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Idling with Dmitry Samarov

Dmitry Samarov (photo by Paul Germanos)

Dmitry Samarov (photo by Paul Germanos)

I met up with Dmitry Samarov at Hopleaf Bar in Edgewater for their Tuesday Funk reading series. Dmitry, a former Boston and Chicago taxi driver, is the author and illustrator of the work memoirs Where To?: A Hack Memoir (Curbside Splendor, 2014) and Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab (University of Chicago Press, 2011), and has also had essays and artwork published in Chicago Magazine, Gadling, The Classical, and TriQuarterly, among others. We chatted before the reading, sitting in his girlfriend’s Mini Cooper outside the Hopleaf. He had suggested we talk in the car when I emailed him to set up the interview. Knowing he was a former cab driver, I thought he wanted to drive around. I responded with, “The driving thing might work,” to which he said, “I just meant it’d be quieter in a car than at Hopleaf. No need to drive while we talk.” I was glad to talk directly with Dmitry to parse out what shaped his past and what drives his future plans.

Shelby Kling: So when did you start taking note of the incidents happening in your cab?

Dmitry Samarov: I didn’t really start taking note until about three years after I first quit driving a cab, which was in the year 2000. So I drove in Boston from ’93 to ’97 and then it wasn’t until the year 2000 that I attempted to write something about it. But the first book actually doesn’t deal with Boston much, the second one does a little bit more.

SK: Yeah, I read your first book actually after the second one– (Laughs guiltily) –so I have kind of a backwards perspective of everything.

DS: Oh that’s okay! It’s not really a sequel, you know–

SK: Yeah, but it is interesting to look at your perspective and see you kind of jump backwards.

DS: Mhm. Well, the second one’s better. (Laughs)

SK: (Laughs) That’s usually how it goes.

DS: You’re ‘sposed to say that, I guess. I mean, I never set out to write, but all this stuff in the cab kept eating at me, so I eventually made this zine with some writing in it. And then it kind of progressed from there. But when I revived Hack as a blog, I started taking notes or doing stuff a lot more just right after it happened, as close to the event as possible. I didn’t want to forget stuff. I’m not interested in my own personal take on it. Personal essays—they’re good but I don’t do them. I don’t do them and I don’t do fiction.

SK: That makes sense, though, with starting out with art, that you would just want to document things the way you see it.

DS: Yeah, yeah. That’s sorta my angle on it.

SK: So what actually prompted you to start writing things down versus, like, drawing, gouache…

DS: There’s all these things that had happened in the cab that I couldn’t process, that I couldn’t make art out of visually because most of my artwork prior was from direct observation. And there was no way to do it that way because I couldn’t pull the cab over and ask to, you know, draw a portrait of somebody. They had places to go. I like– I had no ambitions at all for storytelling, writing, any of it. It happened because of the job. One of the things that always stuck with me was just the way people talked, the way people said things. It was really, really particular, and it could only be communicated with words. I mean, also, on the flip side, I find it really hard and sort of ultimately pointless to write about painting. I do it occasionally, but it’s always dissatisfying because the reason that I like painting things is I can’t say those things, I can’t write those things.

SK: I marked down that you said in the “About All This Art” section of Where To?, “[O]ne can’t exist without the other,” meaning art and writing, so that does make a lot of sense where if you can’t say something with one thing, you say it with the other.

DS: Yeah, also, almost all the writing I’ve ever done, there’s been pictures connected and they help me focus, they help me sort of pinpoint what I’m trying to say.

SK: Do you consider the pictures as illustrations or as separate?

DS: They’re connected, but some stand alone. Other ones wouldn’t exist without the words, and sometimes vice versa. It’s a weird and kind of changing relationship, and it’s hard to describe to people what these books are that I’ve done because they’re not, you know, they’re not graphic novels, they’re not fiction. But then they– they have pictures, you know? So they’re some sort of weird hybrid form. (Laughs) So I had trouble. The first one was called Stories from a Chicago Cab, so everyone just assumed it was fiction… I use “stories” in the generic meaning of it. Like, anything’s a story. You know, there’s news stories, there’s– It’s a story.

SK: That’s what I think.

DS: Yeah, it’s– it’s a better word than, you know, “content.” Something else that just doesn’t mean anything. So yeah, I stuck the word “memoir” in the title of the second one to make it a little bit easier for people, but…

SK: Yeah, to me, “memoir” seems so much more personal and individual–

DS: Mhm.

SK: –and when you really are writing about other people, they’re other people’s stories. So… “stories.”

DS: Mhm. It’s– you know, the– the– the– (Frustrated exhalation) –most glib way that I’ve figured out to boil it down to is it’s an illustrated work memoir.

SK: (Laughs)

DS: So, yeah, that’s what I’m working with. I mean, there’s people now that do nonfiction comics. There’s people that do, you know, comics journalism. There’s people that do illustrated this, that, and the other. So there’s room for it, but it’s– it makes it hard on bookstores. They never know where to put my books. I’ve found them in “Sociology,” I’ve found them in “Biography,” I’ve found them in, like, “Essays,” I’ve found them in “Fiction.” All over the place.

SK: Following up to that, how do you think nonfiction fits into the contemporary storytelling landscape, as something separate from fiction and journalism and poetry, etcetera?

DS: The thing is, I mean, since I was really late to all of this—the literary racket—I’m learning this stuff as I go. I listen to podcasts and read articles to figure out what all of these writers are doing, but I recognize the stuff that I do and the stuff that I don’t do, and I don’t sit and plot out, like, what’s gonna happen. This stuff passes through me. I’m not generating it, you know? So with the second book I was lucky to have a natural framing structure. I started it with the very first cab ride and ended it with the last one. And that’s a beginning and end, but the problem with nonfiction is that it’s almost all middle, always. Because you’re not gonna sit and watch a person from the time they’re born until the time they’re dead. And that’s what fiction writers do. I mean, they invent this stuff. I don’t do that at all, and I don’t even know how you do it, or– that’s– (Laughs) It’s baffling! I might as well study rocket science. I don’t know how they do– it’s great! I like fiction. I just, I have no idea how it’s done. You know what I mean?

SK: Definitely.

DS: I’m interesting in looking and listening and, uh, reacting, and that’s– that’s about it. (Laughs)

SK: (Laughs) Huh. Okay, so on the note of how you approach writing, how do you think your writing style changed between Hack and Where To? and how was your mindset different between writing the two?

DS: Well, uh… I– I– (Thoughtful breath) –there was a lot of editing and editing on that first book. And I learned editing, doing that first book, because I’d never been edited before, you know? The first book was put out by University of Chicago Press and they’re super meticulous about editing. I mean, they put out the Chicago Manual of Style. They’re not gonna put out something that’s sloppy. And it was really instructive. And I really think I learned how to write a book. It’s a short little book, but there was a lot of work on it. But by the time it came out, I had a ton of new material, and I knew there’d be a second book. And I had a much better idea of what that would be and there’s a lot more writing in the second book. A little less art, more writing. It’s just– it’s like anything—going swimming, going running—you exercise a muscle, you know? And it gets better, you know? Gets stronger. It got to be more of a habit. At first it was just sort of this weird side-project hobby and then it became– it started taking up more and more time. I mean, I still ultimately think of myself first, second, and third as an artist, a painter. It’s still my main thing, you know? With a gun to my head, you know, it wouldn’t even–

SK: No question.

DS: There would be no contest. But yeah, it’s, uh– I make part of my living with writing these days, so… it’s a thing now! (Laughs)

SK: Um, so, I actually wrote an essay after seeing you read at Unabridged [Bookstore]–

DS: Oh yeah?

SK: –because I was thinking about the driver-passenger relationship and ended up taking a few car service rides in the days after, like Uber and Lyft. And then I was reading your books, and in “No Partition” [from Where To?] you wrote, “It feels a bit more like I’m giving someone I know a ride, but only up to a point … There will always be a barrier whether there’s a partition or not.” So I was wondering if you’ve thought about the new car services where these people drive their own cars and ask you to sit up front and talk with you and everything?

DS: Well, yeah, it was just starting to come in when I quit. I quit in 2012, and actually the last few months, I worked with Uber, ‘cause they have cab drivers, too.

SK: Yeah, oh, that’s right.

DS: I was one of the first cab drivers that had– they just give you an iPhone, basically, with the app on it. It was interesting. And I’m pretty convinced that stuff like Uber is the future of car service. Taxis, whatever, and these cab companies better adjust or they’re gonna die. But at the same time, with UberX and these other, you know– what’s the one… Lyft?

SK: Yeah.

DS: They’re gonna have to institute some sort of regulations. And I’ve heard from some women that some of these guys get handsy. I used to hear that from cab customers, too, though, that a single woman, uh, you know, they’d get propositioned. I mean, the good thing about them [car services] is with the app, there’s a record. You know, it’s a homing device. These guys are not gonna run anywhere and get away. So there’s– there’s some… accountability built in to the digital homing device, you know? This is the good side of Big Brother, I guess. You know what I mean? (Laughs)

SK: Yeah. (Laughs)

DS: I actually wrote a thing for New City a few months ago about rideshare and sort of like the evolution of the way public cars have been dispatched in the many years that I’ve done it. Because there’s been a huge evolution. And a lot of it’s got to do with smart phones and all this technology, you know? And the cab companies are hopelessly out of date in the way that they service customers.

SK: Mhm.

DS: Yeah, it’s called, uh– I think they called it “Hack Attack”–

SK: (Laughs)

DS: –which is– I didn’t– that’s not what I called that article, but–

SK: Okay. (Still laughing)

DS: –that’s what they called it! (Laughs)

SK: One last question: at the beginning of Where To?, when you’re talking about all the people going through the classes [to become a cab driver]?

DS: Uh huh?

SK: You said, “All we had in common was being from elsewhere and wanting this strange job to get us to where we wanted to be.” And so, I was thinking about where your own “where to?” was then and where you think you’re going now?

DS: Well, Where to?, the title, comes from the question I asked pretty much every customer that ever got in. And often it was the last thing I ever said to them because if talk happened, they started it. I wasn’t the chatty cabbie, you know? I got two books generated from people that couldn’t keep their mouths shut in my presence, which is really strange.

SK: (Laughs)

DS: But the project is the same. I want to make money off my artwork. And, uh, I’ve had a series of shit jobs allowing me to bridge that gap. I knew from when I was in art school that there’d never be a job that I’d want and that jobs just get in the way of me getting my work done. But I’m super, super lucky. I’ve never really had any serious doubts as to what I’m ‘sposed to be doing. So I made, you know, I made a bit of lemonade out of the lemons of driving a taxi, but, um, given the choice? You know, back then? If somebody said, “Yeah, you could just paint!” I would’ve done that. I mean, it would’ve changed everything. I would’ve had a very different life experience, maybe less interesting, I don’t know. It’s definitely had a big influence. Now I’m sort of trained to watch and listen to people in public in a certain way. I mean, I do the same stuff I did in the cab on, like, CTA buses now… And yeah, it’s gonna come out. There’s gonna be other books, I think. Yeah.


Shelby Kling is the prose editor for Helicon Literary Magazine in Evanston, Illinois.