers."
"This is all about making a dollar," said Bush, who performs under the name Boscio, set aside by his grandfather at Ellis Island.
The organ grinders used to come out by the hundreds in the early spring, cranking cold air through the slender pipes of their instruments. Most of them came from the same valley near Parma, part of an influx of refugees that began in the 1870s and '80s. They crowded into rooming houses in Manhattan's Five Points, where, in the choking heat of summer, they would climb onto the roof at night to sleep in the open air.
Public mention of organ grinders tended not to be complimentary. The New York Times described them, in 1874, as "indolent and sometimes vicious." Monkeys scurried up pipes and disappeared into open windows; bullets meant for monkeys hit pedestrians. The Times covered the case of Katrina Hensil, a "stout, buxom woman of 35 or 40" who left her husband for an organ grinder who "sang duets with her," and of "a Neapolitan and his Darwinian assistant" accused of a frantic, hair-pulling attack on 42nd Street.
The music too got mixed reviews. In an 1867 edition of Harper's Weekly, a sneering poet described:
"the strolling Savoyard
When with grimy little talons he is plucking at the sharp;
Tintinnabulating catgut of his wretched little harp."
But few people reserved such special loathing for organ grinders as Fiorello La Guardia, who became mayor in 1934. La Guardia was the son of an immigrant cornetist, who raised him Episcopalian, and far from the slums of Five Points. He was in grade school on an Arizona Army base when he first encountered prejudice against Italian Americans. It arrived in the form of an organ grinder, leading a monkey in a red cap.
"I can still hear their cries," he wrote in his memoirs, 50 years later. " 'Hey, Fiorello, you're a dago too. Where's your monkey?' "
Organ grinders were already disappearing by the 1930s, crowded out by the novelty of radio, but La Guardia banned them outright. At midnight on New Year's Eve in 1935, the last 51 organ-grinder licenses expired. The Molinari company in Brooklyn, which built and rented the organs, crushed much of its inventory to splinters. One old-timer insisted that the ban did not apply if the monkey turned the crank, and kept playing for years, according to Brooklyn lore. The New York ban was lifted in 1970, but it was too late. The culture had been extinguished.
New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg took an elegiac tone in 1961, recalling "carols ... when the hurdy-gurdy man cranked in the snow, had a brittle, icicle-like tinkle that was peculiarly right, and the sound splintered in the cold air."
"I wish I could hear that sound again this Christmas day," he sighed.