Catching up: Ruben Las Vegas

Ruben Roybal, the windshield-washing poet of Las Vegas who redeemed our lost day.

Well, we’re home now.  At least we’ll call it home till the bank comes and takes it away or, much less likely, we find a way to unload it with the express permission of JPMorgan Chase & Co.
As that little drama plays out, I hope to shake off the lethargy that holds a lien on my troubled soul and fill this journal with the backlog of stories we acquired in our costly ramble about this breathtaking land – a land that in theory at least still belongs to you and me. Don’t hold your breath.
We got back to Pierce County by slogging 18 hours up and down mountains Friday to make it to Fox Island to attend Cassius Via’s 6th birthday party.
And we wouldn’t have missed it for all the gas that’s left in Saudi Arabia.
The following nonsense took a place a week (well, surprise, surprise, I took my sweet-ass time getting around to finishing this, didn’t I?) month ago, when we were struggling to make it to Minden, Nev., for a visit with the Harkers – Becky’s sister Donna and her beautiful family.

We’re back on the road to foreclosure. It’s twilight Sunday, April Fools’ Day, and with darkness gathering, we miss our turn off from Arizona 160 onto 98, the road that would have taken us north and west to Utah and Zion National Park.
Taking this as a message from the Fates, we plod past Tuba City and on to Flagstaff, where we secure a motel room for $33 and watch the third episode of the fifth season of Mad Men.
Maybe we intended such mischief all along? Who knows the inscrutable ways of the subconscious?
Relieved to learn that Fat Betty doesn’t have cancer, and energized by the chill of being 7,000 feet above sea level, we return to well-traveled I-40 Monday morning. We move incrementally over hill and dale, turtling 35-40 miles uphill and then cruising downhill at a less conspicuous pace.  Mountains, mountains everywhere. The needle on the fuel gauge is hell-bent for empty.
After several productive days, we’ve slipped back into the dreaded road funk. We’re heading for Minden, Nev., to see Becky’s sister and family, and messing shit up along the way. This is the most wasteful kind of travel. We’re seeing nothing, yet making poor time.
As twilight threatens, we cruise right past Hoover Dam, and Lake Mead.
Billboards pimping cut-rate lawyers pop up all over the roadside, and I wonder in admiration over all that implies about life as its lived in Las Vegas. We stop in Vegas only to hit McDonald’s to hook up to the wifi to try to find cheaper gas, if $3.84 a gallon can be considered in any way cheap. (When we pay $5.19 per gallon the next day in Bridgeport, Calif., I’d have my answer.)
We’re seeing nothing, getting nowhere. We’ve become too dependent on McDonald’s and Walmart, which lure us off the path less traveled and ply us with free Internet access and secure, well-lit lodging. We have insulated ourselves in the insidious comfort of commercial familiarity.
So with darkness falling all around us, broken only by the ubiquitous glare of corporate neon, we sidle back on to 95 north for the short drive from the McDonald’s at 2020 N. Rainbow Boulevard to the Arco at 4371 N. Rancho Drive.
Becky drives, with Max as co-pilot, and I hold my head in the back, neural transmitters tripping over the soothing illumination emanating from the strip-mall universe. One by one they pass in stationary parade, sending out silent summons to sullen passersby: Best Buy, Old Navy, Outback, Office Depot and Office Max.
Joanne’s, Pearle Vision, Petsmart, Petco and Party City.
AMC Theatres, Aaron Brothers, Barnes and Noble and Babies R Us.
Jared Galleria, Tony Roma’s, Cricket, Costco and Cost Plus World Market. On and on and on, a never-ending roll call of our collective raison d’etre.
We shop, therefore some people have minimum-wage jobs.
They’re still coming: Walmart, Wendy’s, Marshall’s, Mattress Firm and Men’s Wearhouse.   It never stops, the consumer madness running amok in this boxed-up world. Speaking of madness … we make the four-mile trip to save 10 cents on a gallon of gas. Yes, I know I’m insane. The mathematics don’t add up. At 12 miles per gallon, we’ll spend a third of a gallon ($1.28 in this case) to save a buck-fifty. So if all goes to plan, we may save 22 cents. Of course, all rarely goes to plan.
Now it’s dark, and Denny’s reflects in the window from the west side of 95. Becky pulls off the highway and steers us safely into the Arco with the coveted $3.849 gas. Hallelujah.
And then, and then, just when all seems lost, we run straight into Ruben Ruybal.
I stumble out the camper door in a defeated stupor, and Ruben comes at me, brandishing a squeegee, saying he’ll wipe our windshield clean for free. He says he noted our license plates, knows we’re traveling, he’ll be happy to do it gratis.
And I can’t stop him. Much as I’d like to, because I hate to incur debt. Even worse, I hate to buy anything when I don’t know the price. (I’m a cheap bastard. Anyone will tell you that.) And when a mysterious stranger with a squeegee promises to do you a good turn for free, you wonder just how much it will cost.
As I always tell Max, ain’t no such thing in this world as a free windshield cleaning.
My only recourse is to turn the tables on him. I ask him who he is, where he comes from, what the hell he’s doing in Las Vegas armed only with a squeegee. I get all curious on his ass, all up in his windshield-wiping grill (Later he’d say, “I noticed you were real inquisitive.). I insist he stand still while I snap a photograph or two.
He’s Ruben Ruybal, or maybe Rueben Roybal (I neglected to confirm the spelling of his first name – journalism sin! – and he told me his dad changed the spelling of his surname), and if I remember correctly, he’s part Mescalero Apache, part Conquistador. I believe, because got the wisdom of the ancients in the wrinkles around his brown eyes. He says he’s from San Francisco and has lived hereabouts about eight years years, not that he likes it much.
“This city doesn’t grow on me,” he says. “You know how cities have personalities? Like New York has a personality, and San Francisco has a personality? This place has no personality.”
His dad, Ernest, is 92, and still lives in San Francisco. Ruben, it turns out has lived in many places since leaving San Francisco, and a lot of those places are outfitted with iron bars and prison guards.
He says he’s 65, and I tell him he looks damn good.
“I used to think I’d be young forever,” he says. “My growth kind of stopped when I went to prison.”

Look who's got the squeegee now: Max and Ruben outside the Arco at 4371 N. Rancho Drive.

I am somewhat rejuvenated by our conversation. The gas came to $37 and change, and I fork over the remainder of my $40 deposit to my new friend for services rendered. Not the squeegee job, but the funk-breaking conversation.
Not satisfied with my end of the deal, I make Ruben pose for pictures with the kid. Then I bid him adieu and go into the store to relieve myself.
In there, I eavesdrop as Ruben asks Juan, the kid manager on duty, if he’s ready to hear his poem. I’m pretty sure he’s been trying to get this kid to read one of his poems for a week or two. Juan says he’d love to, but he’s too busy right at the moment.
Advantage, me! I quickly capitalize on the opening, informing Ruben I’d be happy to read his poem. Then I think quickly for a change, realizing I’d never remember a dime of it if I didn’t get it on video, and tell Ruben I’d prefer it if he read the poem.
“Aw, you want me to recite?”
He puts on glasses and walks briskly over to the spigot on the outside wall of the minimart. He bends down, gulps a mouthful of water, than spits out the excess.
“My mouth’s too dry to recite,” he explains by way of apology.
It’s called “The Correctional Way.” It starts like this, seducing me right from the drop:

Step right up, folks, and welcome to the world of one-act plays,
A.M.s and P.M.s, day after day.
San Quentin, Folsom, there’s Pelican Bay.
Even toured the Hate Factory they call Santa Fe.
Clowns with no faces, the Joker’s unknown.
So fierce is the beast, mad dogs to the bone.
Could this be another flesh-like dream?
Reduced to the rubble of my demise?
And once again the burgundy bullets
and burgundy wine.

Listen to the whole thing here:

I tell Ruben I love his poem, and have to refrain from kissing him for redeeming what I’d already written off a wasted day on the road.
And we headed back to 95. It’s still 424 miles from Las Vegas to Minden,  which is 50 miles south of Reno and 18 miles east of the southeastern portion of Lake Tahoe.
We got a long way to go before we sleep.


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3 Responses to Catching up: Ruben Las Vegas

  1. nora says:

    Ruben is my good friend. He was like a brother to me. Just to let people know our friend Ruben has passed away 2/27/14 at 4 am. RIP my friend. I carry you in my heart always and forever Ruben I love you.

  2. Nina Serrano says:

    Hi Rube Waddell the Blogger,
    I was so thrilled and surprised to read this blog and see the video this morning sent by my friend, who had googled Ruben Ruybal and found your post.
    We wanted to find him to interview him for a video we are making about our Latino media collective in the early seventies in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ruben was part of it. I forwarded it once to other friends of Ruben’s and members of our old collective.
    By afternoon, one sent back Nora’s comment at the bottom of the post announcing his passing, which I had missed. We are all very saddened. I
    Is there away to reach Nora? We would all very much want to know the circumstances of his death. I am too stricken now to explain more but in a few days I will share with you our story.
    Thanks for your lovely posting and video. By the way Max is adorable.
    Nina Serrano

    • Nora says:

      Hi, it’s me Nora. Just read your comment. I know it’s over a year ago since your post but I haven’t looked at this site for awhile. My husband and I were just talking about Ruben and all the good times we had with him. Our talking made me look for the site again. I would like to thank you for considering Ruben for your interview. I know he would have very much liked that. I sure do miss him. He was a joy to sit and chat with. I know he is watching over us always. He always did watch over us. I can be reached at Thank you for the kind words about Ruben. God Bless you.

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