VICTOR ARMANDO BERNACE –- Highlights of Work History and Achievements
Horatio Alger American Success Story: I grew up poor in foster care, worked hard in our public schools [PS 98, JHS 52, Kennedy H.S.] and went on to graduate from NYU and Harvard Law School in 1991 alongside successful alumnus, President Barack Obama.
Professional Experience: I taught over 3,000 local students, prosecuted felony cases in the DA’s office, worked on civil and international human rights issues, served as a union delegate, and currently work in private practice.
Rotary Leadership/Environmentalism: As President of my local Rotary Club, I’ve worked to improve our community parks, reduce AIDS transmission from mothers to children, help our Veterans, and to increase Green environmental awareness.
Esquire Magazine article excerpts
“Who’s Killing the Great Lawyers of Harvard?”
by Robert Kurson, from August 2000
[Parental advisory: Some passages may contain adult language not suitable for children.]
SOMEWHERE NEAR THE BOTTOM of his sock drawer, Victor Bernace keeps one of his few happy childhood memories. It’s a photograph, and the star of the picture is none other than Victor, all of eight years old, grinning and clutching a wad of money—must be a million dollars there—and hoisting that dough into the air as if he’s conquered the world, which is exactly what his father told him to do with his life just seconds before he said, Smile, and pressed the shutter. And even though the kid in the picture is clutching just a pile of typing paper cut into money shapes, his father said, Keep that picture and look at it, Victor; make a million dollars, get the American dream. And Victor kept the picture and he still looks at it, even though he can’t remember how old he was when his father died from alcoholism and his mother started trying to murder him.
No one spoke English at Victor’s house in Chicago, only Spanish, but the family had a TV, so he studied cartoons, learning grammar from Bugs Bunny and vocabulary from Scooby-Doo. His dad made ends meet as a waiter, not at a joint, but at one of Chicago’s grand hotels, the kind, he’d tell Victor, where guests don’t hear plates clinking and they get three forks. Victor figures he might have been nine when his family moved to Inwood, the hardscrabble section on the northernmost tip of Manhattan, and his father died of cirrhosis. By then, he knew his mother was nuts. While Victor was figuring how to become the man of the house, his mother kept telling him he was going to die tomorrow, that she was the chosen woman dressed in white in the Bible who gives birth to the man-child, and it was all tinged with sexual themes, like Victor would be a virgin forever and die a virgin. She tried to poison Victor twice. The people at Bellevue Hospital, where Mrs. Bernace resided after trying to kill Victor, called it paranoid schizophrenia, and Victor was sent to a foster home. Victor didn’t mind so much that schoolteachers believed he was retarded and needed special ed. All Victor knew was that he was always hungry and that childhood—except for Charlie’s Angels and science-fiction library books—didn’t feel so good.
VICTOR’S MOTHER BELIEVED that only religion could save the world. Or if not the world, at least Victor. With her son in tow, she joined the Mormon Church, the Catholic Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. During sermons she’d stand and shout, “I’m the woman! My son is the chosen child! He must die!” And it embarrassed Victor, not because of what she said, but because the church elders always asked them to leave, and each time it felt more like Victor would never find a family. Maybe it was during church one day that Victor found that he stuttered, a stutter he worked hard to cure, a stutter about which he asks friends even today, “I’ve gotten rid of it, right?”
The teachers bright enough not to equate Victor’s stutter with mental retardation realized that the withdrawn, always-hungry-for-lunch sixth grader was reading at college level. They saw to it that he skipped eighth grade. They enrolled him in Kennedy High School’s law program, an eighth-floor safe haven for bright kids with leadership ability. To Victor, these teachers seemed clairvoyant. He knew from reading books that leaders were often lawyers, and he wanted nothing more than to be a leader.
Challenged academically and now in possession of a dream, Victor began pulling straight A’s in high school, doing better than kids with supportive parents and plenty of food. He became his own father and mother during high school, finished second in the law program, and applied only to NYU, City College, and Manhattan College, three schools to which he could afford to commute. When the girl who finished third decided to attend Princeton, Victor wondered how she could afford bus fare to New Jersey. He chose NYU, which offered him full tuition.
At NYU, Victor majored in history, his first love, but he changed to philosophy because history textbooks were too expensive and in philosophy they’d debate a paragraph for a week, which was cheaper. When it came time to apply to law school, Victor had a 3.7 GPA and a lofty admissions-test score.
Harvard waived the application fee, then admitted Victor nearly as soon as they read his essay. In it, Victor said that he’d struggled in life but still wanted to be a leader. Congratulations, Harvard wrote Victor, we’d love to have you.
Victor decided to turn down Harvard Law School. Didn’t see how he could afford bus fare all the way to Boston. His childhood friend Ben pleaded. Are you nuts, Victor? I’ll drive you. For free, goddammit. Please, Victor, trust me. Victor still has the picture in his album. ”Me and my friend,” as Victor remembers it, “in August on the way to Cambridge.”
SATAN SENT VICTOR to law school, so his mother took what little money they had saved and flushed it down the toilet. Victor ate just cornflakes and water—then just water—for two weeks and lost twenty pounds. His first day at Harvard Law School, he asked the school for an emergency loan. When they asked why, he said he needed to eat. They thought he was joking.
By the end of the first day of classes, Victor stood in awe of his classmates. Never did he imagine that so many brilliant people could exist in one place. At NYU—a good school, to be sure—maybe half the people did the assigned reading. Here at HLS, everyone did the reading, and then everyone did the optional reading. Not ninety-nine out of one hundred, everyone. Though he was shy and didn’t dare announce this aloud, he thought of ancient Greece when he thought about Harvard Law School, how the Greeks would assemble in central places to debate great ideas, and how every Greek was equal. And that’s what Harvard Law School was to Victor—a magnificent idea center where all the students were equal, where Victor and the rich kids all had the same professors and the same health plans. When he was elected class representative during his first semester, Victor called it the happiest day of his life and dreamed of how wonderful it must feel to be a politician.
His first summer, Victor took a job with the New York City corporation counsel. The position sounded perfect—he’d deal with clients and gain real battlefield experience, benefits that reportedly didn’t accrue to summer associates at big law firms. That position turned into a twelve-week library-research project didn’t sour Victor much; he’d simply find more meaningful work next summer.
Victor began to groove academically during his second year. Local Government Law class resonated with him because it required a consideration of real people, not just dry facts. His second summer, he accepted a six-week public-interest gig with a Puerto Rican legal-defense fund, then flew to Ecuador to wage a six-week defense of abused kids. Latin American countries, he learned, didn’t provide safety nets for hurting children the way the United States had provided welfare and food stamps and foster homes for Victor.
Third year is for chilling at Harvard Law School. Students load up on electives, join clubs, hang out. Mostly, they select careers. Standing in line during fall registration, Victor decided that it was time to lock in a job offer and to give the big Manhattan law firms a try. He made his way to Career Services, asked to see the list of New York firms conducting on-campus interviews, and signed his name to the best of them.
At first, Victor says, the big-firm interviewers loved him, laughed at his jokes, nodded when he compared Harvard Law School to ancient Greece. Many had attended NYU as undergrads and were happy to be with one of their kind. But during each interview, they would ask him, Don’t you love this trendy cafe in the Village, or that chic French restaurant in SoHo? This, Victor thought, was the critical “one of us” question, the only thing a firm really wonders about a Harvard grad: Can we hang with this guy?
Every HLS class, it seems, has the few oddballs who do the impossible and convince interviewers to run like hell. In the class of 1990, it was the Orthodox Jewish woman who, as per her religion, wore wigs and wouldn’t shake a man’s hand, the hippie with the butt-length ponytail, and Victor; the big firms judged them to be social retards. These firms look past many flaws, but they don’t abide retards.
And it’s impossible to say exactly what does it. Maybe Victor should have pretended he’d been to those fancy restaurants. Instead, he told his interviewers that he’d grown up on welfare and had never had the money to go anywhere nice. Hmmm. Partners don’t want associates talking like that around clients. Then the interviewers would review Victor’s summer law experience—all random, quixotic even—and see that it didn’t really indicate a man on the move, no rainmaker here. And the interviewer’s face would change. Soon, he would ask to see Victor’s Law School Admissions Test score, big-firm code for “No, thanks.”
Victor turned numb after interviews. Law spoke to him, even if its fanciest representatives had abandoned him. After graduation, he straightened his tie, neatened his resume, then set out to apply for paralegal jobs, legal-secretary jobs, any job that would place him near the law. Prospective employers delighted in Victor’s comportment; the job was his until their fingers traced down to the part of his resume that said Harvard Law School, 1990. Then they asked Victor, Are you kidding? Is this a joke? And Victor couldn’t get into law.
Riding the subway in Harlem, Victor spotted a poster—BECOME A TEACHER. He tore off a slip and followed the map to the Board of Education, where he stood in line with thousands of hopefuls, because he was $70,000 in debt and needed a job. When he learned that the line was four days long, he jumped back on the subway to Kennedy High, his alma mater, where he tracked down a teacher who had put an arm around him once. I wanted to be a teacher, Victor told him. When the man asked why a Harvard Law School graduate wanted to teach high school, Victor said it was because he’d been rejected. The school hired Victor on the spot.
Kennedy students could be rough and occasionally threw a punch at Victor, but he never backed down, because if you back down, they’ll own you. He earned $25,000, plus a small bonus for his advanced degree. When smart kids asked what a Harvard Law School graduate was doing teaching inner-city high school, Victor just told him them that he’d had problems. He stayed on at Kennedy for a second semester, then a second year, then four more years. All the while, he told himself, Wait for your spot, Victor, wait for your spot. Law can still work for you. The Harvard Law degree can still work for you. Wait for your spot.
One day, Victor ran a red light in front of a cop who wasn’t interested in explanations. That disturbed Victor’s sense of justice, and he circled the calendar day when he’d have the chance to defend himself. In traffic court, Victor noticed that only one or two attorneys defended the dozens of foreign cabdrivers waiting to see the judge, and he could hear the fees these guys were charging—outrageous, because Victor lived among these cabbies and knew that they couldn’t afford to pay $150 for such trivial representation. This was Victor’s spot.
He took a leave of absence from teaching, then found every taxi base in his community and hung signs promising to represent cabbies for a fair price. Traffic tickets, he knew, was the lowest rung of the legal ladder—gutter law, he called it—but he was coming alive; he sensed that he might start loving being a lawyer the way he imagined he would during that first day in Contracts class ten years before.
Fifty bucks a case, and Victor never rushed a client. Chopped the legs out from under the shysters and made enemies at traffic court. ”What the fuck is Harvard Law doing here?” his competition mumbled loudly. ”If I had a Harvard law degree, this shithole is the last place you’d find me.” Here’s the part you don’t understand, Victor would think to himself. I grew up alone. I didn’t have a family. Do you see how these drivers look at me? The way they listen to me? The way they thank me? I’m their family. They have no one, and I know that feeling. Next year, Victor will run for City Council, where he can do real good for his family. He’ll be the underdog. He’s preparing his campaign today, on the subways between traffic tickets, on subways where he still thinks about his classmates, the ones at the big law firms making all that money, wondering if their successes are so immediate, their satisfactions so tangible, whether their clients cry when they win a case.
To Read More about Victor & his work with taxi drivers, visit DaBronxTrafficLawyer.com and read his Traffic Tweets and Crazy Bronx DMV Stories Blog