Before Washington Square had become a military parade field, it had been a potter’s field, where indigents and criminals (often one and the same) were buried. For New York this was a neat arrangement as criminals were also hanged there, from the big tree at the northwest corner of the park. This was all a really long time ago, and does not affect the feel of the park today or the way it felt in the 1950’s. Some really neat chess tables are shaded by that tree now, placed there in the course of the latest renovation. However when I began hanging out in the park, there were only chess tables available on the southwest corner, and it was my favorite corner in the world.
In those days chess clocks were quite expensive and relatively rare. They were cumbersome, wooden things that were also fragile; so chess in the park was normally played without timing devices. Games lasted a long time, but were enjoyable because you played with friends and you played in a leisurely way, without time pressure. The games were interesting, even to the bystanders.
The people who played chess in Washington Square were also interesting and several of them became my friends. It is difficult to remember them all now, but some stand out. Among my friends was Monsieur Duval, a dark-skinned, serious-looking, Haitian gentleman who always wore a business suit, black wool coat with velvet collar and a black homburg. He was dramatic looking and generally attracted the largest audience. His patter and his cheerful discussions of the plight his opponents found themselves in was enjoyed by all who heard him, except his opponents. He was also the best player in the park, present every day, weather permitting. He played for small table stakes of 25 cents, and felt that without a small stake, no matter how small, people just weren’t serious enough about the game. It was a big moment in my life when I finally outplayed him. Years later, when he died, he earned an obit in the New York Times, which billed him as the Prince of Washington Square, a title he certainly deserved and would have liked.
Washington Square became an important part of my life, mostly because of chess, and whenever I wasn’t in school or working, that was where I could be found. And when it rained, we simply adjourned to one of the only two coffee shops on McDougal Street, the Café Rienzi, about which, more later.
Because of my interest in history, I learned the stories of Washington Square itself. The George Washington Arch, had been designed by Stanford White (he of Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Thaw, and “Trial of the Century” fame), and had been modeled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, although on a smaller scale. It commemorated the 100th anniversary of Washington’s election to the presidency, and is probably the most famous of New York’s monuments.
However, my favorite story about the park and the Washington Arch is the story of the man who lived in it for about six months. There is a small, rusty door in the arch, and it had been left open in those less paranoid days. What we would call today a homeless man had entered the monument and had set up home there. He was only discovered and evicted from his temporary residence when he began hanging his laundry over the top of the Arch.