Ruby's Café


L. Crystal Michallet-Romero

Copyright © March 19, 2002

L. Crystal Michallet-Romero All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: None needed. These characters are mine. The incident written about is true, however, certain things, such as location, were changed to fictitious name. Any similarities or resemblances of any character(s) in this story to anyone in real life are purely coincidental.

My grandfather is not an educated man. He was born in Texas to a migrant farm working family and was only able to attain a third grade education. Despite his lack of formal schooling, he was educated in the ways of life. He knew the concept of hard work and was never without a job to support his family.

Although he could not read or write, he had a gift for numbers. As a child I remembered how my grandfather loved to race my brother in adding long columns of numbers. While my brother was armed with the latest Texas Instrument calculator, my grandfather would simply gaze off into space, his eyes moving so slightly that unless you were watching, you would miss the movements as his brain added up the long digits of numbers in his head. In the end, my grandfather was always the victor in these races between man and machine.

For my grandfather, there was nothing more enjoyable than spending time with his family. His continual belief that by working hard, one would always succeed never wavered and although the elusive American dream was never his, he always believed that someday he would own land and a business that he could call his own.

Ruby's Café was known as the greasiest joint on the outskirts of Chino, California. Its small trailer size structure took up a little part of a paved section that was next to the only gas station between Chino and Grayle. On windy days, the sign hanging over the café would creak and cry in protest of the rust that was imbedded on the chain links that held it up. The welcome sign in the window was always tilted on its side regardless of the day or night. People who lived near Ruby's Café always knew to avoid the only place in town that served the most appalling gastric meals to have ever been dipped in a vat of lard. For the unsuspecting travelers, Ruby's Café was seen as a quaint place to stop — but never to return again.

The owner of Ruby's café was Ruby's husband. He was a quiet, bald man who spent the better part of his days secluded in the kitchen of the café. On days when Ruby would let him out from the behind the stove, Papa Ruby, as he was known, would spend his time sitting on the tin garbage cans beside the café. With sweat pouring down his forehead, he'd lean tiredly against the wall as he drank from a bottle that was concealed inside of a bag.

Ruby was a large, portly woman. Her hair was the color of straw that had been left out for too long on a hot summer day. She wore a standard uniform of frumpy dresses covered with an apron which always held ketchup, Tabasco, oil, or other food stains. Her large beefy hands were always animated as she spoke to the customers who had unwittingly stopped by her place.

My encounters with Ruby occurred every day as I would walk to my grandmother's home after school. Just as I had done since the first day of entering Rosefern elementary school, at the end of the day I would take my homework in hand and walk the short distance to the little house near the railroad tracks where my grandparents lived. While in the care of my grandmother, I would do my homework and wait until my parents were finished with their work before they'd come and pick me up. Although the time spent with my grandmother was enjoyable, the walks to her house always left me feeling empty.

As I walked home from school I would hear Ruby's acrid voice from the door of the café. A half-burned cigarette always dangled from wrinkled lips. Those lips pursed slightly as her eyes shrank to mere slits. Although she never left the confines of her café, she'd always stand teetering at the door's threshold.

"Hey! You little wetback, beaner rat!" she would shout as I kept my gaze ahead of me, "You stupid spic, don't you step one foot on my property, you hear me, you little rat!" her screeching voice would always draw the attention of those nearby.

Everyday I ignored her daily exchange and more than once I wanted to go to her, to stand in front of her and tell her that I was not a wet back. I wanted to explain to her that my Lakota family had been on this land creating religions and art when her own were still walking around naked and living in caves. I longed to be able to tell her that my proud Mestizo people had discovered mathematical figures and lunar calendars long before hers had even learned to navigate the seas and I wanted to tell her that my grandmother was not only educated, but had received her knowledge from the University of Mexico. But being only eight, all I could do was keep my silence and walk with my head held high, until I was well out of sight of Ruby's Café. Then, and only then, did I allow my dejection to bow my head in shame at Ruby's words.

Exactly how my grandfather had learned that Ruby's Café was on the market, no one remembers. The only thing that my grandfather remembers was the day he talked with Mr. Ruby. As was my grandfather's custom, he spoke of the possible purchase of the café and together, my grandfather and Mr. Ruby had come to an arrangement. As if he were in a hurry to be rid of the place, Mr. Ruby agreed to let my grandfather take over the mortgage payment until the place was owned free and clear in two years. Using his great people skills, my grandfather had raised the money for the down-payment.

For my grandfather, a man's words and a hand shake was all that was needed to seal a deal. If a man could not stand by his words, what type of a man was he, my grandfather would always say. But knowing that Mr. Ruby had different notions, my grandfather eagerly took the legal paperwork to study before signing it for Mr. Ruby. The inability to read had never hindered him before, so my grandfather never thought that it would be a factor now. He felt that the combination of my grandmother's university education and my own father's eleventh grade education would be enough to read through and understand the contract. When both of his advisors were unable to detect anything unusual in the contract, my grandfather took the deed and with a flair of a signature, and after shaking Mr. Ruby's hand, my grandfather was on his way to obtaining his American dream.

Part of the agreement stipulated that Mr. and Mrs. Ruby would remain behind for one week in order to show my grandparents how to run the café. After the week was over, the place would officially become whatever it was that my grandparents wanted it to be. In the transitional week, my grandmother learned the secret traits and habits of the former owners of Ruby's café.

I can remember my grandmother's words as if it was only yesterday. They were dirty people, my grandmother had said, and they were cheap. My grandmother related the first day of training by Ruby. With a crinkled nose, and a knowing smile, she shook her head as she remembered that first training day.

"Don't throw that away!" Ruby yelled at one of my cousins who had started his first day as a bus boy. Confused, he stood still as he held the plate filled with the remnants of a customer's half eaten food. "That there, don't throw it away," Ruby had instructed as she took a partially eaten piece of toast from the plate.

"This here," she spoke loud despite being told that my grandmother understood English, "this can be used again," Ruby instructed as if she were talking to a child. In slow, calculated moves that were supposed to help my grandmother understand her better, Ruby took the toast to the greasy counter and cut off the sides that had been bitten.

"See, you take it, trim it up, and send it out with the next plate that way you don't waste food," Ruby's words brought an expression of disgust from my grandmother, and a shake of a head from my cousin. "If you don't waste food, then you'll save money, you remember that! There's nothing wrong with the toast, why not let someone else eat it if they want. And the same goes for scrambled eggs, if they don't eat it, and they haven't messed it up with ketchup, then warm it and put it on the next plate that wants scrambled eggs!" the large woman stated as she scratched her head, then examined under the tips of her fingernail as if expecting to see a head lice.

"Now, I know your kind ain't very smart people, but if you can remember what I said, then you should fair well here," Ruby said before she began to pick at something inside of her nose.

Where my grandfather was loud and vocal, my grandmother was quiet. In her quiet way, she only nodded at Ruby as she returned to the stove to become accustomed to every nuance of the industrial size stove. Throughout their whole week, my grandparents watched carefully, and spoke of the days events when they were home. When the week finally ended, Mr. Ruby shook my grandfather's hand again, and then handed him the key to his future dream.

Once they could consider the place their own, my grandfather closed the café and placed a large sign in the front window that warned everyone that Ruby's café was now under new management. In that week, they had the exterminator come in and rid the place of the rats and roaches that had taken up residents at the café. When the place was deemed vermin free, my grandfather enlisted the help of all of his daughters and grandchildren.

I remember the days of busy activity. While I was sitting and doing my daily homework, my aunties, mother and grandmother were busy cleaning the café. The clatter and clang of wrenches echoed over the women's voices as my grandfather was busy fixing the plumbing, pipes and stove. When the place had been cleaned from top to bottom, the look of satisfaction and pride was only outdone by the day when they had hung the shingle with the new name of the café.

El Matador, the bull fighter. This was a name that my grandparents hoped would change the image of the once filthy café. Inside, my grandparents hung decorations from Mexico, the familiar green poncho hung on the wall opposite of the wall that had a picture of a Spanish bull fighter. Having a large family meant that my grandfather was able to enlist the help of his grown daughters. Those who did not have babies at home helped their parents by acting as waitresses in the café. Throughout the week, my cousins and brother traded days as bus boys in the evening and even though I wanted to help, I was deemed to young to do anything except to clean the restrooms right before I sat down with my homework.

With a full staff, my grandfather opened the café even though he was not certain if their idea would be successful in the all Anglo community. When the customers were greeted by my grandfather and all of his daughters, word soon spread of the family owned business. In no time, the place became crowded with curious visitors all wondering what was new at the former Ruby's Café.

"Why Mr. Castillio, you really did a good job of painting the walls," one customer had said as he sipped of my grandmother's fresh brewed coffee while he waited for his huevos rancheros breakfast.

"Paint? We didn't paint anything….why, let me tell you, Mr. Jones, that beautiful wall is what we found when we scrubbed the walls clean! Imagine our surprise to find white walls! Why, we all thought that the walls were painted yellow!" grandpa explained with a slight accent and a knowing grin. Understanding his unspoken words, Mr. Jones merely shook his head and muttered, "That Ruby!" under his breath with a chuckle.

Within a month of opening to the public, the county health inspector arrived with surprising news. The black suited inspector swept into the restaurant armed with a black bag filled with glass bottles, rubber gloves, and tweezers. His stony expression was softened by the thin mustache he had below a beak nose. With each glance through the place, his mannerism began to change until he was smiling and laughing with my grandfather. It was at this time that my grandfather learned of Ruby's sudden need to sell her café. Under threat from the health department, they were told to either clean up the place or risk being closed down for health reasons. The inspector was not only surprised at the cleanliness of the place, but that all of it had been accomplished in such a short time. Soon the passing inspection paperwork from City Hall was in my grandfather's hand, and he had promised the inspector that he would never find the place lacking as long as he was the owner. The thin man gave a hearty laughed and shook my grandfather's hand all the while calling him "Mr. Castillio" just before he left.

The main staple of every meal at El Matador were fresh, home made tortillas, however, white bread was always kept on hand for the customers who preferred it and despite the lessons that Ruby tried to impose, my grandmother vowed to never reuse uneaten food. But this was never a problem because it was rare that a plate returned to the kitchen with food remaining. In the morning, El Matador served hearty plates of Mexican breakfasts, at lunch, they closed the café to prepare for the dinner crowd, and by the time they opened in the evening, the customers were already lined at the door.

The combination of my grandfather's easy going, jovial mannerisms, combined with my grandmother's artistry in the kitchen soon made the café the favorite place to eat in town. No longer did I have to walk past Ruby's café to go to my grandmother's home. Instead, I would sit in a booth with my books open as my mother waited on tables. At the end of the day, after having a good dinner, we would walk home to join my brother and father.

For a time, everything was perfect. Although my mother was more tired than she had ever been at any other job, she knew that the rewards were just around the corner. At times when it was slow, my grandfather would sit and talk to me.

"Meja," he would say, "You keep studying because some day, I will need you to look after this place. You need to go to school and learn business and bookkeeping, and I'm going to pay for it, for you and all your cousins. No one in my family will be like me, you understand?" he would ask in a serious tone that brought an obedient nod from me. "Good, because someday, I'm going to have a whole bunch of El Matador's across the country, and me and your grandma, we're going to retire in Mexico and let you kids take care of your own place. So you study hard and pay attention in school," he would say before returning to the front counter.

As the months flew by, we never saw Mr. Ruby or his acrid wife, Ruby. No one ever asked about them and after a while, we began to believe that they had truly gone away to retire for good. But like a tornado setting down unexpectedly, Ruby came barreling into the front door after nearly a year's absence. Dressed in a new pink outfit, and wearing a pill box hat, the large woman walked heavily into the café. With a sour expression, she glanced around the restaurant, her scowl resting momentarily on the various items from Mexico before turning to my grandfather.

"I have to hand it to you wetbacks, you managed to keep it open longer than I thought you could," her tone was harsh as she reached into a new black purse and pulled out a legal document. "I want the remaining sum of the mortgage," her voice was harsh.

"B-But….we don't have it!" I heard my grandfather explain as he waved his hands around the café, "we put all of our loans into fixing this place up. Mr. Ruby said we would have two years before it was due," he tried to remind the woman.

"Two years, or upon demand, and I'm demanding it, so pay up now," she smiled knowingly. At my grandfather's silence, she arched a penciled brow, "No? I don't suppose you have it right now, do you," she smirked.

"In that case, here you go, you've got until the end of the week to vacate this place," she said as she handed the legal papers to my grandfather.

Shocked and confused, my grandfather opened the paper, but was unable to read it. My grandmother, hearing the commotion, left the kitchen to stand by my grandfather's side. With brows creased, she read over my grandfather's shoulder as Ruby only smiled and turned to leave.

"Remember, the end of the week and I want you all out of here!" she shouted over her shoulder as the door slammed behind her, leaving confused customers eating their early dinners.

Nothing like this had ever happened to my grandfather, so it took a few minutes before he comprehended her words. When it settled in, he called my father and asked for his help in understanding the papers. After reading and rereading the legal documents, my father finally conceded that he was not certain and with the help of a friend, they found someone with legal knowledge who could understand what was happening.

"I am so sorry, Mr. Castillio," the young man, not quite a lawyer, said as he sat in a booth in the restaurant the next day. "If you had only come to me, or someone else who was qualified, to read this for you, they would have caught this clause," the man said as he sighed and ran his fingers through his short, crew cut hair. "I wish I knew what to tell you. You could fight it, hire a lawyer," the man offered.

Without realizing it, the young man had deflated all hopes that my grandfather had left. He had used all of the funds that he borrowed to refurbishing the café. Even after spending an entire day walking through the city from attorney to attorney, they had all deemed it a hopeless case that they would have little chance of winning, even if my grandfather could afford to pay their fees. He had not only signed the contract in public, but he shook hands on the deal in front of witnesses. This alone was enough to deem it a hopeless case.

In defeat, after nearly a year as an entrepreneur, my grandparents packed up their personal items from El Matador. The remaining food, they separated amongst their daughters. Within a day of leaving the café, the shingle proclaiming Rube's Café was returned to the chain links above the door and although Ruby never went back to working in the restaurant, her newly graduated son took over managing the café.

When asked, my grandfather never displays his anger of this incident. Like a poet waxing philosophy, he describes the events like a lesson learned from long ago. Yes, it took years to recover and pay back all of the loans that he had taken to buy Ruby's, but no, he blamed no one except himself. Had he been an educated man, he would have known that only a lawyer would have been able to catch the line that Ruby had inserted in the document to cheat him. If only he had been able to go to school when he was younger, rather than constantly moving and having to work in the fields to help his father, he might have known better. But he didn't, and it was a lesson he carries with him to this day.

My grandfather admits that it took him a few months to realize that Ruby had agreed to sell her café in order that my family could clean it up and make it possible to pass the city inspection, all the while knowing that they could reclaim it at any time. Despite this knowledge of what she did, my grandfather is still jovial and outgoing toward everyone he meets. Although he is more cautious around strangers, the past has never stolen his sense of faith in close friends, nor has it taken away his sense of humor.

"Meja," he said to me recently, "The good lord may not have given your grandpa much brains, but I gotta tell ya, he gave me something more important!" Like the Mexican comedian, Cantiflas, he waited patiently for his audience to catch the bait.

Not one to disappoint, I smiled as I asked, "What is that, Grandpa?"

"Meja, the good lord gave your grandpa good looks and a way with women!" his deep laughter rang loudly over the phone, "And meja, I'm sure your grandma doesn't mind at all. If she was still alive today, I'm sure she would agree with me and say that if a man has a lot of women who love him, then he is a rich man!" he laughed heartily at his own joke.

The city of Chino has grown and Ruby's Café is no longer on the outskirts of town, but is now on the edge of the state university. The parking lot is filled with the bikes, mopeds and motorcycles of students who use the place as a hang out or a place to grab a cheap, quick bite to eat. It's been over twenty years since I stepped foot into Ruby's café but every time I visit my cousin, I can not help but glance at the shingle swaying in the wind and I remember that time from long ago. Although I was only a child, it is a memory that continually reminds me that, for some citizens of this country, the American dream is a fragile concept that can be easily stolen by unscrupulous individuals who are able to manipulate the laws for their own benefit.

The End

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