This Gig Is a Real Grind

Times Staff Writer

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.

When Bush was a young man, he was a bass player in a rock ‘n’ roll band, a job that offered bounteous sexual opportunity; he also tried stilt-walking, but his heart wasn’t in it. He wouldn’t have become an organ grinder if it weren’t for his mustache, which grew to lush proportions in the 1970s. When the mustache reached the corners of his mouth, it developed a curl, and his friends teased him for looking like an organ grinder.

He tried to track down older men for advice -- the handful who traveled the circuit of fairs and flea markets -- but they were maddeningly elusive, and when he found them, they didn’t talk. Not to him, and not to each other. “They’d say, ‘You want to learn how to do this, kid? Good luck,’ ” Bush said. “I never understood why. What’s the big secret? I think a lot of them were gypsies, to tell you the truth.”

So he went ahead and bought a monkey, George, from a family that kept him as a pet. At a parade in Cherry Hill, an elderly woman begged him to come to the curb to play for her husband, who was blind and in a wheelchair. When he did it, she rooted through her change purse for two pennies, which she gave to the monkey with a flourish. Bush has never been able to forget that old lady. She “was just ecstatic,” he said. “You could hear the tears in her eyes.”

It was the most fun he had ever had. Olive-skinned and saucy, Bush would show up in a crisp red-and-white striped shirt, with a colorful silk scarf knotted around his neck and a green feather in his hatband. George kissed rings; he also kissed ladies. Bush waggled his finger: “What’d I tell you about picking up women?” George, in an adorable display of shame, hid his face in the crown of his top hat. He doffed his hat politely and caught balls, holding them with his long toes.

One secret became clear: There’s just something irresistible about giving money to a monkey. Bush found himself in crowds 10 deep, while George raced to collect dollar bills from every hand; George I had fast hands, and in his prime could bring in $40 or $50 in an hour. At one point, when he was working at a casino in Atlantic City, the managers began to worry that cash Bush was collecting might be cutting into their rake.

Bush was sympathetic: “I said, ‘I can’t stop them. They’re not giving it to me, they’re giving it to the monkey.’”

He built a suburban franchise, working private parties, Italian American societies and corporate affairs. He worked in houses whose ceilings were painted with murals. Fashion photographers went gaga over organ grinders. He appeared twice at the White House.

When he was dating his second wife, Sally, she was ashamed to tell her girlfriends what he did for a living. “That,” he said, with a smile, “was a long time ago.”

According to Vincent Morgan, a crank-organ enthusiast who keeps track of these things, only 10 other organ grinders in the country still use live monkeys -- four in California, others in Boston, Virginia, Ohio, Texas, North Carolina and Florida. That number is not likely to grow. Many states take a dim view of entertainment involving capuchin monkeys, which are categorized as dangerous, exotic animals.

Violations are taken seriously. Last year, a young man in Philadelphia was trying to break into the business when something terrible happened: At a WaWa food store, the man’s capuchin monkey bit a child on the finger. The man had consulted with Bush on monkey matters before, and called in a panic.

“I says: ‘Well, you got two choices. You got to grab your monkey and run like hell, or else sit there and wait for them to come and get your monkey and euthanize him,’ ” Bush said. After a couple of days, two animal control officers showed up at the man’s door. They left with the monkey. The challenge of complying with state oversight, Bush said, has become “almost insurmountable.”

And time has worn on Bush and his monkey. Bush takes medicine for rheumatoid arthritis that has caused his mustache to thin. George II is 19 and heading into late life, and Bush has already decided there will be no next monkey.

He’ll stop then. It was hard enough, he said, recovering from the loss of George I. “It’s just awful. You lose not only a friend but your income,” he said. Without a monkey, “you are nothing, absolutely zero. Absolutely nothing.”

But for the time being, Bush and George go out as a team.

If organ grinders were once associated with poverty, you would not have known it at Isabella Masso’s third birthday party, held on a dazzling Saturday afternoon in a handsome subdivision outside Camden. The dads wore Teva sandals and khaki shorts; moms chatted about countertops; green lawn stretched out in all directions.

Bella’s father had rented a tent and hired a real hot-dog cart, a cotton candy machine and a face-painting clown named Beanie. When Beanie arrived -- in floppy sneakers and a yellow fright wig -- she peered through the crowd to see what everyone was looking at, and her eyes widened in alarm. Who could complete with that?

There was Bush, his mustache waxed into jaunty points and the organ slung around his shoulder with a leather strap. George perched on his shoulder, glancing around with an avid expression. Bush cranked the handle and the organ played “The Sidewalks of New York,” that ode to stoop life on the East Side.

The children could not take their eyes off the monkey, with his ashen face and long, hairy, mahogany-colored toes. A few in the crowd -- grandparents -- looked dreamy and abstracted. They knew the tune, but were trying to remember the words.