For Chicago cabbie, backseat is a trove of art
Dmitry Samarov's 'Hack' chronicles Chicago, one fare at a time
Chicago cabbie Dmitry Samarov.
He is a taxi driver, and with respect to Bickle — the psychotic misanthrope from the 1976 Martin Scorsese classic "Taxi Driver," who rolled through a midnight Manhattan delivering apocalyptic soliloquies on rage, revenge and alienation — Samarov also believes "the animals come out at night." For Bickle, it was the tramps, dopers, junkies and the venal. For Samarov, who heads to Wrigleyville as bars let out, it's the bros, dudes, trixies and drunks. Someday a rain will come "and wash all this scum off the streets," Bickle intoned.
Dmitry Samarov, though, is nicer than Travis Bickle.
He has a cheerful, accommodating voice; and if rain washed everyone off the streets, he'd have no fares.
On the other hand, Samarov does wear a ragged army jacket, just like Robert De Niro's iconic character, and when asked why he became a cab driver and not a full-time artist or writer — why he has stayed a cab driver despite a burgeoning career as an artist and writer — a hint of alienation creeps in. He explains that after graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early '90s, where he studied painting, he worked in an art supply store, waited tables and delivered bread. But "sooner or later there would be workplace drama, and, remember, I was only holding those jobs to pay the rent and keep painting," he said. "Then one restaurant I worked in, it literally made me not want to work with anyone at all anymore. The one place you can do that? In a cab. I already kept a distance from people, so it wasn't much of a leap."
Besides, as a source of material, driving a cab in Chicago has been a rich, deep well.
His first book, "Hack: Stories From a Chicago Cab," a kind of front-line report from a guy behind the wheel everyday, was just released by University of Chicago Press; it's adapted from postings and artwork on his blog, also named "Hack," which he's published since 2006.
There's "Hack: Pictures From a Chicago Cab," a selection of his paintings and drawings inspired by random moments on the job, opening Oct. 14 at the Lloyd Dobler Gallery on West Division Street. There are the two other art exhibits Samarov has this fall, neither of which would have been financially possible if he wasn't driving a cab — "Dmitry Samarov: Music & Baseball," a survey of his album art and band sketches paired with his paintings of Chicago White Sox players, showing at Saki, a record store/art gallery on West Fullerton Avenue in Logan Square; and "Dmitry Samarov: Pictures of Books," which is exactly what it sounds like: oil paintings of the weathered, dogeared volumes shoehorned into every available crevice on the shelves of his Heart of Chicago apartment, showing until Oct. 20 at the Rainbo Club in the Ukrainian Village.
Then there's "Chicago Hack" — if you wonder how a cab driver maintains a host of creative contacts, look no further than this prospective TV series, based on his life and currently being pitched around Los Angeles.
Being pitched, in fact, by the Chicago-based director John McNaughton, best known for "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and the '90s camp favorite "Wild Things." McNaughton, whose own De Niro movie, "Mad Dog and Glory," was co-produced by Scorsese, said in a phone interview from Los Angeles that he met Samarov through the Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick — whom Samarov happened to pick up one day and who later hired Samarov as a kind of personal driver for a couple of years.
McNaughton said he had seen Samarov's art in group shows "and once in a while we'd get together for a drink, but I never gave (his job) much thought. Then he mentioned the book, and this idea (for a TV series) popped out. I've spent a lot of time after dark in Chicago, running across strangers in the city. I always loved the noirness and loneliness of that, how you come across any number of strangers in the middle of the night who pour their hearts out. Like in 'Taxi Driver.' Except no one wants Travis Bickle in their house every week."
But "Yuri Alexandrov," McNaughton's artist/cabbie stand-in for Samarov? Perhaps.
"Every show would begin and end with Yuri at his drawing board, ruminating on one of his encounters," McNaughton said. "And now that Dmitry is the flavor of the minute — after years as a cab driver, and there's this book and these shows, and it's clear that he is not always going to drive a cab — there's an interesting question in there: What happens when an artist gets big enough to detach from the source of his material?"
Samarov is 41 but looks 40.
He has a large ruddy head and short dirty blond hair and a red beard; if McNaughton's TV series gets made, it wouldn't be hard to imagine a Seth Rogan-esque man playing him. He was born in Moscow. His parents immigrated here when he was 7. His father had a brother living in the United States who acted as their sponsor — being Russian Jews in the Soviet Union, the family was granted political asylum and soon settled outside of Boston, where Samarov lived until leaving for art school in 1990.
After SAIC, he drove a cab in Boston for three years. He returned to Chicago in the late '90s and has driven a cab here ever since; for a while, he drove a Crown Vic, a classic cab driver's cab. Last March, he began renting a 2011 Scion from his cab company. Only a Prius would be less Bickle-like. On a recent afternoon, he turned the key in it and started his shift, and despite driving seven days a week, for more than 12 hours a shift, the car was spotless. The video screen in back even had a black cloth (knitted by an ex-girlfriend) thoughtfully draped over it to eliminate glare. He cued Pavement and Tom Waits on his iPod and headed north for downtown.
He drove along Michigan Avenue, circled through the Loop, cruised past Navy Pier. It was a Monday, and Mondays, as his book explains, are slow. He took this in stride. "I get a lot of time to think," he said. "I think about the things that have happened, I think about my art, and I have this big window, to watch the buildings, people and cars."
He drove for more than an hour before noticing a single outstretched arm. Some drivers like to camp and wait for passengers to come to them. Samarov would rather keep moving. The illustrations in "Hack," which have a fleeting, incomplete quality, speak to this — a couple taking shelter in a downpour, Blackhawks fans in mid-shout, cars curling through a drive-in.
His book, organized by the days of the week, is thin and enveloping, full of the kind of insights only a veteran cab driver would have: For instance, to a cab driver looking for a fare, every vertical shape, every tree and lamp post, becomes a raised hand. ("My mind is trained to seek its abstract form," Samarov writes.) The book is also so attuned to the nuances of cab life, a thought repeatedly springs to mind as you read it: Your cab driver is aware of you. More than you realize.
Levi Stahl, promotions director for University of Chicago Press, who pitched Samarov on the idea of a book, said he learned about "Hack" from the humorist (and Apple spokesman) John Hodgman, who went to high school with Samarov and recommended the blog. Stahl grew addicted to reading it. "Dmitry has this job that should crush you," he said. "You're out there (driving a cab), experiencing the worst in people. But what comes across in the writing is not someone who's lost faith but someone who recognizes that some people can deal with problems better than others."
One of the recurring subjects in the book is that Samarov is white and, though Russian-born, he has no accent. Passengers are startled by this — sometimes using it as a pretext to assume that they can share racist comments with him. In fact, his passengers become a kind of supporting cast: the drug dealers who have him drive into bad neighborhood and conduct quiet sales while he waits; the guy who gets in and says "You know where I'm going"; the couple who ask him to drive to Downers Grove then disappear beneath the partition, surfacing in flashes of bare legs and body parts.
In Boston, Samarov painted self-portraits, right there in the car, using rearview mirrors. In Chicago, he paints and writes mostly at home, from memory, taking notes by tweeting the details back to himself. Asked what he would do for a subject if he did well enough as an artist or writer to stop driving, Samarov had no clear answer. But he doesn't want to drive forever, he said. Fitzpatrick, who has heard Samarov say this often, said he understands wanting to be successful enough to stop driving a cab, "but I would miss Dmitry's eye if he stopped, his tales of the city. One of the reasons I had him on call was I liked those stories. Because he always had some misadventure. He sees the world for what it is, yet keeps a curiosity about it, and that's rare." Said Patrick Monaghan, owner of Saki: "Some artists take a snapshot of a moment and store it in their heads. But there are a billion cab drivers, and how many are aware enough to spot those moments?"
Several illustrations in "Hack" simply show other cab drivers, waiting in garages for an available car. Samarov drew some of these while waiting for his own cab to be fixed. One picture from the garabe is of a sour, little man, "the guy who owns the place," Samarov writes, "a miniature volcano ready to erupt at the slightest provocation." Think Danny DeVito on "Taxi."
"The funny thing is," Samarov said, "when I think about cab driving, I think of that cultural stuff, too. That guy was (DeVito's) Louie De Palma. And 'Taxi Driver' is one of my benchmarks, too. Certain parts are really accurate. I have people get in and say threatening things. Like this guy got in and said he was going to go kill his wife. He was waiting for me to react, like he seemed to be asking, 'Are you going to stop me or what?' And then he announces he has no money, and I'm like 'OK, go, get out of my cab. I'm not your social worker.'
"See, in a sense, what allows me to do this, to paint some of what I painted and write some of the things I have written about this job, is that most of my passengers don't think of me as a person," Samarov said. "They think of me as part of the furniture. And I am. They say and do things they wouldn't do around other people. Because they simply don't regard me. Not everyone. But on a base level, that's true of a lot of people. And I get it. The back of my head is turned to them, which makes a difference. They feel looser. That said, probably, most don't try to talk to me, and I don't start conversations. I'm comfortable in silence."
He turned west on Chicago. His face, at first hard and skeptical, softened.
"But am I more sympathetic?" he asked himself. "Has this job made me sympathetic to people? When I started I was young and thought I knew everything. Now I've seen enough human comedy, so yes, I have sympathy. I'm not Travis Bickle."