By Ted Nelson
My first experience of Flint was Bishop International Airport. I still wonder about the “International” part. Could it be that Flint itself is another country? Perhaps there are secret flights here in the dark of night — aliens sneaking in from all over the world to benefit from the city’s abundance of jobs, services, and amenities. Who knows?
I, however, was on a mission of another kind.
I was at Bishop because 25 years earlier I had fallen for a woman who now lived in Flint. We had met in the Kingdom of Tonga on New Years Eve of 1976. She was a Peace Corps volunteer there, and I had been sent by Peace Corps to conduct an in-country training for the newest group of volunteers. I was also there to help the current volunteers deal with the emotional aftermath of a murder that had just occurred — a male volunteer had repeatedly stabbed a female volunteer. At the time, it was a huge scandal.
We had an intense romance over the next three months, but when I returned to the States, neither of us was in a position to carry the relationship forward. Nevertheless, for the next 25 years her memory never left my mind or my heart.
And then something totally unexpected happened.
I received a phone call from a New York journalist. He was writing a book about the murder, knew of my involvement in the aftermath, and wanted to interview me. I was stunned by the call, and immediately asked who he had already talked to. The third name he mentioned was Jan Worth. [In the interest of full disclosure, that woman, Jan Worth, is the editor of East Village Magazine. Many of you reading this already know me from the countless times she has outed me in her articles, including her version of this topic in last August’s EVM. Finally, I get the sweet pleasure of outing her for a change.]
I broke in, stating, “I will not say another word to you unless you give me her phone number.” He refused, pleading journalistic ethics. However, he agreed to contact her and give her my number.
After six months of impassioned emailing, phone calls, and a carousel ride of chaotic emotions, we decided to meet in person in Flint, Michigan, Jan’s home for many years. And that’s what brought me to Bishop.
Standing in line at the rental car counter, I felt nervous and jittery. When my turn came, the agent glanced at my reservation and asked, “What brings you to Flint, Mr. Nelson?”
Oddly, the question caught me by surprise. I paused as I pulled myself together. “LOVE!” I finally declared. The four people standing in line behind me clapped and kudoed my pronouncement. From the back room behind the counter, I heard laughter and more applause. The agent smiled brightly as she responded, “Welcome to Flint, then! You’re in the right place. What kind of vehicle would you like?”
“How about a Caddy?” I said.
Despite our mutual fears, the reunion exceeded all expectations. I became a regular commuter to Flint in pursuit of love. Three years later we bought a house here, and two years after that we were married. But one big question still loomed over us. When Jan retired from UM-Flint, would we finally settle in Flint or my home of Los Angeles?
In the year following Jan’s retirement, the question was still a toss-up. Los Angeles had some heavy inducements on the scale. I had lived there since my mid-30s, and all three of my kids and both of my former wives lived there. My awards business in Hollywood was still chugging along, over 35 years old and now employing a daughter, son, grandson, daughter-in-law, an ex-wife, and a Rottweiler. A genuine family business.
In addition, Los Angeles is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and Hollywood is the entertainment capital. And then there is the California coast, the Pacific Ocean, cultural diversity, and some of the best freeway drivers in the country.
On the other hand, there are a few downsides as well: earthquakes, traffic, noise, crowds, density, lack of seasons, anonymity, a high cost of living, and endless asphalt.
Flint, of course, has a few negatives of its own. On its face, Flint is hard-scrabble — a town with a reputation for toughness, violence, economic hardship, racial animosity, political chaos, failing infrastructure, and a host of other acne-like issues that blemish its facade. Not to mention the water crisis. Not to mention WINTER.
So, the choice between LA and Flint was not an easy one. Would the love that brought me to Flint hold us here?
Once again, fate intervened. With the death in early 2015 of Gary Custer, editor of East Village Magazine, Jan and I assumed management of the publication … and a whole new Flint revealed itself to us.
Love broadens. As we pursued our late-found love and worked together on EVM, that bond gradually expanded into a deeper appreciation for the place. And that appreciation slowly grew into a surprising fur ball of love for this gritty, spirited town. Flint has a personality. Scratch a Flintoid, get a spark. Talk with a Flintoid, get a story.
For the many years I worked in Hollywood, my favorite pleasure was the daily parade of personalities and fascinating chronicles that came my way. Big egos, giant ambitions, bitter conflicts, abject failures, astounding turnabouts — all feeding an intricate tapestry of intriguing, real-life tales. But these pale in comparison to the richness, power, and compelling humanity of the stories I have absorbed in Flint.
Flint has a simmering undercurrent of toughness and resilience, infused with persistent streams of hope and aspiration. To be a citizen or activist in Flint is to be long-suffering. Yet there is a certain honor and dignity in the ongoing struggles. Stand in any line in Flint — be it bank, government, grocer, or BBQ wagon — and you will have a civil and friendly conversation with a fellow Flintoid you had never met before. As Connor Coyne, a neighbor of mine, recently commented on Facebook, there is a “solidarity of strangers” in Flint that is unique.
Additionally, there is the cachet of being a Flintoid. Flint is a national symbol of tenacity and spirit. Whenever Jan and I traveled, we encountered people who were both curious and sympathetic to our “plight” as citizens of Flint. Chats with vendors often led to their refusing to charge us for our bottled water.
There are two economies in Flint. There is the economy of money, and there is the economy of the heart. Flint may not be a big winner when it comes to money, but when it comes to heart, Flint takes the prize.
On a more profound level, Flint is at the crossroads of all of our country’s historical social conflicts. Poverty, racism, and ignorance have all made their appearances on Flint’s stage. Over time, Flint has become the canary in our country’s conscience — the battleground where the issue of America’s basic values is reflected in the history and struggle of its citizens.
The centuries-old question of who and what we are as Americans has re-emerged. We are now engaged in a critical national dialogue to clarify our values and determine the future of our republic. In this respect, Flint’s history and culture of struggle make it an ideal place for this urgent discussion — a place of soul and vitality. A good place to live.
In the end, it was not the issues of money, mind, and logic that decided the matter, but issues of the heart. I came to Flint for love. And I found that here. But I stayed for its dauntless pluck. When it comes to spirit, Flint is America’s heartland.
Flint is the place for me.
EVM Editor-at-Large Ted Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org