It is windy, forty-two degrees, and raining. Still, Victor Ruiz is at the southeast corner of East 183rd Street and Adams Avenue in the Bronx, playing his cornet. He sits on a plastic crate between a bodega and drug store.
Like many people in the neighborhood, Victor comes from the Dominican Republic. Also like many people, he claims he doesn’t speak English, although he has been in the United States for twenty-six years, which makes him as much a New Yorker as Donald Trump.
Victor has been playing in this Arthur Avenue neighborhood for years. His repertoire includes scales, nursery rhymes, John Philip Sousa music, the race track bugle call, “Shave and a Haircut,” “God Bless America,” Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” and “Silent Night,” which he has no problem playing in July. Actually, that last one is most welcome, since it drowns out the Mister Softee ice cream truck jingle, which might send me over the edge one fine evening (Killing Me Softly, Mister Softee).
Victor’s love, naturally enough, is merengue. He and his six brothers and sisters had a merengue band once, El Grupo Los Ruiz, and appeared on television in the Dominican Republic. That was years ago and the family no longer performs together, although they have all relocated to the United States. What I admire about Victor is his dedication to technique and his love of the cornet. He continues to practice and perform despite the lack of financial success. For him, music is not about money or rewards. It’s not even about how good he is. What is it about, then?
“Corazon,” he says, tapping his chest and smiling.
It is said that C.S. Lewis received eight hundred rejections before getting published. Obviously, that, too, is dedication. It means that an artist must be incredibly focused and impervious to defeat and distraction. I have often wondered how Victor can concentrate in an environment with a 24-hour drug store, two bodegas, a nightclub, and a hospital emergency room. The man keeps playing. Nothing stops him.
Beyond dedication, there’s something else to this story that I don’t think even Victor appreciates. It is this: Victor is a fixture in the neighborhood. He’s part of what makes Arthur Avenue so unique. From the 1950s, when fifty thousand Italians lived here, to today’s mix of Italians, Albanians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Macedonians, Nigerians, and African Americans, this part of the Bronx has a distinct flavor.
In three square blocks you can find bakeries, cafes, delis, cheese shops, butchers, fish markets, importers, restaurants, hair salons, a park with a bocce ball court, one funeral parlor, a mosque, and a church. Victor’s cornet is part of all that. Life here wouldn’t be the same without him, although every time he starts playing I put on my headphones. What can I say? I relish silence. I should be a monk.
I think if more people appreciated what they already contribute to their neighborhoods and the social groups they live and work in, we might have more respect all around. And possibly more civility. You can’t be filled with hate when there’s a guy on the corner playing “Cielito Lindo.” I just wish Victor had been there earlier this week when I called 911 on a guy beating up his girlfriend. Of course, she yelled at the cops when they arrived.
When we finished the interview, Victor asked if I had a request. All I could come up with was, “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy From Company B.” He looked at me.
We’ll see what happens.