Self portrait by Dmitry Samarov Last month, Alex Kotlowitz, our inaugural writer-in-residence, told the story of one of the characters in the anti-violence documentary The Interrupters; took us inside a pawnshop on the Near West side; introduced us to an ex-gang-member-turned-mentor; and reminded us of the danger of crafting a single narrative.
In 2007 Samarov, a Moscow-born painter who began driving taxis to support his art, started a blog about his experiences on the job. That led to writing for the Chicago Reader and eventually to a deal for Hack, published by the University of Chicago Press.
In advance of his first post for Off the Grid, we called up the School of the Art Institute grad for a getting-acquainted chat.
You were born in Moscow and immigrated with your parents to Boston when you were seven years old. Why did you choose Chicago for college and why did you return in 1997?
My first semester of art school, I went to Parsons in New York. I hated it. After about a month or so, I knew I had to get the hell out of there. The School of the Art Institute let me transfer in the middle of freshman year. I graduated from college and moved back to Boston—partly because my live-in girlfriend and I broke up, and also, I have a much younger brother that I hadn’t seen grow up, and I wanted to spend some time with him.
But Boston is a depressing place. I always remember moving there when I was seven and counting the days til I could leave. Just something in the air, it didn’t agree with me. The people are so uptight there, and the city’s just so small. So I came back to Chicago in 1997. I moved here without a dime or any job prospects.
I feel at home in Chicago as much as I’ve felt at home anywhere. My biggest problem is that I moved from one country to another when I was little. I’ve always had this feeling of not being from anywhere. But I’ve been here pretty much half of my life now.
Some of the most memorable parts of your book are those in which you talk about being a cabbie with a college degree who looks white and doesn’t have an accent—and how people treat you differently because of that. With whom do you relate more: your passengers or your fellow cabbies?
That’s a tough call. I don’t often relate with my passengers, but I don’t hang out with cabdrivers either. I feel distance from both groups, and that distance is good because I can see them more clearly. It’s that “forest from the trees” thing. I’m in a weird in-between place, so I’m sort of hedging. I do see both sides, but I’m not so invested in either. I guess some people can make art from inside of a scene, but I don’t really know how to do that.
Often in your book, you end a story or a chapter talking about how you want out of the cabbie business. I get the sense that there’s nothing you want more than to leave. What would you do? Paint and write full time?
I’d like to paint, mostly. I could easily foresee a life in which I get up and work on a painting, maybe write a little, go get some lunch, go to a bar and to a movie, and then do it all over again the next day. Making a living as an artist is hard. Something subsidiary will have to happen—like a TV show deal. I’ve been working on a show with a filmmaker, John McNaughton. It’s a show based on my life as an artist/cabdriver. I’m curious to see if anything comes of it.
When you write, do you feel the same inspiration, release, or sense of accomplishment as you do when you paint or draw? Does it come just as naturally?
I’ve been writing for a much shorter time. I feel like since I’ve spent so much less time doing it, the stakes seem so much lower for writing. I suppose that if I keep doing it, it’s going to get more difficult. I’ve had a bit of success with it, but I never set out to be a writer. At times, it feels artistic, but my primary engagement with the world is through drawing and painting. It’s not through words. I’d be surprised if that changes. It was the cab driving stuff that led me to write. There were things that were happening that I couldn’t express visually. And I couldn’t do it as it was happening, while I was driving, but I still felt I had to express it. So it is art, I suppose.
Does it come naturally? That’s so hard to say. To some extent, it must, because it’s not like I went to school for writing or ever took a writing class. I just started doing it, and it went somewhere. I’m still wrapping my head around it. Yesterday I went and picked up the actual book, and it certainly seems more real now that I have it in my hands, but we’ll see. It was a happy moment.
Most of your writing has been the observational type: watching, listening, talking to folks while driving. What other types of writing would you like to try?
I can’t imagine ever quite getting interested in fiction or poetry, or making a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. I’ve never felt the need to write a linear story. And I’m not a reporter; the writing I do will definitely be through the prism of me. I’d like to try doing more recollections of people I’ve met throughout my life and our experiences from the past, a little more personal than what I write about the cab stuff. For this blog, I’d like to write more about artists, writers, photographers, and other people who have had an impact on me—and maybe I’ve had some impact on. These people I’m hoping to write about are documenting Chicago. They show us places that don’t appear on postcards or bus ads, not the tourist version of the city.
Illustration: Dmitry Samarov
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