Currents and Futures
My uncle, William Edsel Moore, “Uncle Edsel”, passed away this week in New Jersey. He was my favorite of my mother’s six siblings (five brothers) and he was the last of the seven to pass on.
And no… he was not “The Most Famous Man in the World”. Not my uncle, but the guy in his barber chair: Muhammad Ali.
When I was a young teenager, Uncle Edsel would call the house and whisper, “You should come get your hair cut now!” That was the signal for me and my brother to run to his barber shop, arriving right before a certain black car would pull up and The Most Famous Man in the World came into the barber shop for his haircut. (They would lock the door right after him… every guy in Camden wanted to get his hair cut right then! There would be hundreds of people lining the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of “The Champ”.)
For over an hour, Ali would entertain those of us inside, using the barber chair as his personal throne. Waving his arms around, shadow-punching, doing Howard Cosell imitations… while poor Uncle Edsel was behind him, trying to tiptoe up and get in a cut or two on Ali’s constantly bobbing head. It was less a haircut than a sneak attack on his hair.
(The “sitting at the feet” reference in the title to this article is simple: all the adults grabbed the available seats in the barber shop – my brother Allan and I were forced to sit on the floor…)
“Look at his hair!”
Later, I would visit Uncle Edsel and we would watch reruns of Ali’s fights. I remember all of us crowded around the television when Ali knocked out Sonny Liston – with my uncle screaming, “LOOK AT HIS HAIR! LOOK AT HIS HAIR!”
[NOTE: We’ve all heard the word “iconic” used before. This photo is the iconic “What’s My Name?” photo… one of the most famous fight photos in history. But, more than just a photo, Muhammad Ali was (and still is) an ICON. He represented/ embodied the spirit, the power and even the defiance of a new generation of black men (men who were just starting to refer to themselves as “black”.) My generation — just coming into its power.]
“I’m So Pretty!”
After awhile, it became too difficult for Edsel to cut Ali’s hair in the barber shop – hundreds would lie in wait on the chance that Ali would show up. So, Edsel would fly to his training camp to do the famous doo. (It was probably a lot quicker, since Ali didn’t have to perform for an audience…)
Muhammad Ali and Uncle Edsel, at the training camp. (I’ll let you figure out which one is which…)
Two young men, clowning around. (Or, maybe he didn’t like his haircut! Edsel didn’t look too worried…)
I remember watching Ali taunting his opponents with the phrase, “I’m so pretty!” Well, he was… and Uncle Edsel helped him get that way!
Ali was the most famous of my uncle’s heads, but not the only celebrity. Word spread: if you wanted to look good for the cameras, go see “Bill Moore” (close family were the only ones who called him “Edsel” – named after Henry Ford’s son, not his car…). Several basketball stars found their way to Uncle’s chair.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
Uncle Edsel had a successful barbering career, owned his own home, had a laundramat, saved his money… yet in his old age could not handle the rising costs of living in retirement. (I would give him money when I had it to give – I told him it was payment for all those years of “free” haircuts.)
The last time I saw him, about a year ago in his small retirement apartment in Collingswood, NJ, he was bitter. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” he said. “I served my country in World War II. I worked hard, built myself up. I didn’t waste any money. Now, when Peggy and I go to the store, we can’t afford even basic food. Both of us saved our money for retirement, but we still have to work odd jobs just to make ends meet. I thought we were going to be able to take it easy. Nephew, WHAT HAPPENED TO AMERICA?”
What happened, indeed…
William Edsel Moore lived a full, rich life. I don’t mourn him… I honor his accomplishments, his quick smile and mischievous humor… and for his moment in history. I wish his spirit well.
PS: While you are free to comment below, I don’t expect ANYONE to point out that, at 84 years old, he had more hair than I do!