Six People. A Winter Night. And The Shinola Hotel

BY Sarah Waldrop

It’s a couple days beyond Christmas, and large snowflakes float toward the historic streets of Downtown Detroit. The sounds of the city can’t be dimmed, and neither can its festive mood. Garland dresses storefronts. Lights twinkle above as dusk nears. Ice skaters glide and spin on a glassy cold surface.

At the center of this sits the Shinola Hotel, not yet three years old but already weaving itself into the hub of the Motor City. Just south of the hotel is Cadillac Square, where the brave and bundled revelers smile their way through a tinseled holiday market. The brisk winds that sweep through Parker’s alley, located behind the hotel, carry music from far beyond the bricks and boutiques that line this storied pathway.

It is here where I meet the first person who will occupy my memories from one Sunday at the end of a long December.

Armed with a microphone and raw talent, she offers a rich and vibrant voice that echoes off walls and stops people in their tracks. No matter how they sound, no matter how they are packaged, her notes are pitch perfect and enjoyed by those who don’t even know her name. As she sways with the rhythm of the music, snapping her fingers and beckoning the crowd closer, I am mesmerized by the spark in her eyes. There is a passion that you can see and feel as each song ends – an unrelenting joy that only comes from doing what you love.

Inside the warmth of the hotel, a favorite gathering place called the Living Room is alive with a crackling fire and clusters of people coming in from the cold. Hot drinks are simply an accessory to the cozy quarters that surround. Plush velvet couches beckon, while bright artwork adorns each wall. I sit in a chair; my coffee sits on a table. Within reach is a display of records and a turntable. Will anyone turn it on?

If they do, they will crowd out the sound of another soul we meet today. In the corner closest to the fire, a man hammers away on the keys of a laptop. There is a focus in this weekend warrior’s eyes as he deciphers various grids and graphs spread across his screen. When most are on holiday break, he appears to be on the clock. Is it wisdom etched into his fine wrinkles and furrowed brows? Earnestness? Anxiety? Or all of the above?

He’s not alone. At his feet, a small dog is deeply committed to a curled-up slumber, unencumbered by his companion’s concerns or the commotion that surrounds them. Like the children consumed just a few nights before by visions of sugar-plumbs dancing in their heads, this white, curly-haired terrier is no doubt basking in dreams of delicious treats, long walks and games of fetch.

Venturing further into the hotel, I am welcomed by robust wreaths and trees adorned with leather ornaments. Close your eyes and you’re in a forest, the smell of pine radiates with the force of someone nearby just offering a spritz of cologne.

Upon checking in, a petite receptionist enters the story, walking this first-time guest through winding hallways. Eventually, she points me in the direction of the San Morello restaurant, a must-visit for anyone coming to The Shinola Hotel with an appetite.

Today, however, the food shares center stage. Directly in front of the Italian eatery is a vintage Ford pickup truck, its red and white paint dull from years on the road and many miles of service. Three Christmas trees occupy the bed of the truck, and the earthy musk again tickles my nose. My host shows me different tents outside, each heated and decorated like a cozy cabin in the woods. For a private meal, you can have a Camp Birdy tent to yourself. This is a chance to be bundled in blankets with a chandelier made of antlers floating just above.

The sun begins to disappear behind the city skyline, and the crowds of people that walked up and down Woodward Avenue begin to thin. It’s a quiet night – the kind of evening spent with a good book under a capable blanket in a quiet room.

This is what I’m seeking as I head to the elevators. But I am interrupted by a young couple rounding the corner, hands intertwined like a lock and its matching key. A warm aura surrounds them as they look for a place to have dinner. This is the story that can’t be confined by a book.

What is the love story that lies just under the surface of their smiles? Was it love at first sight? Or, like an epic fairytale, are they here after a journey filled with obstacles that needed to be overcome?

No matter the answer, what is clear is these two are at home with each other despite being far away from theirs.

And so am I. Within the warm walls of my room, wrapped in wool with that book at my side, I wonder about these people even amid the realization I will likely never see any of them again or unravel the mysteries they hold. But there is a mystery that the sights and sounds, this community and these confines can help me unravel: Me. I am the sixth person I need to meet – even if for the thousandth time – on this winter night at the Shinola Hotel.

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