If the deep, dark circles under Bob "Rocky" Russo's eyes were once marks of an overworked restaurateur, they now signify stress on a whole other level. Russo owns Rocky's Brick Oven Pizza. He's also the Atlanta service industry's best-known -- and, perhaps, its only -- political activist. His responsibilities are thus an odd hybrid: on the one hand, perfecting pizza dough, on the other, saving the world.
Russo firmly believes that one man can change things, even the buildup of nuclear weapons. And the power of an individual can be especially strong, he says, if that person owns a popular pizzeria and is willing to starve himself to get people's attention.
Like Atlanta's own Bono, Russo is using his star stature (or at least the highly visible sign outside his Peachtree Street restaurant) to raise awareness of global politics. This week, the sign -- which has polarized opinions on topics from the Georgia flag to Elian Gonzalez -- reads: "Rocky Hunger Strike Until India and Pakistan Stand Down."
Last Thursday, after either 11 or 14 days of fasting (lack of nutrients seems to have stymied Russo's memory), the gold-chained, mustachioed restaurant owner sits at a table on the restaurant's patio. Before him, an empty packet of Emergen-C vitamins, two packs of British State Express 555 cigarettes and a tower of froth-stained cappuccino mugs stand as testament to Russo's most recent act of patriotism.
"The first three days are the hardest, with the night sweats and the day shakes," he says.
He's since lost his appetite. A man in a baseball cap who does maintenance work for Russo wanders around the patio, a mammoth Neapolitan slice in hand, eating. Russo doesn't flinch. He says he won't be tempted "until India and Pakistan take down their arms."
He claims so far to have lost an impossible 50 pounds. He has relinquished control of the restaurant to his son and a manager and says that he won't give up starving until India and Pakistan comply -- or at least until Americans boycott Indian and Pakistani imports. "It's more important to bring to light the threat of nuclear war than to eat," he says.
Russo dates his activism back to 1966, when he was a 16-year-old student at John Adams High School in Queens. Both his brothers were in Vietnam. So, he says, he posted flyers throughout the school's halls vowing his then-support for U.S. involvement in the conflict. He claims the flyers invoked rioting and that cars were overturned. (None of the three John Adams employees contacted by CL could recall Russo's flyers -- or the eruption that supposedly followed them. "Everything was a riot in 1966," says Mary Mallon, who works in the school's records department.)
Regardless of whether Russo's description of the riot is exact or exaggerated, he's proud of his first display of civil disobedience. His view of Vietnam as a worthy pursuit may have changed (he now says the U.S. had no business there), but his overwhelming desire to awaken the masses hasn't.
Today, Russo is peeved about the public's apparent indifference toward the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. "We're wrapped up in our own war right now," he says. "We don't realize how serious what's going on over there is, how it's going to affect us and those people."
What he sees coming -- and he's far from alone -- is escalated tension between India and Pakistan that spells nuclear war. Despite being a staunch Dubya fan, Russo says the country's not doing enough to prevent nuclear attacks here or elsewhere -- take it from someone who claims to have seen Sept. 11 coming years ago.
Our allegiance with Pakistan, tenuously built on the thin promise that it has turned against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and its own homegrown terrorists, troubles Russo. He says it could put us and India in grave jeopardy should Pakistan and India, both of whom have nuclear weapons, go to war.
Luckily for Russo, the Associated Press reported June 7 that tensions between the two countries loosened some during U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's visit to India. "But not enough to eliminate the threat of war," according to the AP.
Russo, who predicts that the countries will go to war in three weeks if they can't reach an agreement in that time, says Atlantans "really don't seem to be concerned about it." That is their problem. And now his.
"In another few days, I'll probably have to be hospitalized," he says. "I'm getting pretty weak already."
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