Dmitry Samarov doesn't present a very enticing image of the garage where he leases his Yellow Cab and gets it repaired—or of most of the people who pass through it.
The place resounds with screaming matches over petty stuff like unsigned credit card slips, he writes, and most of the "lifer" cabbies who populate the garage "are burnouts, punch-drunk from breathing in exhaust for twenty, thirty years."
Samarov has been blogging, tweeting, writing, drawing, and painting for years about his experiences ferrying passengers around the city. But his reputation as a keen observer of humanity's more peculiar specimens is sure to grow with the October publication of Hack: Stories From a Chicago Cab (University of Chicago Press).
It should come as no surprise that Samarov seems drawn to writing about his more troubled passengers: the ones who stumble out of bars, blurt out racist comments about other cabbies when they notice this particular driver is white, or look and sound more than a little bit lost.
"It's a strange interaction," Samarov says. "You're sort of not a real person to a lot of them. You're like furniture, you know? So they let themselves go and they do whatever they're doing as if nobody's watching or listening."
Born in Moscow in 1970, Samarov moved with his parents to Boston when he was seven, knowing almost no English. He was a fast learner. "By third grade, I knew every curse word there was," he says.
Before coming here to earn an art degree at the School of the Art Institute, he'd learned about Chicago through reading Nelson Algren. After graduating he went back to Boston and ended up driving a cab for a few years, then returned to Chicago in 1997 and worked various odd jobs. Within three years he was driving again. "My main thing is I'm a painter, but it's very difficult to make a living that way," he says. "So all I've done is service industry jobs: restaurants, bars, food delivery, bakeries, you name it. Sooner or later, there'd be conflicts with my bosses or coworkers. I don't think it's all me, but I definitely have problems with authority figures."
Samarov previously chronicled his experiences through pictures and narratives pieced together into a zine, but he later turned them into a blog, chicagohack.com. The blog attracted a following—for a while he posted on the Reader site as well—and eventually he weaved his stories into an illustrated book.
"I never set out to become a writer," Samarov says. "I still don't think of myself as one." Mostly, he paints and draws his impressions of city life. He's the guy with the reddish beard and the star-of-David tattoo on his arm who you might notice drawing musicians at venues such as the Hideout. "When you're looking at something, it's changing all the time," he says. "I'm trying to incorporate some of that—an acknowledgement that you can't freeze moments."
But freezing moments is just what he does in Hack. "I'm trying to be as straight as possible about it," he says. "It's all part of the human comedy. I don't think I'm any better than most of them."
Samarov sees no reason why he'd ever want to leave Chicago, but he'd like to quit driving his cab. "It's not an especially healthy job," he says. "I have these daydreams all the time about never driving a car again."