Wednesday, June 28, 2023

That's My Moon over Court Street: Dispatches from a life in Flint by Jan Worth-Nelson.

The essence of Flint is too often defined by outsiders. Journalists, politicians, and policymakers love to swoop in, make dire pronouncements and tenuous promises, then skip town faster than General Motors. My friend Jan Worth-Nelson is just the opposite. She moved to Vehicle City for a job, put down roots, and made it her home. That doesn't happen too often these days. Her highly nuanced relationship with a place that's hard to love is captured in these pages. She details Flint's struggles with compelling, clear-eyed prose but still manages to pinpoint what makes it unique, admirable and, yes, appealing despite all the heartache attached to this troubled spot on the Michigan map.

Here is the introduction to her new collection of essays, That's My Moon over Court Street, which is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Flint and everything it represents.

When I arrived in Flint at the start of the '80s, I was already 30, never married, a broke social worker and former journalist, desperate for evidence my life wasn't wasting away. 

I never, ever, thought I would still be here 42 years later. But here I still am.

I lived in a walkup on Avon Street, which crosses Court Street, the main east-west
artery through the heart of the city. It was a down-at- the-heel old neighborhood, tucked
between an ugly freeway and artifacts of Flint’s glory days: sprawling brick high school,
library, art museum, planetarium. On the other side of Court, a big green park and a
fancier neighborhood which seemed unreachable.

From my upstairs dormers many nights I used to see a mysterious bearded man on a
bike slink out in the moonlight and disappear.

I eventually found out that figure was Gary Custer, founder and publisher of the little magazine that appeared on my own doorstep every month. East Village Magazine is a
scrappy little black-and-white publication that has been landing on the doorsteps of
homes, shops, and restaurants in Flint, Michigan, since 1976. Some of us rudely called
it the “East Village Idiot.” But as I learned over the years, Custer was anything but.
A Vietnam-era Navy veteran, Gary had graduated in photojournalism from the
University of Missouri. He often cited ideas about the Global Village -- he was crazy
about Marshall McLuhan. For him, that meant a passion for neighborhood preservations
efforts, and, while he sometimes seemed reclusive, he had a commitment to train
volunteers and students in community journalism.

He never married and never had any kids. His untamed long white beard made some
people wonder if he was homeless -- but he wasn’t. His apartment in a big Victorian
house was a short bike ride to the office -- a storefront owned by his brother that bore
no sign, no hours, and was frequently locked.

Sometimes, nursing a pipe, he worked at the office all night, hammering away in the
midst of a firetrap tunnel of piled-up folders, books, old copies, on a succession of hand-
me-down computers, piecing together the eight-page product that was, I think it is pretty
safe to say, his whole life.

East Village Magazine focuses on the kind of journalism that matters to every citizen
who cares about what is happening in their town. Over the years that included news
from City Hall, city council meetings, the school board, zoning issues, blight elimination,
crime, healthcare, local politics, and neighborhood associations. And, because it is in
Flint Michigan, the abandonment of Flint by General Motors, the State-appointed
“emergency manager,” and, of course, the Flint water crisis.

But Gary always included a story that described everyday life in Flint. He showed us
that no matter what was going on at City Hall, people continued to live their lives. He
called it “Village Life” as a nod to McLuhan.

Eventually he found some of my writing here and there and, after another back page
columnist left, he asked me to join in. I said no for several years.

When Gary finally snared me to write the column, I was already well into middle age,
and the inexplicable survival of the little magazine had become almost legendary. By
then I lived in my own house, miraculously in that leafy historic neighborhood on the
south side of Court I had envied decades before. I am still there.

These are not the essays of a young person, though I was often playful. I didn’t feel my
age; I was furiously emerging from a long- failed marriage and launching a new one,
and I was half-pissed all the time at not getting enough respect in my university job.
Writing the column was freeing and cathartic.

Gary was a cantankerous editor, and he and I used to fight about words. He was a
subject-verb-object man. I liked words like lachrymose and duende -- not to be a
showoff, I insisted, but for the pleasures of it. I was teaching my poetry students to write
sestinas and pantoums, for chrissake. He stood for simple sentences and he worried
about the reader. I wanted to take the reader along with me. The job was to write “local,”
and he liked best when I observed my daily life - the kind of sensory detail, beloved or
troubled specifics, that kept us both going through our ups and downs.

In the end, he let me write pretty much whatever I wanted. That was the gift of it. At first
he told me to write 800 words so it would fit on the back page. But when I had more to
say he didn’t fight me much -- he said, “Write until you’re done and then stop.” When I
came in, usually on Sunday afternoons, to proof my column, he poured me Bushmills in
a chipped mug, and we would talk about everything -- repeating gossip and legends of
the city, sometimes with the door wide open to the scent of it -- acrid and redolent with
ghosts. A wild rosebush twisted around the fence outside. I have repeated all this so
many times: I cherished those Sunday afternoons.

I never got paid for it, except for the Bushmills. Once in a while he’d send me an email:
“good work.”

Gary Custer died suddenly in 2015, just weeks after he’d learned he got a five-figure
grant from the C.S. Mott Foundation -- enough to keep the magazine going for least
another year. I’d just retired from teaching writing, and so I was free.

For the next five years, I was the editor. I didn’t really want to do it, but I got roped in,
and hacked away grumpily at the financial and technical thickets. My husband, an LA
transplant, faithfully pitched in. We got renewal grants each year. I wrote far fewer few
Village Life columns from then on, getting other people to join in. We expanded the
magazine to 12, then 16, and now often 20 pages.

In 2020, after a series of personal crises, burned out by the Trump era and smothered in
the worst of the pandemic, I stepped back. Though I’ve contributed several columns
since, as I have stated, I was tired of words. I handed the editorial reins to Tom Travis,
who has been ably guiding East Village Magazine ever since.

For years, my second husband and I also commuted back and forth from an apartment
at the LA Harbor, but always, always, I came back to my home in the old house off
Court Street, where my life, familiar and beloved, proceeds. What I wrote about it, even
when I was perched on the lip of the Pacific, always seemed to turn to Flint. My roots
have gone down deep.

I have a lot of friends here, people as enmeshed in complex life journeys as me, and I
love that so many of them have tolerated appearing in my columns.  If you are looking
for evidence of advocacy or political analyses, this collection is not for you. Throughout,
my inclination was not to "promote" Flint or offer arguments or solutions to its repeated struggles.  What I had to offer, instead, were my eyes and ears and my heart, put together in collages of what I hope are decent sentences and respectful stories -- a palette of dramas, small and large, collected one by one, from my own life in this place. 

In 2018, I got myself my first (and only) tattoo. It’s a semicolon – to me, a powerful
reminder that there is so often so much more to a story – certainly true in my life, and
absolutely true in Flint, Michigan. At about the same time, I inherited a Buddha from the
back yard of my beloved friend, the late poet Grayce Scholt. The Buddha is missing its
right hand. I don’t know the story of how that damage occurred, but I do know that the
broken Buddha, who now sits quietly in my own back yard, still retains a big broad
smile. It has become a cherished symbol, for me, of incongruous joy and of the
community that has become my home.

My adult life in Flint has had some dark times, and I haven’t been spared from hard and
stupid things. These essays describe the improbable happiness I have found so often
here. How could that happen in a town like this, even through some of its toughest
times? These columns, one by one, represent a kind of answer, the vindication of
claiming my life in this complicated city: to look at it, to love it, sometimes to despair
about it, and to write it into the cornucopia of our collective human lives.

— Jan Worth-Nelson

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Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at