Just What Does “Brass in Pocket” Mean, Anyway?
Posted by Nathan Walpow on June 3, 2008
I’m an impostor. No, that’s not right. A pretender? Okay, that’ll work for now. And I’m not talking Chrissie Hynde.
I make my living in two ways. The first is as a website designer. The second is as a writer of mystery fiction. This last part is mostly wishful thinking. I haven’t made any significant money writing mysteries since 2000.
Here’s how I got involved with affordable housing: late in 2006, Washington Mutual (aka The Devil) bought the bank I was the webmaster at. Eventually I got laid off (along with just about everyone else). At 58 years of age, I didn’t see looking for another job as a viable course of action. So I decided to become a freelance web designer.
Not long before, I’d met Jon Webb, executive director of Foundation for Social Resources, “whose mission is to create, acquire, rehabilitate and preserve affordable housing for rent or for sale to low and moderate income persons and the elderly.” I had interviewed Jon while he had his other hat on, the one having to do with Project Access, which provides social services to low-income housing developments. They were a customer of the bank and therefore fodder for a heartwarming story in the annual report, which I became the interviewer for because I was a writer. We’d kept in touch and had been idly tossing the idea of an affordable housing advocacy website around. We didn’t know what it would be or what it would do; we only knew that we wanted to be a resource to the community and to feature good writing.
When I found myself salaryless, it seemed a good time to push the website project ahead. The result was FourStory, which debuted on July 9, 2007. My official title is Editor, but I’m also the web designer, webmaster, copyeditor, trivial-task-doer, and one of the writers. It keeps me busy, and with a couple more clients floating around, I haven’t had to go out and find a real job.
Of course, I had to educate myself about affordable housing. And while I know a whole lot more about it than I did a year ago, I’m still pretty much a babe in the woods. Thus the pretender bit above. I have no doubt I’m the least-housing-fact-filled person participating in this weblog. (I hate the word blog. I can’t even type it. Whoops, I just did.) So I can only hope that I can contribute something on-topic here and there, and in the meantime spout off enough about all the crap I see around me – the stuff that makes our fight for affordable housing for all so much harder than it ought to be – that I can be a worthwhile member of the team. And as FourStory grows (we have a giant redesign and expansion happening next month), I’ll become more conversant with the nits and nats of what we’re trying to achieve. Or at least I’ll sound like it.
Meanwhile, back at FourStory … one of the things Jon mentioned to me when we started the site was that he wouldn’t mind having fiction on it. Fiction that illuminated issues of affordable housing and public transportation and sustainability and injustice and … you know the list. So I got hold of my mystery writer friend Gary Phillips, who is one of the more socially conscious of the dozens of writers I’ve met over he last decade, and talked him into writing a serial for our site. It’s called The Underbelly, and it involves a homeless Vietnam veteran who stumbles upon nefarious doings sprouting from the redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles. It’s finished now, and it’s being collected in a real paper book, and Gary’s off writing a serial for The Nation. We like to think we’ve brought the days of Dickens back, just a little bit, less the orphanages and the debtors’ prisons and the please-sir-may-I-have-some-moreness of it all.
One good thing about spending so much time on FourStory is that it gives me an excuse not to get any fiction writing done. Not that I need one; I’ve got a stockpile of ‘em. But my last book came out in 2005, and my last short story a year later, and that’s not peachy. So when Gary finished his serial, I decided to start one of my own. That way I’d force myself to get a little writing done each week. So I pulled out my series character Joe Portugal, who’s a TV commercial actor who habitually stumbles over dead bodies and knocks off cases that baffle the police, and told him to go out and solve something, and to make sure it had to do with affordable housing. I called the whole thing Bad Developments, and it started in late March, and so far I’ve only missed one week.
Here’s the thing about writing serial fiction: it’s a really bad idea for someone like me who can’t plot their way out of a paper bag. My usual novel-writing method is to just keep putting stuff down until I get to about 120,000 words, at which point I generally have enough useful material for an 80,000-word book, and then I go back and throw out whatever didn’t go anywhere and make all the parts have something to do with each other and eventually mold a coherent story out of the whole thing. It’s not unusual for whole plotlines to go away, for what I put down at the beginning to morph into something entirely different, for whatever I intended to write about to not be what I do write about.
Nonetheless, I forged ahead. I came up with a house that was being sold under shady circumstances, and a missing owner, and a new development on Hollywood Boulevard, and I mixed in John Santini, a character who showed up in the last book, who’s a behind-the-scenes manipulator and quite possibly the most powerful man in Los Angeles. (Not to mention a truly shady character.) Through eight segments or so I managed not to contradict myself or to write anything I couldn’t figure out a way to explain away later. I used those chunks to find out just what it was about affordable housing I was going to write about, letting my characters lead the way, because they generally have a better idea of what’s going on than I do.
Then, last Friday, I was looking for a good way to end the week’s segment, something that would make the reader want to see what happened next, and this came out:
“So,” Henry Shoshone said, “what kind of important stuff is Robbie Strauss going to do?”
John Santini smiled. He looked around the room, seeming to notice his audience for the first time. “He’s gonna build places for the homeless people,” he said.
“Places,” I said.
“Buildings,” he said. “Places for them to live.”
“How many buildings?”
John Santini downed some more of his drink. Then, with impeccable timing, he replied.
“As many as it takes,” he said.
Well, hell. Now I’ve gone and done it. I’ve taken a rich developer who’s developed a social consciousness, and I’ve put him in cahoots with a civic leader/mobster with all the right ties to all the right people, and I’ve put them to work solving L.A.‘s homeless problem. Which my hero Joe and his new friend Henry Shoshone have to aid in, meanwhile finding the missing homeowner and solving the murder of the guy in Shoshone’s building who got off the elevator at the wrong floor and got stabbed to death in the bathroom. Not to mention the porn actors …
I’ve got enough planned for the next chunk. And after that? Who knows? Someone’s gonna have to have a better plan than “as many as it takes.” I’m sure I can invent something serviceable but, no being a hacky kind of writer, I’d prefer to do more.
So, folks, I’m asking for help. Let’s say you’ve got the city with probably the biggest homelessness problem in the nation, and you’ve got someone with wads of money and someone with power aplenty behind it, and the two of them are itching to solve that problem. What would they face? What are the biggest obstacles? Who’s going to have a vested interest in them not succeeding? How will the homeless, and those who advocate for them, react to all this? How far can this harebrained scheme really go?
On behalf of Joe, John Santini, and the people of the City of Angels, I thank you.