Ruby the Pizza Guy

Among the emails, phone calls, and notes congratulating us after my younger son, Reuben, was born was one from one of my oldest friends from San Francisco, asking if I had named him “after the pizza guy.” Reuben was named after my wife’s grandmother Ruth. But after he was born, and as we began to call him Ruby, I found myself thinking more about “the pizza guy.”

“The pizza guy” was Danny Rubinstein, known as Ruby. I had worked for him for one summer, at his restaurant Ruby’s Gourmet Pizza, fifteen years before Reuben was born. Ruby’s Gourmet Pizza was one of San Francisco’s—and perhaps America’s—first restaurants that sold pizza made from gourmet ingredients. A not-particularly-large slice piece of pizza at Ruby’s ranged from $2.35 to $3.25, a lot of money for a piece slice in 1986—even one with sun dried tomatoes, smoked salmon, pesto, or escargot.

I was well into my thirties before I had a job I enjoyed quite so much. The other folks who worked at Ruby’s were an eclectic San Francisco group: the new age waitress, Ruby’s uptight and nebbishy partner, the nutty stoner cook who believed the world could be explained through astrology, the weirdly quiet delivery guy who believed he was on the verge of a patent which was going to make him a millionaire, the tough but friendly waitress, and the two cooks from Minnesota who were old friends from the Navy. I played the role of the hippie college student who liked to talk politics and baseball, and flirt with the waitresses and customers.

Ruby, a ’60s era hippie in his mid-thirties, presided over this scene. He was one of those people who came to San Francisco on a brief visit and never left. Ruby had protested the Vietnam War and gone to Columbia University on a football scholarship before coming to San Francisco, like thousands of others of his generation. I never knew why he came; perhaps he was following some hippie dream, or came to be with a woman. But by the time I met him more than a decade later, San Francisco was his home. During the 1970s, he had bounced from job to job, driven a cab, waited tables, and begun to develop a passion for cooking. San Francisco was a different place then, where a single man could work odd jobs and still afford a nice place with some friends in a funky neighborhood.

I didn’t realize it at the time—because San Francisco was all I had known—but Ruby’s Pizza and Ruby himself captured much of what had made San Francisco a special place to grow up. It was the last time I would really feel it, because I was changing, and more importantly, so was the city in which I had lived since I was three years old. Growing up in San Francisco meant being a child in a city that for many was the symbol of the promise and hope of the 1960s and 1970s. Nobody wrote song lyrics in the 1960s advising “If you’re going to Columbus, Ohio be sure to where some flowers in your hair,” or urging people to “save up all your bread and fly Trans Love Airways to Kenosha, Wisconsin.” Some of those who came to San Francisco became bit players in childhoods like mine. While our parents did est, got divorced, tried to find themselves, and enjoyed their new lives and freedoms, we attended Catholic school, did our homework, and played sports on the streets.

Of course, not all of us came from that world. Some of my friends and the kids I knew growing up were the sons and daughters of what had once been San Francisco’s huge white and Asian working class, or its wealthy elite. Their parents, unlike mine, embraced the San Francisco of the 1970s with far less enthusiasm. They saw their city changing dramatically and being taken over by outsiders.

This difference was never made more clear to me than on that Monday in late November of 1978. Upon returning from lunch to my sixth grade science class, the nun who taught us announced that Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated. Some of us were stunned. In my household, Milk had been well-liked because he had been a fellow progressive Jew from New York. In the homes of many of my classmates, he was a symbol of the unwelcome changes to their San Francisco. There were more than a few cheers and celebratory shouts of “they killed that fag.” My mother’s friends, most of whom were recent migrants to San Francisco, were mostly shocked and outraged by the assassinations.

But many of my Catholic School classmates argued that Milk and Moscone‘s assassin, former Supervisor Dan White, deserved a light sentence because he had lived an exemplary life and only made one mistake. By 1986, changes in the economy—along with events like those of November 1978—had altered San Francisco. It was a much tougher and less welcoming place to live for people like Ruby.

Those 1970s migrants who were still driving cabs and waiting on tables were beginning to struggle. More gray was beginning to be visible in their beards and curls, and their tie-dyed T-shirts and peasant blouses were beginning to fray. Many went back home; others cut their hair and sought better paying jobs in San Francisco or elsewhere. Some struggled to find a way to live in the new San Francisco while remaining true to the vision that had originally brought them there.

My San Francisco seemed divided between the working class families who had been there for generations, and those who had come to San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s—including Jesuit dropouts, radical ministers, many different kinds of transplanted New Yorkers, single mothers starting over, filmmakers, and even the occasional conventional married couple. It was giving way to a city of a new generation of hipster migrants, immigrants from Asia and Central America, and a boom-and-bust cycle of economic growth.

For a few years, Ruby sought to make room for himself in the new San Francisco by seeking to invent himself as a 1980s entrepreneur. It was a tough transition for Ruby, whose sensibilities, lifestyle, and politics hadn’t changed much since he had protested the war at Columbia.

On the surface, Ruby seemed to be able to pull it off. He was not one of those arrogant Reagan-era yuppies who talked about finance, wore a suit, voted Republican, lived in the Marina district and yes, paid eighteen dollars for an escargot pizza from Ruby’s Gourmet Pizza. Ruby seemed to retain much of the style and attitudes of his youth. That someone could live that way was something of a revelation to me. I viewed many adults Ruby’s age with whom I came into contact as either yuppies or aging hippies.

Towards the former group I felt a nasty adolescent contempt. My feelings towards the latter group were more generous, but I knew that I wanted more for myself when I was that age. As a successful Jewish hippie-turned-entrepreneur who still wore longish hair and a beard, dressed mostly in jeans and t-shirts, found time to attend the odd Grateful Dead show, and surrounded himself with beautiful and hip women, Ruby was a role model for me. I admired how he seemed to be able to run a successful business while still finding time for what then seemed like the important things in life. He was the first adult whose life I could have imagined having for myself and I think he saw me as something of a younger version of himself.

Ruby and I spent many mornings together chopping vegetables and herbs for the busy dinner hour while discussing baseball, women, politics, music, and life. If business was very slow, we would sit in the backyard, drink a beer, and enjoy the fresh air. As we sat there under the only-sometimes warm San Francisco sun, Ruby would fall into a playful tone. What had once been a Midwestern accent had given way to the expressions and accents of his adopted hometown, but the occasional Yiddish inflections and vocabulary remained.

After a big evening when the restaurant did a lot of business, Ruby would occasionally send me on my way with a bottle of wine or a six pack of beer—his way of expressing gratitude. I enjoyed Ruby too much to raise the questions which now seem so obvious to me. How come I never knew his real name until the morning his mother called asking for “Danny”? Although he was flirtatious and charming with all the women who wandered into the restaurant, why didn’t he seem to have a girlfriend or even more than a few dates with any one woman that summer? Why had he spent more than a decade bouncing from job to job? When he talked about his past, it was always on his terms. He never really responded to my questions so much as riffed about what was on his mind on any particular day. But if you grew up in San Franciso in the 1970s, you were used to people that age being vague about their pasts, alluding only occasionally to hometowns, careers, marriages, divorces, and life before coming to San Francisco. On some level I knew there was more to Ruby than met the eye, but I was enjoying the job too much and was taken in by his charisma and energy.

People like Ruby had formed the background of my childhood, but before that summer, that is where they had remained. For me, Ruby became the stand-in for that entire generation of migrants to San Francisco. He was a thirty-five-year-old man with great stories to tell who was still able to charm almost anybody, but who, while presenting himself as a successful entrepreneur, was struggling to make his business work, had a murky past, had no family or financial security, and still shared a flat in Noe Valley with a roommate.

A chapter in my life closed when I walked out of Ruby’s Pizza as an employee for the last time. The summer of 1986 was not the end of my youth, nor was it my last summer in San Francisco, but it was close to being both. In addition to the hours I spent at Ruby’s Pizza, I filled my time hanging out at Baker Beach and Golden Gate Park with my old friends from school, spending my tip money at San Francisco’s amazing array of ethnic restaurants, cruising around the city in my used Honda Civic, sleeping with a beautiful woman from my old high school who had wandered into Ruby’s for lunch early that summer, and spending the few hours when I wasn’t either working or seeing old friends, at cafes and used book stores on Clement Street.

I began thinking of Ruby the pizza guy again when another Ruby came into my life. I occasionally told my son about the pizza guy for whom, at least in his father’s eyes, Reuben had been partially named. I had told my son I would someday take him to meet the other Ruby, but somehow it always fell through the cracks. In preparation for a trip to San Francisco, I googled “Danny Rubinstein” and “pizza.” A link appeared to an article. I was shocked as I read through it. Danny Rubinstein, my friend and erstwhile role model, had jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge on August 2nd, 2004.
When I read that article, I felt light-headed and sick to my stomach.

Typing the previous paragraph makes me feel the same way. The article mentioned the Ruby I remembered—the entrepreneur and chef, the football scholarship to Columbia, the childhood in Chicago—but it also told a much darker and sadder story of a Ruby I had not known. Ruby’s life had been one of struggle against depression and other psychological conditions which had caused him great suffering and destroyed his relationships, friendships, and business. I had not known, or even really suspected, any of this. When Ruby jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge—that prototypically and almost romantic San Francisco way to commit suicide—he was a fifty-two-year-old unemployed man, taking borrowed anti-depressants in an effort to defeat the demons that were finally overtaking him. I realized that I had known Ruby for a brief moment in his life when everything was going right for him, when it looked like he might just be able to make it in the new San Francisco. His business was growing and turning a good profit. He was surrounded by friends and co-workers who liked and respected him.

The article described Ruby pulling his used Ford Explorer into a parking space near the bridge, walking out over the water, and jumping. I have tried to visualize Ruby’s last minutes and cannot. It’s probably better that way. When I think of Ruby, I want to remember his smiling face as he made pizza, showing off the new Saab he had purchased with the money from his successful business, his sense of humor, and the friendship he showed towards a young college student trying to figure things out in life.

It saddens me that the two Rubys will never meet, and that Ruby the pizza guy will never know how much he really meant to the young kid who delivered pizza for him in the summer of 1986.