It was run by Mercedes Moore—an ex-R&B star, a teacher and hands down the wisest woman I’ve ever met.
Living in the Bronx taught me many things. Walking down Fordham Road taught me self restraint; you inevitably learn this after being incessantly cat-called as you zombie walk through a hangover on a Sunday morning. Living street level in the Bronx trained me to sleep through apocalyptic noise levels at all hours of the night and day, and living with New York’s bizarre drinking laws taught me to master the art of inconspicuously drinking and smoking out of unassuming objects. However, perhaps the most valuable life lessons I learned in the Bronx came to me in one day’s time—when fate had me happen upon Mercedes Moore’s neighborhood yard sale down the street.
Now, I know it’s a stereotype that elderly Black women are magically endowed with wisdom, folksy life advice and delicious sweet potato pie recipes—but Mercedes Moore is a real life marvel. Mercedes stood smiling in front of her home, an exciting and colorful array of commonplace objects lovingly arranged on wooden fold-out tables. She beamed at passersby, many of whom stopped to give her a hug and dish about the latest in their lives, which she followed with deep interest. It’s as if she has a magnetic energy to which the women of the neighborhood are naturally drawn to. As Mercedes and I sat in her matching lawn chairs on the sidewalk, I spoke with her about her life and happily became a fly on the wall to casual chit chat around me.
Our conversation started with Mercedes’ wardrobe. I saw clothing that reflected a once-opulent and glamorous lifestyle, with gorgeous sequinned gowns she’d tailored herself, lavish coats and bedazzled but sensibly heeled shoes. “You have to have a short heel when you’re busy twirling around on stage,” she explained. In the 70s and 80s, Mercedes was an R&B singer and performer. Her singing career began when she happened upon a United Service Organizations club in Germany while her father was stationed in Munich. At the age of fourteen, she snuck in and basically crashed a band’s rehearsal; “I heard them playing that song ‘Get Ready’ by the Temptations, and I just jumped right in on them,” she explained. After that, she was asked to join their tour around the world. Little did she know that the band’s singer was Archie of Archie Bell & The Drells, who had been drafted into the army shortly before his hit single “Tighten Up” made him famous in 1968. Because of that, she toured Europe for six years until she eventually settled in New York, regularly playing Manhattan clubs such as the famous China Club in Times Square.
I asked Mercedes what sustained her during this kind of tireless lifestyle. “I was addicted to it,” she told me. “It was the thrill of performance. Once you hear a crowd chanting your name, you just can’t get enough.” However, that thrill also came with the ugly reality of being a woman in the music industry. “The music industry is a shrewd business,” Mercedes lamented. “It really is full of a lot of dirtbags. As a woman in the music industry in the 70s, businessmen looked at you like a piece of meat. They’d ask you, ‘what can you do for me?’ You were always expected to give them something, if you know what I mean.”
I asked if this norm was limited to the music industry at the time, or if this trend seemed to be universal. “Well, it was a different time. Women were not expected to be capable of their own success. Meanwhile, we were putting in all the work—more than the guys, most of the time. But the men had the briefcases and most of the power. And man, the rumours would fly!” She brought up Madonna as a prime example of gossip going around women in music. “Whenever Madonna played at the clubs in Manhattan into the 80s, everyone would whisper about her,” she said. “And she was already quite the sex symbol, so it only multiplied for her. In these situations, you have to think of yourself first and rise above.”
However, Mercedes soon ditched the life of performing for teaching. “I’ve always had that inside me,” she explained. “I need to help people and share my knowledge with others. Being a teacher is not glamorous, but it is rewarding in its own way.” To this day, Mercedes Moore channels her confidence and self-discipline into her innate teaching ability. She is an educator at the most challenging and underfunded schools New York City has to offer—and after school hours, she moonlights as a dedicated life coach for women and girls. “I’ve always been bossy,” she explains. “I’ve never been afraid of pressure situations and I always felt the need to help others with what I’m lucky enough to know.”
The child of a travelling military family and a self-proclaimed “Military Brat,” her upbringing gave her the discipline and grace to handle any situation—no matter how extreme. Many of the children she comes into contact with at the local schools in the Bronx are dealing with some seriously difficult home situations. Yet even as she described to me the most difficult child she ever encountered, she explained it with the calm assurance of a skilled disciplinarian.
“Justina. She was the most horrible and ill-mannered student in the entire school and they put me head to head with her. It was tough,” she told me. “She was angry. Kicking over trashcans and throwing tantrums in the worst way. But you’d be angry, too, if your mother left and gave you to your aunt when you were two years old. Her mother was a sex worker and had a bad drug addiction, apparently. Working with Justina was a challenge, but at the end of our year together, she won the Miss Congeniality award. She was well-behaved and poised. How about that!”
It quickly became evident to me that Mercedes’s signature combo of warmth, cheeriness and refusal to take shit from anyone has made her the Mary Poppins of underfunded New York City schools. However, her work isn’t limited to children. She also spoke succinctly with a matter-of-fact tone about the women she’s coached who have wrestled with issues such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse and poverty. Somehow, each story had a happy ending. “I’ve had many emotional encounters with the girls I used to have in my groups,” she continued. “Coming up to me in the street in tears and telling me about all they’ve accomplished – jobs, educations – that they credit to me. And that’s it. That’s what makes it all worth it. It’s a tough job, too, but it’s one that you’ll never regret.”
As our chat came to an end, I couldn’t believe I had no idea that this treasure of a woman lived so close to my front door for four years and I had never known. So, what’s the lesson in all of this? Never hesitate to take an afternoon off work and sit and talk with a woman who has good stories to tell. It’s a decision you won’t regret—and you’ll probably learn something while you’re at it, too.