November 4, 2010
What follows are three beautifully written articles by Michael Brick (New York Times, City Room) about a special place, Ruby’s Old Tyme Bar & Grill. This bar has great history and memories. If you wanted a beer and a great view of the ocean and to people-watch, it was Ruby’s. (Please note that drawings mentioned in these articles could not be copied. I have added a few of my photographs.)
November 3, 2010, 8:00 am
Memories of Ruby’s, the Place to Take Coney Island InBy MICHAEL BRICK
The idea was to do an article on summer’s fleeting grandeur, as viewed through the gauzy prism of a bar. Bars are important anyplace you go, but nowhere more than in New York City, where many people don’t have yards or living rooms or even cars to drink in.
Summer at Ruby’s
A series of articles about Ruby’s Old Thyme Bar and Grill, written in 2005 by Michael Brick.
So a reformed baseball writer who still knew something about drinking sent me out to Ruby’s Old Thyme Bar and Grill, the onetime bathhouse turned unofficial headquarters of the Mermaid Day Parade, darling of Coney Island. Caricatured for the past generation as some carnie day labor spot left over after the circus closed, Coney Island was once the people’s beach, as Robert Caro has written, jammed “so full on a Sunday that one could hardly see the sand.”
Somewhat less than a beach by the white sand standards of Acapulco, Coney Island has always been, or at least meant, something more, too. Like the sylvan refuge of the Cloisters, the very existence of an actual beach, silly T-shirts and all, is New York’s way of saying, yes, against all odds, in this great faithless testament to mortar, steel and engineering, the city can even give you this. Come and see.
And the place to sit and take it all in was Ruby’s, where the definition of a regular seemed to require showing up at least every five or six years.
By the time I began my Journalistic Inquiry (an assignment that inspired no jealousy from my colleagues, I’m assured), the bells had been tolling for Ruby’s for a while. Developers, preservationists and other interested parties had fought a century’s schemes on Coney Island to an incongruous draw, as evidenced by the 14-story housing project looming over the New York Aquarium, but by 2005 the Disneyland overhaul of Times Square and the election of a billionaire mayor were taking some salt out of the sea breeze.
The rumored demise of Ruby’s, and of the Coney it represented, draped a backdrop of mortal impermanence on the summer I spent there. The kind of feeling you get listening to the Beach Boys, even before you know about the Manson stuff. Also, it rained a lot.
Five years later, when the city leased much of Coney Island to a developer with the mildly Orwellian name of Central Amusement International, the mayor issued a news release full of phrases like “cutting edge, state of the art.” These are very not-Ruby’s kind of concepts. So when the company declined to renew the bar’s contract this week, well, as they say on Wall Street: We weren’t wrong; we were early.
Links to those old Ruby’s articles are posted here, here and here, if you’re the sort who cares to sift in the past. They were illustrated with marvelously evocative drawings by Campbell Robertson, now the New Orleans correspondent for The Times. Last I checked, those drawings were framed on the wall at Ruby’s, just inside the big garage door looking out on Gravesend Bay. Nobody paid them much attention, but it was good to know they were there.
(photo: d. howley)
Raising a Glass to the Setting Sun; Last Call on the Boardwalk, Perhaps Forever
By MICHAEL BRICK
Published: September 4, 2005
Philly Sanalitro said he got a phone call from beyond the great divide. This guy who had been trying to kill him was there on the line, and the guy called Philly ”Big Jim.”
”I pick it up: ‘Hello, Big Jim,”’ Philly said. He was standing next to the bar at Ruby’s telling this story, and he told it mostly the same all summer long. It was the late summer heat wave and he was wearing a white bandanna and he had another one in his pocket, but he had left his wallet at home.
Philly’s face sags off his nose and he spits when he talks. He leans in and he hits his chest and he worries his hands together, and his blue cap blocks the abominable sun. He said the man on the phone told him: ”’Hey, my friend, I’m dead.’
”I said, ‘How can you be dead? You’re talking to me.’
”He said, ‘I’m in heaven, I’m dead.’
”I told the guy: ‘What’s it look like?’
”’People singing, and music. Like a band singing.’
”I didn’t hear nothing.”
Philly finishes talking and goes home before sundown, and when the sun goes down nighttime is something different at Ruby’s Old Thyme Bar and Grill on the Coney Island Boardwalk. At Ruby’s maybe nothing ever dies, but summer sneaks off in the middle of the night. You wake up and you can’t get it back; it’s gone.
Nighttime at Ruby’s is this: The sand and the gulls and the wind and the waves masked, and clear lines between brightness and dark. Inside, fluorescent lamps shine on the beer girl posters and the old-time photographs and the purblind man selling toilet paper by the ladies’ lavatory. Outside, small bulbs in the blackness describe the faraway roller coaster and the patrol car parked on the wooden slats.
It’s late in the day, late in the season, and Ruby’s is on borrowed time six summers now; Ruby Jacobs dead and buried. His daughter, Cindy, has a day job, and she left Sammy Rodriguez to run things this summer the way he has for years. All around new money is coming into Coney Island, and Cindy does not say what she will do. Her old friend Catherine DeSimone walks around with a camera taking movies just in case.
Sometimes Willy the lady bartender ends her shift at sundown and Sammy stays and tends bar himself. He says the summers are getting longer. He kept the place open Aug. 10 for Victor Deyglio and Lexi Gray to celebrate their anniversary; they had married at Ruby’s with the huckster next door shouting congratulations. The sword swallower and the bed-of-nails man came to the party, and Victor sat at the bar and his wife rode the roller coaster around and around.
”She can just sit in the car because they know her,” Victor said.
When Lexi came back she was wearing a blue dress and glitter makeup and a watchband but no watch. The wine bottles on the table were empty, and Sammy was bringing in the chairs.
”We’re sitting in this beautiful limbo of the past catching up with us and the future encroaching,” Lexi said. Then somebody found a praying mantis on the Boardwalk and the party studied it and Sammy turned out the lights.
Summertime: The end was coming soon. Sammy would go home to Puerto Rico and Willy was talking about moving to Kansas. Frank Chmielowski, who watched the beach from the corner of the bar, would go back to Santa Rosa, Tex., and the regulars would find someplace else to drink.
The last Friday in August the bumper boats were closed and the wind was blowing off the beach. The sun was going down on the right. The skinny dude everybody calls Master, aka Genaro Rivera, was wearing floppy socks and a white sailor’s cap.
”For the young people saying Wepa, it went fast,” Master said, using an island word he employs to describe fireworks, Puerto Rico, beauty, Ruby’s, the ocean, Coney Island, metal detectors, youth, a punch in the gut, a phone call late at night, duty, honor, truth, time, deception, silence and Friday nights. Then he started inviting people to his 27th birthday party, which took place three decades ago.
Vicki Weathersby with the bright pink lipstick and the feathered purse traded her Nathan’s Famous cup for a beer. Somebody was blowing soap bubbles and the bubbles were coming into the bar. On the jukebox Ray Charles was singing ”I got a woman way over town she’s good to me.” The crowd was trying to guess Master’s age.
”Let’s cut him open and count the rings,” Vicki called. She squeezed his chest in her arms and a pack of Marlboros stuck up in his shirt pocket. Master smokes Viceroys, but he doesn’t turn down gifts. He was standing on the line where the wooden slats are painted red and the Boardwalk ends and Ruby’s starts. ”We-pa!” Master said, and he raised his voice like a tent show healer:
”I seen the babies born, I seen the babies grow. When I came to this world nobody was expecting me,” he said, and then he lifted his arms and he repeated, ”He visto a los beb?nacidos, he visto que los beb?crecen. Cu?o yo vine a este mundo que nadie me esperaba.”
The sun was gone and a man walked by carrying a boa constrictor and a kid did a break dance and a girl in a low-cut shirt pulled the zipper up her sweater.
”Another summer bites the dust,” Cindy Jacobs said. Master swallowed a double shot of whiskey and put his finger to his lips. Out in the blackness the rockets came without preamble in tracers of gold and green and carnival noise, squalling and fitful, bass and snare of a piece and voices ascending and no music and Vicki sitting there clapping without a sound.
Summer at Ruby’s
This article is the last in a series about life at Ruby’s Old Thyme Bar and Grill in Coney Island. The first two are online at nytimes.com/nyregion.
Drawings: Master was quick to the end with his all-purpose exclamation. (Drawing by Campbell Robertson/The New York Times)(pg 36); (Illustrations by Campbell Robertson/The New York Times)(pg. 33) (Not available)
Photo: d. howley
SUMMER AT RUBY’S: The Season Begins; Where Summer Glides Down Like a 9 A.M. Beer
By MICHAEL BRICK
Published: July 3, 2005
Way behind the black-and-white roller coaster pictures and smiling beer girl posters, the snapshots of the regulars and the late lamented Ruby, a sign behind the bar said, ”Welcome Back to Coney Island Summer 2004.” The scrawny dude everybody calls Master was walking around in a too-big tank top looking for a good place to hang a new sign. Same message, different summer.
There was Willy behind the bar, same job for 24 years. Her daddy was William, who wanted a son; she’s Willy the lady bartender. She has 90 bottles of liquor, 75 bottles of wine and no visible end of beer. Anything that won’t get you drunk is somebody else’s job. Willy empties her pockets when she works. It bothers her, walking around with stuff in her pockets.
”But people give me stuff all day,” she said.
It was nothing a smoke break wouldn’t fix: Summer was coming on fast at Ruby’s down by the Boardwalk. In a city of close quarters, a bar is a mystery nobody wants to solve, a hiding place and a box social, where everybody knows that nobody knows your name. There are scads of them, but Ruby’s is the summer place, open 9 a.m. to whenever, April to Halloween, a Woody in a minivan world.
Like any good dive, Ruby’s has its regulars and its history, but those are other stories. This is the story of another long slide into summertime at Ruby’s Old Thyme Bar and Grill, Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City, U.S.A.
There are dark bars and bright bars, and Ruby’s is both. The vibe changes like the watercolor smear that is summertime. The room is an airy gap, three walls and a pair of garage doors facing the beach. The bar top is long and dark, wide enough to keep three feet between you and Willy.
Behind it are dolls, a toy panda, a bust of Harpo Marx, the kind of stuff they give away at arcades around the corner to make kids think their parents are winners. This is where the regulars sit, across from Willy on the sunny end by the Boardwalk. They hunch or lean, shoulder blades pointing to the kitchen, where college kids sell the Coney Island lunch wagon, clams and corn dogs and the rest.
Two days into summertime, the crew was getting ready for the biggest blowout of the year. The Mermaid Parade brings out the amateur weird by the thousands for a strut by the shore. ”It’s going to be nuts on Saturday, huh?” a customer asked Mike Sorrell, a son-in-law of Ruby’s and a manager of the bar.
”And it’s going to be 90 degrees,” Mr. Sorrell said.
A young woman was standing at the middle of the bar going through her purse, making a show of it. After a few minutes of nobody buying her a beer, she found her money. Down where the regulars sit, a breeze blew some bills down the bar. Willy caught them.
”Here, it’s back here now,” she said, stacking the cash by the register. That was where it was going anyway.
Saturday, June 25, came bright, and the tables looked like a group photo of Brooklyn, black kids slurping sodas across from a blond woman with a Corona next to Asian teenagers eating hot dogs. It was 90 degrees. Master, aka Genaro Rivera, 56, was in full Puerto Rican get-up, a flag-colored tank-top down to his knees and a floppy hat to match. ”Sometimes we get a little trouble,” Master said, grinning like a maniac, ”but I control it.”
Over by the jukebox, Howie Willis, 45, was dancing to Sinatra with a woman named Patty. His T-shirt said Sloppy Joe’s Fishing Team.
”Tomorrow it won’t be nearly as crowded, but the guys I know 20 years will be here,” said Mr. Willis, who comes to Ruby’s a few times a summer. He was saying he was proud to have his picture on the wall. Patty was saying he ought to shut up.
”I just met her,” Mr. Willis said, ”and now I’m cut off.”
Out on the Boardwalk, a guy painted blue and carrying a trident was putting away an onion dog, surrounded by girls in green sequined bras pressed up against girls with rainbow wigs and guys with Mardi Gras beads. They were supposed to be mermaids. They were putting away Buds.
A breeze was coming off the ocean. Patty made her way toward the Boardwalk. Within two feet of the door, she fainted in the heat. Some jerk in a Mets cap started counting her out, but better men helped her to a bench by a fan. She was fine.
The sun was on its slow way down, but people were still coming past the echoing clang of the batting cage and the wind and the waves.
Summertime: It was too late to stop now. The long hot slide had begun, but summer at Ruby’s is no picture postcard. Two days after the parade, the doors framed a sky the color of mock turtle soup.
A pattering rain fell on the beach. Some days a beer brings a taste of being 15 years old; some days it just tastes like another beer. The regulars had been gone since noon. Theresa Hoha, wearing her given name on her necklace, was taking a day off from the housekeeping service she runs on Long Island.
”I don’t want to take my life for granted,” Ms. Hoha said. ”I’m glad for what I’ve got. I’m glad when the sun comes out, and I’m glad to see the moon and stars.”
From behind the kitchen counter, Robin Mates, 25, called for somebody to put number 8001 on the jukebox for Willy. Kenny Rogers started singing about advice that had cost him a last swallow of whiskey: ”Every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser, and the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”
Then the song was done and the Long Islanders went the way of the regular crowd. Willy said she was closing; there were going to be other summer days.
Drawings (Illustrations by Campbell Robertson/The New York Times) (Not Available)
Ruby outside his place on a chilly late winter day (about 15 years ago, or so)
Photo: d. howley
If Ruby’s can’t be saved, it will be a definite blow to the ambiance of Coney Island and will be missed.