Saturday, March 24, 2012

My pal the Afro Doc drank with Waylon, threw better than Jefferson Street Joe and fought killer pit bulls

William 'Doc' Jones -- the Afro Doctor -- has been dead now for awhile. But as I took a break from my work today, I came upon this old column I wrote about him on the first of my many visits to his joint on Jefferson Street. This was published in the Nashville Banner, which actually was a very good newspaper, when such things actually did exist.

"The Afro-Doctor" drank with Waylon and battled killer pit bulls. He could throw a better spiral than his pal Jefferson Street Joe. He shares these and more recollections while dangling the remainder of his right leg over the arm of a barber chair.
"Cut it off from here down," says William "Doc" Jones, holding his hand just below his knee. "Diabetes." He raises his voice above ESPN hockey highlights blaring from the GB's Barber Shop television.
Outside his window on Jefferson Street, saggy-trousered punks and well-groomed good guys who call him "Doc" probably don't know that's a shortened version of the moniker of an almost forgotten legend.
As a healthy young man, he owned barbershops built on his reputation as the sculptor of the most magnificent of Afros. The 57-year-old amputee's just happy to be well enough to sell shaves and trims as a part-time employee at the shop whose initials stand for God's Blessings.
He pushes back the sleeves of his Predators sweatshirt and promises that the amputation was more blessing than curse.
"I could be dead. I was really close to the edge a couple of times. I could have died from the bacteria. .... I've never had a depressed day from it. I've had some days where I realize I'm not as mobile, but I'm not a person to allow myself to be depressed over what was.
"It's like the church story about the man who complained about having no shoes until he saw a man with no feet. I've seen guys in carts, with no legs, pushing themselves. And they aren't giving up, so why should I?"
He savors a slug of Diet Pepsi. "Course, I still got diabetes. Days I don't feel good. I try not to let a little minor ailment get me down." That minor ailment also claimed two toes on his left foot.
Dependence on a walking cane even has an upside: "I used it to beat off two pits when they rushed me." Guy without a cane might have been mauled.
Doc smiles at the writer swirling in the facing barber chair. "When I first started barbering .... I was going to Tennessee State (studying criminal justice and psychology). Between classes, I'd cut hair in the beauty shop on campus. I would wear a doctor's smock instead of a barber's smock.
"One day as I was coming from class, a girl asked me if I was a doctor. I told her 'Somewhat. I'm an authority on what I do' ... bringing big Afros down to a shape."
In addition to the smock, he wore a distinctive hairstyle. After Vietnam, "I went seven years without a haircut. First Afro I ever saw. Biggest, too." He measured it once: It was 56 inches in diameter.
Like Clark Kent to Superman, William Jones was transformed into "the Afro-Doctor," heroically rescuing errant hair growth on campus, in North Nashville and out to Bordeaux.
He credits The Beatles for his early, heady success. "They came over here with their hair in little bangs, but then they let their hair grow. That's why we let ours grow, too. They had as much to do with it as James Brown saying, 'I'm black and I'm proud.' "
Doc's love of The Beatles as well as Jethro Tull and the Allman Brothers illustrates his contention that "more than anything else, music doesn't have a color."
He celebrated that fact one evening when a buddy who knew Waylon Jennings brought the two together in a Music Row hotel room. The honky-tonk hero and the Afro-Doctor enjoyed each other's company. "He was a real nice guy. We just chitchatted and drank. Good night."
Earlier in life he had found a place where only one color mattered. It was neither black nor white. It was blood red. The former Cameron High quarterback - "I could throw the ball farther than anybody I've ever seen, 86 yards, and there was no wobble" - was drafted in '68.
Sent to Germany, he volunteered for 'Nam. "I decided I'd rather die in a tropical paradise than in the tundra."
"I was in the jungle most of the time. It was war, but I guess I had as much fun as anywhere else I've been," the former 1st Air Cavalry E-5 says with a shrug. Wedged between stacks of body bags that awaited helicopter hearses to negotiate the monsoons, he found that camaraderie and farewells came in quick succession.
"One day you'd be playing poker with a guy, and the next time you see him, he's dead." Appreciate moments.
Back home, he became "a personal friend of Jefferson Street Joe. He was a nice man. But he hadn't really been exposed to the streets. He developed some issues."
Doc laments the ignorance that cost TSU and NFL quarterback Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam his life - ignorance that thrives outside, on the athlete's namesake street. "There's a lot of riffraff. It's kind of a drug-infested area. But if you mind your own business, you get the lay of what it takes."
The thugs and dealers "have a lot of respect for barbers. They have to get haircuts. They know barbers don't have a lot of money. And they know if they take on a barber, they just might get popped."
The Afro-Doctor fingers his salt-and-pepper beard and smiles at the sunshine.