The Miller Girls

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Spray Net. Brylcreem. Dance Night. At the annual Miller Hospital nurses’ social there were suitors of all sorts. The stockboy from Woolworth’s, before he shipped out; the Como-Stricker line conductor in full uniform; a radio repairman taking mail-order courses in TV repair. A broom salesman bragging on his ledger, three-time winner of the Mr. Bristle award. They were all at Summit Hall because that’s where the honey was. The Miller Girls were the bee’s knees in 1955.

How the broom salesman and the Hoover guy came to fisticuffs

Larry the broom salesman wasn’t one to take a hint, as obvious as it might have been (the popularity of carpets), until delivered straight, served up by circumstance, and so it was – after the social and a few Hamm’s at the G&M he stumbled upon Gladys leaving the Coney Island with the vacuum cleaner salesman.

The dust-up didn’t end well for the ambitious Mr. Bristle, and the incident would have lasting effects. A number of firsts and lasts for Larry that night. He picked a fight and got the worst of it. He swung first, missed, hit a brick wall, then took a fist to the jaw, falling face-first into the manure-caked cobblestones behind the Coney Island. It was no contest. Adding insult to injury the whole thing made the Dispatch the next afternoon: Man Charged in Downtown Assault Pleads No Contest.

The Hoover guy made good on his promise to never return to St. Paul. Larry never again held a pen or a toothbrush properly. Gladys would marry the young boiler mechanic sent to her room the next morning in response to a noisy radiator.

After a week at St. Joe’s for his broken hand and separated jaw, and 60 days of soup and Rice Krispies in jail downtown, Larry Lippincott began his life’s work at the Greyhound Bus Station. First as a porter, ticket seller, then Station Captain. For anyone going Greyhound in the 60′s, 70′s, 80′s and 90′s out of St. Paul, Larry was the guy.

He’d go on to become a founding member of the St. Paul Alano Club and a president of the Minnesota Easter Seals. He died a happy, old man recently, with 45 years sobriety, hundreds of friends, a 40-year gold watch from Greyhound and the pamphlet room at the club named after him – the Larry L. Reading Room. He was fond of saying he had “a pocket full of posies”, though no one knew exactly what he meant by that.

Larry never married but he loved his job. Despite the popularity of planes, trains, and automobiles, the old broom salesman always said the bus was the only way to go.

Her very last roll at Maplewood Bowl was a game-winning strike

For the one-time object of his desire, Gladys Frothmeier, sprightly scholarship recipient, life was like chocolates, all good. Hers for the taking. She was an early adopter of Tupperware, Weight Watchers, Avon, bingo, soaps, Oprah, all of it. Four-slice toaster. Electric can opener. Kenmore, Lady Sunbeam, Frigidaire. Every new, indispensable, modern appliance she’d see in LOOK “designed with her in mind” was at her disposal on Mumford Avenue in Maplewood.

A single mother when it wasn’t common, Gladys Brunt put seven children through public schools. 20 years of bag lunches and parent-teacher conferences and not one arrest among the children. Gladys, however, a life-long caregiver, was caught not stocking the lock boxes and would serve a year probation in Ramsey County for stealing narcotics to support her addiction to slots.

She lost her nursing certification of course, but how she’d lost her arm is another story. A terrible complication resulting from rotator cuff surgery for a bowling injury. Her very last roll at Maplewood Bowl was a game-winning strike, and it would cost her her right arm. That story also made the Dispatch. A procedure the surgeon had performed a hundred times without complication would cost him his career. After the settlement Gladys switched from bowling to slots, and that was a picture. A standoff of one-armed bandits.

After a run of false starts, Gladys’ behavior grew more and more erratic in the 80′s. Century 21, Amway, Mary Kay, the decoupage store in Stillwater that never had a chance. Pushing dubious to implausible, to preposterous. A decoupage store in the 80′s?

Her second marriage really ended the night she intended to buy a bus ticket to the annual Tupperware Jubilee in Seattle. She saw Larry at the bus station and never got on the bus. They met later at the Grand Hotel, resulting in the biggest secret of both of their lives. He was named Craig and given up for adoption. Craig lives in Faribault.

Gladys never went downtown to get on a bus to Seattle. There was no rendezvous at the Grand Hotel. No secret love child named Craig. No ill-conceived decoupage store in Stillwater. Gladys Brunt changed after her second divorce, not only in name, in character, her very identity seemed lacking. Her life wasn’t good enough. After 20 years of raising seven tax-paying children she started playing make-believe. As the stories of her life became more fanciful, she withdrew, gave it all up for the love of slots.

Gladys was on that coach every day at the White Castle, with a roll of bills, a fistful of pills, a Soap Opera Word-find, and no one to know and nobody to give a care. No one but Craig. He heard her versions because he had no choice. She knew he was married with two young children, living with his wife and her mother in Faribault. But boarding that Mystic Lake bus she entered a world of altered possibilities, suspended, comfortable, the lightness every addict knows, from the first few hits to what’s on the other end, from what might happen to what might have been.

Craig reminded her of the Hoover guy. Whenever he was driving she took the front seat on the right and they’d talk the whole way like mother and son. “What I miss most is folding clothes”.

The real Miller Girls.

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