To most expats in Bangkok, Washington Square is a cinema where movies can be seen in English, the billboard is usually spelled wrong and dogs of questionable character and motive sleep on the steps. I know, because one bit me. The anti-rabies injections cost 3,000 baht, the dog's still alive and worth about a dollar and lies waiting for me in a fake siesta by the abandoned popcorn stand.
But there's another, extraordinary world here hidden among the cracked and faded concrete down the eastern side of the cinema. Spread over three nondescript bars called the Silver Dollar, Texas Lonestar and the Wild Country is an enclave of America that I always thought existed, but only in other people's imaginations.
On the surface, this compact environment is a world of country-western, loud voices, bad vowels, the good, the bad and the facially challenged. It's frequented by an endless stream of oil workers on R&R, retirees who saw service in Korea and Vietnam and those who didn't see anything anywhere except Patpong in a crapulous haze at the height of the war, and stayed on for the next 20 years.
There's endless banter recalling "home," as well as complaints about Bangkok and the alleged deviousness of the race they live among -- or rather, don't. Local reality seems to have escaped their notice and Thailand's another country somewhere else. They have no interest in the culture other than a lifestyle that offers available women, a little business and cheap rent in a decadent exile. While many have married Thai women, you never see them. Bars aren't for women -- well, certainly not your own, and certainly not here.
It's a place where gossip is ripe and truth a fluid concept, where intelligence appears to hum along at a redneck pace slightly below room temperature. It's a bonfire of profanities. It brims with "large, bellicose men who know the price of everything and the value of nothing," as Oscar Wilde once said. To these men, Vivaldi is not a composer, he's a gay bartender in Patpong. This environment doesn't attract attention to itself, doesn't advertise, neither needs nor wants the tourist trade, is self-contained, self-righteous, fascinating and a fire escape to nowhere. And it became my home.
I lived above the Texas Lonestar for over a year. I am English, and to compound this problem I'm also a musician and a teacher with lots of my own hair. When I checked in I felt about as popular as a vegetarian at a Dallas Bar-B-Q.
"Hey hippie, whyderya grow ya hair so goddam long?" asked a bald, aging vet with a smirk.
"Because I can," I replied with an innocent expression.
Washington Square is a place of legends, both real and imaginary: the
men who tell the stories that become the legends, and the legends that
become the men who tell them. There are yarns from deserts in Saudi and freezing oil rigs
in northern Russia, epic accounts of battles half remembered and women long departed
but still vivid in memory -- and if slightly embellished, what the hell.
Stories of very serious money earned and squandered, won and lost. Men with
larger-than-life characters who know their own destinies but argue with them
just the same. Tales of Laos during the war; the Death Railway; the CIA;
the contra arms deal; Beirut; the Gulf War.
When the night manager of the Lonestar discovered I liked Miles Davis, I
thought he was going to shoot me. Instead, I found an important ally. He put
a black arm around my shoulder and said, "Mah man!"
I was in. Into what I had no idea, but I was in. When I tentatively
inquired as to the validity of these stories, he shrugged and said, "Shoot,
boy! These guys are for real. The man sitting next to you was once the
personal press secretary to Reagan. Ask him." I did. He was. Well, that's
what he said.
The average age is early 50s, and amid the raucous anecdotes and
serious drinking -- "You gotta learn how to drink here, boy!" -- there are men
of quiet authority and Southern manners; serious achievers with thousand-yard stares and lived-in faces that speak of hard, disciplined lives and
upright integrity. They are well-earthed, experienced, hard to impress. They
have a regular pulse. There is blood in their alcohol. They don't look for
company but will except it as long as you don't talk bullshit or golf. Their
heroes are country-western singers, football players, former presidents,
dead generals, men who work the land and men who truck the produce.
A sign in the Lonestar reads: "For those who fought for it, freedom has
a taste the protected will never know." These are proud men, and although
America's denigrated as a place of abode -- its society "shot through with
drugs, violence and welfare" -- the country's character is rigorously
defended; its influence on the world rests easy in their souls, its spirit
and culture as sacred as a Harley-sized Smith and Wesson.
To such men, these bars represent a taste of home, a sense of bonding
and of comfort. You can smell the T-bone, feel the bourbon, fool with the
"You leave tip for me pleez?"
"Sure, honey. Buy low, sell high."
These men aren't in Bangkok for any altruistic reasons. There are no
budding monks; no spiritual journeys. Some came to make money, some to spend
it, many to waste it on a lifestyle they couldn't get away with anywhere
else. I've seen money change hands over a single NBA game that an English
teacher could only dream of making -- even if he taught Big Bird to Korean
rich kids for the next millennium.
And then there are those poor souls who have been deprived of alcohol and
female company by the sheer geography of their work and arrive in town on a
mission, which usually means a serious demonstration against sobriety. I've
seen the door at the Lonestar nearly ripped off its hinges as some madman,
usually 6-foot-4, wild-eyed and crazed after six months in some
scorching desert fixing giant earthmovers, hit the bar with a thirst that
would make a camel blush.
One such character, who looked remarkably
like a creature left over from the eighth episode of "Star Trek," once drank with
intent for 72 hours on arrival.
The night manager and I found him in an alcoholic stupor halfway up the
stairs at 3 in the morning in a position only a yoga master could
appreciate: stark naked and legs akimbo.
"Mah man, we gotta get a doctor!"
"No!" I said, "We gotta get a camera!"
And we did.
As in any community, the eccentrics and casualties balance out the
seemingly stable and the relatively sober. These bars aren't only a unique
microcosm of America, they're also another rich vein of expat life in this
city. It may be a potting shed to some, but you can find lots of things in
potting sheds. I came across this world by mistake and left a year later blinking in
the harsh sunlight of reality and went back to Thailand -- which was just
outside the door. I made many friends, many contacts, worked hard, ate
sensibly and drank like a fish, deep in the heart of Texas, Bangkok. We come
to new countries intending to do certain things and then a whole lot of
different things happen. I like that.
Only once in the entire year did I come close to death. It was late. The
bar was packed, primed and loud. It was someone's birthday. Everyone was
very drunk and I kept bumping into old acquaintances who didn't recognize me
and total strangers who did. Some cowboy was wailing through the sound
system and I said far too loudly that country-western was just "three
chords and a cloud of dust."
There was a deathly silence. I froze in terror. I had realized my
mistake. But it was too late. I had trod on sacred ground. I had insulted
their holy music. It was like passing wind in the Vatican and then
Suddenly the bar was humming with outrage. Someone yelled, "Shoot the
sonofabitch!" -- which soon turned into a chorus. Visualizing a rope being
thrown over a branch, I did the only thing left open to me: I rang the bar
The drinks bill was so high it should have been delivered by a priest.
I was still paying it off a year later. But hey, I'm alive. And grateful.
And if you don't believe any of this, then I've got a bridge to sell you in
Now all I have to do is to keep my eye on that damned dog.