• “Housing is a necessity that’s also a commodity”: A Conversation with Rick Paulas

    In writing his debut novel Eastern Span, a contemporary neo-noir set amidst Oakland’s housing crisis, Rick Paulas realized he didn’t need to rely on traditional genre hooks for ambiance. The city’s physical gentrification not only propels the book’s action, but dictates atmosphere right down to its downwardly mobile characters’ homes, hangouts, and feverish tics.

    Eastern Span’s protagonist, Pug, is a gig economy investigator who undertakes risky freelance probes for the Oakland Police Department. After an old friend disappears into an underworld of illegal evictions and predatory day labor, Pug uncovers a murderous conspiracy involving Oakland’s most influential property owners, politicians, and philanthropists, who use the Bay’s transient homeless population as grist for their late-capitalist mill. As Pug struggles to address his discoveries through legal channels, Paulas contrasts the powerlessness of private citizens with the futility of municipal government and law enforcement in the age of unregulated urban commerce.

    The book’s scrappy ethic is further reflected in its unorthodox distribution model. Paulas, who relocated to Brooklyn this summer after six years as a freelance reporter in Oakland, never expected Eastern Span to make him a rich man. But he did see it as a small way to give back to the communities who’d let him tell their stories as a journalist. He hired his own editor and commissioned original artwork for each chapter. After consulting with brass at two Bay Area street newspapers, Oakland’s Street Spirit and San Francisco’s Street Sheet, he printed 1,000 copies and donated half of them to the papers’ vendors, many of whom experience homelessness themselves. Vendors who choose to sell the book select their own price point and keep the earnings; readers outside the Bay can purchase copies directly from Paulas.

    Like any good noir, Eastern Span captures the contradictions and unlikely intersections inherent to city life, and both the story and method of circulation serve as advocacy for the Bay Area’s widening underclass. In July, I met with Paulas to discuss his project.

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    PETE TOSIELLO: It sounds like both your book and distribution model were ideas you’d had in mind for a while. How did you settle on this circulation method and cultivate relationships with the street newspapers to execute it?

    RICK PAULAS: I’ll start with the financial end of it first, because I’d like to be open about it but also to make it a model that other people might be interested in. At a certain point, I knew I wanted to print copies. I had written the book and had it on a PDF — I’d been trying to do a serialized thing, writing a chapter a week and sending it out through Patreon. Then I’d use that money to pay the artists who are in the book. When I was done and had the whole thing complete and was happy with it, I realized that the experience — reading a PDF on your phone — wouldn’t be the most enjoyable for readers, so I said, I think I want to print this.

    I sought out some publishers and found a publisher in Berkeley. It was about $5,000 for 500 copies and $6,000 for 1,000 copies, so the jump from 500 to 1,000 was not huge, comparatively, so it kind of made sense to do it — to print more copies, that I knew I probably wouldn’t sell. I didn’t want 1,000 copies, I wanted to get rid of them.

    I’ve written about street papers in the past, and I’ve written a lot about homelessness, so I’ve been in contact with people that are homeless themselves. Street Sheet in San Francisco is part of the Coalition on Homelessness, so I’ve been in contact with them about tips. Street Spirit covers Berkeley and Oakland — I just reached out one day and the editor was really receptive. She did her due diligence to make sure it wasn’t a scam. My idea was that if vendors could get five dollars off each book, great. Ten dollars, amazing.

    So those were the logistics of it, but writing about homelessness — especially as a freelancer — well, I’m very aware of what I’m getting paid per piece. If it’s $300 per piece, you’ll get $300 worth of work. That’s always on my mind when I’m interviewing people. When I’m out there interviewing homeless folks about certain things, in the back of my mind, I’m like, I’m making money off you in a weird way. Whatever social benefit comes from the journalism I’m doing, at the same time, I’m making money and you’re not. I thought this was a way I could afford to give back in some capacity — whatever it is, twenty bucks, forty bucks. I heard one vendor already made $400.

    The book is purposefully based in reality, and I made an effort to describe the feeling of the physical space of Oakland. I think having the first interaction with the book itself to be out in space, on the street, and to actually have that transaction, introduces how it should be read, in a way.

    Upon reading the book, the setting of 2013 Oakland as this battleground of gentrification and predatory real estate makes so much sense for a noir: there’s a criminal underworld, and characters are left to determine their own moral codes. When did you realize contemporary Oakland would make such an ideal atmosphere for a noir?

    I first moved to Oakland in 2013. The book actually opens when they’re closing down the old Bay Bridge in order to get the new bridge ready — that was my first weekend living there. When you go to a new place, you’re receiving so much new information at once, it kind of brands itself on you in a way. Later you develop a different sense of what’s happening, but your impressions are from your initial six months or year. If it actually does capture that era, it might be a case of me being in the right place at the right time. The same things were happening everywhere — if I’d written it two years before or after, the story would be pretty similar.

    In terms of the noir thing, I guess I just like noir! In San Francisco, there’s a film fest every year called SF Noir at the Castro Theater, it’s a full week of old noir movies. We always went, and I think as you start to learn the language of noir films. It’s really a capitalist critique: people down on their luck, being left behind, needing to fight to eat but still having visions of crazy success. That was a genre I really wanted to work in. Once you have a setting and genre, you can shape it however you want.

    For me, a huge thing that happened during that era — which I did include in the book — was the Black Lives Matter protest. Walking the space with the protesters, going from downtown Oakland to Berkeley, stopping traffic on the highway, at nighttime, against police. A lot of people have memories of Occupy in Oakland, and I was kind of removed from that — I was in Los Angeles at that time. But walking that space in that series of protests, and it being so new, revealed itself to me in a way that a place hadn’t revealed itself before.

    Are there any pieces or beats that you reported in Oakland that influenced this book specifically?

    The first time I covered homelessness was for SF Weekly, early in 2016. The Super Bowl was coming to town, and the city basically pushed all the homeless people away from tourist areas, but there was one place under a highway overhang where they told them it was okay to assemble. It resulted in this enormous tent city underneath the highway. I went down there and talked to some people, and that was my first experience of seeing how a city tries to handle its homeless population, and the realities of homelessness — people in this neighborhood waking up one morning to a giant tent city outside their houses — and how those two forces interact with each other. Homeless people aren’t seen as people who exist in space, they’re seen as scofflaws, as illegals, people who need to be moved rather than sheltered.

    From there I wrote a handful of stories. In the book there are a few scenes that take place at a encampment called Here/There between the Oakland and Berkeley border. That encampment got evicted because it was on BART property, so I wrote a piece about that eviction for Vice. Writing the book, I’d write a chapter, and because it took place in a certain area, I would have to research its history. Sometimes that would lead to other stories I’d end up writing. One example: I was writing about this area called Ghost Town in Oakland. I though, why is it called that? Turns out it’s because there used to be a bunch of funeral parlors. That led me to a documentary about a scrimmage between this Little League team from Ghost Town and another team from Cuba, and I ended up interviewing the filmmaker about it for a different piece. Walking your neighborhood is the best way to know what’s happening. It forces you to go into the archives, dig up shit, and it improves your writing.

    It was a journalistic effort from the perspective that every detail in the book is something I have observed. There were points where I would go to the settings just to get the details down, and write it there on my phone. The two were intertwined: the book was informed by a lot of the journalism I did, but subsequent journalism was informed by research from the book.

    I’m interested in the way you portrayed law enforcement in the book. Early on Pug has a strong working relationship with the police department, but ultimately his only true ally is a public defender. You spoke earlier about being in Oakland during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. What was on your mind while writing about law enforcement in the novel?

    Black Lives Matter was a really clarifying experience. Even seeing how police interacted with protesters, what they protected and what they didn’t protect, how they try to guide and manipulate protests. Observing that and their reactions was clarifying in terms of what their role in our society is. I just wrote about fare evasion for Vice, and it was kind of the same thing: what’s their role, and why are they needed?

    I also observed a lot of homeless and encampment evictions. Say there’s an encampment of ten or twelve people. Police would be there to protect property value. They’re responding to business owners in the area, sometimes homeowners, and that’s what their whole goal is. That’s a focal point in the book — it only makes sense that they align themselves with property.

    I don’t know that the book has any good characters. As far as I can tell, it’s examining different systemic things. The characters don’t make many decisions; they’re flowing through paths in the sand that have already been created. Even the cops are making logical decisions given their place in society.

    I’d like to talk a bit about the art you commissioned for the book. There’s a broad range of styles, but they all seem very faithful to the narrative itself.

    I was really happy with how that came out. Most of them were friends, some were people from Twitter that I hadn’t met before. When I was doing a chapter a week, I wanted a piece of art to accompany each one. Some of that was just an enticement for people to read it, some was to help me visualize what was happening. If I write something and can see it through someone else’s eyes, it helps me edit it, to know what they’re getting from my descriptions.

    It was fun to work with friends. Freelance writing is such a lonely profession in a lot of ways. Friends would text me asking what I thought about their art, or pull me aside at a party to show me what they were working on, which was super fun. Usually I would send them a scene that was either a few lines or bullet points. I wouldn’t usually send them a full chapter. So I kind of directed them in terms of what scenes I wanted, and they’d run with it.

    For me, the linchpin of the book was at the end where the villain, Coletti, explains to Pug how housing is a basic necessity but the government doesn’t recognize it as such. I was wondering if you could expand upon that point a bit, in terms of whether it’s consistent with your experiences reporting in Oakland?

    It’s food, clothing, and shelter, right? The basic human necessities. They dictate how people literally live, whether that’s moving somewhere for a job, needing to get a higher paying job to afford rent, or having a second or third roommate because property values are out of control and landlords can charge whatever they want because there are no tenant laws. Food is somewhat taken care of. Clothing is somewhat taken care of, I guess. But shelter is not — at all. In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s a commodity which can be traded at value. In America, it’s an investment. It’s part of the culture in a way that almost nothing else is.

    The Bay Area brought to light a lot of things that are increasingly evident everywhere else. Housing is a necessity that’s also a commodity. It’d be like having an investor market for water. That was the driving force behind a lot of the book. Pug has to work these shitty jobs in order to afford his place. His place gets sold and his rent gets hiked. He has to move in with his girlfriend, and they start to not like each other. Everything is informed by that basic necessity. The Coletti character is a real estate speculator — those are the Daniel Plainviews of the world right now. They know how to seep value out of housing.

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