04 July 2006

Hitchhiking From Saginaw

The first song to pop up on my iPod this morning was, fittingly enough on this Independence Day, Simon and Garfunkel's "America." Two lines from it always get a rise out of me: "Michigan seems like a dream to me now," and "It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw."

Michigan has seemed like a dream to me for most of my life, except for the first 20 years, when it was more of a nightmare. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence concocting schemes about how best to get away; when I was no more than six or eight, I was begging my dad to move across the river to Ontario, where my mother was born. My motivations were simple ones at the time: they had legal fireworks over there, and candy stores were called "confectioneries," which struck me as no end of cool. But Windsor also had an air of tranquility - some might even have called it somnolence - that contrasted vividly with the gruff, brawling, hard-nosed and dirty goings-on on the Detroit side.

As a teenager I made bold plans to study at the University of Windsor - bold in light of the fact that as a foreigner I'd have to pay four or five times what a Michigan uni would cost, and my parents couldn't afford even that. The present system of student loans hadn't yet been invented, and if I was going to college at all, I was going to have to win some sort of scholarship. Having occasionally showed signs of being a very good student, I should have been able to manage that, but by 10th grade I'd decided that drinking and hanging out with the gang was far more important than studying for an unpromising future, and I was lucky to win even a partial scholarship. For that matter, I was lucky to graduate; 12th grade was a pretty much nonstop bout of drunkenness and petty crime of which I have only hazy memories. It was only the fact that some brief interludes of lucidity earlier on had allowed me to rack up some high grades that couldn't be completely canceled out by that largely lost year.

By 1969, when I first heard Simon and Garfunkel's "America," I'd been kicked out of college three times, once for trying to burn the place down, and I'd pretty much given up on education as a bad mistake. I had finally gotten out of Michigan, but even that had required the intervention of the Ann Arbor police and the FBI; a potential prison sentence of 20 to life proved a powerful motivator to head out and see the USA. A combination of hitchhiking, freight train hopping, Greyhound buses and the hippie underground railroad ferried me between Ohio, New York and California until the fuss died down and it was relatively safe to come back.

Now I was on probation, which bore with it two onerous conditions: I had to have a job, and I wasn't allowed to leave the state of Michigan. In the meantime, and here's where the other line of the song comes in: I'd gotten involved with someone from Saginaw, and was spending way too much time hitching up and down US-23 and I-75. It didn't really take me four days - it was less than a hundred miles - but it often seemed like it. Hitchhiking was easier in those days, but still challenging for a freakish-looking person like myself. I was on the cusp of my transition from long, greasy-haired thug-rocker to long, clean-haired glam-rocker, and neither look was particularly appealing to Mr. and Mrs. America.

And what of Saginaw? If Flint, as some have opined, is a half-assed version of Detroit, Saginaw is its quarter-assed counterpart. Dirty, ugly, industrial - well, it may not be anymore, but it certainly was in those days - but also isolated and provincial. Its main claims to fame as I recall are being the home town of ? and the Mysterians and being the Minneapolis to Bay City's St. Paul, the neighboring town which gave birth to Madonna (you probably don't need a link to find out about her). Apologies to any other famous Saginaw or Bay City-ites I've overlooked.

My most resilient memory of those days is of strolling through town in full-on glam regalia during my Alice Cooper phase. This would have been a year or two later, probably the spring of 1971. Tiny black velvet jacket, gold lamé trousers, patent leather boots, 14 colors of eye makeup, everything necessary to frighten the horses had there still been any plying the streets of Saginaw. As I walked past a junior high school, the entire student body seemed to come flocking to the windows as one, shouting "Alice!" at me as their teachers vainly tried to corral them back into their seats. At the time I felt like almost as big a rock star as the real Alice Cooper, who was all over the Detroit charts with the single "I'm Eighteen," but after more sober reflection in recent years, it occurs to me that the kids were merely reacting the way junior high school kids do to any freak of nature: with merciless ridicule.

And when I started this post, it was more with the intention of musing on the wide-open spaces of America that have always lured adventurers and crazies, not to reminisce about a smallish city in Michigan's midsection, but I guess you have to let this writing lark take you where it wants to fly. I still have a soft spot in my heart - some would say my head - for Michigan, and appreciate it in a way I never was able to when I actually lived there. In my darker imaginings, I wonder if I'll end up back there again someday, though both common sense and all my instincts strain against the very notion. But as I - or S&G, actually - say, it seems like a dream to me now, much like the one I woke up from this morning, in which an ambitious neighbor had bulldozed a Tahoe-sized lake into the hillside of my old Spy Rock home. "If only I'd stuck around a little bit longer," I mused, before the neighborhood children blasted me into full-fledged wakefulness with a barrage of firecrackers outside my window. Happy Birthday, America, wherever you are!


Anonymous said...

Saginaw's not so bad now. Bay City is pretty much a dump but it still has the most impressive 4 story antique store that I've ever seen. They have a whole floor dedicated to old comic books and magazines. That's always been my favorite Simon and Garfunkel song, though. I used to drive down to Saginaw almost every week because it was the closest city I live to. I thought it was pretty big back then but it's not. But, it's nice.

Ed White said...

Saginaw is not so bad?? He's right...Detroit/Flint/Saginaw being exactly alike but just different sizes. I fled there to Bay City, where you can walk the streets any time of day or night and not get shot. My son fled there as well...two gunfights in his front yard and the sound of gunfire constantly in the night did it. To say it's a Hell Hole is an understatement. Adios, Saginaw.

Anonymous said...


I rest my case.