This is the fourth of ten stories Storyboard will post from a new collection honoring Michael Brick [see our 5 Questions on the project], each featuring an introduction by a writer who loved his work. Today’s entry is introduced by Tony Rehagen.
Mike Brick is an original. That’s an easy thing to say, and it’s been said about so many artists that it comes off as almost trite. No one is reinventing the language; there are still only 26 letters in the alphabet. Most of us are doing our best to imitate the tried and true. But there are a few who manage to leave their imprint on those well-worn styles, whose voices cannot be stifled or assimilated into the template. That’s Mike Brick.
For example, when I first met Brick in 2009, he was this tall, quiet Texan, sizing up strangers through trademark aviators from the back of a room full of egos. As the sun set, the music started to trickle out, everyone taking hacks at Dylan and Springsteen until Brick emerged with a ragged spiral-bound, grabbed a guitar, and announced his presence with an original song—short, three simple chords in a standard progression, but lyrics that were raw and sincere.
Waitress hand all that good whiskey down
I guess I always stayed around
And who in this land is alone?
The answers are never known
No one wanted to follow him.
That introductory scene made more sense as I read more of Brick’s stories. He goes to a place like Ruby’s Old Thyme Bar and Grill in Coney Island and hangs back, no first person, no heavy-handed internal exposition, just taking in details, setting the scene. Allowing characters like Willy the bartender to sketch herself through the act of emptying her pockets and her words: “But people give me stuff all day.”
Brick, the narrator, is invisible—until he sees his opportunity to briefly interject.
Some days a beer brings a taste of being 15 years old; some days it just tastes like another beer.
Who wants to follow that? —Tony Rehagen
Where Summer Glides Down Like a 9 A.M. Beer
The New York Times, July 3, 2005 Sunday
DATELINE: Coney Island, New York
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.