Saturday, March 4, 2017

Disrupt the Disruptors! An Interview with Kelly Dessaint

Cabdriver, zine publisher, and Examiner columnist Kelly Dessaint’s Behind the Wheel series is a must-read for anyone interested in an on-the ground view of how tech gentrification and the “sharing” economy have transformed the experience of life and work in San Francisco.

Kelly Dessaint's Behind the Wheel series chronicles his path from Uber/Lyft driver to licensed San Francisco taxi driver. They are available in print or pdf from his website, as well as from Amazon. He also writes the I Drive SF column for the Examiner.

I’m inbound on Post street. While I wait for the light to change at Jones, I practice my double bass drumming on the steering wheel along to the Slayer CD blasting from the stereo in my taxicab. (Behind the Wheel 3, page 1)

The third installment of Behind the Wheel begins and ends just like most of the stories it contains—in motion through the streets of San Francisco. Dessaint was the first driver/writer to publish about the experience of driving for Uber and Lyft, and he has since joined the ranks of the city's licensed taxi drivers. Like most writing about cabdriving, the stories in Behind the Wheel take the form of fragmentary, slice-of-life episodes, but Dessaint’s stories are unified by a sense of movement, recurring characters, and a compelling theme of analog resistance to the digital colonization of everyday life.

One of the most striking characters is San Francisco itself. At least since Tex Reed’s 1970 book Hey Taxi, San Francisco cabdrivers have been writing complicated love stories to the city. Cabdriving memoirs from other cities often emphasize a sense of the alienation of disconnected service work, or even the despair of being caught in a dead-end job. San Francisco’s cab writers—including Dessaint—don’t overlook the downsides of the work, but they always balance it with a sense of intoxication with the city, and the myriad stories of the people they drive through it. The result is a mix of light and shadow, of spleen and ideal, a performance far more human and interesting than the sugar-coated kitsch of (for example) Lyft Me Up San Francisco. Dessaint calls it “the incurable madness of taxi driving:”

San Francisco is like a drug. When it gets inside you, each moment is a revelation. Until things get ugly. (Behind the Wheel 3, page 10)

Behind the Wheel paints a psychogeographic portrait of San Francisco, joining a tradition that includes Rebecca Solnit’s Infiinite City and Gary Kamiya’s Cool, Gray City of Love. Like the “spatial stories” described by the philosopher De Certeau, Dessaint’s stories are narratives in motion, lighting up the city through the movements of a cabdriver and his passengers:

And if you’re lucky, one ride follows the next, like jigsaw puzzle pieces falling into place. One minute you’re working the swanky hotels on Snob Hill, the next you’re dropping off in the oft-forgotten Bayview, where urban detritus collects like dust bunnies under a credenza.
And you’ve seen it all, cause you’re a cabdriver, or at least you’ve seen most of it, although in reality, you don’t know fuck all. (Behind the Wheel 3, pages 58-9)

We meet a myriad of other characters of course—passengers from all walks of life, taxi drivers hanging around the garage or the cabstand—but the most interesting is Dessaint himself. Unlike the wry persona affected by many cab writers (such as the Examiner’s old Night Cabbie columnist), Dessaint reveals his own reactions to what he encounters, showing his defeats along with his triumphs, and his exhaustion, uncertainty, and anguish at the hands of abusive passengers, particularly during his “ridesharing” phase:

It’s nights like these that make me want to curl up into a fetal position and rethink this whole ridesharing deal. (Behind the Wheel 2, page 28)

As a whole, the three Behind the Wheel books tell the story of Dessaint’s growth through cabdriving, and his own arc of progress from Lyft driver, to Uber driver, to licensed San Francisco taxi driver—in a direction diametrically opposed to the official narrative of the “sharing economy.” And this is one unifying theme of the Behind the Wheel series: it is a story of defiance, an act of political activism. The series is a war-cry against the gentrification of the city, and the intrusion of tech interfaces and algorithmic manipulation into everyday life. In one of the most important chapters of Behind the Wheel 3, Dessaint teams up with a disgruntled Uber driver to confront David Plouffe himself at a tech conference. In a later chapter he argues with some passengers who don’t realize the contradiction between supporting Bernie Sanders, and patronizing Uber and Lyft:

This new gig economy is regressive. It pushes the most vulnerable members of our society into wage slavery, where they’re paid for piecework rather than given an opportunity to secure a stable income. And what’s more, instead of seeing their profits increase by working more, due to the constant Uber/Lyft price wars, they actually make less in the process. How can you support a system like that? (Behind the Wheel 3, page 55)

The Behind the Wheel series is a must-read for anyone interested in seeing the real, gritty, human reality of how work and urban space have been transformed by the tech-centric “sharing” economy (And as a bonus, each book comes with a “Disrupt the Disruptors” bumper sticker!)

My Other Car Is A Taxicab

I interviewed Kelly by email about Behind the Wheel, along with his long-running zine Piltdownlad, his Examiner column I Drive SF, and his future plans.

How did you start writing a column for the Examiner?

I'd been blogging about my experiences driving for Uber and Lyft for a while and getting a decent amount of attention. I was extremely critical of both companies and how they were treating drivers. I'd already put out the first two zines and started writing for and Broke-Ass Stuart. To explore other aspects of driving for hire, I was planning to go to taxi school and get my a-card.

On New Year's Eve 2014/2015, Flywheel ran that special where every ride was $10 and it killed business for Uber and Lyft, who'd been getting bad press about surge pricing. I worked that night and it was dismal. Just horrible. I drove around empty most of the night. The next day I wrote a blog post called "Night of the Living Taxi" that made the rounds. Several news outlets contacted me, including Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez of The Examiner. We talked on the phone for a while and the next month he recommended me to the new editor as a modern version of the Night Cabbie, but as an Uber driver. By this time I'd already started driving a taxi, so I pitched my idea of a column about a former Uber/Lyft driver turned cab driver. The editor was interested. When we met to go over the details, he told me that one of the things he wanted to do when he took over The Examiner was revive the Night Cabbie. Of course, in the beginning, and still to this day, comparisons are made between his column and mine. Except I'm not anonymous.

Incidentally, the editor was relieved that I wanted to use my real name. Though I quickly realized the advantage the Night Cabbie had by not revealing who he was. Writing for a newspaper is restrictive because there are limits to what you can write about. Which is why I find doing the zine more liberating because I can write whatever I want. And I'm not bound by a 700 word limit.

How did you first get into writing and zine publishing?

I've always written. It's something my parents encouraged me to do for as long as I can remember. Whether it was filling notebooks with derivative song lyrics or pecking away at my mother's Royal typewriter trying to compose bawdry poems, writing was a way I was able to truly express myself. And shock the adults around me.

As a teenager, I wrote vociferously. Exploring both verse and prose before eventually settling on prose as my preferred method of communication. After getting rejected by any half-way decent magazine I found on the newsstand, I started my own zine and book publishing empire. (And by "empire" I mean that Gateway computer set up in a burned out garage behind my mother's house in East LA.)

I modeled my publications on lit journals from the 60s that I'd found in used bookstores and collected over the years, as well as contemporary handmade, photocopied punk zines coming out of the underground, listed in the back of Maximum Rocknroll and Flipside.

From there, I just kept pushing the boundaries... writing and publishing and designing... collaborating with different artists and writers until we inevitably went our own ways... usually acrimoniously. But not always...

In 2010, I started my latest project: Piltdownlad: A Personal Narrative Zine. 

How did you pick the name for the zine? Some relation to Piltdown Man?

Pitldownlad comes from an album by the D.C. band Fidelity Jones entitled "Piltdown Lad." I combined the two words for aesthetic reasons. Fidelity Jones was the first punk band I saw live, during a visit to D.C. when I was 17. "Piltdown Lad" is their only full length LP. There is very little commentary associated with the album or a title song, but I assume it's an expansion on the idea of the Piltdown Man (a fake early man) to incorporate feeling "fake" as a young (new) person. Perhaps. Or a reference to arrested development. Or, the Peter Pan complex. I don't know really... 

I used Piltdownlad as a vehicle to explore the darkness of my childhood in relation to my current existence as a writer trying to make sense of the past and the future, as well as an outlet to review equally, over-personal zines. 

Where does the Behind the Wheel series fit into this?

After ten issues, around 2014, I discovered Lyft, the ride-hail company. I thought to myself, here is something that is culturally relevant - albeit entirely absurd - that I'd love to document. Something I was convinced surely wouldn't last for long. From Lyft, I delved into Uber, which I also assumed was a fly by night operation at best. 

As I documented the stupidity, the madness, the desperation of using one's personal car as a taxicab, I stumbled onto many fascinating discoveries... Namely, that I loved driving around San Francisco, witnessing the last gasps of a city that I'd always associated with free expression and limitless artistic possibilities as tech start ups took over and molded the cultural reality into something darker and sinister... And the realization that Uber and Lyft weren't going anywhere soon. 

That's where the Behind the Wheel series was born, and from which it has evolved: detailing the nightmare of what was, and what may never be again. And holding a torch for the last bastion of analogue technology: taxi driving. 

It's safe to say I may have bit off more than I can "eschew." And now I'm in a vicious circle. But I still believe that salvation comes from hard work. And driving a taxi in San Francisco is a challenge I have yet to master. And may never master. But I am keeping notes... 

What do you mean when you say you're in a "vicious circle"?

The vicious circle I referred to is driving a taxi to write about driving a taxi... The writing comes easy. The driving, not so much. I suppose I could just work a few days each month, collect some stories, talk to other cab drivers, get their stories and do the column without subjecting myself to the physical stress, the poor financial returns and the constant sense of futility. But that's not the type of writer - or person - I am. Unfortunately, the story I want to tell requires active participation. And that comes with a plethora of consequences, both personal and financial. 

When writing the three Behind the Wheel issues, do you have a particular audience or reader(s) in mind?

I do. And it changes with each issue. When I wrote the first one I thought of readers of my previous zines. The second, people who read my blog. And the third, readers of my column. I've been fortunate to receive a decent amount of messages and comments from people who read my stuff. I don't always reply but I try to incorporate responses in future writings, either through inside jokes or references that only a few will catch.

I know from talking to taxi drivers that geography is a major issue to them when they read about locations. So I always make sure not to fuck up my cross streets or routes. Cause when I do, I immediately hear about it.

A few months back, some guy left a comment on an old column of mine in which he questioned my claim that taxis serve poor people, or the working poor, rather. His argument being that Uber is way more affordable. True, but that's irrelevant. Obviously. The complete lack of insight into how poverty works makes my mind swell each time I think about his comment. I still haven't figured out a single rebuttal because there are so many to make. When I try my mind just goes pfffffftttttttt. And yet, I find myself incorporating the subject of poverty into what I'm writing, not in a direct way, but just adding small scenes along the way. It's a subtle reply, I guess.

What are the most important things you want your readers to learn or understand from your writing?

I think writing should be exciting to read. It should be honest. It should capture the feel of a time and place. It should break rules and constantly push boundaries. I don't see much of that today. I'm often amused by things I read, but rarely am I excited. Like first discovering Henry Miller. Or Thomas Pynchon. Or Hunter Thompson. Not that I actually believe I'll ever reach that caliber, you know, but at least try, right?

Will there be a 4th Behind the Wheel? Do you have other future writing planned?

I've started working on the new BTW. Which will be mostly unpublished stuff about the daily process of driving and going into the city every day from Oakland. "The Thin Checkered Line."

Before I started documenting my experiences driving for hire I was working on other personal narratives under Piltdownlad. I'm actually hoping the new zine will lead to a return to those past stories to wrap up a manuscript I should have returned to the publisher over a year ago. I released a book about my abusive childhood several years ago and that's what led to Microcosm, the publisher, approaching me about another book that dealt specifically with punk rock as a method of recovery from abuse, called No Fun: How Punk Rock Saved My Life.  

The Behind the Wheel series is available from Dessaint's website, or from Amazon.

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