Whether told around a table of loved ones, on a movie screen, or even in a series of YouTube fails, the story of how holiday plans turn spectacularly wacky is a perennial favorite.
This is not one of those stories.
Between the two of us, the Connoisseurs have enjoyed holidays in just about every inside-out way you can think of. We have celebrated our birthdays with total strangers, honored Christmas and Easter in cultures firmly nonchristian, and spent traditional gathering times by feasting in contented solitude. What we lose in nostalgia is redeemed by the joy of surprise, the satisfaction of iconoclasm and, not infrequently, some film-worthy spectacular wackiness.
But this year’s Thanksgiving? The only thing spectacular about it was its mediocrity.
I’ll spare you the uninteresting details of how it got that way. Suffice it to say that, despite all our gratitude to be here in this amazing little house at the top of the world, we spent most of the national day of gratitude feeling sorry for ourselves.
Until finally we decided (well, Bryan did) to see what was happening in town.
Calumet used to be the second largest city in all of Michigan. Today, it’s a husk of invincible red stone Beaux Arts buildings and a hardy but dwindling population. Its main streets feature five shuttered businesses to every one that still survives. A majority of the latter are bars, and this gave us some hope that one might be open and playing the final quarter of the Lions game.
(It should indicate just how low our holiday cheer levels were, that watching the Lions play football was our highest aspiration.)
Our prospects didn’t look good. We passed Shute’s Saloon, the L&L, the Michigan House, the bar that just says “Bar.” All of them had gone from comatose to flatline. No warmth manifested behind their papered-over windows, no smokers flanked their forbidding doors.
After a hope-killing tour around the block, we gave up and headed to Harter’s party store. It was still Thanksgiving; this is still America; we could at least make nachos and drink beer in recognition.
We walked in to find Josh, the clerk, in a refreshingly perky mood. (I almost wondered whether he knew what day it was.) When Bryan asked him if anywhere might be open and showing the football game, he seemed taken aback by the question.
“I would think so,” he said, second-guessing himself out of surprise. “The Northend Bar is serving their turkey dinner; I bet they have the game on.”
We’d heard rumors about the Northend. Short rumors, consisting mainly of “don’t go in there.” But the prospect of going home seemed, at that moment, worse than the prospect of getting knifed at a dive bar in the snowbound middle of nowhere.
That was how we found ourselves following a concluding smoker through a papered-over door and into the weirdest Thanksgiving I’ve ever spent.
The place was dark, dank, and completely packed with people. Most were the usual suspects, hard-faced Yoopers in battered woolens and Stormy Kromer caps crusted over by time. But there were also tow-headed little girls and boys, attended by young mothers with festive hair done hastily, encouraging them to eat their beans and sweet potatoes.
Because beans and sweet potatoes there were in abundance. The back wall was lined with chafing dishes offering a classically midwestern holiday feast: limp green beans drowning in cream of mushroom soup, sweet potatoes under a calcified marshmallow crust, box stuffing, box mashed potatoes, box gravy…and a turkey whose crisp skin and golden juices promised to transcend everything they touched.
Most places we go in the Keweenaw, we’re met with a look. You wouldn’t call it purely curious, but you can’t quite accuse it of being hostile. I would describe it as a look of constipated reserved judgment.
This evening, however, we enjoyed a holiday parole. I don’t mean people instead gave us looks of kindly welcome; I mean they didn’t look at us at all. Every eye in the place was locked on the three TVs where the Lions were making a miracle comeback just as we walked in the door.
And thence came Moral of the Story #1:
For an outsider, being ignored is sometimes the warmest possible welcome.
We filled our plates and found the last two open seats in the house at a small table in the back corner between the pool table and two grimy guitars plugged into a dust-covered amp.
Moral of the Story #2:
If the room appears less warm and bright than you’d like, go sit in the darkest corner. Everything looks better from there.
Between the Lions’ potential for a miracle win and the three or four young children running amok while their mothers gnawed turkey bones and stared prayerfully into the screens, the old Northend felt infused with a sense of hope that was positively Dickensian.
Bryan immediately joined the prayerful gazes locked on the TV screens, while I wandered around examining the walls that, between the paeans to service in the U.S. Army, were papered with old photographs of past Northend shindigs.
Looking at these pictures, I wondered how many of these people were still living, who of them might be sitting near us right now, and which ones might have, like us, shown up that night for the first time.
As the Lions prepared for their field goal, the mood climbed to a feverish pitch. The tow-headed children began to run laps around the pool table. The mothers joined the fathers at the bar, and the old women straightened up while the old men hunkered down in their seats.
A few moments later, I found out what Yooper joy looks like as the place erupted. Hands slammed down on tables; arms flew up in the air; the bartender squealed “I won!” as the owner loudly groused “I’m out 30 dollars—those sons of bitches!”
The unexpected hospitality with its even less expected quality.
The object lessons against despair and snobbery.
Add in the football team’s fourth quarter comeback, and it was just too heartwarmingly pedagogic to stomach.
I looked at Bryan and asked,
“Are our lives about to end in the closing credits of a Hallmark channel movie?”
He did the right thing–he ignored my question (thereby confirming that this was real life, since no Hallmark leading man would do this to the leading lady) and got up to help the bartender, who was cleaning up the remains of the feast. Her name is Kim. The owner’s name is Paul. They do this dinner every year. So maybe we’ll be back. Maybe by next year, our faces will even be on the wall.
Moral Lesson #3:
If you’re unhappy at home, go outside.
Like so many holiday moral lessons, it was one I ought to have known all along.