Forget the Sopranos, Here's the Pianos!

How two Jews from Jersey grew up in North Miami and found their inner Billy Joel in the bowels of an 88

Bruce and Rick Rutsky are at their table in Rose's section at Denny's by 8:00 a.m., clamoring for their bowls of oatmeal and bananas. The two huge, grizzled and grimy men look like tractor-trailer drivers who just rolled off the turnpike, briefly injecting color into the usual bland crowd. But the Rutskys are regulars. Every day, for years, they've shown up and daintily tucked into their gruel with meaty paws, trading barbs, offering bits from their lives to whomever flops down at the next table.

"I plan to take over the piano business in South Florida," Bruce declares to a nearby group of Denny's stalwarts. "That'll be the Piano King over there," he adds in his heavy Jersey accent, pointing a fleshy hand at his brother. A glance at the two men is blinding. The amount of gold draped around their necks and wrists would shame Mr. T, or Penthouse mag's Bob Guccione. Bruce is wearing two pinkie rings, forced onto scarred and dirt-creased fingers. Is this the Jewish version of The Sopranos? Who knew the world of pianos was so dicey?

"Oh no," the Rutskys holler in tandem. "It ain't like that." This is a story -- they impress on me -- about two brothers who moved from Saddle Brook, New Jersey, to North Miami as teenagers some 30 years ago. They grew up there and on the Beach, fixed motorcycles, chased girls, got married to a couple of shrews, started a business together ... Now the two fix and sell pianos and refinish furniture, calling themselves the Pianos. It's been a life of good times (Marvin Gaye's piano, Versace's mansion, Billy the Kid's ghost, to name just a couple of high points). Also troubles (the crazy wife, the exploding fish tank, the cow in the back yard). "We've been through fire; we've been through storms," Bruce says. Rick adds, shrugging nonchalantly, "Yeah, you know, the usual stuff -- deaths, marriages, heart attacks, no money and lotsa money."

Steve Satterwhite
The piano life ain't all glamour and glitz, for a couple of buttheads
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
The piano life ain't all glamour and glitz, for a couple of buttheads

So what's with all the precious metal? "We like gold because in hard times, if they come, you can always sell it," Rick figures. It's just ancient Jewish wisdom.

North Miami, Marvin Gaye & Coffins

"Everywhere we go people ask us if we're twins," Bruce confides. "I say, ďNo, that's my sister!'" People can be forgiven for asking. On any given day, the pair can be found wearing nearly identical uniforms of baggy T-shirts, loose gym shorts, and sneakers with old white socks. They wear their ball caps backward, to hide the identical half-moons of baldness that contrast with the unruly collar-brushing lengths at the backs of their necks. Besides a similar girth and heft to their bodies, both have thick salt-and-pepper beards. Each is missing a tooth from the front of his mouth (Bruce from biting down too hard on an ice cube, Rick from a rock-hard popcorn kernel). A diamond stud winks from Rick's ear, whereas Bruce favors a small gold hoop. You get the feeling they picked them out together, though.

Blue-eyed Bruce, who is 49, is the elder and taller brother, by several inches. At 296 pounds (the oatmeal diet recently helped him drop 40), he also outweighs Rick by 3 or 4 pounds. "He says I look like Danny DeVito," complains the five-foot-six, 45-year-old Rick, brown eyes unblinking behind glasses with faux-tortoise frames. "But he's no Schwarzenegger." Rick is the talker, the wheeler-dealer. Bruce is the man with the piano-fixin' hands. The thing that really makes the Rutskys seem like twins, though, is their unselfconscious habit of finishing each other's thoughts. Rick starts the story of how a post-high school Bruce went into the navy, got through basic training, and was saved at the last minute from being sent to Vietnam when doctors discovered he'd had a heart murmur as a child. "You were a young man then," Rick reminds his brother. "I was nineteen," Bruce rejoins. Then, in unison, the brothers lift their caps and bow their heads. "We had hair then!" they crow.

Norman Rutsky, the Pianos' father, was a marker and cutter for children's garments until the late Sixties, but those New Jersey winters were hard on his asthma. So when his mother died and left him some money, he packed up the wife and kids and brought them to North Miami. He bought Lee's Snack Shop on West Dixie Highway and 131st Street, just down from the Carvel ice-cream store owned by his cousins Etta and Tom Becker. Half the teenagers in North Miami would come around for softies, so the boys got to know everybody. Good thing too, because suburban Jersey fashion hadn't exactly prepared the Rutsky boys for the sexual revolution, South Florida-style. "We weren't as advanced as the kids down here," Rick laughs. "They were running around with hair down to their asses. We had, like, the Beatle boots. And jackets and Beatle haircuts." Kids in Miami were ready . . .

Rick started out at North Miami Junior High, while Bruce went to North Miami Senior High. Rick moved to North Miami Beach High when it opened in 1971, as a state-of-the-art school with air conditioning instead of windows. "But you walked around in there like you were in a daze all the time because it felt so still," Rick remembers. "It was like being on a cell block."

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