Finding home in small town America

Last night I found myself in a bar that’s located just a block from our house in Troy, Montana.  I’ve only been there a few times although it’s our local.

The bar has been there since 1914, on what’s known as Bar Street, a wide street that runs into dust and train tracks on one side. The freight trains that rush by are menacingly close, their horns a scream that shuts down all conversation.

Our friend Kat is visiting from Australia and we were at the bar with some friends to show her Troy nightlife, sitting outside in the heat surrounded by thick smoke from forest fires.

Kat took in the chainsaw carved motorbike, country music, group of Canadian bikers and the wooden sign in the bar which says: This is America: we drink beer, eat meat and speak fuckin’ English. Her mouth made that perfect little O that comics use to illustrate surprise.

The bar is not my scene [although I really dig the penis mural painted in tiny, delicate flowers on the back of the bathroom door], but it’s part of our community here, and Kat’s shock at seeing small-town, racist, conservative America makes me realize how far along the road to becoming American I am.

I’ve clung to being an Australian in America for many years, and clung to the right to ask, as Kat frequently has in her week here: “what is going on here, people? what even is this?”

But after three years in a row in the US and a citizenship ceremony, the split in my identity is happening and it does feel a little like being split in half, a painful but necessary division of cells.

Being American means accepting the shitshow that I see sometimes out my window or at the local bar.

I’m not usually a fan of country music, but a song that played at the bar last night by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow captures a special kind of American self-destruction and a mournful sentimentality that reminds me of life in Troy.

A kid at the high school introduced me to this song years ago, and I could see how he related to the internal fight described in the song: I was headed to church/I was off to drink you away.

In a wider view, I see lots of folks who are finding that the American dream doesn’t live up to its reputation –  I met an upbeat guy from San Diego recently who retired from the oil business and told me that most guys in the business are miserable.

“I can see how they could be unhappy,” I responded and the guy emphasized “not just unhappy. MISERABLE.”

The group of Canadian bikies at the bar last night were as torn as I am about America: they kept asking us if we knew how lucky we were to live in such a beautiful place, but also how could we, how could we, be so impulsive and self-destructive to vote for Trump?

The bar we were at has something of that blend in its generous pours of alcohol. Last night I ordered doubles and regretted it instantly when I saw a full half bottle of vodka go into my glass, followed by a brief baptizing from the soda stream.

In 2003, when I made my first connection to the US through my friend Shawna, who was studying in Melbourne, Bush junior had just enraged the world by sending troops to Iraq, and Shawna copped a lot of anti-Americanism.

With an even more globally unpopular president in power now, Kat told me this week that when she said she was going to America, many of her Australian friends and family asked: “why would you go there?”

Since the glory days after the second world war, the US has slowly slid towards an international reputation as a country which readily foists its culture on other nations but is empty and broken inside.

Growing up, my dad resented the change in Australian English towards the American way – “creeping Americanisms,” he would growl when I used slang as a teenager.

I still don’t know if being American makes me less Australian – if I’m being diluted like my vodka last night wasn’t.

“Will they think you have an American accent when you get back?” our friend Al asked me last night.

“For sure,” I answered “I’ll get so much shit about it.  Don’t you think I sound American?”

Al and his wife Kate giggled at me, warmly amused and so sure of my Australian identity.

Yesterday we took Kat and Luka rafting on the green and roiling Kootenai river and afterwards she confessed to me: “I had no idea what you meant by rafting. I thought maybe we were going to rope some logs together but I figured if you were bringing kids it was probably safe.”

I’m not sure how safe I’d feel about riding logs strung together on the Kootenai, but I’ve grown so accustomed to other things about living here I almost feel I’ll miss them –

The other night I called 911 when a domestic dispute dragged on past 2 am, and was able to get the police to the fight with some very basic directions which didn’t include any street names or house numbers.

We know the guy a bit from passing in the alley behind our house and I feel like I know the couple pretty well after listening to their screaming insults float through our open bedroom window all summer.

The guy seems nice, but fighting with his lady is part and parcel of their existence – is this the “slow hell” Kid Rock describes?

“You’re a crazy bitch!” the guy yelled on that night over the top of her shrill shrieks. Haakon, half asleep, rolled over and put his arm around me, holding tight.

“You’re not a crazy bitch,” he said, rather smugly I thought.

This morning, in a conversation with Kat and Haakon, Kat talked about seeing herself as a New Zealander, although she’s lived in Australia for 12 years. And Haakon said he thinks of himself as “just being me,” although he is a citizen of the US and Australia.

Last night, at the Home bar in Troy, Montana, I listened to Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow crooning “come back home,” and thought about returning home in a few weeks as an Australian – American and one of 325.7 million US citizens with contrasting and dividing identities like mine.


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Small town color and Love

I have to admit, when I first saw the brightly painted, graffiti style van parked in front of the house on the corner, I thought that whoever drove it must be transitory.

A friend said to me once that there are a collection of people who live in this town only because they broke down here.

Maybe that was the case with the occupant of the little yellow house on the corner, a rental with a historically high turnover.

But I started to notice the house’s occupant – long, burgundy hair, sometimes in pigtails – and they weren’t leaving.

Seasons passed, and a sign went up:  a long, wooden, hand-painted sign that said: “Rock’n’Roll is my religion, and Jesus is my lord.”

I’d see someone chopping wood, or mowing, and once I rode past and saw a figure in thigh-high white leather boots standing by a smoldering fire in the backyard.

WHITE LEATHER BOOTS? THIGH HIGH? dressing up in Troy means putting on a pair of clean jeans, so who was this person, and what the heck were they doing here?

Small towns like the one we live in [Troy, Montana, population 900] often have a reputation for being small minded, and less progressive and tolerant than urban areas.

But are they really? There is certainly not much in the way of diversity here, but those who are different from the majority [white, working class, heterosexual, Republican] are often tolerated with a surprising amount of loyalty and love.

I believe I’m one of those who are different but accepted. People will tell me about those damned Californian’s who come up here with their money, and all those foreigners’ coming to take our jobs …and then look at me and say “but not you. I’m not talking about you. You get it.”

People here are sometimes racist and homophobic because they don’t know any different. When I was working at the high school I had to patiently explain to a white student that saying racist things about our then president Obama while sitting next to their African-American friend is hurtful.

The white student looked at me, confused.

It became clear that the black friend was not thought of as black. They were part of the community, accepted, the ‘otherness’ put aside, the color of their skin forgotten.

So I’m not “a foreigner,” or “an immigrant,” to my fellow townspeople, although technically I am both in this country. I am their Australian, someone whose motive’s they understand, someone familiar.

I think the same is true for our bright-van owning, leather boot wearing, lace loving friend.

I’m going to tell you the story of Michaela Love, who was born Michael in Massachusetts in 1959.

“I’ve been here for two years now, I can’t believe it,” said Michaela with a laugh after I finally asked if I could interview her, and she had invited me in and offered coffee.

What do you like about being here? I asked.

Michaela answered that although she misses the city for the music scene, the boutiques, and restaurants, “I like the people [here], there are lots of really good people in this town.”

Michaela’s home is cozy, the walls of the living room lined with her extensive record collection, and crocheted afghan’s on comfortable looking chairs.  This little cottage in Troy feels a long way from her previous home in West Hollywood, where, she said, there was a big transgender and queer community.

Michaela has one whole room devoted to her clothing collection: rows of ruffled, frilly blouses and dresses hanging from every vertical surface.

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Michaela said that coming in with confidence and openness has helped her find a place in the community.

“There is so much hate in the world …I will never contribute to that,” she said, sipping coffee “I try to live up to my name.” Born to Irish Catholic parent’s, Michaela Love is proud of her name and that her relatives carried it when they arrived on the Mayflower [the ship that transported English adventurers to what is now New England, in 1620].

So how did her Catholic parent’s respond when, at age four, Michaela began to ask for soft nightgowns like her sister had?

“My mom is the best kind of Christian,” Michaela explained “she would say ‘it’s not our place to judge.’ It’s Christianity 101. She has always been very accepting of who I am. She still sends me blouses!”

While her father apparently struggled more than her mother with accepting Michaela’s gender identity, and took her to see a therapist [who said: “the harder Michael tries not to be a girl, the more he will be a girl”] he backed her up after she was raped at age 16 by a male neighbor.

“I finally told my father what had happened,” Michaela said “and it was too late to report it, but my father went next door and told the man ‘if you ever go near any of my children again, I will kill you.'”

Sexual harassment is an unfortunately common experience in Michaela’s life, and she has had plenty of practice with comebacks and retorts.

“A man called me a prissy little bitch recently,” she said, ” and I just said to him: well, I may be, but I’m not your bitch.”

Another incident in a nearby Montana town, bigger than Troy, was harder to come back from:

“A real red neck man in Kalispell pushed me up against a car last year,” Michaela said. “I was scared. He said ‘I bet you like that, don’t you?'” and then his girlfriend, who was there, actually slapped him. Women are protective of me. They won’t let men hurt me, and they explain that hurting me is just the same as hurting a woman.”

Even within her community, my community, Michaela is bearing the brunt of other people’s confusion and prejudice.

“I was at the bowling alley in Troy, and a man who often goes there came up and grabbed my breasts [Michaela began hormone therapy about 8 years ago, but is not currently taking hormones, because of the high cost]. The girls who work there threw him out.”

Michaela has been married and divorced twice, and her second wife was a Russian/Norwegian Victoria’s Secret model [I saw the wedding photos!].

“I would love to meet the right person, and it could be anyone,” Michaela told me “but I want to meet someone face to face, I don’t have the internet or a computer, I’m a dinosaur in a modern age!”

Although she said that “being a glamour girl is hard when there’s snow on the ground,” Michaela has no plans to leave Troy or Montana, and part of her reasoning is to help small town folks see that she is no threat.

“I’m not ashamed of who I am,” she explained “I’m not going to sneak around. And I hope that at least one kid in Troy can see me and think ‘I can be what I am too,'”

Michaela’s  life has spanned years as a glam rocker in the 80’s in LA [she was in several local bands: Black lace, Lipstick Traces, and Danger Dolls] to now: a small town retiree who spends time playing guitar and touching up the artwork on her van and making trips to Arizona to visit her parents.

I saw her painting the fence of the local biker bar next to the train tracks this spring, and she is on a first name basis with our chief of police, along with everyone else in town. She is clearly part of our town, and tells me “I bring a little color to Troy.”

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As I hop on my bike to ride away from the little yellow house on the corner, Michaela leaves me with a final thought:

“If you don’t express who you are, you are robbing yourself of life. To thine own self be true.”