That’s My Moon Over Court Street: Dispatches from a Life in Flint
by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-78)
“Every city has its issues, but there is always more to the story. In this collection from Flint, Michigan’s venerable East Village Magazine from 2007 to 2022, Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-78) describes in personable, compelling prose what she observed, mourned, bemoaned, cherished and celebrated in one of the country’s most beleaguered cities.
She lingers on nuthatches and drag queen bingo. She explores attics and basements and the Midwestern backyard. She laments burned out houses and broken Buddhas. She falls in love with the chicken lady, the pipe king, and pineapple upside down cake at the local Masonic hall.
Out of respect for the unfinished stories to come, she bares her forearm for a semicolon tattoo. She struggles with sleeplessness and takes blessed walks. Through an emerging love affair with an old house and finding grace in neighborliness, she reveals how over the years, to her surprise, she improbably finds herself a home.”
Jan Worth-Nelson spent years as a columnist for Flint’s venerable East Village Magazine before becoming editor from 2015 to 2020. Her work has appeared in Belt Magazine, Exposition Review, Gravel, Hypertext Magazine, The MacGuffin, Midwestern Gothic, Nice Cage, the Flint Anthology “Happy Anyway”, and others.
A resident of Flint since 1981, she and her second husband Ted live in an old neighborhood in a house surrounded by great neighbors and a multitude of birds, all watched over by a number of Buddhas.
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.