Russell Braunstein, who worked hard, also loved to goof around as evidenced by this 1995 photo. Courtesy photo.

Not exactly ideal for a “Laughing Matters” column, I’m angry and sad. I’m furious that, despite thirteen different Covid-19 warnings, Donald Trump was too busy with political rallies, golf and Twitter. On January 18, when Health Secretary Azar predicted a possible pandemic, Trump only cared about getting flavored vaping back on the market.

From “soon there will be zero cases” we have 1,300,000 and just passed 80,000 Covid-19 deaths. I’m saddened because one of the 80,000 was Russell Braunstein, a friend for 32 years and only days from his 71st birthday. He’s survived by his loving older brothers, Richard and Robert, and a helluva lot of friends.

Russ loved humor and didn’t care much for politics. That in mind, I’ll share some hopefully amusing stories about Russ, who was often cantankerous but lovable. Frankly, I still can’t believe he’s gone forever.

Russ, a popular local handyman, and I first met in 1987 as part-time tennis court managers for Parks and Rec. Russ worked at Reed Park whereas I worked at Ocean View. (Although separately we occasionally played tennis while we “managed.” Okay, maybe more than occasionally.) Our mutual tennis player friend, Andy Hurwitz, a heart surgeon who also lives in Ocean Park with his wife, Arlene and two daughters, wanted me to do a favor for Russ.

Braunstein had a new apartment lined up but it wouldn’t be ready for three weeks. Andy suggested why not let Russ stay in my spare bedroom. Ultimately, the apartment was taken off the market and three weeks turned into three years, though admittedly they were full of fun, a few mishaps and fond memories. (Many of which were mishaps that ended up funny.)

Russ and I shared a love of sports, movies, and beer. We even signed up for Netflix back when they sent DVDs rentals via snail mail for $8 a month. I also occasionally checked out DVDs from our Ocean Park Library across the street. Unfortunately, Russ inadvertently put a library DVD into a Netflix envelope and mailed it. Yikes!

Netflix said we were out of luck and the library wanted $30 to replace the DVD. As he often did, Russ came up with a brilliant, albeit not exactly kosher, solution.

He requested the same movie from Netflix. (Of course we didn’t return it, we checked the box “Sent back/lost in mail.”) Then Russ put the Netflix DVD it in the library case and said smugly, “Problem solved.” Maybe it was my guilty conscience, but the Library employee seemed to examine that Netflix DVD like a “Law and Order” forensics technician.

Years later, I wrote a column about it not expecting to hear the Head Librarian at the Main Branch. Jokingly, she emailed that since the statute of limitations had expired, Russ and I were “reinstated” to use the library system.

Another “mishap,” occurred when I got free tickets to a Seniors Tennis match featuring Jimmy Connors at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks. Russ graciously volunteered to drive, which was helpful until I noticed bungee cords holding down the hood of his car. This explained his partially cracked windshield but he calmly said “Not to worry.” That was Russ. (To his credit, he soon found a gorgeous 4-door pick-up for sale for which I lent him the $500 he was short and which he paid back in full.)

Sports fanatic Russ was a walking ESPN update. I often asked the Dodger score. If they were ahead he was enthusiastic but they were losing 5-1 and he was grumpy. An hour later I asked again. “I already told you!” he snapped. I replied, “Russ, in an hour baseball game scores can change.” He countered, “Yeah, well they didn’t!” Ouch.

One day I asked Russ why he could be so sarcastic with me. He thought it over said earnestly, “I guess because I’m so comfortable around you.” I responded, “Yeah, well, try to be ‘uncomfortable’ around me.” Getting the zinger, Russ actually smiled.

Cut to November 2017. While on a difficult handy-man job in a 2-story house, Russ fell from a tall ladder and went down a series of concrete steps, suffering a brain injury and winding up in a coma.

In his heroic 2 ½ year battle, Russ recovered mentally but his physical health was so compromised he spent these last difficult years in assisted living facilities. (Again to his credit, he never complained.) However, he went from 150 pounds to 106 but thankfully managed to regain his normal weight and even joked about the tragic accident.

When a friend or even a stranger, kvetched about being overweight, Russ explained, “I once lost 44 pounds and I could eat anything I wanted.” When the person eagerly asked for details about this miraculous diet, Russ gave one caveat, “First you have to fall off a ladder.”

My buddy, Russell Braunstein, may he rest in peace.

Russ’s cremated ashes will be spread in the mountains of Idyllwild, California, at what was the site of Camp Roosevelt where Russ spent the happiest ten summers of his childhood and volunteered as an adult. Jack is at jackdailypress@aol.com

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9 Comments

  1. Great piece. I didn’t know Russell well but I liked him and he would have liked your title (Local Legend) and description of him.

  2. I played tennis with Russ off and on for more than 25 years. I always enjoyed playing with him. Against him? That was another story. His on court blow ups were the stuff of legend. RIP my friend.

  3. What a guy and what a portrait painted by Jack. I felt like I knew him despite never having met him. Thanks Jack and he must have been a great friend!

  4. Dear Jack,
    I’m really sorry you lost such a good friend. I’m sorry too that he was one of the victims of a S. M. nursing home.

    Love, Kay

  5. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to a really unique and awesome person. Russell will be missed, but we will always remember him fondly!

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