Farewell to Washington Square
Molly thanks me for buying her a lady’s drink and before we drink we wish each other luck. Molly is one of the girls who used to work at the Texas Lone Star Saloon. Not a girl really, few of the women who worked in the bars of the Square were under thirty. Molly is plump, quiet, always friendly, and, like many of the girls who worked in the Square, has not had an easy life.
She is sitting now outside the Easy Pub, one of the two remaining bars left in the Square. All around us are abandoned concrete buildings ready for destruction or else the rubble of those already demolished. At the Soi 22 entrance to the Square (which is now the only entrance) the other remaining bar – New Square One – faces an abandoned massage parlor building which a few months back was destroyed by a roaring fire. The only advertising remaining on its façade is a line of four faded Chinese characters for “Ancient (traditional) Massage.” But even without a fire the massage parlor had little time left. For several years Bangkok’s land prices had been rising and every year there had been persistent rumors that the Square was doomed – destined to be razed to the ground and replaced by yet another towering condominium or shopping center. But the years passed and nothing happened. Until it did.
The night is cool and pleasant and an occasional burst of laughter or a few lines of music drift over from the open-air bars on the nearby soi. I mention to Molly that I thought I saw shadows flitting about inside the abandoned building facing us. She said the workers sleep in that building and in the morning begin their work of clearing the Square once again. Above us, in the dark sky, a bright full moon plays hide-and-seek with slow-moving cloud formations. The moon, the clouds, the abandoned buildings, the piles of rubble, the darkness around us and the strange silence – the Square seems to have transformed into the kind of phantasmagorical landscape one sees only in dreams.
The Square always was a very different place from the rest of Bangkok. It was often referred to as “Little America” and many of the customers were American veterans of various wars. Their message – if you asked – was that they had fought for their country and if necessary would fight again – just don’t ask them to live there. Of course, there were non-Americans as well and many oil workers taking a welcome break from working in the Middle East.
My first encounter with the Square was twelve years ago when I came back to Thailand to live. I carried my suitcase inside the Texas Lone Star Saloon and – it being early afternoon – there were no customers and only two girls in the back. Sound asleep. One woke up and accompanied me up the outside stairs to where my room was. Walking up a dark, malodorous stairway with a friendly and flirtatious bargirl I remember thinking, ah, I must be back in Bangkok. I didn’t know it then but years later I would write a mystery series in which the detective lives over a Washington Square bar based on the Lone Star.
And over the years I met many of the customers of the Square, the regulars who were dubbed “Squaronians.” Squaronians were colorful, unique, friendly and, in some cases, a bit too fond of drink. It was an inimitable clientele within an incongruous setting: Within a stone’s throw of the many macho bars were the famous Mambo ladyboy show and the well known Bourbon Street Restaurant, massage parlors and an undersized Thai restaurant or two. And of course there were the small food stands on wheels selling everything from fruit to toys.
Molly and I begin talking about customers we had known over the years, many of whom had become my friends. There was Dennis House, always known as “the Doc.” And everyone knew Mekhong Kurt, whose online newsletter gave readers up-to-the-minute information on the comings and goings of customers, managers and owners alike. We talked about Gator and Crazy John and Cowboy John and Khun Richard (Diran – who painted the famous scene inside the Lone Star) and all the others we’d known, and of course the irrepressible George Pipas, the grossly overweight owner of the Lone Star. Molly says that despite his gruffness and frequent swearing – “change the goddamned music!” – George really cared about the girls and they all loved him. We talked about all of the customers we could remember and then, for a time, we drank in silence, lost inside our own memories.
Several young Thai men walked past to where they had parked their cars and then drove off. Beside Molly’s chair two scrawny kittens began wrestling one another. I had at first thought the sacks nearby were filled with sand for the next flood but Molly said it was plant food. Despite the scene of destruction, whichever former bargirl owns the Easy Pub had set out a line of well tended potted plants – perhaps, like the bar itself, a sign of life remaining amid rubble. And in a small pot close to the plants, khun Bee – another long-time Lone Star employee – lit incense to a makeshift shrine in fervent hopes of attracting customers.
Molly went inside and came back with another beer for me. We began talking of what happened to the girls and the cooks in the various bars. When the bars closed some had returned to Essarn but many now worked in the bars along soi 22. We both knew of times when the girls had called a taxi for a customer who’d had too much to drink; often they would go in the taxi with him to make sure he got back to his apartment without losing his money or falling over before he got inside. There was in the Square a special relationship between the women who worked in the bars and the frequent customers that I have never seen in any other nightlife area of Bangkok. It seemed to be formed of familiarity, tolerance, understanding and a similar philosophy toward life by those who had already lived a great deal of it.
At one time or another, the Lone Star had witnessed book signings, guitar playing, drunken bargirls or drunken customers, and sometimes arguments, fights and brawls, but most problems could always be solved and grievances forgiven by buying a man a beer or a girl a drink. There were many humorous occasions such as the time a customer would walk into the Lone Star, see only two or three bargirls working, and with pride and showmanship, ring the drinks-on-me bell. Only to watch in horror as five or six more who had been eating inside the back kitchen appeared, all cheerful over having heard the bell ring.
I noticed Molly’s empty glass and told her to get another drink. I had known her for all of the ten years she worked at the Lone Star and I knew she was raising two daughters. How these women managed to survive now let alone raise children never failed to amaze me and still does.
She returned and thanked me. And once again we sat in silence surrounded by pools of semi-darkness and strange shadows, surreal images of what seemed like fortresses overrun by invaders and then abandoned. I thought of the times gone by. Ten years before, Doc Dennis, Cowboy John, Mekhong Kurt and I set up an early website of mine. We did it up above Taffy’s New Square One pub in a room littered with debris. But we did a kind of radio show with it and I would always start by describing our “studio” above Bangkok’s beautiful Washington Square with its lovely trees and gardens and babbling brooks and gushing fountains – a paradise on earth. Those who knew the Square and its concrete shophouses and bars always got a kick out of it.
All of them – the Doc, Mekhong Kurt, Cowboy John, George Pipas and many more are gone now. Some to cancer, some to drink, some simply because it was their time. Memories are good things: it’s nice to recall people you liked and the unique camaraderie and the places you frequented. But sometimes – when the people and places within those recollections are gone forever – sometimes memories can hurt.