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"I can tell you a little story about that," Red Bone says from his barstool and adjusts his broad-brimmed straw hat. He has just been asked how this corner came to be his corner.
"I used to have a car wash across the street — I washed cars by hand. There was a water line in an abandoned Phillips 66 service station right over there. I started my car wash because water didn't cost nothing, soap didn't hardly cost nothing, rags didn't cost nothing. That's the only way I could start. I didn't have no money, you know? I didn't have a quarter. So I used all the free water I could get.
"I was always doing something to that raggedy old gas station. Messing around — painting, fixing the windows, making sure there wasn't no debris laying around over there. I never let a bunch of guys hang around me, either, drinking beer. I just worked. Because I knew people were living over here, I tried to be respectful of them," Red Bone says, gesturing up toward the Den's second floor. "Old lady named Miss Beech lived here in this building, and Old Lady Miss Beech was looking out the window at me all the time when I was washing cars.
"I used to wash cars in the winter. I had always worked outside all the time, so the weather didn't bother me much. Where I grew up in Arkansas, the only work was cotton. Picking cotton, chopping cotton, plowing behind a mule. I came out of the cotton field. That's working hard, all the time. Growing up the oldest of twelve brothers and sisters, I was a workaholic, that's what I was. I didn't have any fun at all during the week till come Saturday. Then we'd go into town, West Memphis or somewhere, and just walk up and down the streets and eat candy and popcorn. Nothing much, but it was better than being bent over in the hot sun with a hoe from sunup to sundown. So I was used to bad weather, hot or cold.
"When the cold weather broke one Sunday, Miss Beech called me over here and said, 'Hey, how could you wash cars in the wintertime? How could you wash cars when the water just freezes up on the windshields?' And then she said, 'How would you like to own this corner?'
"I'd been over there for a few years by then. That service station was slung low, and the bricks over here looked high. When she said, 'How would you like to own this?' I said, 'Ma'am, I don't have any money.' She said, 'I would like for you to have it. I think you would take care of it.' She wanted me to have this corner, so I got it. Nobody gives you nothing like that."
Red Bone shakes his head when he says this, more than 40 years on, still amazed.
"She didn't just give me a break, she gave me a gift, straight-up."
Diane, Red Bone's woman for the past seven years, stops pulling piles of purple flannel Crown Royal bags out of a cabinet behind the bar.
"He put $12 down, and she took care of all of the financing," Diane says. "Understand, this is a white lady who owns this corner. There's only been one big race riot in St. Louis, and that happened right here, at the Fairground Park pool. This was an all-white neighborhood then, and the whites didn't want black people swimming in their pool. Then in the 1960s, when R.B. was washing his cars, there were race riots and burnings all over America, and Martin Luther King was having his walks. But even with all that going on, that old white lady looked at this black man working hard out there and trusted him.
"The timing makes it even more significant to me — that she was able to see him as a person, not a skin color."
A Bonette Moment
A photograph of Lytle, dated June 30, 1974, hangs on the wall at one end of the bar. He's reaching an arm into a brown convertible, where his slim blond ex-wife sits. They sport matching aviator shades and the funky fashions of the era, and both are grinning as wide as the iconic smiley-face decal on the car door. Beneath the image a caption reads, "The Bonette Diane & Warren Red Bone."
This former Bonette, still slim, still blond and still, like Lytle's current lady, named Diane, turns up at the Den's farewell bash along with her husband, who, Lytle says, is a doctor. "I only found out the place was closing two days ago," the original Bonette Diane explains to an old acquaintace, while making a beeline through the crowd toward her host. "But there's no way I could miss this."
A few hours from now, blues harmonica virtuoso Big George Brock will play a set to kick off a late night of partying, but for the time being the mood is desultory. Red Bone's visiting Southern kin chat lazily in the warm barroom, which no amount of air conditioning seems able to cool, as the lovely Bonette cocktail waitresses, attired in the Den's signature red and white, ply them with ice-cold beer.
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