My friend, a native New Yorker, was known as the mayor of our neighborhood, holding meetings in front of Eastwood Arms at the corner of Frontage Road and 65th Ave. His podium was a patio table, The Plastic Altar, where Bill would share his vast wisdom with the locals.
It seemed like everyone knew the man. The driver of roughly every third car to pass The Plastic Altar would beep their horn or wave to Bill.
I first met him and his beautiful, longtime wife, Maxine, about nine years ago, after they moved to Myrtle Beach from Kingstree to be closer to the hotel at which they worked. Bill might have been the mayor, but it was Maxine who slammed the gavel when her husband started to get loud. The loving couple shared everything they had with those of us who were lucky enough to know them.
Bill was humble, dignified, respectful and so damn cool. He rarely mentioned that he was signed by Gene Shue to play for the Washington Bullets, and he didn’t talk too much about sharing basketball courts in greater New York City with the likes of Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Connie Hawkins. Like all human beings, Bill wasn’t perfect; his shot at playing in the NBA ended when he was befallen by personal demons.
He had recovered by the time I had the good fortune of meeting him. I can still see him proudly standing by his garden, laughing at the irony. “Look at me. A city boy turned farmer.”
When Bill was still well, he walked nearly every morning to the local convenience store. I swear, y’all. He made walking a spectator sport. At six-feet-six-inches tall and with perfect posture, he moved with the grace of a gazelle. I asked him a few times if he was afraid to traverse the neighborhood in the darkness of pre-dawn.
“Shi-it. I’m a gansta, Robert,” he said, his green eyes twinkling. “Nobody’s going to mess with me.”
Bill was both shocked and happy to have lived long enough to see our great nation elect its first black president. He sometimes talked of the racism he had encountered in his lifetime. He did so with no bitterness. But he told me that it had taught him restraint.
Once, in a social setting, the redneck, oafish brother of one of the party’s hosts made an off-color remark to Bill. Bill and I were sitting on a couch and the oaf had just arrived. I flinched and was about to send the guy to the hospital, but Bill reached over and gently put his hand around my knee.
“It’s okay, Robert,” he said quietly. “I’ll handle it.”
Bill never rose from the couch. He used words to put the oaf in his place, commenting about the guy’s camouflage outfit and the way his enormous belly protruded from beneath his shirt. I laughed like hell. In retrospect, I realize that my beloved friend taught me yet another lesson that night.
Lord, I could write a book about the character of Bill Burgess. The problem with that concept is that one book wouldn’t have been enough for me to express my admiration for him. Nor do I have the eloquence to properly do so. Bill will live forever in my heart and in my thoughts. I still talk to him sometimes, and I know if there is a God in heaven that he is listening. He listened so well. He conversed so well.
Bill was such a good man.