Up and down the side streets of Fairfax City, John W. Russell roamed in his white, 1980 Cadillac, hunting for lawn signs bearing his name. His eyes hurt, his feet hurt and his back hurt from campaigning, but he was determined to fetch every last political sign before sundown.

The road back to city hall is covered with potholes, not confetti, Russell observed, just as he spotted another sign. The car door opened, a neighbor stared from her window and Russell's wiry frame sprinted across the lawn to pluck a cardboard sign describing him as "downright, upright and forthright."

Back in the air-conditioned car, Russell held a cigarette in one hand as he made his way through the streets of the city that returned him to the mayor's office last week. This outspoken man, branded by his opponents as sometimes recklessly talkative, says he won back his place in city hall after an eight-year absence by walking the streets and talking to anyone who would listen. He unseated Mayor Frederick W. Silverthorne in an upset victory by a 148-vote margin, with only 30 percent of the city's registered voters showing at the polls May 4.

"I missed being mayor like I missed having a thorn in one foot," said Russell, who stepped down in 1974 after two terms as mayor. "It's like this: You go to a cocktail party and someone will want to know about a damn sewer line behind his house, or complain about George Mason students next door raising hell. I don't like this 'Mr. Mayor' stuff. I'm not a great one for rank--worked too long in the Pentagon. People stand for what they are, not the uniform they wear."

He mulled over what he had just said, and burst into laughter. Not exactly the right words. He backtracked and corrected himself by adding, "Despite all that, I like the job, and this city has such esprit de corps--a feeling that just doesn't exist elsewhere. Makes me want to work hard, even though it's tough running around with a smile on your face all the time."

This isn't exactly the way Russell, 58, pictured retirement last year when he quit his job as a conceptual planner for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Then he wanted to sit back with a cheap western paperback or read through Will Durant's "Caesar and Christ" for the fifth time, and just plain relax. That was "before the city started falling apart . . . the treasurer's office was a mess, the city manager was forced out," said Russell, referring to problems with scrambled reports from former city treasurer Frances Cox and the resignation of former city manager George Hubler.

"When I retired a year ago I thought to myself, 'Retirement was designed with John Russell in mind.' I can sit in a chair and watch the wall and it doesn't bother me. I like watching screen patterns on television," he joked, exercising his self-deprecating humor.

Half joking, half serious, this determined politician who hates to lose riles his opponents by saying whatever is on his mind. That either charms or disarms voters, but Russell doesn't seem to mind much because, the way he sees it, the worst thing possible is "simply being ignored."

"I have a real concern about the style as well as the substance of government under John Russell," said outgoing Fairfax City Councilman John Perrin, who withdrew from the council race after he accepted a new job in Chicago. "No matter who is on the council, the mayor is still the spokesman for the city. . . . People are going to wake up between now and '84 and say, 'My god, how did we get in this situation?' "

Perrin happens to be Russell's neighbor. He lives three doors down from Russell, directly across the street from Fairfax High School. They don't talk much, but, says Perrin, "It's not a matter of making faces at each other or turning the dog loose on his yard."

After Perrin openly endorsed Russell's opponent, Silverthorne, any pretenses of neighborliness vanished. And now Russell, still bristling over Perrin's posture toward him, has suggested that Perrin step down.

"I think John Perrin should resign and Lee Wigren who polled the most votes in the council race should step into office before July 1," Russell said. "That way we can have more carryover to the next council. He is a lame duck and he's not even going to live here anymore."

Perrin does not intend to comply with the new mayor's wishes. "He only lives three doors down and hasn't shared those views with me," Perrin said. "But that is not surprising because he hasn't been up to City Council but once in the last two years. I don't have any intention of resigning until my term expires."

Russell and the council--all new except for two reelected incumbents--will be sworn in July 1.

On election night a defeated Silverthorne visited a victory party at Russell's home to congratulate his opponent, who defeated him by 148 votes. This week, Silverthorne was making plans for a vacation.

"I lost fair and square, and that's the way it is," said Silverthorne, 63, a committee executive for the National Security Industrial Association. "I've been very busy in my own business and didn't have time free to knock on doors and get out my views. I felt the city was run the way citizens wanted it run the last four years. . . . I suspect I will run again for mayor."

He also predicted that taxes would go up in the next two years. "I think the city will become more intensified, as far as high-density development is concerned," said Silverthorne. "Maybe the citizens want a different city than the one I was giving them. Perhaps the council should wait until a new council comes on before giving final approval to the five-year comprehensive development plan."

As for Russell, he is worried that the outgoing council's move to cut the real estate tax rate by 9 cents--to $1.15 per $100 of assessed value--may drain the city's cash reserves in the coming year.

"I wish we had more of a surplus, and I'm worried that I am inheriting a budget without any order or plan," said Russell. "I have a sneaking suspicion that they really don't know where all the money is shuffled in the budget."

In the past, Russell has locked horns with Metro supporters who defended hefty increases in local transit fares, and he said he plans to continue that posture. "As soon as Metro makes up its mind whether it wants a mass transit system or a welfare program, we can proceed," Russell said. "If they want a welfare program, let them have it."

The day after the election, Russell received from city hall a foot-high packet of briefing material on pending council matters. He stacked the papers next to piles of campaign flyers in his basement den, then sat back and laughed. "They must have had these ready just in case . . . ."

"You know, I had a lot of confidence at first in this race, but just a couple of days before the election I started reading this document that said there is a 20 percent turnover of residents in the city every year," Russell said. "I thought, 'Hell, how many remember me from the time I was mayor?' Then there were some last-minute letters going around, supporting Silverthorne. So I got out and started passing out flyers and knocked on even more doors."

About 3 p.m. on election day, Russell said, he came home, after days of getting by on only a few hours' sleep, and told his wife Ruth, "I don't give a damn who wins this election. I'm tired. I'm going to take a rest."