Whatever happened to Bernardo Ruiz? It’s not a question I often dwell on, but one that occasionally emerges like a spectre from the past. With the help of some Facebook sleuthing, I could probably track him down. But that’s been true for almost twenty years now and I’ve yet to do it. This ability to reconnect with people from our past, however tenuous the connection then or now, is a mixed blessing. It can facilitate surprising reunions, even rekindle friendships, but often the renewed connection is just a reminder of why you fell out of touch in the first place.
Bernardo Ruiz entered my life as quickly as he exited. But during the one school year that I knew him, he left a deep and lasting impression. We met during my first week at LaGuardia High School of the Arts – the ‘Fame’ school – where my sister was then a senior. I cannot remember precisely how we met, but I vaguely recall it was in the fifth-floor cafeteria, the one designated for lowly Freshman and Sophomores. The crew I ended up spending lunchtime with that fall was mostly tenth graders, which might have been a social coup for a ninth grader, if they weren’t such an odd assortment of misfits.
Bernardo was the intellectual leader of the group, what one might call a real character. Even now, fully three decades later, I can still hear him saying his name in an exaggerated working class New York City accent – “Bernardo Ruiz!” – which we all learned to imitate to perfection. He had a style all his own: an iconic Fedora hat and dark wool overcoat purchased from one of the countless second-hand clothing shops scattered around Manhattan in those days.
My sister Jane spent one sweaty summer ironing clothes at Alice Underground, the second hand shop on Columbus Avenue and 78th Street, around the corner from our rent controlled apartment. She and her arty girlfriends were thrift shop denizens, but until then I had never met a guy who fit that description. I soon bought myself a similar hat for the going price of $12 and started wearing my Grandpa Irving’s black overcoat with dark crimson, felt collar. I also added my own flourish: antique vests. My favorite one was a mustard yellow with a subtle, brown cross hatch pattern.
Outside of LaGuardia, this sartorial expression did not come without a cost. Bernardo used to regale us with stories of near escapes from roving bands of hoodlums he often encountered on his way home. He lived in Brooklyn, but this was the late 1980’s, long before the borough was overrun by hipsters. Back then, you had to watch your back constantly, especially if you were dressed like a bohemian on the F train.
Though just a freshman, Bernardo took me under his wing. He was always up to something or going somewhere interesting after school. On several memorable occasions, I tagged along on his adventures. It was a time when I was beginning to explore the city on my own, when the hours between school getting out and dinner time felt like my own, at least when I was not making deliveries for the video rental/comic book store on Columbus Avenue.
Bernardo was hardly idle. He was a self-proclaimed writer and, with friends from several other high schools, published a quirky zine called The Word of Lard. He gave me several back issues and they were among my most prized possessions. I poured over them for hours, trying to crack the code of their humor as linguists once studied the Rosetta Stone.
The look of the zine was wonderfully sloppy and low budget, almost anarchic. It consisted of images copied from magazines accompanied by crude drawings and hand written commentary. There was a doctored photo of John Denver shooting up and the words, “Rocky Mountain High.” I didn’t know that was the title of his most famous song, so I didn’t really get the joke, but this only made it more alluring. There were some short articles, including one identifying all the ways you could tell “DeGrassi Junior High” was a Canadian TV show like the way they said “Grade 8” instead of “8th grade.”
Lard had no discernable political viewpoint, but its entire look and mere existence felt defiant, a statement akin to, “We exist and have creative minds of our own.” It opened up a world of possibilities, the ability to create something all on your own without any help or guidance from grown-ups. This felt liberating to me. Two years later, I started my own student-run newspaper called The Free Spirit. It was more political, with articles critical of the War on Drugs and press censorship during the Persian Gulf War, and its aesthetics were tidier, more classical. Yet the very idea that I could produce my own journal was largely inspired by Lard.
During the final week of ninth grade, Bernardo told us he was moving to Snohomish, Washington. It sounded absurd, as if Mike Tyson had announced he was giving up boxing to become a dental hygienist. Bernardo was a New Yorker, an anarchist poet with an invented persona equal parts Kurt Vonnegut and Groucho Marx. He wore a Fedora! How could he move to Snohomish? How would he get around without the subway?
There were other quirky members of our cafeteria crew, but we were all so dissimilar that the center could not hold. Bernardo was the glue that kept us all together, who drew out those unique qualities we might otherwise have kept to ourselves. But that was it. I never saw him again. This was 1989, so no email or cell phones, no Internet or social media. When a friend moved to the other side of the country, there was a finality to it that those born just a decade later cannot fathom.
I could always search for Bernardo. With minimal effort I could probably find him, but there is a part of me that doesn’t want to. I prefer him frozen in time just as I remember him: full of energy and ideas, witty and irreverent, but also generous and kind. Bernardo will always be ‘the World of Lard.’ It’s a world that is gone forever.