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.
"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?"
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?
"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.
One day at a party, a friend of his father's said the words that have launched a thousand dubious careers: "Hey! You're funny! You oughtta try standup!" The guy knew someone who knew someone who owned a hotel in the Catskills. Would Harvey like a booking?
Would he! "A week later I was on stage," he recalls. "I stunk. I had more people walk out than stay." Trying to be funny in front of a hostile audience was hard. But not as hard as hacking up cows. Plus, he says, "I like being in front of people. And I wanted to be a star." So Harvey stuck with it. He got better; eventually, many members of the audience even stayed to hear the end of his routine.
Soon he was riding the Borscht Belt circuit: the Concord, Grossinger's, the Nevele, the Raleigh. He did Catch a Rising Star and the Comic Strip in New York City. He did the Jerry Lewis Telethon three times. He took a stage name: Harvey I. Lash. (Get it?) He had three half-hour shticks ready to go and, just in case, four ten-minute encores. He modeled himself on Henny Youngman, master of the quick-hit laugh:
I could always handle myself in a fight. It was the other guy I couldn't handle.
So I took karate lessons. Got real good. I could break a two-inch board with my bare feet. Next time I got in a fight, though, the guy kicked the crap outta me before I got a chance to get my shoelaces undone.
Now I carry a switchblade. Whenever there's trouble, I cut my shoelaces.
"I used to be funny," Harvey says.
By the time the '70s ended, Harvey's first marriage did, too. He wanted to escape everything. So he packed up his belongings and children and moved to Colorado. But with sole custody of the kids, he needed to make a buck. He returned to what he knew: food.
He started restaurants. There was The Best of the Wurst (get it?), in Boulder. Then there was Best of the Wurst 2. And finally, the flagship store, the Spirit of Lafayette. "It was the biggest restaurant in Lafayette," says Harvey. "Nine thousand square feet. Five hundred people at one time."
From all outward appearances, he had arrived. But did Harvey still have dreams of something better?
"When I was inside my restaurants," he says, "I'd look outside and people would be walking and laughing and having drinks and having fun. And I was inside busting my chops. It was a big headache. I just knew there was something out there that I would enjoy. And," he adds, "that was not a perishable product."
Which was when Harvey remembered antlers.
In case you are interested, the elephant is probably the deal of the century.
Harvey calculates that you probably couldn't get a similar model for less than $300,000. First, you have to figure that the cost of an elephant safari in Tanzania -- permits, travel and so on -- is going to run about a quarter mil. Then, assuming you are successful and bring down an animal, the taxidermy alone could cost $20,000 or more.
Harvey, however, is willing to let his go for a mere $4,800 or best offer. And, should anyone be willing to cart the thing away himself, well, the basement's the limit.
Before you get out your checkbook, though, there is a catch. It may seem obvious. Still -- all cards on the table: An elephant head is very big. In theory, having one sounds kind of cool. In practice, however, owning one can be awkward. The pool of serious elephant purchasers is surprisingly shallow.
Substituting an elephant head for the family portrait above the mantle, for example, would probably leave guests feeling cramped. Harvey's specimen is seven feet from ear tip to ear tip, another seven feet from the bottom of the neck to the top of the head; the trunk extends eight feet from the base of the mount. Decorating-wise, it would be like deciding to spruce up the sitting room with, say, a Volkswagen.
"It needs a special room," notes Harvey.
"I didn't want him to buy it in the first place," says P.J., Harvey's wife of eleven years.
"Why do ducks have webbed feet?" Harvey asks. "To stamp out fires. "Why do elephants have flat feet? To stamp out flaming ducks."
He smiles sadly.
To say that Harvey got into the antler business in a big way is like saying your Aunt Agnes with the six display cases and every flat surface covered with darling ceramic statuary sort of enjoys her Hummel figurines. There are people who collect, and then there are people who make lifestyle choices.
In his home outside of Grand Lake, Harvey's decor is resplendent in ungulate horn. Table legs are made of antlers. Cabinet handles are horn. Clothes hooks, towel racks, sconces, toilet paper and toothpick holders -- all antler. (There are other decorating touches. An inscribed black-and-white photograph of Babe Ruth hangs at the bottom of the stairs: "Your farts could gag a maggot. Babe Ruth.")
"Here," says Harvey, pointing to a lighted aquarium lined with a soft white pelt, "is the Hunsucker Buck -- the number-one non-typical in 1985." He carefully lifts a gnarled black antler out of the glass case. It's heavy. It looks like a piece of petrified wood. To Harvey, it's art.
Piles of antlers litter tables and chests and every piece of furniture in the house. The garage looks as though a 747 filled with deer, elk, moose and the occasional goat crashed in a nearby field, and Harvey raked up the remains. Giant, graceful chandeliers made of antlers swing overhead. Coffee tables with antler legs dot the floor. Harvey made it all. Last year, he sold more than ten tons of horn- and antler-related domestic accoutrements.
Like Carhartt overalls worn by attorneys and running shoes on couch potatoes, antlers have expanded outside of their original market in recent years. Once upon a time, hunters kept the racks and heads of animals they'd killed as a reminder of the hunt, or the good time they'd had, or their skills as a stalker.
Today antlers are an essential part of Western-themed interior decorating -- a crucial accessory for the Kokepelli silhouette, lodge-pole love-seat-and-ottoman set, the Native American blanket and the deer hide on the wall. In fact, says Harvey, these days most decorators insist that the antlers they buy for their clients be naturally shed: The new antler owner prefers to believe that no animal died for his ambience.
The demand has meant a boom in business for "pickers" -- the on-the-ground workers who comb the forests for antlers and horns. They return to secret spots year after year in the early spring to pick up the unneeded headgear of deer, elk and moose. Depending on quality, mule-deer racks can fetch up to $10 a pound from wholesalers, and pristine moose antlers can command about $15 a pound -- not a bad day's work for the top pickers, who use GPS and airplanes to scavenge up to 500 pounds a day.
Even more desirable are record-sized racks, which fetch a premium. Jim Wilson was a Denver collector of trophy elk and deer who rented out his mounts for display at conventions and trade shows. At the moment, his assortment of big heads is on the market for about $300,000.
These days, a handful of reputable horn and antler purveyors handle most of the business across the country, says Harvey. Naturally, he is one of them. But outside this circle, it's buyer beware -- particularly when it comes to Internet sales.
"It blows me away how much phoniness there is out there," says Harvey, shaking his head in dismay. "It's like a picture in Playboy. The women don't really look like that. Well, a lot of the antlers really don't look like that, either."
Harvey learned this the hard way.
But was it necessary to be punished with an elephant?
Harvey heard about the medley of antlers through the grapevine. The guy -- whose name Harvey would prefer to leave out of this -- had just bought it from the estate of a recently deceased hotel magnate, whose name Harvey has forgotten. The collection contained many fine specimens that Harvey was happy to own: caribou, desert ram, Dahl sheep and mountain-goat mounts. But the real prize was a 48-inch whitetail deer mount.
Also included in the pile, however, was the giant elephant head, which, the dealer firmly declared, was part of the package -- sorry, no piecemeal sales. Otherwise he'd never get rid of the damn thing.
"And I had to buy the 48-inch deer," insists Harvey. Alas, the big deer turned out to be fake -- a composite of smaller antlers. Harvey got taken. Maybe he should have known better; a deer mount that size could be sold for $50,000, and the guy was asking only $12,000. But there you have it.
Besides, it wasn't a total loss. Harvey managed to sell the rest of the mounts -- except the elephant, of course. Until a few weeks ago, even that was no big deal. But then his friend who was keeping it for him told Harvey in no uncertain terms that his time was up. "He said, ŒGet your elephant out of my garage,'" recalls Harvey. "If I woulda thought it was difficult to get rid of an elephant," he adds, "I wouldn't have bought it."
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In the past several months, Harvey has had some nibbles on the elephant. "One is a guy who's been dicking around with it for six months," he says with contempt. "An oral surgeon." Apparently, there's an issue with a delay in construction on the dentist's big game room. If you can believe what he says.
Still, Harvey is, at heart, optimistic. And he understands obsessions. "My wife is into flamingos," he says, nodding toward his pink-bird-encrusted home. "She has over 400 flamingos of different shapes and sizes. Me, I happen to like flamingos. And," he adds circumspectly, "I love my wife."
In short, he knows there is someone out there who feels similarly about elephants. "I have found people who are interested in elephants," he says. "I just haven't found the right one yet."