Hack by Dmitry Samarov

Monday, June 4, 2012


by Dmitry Samarov
University of Chicago Press

In this era of un- and underemployment, the mere existence of Dmitry Samarov’s taxi-driver memoir Hack could serve as comfort food for the educated underemployed, reassuring artists with day jobs that an economic recession doesn’t have to be a creative one. Who better to inspire the master’s degrees working retail than an art school alum who’s turned his humdrum (and dangerous) job into a subject for an art show and a book published by the University of Chicago and that features his own illustrations?

Samarov was born in the Soviet Union in 1970 and immigrated to Boston with his family eight years later. In 1993 he graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA in art and printmaking. “One thing I definitely knew from the start,” Samarov told the Chicago Tribune. “I had a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. I wasn’t going to get any kind of job.” Though he continued to draw and paint, it was his writing that grabbed attention. The book grew from Samarov’s blog, where he continues to chronicle his cabbie adventures.

After reading Hack, I started to explore the taxi-driver memoir canon. Though I bought those books online, I imagined them clustered in the most dimly lit part of the bookstore next to My Bloody Life, Cop: A True Story, and Memoirs of a Call Girl. You wouldn’t want to be caught in this section after dark unaccompanied; the feed of the blue-blinking cameras in that area of Barnes & Noble might be monitored by the vice squad. Samarov’s world is more placid than that described by cabbie Larry Sager in his 2007 book No Guns, No Knives, No Personal Checks: The Tales of a San Francisco Cab Driver, or Toronto’s Peter McSherry in Mean Streets: Confessions of a Nighttime Taxi Driver. And the book bears little relation to Memoirs of a Taxi Driver by Chicago’s C. E. Patterson, which primarily details the author’s life before he came to America.

Hack is full of smart, rarefied tidbits. One of the best examples is a story called “Player of the Game.” Titled after the phrase on his passenger’s T-shirt, this short, illustrated character sketch is a discourse simultaneously on weekend-warrior self-destruction, hipster fashion design, and the frightening but hilarious exigencies of coke addiction. That’s a lot of ammunition for a two-hundred-word vignette. That’s Hack, a sequence of honest, quirky week-in-the-life anecdotes bookended by some cab-driving-culture essays and a recycling of the author’s Twitter account. Eclectic if not quite avant-garde, it’s utterly addictive.

Divided into sections named after days of the weeks and holidays, the book has us sitting shotgun as Samarov wades through the boisterous mob in the wake of the Blackhawks’ championship, or struggles to control his bladder in a highway traffic jam, or endures the tedium of the O’Hare taxi line. Such is his commitment to verisimilitude that he dedicates a whole chapter to the taxi pickup process, a bureaucratic Monday ritual. Samarov is a master at describing the “forgettable details that add up to much of the time spent on this job,” and it’s those forgettable details that are the essence of Hack, shaping a book both compelling and contemplative.

Hack’s pages are interspersed with original sketches, paintings, and watercolors: a passionate ballpoint-pen kiss outside of a 7-Eleven, a monochrome Monet of the taxi barn. He profiles the cast of transients he encounters throughout his day, using ink drawings to represent what he calls “lost souls” as well as verbal descriptions. He writes of a bag lady: “Her hair is dreaded into one ugly gray-brown clump to the side of her bent-over head as she makes her way slowly down the sidewalk. The object is to transport one or another of the many pieces of self-styled luggage from one spot to the next. . . . The picking up and putting down of all those worthless bits is just another way to bide away the time until the hourglass runs out.” Samarov feels a connection with these fellow nomads: “There’s some kinship between them and the hacks who haunt these avenues,” he writes. “Their presence reaffirms our own, while also reminding us of the merciless repetition of this work. Like them, we must return again and again to the same intersections, with luck to get just enough fortune for the chance to do it all over once more.”

Samarov doesn’t try to construct a unified theory of cab driving, and though most readers will come to love Hack’s capriciousness, any academics expecting the semihistorical existential markers of immigrant fiction will be disappointed. Although he spent his first seven years in Moscow, Samarov’s cynicism is free of the weariness of the displaced; his distaste for some of the drunk young white-collar guys in Wicker Park and Wrigleyville (i.e., “Uglyville”) is the antipathy of stereotypical attitudes of the art school intellectual, not the immigrant. “Get them together and the collective IQ might not muster the know-how to change a lightbulb,” he writes of the young drunks. “They call each other only by last name as if they’re teammates, but more likely from some vestigial custom of fraternity days.” In the face of yet another client’s bachelor-party-adventure story, he expresses his boredom, suggesting that “timid ritual transgressions of the last hurrah seemed third or fourth rate.” Clichés are what he hates most explicitly, and Samarov deserves at least a dollar in the G-string for his articulate rejection of the hackneyed misogyny of our post-Hangover era.

Only occasionally does smugness rear its head, such as when Samarov renders this description of inebriated people at a McDonald’s drive-through: “In that spent inebriated state, we devolve into foraging animals, drawn to these inviting neon lights and the parade of others lining up for the sustenance doled out through a sliding window.” Drunken fast-food binges by the clubbing crowd are well known already; they don’t deserve such florid treatment.

Given the sheer volume of stories, Samarov wisely refuses to infuse them with some satisfying yet contrived resolution, avoiding the potential minefield of condescending quips and forced earnestness, which can be like a bad voiceover (think Dances with Wolves). When a couple decides to use his back seat as a love hotel, Samarov says simply, “As long as they leave the place the way they found it, I’m fine with it.”

In one discomfiting scene, a fellow driver corners Samarov at the taxi garage, weaving his despondent tale while clinging to a weathered garbage bag like a deranged Linus van Pelt. This bite-size comic tragedy makes us pity the half-mad drivers “punch drunk on fumes,” and fear that same driver inside us.

Earlier, Samarov manages to capture the essential oddity of the ephemeral relationship between driver and fare, that fleeting intersection of guide and guided. Samarov fulfills his promise in the introduction: to describe people “at the most revealing moments—not when they have their game faces on, but with their guard down, unable to pretend.” A psychologist smokes in secret, a hooker heaves with exhaustion before applying makeup for another date. Freedom from social restraint is built into an unspoken contract, and people are frank about their fears or vices, confiding with a zeal off-limits to a person’s first therapist but easily mustered over the muffled whoosh of the engine.

His most affecting stories have a found footage quality that good writers of realistic prose labor to reproduce. When an obviously unstable passenger makes a quick exit at a Walgreens, Samarov sifts through the backseat, finding “an asthma inhaler placed into the handle of the door, crumpled singles, . . . a stocking cap, two clear baggies containing little white pills, a shopping bag with a key ring and used napkins, and an occasionally vibrating cell phone.” After the cab door has slammed shut and the fare has disappeared, like Samarov, you’ll find yourself groping around for an ethereal crime, armed with evidence too flimsy to convict and too concrete to ignore.