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Stranger on a Train

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The pretty brown haired woman was lounging in the window seat paging through a magazine when I sat down. Shortly after The Amtrak Empire Builder pulled out of Union Station, she put down the magazine and cuddled up facing the window. About an hour later, after I'd returned from the snack car to watch the sunset, we began a conversation that lasted all the way to Minnesota.

She described a lonely life. An only child, she left her hometown of Flint, Michigan, after graduating from high school in 1979, pursued a career in rock music, went broke, moved back to Flint, and just that morning (after a three-month wait for her date in bankruptcy court) had fled again that automotive ghost town, which she made sound as depressing as the documentary Roger & Me had. She'd reached Chicago at noon, itching for a taste of big-city life and a stroll through Water Tower Place. With only three hours between trains she settled for Chinese fast food and a walk around the Sears Tower. Bound for the Twin Cities to live with an out-of-work roadie, someone who's fathered three kids by three women, she laughed at her fate, almost as bleak as that of all those unemployed autoworkers she'd left behind.

We were somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin when I asked if I could write her story. "Sure," she said. "Just as long as you dont use my name, which you don't know anyway."

As Flint tells it, she hasn't had much luck in the place her parents called "Minnehopeless." Last August she returned one night to her rented room to find at almost all her music equipment had been stolen. Nearly $13,000 in debt, she decided to return to Flint, leaving her band without its bass player. The bankruptcy lawyer in her hometown promised to absolve her of all debts for $620. She went to work at the Quick-Save a mile away from her parents' house, where she made $160 a week, and spent hours talking long-distance to her boyfriend. She showed me a picture of the two of them. She was a blond then and he, a longhair who appeared as she's described him: he had the seedy, burnt-out look of a guy who has wrecked one too many cars and gone on too many binges for his parents to extend any more loans. She said that he's toured with big-name groups like Prince and Metallica, and that he's promised to bring her along for the ride when he gets the next call.

He was the one to drive her home last September. "I hadn't been there in 13 years," she said, "so I called my cousin and asked her, what do people do here? She's a stripper, which is the only way that women in Flint can make money. There's about seven strip joints in this one district. My cousin works at Vasco's, which is the wildest one. You can't touch the women but they can do anything they want. They sit on your lap and go up and down. They'll even wrap their legs around your face. The police just did a crackdown. They were arresting 10 or 12 women day, saying they violated some code. The strip-joint owners were arguing that these women should be able to work because they had families to support."

What people do in Flint, or at least what they did that first night back, was go to the world premiere of Pets or Meat. Named for a sign advertising the rabbits a woman raised in her backyard, the film is the sequel to Roger & Me, a brutal expose of a one-company town abandoned by General Motors. In Pets or Meat filmmaker Michael Moore picks up where he left off: progress, this native son finds, is six new Taco Bells in Flint.

The Pets or Meat premiere was free and drew a big crowd to the Whiting Auditorium for speeches and then the film. "Behind all the press and the politicians and the college kids who came from Ann Arbor were typical shop people," she recalled. "When the head of the United Auto Workers spoke, all these union people were raising their fists. It was weird, this energy of a crowd that believes in something and is moved by a powerful speech. Almost everybody was fat and wearing polyester pants from K mart that are this much too short. Flint is a blue-collar town and never claims to be anything else, so the people came as they are."

Being there with her boyfriend, a Minnesotan she'd known only a few months, heightened the sensation that this was a bizarre scene. "It wasn't like I felt proud. It was more like, 'This is where I'm from, isn't this wild? Now you can see why I left.'"

In recent months her family has tried to persuade her to stay, but she left town more resolved than ever not to return. "I felt like I didn't belong. It isn't home, it's Michigan. My grandmother asked, 'What's the matter, isn't this place good enough for you?' I said, 'I volunteer at major zoos and love my music.' I grew past it."

Home was less than warm. Her dad is retired and living in fear that GM may bankrupt and leave him without a pension. The house is full of guns and tension. His idea of amusement is calling her long-distance and joking about killing his wife and then himself. Her mother sounds like she yearns for the good old days when the drummer for Grand Funk Railroad--one of Flint's several claims to fame--was coming around to East End Bowl.

Her father had expected his only child to go to work in an automotive plant. Her grandfathers had; so did two aunts and most of her cousins. "I had a 3.909 grade point average in high school, so he figured because I was smart I could go to the GM Institute get a skilled trade," she said. "He said GM needed promotable women. He and my mom expected me to marry my high school boyfriend. We were going to have three children."

Wanting no part of that scene, she enrolled at Kankakee's Olivet Nazarene College--a religious institution where students who missed a daily chapel service were fined $5. Her parents had cut her off financially, so she raised the tuition for her second semester by posing nude for Club magazine.

Sophomore-year tuition never became an issue because she and a boyfriend took off in 1980 for what they thought was the Sunbelt. They got no farther than Oklahoma City, where she joined Gulf Oil as a computer operator and he started band called Intimate Axe. "The drummer eventually became my husband," she said. "But before that, he and my boyfriend, who was the bass player, fought a a lot. The smartest thing they ever did was fire me."

She worked her way through Oklahoma City University, earning a degree in zoology and playing in rock bands. "One night this guy walked in the bar and asked, 'Y'all play any Joe Stampley?' When we said no he started shooting into the ceiling. We hurried to protect our equipment--we weren't so afraid for ourselves as for the cost of reconing a speaker."

She and her husband sent tapes to some talent outfits and wound up in the Twin Cities with the Good Music Agency They quickly learned why GMA is known in the industry as the "Good Mileage Agency": they were in lounge bands that toured the country, with so much work that she was even able to quit her day job. She wound up divorced--her husband was just another in a long line of guys who expected her to draw a paycheck so they could pursue their music.

"I'm more than a chick singer, but I didn't start playing bass in a band until 1987. In Minneapolis we had an all-women band called Pink Heat. If we ever put out an album we were going to call it 'Snatches of Pink,'" she said smiling, her brown eyes looking for approval.

"Anybody can be a chick singer. But unless you're a vocalist like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, you're a Gennifer Flowers. You're a bimbo. And age is important for a woman--35 is about it. You can't age gracefully in the music business because it's all tits and ass. Packaging. I've seen girls in lounge bands that are embarrassing. When I was in Sister Max, one of the three front girls had had a nose and tits job. She lived hard and looked it. After one set this guy came up to me and said, 'Hey, me my buddy have a bet that that woman is 40 years old.' She was only 27. I don't want that for me.

"I'd like to have a family," she said, noting that her current man is

the first to express a desire to support her. "As weird as my father is, I'm glad he was there for me. I'm not one of those women who wants a baby for myself. I want somebody committed enough to make a family and be a family. I want my kids to seize the day. If they're into music or science, go for it. Drugs, yes. But be cautious. Sex too, but be cautious, especially nowadays. But you just shouldn't get stuck in a pattern. You have to grow and change with whatever is growing and changing. You can't get stuck like my parents did, saying 'I grew in the 50s or the 60s and those were the good old days.' The 70s were good for me. I had everything I wanted. My father worked for GM. My orthodontist and glasses were paid for. We had a cabin up north. At one tune we had four boats.

"They took my leaving so personally, like I'm cutting down where I come from. I said, 'You gave me the self-confidence and self-esteem to go out and try to do something original.' My father blames himself because I didn't turn out the way he wanted.

"They drove me to Ann Arbor this morning to catch the train. It was so weird. They said, 'There's no need for you to call, just write us.' My mother was saying she doesn't need to shop for long-distance companies because she doesn't make any long-distance calls. And here their only child has been living 1,000 miles away for 13 years."

As we entered the Twin Cities, Flint pondered the prospect of putting her long-distance romance to bed soon. She told me exactly what she wanted to do with her boyfriend the minute they got in the car. But there was a problem. He'd lost his driver's license after crashing one of his father's cars into a lake. Flint giggled, imagining the two of them acting on their urges as his mother drove them home.

When the Empire Builder pulled into the Saint Paul station, I stood and gathered my things for a weeklong Christmas respite, looking forward to seeing my family, some of whom would come to meet me. Flint hauled her belongings down the train's spiral stairs, struggling a bit with the long, stiff bag containing her keyboard. She walked alone into the cold midnight air.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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