My sister and I spent nearly every Christmas Day when we were growing up at the Greyhound bus terminal in Detroit – going nowhere.
Our family fell a little short of the Norman Rockwell version of Christmas. Like many people, my mother struggled with the pressures of Christmas Day and dealing with three small children.
As a result, my maternal grandparents, who owned a little bar on Michigan Avenue, stepped in and created what would become one of the quirkiest – and most memorable – holiday traditions.
They took us to the bus terminal on Congress Street because it was one of the few places you could go in Detroit on Christmas Day in the late 1950s and early 1960s to get a meal and entertain unruly kids. Most everything else was closed for the holiday.
Today, my mother tells me she had no idea where we went on Christmas Day. She never asked and nobody ever told her.
When I was growing up, Grandma was an entrepreneur, tending bar in Detroit six days a week at her namesake Rose Cafe. She did not have the time or the inclination to help my mother out with domestic chores or step in and bake Christmas cookies and a turkey dinner.
My father, a Detroit policeman, was often working the afternoon or midnight shift. He sometimes would leave a trail of footprints in the snow behind our bedroom window to prove that Santa had come, but he had to work, too.
That was just fine with my sister and me.
Of course, we wore our best holiday outfits – matching velvet dresses with scratchy lace collars handmade by our grandmother, white knee socks and black patent leather shoes – for our annual Christmas Day sojourn.
Grandma and Grandpa picked us up in their Oldsmobile around noon and we would head downtown, first swinging by Woodward Avenue to look at the seasonal window displays in the J.L. Hudson Department Store.
The bus terminal was close to what Grandma called “skid row” on nearby Brush Street and not far from Detroit burlesque houses, advertising such mysteries as the “Famous Tiger Dance.” It was heaven to a seven-year-old who was born to spy on adults and loved going to forbidden places.
In 1958, our friends may have been standing in the long lines at the Ford Rotunda in neighboring Dearborn, with its 35-foot-tall Christmas tree, a display of 2,000 dolls and a Santa who was seated in a multi-story castle. They received a gift, usually a box of candy and a Ford Rotunda Christmas book (featuring the Ford line of cars), but we were having just as much fun hanging out with the travelers and derelicts.
And we always came away with our own memento: a treasured strip of black-and-white images with Grandma taken in the bus station’s photo booth.
Upon arriving at the Greyhound terminal, our grandparents would treat us to a holiday meal in the Post House Cafeteria.
We’d stand in line with weary travelers, secretly pretending that we were on the way to Muncie or Milwaukee. Behind the counter was a man in a white paper hat who was missing most of his teeth. He’d ladle out bowls of chicken noodle soup and smile at us. For dessert, it was sometimes Jell-O topped with whipped cream or any amount of candy we wanted from the vending machines in the hallway.
Grandpa’s pockets bulged with spare change that he’d saved up all month from serving drinks to Detroit autoworkers. After eating, we’d head into the station’s pinball arcade and spend the rest of the afternoon playing games. If we weren’t too tired, we’d head over to the Michigan Theater and watch movies like How the West Was Won and Mary Poppins.
The trip was the culmination of a holiday season in which we invariably got mixed messages about Christmas from my mother.
She would bustle around for most of December getting ready for the big day. One year, she bought the first aluminum tree in our neighborhood and spent any extra cash accumulating cerise-colored ornaments for it from the five-and-dime store and setting up a rotating colored spotlight to illuminate it.
She bought giant plastic candy canes that lit up from the Lillian Vernon catalog and lined them up along our driveway, outdoing just about everybody else on Archdale Street. There were always lots of presents under the tree, including a Miss Revlon doll for me, several outfits for my sister’s Barbie doll and toys for my infant brother.
My mother’s big task was making Christmas Eve dinner for my grandparents, who would come over to our house after closing the bar early at 9 p.m. My mother put a lot of pressure on herself to come up with an impressive meal.
By the time midnight rolled around, she was exhausted from the cooking and the anxiety. The greatest gift my grandparents could give her was to entertain the kids on Christmas Day. And so it was “go Greyhound
On Easter, the story was the same, but the holiday venue would change. My grandparents took us to Detroit Metro Airport, where we wore our Sunday best and headed into the terminal, again without luggage. At the time, visitors could stand on an outside observation deck and watch the planes flying in and out. You could always grab a bite to eat at the airport coffee shop.
My sister and I outgrew the holiday excursions with our grandparents. If we did go out to dinner with them on Christmas Day in later years, it was a definite upgrade. We dined at the Flaming Embers restaurant at Woodward and Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit, where you could get a T-bone steak, baked potato, salad and a Coke for $1.19.
But I think those Christmases with Greyhound had a profound impact on what we would become.
My sister ventured into the world beyond the bus terminal and became a globetrotter, living in such exotic locales as Spain and Saudi Arabia.
I spent my early career as a reporter covering the Midwest for a number of publications and then transitioned to reporting about the global auto industry with visits to Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Seoul, Stockholm, Paris, Milan and London. Bus stations and airports were my home away from home for years.
Our holiday traditions now center on hearth and home, but they tend to feel a little prosaic.
The real spirit of Christmas for me will always be about staring up at the posters in the windows of Detroit burlesque houses in the frosty air and anticipating the steaming bowl of soup at the bus station.
Greyhound Bus Terminal, Detroit Historial Society.
Depression-era Santa ornament belonged to my grandmother.