The barber’s apprentice: Detective Romero gets comfortable with clippers
What makes a 20-year veteran of the Connecticut police force decide to start cutting hair in Ridgefield? To hear Detective Jorge Romero tell it: love.
It all started for the moonlighting barber about two years ago when his girlfriend, and now fiancée, asked for an extra hand dying her hair.
“I walked by the bathroom and I was like, ‘Do you need some help?’” Romero recalled.
“She’s like, ‘You’re gonna try and do my hair?’ And I’m like, ‘Sure, just explain what you need me to do.’ So I actually put foils and color in her hair.”
Romero said his experience as a barber before that night was pretty thin — he’d touched up fellow recruits’ haircuts with a set of clippers during his stint in the Army. They were simple jobs: buzzed short, and one length all over.
That might have been the end of his career ambitions as a barber, but Romero got to talking with Jared Gelbert, owner of The Dapper Den on Main Street, one day when he stopped in for a haircut. Gelbert mentioned that the state had added a barbershop apprentice program to the books, which would allow new barbers to learn on the job while making money.
He figured Romero would forget it, but soon after, he said, the detective showed up with the apprenticeship paperwork already filled out.
Romero’s new job holds a distinction: By sheer luck, he’s the first candidate to go through the state’s new barbers apprentice program, which was added in 2015. Before, barbers would have to spend thousands of dollars on cosmetology school.
To pass an apprenticeship in Connecticut, Romero will have to work 2,000 paid hours under a certified barber, Gelbert explained. He’ll then have an opportunity to test with the state board for his barber’s license.
Haircut and a shave
Musclebound and stocky, Romero cuts an imposing figure standing by his chair against the back wall of the shop. His black apron sports a placard on the front: an American flag with a thin blue line through the center. Below that are his name and police rank, flanked by two skulls from the Marvel Punisher series.
Romero said he puts in about 12 to 15 hours a week at The Den, three days a week.
He still works full-time at the department — an evening shift from 3 p.m. through 11. He made detective this past spring, and now works as a plainclothes officer. He said he doesn’t plan on leaving the force before he’s up for retirement.
For someone adept at cutting hair, Romero, ironically, keeps his head clean shaven to a shine, much like his colleague — owner and head barber Jared Gelbert, though Romero eschews Gelbert’s characteristic fedora and lumberjack beard.
Gelbert said he opened The Dapper Den — right next to The Toy Chest on Main Street — about a year ago, and that so far, he’s had no complaints.
“I love the building, I love my landlord,” he said.
Gelbert said he’s been cutting hair for 13 years. “My wife and I moved to Putnam — she works up in Danbury — and we sort of stumbled across this beautiful little town.”
He didn’t always know that he wanted to a cut hair.
“I spent a lot of time in retail and between jobs,” he said.
“The business was a huge accomplishment to me, being learning-disabled and also a high school dropout. It made my father very proud.”
Gelbert said he’s considered leaving the barbershop in Jorge’s hands, if he decides to franchise out. “Jorge is a great personality,” Gelbert said about his apprentice. “He’s very good with the children.”
Later, Romero held up his favorite items he has at his station — children’s barbershop smocks with Superman and Batman logos emblazoned on the front.
Gelbert said he tries to make the space about family as much as possible. At one point he pointed to an old sepia photograph that hangs above one of the Den’s two overstuffed black leather sofas
“Nine out of 10 items that are in here come from either my father or my mother’s family,” Gelbert said.
The décor is hypermasculine — all wood varnish and black leather. Gelbert dressed up most of the business in turn-of-the-century garb: tin-sign advertisements, old shaving equipment, and even a bar cart in one corner (there’s a stack of old Playboys tucked away on a top shelf).
Romero added his own modern touches to his corner of the shop: Batman magnets, SWAT figurines, and a large plaque of a badge from the Bridgeport Police Department, where Romero used to serve.
At least one town resident credits the detective-turned-barber with saving his life.
“I want to interrupt you real quick,” said Nick Matos, a visitor to the shop who had been hanging in the back during Romero’s interview. “This man right here saved my life.”
Matos said that while he was out driving, he had an asthma attack. Romero just happened to be running by. “He gave me an inhaler and stood with me the entire time,” Matos said. “That was the scariest moment of my life, I kid you not, but having him right there by my side, telling me ‘breathe, breathe, relax’ — he saved my life, and I will be forever grateful.”
“Every day I come in and I see him, it’s a reminder of what he means to me.”
Romero said he plans to stick with the Police Department until his retirement. “I’m very passionate about my police job,” he said. After he retires, he hopes to work full time at The Den.
“That makes me feel good,” Romero said about Matos’s remarks. “Just to really feel that I’m part of the community and of Ridgefield. And to give back in another way. I feel blessed.”