Seeing Red

The Ruby Room, despite itself.

The Ruby Room is dark. Dark like zero lighting, save for a few red bulbs and whatever natural light manages to creep in through the cracks under the door and around the boarded-up sidewalk-facing window; dark like a fully plausible former pimp hangout (as legend has it) and current fail-safe pickup joint (as the nickname “boobie room” suggests); dark like the kind of place in which it is impossible to see the person you’re talking to/sitting next to/making out with; and also dark like damn near impossible to take notes — which is probably for the better, seeing as Ruby isn’t really the sum of its parts.

Those parts, by the way, are L-shaped, with a narrow, mirrored first room, a small, sweaty dance floor at the elbow, and a bigger back room with a seemingly-always-occupied pool set-up, and a handful of little candle-lit tables and booths. The bar is long, facing a fake rock wall and a fairly standard but well-lit selection of bottles. Those bottles, in fact, are the only things in the whole place granted any appreciable light, as if ensconced in boozy halo, which is probably telling: Here, alcohol is glorified, though less as an artifact of cocktail culture and more as a means to an end, whether that end is to make out with someone you couldn’t pick out of a lineup, or to just get drunk. Shots are generous, whiskey-Cokes taste less like Coke and more like whiskey, and it’s all cheap: typically no more than $5, unless you’re getting something really fancy. Which you shouldn’t be.

Next to the dance floor is a sign that says “dancing prohibited,” because The Ruby Room (132 14th St., Oakland, 510-444-7224) reportedly doesn’t have a cabaret license (and we apparently live in the town from Footloose), and next to the auspiciously smoke-filled back room is a sign that says “No Smoking.” You get the sense that a lot of things at Ruby defy logic and the law, but nobody quite seems to care. The place is, after all, co-owned and frequented by various members of the East Bay Rats motorcycle gang, and among a certain swath of young, tattooed Oaklanders, it has become a sort of smokier, dirtier, divier Cheers analogue: where everybody knows your name, even though they may not remember it tomorrow.

Like many places that are well-loved, Ruby is treasured somewhat irrationally, in spite of (or because of) that fact that it can be pretty unpleasant. There’s the dankness, and the dirtiness, and the unmistakable smell of bleach everywhere, and what may be one of the worst-looking and -smelling women’s bathrooms in a twenty-block radius. In the back room, you’re forced to dodge pool cues and lung cancer; in the front, it’s hearing loss and errant elbows, both prompted by a cast of reverb-and-fuzz-inclined DJs. It’s almost always crowded, claustrophobically so on weekends, and definitely a fire hazard; loud; sweaty; and a million other things people tend to avoid when possible, but yet here we are, completely by choice, ducking elbows and using our phones to light the way to the bathroom, smiling into the dark.


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