This is the fifth 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 Tommy Tomlinson.
For years, somehow, he got these ballads of normal life among normal human beings published in The New York Times, which you can scan for an hour some days without finding the kind of person you might ever run into on the street. The stories are beautifully written, yes, but more than that they’re beautifully reported. Here is his one and only sentence describing a particular barfly at Ruby’s on Coney Island:
To Master, aka Genaro Rivera; in June he hung Mermaid Day banners, now he sits wanting to quit smoking Viceroys while one lung still works.
Twenty-four words and now there is a picture in your head of Genaro Rivera, as vivid as a ViewMaster. The writing comes from the reporting, and the reporting comes from paying attention. There’s no one way great writers get the job done, but most of them end up in the same place: Everybody’s interesting, and every person matters. That’s how the world really is. And that’s how it feels in Michael Brick’s hands.
Years ago, in a group of guys with guitars trading songs, Brick did Michael Jackson’s “Man In the Mirror.” It’s a song I’d always mocked in my mind—Make that change! Cha-mon!— but Brick played it quiet and intense, and the heart of it flowed out of him. He took a corny-ass song, made famous by an earthly alien, and found the humanity inside both. That’s why you read Michael Brick once, and all you want to do is keep reading.—Tommy Tomlinson
Finding Shade in a Legend’s Shadow
The New York Times, August 7, 2005
DATELINE: Long Island, New York
Machpela Avenue is patched and pebbled, and you have to walk past Mitchell Parish 1900-1993 Lyricist, past gates to the Abion Sick and Benevolent Society and past scattered stones where the grass stretches open to get to where Ruby has gone.
”Loved and Admired, a Friend to All,” his gravestone at Beth David Cemetery on Long Island says, and the Parachute Drop and the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone are suspended in low relief before the legend: ”Coney Island the Elixer of Life.”
The stone says Rubin Jacobs is gone five summers to Machpela Avenue, but some tell it that he is not there at all. His likeness hangs over Ruby’s Old Thyme Bar and Grill on the Coney Island Boardwalk, a 40-minute ride away, where now comes the middle of Summer No. 6 without him—a long, slow burn, a weary interval for legends and talk of end times.
Ruby’s on a midsummer afternoon is a good thing for Philly and Sammy and Norma and Master: old-timers getting older on either side of the counter, down by the shore where Ruby waved his metal detector on the impossible sands and found treasures and some days found nothing. In a photograph, Ruby feeds birds some 1980’s summer day, and Sammy Rodriguez indicates this picture when he speaks of the man.
”He’s watching you,” Mr. Rodriguez says, and his authority is known because he worked here before Ruby’s was Ruby’s. He was here in the 1950’s when the choices were Rheingold and Schaefer and Pabst Blue Ribbon and none besides. Here when Ruby’s was a Hebrew National restaurant, and here during the big fire in the 1970’s when the mahogany counter burned and all the mirrors burned and the walls and the ceiling and the seven beer taps.
Mr. Rodriguez was here when Ruby Jacobs, owner of a camera shop in the city, took over the bathhouses by the shore, here when nobody came to the bathhouses anymore and the bathhouses closed, here in the 1980’s when Ruby took over the bar. Ruby’s has no taps, only bottles, and where the old bar had mirrors, now there are photographs, hundreds of them.
The top ones show fading scenes of Dreamland Tower and Shooting the Chute; the bottom ones are brilliant glossies of late vintage such that you might be on that wall, too. Are you the redhead with high cheekbones at the Mermaid Parade? Did you paint your lips blue or wear seashells on your breasts? Were you in stilettos or a feathered bikini? Did you pout to the camera some hot forgotten day?
A bar with photographs is a bar with memories, and everybody tells the Ruby stories: Ruby put a wounded pigeon into a cage on the counter to heal, and inspectors came and Ruby paid a fine for his good deed. Ruby found a man breaking into Ruby’s and asked the man why’d he do it, and the man said he needed money and Ruby gave him a job. Maybe the stories are true but you don’t know.
In late July, Ruby’s is a good thing, too, for tourists and homeboys and families and deathless Dodger fans, but a good thing is just like a bad thing when it comes to what you say about it. A blackout, a famine, Cal Ripken on a streak, the secret of Deep Throat, Marah singing Freedom Park, the expanding universe: You say how long will it last and will this be the year it ends, and this kind of talk makes midsummer go by at Ruby’s.
”I hope they don’t come in and knock everything down and make Disneyland,” says Catherine DeSimone. ”Knock everything else down, but don’t knock down Ruby’s.”
And as summer is short but the middle days long, so Ruby’s remains but the faces change. Here’s to Norma, who sat in the corner with Betty, who wore white gloves and spoke of baseball; now Norma sits alone. To Master, aka Genaro Rivera; in June he hung Mermaid Day banners, now he sits wanting to quit smoking Viceroys while one lung still works. To Philly Sanalitro, who has blood behind his eyeball; he just turned 78 and his heart is no good.
”I’m all messed up, I’m like a can opener,” Mr. Sanalitro says. He quit smoking and drinking but here he is anyway, saying: ”You know what, I’m happy, I want to live long. I’m not married, I got no worries.”
And here’s to Willy the pretty lady bartender; she looks better late in July after the shots for the cancer in her stomach. To Sammy Rodriguez, who says he will go home to Puerto Rico before Ruby’s closes for the season on Halloween.
”I’m not saying I’m quitting,” Mr. Rodriguez says on the last Tuesday in July, ”but my body is saying no mas.”
He is kidding maybe, and he gets a laugh from Frank Chmielowski, the 56-year old teacher and coach who comes back to Brooklyn from Santa Rosa, Tex., in midsummer to drink with friends from long ago. Frankie knows the talk around Ruby’s; he was here the week before, speculating on the end.
”It’s only going to be two more years before they tear it all down,” he says, and then a girl on the Boardwalk walks by wearing a thong and you can see her tattoo.
Frankie drinks his beer and the jukebox is quiet. Willy the lady bartender opens the metal register and pushes some bills down and says she always has to keep track of everything. Frankie points to a picture of Ruby on the wall. There he is, he says. He looks out at the Boardwalk and the bikinis and the green trash cans like slalom cones, and he says Brooklyn girls are a little rough around the edges.
”Texas is known for its beautiful women,” he mentions, and his drinking companion says that’s a fact, Jack. Then the jukebox gets paid and the idle talk stops and all you can hear is Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs saying your daddy don’t mind and your mommy don’t mind if we have another dance just one more time.