"A raised hand generates an irresistible magnetic pull on a taxi driver. After some years the mind is trained to seek it out to the point of forming light-poles, reflections in parked cars, weaving tree branches, and on a slow night, just about any shape into that desired sign, the symbol of time not spent in vain."
~Dmitry Samarov in "HACK: Stories from a Chicago Cab."
While most cab rides for taxi driver Dmitry Samarov just feel like a daily routine, others are quite compelling.
There's the soldier talking on the phone about his dying mother, about innocents being killed overseas. There's the 5 a.m. hookup. There's the drunk guy who gets lost in the suburbs. And the White Sox fans who have no idea they've actually wound up at Wrigley Field. In them, Samarov finds a cross-section of Chicago life.
"Those are the things that interest me, the things that people say or do when no one is watching," said Samarov, 41, while taking some time to relax at the Rainbo Club in Ukrainian Village.
"The stuff I write about and hear about and see, all I'm doing is trying to relate it the best that I can," he said. "This is some of the life of the city where I live, and I have a perspective on it that not a lot of people are aware of. I'm doing my best to share it with people."
His sharing usually starts with 140 characters or less, a tweet about his experiences. Those tweets turn into blog posts, and those blog posts have turned into Samarov's new book, "HACK: Stories from a Chicago Cab," which was released this month by University of Chicago Press. Samarov has filled the book with nearly seven years of Chicago cab-driving experiences. (Most stories range from the time he started driving in Chicago in 2003 through 2010.) Accompanying Samarov's stories in the book are his drawings, which bring imagery to his stories and speak to Samarov's love for art.
Samarov, who drives a 2011 Toyota Scion, cab number 429, stands at 6 feet, 2 inches ("when I'm not slouching"), and despite his height and striking auburn beard, he manages to blend into the front seat of his taxi cab. He prefers to let riders begin talking to him rather than prodding them into conversation. If they don't talk, he's content to observe.
Born in the former Soviet Union in 1970, Samarov and his family fled to the United States in 1978 and, as Russian Jews, were granted political asylum. He grew up in Boston and first came to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis on painting and printmaking.
"That's probably why I drove a cab," Samarov said. "Because a BFA in art doesn't qualify you for any kind of job, really."
He was back in Boston, scanning the newspaper, when he saw an ad for cabdrivers. He thought it was random, but he tried it out anyway.
He ended up driving a cab in Boston for three years before the lure of Chicago brought him back.
"Strangers are much nicer to you in the Midwest than on the East Coast, especially Boston," he said, an especially appealing aspect for a cab driver. "It seems like an easier place to live, plus it's cheaper."
The name "HACK," which is also the title of a self-published compilation of his Boston driving experiences, is a tribute to the hackney carriages of old, which Bostonians have shortened and used as slang for a cab. It's also the title of the blog he started in 2006. That blog was mentioned in a magazine by actor John Hodgman (he's the PC guy in all of those Apple commercials), who went to high school with Samarov. The story was then read by Levi Stahl, promotions director for the University of Chicago Press, who approached Samarov about a book.
Samarov's work was also noticed by Esther Kang, the editor of ChicagoMag.com, who chose him as a writer-in-residence for the site. He follows acclaimed author Alex Kotlowitz in the role, posting regularly for the site's "Off the Grid" blog.
"Dmitry is an excellent observer of people, but he also has some unique perspectives -- as an immigrant to this country, as a cab driver who considers himself an outsider," Kang said. "He's quick to remind people that he's an artist first and that his book is something of an accident, but I think he's a pretty fantastic writer, and we're glad to have him on board."
Samarov, who lives just west of Pilsen in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood, has not relinquished his painting just because he drives a cab and has written a book. What he dreams of, in fact, is someday giving up the cab driving to focus solely on visual art.
"I'm a painter who drives a cab," he said "and I'm sort of trying to reconcile myself with this writer idea."
He currently has three art shows running: a collection of oil paintings at the Rainbo Club; sketches of baseball and music at Saki; and "HACK: Pictures from a Chicago Cab," or street scenes as viewed from his taxi, at the Lloyd Dobler Gallery.
His paintings sell for about $200 to $1,200, and if he could live on them, Samarov said he would stop the taxi driving. He's not worried about the paradoxical effect that might have of stymying his writing material; he says he would just find something else interesting to chronicle.
"I see something, and I need to react to it, whether that's marks on a page or a canvas," Samarov said. "The kind of writing I've done is always like the sort of painting I've done: I'm looking out at the world and reacting to it."