“See! I am dancing. On the edge of
the world I am dancing”
Ancient Ohlone Indian song
The body of indigent Paul Henry Fillman, who was widely known as Jean Paul, was discovered three weeks ago in a tent on the Albany Bulb where he had made his home for the last 10 years. He was 59.
A political activist and dance enthusiast, Fillman was one of those featured in the 2002 documentary Bums’ Paradise, which tells the story of the homeless community that evolved on the Albany Bulb, a former dump on a roadless, windswept, shrub-covered peninsula with stunning bay vistas.
The City of Albany evicted the homeless community in the fall of 1999 to make way for the Eastshore State Park.
Pending a toxicology report, the Alameda County Coroner lists the cause of death as “unknown,” but County Coroner Dan Aperson and Albany Police Lt. Daniel Adams say they found no immediate signs of foul play.
Police say they don’t know how long Fillman had been dead in his tent before he was discovered by an acquaintance Oct. 15. According to several who knew him, Fillman struggled with addiction to a form of methamphetamine known as “ice,” which is typically smoked.
In the documentary, Fillman said that he preferred living outdoors and that it was “the only time I’ve ever enjoyed myself.” During the 1999 eviction, the city of Albany provided trailers for Bulb residents to help them with the transition from their tents and shacks into homeless shelters, but Fillman refused to use them.
“The only box that they have ready for me is the grave, because I’m not getting into any other kind of box,” he said defiantly in the documentary.
Shortly after the eviction, Fillman quietly returned to the Bulb where he continued to discretely make camp.
A short, lithe and impish man with an infectious laugh, Fillman had long, graying brown hair, which he wore in a pony tail and usually covered with a beret or a well-worn felt fedora adorned with buttons and pins.
“He participated in a lot of street theaters and loved music, so his bicycle was always decked out with tambourines, drums and horns,” said former Bulb resident Robert Barringer, known as Rabbit to viewers of Bums’ Paradise.
“He was also careful about his appearance and would make the trek to the laundromat every month.”
Fillman loved to dance and was a familiar sight at Askenaz Music and Dance Center on San Pablo Avenue.
“He would come on Friday and Saturday nights when we usually have African or Reggae shows,” said night manager Larry Chin. “He would dance for hours usually by himself and would never bother anybody. He was a good guy.”
Barringer said dancing was the thing that Fillman loved most. “He would dance sometimes until 3 a.m. and the next morning he would be refreshed and in an excellent space.”
Though he was born in Brooklyn and never traveled to Europe, he strongly identified with his French heritage. Once, discouraged with American culture, is said to have presented himself at a French Consulate and demanded to be transported back to his rightful home.
He believed in political activism and participated in protests at the site of the near nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in the late 1970s and protests at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in the 1980s.
Prior to the Albany Bulb eviction, Fillman was also a constant presence at Albany City Council meetings, vociferous in advocating for homeless rights and—as he explained in the documentary—the “right to exist… somewhere.”
Nearly everyone who knew Fillman said his overriding passion was to reconnect with his daughter, Grace, who possibly lives in Oakland.
“He tried to contact her over the years but was not able to,” Barringer said. “More than anything he wanted to get a copy of the film to her and to let her know that he loved her.”
Anyone who has any personal information about Paul Henry Fillman, is asked contact the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau at 268-7300. Those who are interested in learning more about the documentary Bums’ Paradise can go to www.bumsparadise.com.