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.

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