This is the sixth of ten stories Storyboard will post from a new collection honoring Michael Brick [see our 5 Questions on the project]. This is also part three of a triptych Brick wrote on a legendary Coney Island bar. The first two parts were introduced by Tony Rehagen and Tommy Tomlinson, noting Brick’s ability to get and keep readers’ attention, through his reporting and writing.
Last Call on the Boardwalk, Perhaps Forever
The New York Times, September 4, 2005
DATELINE: Coney Island, New York
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 bebes nacidos, he visto que los bebes crecen. Cuando 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.