Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Goodnight Irene


When I was ten years old, I traveled to Detroit with Maw Maw George on a Greyhound bus to visit my uncle and aunt.  I took a school tablet along to record the events of my big trip.

I felt all grown up, sitting next to Maw Maw, the big bus roaring through town after town on our way to the big city. Two fat ladies in the seat in front of us talked non-stop; behind us, a baby whined and pulled at his mother's polka-dot blouse. A chubby man with a handlebar mustache, head back, mouth open, snored peacefully across the aisle.

We rode for miles and miles; the humming of the engine almost putting me to sleep. But I was wide awake when we wheezed to a stop at a roadside diner.

The top song that summer was Goodnight Irene, and it was whining from the jukebox as we entered.  Several men were propped on stools at the counter, eating, smoking cigarettes, reading newspapers. 

Maw Maw and I ordered the blue plate special:  ham, mashed potatoes and green beans.  Unlike Mother's tasty fried ham, crisp and lacy around the edges, ours was ice-cold. And the lumps in my mashed potatoes were as big as my fists.

“They mashed these with water,” Maw Maw said, “And not a bit of butter in them!”

All of the food was strange and foreign, like the Greyhound we had just rolled in on. 

Excerpt from my diary:  The food is awful.  There is not a bit of butter in the mashed potatoes.

It was dark by the time we finished eating, and as we boarded the bus I wondered what everyone at home was doing. Probably having supper, I surmised, picturing everyone around the big dining table.  Suddenly, I wished I were there, among familiar things, eating Mother's good food.

“Time will pass faster if you go to sleep,” Maw Maw said, giving me a sympathetic look, “Why don't you lie down here in the seat?”

I put my head in her soft, cushy lap, waist-length hair hanging over the side of the seat. It was nearly touching the aisle, and I drifted to sleep hoping no one tripped on it on their way to the bathroom.

I was jerked awake by loud voices and smacking noises. The two fat ladies were eating fried chicken. “Gimme that leg,” one said. Across the aisle, Mustache was wide awake and talking to Polka-Dot. “Deetroit City has been mighty good to me,” he said, “I'm makin' real good money up there!” 

Excerpt:  People make real good money in Detroit.

After a while, the fried-chicken women began bumping and rustling as they packed up their leftovers and Mustache was snoring again. I wasn't accustomed to sitting in one place so long, and I was bored:  Would we ever get there?

Miles later, the bus began slowing. “Benton Harbor, Michigan!” called the driver as we groaned to a stop, “We'll be here forty-five minutes.” He cranked the door open and scrambled out of his seat.

A thrill rushed through my body as I gazed at the clock on the wall of the diner. Three o'clock! I had never been up at three o'clock in the morning in my whole life! I felt I was in on something. Something only adults knew about.

The diner was crowded and thick with cigarette smoke, food smells drifting through the air.  Hamburgers sizzled, milkshakes whirred, and the jukebox played non-stop. Goodnight Irene was playing when we got there, and it was playing when we left.

Excerpt:  I hate HATE Goodnight Irene!!!  It is corney!!!

Maw Maw smiled and patted my head. “Won't be long until we're there.”  She took a sip of her soup and immediately put down her spoon.  "There's not a bit of beef in this soup!" 

“I'll second that!

Startled, we looked around. Mustache was sitting at a table nearby, eating beef soup and smoking a cigarette at the same time. He grinned and waved his spoon at us.

Maw Maw and I began giggling. We were still giggling when we boarded the bus, and we giggled on and off the rest of the way to Detroit.

Excerpt:  There is a man on this bus that is real funny.  He has a great big mustache like Wiat Urp.

We had a wonderful time in the big city. We picnicked in the biggest park I had ever seen, and we shopped at Hudson's, the biggest department store I had ever seen. We went to the gigantic Fox Theater, which had the highest ceilings I had ever seen, and I had my first banana split.  I rode an escalator for the first time.

But what was most exciting was spending the week at Uncle Tom and Aunt Vi's boarding house. I enjoyed being around the boarders.  One in particular.

Art wore white T-shirts and tight Levis and smoked Camel cigarettes. There was a tattoo of a woman's face on one hairy arm; "Darla" on the other. He had a great personality, kidded me constantly, and was always humming Goodnight Irene.  He had taps on his big work boots, and my heart thumped each time he came clicking down the stairs.   

When our visit was over, I had mixed feelings.  I was anxious to get home, but I hated to leave.  The trip went much faster, though; I slept a lot, did a lot of thinking, and wrote in my diary:

I had a real real good time in Detroit.  We went to lots of places and saw lots of things and had lots of fun.  Uncle Tom & Aunt Vi & Art are real nice and Goodnight Irene is my verry favorite song. 

4 comments:

Lorrie said...

I really enjoyed riding the bus to Detroit with you Brenda. I used to ride the Greyhound Bus with my grandmother from the Port Authority terminal in NYC to upstate NY to visit with my uncle and his family, so I can relate to your experience!

Jeanna said...

I love the stories about your childhood the best, Brenda. Such memory, such detail.

Brenda said...

Thanks, Jeanna!

Brenda said...

Thanks, Lorrie!

All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley