Last Call at Marfreless: "I Needed Closure"
Photos by Francisco Montes
Tom Lytle sits at the end of the bar, lamenting his last night at his favorite hole in the wall.
"It's an atrocity, it's an institution and it shouldn't be messed with," says the loyal patron of Marfreless for more than 40 years. "I moved with them here and I will be there if they move again."
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Lytle first came to Marfreless as a college student, when the bar's motto was "Beer, Bach and Beethoven." It offered refined ambiance and lively conversation, with original owner Fred Hong manning the bar.
"No matter what your view was, he would argue the opposite, but it was always in fun," says Lytle.
Kay Fitzpatrick shares the same sense of wistfulness in coming out. "It's an important part of my life... so many memories," she says. "I needed closure."
Fitzpatrick looks young for a customer of 19 years, with good reason - she first came to the River Oaks bar when she was underage, a seemingly common thread among many regulars. After all, this is a place with an "anything goes" reputation.
Fitzpatrick's companion, Krisnah Ougrah, admits, "I saw people having sex upstairs and got the courage to do it myself." He follows by revealing the skinny on some local athletes (who will remain anonymous) treating their mistresses to nights out under this very roof.
While most bear some emotional animosity towards Weingarten Realty for the decision to oust the much-loved dive, CPAs Lance Hack and Terri (who wouldn't give a last name) maintain that it's just bad business.
"Weingarten would benefit by letting [Marfreless] continue - it would be good for everyone," says Hack. "It's interesting and adventurous. What else are they going to put back here?"
Of course, he means the bar's tucked-away location in the rear of the River Oaks strip center.
"Not a nail salon!" interjects Terri.
"The fact that it exists provokes a sense of mystery for the shopping experience," adds Hack.
Tonight, however, there is no mystery to be found. Normally quiet and sparsely attended, the bar is packed to the gills for its swan song. Hundreds of casual patrons and first-timers are getting into the "when in Rome" spirit, but it must be said that what the Romans did was far more discreet.
Known in whispered tones as a "makeout bar," Marfreless's upstairs offered dark rooms and spacious couches for people who sought not to be seen. Quiet lovers shared affections and sometimes fluids in a no-gawkers-allowed environment. Thank heaven for vinyl upholstery.
But for this final Saturday, the bar has turned the lights up to bare all for the world to see. Men in heavily embroidered button-ups bounce from settee to settee where they are promptly attended to by the hands and mouths of awaiting women, game for just about anything.
They are tourists of ancient ruins, reclaiming the debauchery, but not the spirit of these hallowed grounds. One unnamed woman exclaims, "I saw a lot of people fuck here, so I came all the way from San Antonio for tonight!"
But Lytle defends his turf.
"Yeah, it was a makeout bar... but there were other aspects," he says.
The person with the lowdown on these other aspects is Ely Ramirez, who is holding court on the back sidewalk, open this one and only night for the smokers. She swings a plastic Solo shot glass spilling an unidentified spirit about as she spins tales of the bar-family she has come to know and love.
While many of Ramirez's stories are hilarious accounts of disastrous sexcapades she witnessed over the years (puking prostitutes, nude lesbians on pills, elderly oral sex), the most resonant is about the one thing that would never fly at Marfreless: racism.
She recounts the time a group of white customers were railing against illegal immigrants and grew a bit too rowdy. "One of them said 'Mexicans need to go back to Mexico' and Misty [the bartender] slammed her fists on the bar and said, 'Did they fuckin' just say that!?'"
Ramirez and the bartender urged the upsetting clientele to hit the bricks, but were forced to call the police when things escalated. The Latina officer dispatched to the scene was none too happy to hear that one of the offending parties had called Ramirez a "dirty Mexican," and gave them a personal police escort off the property.
Saturday night, Lytle, Fitzpatrick, Hack, Terri the CPA and Ramirez all shared the feeling that they were losing a part of themselves. They held strong that bartender Adam Hong, son of Fred, and his staff truly cared about their nightly visitors.
They were offered cold drinks, meaningful talks and a backdrop for indelible memories like the time Fitzpatrick got engaged "at that table right over there," or Terri faced down prejudice when a man asked her, "Does your father know you're here with him?" in reference to her interracial relationship, and even when Ramirez walked in on a male member of a surprising hue.
"It was so pink!!!"
Marfreless was indeed more than a makeout bar, it was a place where your drink of choice was waiting for you the second you walked in the door. Bartender Vincent Spica is optimistic on the bar's future prospects, though.
"It will come back new and better than ever," he says. "But it's an excellent environment -- you can't recreate it."
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