Big Problem

Sometimes an elephant joke just isn't funny.

Did Harvey ever intend to become a purveyor of elephant humor?

He did not.

But sometimes life throws you a curveball. So you make the best of your lot and try to get a laugh here or there.

Harvey I. Lashinsky faces a daunting tusk.
Harvey I. Lashinsky faces a daunting tusk.

"What," Harvey asks, "do you do with an elephant with four balls?" He waits a beat, his timing still right on after all these years.

"You let him go to first base, and then pitch to the next elephant."

"I've got a bunch of elephant jokes," Harvey says unhappily.

For instance: "What is gray and comes in gallons?"

"An elephant."

Or: "How do you know there's an elephant in the bathtub with you?"

"You can smell the peanuts on his breath."

And: "How do you get rid of an elephant head in the garage?"

Actually, that one is no joke. At the moment, it is, regrettably, Harvey's burden.

"Please," he says, a thin note of desperation creeping into his Catskills voice, "if you write an article, do me a favor. Please try to plug the elephant. I'd love for you to push the elephant." Without getting into particulars, you should know that when it comes to a genuine African elephant, storage space will always be an issue.

How Harvey came to be in possession of an elephant head is not so complicated, really, when you think about it. He needed antlers, and there was this 48-inch deer rack that he really wanted -- and such a deal! -- and the seller, who'd gotten it from the owner of a big hotel chain, insisted that the elephant head had to come with it, because he certainly didn't want the damn thing; and then, even when the guy turned out to be a shyster and the giant deer rack turned out to be a fake, it was too late, and there was the elephant head, sitting in storage. Now it's Harvey's giant gray ball of misery.

So maybe it wouldn't hurt to have some background.

Did Harvey I. Lashinsky ever want to be a butcher in a tiny Catskills resort town?

He did not.

"It's hard work and a lot of hours," he points out. "And I had to work close with family." Specifically, this meant whacking into sides of beef with a mother, a father, grandparents and two uncles. "They drove me nuts," Harvey adds. "My uncle, at one time he weighed over 500 pounds. You can't weigh that much and be normal."

But in the beginning, there was no choice: The Lashinskys cut meat. Period. The family lived above the shop. Winters, the streets were empty and stores shuttered for the off-season. The summer days, however, were frantic for a clan of butchers trying to cram a year's worth of business into ten weeks of sales. Harvey began helping cut up carcasses when he was nine, speaking Yiddish to his uncle across the butcher's block. By the time he was fourteen, he was a full-fledged butcher.

Occasionally, Harvey would see a deer brought into the shop, and he learned to butcher them with skill. His uncle was a hunter, too. One fall, he returned with a tiny whitetail rack, about eight inches across. It was nothing spectacular. But Harvey wanted it, bad -- he desired it. Sure, his uncle said. But you gotta earn it.

So for two months, Harvey got up before school every morning to feed the hunting dogs. After school, he came home and cleaned the crap out of their kennels. Finally, the antlers were his.

Was it worth shoveling dog crap for sixty days?

It was.

"I slept with them for a month," he remembers. "My mother finally made me take them out of my bed. I think she was afraid I'd poke my eye out while I was sleeping."

Harvey did not see the peril. He saw only the beauty. Perhaps it was not so strange that a boy growing up in a family of butchers would fall in love with an animal part. He was fascinated with the idea of nature providing an animal with such a unique thing, a thing that grew differently on each creature and that, like a voiceprint, could identify not only the animal's particular species and age, but also its specific geographic location. Even then, he knew it was a peculiar obsession. But Harvey couldn't help it; he loved antlers.

As much as Harvey loved antlers, he hated butchering. "I wanted to get out of the business in the worst way," he says. "I wanted to be rich and famous." And so Harvey, the nice Jewish kid from Monticello (Crossroad of the Catskills), rebelled. He got in fights. He got into fast machines. In 1968 he bought a Yamaha motorcycle to race.

How tough was he? He painted "Super Jew" on the side of it.

How talented was he? Not very: He broke forty bones. "I was crazy," he says. "I also wasn't very good."

In the mid-'70s, still looking to escape the butcher business, he stumbled onto another possible avenue out of the family meat racket.

"Do you wanna hear a story?" Harvey asks rhetorically.

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