Thursday, December 31, 2015

Sidecar Hits The Curb

One less unicorn to ride. Creative Commons photo by Lance (Flickr).

I know you thought you're a real operator
But I don't know why
All you had was a bankroll, babe
And a glint in your eye 

-- Motörhead

As of tomorrow, journalists accustomed to writing about "rideshare services such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar" will have one less word with which to pad their articles. The writing has been on the wall for Sidecar since at least September, when they were described here as the "Myspace of ridesharing." It is a bit ironic that Sidecar has turned out to be the first major TNC to fall, because it was always the most innovative of the three--for instance, Sidecar was the only e-hailing app with pins that looked like Kenny from South Park; what great fun!

Omigod! You killed Kenny!

One of Sidecar's most enduring "innovations" was the very idea of calling their unlicensed cab service "ridesharing" in order to avoid regulation. For this reason above all, the traditional cab industry is probably quite happy to be dancing on Sidecar's grave.

Take it away, Lemmy:

One time you was a real high-stepper
On the high trapeze
But you know you ran out of money
Wound up on your knees

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Taxi Inferno, anthropologist Wallace Zane’s harrowing cab ride through Los Angeles

Cabdriving in Los Angeles; illustration by Gustave Doré.

Who Came Along for the Ride?

In the middle of the road of life I found myself in a shadowy wood, for the straight and narrow path had been lost. Somehow, I had suffered the spiritual death of losing one's way. I was driving a cab in L.A.

So begins Taxi Inferno, a spiraling descent, via taxicab, into the depths of Hell, otherwise known as Los Angeles. It is a fascinating and unusual book—equal parts urban ethnography, cabdriving memoir, and underworld adventure. The story begins when the cabdriver/narrator (loosely based on author Wallace Zane) picks up a drunken and abusive old man who turns out to be none other than Charles Bukowski—or perhaps, the ghost of Charles Buwkoski, or an imposter... And just as Virgil led Dante, so “Bukowski” leads the unnamed anti-hero on a sprawling exploration of the city and the damned who dwell therein. In the author’s words:

I describe it as a death and violence, deceit and fraud, cab-driving, police-chasing translation of Dante's "Inferno." It is written as a mirror of the "Inferno," with Charles Bukowski as the guide instead of Dante's Virgil. Each location in hell corresponds to a neighborhood in Los Angeles, along with its punishments. 

Fun as that sounds, this isn’t a novel trashing LA. The Los Angeles of Taxi Inferno may be Hell, but it's also a lush landscape of human anguish, desire, and deceit. In its own way, the book is a love song to the city, told through the eyes of a lost soul seeking redemption from himself. For all their sinfulness and perfidy, both the city and Bukowski—along with numerous gallons of cheap wine—help the driver in his quest. The result may be the most despairing, soul-revealing, yet grudgingly loving psychogeographic journey through LA since the night Marlowe told himself he wasn’t human.

Taxi Inferno could be read casually on its own, but to get the full experience, you quickly realize you should be reading it side-by-side with Dante’s Inferno. The parallels between the two are numerous and carefully constructed. Zane’s book doesn’t just evoke the Inferno; it is the Inferno, Canto for Canto, transposed to a Los Angeles seen through the eyes of a miserable cabdriver and his drunken psychopomp. Instead of ABANDON ALL HOPE we read WELCOME TO LOS ANGELES; in one of Zane’s most beautiful sequences, the innumerable fires of Dante’s Eighth Circle, “A sinner so enfolded close in each,” become the lights of the city viewed from Mulholland drive. For both faithfulness and originality, Zane’s tribute to Dante rivals Menard’s Quixote.

Road Scholar

Yet what may be most surprising about Taxi Inferno is that this was originally envisioned, not as a work of fiction, nor as a cabdriving memoir, but as a report on the author’s ethnographic study of the taxicab industry in Los Angeles. Zane didn’t just drive a cab; he was a cabdriving anthropologist (though the same could no doubt be said of most cabdrivers, and of more than a few anthropologists). I sent Zane a few questions about his writing process via email; here are his replies:

You said you had originally considered writing this in a more traditionally ethnographic format, but decided instead to go with fiction. Could you discuss why?

I wrote up several outlines and beginnings of chapters on my taxicab research, but it felt too dry to hold my, or any reader’s, interest. When I wrote my earlier ethnography about the altered states of consciousness of an Afro-Caribbean religion, the entire culture was approached in an attitude of wonder at the strange and unknown (Journeys to the Spiritual Lands; Oxford, 1999). Cab drivers and the cab life felt so much just a beat-down version of the ordinary working life all around the industrialized world that I had difficulty presenting the material with any sense of novelty or excitement. My several false starts at writing up the data made me realize I needed to see the cab drivers through eyes I did not yet possess.

How did you come up with the idea of a tour of LA by way of Dante’s Inferno?

I had read the Divine Comedy in English some years prior to my taxicab research. In the process, I came to realize that I was missing something important in a text so canonical. I could appreciate only a portion of the magnitude of the document. I learned Italian to be able to read Dante in the original. When I finally was able to do so with minimal reference to dictionaries, I began to see the music and to be transported by the metaphors. This happened around the time of my ethnographic research amongst the taxicab drivers.

I had been trained as a psychological anthropologist (hence, the altered states research in the Caribbean) and my taxicab research was also a psychological study. The official name of the research project was “The socialization of deceit amongst Los Angeles taxicab drivers.” I was interested in how they cheated their customers, but far more in how they taught each other to cheat and the sanctions against drivers who did not participate in the petty fraud.

A larger question quickly emerged: why do the drivers cheat their customers? The simple answer is that taxicab drivers are at the very bottom of an immense architecture of corruption in Los Angeles. Sometimes, a driver would have to pay over a hundred dollars in small bribes a night just to make a hundred dollars himself. As an Angeleño, that revelation was like a kick in the chest (New York is corrupt, Chicago; not my city, not LA).

In trying to perceive why Dante was so canonical I found I had to read Thomas Aquinas, but more importantly Aristotle’s “Ethics.” Each of these consistently asserted what I came to believe about fraud in Los Angeles: the worst sins are the sins of corrupt governments against their governed subjects.

As I thought about the Inferno particularly (by far, the most exciting part of the “Commedia” for a non-medieval reader), it seemed to me that the ranking of sin by Dante, the weaker sins those of the flesh and the more robust those of the state, matched so closely what I was seeing as a taxicab driver, that I could draw a rather strong parallel. As I sketched out the circles of Dante’s hell, the similarity was too compelling to the taxicab life to leave it alone.

Avoiding spoilers (of course), could you talk about the significance of the narrator’s transformation through the course of the book, and his relationship to Bukowski/Virgil?

Dante’s Inferno portion of the “Commedia” is modeled on Aeneas’ journey to Hades in Virgil’s great poem. That is modeled on Homer’s account of Odysseus. I knew I was entering treacherous sands by calling forth the most important minds the world has known, and, to minimize unflattering comparisons, I could not make my attempt as straightforward as had Virgil or Dante. Mine is a mirror, a sort of a cracked mirror for a man (myself) to observe these hallowed others (to be looked at, close to, with one eye, from the other side of the glass).

I hold the metaphor of the mirror throughout. Dante and Virgil proceed clockwise and Bukowski directs me counterclockwise around Los Angeles. Bukowski's poetry can be thought of as prose presented poetically, and I am pounding out, on my keyboard, a prosaic poesy.

I call the text a translation, though that is probably not fair to the general reader; however, occasionally, in the text, I do refer to it as a translateralization. It began first as a translation, tercet by tercet, from the ancient Italian (Tuscan) to modern English, then turned, translated again, verse by verse, to taxicab idiom, which for me meant not only language but ethnographic description.

Virgil, the confident guide at the beginning of the Inferno, becomes confused and full of missteps the further down they travel; Dante responds with increasing contempt. Bukowski begins as a tottering old man, barely able to stand, and not only increases in competence the deeper they journey into incontinence, deceit, and fraud, but becomes heroic in his guidance. By the thirtieth canto, the narrator of Taxi Inferno is as fully convinced of Bukowski’s righteousness as he can be of anyone’s, and follows Bukowski through Cocytus’ coccyx, to Hyperion, the destination of all the fecality of LA; willingly, thrillingly, screaming at a hundred miles an hour. The narrator begins the story lost, with no aim but money and sleep; by the end, he is redeemed through poetry, possessing nothing but meter, memory, and a new set of glasses to see the world.

You paint a picture of the character, background, and experiences of the narrator/driver; how autobiographical is this character?

One can think of ethnographic research in general as first-person science, making nearly all ethnographic reports autobiographical, in the sense that the anthropologist is writing, or distilling, what was seen first-hand: an account, in a way, of a portion of the writer's life.

Dante's Virgil is not Virgil's Virgil, and my Bukowski is not Bukowski's Bukowski (or even Chinaski), though close. And something similar is happening with all of these narrators. The narrator of Taxi Inferno is me to some extent, but only a portion of me, or perhaps, we should say, historically me. It is me that chews on the past, and, like a junkyard dog, won't let it go, however dirty and depleted it becomes. That is only one of the many mes, and I think almost everyone can say the same.

I indicate in the afterward that some parts of the story are what happened in a usual sense, and that one can tell by paying attention to the person, tense, and mood. Most of the narration uses a first person pronoun predicated with a third person verb, a violation to be sure, but one that hints that this part is not to be taken as literal historical fact (but happens to be a more straight translation that the rest of it). Where I employ the ordinary preterite, a simple statement of action, that is what did occur. With that in mind, one can see that my taxicab research was also one hell of an adventure.

Taxi Inferno is available from Amazon.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

“It Ain’t Just A Job, Folks!” The New Deep City Press, 1975-1978

San Francisco's New Deep City Press, with cover art by Jamie Maddox. Courtesy of Ralph Hoffschildt.

The New Deep City Press was a uniquely San Franciscan creation. Published from 1975 to 1978, it was a magazine of short stories, poetry, art, and journalism produced mostly by San Francisco cabdrivers, and largely—though not at all exclusively—about the experience of driving a cab in San Francisco. The DCP was one of the flagships of what journalist Tamim Ansary called the “literature of work,” a literary movement that brought out the creative expressions, not just of cabdrivers, but of longshoremen, factory workers, and other working class writers. It was a product of San Francisco’s longstanding and artistic underground publishing tradition. And it remains, today, a compelling window into the bohemian culture of San Francisco during the 1970s.

Most of the regular contributers were cabdrivers, such as Jesus Portillo, Andy Araneo, Catherine Baker, Marty Breslow, and “social worker behind the wheel” David Frankel. Jamie Maddox drew the “Maxie the Taxi” comic strip, and Jimmy “The Glove” Vetter provided a regular column on how to play craps. Besides cabdrivers, there were writings by journalist Sandra Katzman, and poet-longshoreman George Benet, along with cameos by folks like Gary Snyder, Spain Rodriguez, and Warren Hinckle.

For years, only scattered issues of the DCP were available, typically for $40 an issue on eBay or Amazon. Now, with the permission of DCP publisher Ralph Hoffschildt, six of the original eleven issues will be available as pdfs on the Taxi Library site, hosted by Luxor Cab’s Charles Rathbone.

Via email, I talked to DCP publisher Ralph Hoffschildt (Duke of the Mission, and a medallion holder at Yellow Cab), and editors David Bolton (now teaching writing at the University of Maryland) and Mark Joseph (now a novelist living in the East Bay) about the origins of the New Deep City Press.

Origins of the DCP

The New Deep City Press was the brainchild of cabdriver Don Fassett:
Dave Bolton: The first meeting of the DCP took place in the Doggie Diner on Lombard. There were about a half dozen of us. Don Fassett, a cabdriver who hailed from PA, had called us together. Don was a great salesman and would go on to launch a number of businesses. He was always coming up with ideas. ... 
The fat man sported a foot-long beard, had a twinkle in his eye, a wonderful belly laugh, and sold lids of dope out of his City cab. On this particular evening, he wanted to start a magazine and he wanted us to do it.
City Cab itself was a crucial part of the story. In the 1970s, according to Examiner writer Andy Meisler, “every third cab on the street [was] being piloted by a frustrated Faulkner, Sondheim, Heifitz or Hoffman.” City Cab was where these taxicab virtuosos collected. As Hoffschildt describes it:
Ralph Hoffschildt: City Cab was at 2015 McKinnon, behind the water department, around the corner from the produce market. We had a couple of gas pumps and a tin roof and driver’s room with a pool table. That’s where Jimmy the Glove would fade the main...shoot craps among each other, no house. He’d cut the pot a bit for running the game. Cool Breeze was always playin’ the pin ball machine. The old tin roof building is still there.... If those walls could only talk.... 
Dave Bolton: Anyway, Don was the glue in the beginning. He approached his friend Ralph [Hoffschildt] with his idea, and Ralph, being a man of great energy, imagination, and a degree in physics, ran with the idea, teaching himself the intricacies of publishing along the way. I do believe Ralph came up with the name of the magazine.
Yeah, what about that name? Was there ever an old Deep City Press? Hoffschildt reveals:
Ralph Hoffschildt: Originally, as I recall, I thought I’d just call it “Deep Press,” id est “Depress.” But Don Fassett was too optimistic. “City” and “New” just made for more syllables.
So there you have it.

A Labor of Love

Mark Joseph described his introduction to the Deep City crowd:
Mark Joseph: In 1975 I was working in a warehouse at 1st and Folsom in San Francisco when I met Dave Bolton at a party in North Beach. He told me he drove for City Cab where a bunch of drivers created a little mimeograph magazine called the Deep City Press. I gave him a short story which he passed on to the publisher, the head dispatcher at City Cab, Ralph Hoffschildt... after Ralph read it we talked on the phone and he said the DCP could publish my story... And by the way, would you like to drive for City Cab?
Today, accustomed as we are to laser printers and computer desktop publishing, it may be hard to imagine just how much work went into small press publishing as recently as the 1970s—especially for a beautifully printed four-color publication like the DCP. Hoffschildt was the man at the helm for the hours of labor involved:
Ralph Hoffschildt: The equipment I used was German. It was a Gestetner printing machine and a Gestefax to spark vinal stencils. The machines worked in tandem and were designed for each other. The equipment cost five or six thousand bucks. A considerable sum in 1975....
I had four ink guns: one each for yellow, red, blue, and black (not yellow, magenta, and cyan as in offset and computer printers today.) The Gestafax could separate colors. I would make a stencil for yellow, another for red, and another for blue. I could and did overlay black when needed with still another stencil. I would print all yellow sheets first (usually about 2200, losing around 200 to misalignment), spread them out on the garage floor to dry. Then I would clean the printer drums and change ink guns (the ink was in large tubes attached to the ink gun), then run the dry yellow sheets and overlay them with red, let dry, clean, change guns, and overlay blue and again same process if I overlaid black. 
Each color run I did standing at the printer adjusting manually with knobs the alignment of each color. They had to align or register sideways, lengthwise, and stay straight front to rear (no “fishtailing.”) If I saw any misalignment I would work the knobs to correct it. The last cover (front, back, and inside) went through the machine 9 times. ...Doing all this for just that sheet probably took around 12 hours of constant printing spread out, of course, over days.... 
After it was printed, it was collated, folded, stapled, and trimmed—all manually. The last issues were 64 pages or 16 sheets printed front and back. I used a large chart board to map it. Pages 1 & 64 (front page and back page), pages 2 & 63 (inside covers), pages 3 & 62, pages 4 & 61, etc. went together so that it folded into a standard looking little homemade magazine. 
Occasionally, even I had to write something just for filler. But, as you can see, mine is the tactile side. I have to make it, touch it, and look at it.
Hoffschildt’s editorials, of course, served as far more than mere filler; they anchor each issue, keeping the wide ranging content on mission, from anointing the DCP “the permanent record... of our adventures, or misadventures” in one of the earliest issues, to reminding readers of the final issue that “this is our soul. This is another true life cab story from deep in the City.”

The Deep City’s Legacy
Mark Joseph: Ralph produced the magazine in his basement, printing it in four colors on a fancy Gestetner mimeograph, and we—the drivers and writers—sold it on the street to drivers and anybody else with a buck. I distributed it to several SF bookstores, and at one point in 1977-8, around there somewhere, Shig, the manager at City Lights, told me the DCP was the best selling little magazine in the history of City Lights Books. I don't know if that was true, but it was one of the proudest and finest moments of my writing career.
By turns witty, serious, silly (Portillo’s “Cab Array” musical), tragic, and poignant (Joseph’s “Death on Watchman Way,” about the murder of a cabdriver)—the DCP gives us a glimpse into the cultural politics of San Francisco during an era that, to borrow Chris Carlsson’s phrase, “shook the city.” Most notably for cab history, the DCP chronicled the collapse of Yellow cab and its rebirth as a cooperative; as time would show, this would also result in the collapse of the cabdriver as employee and the switch to the “independent contractor” model over which Uber is facing lawsuits today. More generally, the DCP is a record of an important period in San Francisco’s history, when the city was still capital of the Left Coast, rather than just the nearest convenient urban laboratory for Silicon Valley’s imagineers to conduct experiments in. It is a chapter in the city’s longstanding individualistic, vibrant culture, which many fear is threatened today by gentrification and homogenization. If Uber gets its way:
Ralph Hoffschildt: The taxicab industry in all of its former fascinating color and history may well die and become as bland and boring as the drab Google bus techies swarming these beautiful hills on Baghdad by the Bay.
It is ironic that San Francisco—birthplace of the Uber and Lyft anti-cab apps—is also home to a rich and varied tradition of literature by and about cabdrivers, perhaps more than any other city. The DCP was neither the first, nor the last word in this tradition. It was preceeded by the cabdriving-inspired works of beat poet Lew Welch and minimalist composer Steve Reich; and followed by Mike Weiss’s novels about cabdriving sleuth Ben Henry, and Emil Lawrence’s long-running “Night Cabbie” column. The tradition is continued today by writer/drivers like MC Mars, Alex Sack, and Kelly Dessaint.

(To read some much, much older San Francisco cabdriver stories, check out “Big Tom’s Antique Hack Yarns.”)

Wouldn’t it be great someday, to see the New Deep City Press once again gracing the window of City Lights, this time as a collected volume? For now, at least, the pdfs are available for download from Taxi Library.

The Deep City crew outside of City Cab. Courtesy of Ralph Hoffschildt.