(Aug. 8, 1941 - March 16, 2009)
The first time I met Russ
One particularly hot August day in 1986, my father handed me six dollars and made me walk to the Village Square Barber Shop in Margate, Florida. He said I had to ask the old barber for a “regular haircut.” It would cost five dollars, and I was to give that extra dollar to the gentleman as a tip. Like any seventeen-year-old, the thought of keeping that extra dollar for myself crossed my mind a few times, during that one-mile walk in the hot Florida sun. That was before I knew Russell J. Bubello.
The bell over the barbershop door loudly announced my arrival and I quickly noticed a man who stood a little crooked. He walked with a cane and some difficulty. He shot me a stern look upon my arrival and that gaze erased any temptation of keeping that dollar - trust me.
Russ didn’t say much. When he spoke to me, it was a sort of growl. I did not ask about the tattoos on his arms. I counted at least six of them as he cut my hair. When he was through, I gave him the extra dollar. He looked mildly surprised and thanked me with a different growl, a softer tone.
Finding common ground
The next time Russ cut my hair was September of 1987. I had recently graduated from military Basic Training. During this visit we had plenty to talk about.
He described underwater demolition duty in Vietnam during his service in the United States Navy. When I told him that I also wanted to be a police officer, he showed me his gold New York Police Detective shield. He explained how, while making an arrest in the late 70s, he was thrown against a car by a violent suspect. The handcuffs he wore at the small of his back were violently pressed against his spine. His partners completed the arrest, but the injury nearly crippled him.
Russ medically retired from the NYPD on Jan. 16, 1980 - my eleventh birthday. When I told him that my dad served in the NYPD Auxiliary, Russ replied, “Yeah. I know who your father is.” That was kind of funny because, aside from my father, Russ was the first cop I admired. After the next haircut, a month later, he let me inspect his Kimber 1911 and his S&W Chief’s Special. We talked guns over a cup of coffee.
My regular haircut with a side of gunsmithing
Over the twenty-three years that followed, if I was not deployed, I came to Russ for a “regular haircut” and listened to his stories about the NYPD in the 70s. If my schedule prevented it or if I had to get a haircut elsewhere, he understood. He’d say, “It’s alright. I’m not mad. Have a seat.” In time, thanks to a couple medical procedures, his spine and his walk grew straighter- so did the haircuts! And after every haircut, I tipped him an extra dollar.
I met a lot of cops at Russ’s Barber Shop over the years. As it happened, Russ held a Federal Firearms License (FFL) and did a little gunsmithing in the back of the shop. Cops came in for gun repairs, shooting supplies, ammo, or advice.
I looked forward to seeing new and familiar faces. My Dad went there for years. So did my friend and fellow-warrior David Agata, his partner George Soberon, and many other cops. We either talked and laughed or just listened to the Motown oldies station waiting for our turn in the barber’s chair.
More than just a haircut
Despite the medical issues Russ was always such a big, tough guy to us. He could be intimidating, even at his age. But if he liked you, he allowed you to see that smile. And if you could “get” him with a joke, that smile was so wide, his cheeks would shut both of his eyes, and he’d say, “Very good.” If he let you into his circle, you could stick around after the haircut.
You could talk to Russ about anything: more than handguns, rifles, or tactics. We debated life, relationships, cooking, cars, sports, religion, politics– you could talk about any problem in the world with Russ in the barber shop. If he thought you were wrong, he would tell you: sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently. His opinions were as strong as that first look he gave me so many years ago.
Over the years, and after many haircuts, I bought my first four handguns from Russ - two revolvers and two semi-automatic pistols.
Pinning my shield
Law enforcement in this country is a “family business.” Whenever possible, a veteran officer from a cadet’s own family pinned the shield onto the graduating cadet’s uniform shirt for the first time. Historically, a police officer in the old days might also wear a pistol, a shield or some other equipment that was a hand-me-down from his father.
In 2001, a local police department hired me and sent me to the Broward Police Academy. I secretly told the dean that Russ was like my uncle. We told Russ to wear his shield on his suit and during my part of the ceremony, Russ was called up out of the audience by the dean to pin my shield. Russ sure was surprised. And he was every bit as proud as my parents were.
We had a little dinner party after. As we all said our goodbyes, he reminded me NOT to wear the cuffs over my spine: his first “tip” to me back in 1986. He stopped taking the extra dollar for the haircuts from me after I became a police officer. If I insisted, he reminded me that he was a better shot so I should not argue.
Lessons and stories from Russ’ police officer days
Russ shared a lot of wisdom from the Old Country: Brooklyn. When he started on the job, patrolmen walked a beat and checked in on a call box. This was before patrol cars were common and there were not enough radios to go around.
Looking back, I can say that anything he told me about shooting, shooting accessories, about the military or about police work was spot on. Things were different in his day. But there were ups and downs and bosses were a lot like they are on the job today. We talked about “good guys” and “wise guys.”
Russ passed on some of the lessons that he learned the hard way. We always traded stories and corny jokes - many of which I could not share at his Catholic church funeral in 2009, when health issues caught up with him.
A classic man in every way
If I had to choose one word to describe Russ, it would be “Classic”- in every way. He was a grouchy tattooed sailor, a streetwise veteran cop, an old-fashioned barber, and a mustached American Shooter of Irish and Italian descent.
He always asked about our families. He kept up on all our troubles. He knew all our birthdays and our anniversaries. He had an ear for good music and a taste for good food (this frustrated his doctors to no end). He was our wise old “retired cop” friend. He was classic, and we all loved him for it.
Russ passed away five years before my first retirement (from the military). I reminisce about that old warrior around this time each year. It’s 2021 and my own police retirement approaches now.
Passing along Russ’ wisdom
I will always remember the sights, sounds and the smells of that old barber shop in South Florida with the gunsmithing bench in the backroom. For nearly a quarter century Russell J. Bubello quietly shared his wisdom with me. I cherish the lessons handed down about the job and about life from an old shooter over a cup of coffee.
Here are five lessons I think are still important in our time:
- There is a right way and a wrong way to get things done.
- When you see something done wrong, you do not stand for it. You say, “That’s wrong.” You say it out loud and you make it right.
- Family is important - and not just blood. Family can make you CRAZY but, it is important.
- Nobody’s perfect. But if you can laugh at yourself, it proves you have a sense of humor and THAT keeps us going. It keeps us young.
- A few friends listening to oldies in an old-fashioned Barber Shop, could solve all the world’s problems.
Rest in peace, Uncle Russ…