Ruiz, Photographer of Vignettes By Nelle Thceh
© 2011, All Rights Reserved
Quite a few people in the small community of intellectual Cuban immigrants of the late 1930’s knew Desimondo Ruiz-Ruiz. They knew him as a brilliant avant-garde photographer, an innovative thinker and a keen observer of human nature. What very few of them knew, was that he was also a taker of risks and a prankster.
After having made a name for himself in Miami as a creative photographer, he was soon discovered by patrons of the arts and whisked away to Manhattan, becoming the toast of the heirs of wealthy tycoons.
Easily ingratiating himself, Desimondo was invited to the best parties, joining them in the squandering of their bottomless inheritances, participating in the various amusements of the privileged. His American friends called him, “Ruiz.” Only his closest friends called him “Desi.”
Ruiz had become known for staging, posing and photographing human vignettes. They sold as art posters at galleries and made their way to grace the walls in all sorts of campy, smoke-filled clubs and drawing rooms, the hangouts of the intellectuals and artists – the bohemians, predecessors of the beatniks.
Over time, Ruiz grew bored with his success. It had all come effortlessly, just as one would expect that talent, which comes too easily, rather than effort, would lead to apathy. He needed stimulation. The drugs he and his friends took no longer gave him what he craved.
On one particular day at his private photographic studio, Ruiz was photographing a slim-hipped, teenaged girl, a model. The scene was set to look like the corner of a city street. He had his stylist dress her as a young man. The model was instructed to lean against a light pole in a masculine manner and pretend to be reading a newspaper. She was told to tilt her head down, but look up over the top of the newspaper as she observed another model – a male model – who was dressed as a female. The young man had been asked to pose with one high-heeled foot on a bus stop bench, his skirt pulled up, while adjusting a garter. This type of scene was Ruiz’s signature device. Not only did Ruiz swing both ways, he enjoyed illustrating the blurry line between the sexes in his work.
As he was working on this project, Ruiz had an epiphany. What if he were to manipulate reality as easily as he manipulated the models who performed his photographic fantasies? How humorous, how outrageous, how titillating to devise a scenario with “real” people, unaware of having been placed in staged vignettes of his own imagination; how much more delicious; how dangerous! He mused about concocting some sort of plan, using a few average people and placing them in his imaginary situations. His mind seemed to go into a creative high-gear contemplating the devising of such a situation purely to entertain himself. What a sensation, he thought, to be tiptoeing to the very edge – the border that divides normal and abnormal psychological boundaries. He was both brilliant and bored, which for some, is a dangerous combination.
After snapping the last shot of the two models, Ruiz paid them for their time and dismissed them. The stylist had another appointment and departed quickly as well. All for the good. He lit a cigarette, threw himself on the fainting couch in the dressing room and began to ruminate on the prospects of this new project. How would it take form? What would be the elements he would need to accomplish such a project? No, not “project.” That sounded too boring. This feat! This entertainment; this play. Yes, a play. Because in real life, he would have to use the stage play as a format. He would write a play, a play in which the stage would be set by him, but the performers would unknowingly be making up their own lines. And when he completed writing his play, he would cast the performers. Ah, performers! Who would he use? Not models. That would ruin the whole point. He must use real people for the characters in this “play.”
Would he choose from among his own circle of friends? He weighed the pros and cons. How very devious it would be to draw into his web members of his own inner circle of trusted (and trusting) acquaintances. Afterwards he would be the talk of the town or vilified in the press and shunned by artistic society. But there was that other option; the equally tantalizing possibility of selecting unsuspecting individuals from the mundane and the day-to-day, from the masses of the average, the unknown, random victims of this new art form, this new sport. The prank was beginning to take shape in Ruiz’s mind. This would be an entirely new genre of creative entertainment; it would be art as sport. And that is how it all began.
Continuing his normal artistic routine, Ruiz planned photographic shoots, hired models, shot photos at the sessions, developed his film and met with the printer and agent. Evenings he spent in the salons and clubs, as usual, but with one exception. He was now on a quest, keeping an eye out for potential unwitting individuals to exploit in his developing scheme.More and more the plan became clarified. As was his propensity, his plan would involve a man and a woman. And it wasn’t long before he found the first.
At a dinner theatre he had frequented not that long ago, but had avoided since then, was an all-woman band. Ruiz knew several of its members. They were Cuban and socialized in some of the same circles as he did. He had even briefly had a dalliance with the band leader, Rita. It had been comfortable. They spoke Spanish with each other and talked about the Havana of the old days, using the Cuban dialect.
During intermission, while ordering a drink, he slipped a note to the waiter which was then delivered as instructed by Ruiz. Rita came immediately to Ruiz’s table, greeting him by his more intimate name, Desi. She sat down, and reaching for his hand, looked at him quizzically. She had been in love with him while it lasted. For his part, Ruiz was incapable of any feelings approaching that depth. Instead, he tended to use people up and becoming bored, toss them aside. Her first words to him were reproachful. Why hadn’t he rung her up? What had she done wrong? Was there the slightest chance . . .?
Reaching over and giving her a cool kiss on the cheek, Ruiz then flashed Rita a brilliant smile. He was, after all, not without his charms. Would she do him a favor? Of course, for Desi, anything. Would she have dinner with a friend of his? There would be money in it for her. Rita was affronted. How could he? Had Desi stooped to become some sort of pimp? She wouldn’t make a scene there, but there was fire in her Latin eyes. Her hand itched to slap his face. Ruiz protested. Certainly she had misunderstood. She would be having dinner with someone he had recently met who was new to the city and lonely, a woman; just dinner, nothing more.
After some cajoling, Rita reluctantly agreed. Was she working all week? No, the theatre was dark Thursdays. Ruiz asked her to come to his studio the following Thursday night. Again, a cool peck on the cheek, a squeeze of her hand and the charming smile. Ruiz then left the club. Rita returned to the little orchestra pit, picked up the microphone and resumed her duty as band leader.
Strolling up the street and turning into an alley, Ruiz made his way to the backstage entrance of another club, known for its drag review. He preferred entering that way – the bouncer winked and ushered him right in.
Ruiz took a seat at a table at the edge of the stage footlights.
A new act was performing, a comedian with a flare for visual stunts and an incredibly expressive face. He was on during the interlude between musical acts and, appropriately enough, he was dressed as a woman. His double talent of comedy and convincing cross-dressing was of the highest caliber. And from the beginning, the audience, including Ruiz, was amused and intrigued. When his act concluded, the performer left the stage to wild applause.
Ruiz jotted a note on the back of his business card and gave it to the waiter with instructions to deliver it backstage into the hands of the young comedian. He had written, “Please ring me up immediately.”
After returning home, Ruiz took a shot of whisky and prepared himself for bed. The telephone in the hall rang. It was Lewis, the comic, who asked the nature of Ruiz’s inquiry. Ruiz introduced himself. He expanded on what his business card advertised explaining that he was intrigued with Lewis’ act. Would he like to pose for some photographs which Lewis could then use for promotional posters? There would be no charge. And in exchange? A private performance. An unusual arrangement, but Lewis accepted the terms and they concluded the call. Ruiz hung up and went to bed. The plan was in the works.
The following Thursday, Lewis arrived at Ruiz’ studio. He had brought his costume and Ruiz showed him to the dressing room. When Lewis emerged, Ruiz was ready, having adjusted his lighting and set, his camera in place.
Lewis posed, his red-haired wig shining in the overhead spotlight. The photographer explained enthusiastically that recent technology allowed him to take photographs in color. Lewis’ bright red lips and flaming red wig would be represented in all their glory, just as he looked in person. Ruiz captured Lewis’ drag character on film complete with the flaming hair, an arched eyebrow, the red lips and the broad, slightly toothy smile.
After a few headshots and a full-length shot of Lewis grasping a microphone, the photo shoot was completed. Ruiz reiterated what he and Lewis had agreed upon as Lewis’ part of the exchange. For the photographs, he would go to Restaurante Cubano in mid-town Manhattan in one hour. A man would be joining him. He would wait in the first booth by the window. Lewis’ part was to stay in character for the evening, during which he would enjoy an excellent dinner; only dinner, he assured him, nothing more. Ruiz had arranged and paid for their meals in advance. The timing was impeccable. Rita arrived at Ruiz’s studio within minutes of Lewis’ departure.
Ruiz was well-aware that Rita was still enamored of him. He would need to be highly skilled to pull off his scheme. However, he also knew that no man was more capable of getting his way than he. He played on Rita’s emotions, intimating that doing him this small favor would obligate him somehow for future intimacies between them. But there was a catch. She would have to let him dress her from his costume closet. He told her he knew it was an odd request, but she would have to be dressed for dinner. . . as a man. Yes, as a man and pretend to be one during the dinner, and not ask him why.
A cloud drew over Rita’s face. She balked. He hastened to reassure her. He knew she could do it, he told her. After all, the band members dressed in men’s white dress shirts and black slacks while performing at the dinner theatre. She was tall. She would only have to slick back her short dark hair with pompadour grease and daub on a bit of smoke-colored makeup to simulate the shadow of a beard not yet grown out; perhaps a little thickening of the eyebrows, a lowering of the voice. After all, she was a musician, a singer! She could do it! He encouraged her. He charmed her. He reminded her there would be a free meal, and at her favorite restaurant. He held both her hands in his and called the singer his pet name for her in Spanish, “Pajarita,” which means “Little Bird” in English.
In the end she agreed. She would meet Desi’s female friend at Restaurante Cubano and go dressed as a man. He had just enough time to complete her transformation. They left the studio and he flagged down a cab for her. Before the taxi door closed behind her, Ruiz overheard the driver ask Rita, “Where to, Mister?” Ruiz’s plan had advanced. He was enjoying the process immensely.
Feeling almost gleeful as he went back to the studio, Ruiz took his camera and returned to the street to hail himself a cab. Once seated in the taxi, he was amused to realize he felt sexually stimulated. Yes, he was excited. But he would have to ignore it as there was little traffic and the cab made good time, drawing up to the Restaurante Cubano within minutes. He was in luck. Rita had gotten a case of nerves and had walked up and down in front of the restaurant to calm herself. For that reason when Ruiz arrived, Rita was only just approaching the booth where Lewis was waiting. There was enough time for him to slip the maître’d a tip and quickly sequester himself behind a potted palm, his camera at the ready. They were in a public place and the curtain was about to go up.
As Rita approached, Lewis made a movement as though to stand up but stopped himself. Well done, Ruiz thought. A woman would not rise for a man. Rita, he thought proudly, looked the part too. The padding made her shoulders appear broader, the bandages compressed her breasts flat. She made a slight bow (a little stiff, Ruiz thought) and sat down across from Lewis as they exchanged their own introduction. Lewis introduced himself as “Lucy,” his stage name. Rita reached for the hand that Lewis offered. Ruiz held his breath as Rita almost used her real name, but caught herself. Unprepared, she’d drawn a blank. Then she introduced herself using the first male name that popped into her head. She told him that her friends call her “Desi.” Lewis didn’t seem to notice the hesitation and appeared charmed by the Cuban-accented English.
The waiter came to take their order. Ruiz overhear him address Lewis as Maam, and was pleased when, turning to Rita, he asked, “And what will the gentleman be having this evening?” They settled in over drinks and small talk, politely avoiding prying into each other’s private lives. As dinner progressed they appeared to be enjoying each other’s company. Ruiz stayed crouched behind the potted plant, clicking away at the shutter button and enjoying a high he had only achieved in the past with cocaine.
Inexplicably, not only did the couple appear to be getting along, they began to flirt openly with each other. Ruiz, from where he was hidden behind the small potted palm, was elated. At various points during his observation of their dinner date, he almost had to remind himself to capture the moments on film as this new game of his was that engrossing.
Through the lens of his camera, after their dessert, Ruiz observed Rita lean towards Lewis and give him a long kiss on the lips. And then the two left . . . together . . . in the same cab.
Ruiz emerged from behind the plant. He strode out of the restaurant, stood at the curb and watched their cab disappear up the street. He had put Lucy, the comedian and Desi, the Cuban band leader together.
What would happen now . . . ?
Easily ingratiating himself, Ruiz was invited to the best parties, with the heirs of wealthy tycoons, joining them in squandering their bottomless inheritances, participating in various amusements of the privileged . . .