Barbershop Talk, Pt. 1: Cathy Russo, East Boston

The other day, at Eddie C’s in Maverick Square, we ran into a man named Sal, who thought we should meet a friend of his, Bob, a barber around the corner since 1965.

Bob Pellegrini opened his place up at the age of 23—a temporary thing, he thought, just until he figured out what he wanted to do with his life. At 73, he’s still there, at Robert’s Barbershop, a sounding board for whoever walks through the door.

“I can stand here and say nothing, just listen, and they’ll say, “Thanks a lot. You really helped me today,’” said Bob. “I didn’t say two words, but you know, they get it out. Sometimes you just need to get it out.”

The day we visited, 60-year-old Cathy Russo was in the chair, waiting to get a buzz cut. She’s been coming to Bob since she was 13. One time, she got her hair cut down on Meridian Street. Forget about it. She went back to Bob the same day—had him redo the whole thing.

“My Bob,” she said. “I’d die without Bob.”

As story ambassador George Powell interviewed Bob about his life, and the life of the neighborhood, and his framed photo of the first Patriots team, Cathy listened. Then she realized George was from Roxbury and jumped in with a story about that time she crossed town when racial tensions were high.

Below is three minutes of audio from that conversation between George and Cathy, with Cathy leaning back in her chair a couple of times to ask Bob a question. It’s a little hard to hear over the noise of the clippers, so we’ve transcribed it below.   

Cathy: Oh, you’re in Roxbury? Let me tell you a story.

George: Let me hear a story about Roxbury.

Cathy: Okay. This is how it went. Remember Jesse Porter? (to Bob)

Bob: Yeah.

Cathy: Ma Porter.

Bob: Mmhmmm.

Cathy: All right, he (Jesse) was East Boston’s (boxing) champ when I went up to school. He passed away too. He says to me: “Cathy, you gotta do me a favor.” Because at that time, there was a lot of racial problems.

George: What year was that?

Cathy: I want to say… ‘70, ‘72, ‘73.

George: A lot of racial problems then.

Cathy: They had a lot of it. It was terrible. And you had to make your choice then—if you stayed with yours, or you went with the other kind, you know? So I decided, I said: Listen. I seen enough of my side. Let me see what the other side is like.

There wasn’t too many white people there, you know, then (in Roxbury). They hated us.

George: They was moving out.

Cathy: Yeah!  They hated us to the gill: “You come from East Boston? What are you doing here?”

So Jesse said to me: “Come. Come to Roxbury.”

“Where we going?” I said.

“Well, for where we’re going, we gotta go to our club, we gotta climb over a fence.”

“What am I gonna climb over a fence?” I said. What was I—70 pounds, 80 pounds, climbing a fence?

They picked me up, and they threw me on the other side of the fence.  (laughing in the room). So I gets on the other side of the fence, I said…Oh, there was too much. There was about eight of us. I was the only white one.

George: Yeah? What you all was doing?

Cathy: I called my mother, I said: “Ma, collect insurance for me, if I die.” (laughing in the room). “Where are you?” I said, “Mom, I’m in Roxbury.” “What are you doing there?” I said, “How did I get here, I don’t even know how I’m gonna get the hell home.”

And then, like, when I went to East Boston, like, I first started out in a Catholic school, and over there it was terrible too because when I went to school, there was no black, you know what I mean?

George: Right, right, right.

Cathy: I had this one kid, his name was Larry—remember the Carnes, Bobby? Eddie Carnes’ brother Larry?

Okay, he was up East Boston High with me. And I took him home with me, cause we wanted to study, so I studied with him, you know, and shit like that, there. Couple of people found out: “Hey, this white”—I gotta say it the way I gotta say it, now, don’t get mad—

George: Nah, say it.

Cathy: “Oh, this white bitch wants to hang around with this black boy.”

I said, “What are you talkin’ about?”

I said, “We go to school together!”

You know what I mean? That’s how bad it used to be.

Next thing I know, he’s in the hospital. They cut the ligaments in his legs so he couldn’t walk. Now hold on, now. I said, “That ain’t gonna stop him.” We all got together, we were praying, all kinds of shit.

The guy today…is a teacher in Roxbury.

That’s one story about one kid and one story about another kid. I seen it all in East Boston. You name it, I seen it.

Listen to Part 2 of this conversationwith Bob, Cathy, and a neighborhood friend, John Grevos, talking about how drugs swept through the neighborhood. 

Bob’s barbershop is located at 176 Sumner Street. Photograph by story ambassador Gabbie Follett. Cara Solomon, founder of Everyday Boston, wrote the intro text.