My online wanderings, guided mostly by embedded hyperlinks in a variety of articles, led me to the blog of a Chicago cab driver, who detailed his interactions with passengers of all stripes and personalities. They were stories of lost souls and souls lost in the otherwise organized yet expansive grid of Chicago’s streets. Dmitry Samarov, a painter at heart and a cab driver because bills got to be paid, sees Chicago through a perspective that I’d say beats the hell out of a bird’s eye view — he saw Chicago, every square mile and the curbs of every corner, from the windshield of a taxi that would constantly be on the move had traffic not been an inevitable plight. Samarov’s stories recounted the day-to-day grind of driving and the woes of the driven, whether confessed to Samarov or observed through the rear-view mirror. Samarov’s voice was heard by the right people, and eventually his first book, HACK: Stories from a Chicago Cab, was published.
This past Saturday, the Joliet Public Library was hosting a regional authors fair, the first I’d ever heard of. Finally, I thought, this once industrious steel mill of a town is nurturing my interests. Samarov would be one of the many authors featured at the fair, so I saved the date and made note to nap in the evening, as I usually sleep away the daylight.
Before heading to the library on Saturday, I checked Samarov’s Twitter, curious if he’d posted anything pertaining to the book fair. His latest message had stated: “Had to speed back home from Joliet to get books. Because they have no copies of my books for me to sell. At the book fair…”
I left in hopes that Samarov would be there, and have with him some copies of his book. To my surprise, the parking lot of the library was packed, and I had to improvise, parking in the bus lane of a neighboring school. The cynic in me anticipated a room filled with authors buried in piles of their own books, while the mass of library patrons watched cat videos at the public computer terminals. Fortunately there was a decent turnout of people, both for the authors and for the computers.
After my first lap through the fair grounds, scanning the area and finding heads hunched over computers, people holding books and nodding at authors as they spoke, and few authors starring back at me with expressions of supposed desperation, I made my way back to the entrance to start again, but intent on conducting a more thorough search my second time around. That’s when I saw a man rushing towards an empty table, lugging a taped-up box, his face draped with a red beard. The man behind HACK, Dmitry Samarov.
My relief had come, but his seemed to have persisted. He had a handful of keys in his hand, fumbling through them for something to slice the box open. With so many keys I wondered if he had one solely for the purpose of opening boxes. Before saying hello, I reached into my pocket and asked if he would like to borrow my knife. It occurred to me shortly after that walking over and offering a knife upon meeting somebody might not be so apropos, but after finishing Hack and reading about all of Samarov’s interactions, I’d concluded that my actions were harmless, if not altogether dismissible. After asking him what the deal was about there not being any books, he explained that the local Barnes & Noble was responsible for supplying the goods, but had only a single copy of his book for the fair. I noticed the book on the table, the library’s copy available for check-out. If that was the book he was talking about, it wouldn’t have done him much good. He said that he’d arrived on time, but having to drive back to Chicago and return for an event which lasted only four hours cut a sizable chunk of his potential time to sell books. It worried me that his first out-of-town gig could possibly turn out to be an absolute bust. Once he had two stacks of HACK on the table he let out an exhale of relief. I reached for my wallet and asked for a copy.
In the words of Nelson Algren, Chicago is, “like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
That essence of realness about Chicago, like calling rust rust and not patina, how the grit of life confronts you and either insists that you mind your own business or seduces you into joining in its debauchery, was experienced in the back of Samarov’s cab. The variety of passengers is immense: the drugged underclass in their ragged attire and shameless transactions, leaving nothing to imagination; prostitutes gone heavy on mascara and heading to the high rises where their johns await their scheduled arrival; haggard men telling possibly true or likely tall tales of each building they pass en route to their destination; suburbanites reveling in the sultriness before returning to the monotony of cul-de-sacs and strip malls — all converge to paint a portrait of Chicago not with oil paints, but with the motor oil of Samarov’s oft dis-repaired taxi. At the book fair, Samarov had told me that, “first, second, and third-most, I’m a painter,” and I should add that many of his paintings and sketches accompany his stories, and allows the reader to immerse themselves even deeper into the nature of Samarov’s colorful array of real-life characters.
One of the interesting aspects into Samarov’s cab driving career was how pleased so many passengers were about him being white, and how pleased they thought he’d feel pointing out this obvious fact to him, often in the most insensitive ways. Ironically, reading the reactions of such narrow-minded riders to Samarov’s skin tone only reaffirmed my prejudices of Cubs fans. More than one of his passengers have asked if they were on the voyeuristic show, Taxicab Confessions, either before or well into their darkly personal admissions. Of course it wasn’t the case, but those in the backseat always offer forth the goods regardless. To the populace, a taxi serves as a mobile confessional of sorts. Get in, confess the plight of your life, and it’s cash or card once you’ve reached your desired street corner. As Samarov points out on a Sunday evening, after dropping off a talkative young man at his house, “He wants to keep talking, but we’re at his house, so he pays up and darts out. There’s always more, but the story hardly ever continues past the allotted time, the length of the ride is all that’s offered. Often, though, it’s more than enough to get a glimpse into another’s world.”