For nearly three decades, Doctor Ali-Tyson Cool -- world rag popping champion, friend to the homeless and the famous, supreme self-promoter -- was one of South Florida's more colorful characters, a peacock even in the exotic aviary that is South Beach. Yet when he drowned early this year in a Hialeah canal, his passing barely made a ripple.
Ruling the death a suicide, officials from the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office identified the body as that of Alfred C. Poole (Doctor Cool's legal name) but were unable to locate his next of kin. The remains were cremated, at the medical examiner's expense, in April.
Even as an investigator from that office was making phone call after phone call to people named Poole and trudging down other similar avenues of conventional research, those who knew Doctor Cool and were worried about his disappearance were also failing to track him down.
"He was the first friend I had here," says saxophonist Leo Casino, who had just arrived from Baltimore when he met Doctor Cool in 1970 at a beer joint in Overtown. The last time he saw Doctor Cool was January 10, 1997, about two weeks before a county worker discovered the body in a canal near Okeechobee Road. "A guy had paid me $20 for some work and I gave it to him," Casino recalls. "My birthday was the fifteenth. You know that TV guy, Weaver the Weatherman? He'd mention people's birthdays on the air, and every year Cool would send my picture in. He didn't this time, and he didn't come by. I had a gut feeling something had happened."
All through the spring and summer, neither Casino nor anyone else called the morgue to inquire about Doctor Cool. Last month, however, Casino did call New Times, and the newspaper contacted the medical examiner.
On January 24, members of a county public works crew saw a man standing fully clothed in water up to his chest in the Okeechobee Canal, seeming to talk to himself. They didn't notify authorities about the strange sighting until four days later, when one of the workers called police to report that there was a dead body in the water and that it looked like the same man he'd seen there alive only days before.
A state ID card in the dead man's pocket, along with a hospital band around his wrist that indicated he'd recently been admitted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, led to confirmation of Doctor Cool's identity. (He had three minor scrapes with the law during his 62 years, and his fingerprints were on file with the FBI.)
"In view of the evidence we have, suicide is the most likely manner of death," says Dr. Emma Lew, the associate medical examiner who performed the autopsy and who found no trace of trauma, drugs, alcohol, or anything else that might have indicated foul play. "We could not establish a permanent address. He was in an area frequented by homeless people. He was [seen] fully clothed in the water talking to himself. If he heard voices or thought he was supposed to do this, he could have drowned himself in shallow water. You only need a few inches of water to drown."
Lew also learned that Doctor Cool had been laid off from his job as a security guard at the Clearview Towers several months before his death, when that Miami Beach apartment building was converted to condominiums. According to Casino, Doctor Cool had held the job for about fifteen years.
Born in Waycross, Georgia, Doctor Cool joined the air force after high school and taught himself to play the saxophone during his time in the service. After working as a radio DJ and forming a vocal group back in Waycross, he was admitted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1959. But he stayed for only one term before heading south to West Palm Beach to form a blues band. He moved to Miami in 1967.
Doctor Cool had a number of jobs over the years -- for a time during the Eighties he managed the landmark (but since demolished) Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach -- but his main claim to fame was as a rag popper, a unique professional niche that combined his musical gifts with the skills he'd picked up during long years as a shoeshine boy. Rag popping is the art of musical shoeshine, in which percussive rhythms are created by the snaps and scrapes, pops and whispers of rag on shoe leather. Doctor Cool raised rag popping from street-corner performance art to a career of sorts, eventually signing on with a talent agency that booked him at fairs and conventions where he'd perform clad in his trademark tuxedo and accessorized by a championship belt bestowed by the International Rag Popping Association, of which he was founder and perennial champion. In 1988 he was the subject of a New Times cover story, "The Soul of Soles."
Doctor Cool's musical bent also led him to champion the causes of Casino and other local players. "He helped me out," says bluesman William Maxwell. "Like three years ago when I was playing on Ocean Drive and the cops hassled me. He took me to the mayor's office and to the city attorney, and I haven't been hassled since."
Mark Weiser, a music promoter who staged the annual rag popping championships at Tobacco Road, recalls that Doctor Cool was a reporter for Living Blues magazine when they met in 1973 at a Miami Beach gig. "Doctor Cool was an enigma," says Weiser. "You couldn't tell where the line was between reality and Doctor Cool."
Casino has lingering doubts about his friend's demise. "He told me many times that he didn't want to die in Miami," Casino notes. "It was a bad place for a black man to live, and a bad place for a black man to die. Around Christmas he was talking about moving to West Palm Beach. When he first disappeared, I thought maybe he'd gone up to Georgia or to West Palm. I have no idea how he ended up in Hialeah. That was not his stomping ground.
"He lost his job, but he was getting [unemployment compensation] until January," Casino goes on. "He was trying to get a job. And he was one year short of getting social security. I don't see that beating him down to where he would kill himself. And I can't see him camping out with the homeless. He had too many other places to stay at. The last time I talked to him he said, 'See ya Monday.' It wasn't like he was ready to give up. And he still had his mental faculties. If he was insane, I'd like to know how he lost it so fast. There was no gradual deterioration."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Rabbi Loring J. Frank of the All Peoples Synagogue in Miami Beach knew Doctor Cool for more than a decade. "I never remember him being homeless," agrees the rabbi, who at Casino's behest performed a memorial service a few weeks after Cool vanished, though no one yet knew he was dead. "I never saw his situation as desperate. Maybe he needed a little cash. But he was proud, easygoing, and happy-go-lucky."
One day about a month before his death, Frank remembers, Doctor Cool called and asked him to bring as many pairs of shoes as he could to work. "I brought maybe eight pairs," says Frank. "He spent all day there polishing those shoes. Five layers of polish -- I mean a major shine. He always said you might find a cheaper shine, but not one that would last longer. He did everything but replace the soles. Insane means you don't know what's going on. He was sharp, clear, rattling off stories. He talked about this place he had up in Georgia. He said it was a nice place he could go."
When Doctor Cool asked him to help arrange a shoeshine gig outside a local restaurant, the rabbi made some calls and secured an invitation.
"I guess he never made it over there," Frank says. "All I can say is that I know he's in a good place now. He had a good soul. He brought people a lot of joy -- even just walking down the street he could make people smile. And he was cool. That was his degree: He really was Doctor Cool.