Op-ed: Take a harrowing walk in Oakland with ‘Nightcrawling’

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The gritty streets of East Oakland provide the backdrop for an unsparing novel by homegrown author Leila Mottley. Photo by Shutterstock.

Opinion column by Joe Mathews:

Kiara Johnson, 17, lives at the Regal-Hi apartments on High Street in East Oakland — for now.

She doesn’t have the money for next month’s rent. She can’t rely on parents — her dad’s dead and her mom’s in prison. For work, she begs for shifts in a liquor store.

She can’t support her older brother, who won’t get a job, or care for Trevor, her nine-year-old neighbor, whose mother has disappeared. So, Kiara has started doing sex work.

How does she cope? She walks around Oakland. “When there is no choice, the only thing you have left to do is walk,” she says.

Kiara Johnson isn’t real. She’s the fictional central character and narrator of the novel — newly out in paperback — “Nightcrawling” by 21-year-old Leila Mottley.

“Nightcrawling” is a bestseller, with a page-turning plot involving sex trafficking, housing displacement, mass incarceration, and police scandal. But the book’s real magic is how, in a story full of horrors, Mottley conveys deep affection for Oakland and its struggling people.

I found the novel so compelling that I devoted a day and night to walking the same thoroughfares that Kiara roams in East Oakland, the large, diverse side of the city southeast of Lake Merritt.

Mottley wrote her manuscript in 2019, just after she graduated high school. But the streets where Kiara spends her time have not much changed.

From the Fruitvale BART station, I headed first to High Street, where Kiara lives.

It was just as Mottley describes: “High Street is an illusion of cigarette butts and liquor stores, a winding rail to and from drugstores and adult playgrounds masquerading as street corners. It has a childlike kind of life…  the perfect landscape for a scavenger hunt.”

In the 2900 block, I came across a ramshackle apartment building with a name similar to Kiara’s — the Royal-Hi, rather than the novel’s Regal-Hi. The Royal-Hi didn’t have a swimming pool, much less one filled with poop, like its fictional counterpart.

After High Street, I began a 50-block walk down International Boulevard, deeper into East Oakland.

I didn’t spot any  sex workers. I did encounter various men, some living on the streets. I experienced the mix of taquerias, churches, liquor stores, and housing Mottley depicts — "International Boulevard is a weave through every kind of East Oakland living,” as Kiara narrates it. But I didn’t see the variety of people that the novel describes on the sidewalks. Business owners say street traffic hasn’t recovered from COVID.

By night, I was feeling tired. But I kept walking, as Kiara advises: “I think about each step and repeat to myself: heel, toe, heel, toe. Makes it easier.”

The setting got rougher when I crossed 70th Avenue, entering the part of Oakland the locals call “Deep East.” The sidewalks were riddled with cracks. There were more people living in tents, and far more trash. Damaged cars, some obviously undriveable, seemed to take up every available street parking space.

When I turned down 75th Avenue, on my way to my walk’s conclusion at the Coliseum BART Station, I was literally walking on broken glass. I couldn’t take more than a step or two on the sidewalk without having to dodge it. And so, I started to walk on the street, trying to stay out of the way of cars driving past.

There were people around, mostly on the corners or sitting in front of small homes, but I felt isolated. I could understand why Kiara describes a walk not far from here as “the closest thing to being a live ghost. Disappearing into roadside trash and trees that somehow figures out how to grow in California’s eternal drought.”

Why can’t these streets be in better repair? Why can’t these neighborhoods have more resources? Why do we tolerate so much pain in the lives of others? In the novel, Kiara, when asked such questions by a friend, is dismissive. “Life won’t give you reasons for none of it,” she says.  

She has walked every street of her city, and she knows that danger and desire are all just facts of life. “Oakland contains it all,” she says. “Heartbreak and yearning.”

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman