We call it the hooker bus.
It’s one of the more unusual Thurston family traditions, but it appeared at most holiday gatherings that I attended as a child. My great-grandma would host these elaborate dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas—more food than you could ever physically consume, but just enough to satisfy your imagination. Some years, there were twenty, twenty-five people there, clumped in groups throughout Grandma’s one-story, ranch-style house. As a child, I wandered from group to group, taking in the bits and pieces of conversation between mouthfuls of pumpkin pie and hot butterhorn rolls. Not everyone in the family got along, and when you added girlfriends, boyfriends, piercings, and politics, it became a situation that was interesting, to say the least.
Then there was the alcohol.
I have a great aunt who enjoys her wine. Her crisp, Southern laugh becomes more pronounced with every glass of cool white wine or rich Chianti, her sunkissed skin glowing with the effects of alcohol and the still baking-hot kitchen. No matter where I wandered in that house, I could detect her laughter soaring over the defensive, argumentative chatter of other family members refusing to “play nice.” When the laughter mixed with the sounds of chairs being moved across the creamy-yellow linoleum floor, I knew what was coming. The hooker bus was gearing up for its passengers.
The round table in the kitchen would be without its caned chairs, the rocking chair in an unusual spot, the old wooden stool removed from its place underneath the telephone on the wall. The more outspoken women in my family—and sometimes, a few brave men (one of whom would have to be the driver, if they could convince him)—would be taking their places on “the bus,” the chairs lined up in rows. My mom swears that this whole thing started because, as they were cleaning up and re-arranging the chairs, the chairs “somehow” ended up in rows that resembled seats on a bus.
The “bus” also happened to be stationed by my grandma’s liquor-housing hutch, so as the passengers took their seats, they also received a token ten-year-old bottle for the ride. Then they all would go on the make-believe journey through Richmond, calling out all the stops where hookers might usually find clientele: “Broad Street! Lombardi!” One Thanksgiving, Grandma’s pretentious, New York City-bred friend joined us for dinner, and when she got on the bus, it took a northern route. No one had ever been on the New York City streets that sly, fashionable Phyllis Waslyck called out, but everyone laughed and played along anyway. As long as the wine was flowing, the bus was still moving. They even convinced some of our conservative Midwestern relatives to get on the bus.
I’m too young to remember the complex ins-and-outs of the whole Thurston hooker bus system, but I do remember this: the energy that was generated in that kitchen when the chairs were lined up was infectious.
Those ladies could really work it.
There’s a great photo of the hooker bus in action: my mom with a devilish grin and her sister laughing with glee, their bottles raised high. It’s hidden somewhere in our overflowing boxes of family memorabilia, but in my mind it’s still clear. Its edges blur with memories of so many other Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but that single moment—the moment of laughter sparked by the mystic ritual of the hooker bus—sticks in my head as a reminder of the unity and sense of belonging that I felt.
This is in itself a bit ironic, since the hidden purpose of the hooker bus—the one that lay just below the surface of the alcohol and the laughter—was to act as coping device for the many unusual people that would accompany some of my relatives to these occasions. A few highlights: girlfriend and her very strange children, boyfriend with safety pins in should-not-be-pinned places, estranged family members, new wives, bizarre hair colors, friends in blaze-orange hunting gear. Though some members of my family shared choice looks and critical whispers, eventually even the most unusual guest was invited onto the hooker bus, incorporated and implicated in Thurston legend forever.
In the end, I suppose that families are like all other clubs or groups: there are rules and rites of passage that determine membership—who gets to belong and who is pushed to the side, whose opinion counts and whose is dismissed. The hooker bus may be a strange tradition, but it’s a family tradition, nonetheless—an act of solidarity that, in a unique, alcohol- and turkey coma-induced way, attempted to open itself up to those who were without and bring them in.
Now the Thurston family is a little more fragmented than it was in the glory days of the hooker bus; there have been few occasions that most of the family has gathered since my grandma died in 2001. The chairs that formed the hooker bus are in homes all across Virginia, the liquor bottles in the hutch have all been tossed away, and the linoleum floors in my grandma’s kitchen are trampled by foreign feet.
What I think I miss most, though, is the confident, brave gesture that my mom and my great aunt made while lining up those chairs every year. In the face of conflict and change, they refused to abandon what started as a silly, inebriated idea. Come hell or high water, in the hot kitchen of Grandma’s house, the hooker bus was setting out, every year, every Thanksgiving, every Christmas. Regardless of the weather. Regardless of who showed up. Regardless of politics, piercings, disagreement. Out of the necessity of rearranging chairs—of rearranging family, and ideas, and perspectives—came something that defined the Thurston way.
We call it the hooker bus.
To the captains of the Hooker Bus and the finest Sweet Adeline I knew, I miss you more than you know.