Today, as I sat waiting for a haircut at Ricco's Swingin' Door Barbershop, 229 E. Michigan St., listening to – and taking part in – the banter between proprietor Johnny Ricco, his fellow barber Ignacio and some other customers, I realized what I've been missing lately.
Growing up in Brooklyn, I pretty much went to the same barber from my first haircut until I graduated high school. He had a place on Coney Island Avenue, just off Avenue N, and the smell of Barbacide and the feel of warm shaving cream on the back of my neck instantly takes me back there.
You didn't make an appointment. You showed up and waited your turn, watching the show. If the wait was a long one, well, then the show was even better as barbers and customers told jokes, recounted unlikely stories, argued about baseball, discussed the racing form.
When I moved to Milwaukee, there were two guys close to home on 15th and Greenfield. Tony the Colombian Hair Stylist on 16th and Lapham had a sign that made us chuckle, but I went to the guy who was closer, just north of the Gull Pharmacy on 16th and Greenfield. I didn't speak Spanish and he didn't speak English, but it didn't matter. The haircut was great and place had the same vibe.
When I worked Downtown before, I used to go see Ricco – we had played music together on at least a couple occasions, though those moments are hazy now – for a haircut. If I was lucky, he'd be customer-free when I arrived. I say lucky not because it meant no waiting, but because it meant Johnny was likely playing his keyboard.
A few years later, I started working on the East Side and went to get my hair cut by John Kwiatkowski at Downer Avenue Barbershop. John grew up playing keyboards in the Beatles era and had played at CYO dances around town. When the Rascals and Vanilla Fudge hit, he poured his talents into a Hammond B-3. By now, though, he loved Alison Krauss and Celtic and Cajun music and if I was lucky, he'd be customer-free when I arrived, because it meant he'd likely be playing his accordion.
John gave my son his first two haircuts but then retired and left town. And so, I drifted, getting cheap haircuts here and there, never satisfied, except with the price. Rarely with the haircut.
Today, I'm back to working Downtown and I strolled over to see Johnny Ricco. Beneath images of DiMaggio, Aaron, Snider, we talked about Carlos Gomez's stellar catch and caught up on music and more. Ignacio cut my hair and told me about the time he caught a baseball in the forehead. When he came to, the other boys were standing over him but he couldn't get the image of a fireball out of his mind. He was cured of baseball early.
I got a great haircut, but that's only really a small part of what I've been missing lately.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.