Sunday, November 7, 2010

Ruby's Bar and Grill

Ruby's Bar and Grill on the Coney Island boardwalk has likely closed for the last time. The spot was originally the Hebrew National Deli, which opened in 1934. In the 1970s it was purchased by Ruby Jacobs, who also owned a camera shop and some of the old local bathhouses. Ruby's was open for the summer season on the boardwalk, from Palm Sunday to Halloween. During the off-season it opened one day each year, January 1st, to serve the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, a group of cold-water enthusiasts who take an annual swim in the icy Atlantic Ocean.

During the summer season, Ruby's operated with no wall between its interior and the boardwalk. A snack counter facing the boardwalk sold hot dogs, hamburgers, knishes, corn on the cob, french fries, waffle fries, corn dogs, fried chicken, clams or shrimp in a basket, sausage on a roll with peppers and onions, ice cream, cotton candy in multiple flavors, funnel cake and other items. Inside, carnival workers, older regulars and assorted beach visitors sat at the bar, drinking bottled beer and strongly-mixed cocktails and playing the jukebox. Peanuts, Crackerjacks, pretzels and a Harpo Marx statuette were kept behind the bar near the liquor and the cash register. A gigantic American flag hung overhead, along with similar-sized ad banners for beer and samples of the T-shirts Ruby's sold. The shirts carried the bar's name along with its logo, a drawing of a maniacal, grinning clown-like face. According to the sign above the entrance, which listed the bar's offerings in the hand-painted style of boardwalk businesses, Ruby's also sold umbrellas.

On the walls were old signs advertising Pepsi-Cola and five-cent beer, and framed black-and-white photos of the neighborhood in earlier days. There were also newer photo collages of the Mermaid Parade, a bacchanalian spectacle of ocean-themed costumes and burlesque style that snakes its way though Coney Island every June. Many of the parade's participants and spectators have tended to wind up drinking at Ruby's.

When Ruby Jacobs died in 2000, the bar was taken over by his two daughters and son-in-law. For the past few years, with plans for redevelopment of Coney Island in the air, there were rumors that Ruby's might soon be evicted. At the beginning of November, the rumors were confirmed when Zamperla, the development company that leases Ruby's section of the boardwalk from the city, sent letters to the bar and eight nearby businesses--Cha Cha's, Gyro Corner, Paul's Daughter, Grill Island, Beer House, Pio Pio Riko, Coney Island Souvenir Shop and Shoot the Freak--giving them two weeks to vacate the premises. In place of the evicted businesses, Zamperla was said to be planning to install a sports bar, and upscale restaurant and a brewery pub.

An online petition began to circulate opposing the move. On November 6th, a few days after it had officially closed for the season, Ruby's opened for possibly the last time, for a rally against its eviction. Wearing jackets and sweatshirts against the Autumn air, a sizable crowd gathered outside the bar, where a trio called the Undercovers played a set of mostly 70's rock in front of the snack counter. Protesters held signs saying "Shame On You Zamperla" and "American History Vanishing Before My Eyes." Local news crews did interviews. Dozens of people snapped photos. "This is our final call, or maybe not," Ruby Jacobs' daughter Melody Sarrel told the crowd.

Inside, there was a mixture of raucous and melancholy. A crowd thronged the bar, keeping the two bartenders busy taking drink orders and emptying cardboard beer cases. At the front end of the bar, closest to the boardwalk, a group of older patrons sat chatting more glumly. A man with long gray hair who had earlier been talking animatedly out front was now sprawled out asleep on a chair near the back, oblivious to the commotion around him. A thin woman in glasses inspected the Mermaid Parade photos on the wall. She told me she played in a brass band during the event. She remarked on a photo of a woman standing in the sun, with a likeness of the New York City subway map painted onto her face and a necklace made of subway line letters.

Some time around 6 or 7 in the evening, someone walked out of the storeroom in the back carrying a ladder, which he set up near the front. He climbed it and began to take down the wooden pole that the Ruby's T-shirts had been hanging from. Removing the shirts, he threw them down into the crowd. Then he took down the pole and carried the ladder back into the storeroom.

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