Reuben “Big Rube” Harley Is Philly’s Most Beloved Hustler
I don’t want to get my picture taken.
It’s a soupy Wednesday afternoon, and I’m four months pregnant. I’m exhausted, pasty-white with nausea, and wearing the only pants that fit, which are so stretched in the legs that even my knees look bloated. I tell Big Rube I’m not camera-ready as soon as I see him, which is at the Starbucks at 19th and Chestnut. He’s impossible to miss, a 300-plus-pound guy in a Big Bird-yellow rain jacket that envelops his massive frame like a tarp. As always, he has a camera looped around his neck. He smiles and smothers me in a bear hug.
“Nah,” he says. “We shooting you today. You stylin’.”
I wave him off. I know that if he takes my picture, it won’t merely end up on his Facebook page or in his Instagram feed, which has close to 7,000 followers. It will end up on his street-style blog, Street Gazing, or, worse, in his street-style column in the Daily News. The city doesn’t need to see my saggy knees.
People glance up at Big Rube as he squashes into a chair. They most likely know him, or know of him, or they’ve simply been distracted by this giant flash of yellow. A woman smiles — “Hey, Rube” — and he greets her by name. (Of course he knows her name; Big Rube knows everyone’s name.)
We settle in and start talking. Rube’s voice is low and slow, like molasses or syrup. “You know I’m going to feature you in my column after we done,” he says suddenly, slyly, as if he can feel me hatching my post-coffee escape plan. I feel a twinge but can’t identify whether it’s annoyance or slowly crumbling resolve. His face crinkles into a smile.
It’s precisely this childlike persistence, friendly opportunism and dogged hustler mentality that have made Big Rube a Philly institution. On paper, his résumé resembles the jagged peaks and valleys of a heart-rate monitor: water-ice peddler, maintenance man, marketing director for Mitchell & Ness, street-style blogger, fashion designer, radio personality, hot-sauce maker, party photographer, newspaper columnist, chef. Reuben Harley is Philly’s king of reinvention. He calls it having “octopus arms.”
“You can like all these different ice creams, cakes” — it always comes back to food with Rube — “so why not have that with your interests?” he says. “America teaches us to follow one thing and be great at that. No. Nike said it best” — it also always comes back to sports with Rube — “You love something? Just do it. You need to have octopus arms with your talents.”
For many of us, such a zigzag career path would feel desperate, something akin to the millennial practice of leapfrogging from one thing to another to avoid a “real” job. But for Rube, a 43-year-old father of one (a 13-year-old daughter), this see-what-sticks approach rings authentic, even admirable. He left a lucrative, headline-making career at Mitchell & Ness to launch a streetwear line. And his five-year tenure at the Daily News — some 1,500 columns — winds to a close this month, a split spurred, Rube says, by his insistence on front-page coverage and more marketing for his column. Big Rube wants more.
But what makes Rube so fascinating is that he’s not trying to rack up points on some internal scoreboard: big title, hefty salary, huge house. Big Rube’s in it for the love of the game, stretching out his octopus arms to latch a spot in any industry he fancies. He has bold, brash confidence, and it’s worked so far. After all, this is Philly, a small-town city driven by connections and relationships, a place where, with a bit of grit and elbow-rubbing, you can pull off transformations that would be impossible anywhere else. Still, octopuses often lose arms. How many times can Rube reinvent himself before he — and the city that’s embraced him — tires of it all?
THE NEXT TIME I see Rube is at Toast cafe in Midtown Village. He’s swapped his yellow gear for red: red chef’s coat, a red-and-white-striped apron, a red chef’s hat that flops jauntily to one side. He looks like a mix between a Parisian chef and Santa Claus. It’s Saturday evening, and there’s no one else in the cafe yet except an employee taking orders — an easy job, since Toast’s sprawling menu has been cleared, as it is every Saturday and Sunday night, for Big Rube’s pop-up restaurant: fried chicken and waffles only, heaping portions served with a side of Rube’s Baby Mama Sauce and strawberry-infused butter. Eventually, a smattering of people will file in, a mix of his friends and WIP listeners who have heard him on his thrice-weekly spots on Angelo Cataldi’s morning show. (The latter group requests selfies with him.)
“You ready to get your grub on?” Rube says. He’s hanging up t-shirts on a small rack. They’re from his t-shirt line, LipHeelé. (Pronounced “leh-PEEL-ay,” it’s a mash-up of “lip” and “heel,” the final accented “e” tacked on for effect. “I thought it sounded really high-end and grand,” he says.) High-end indeed: The shirts, which feature Rube’s “high-fashion art photography” — mostly-naked women, close-ups of female legs in web-like hosiery, lots of nipples — retail for upwards of $80. So far he’s sold roughly 200 of them, mostly from the back of his bike at music festivals. Mason jars of his Baby Mama hot sauce are for sale on the counter ($7 each, the most worthy investment in the Empire of Big Rube).
The food arrives in minutes, and Big Rube barrels out of the kitchen to swipe the generic syrup the waiter has placed on the table for a bottle of Aunt Jemima. He snaps a cell-phone picture of me with the food. That’s another Big Rube signature: taking pictures of people with his work. Here’s Michael Barkann eating his fried chicken! Here’s a woman with a jar of his hot sauce! Here’s actress Gretchen Mol posing with the Daily News ad for Rube’s column! Here’s a guy holding up a LipHeelé t-shirt!
This relentless documentation is part self-promotion, part self-validation, but there’s a niggling undercurrent of something else. It seems to be a way for Big Rube to etch in stone his successes, as if to prove to himself that they happened. Because it’s at once shocking and inevitable that they did.
Reuben Harley was born in a blizzard in February of 1974. After a stint in Brooklyn, his family settled in West Philly, next to a crack house on Ithan Street, between Locust and Spruce. His parents divorced when Rube was three, and eventually his grandmother moved in with the family. She and Rube’s mom were unflinching in their resolve to keep the kids — six altogether; Rube is the second-oldest — on track. Whenever Rube threaded himself into the knots of kids hanging on street corners, his grandmother marched out and yanked him inside by his ear.
“It was embarrassing,” Rube says. “But the guys that didn’t have that structure, they fell like leaves, either murdered or incarcerated. They didn’t have that person to be like, look, you’re not going to be that.” (The strict upbringing worked: All six kids grew up to be successful. One is a Juilliard-trained dancer and choreographer who often works with Beyoncé; another is a classically trained violinist and composer; yet another is a producer in L.A. “Someone recently told me that my mom has a magical vagina,” Rube says.)
His grandmother and mother worked as seamstresses, crafting dresses for the likes of Belinda Ali, Muhammad Ali’s wife, and countless other women who swept through the house and gave Rube his first taste of glamour. But resources were still scarce: He shared a bed with his younger brother, and the electric stove heated the house. Rube escaped through television, sitting saucer-eyed before sitcoms — Who’s the Boss?, The Cosby Show, Growing Pains.
“I used to sit there like, damn, that’s how I want to see my life,” he says. Cue Rube’s first act, the start of his interminable hustle. In high school, he strung together a series of odd jobs, most on the Main Line. There was Al E. Gators pub in Haverford — now a Lexus dealership — where Rube parlayed a maintenance job into a cooking gig. He worked in food services at Bryn Mawr College, a round-cheeked inner-city kid cooking for preppy college students.
“I was able to get on the El train and on the 100 train and see something so totally different from what I saw outside of my door,” he says. “I was like, hold up: People actually drive these cars? For reals?” After work, Big Rube would walk down Lancaster Avenue, taking it in. He’d often get stopped by police and have to flash his Bryn Mawr College ID as explanation. “But,” he says, “the fact that I was able to see that people lived different, it changed my life.”
Big Rube began putting things on layaway: furniture sets, appliances, sports jerseys. The latter were from Mitchell & Ness, a small specialty sports retailer in Center City that catered to wealthy, sports-obsessed middle-aged white guys. Rube bought his first Mitchell & Ness jersey in 1991: a 1983 Andre Thornton Cleveland Indians throwback. Yet as he began sporting these retro jerseys, his own promising high-school football career came to an end. Sidelined by an ankle injury, Big Rube, then a senior at West Philly High, dropped out of school.
But he had plans: He retrofitted a freezer cart for a mobile water-ice stand. (Act two: Rube, fledgling entrepreneur.) Rube pushed his freezer in an endless loop from 52nd and Walnut to 56th and Locust. He began making cakes, too, and peddled these at summer-league basketball games. In a flash of brilliance, he branched out to local beauty shops.
“In the black community,” he says, “you can spend a whole day in a barbershop or hair salon, and those people need to be fed, women under dryers or whatever.” Sitting ducks. Octopus arms.
Big Rube eventually upgraded his freezer to a pickup truck and started making the rounds, his service area and menu ballooning. Soon he was serving West Philly, South Philly, from Snyder Avenue all the way up to Ogontz. He added savory dishes — chicken, fish, ground turkey lasagna — and sides. People began booking appointments to coincide with his visits. For four years, Big Rube was the culinary czar of hair salons.
During this time, customers took notice of his jerseys. In a decade of shopping on layaway at Mitchell & Ness, Rube had amassed an impressive collection. Mitchell & Ness, meanwhile, had been enjoying a new stream of customers: Rube’s inner-city friends. In the spring of 2001, Rube approached then-owner Peter Capolino with a proposition. He’d seen an OutKast video in which the artists wore throwback jerseys. There was an untapped market here. His offer: $500 a month and one of each jersey the company made. In exchange, he’d introduce Mitchell & Ness to an even broader audience — rappers, athletes, entertainers. He’d take it global. Deal. Act three.
“Reuben was an interesting mix of a sports historian and a music historian,” muses Capolino. “He parlayed all of that into opening many doors that I think other individuals wouldn’t have been allowed through. But he was.”
Chalk it up to persistence: Rube relentlessly called record companies and magazines, weaseled his way into music-industry parties. By the summer, he’d gotten rappers Sean “Diddy” Combs and Fabolous hooked. He hung in the wings at the 2002 American Music Awards in L.A., outfitting show co-host Diddy in a new jersey during each commercial break. Shaq called. Lil Wayne called. Iverson called. Jay Z called. Throwback jerseys were everywhere — and Big Rube was finally living big.
By 2003, Rube was netting six figures, living at Broad and Vine and driving an Escalade with 26-inch rims — the sort of car he’d have gawked at in his Bryn Mawr College days. He had a fancy title: director of marketing and brand development. He hobnobbed with rappers and pro athletes, jet-setted around the world, cooked his ground turkey lasagna for Diddy in a sweeping Vegas villa. Instead of the Canon camera that now hangs around his neck, he wore a pancake-sized diamond “BR” necklace. No more layaway. The national media loved it, and Big Rube was featured in Time, Sports Illustrated, People and USA Today. Mitchell & Ness sales skyrocketed from $2.2 million in 1999 to $36 million by 2003.
Rube can’t be humble about this: “Think about it,” he says. “Mitchell & Ness sounds like a law firm. I made a law firm the biggest thing on the planet.”
Slowly, though, his shotgun rise to success lost its luster. By 2006, Rube had a young daughter and was in a tug-of-war with vices, “fake friends” and women, with no grandmother to yank him in by his ear. He wanted a change — specifically, for Capolino to buy into his idea for a sportswear line, R. Harley. But Capolino didn’t bite. So Rube, who can deal with pushing a freezer up a street for hours but not with someone’s lack of faith or vision, left. “If you can make something once, you can do it a million times,” he says.
R. Harley never took off. Act four.
By 2010, Big Rube had abandoned his sportswear line for photography and left Broad and Vine for Grays Ferry. Inspired by prominent photojournalist Gordon Parks and famed New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, he began taking pictures of city scenes and people with “some idiosyncrasy in their style,” pedaling around the city on a vintage-looking Schwinn he bought on clearance at Target. He launched his blog, Street Gazing, in 2010. With 10,000 page views a month and no ads, it’s more passion project than moneymaker. But it gained Rube even more notoriety and was the hook he used to pitch then-Daily News editor Larry Platt a street-style column. Three months after their meeting (and less than a year after he first picked up a camera) — “July 29, 2011,” Rube recites; as with names, he’s unnervingly good at remembering dates — Big Rube’s Street Shot column launched. Act five.
DAVID ALEXANDER JENKINS is pissed. We’ve run into him and his friend, Sophia Boris — both of them stylish fixtures on the Philly social scene and frequent Rube subjects — on Walnut Street. Rube has told them that his column is officially ending.
“I wrote to the Daily News,” Jenkins says, irate, “and listed all of their headlines and said, ‘This is insane. The only thing that’s happy in this entire newspaper is Rube’s article. And the only thing that’s happy in the city right now is Rube.’” Jenkins ascribes Philly’s recent influx of high-end stores, like Rag & Bone and Michael Kors, to Rube. Market researchers use Rube’s column and blog as proof that there are stylish people in the city, he says. Boris is, perhaps, more realistic: “He brings the city back to life, the personalities and the characters and the embellishments,” she says. “And people look forward to seeing him. He’s authentic and warm, like a big teddy bear.”
Michael Days, editor of the Daily News, won’t confirm that Rube’s departure had anything to do with a difference of vision (“We’re trimming here and there,” he says) but agrees with Jenkins: Rube’s column “brings fun to the page. It’s some fun and levity, which is something we have to be mindful of, particularly in a tabloid. I’m amazed at how he can get people to take a picture. He has that skill, that way about him. People don’t say no to him.”
Well, except for the Daily News, at least according to Rube. But he’s brushed it off. He’s already on to his next act: a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Big Rube’s Juke Joint. He has a staff lined up and says that high-end lingerie and hosiery lines La Perla and Wolford have agreed to outfit the waitresses. Rube envisions a sultry French-maid look. Sex and soul food. Why not?
It’s not entirely pie-in-the-sky. Even without formal training — in marketing, in photography, in culinary arts — Rube has an uncanny ability to limbo beneath the velvet rope of any industry he sets his sights on. “He’s an entrepreneur on so many levels,” friend and society photographer HughE Dillon says. “Everybody knows him. He has friends from all walks of life.” Philly’s top food brass has already welcomed him, and he’s proven his cooking chops with buzzy pop-ups at Zavino, Supper, Saint Benjamin’s Taproom and Independence Beer Garden. Chef Michael Schulson is on board. “He’s the best marketer I have ever seen,” Schulson says. “He doesn’t pretend to be a foodie. It’s good comfort food, seasoned and flavored really well.”
This past November, Big Rube waged a sold-out fried-chicken cook-off against Rouge chef Sam Noh. Rube won.
A few weeks after our first coffee date at Starbucks, I’m flicking through the Daily News, and I see it. Page 14, right next to the gossip column: me in my saggy-kneed pants. A moment in time. One of 1,500 of them, captured by Rube before he launches into his next act.
I’ve since researched octopus arms. When one gets severed, another regenerates. So, then, it seems Rube has it right: The possibilities for reinvention are endless.