I interviewed Dmitry Samarov three times. The first time, my device did not record. The second time, my device did not record. I am entirely blameless I’m sure, acts of an indifferent god both times and, anyway, the third time was a charm. Luckily, either through natural disposition or the years driving a taxicab in both Boston and Chicago, as documented in his books Hack and Where To, Samarov was more than a little patient with my endearing incompetence.
Samarov’s writing, and the illustrations that accompany it, documents a life as both observer and someone who, by job definition, moves the action along. As more and more writers write solely about writing or the lives of writers, Samarov writes about working, and the lives of those serve and are served. I don’t mean to romanticize Samarov or put him in some cute “other” zone that implies that what he does is not just quality good-ass writing. He’s gotten enough of that to last a lifetime and his writing and art is absolutely compelling and low-key charming as hell. If his work is class conscious at all, it is mainly in comparison to the rarified circles that most writers choose to run in.
I imagine I was asked to interview Samarov as I’ve been a bartender for 18 years and we would bond over our disdain for our customers and service class hilarity would ensue. BUT WE’RE ARTISTS DAMMIT. So we talked about that.
I am grateful to Dmitry for both taking the time (thrice) and for making such fantastic books.
Thanks for doing this interview.
I’m so sorry. I’ve taken hours from your life.
No, no; not hours…yet.
Can you please tell me again this thing you’re doing for Shel Silverstein?
I’ve been working with this thing called the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Mostly doing artwork for them, postcards and design and shit like that. Guy that runs it called me in a panic on Sunday ‘cos he’d lined up John Langford (of the Mekons) to induct Silverstein into the Hall of Fame but Langford had a death in the family so he’s in Wales and can’t do it. So I said yes…so now I’m cramming. Trying to come up with five minutes on Shel Silverstein and what he means to me.
We’d talked before about people who are illustrators and writers and about how maybe Silverstein wasn’t a conscious influence. Can you think of who was?
Well, there’s a bunch of Russian/Soviet equivalents, people who were doing children’s books that I grew up on. Artists who told simple text stories with illustrations, these are what’s in my DNA. During the Soviet years, a lot of writers were forced into children’s literature because they weren’t allowed to publish their own work because of restrictions from the state. So a lot of writers had to gravitate towards either translation or children’s literature. I think the stuff Silverstein does parallels a lot of that stuff for me at least, both in form and content. There’s a freedom and an anarchy to it. It addresses grownup themes. It’s not fucking Barney the Dinosaur. The best children’s literature is not strictly for children. It’s not dumbed down. There’s a lot of negatively and sadness and darkness to it that rings true. Silverstein was just a middle-aged guy like me.
That’s interesting because your writing, while for adults, isn’t anything a precocious 14 or 15 year old couldn’t enjoy.
Laughs. I haven’t heard any teenagers respond to my stuff. Artwork, a bit, yes. But it may be too early.
Well I think when something isn’t specifically “young adult” young adults come to it just because it’s in their parent’s house.
So only time will tell since it’s not specifically marketed to them…
Yeah. I mean Maurice Sendak hated children’s literature. Hell a lot of them didn’t even like children. They just found themselves in this sugar and spice. But, you know, miserable people.
I think part of it is just taking children seriously.
Yeah. When I was a kid I just wanted to read stuff for grown ups. I didn’t want to read kiddie stuff. I got in trouble in middle school for reading The Painted Bird by Kosiński.
Did you get in trouble by teachers or parents?
Teachers. They were a bit taken a bit aback….I mean I also grew up with it. My parents, for bedtime stories, would read really grown up stuff.
Russian. Pushkin. I can’t even remember half of what it was…but it wasn’t kiddie.
What do your parents do?
My father’s a mathematician and my mother’s a doctor.
When did they leave the Soviet Union?
We came to America in ’78. They were in their early thirties.
Have you been tempted to tell that story?
I’ve been edging towards it. I mean it’s an incredible story, at thirty to uproot your whole life and come to a country where you don’t know anyone or speak the language. My father had an older brother who was American and that helped but you’re starting over. My mother wasn’t able to continue her career because foreign medical degrees weren’t recognized here and she spoke no English and she had two little kids so she had to find other things to get by. It’s quite a thing. So I’m working on something…
The book will definitely have artwork of some kind it won’t just be writing, as it’s hard for me to even conceive of a book without pictures in it. The artwork will always be my jumping off point. Which is hard to sell, as it’s hard to categorize. I mean, I don’t do graphic novels so where the fuck do you put it? I’ve seen my books all over the bookstore. They don’t know where to put it.
I would think in The Strand Bookstore Hack would be in Urban Studies or something….
It’s tough! I‘ve seen it in sociology, biography…the new one has “memoir” in the title so they put it in memoir but Hack had “stories” in it so they put in fiction….
That’s not necessarily a negative thing. You find Studs Terkel books all over the bookstore too.
It only really matters in terms of marketing and visibility, which ultimately isn’t my biggest concern. I’m trying to put something out there that’s worthwhile and hopefully it finds an audience.
In terms of supporting yourself with the writing, speaking of marketing, you’re not going back to driving a cab?
Absolutely not. I may have to get a part time job but I’m never going back to driving. Never. I’ve done enough driving for a couple lifetimes.
Do you still enjoy driving?
I’ve never enjoyed driving. Probably because I’ve always associated it worth work. I started driving a cab a year after learning to drive. I learned how to drive at 22; at 23 I was driving a cab in Boston. So it’s always in my head been associated with work. I’m not one of those people who just go for a drive for the hell of it.
When you go road trips do people always expect you to take the long shifts?
Of course! I just did a book tour and did almost all the driving. I did 95% of the driving. Which is fine. It’s easy for me. I can do it with my eyes closed. But it’s never for pleasure.
I don’t drive all. So I always feel a reasonable amount of guilt whenever I go on tour.
You never had a license?
No. I grew up in the country. I have no excuse.
Yeah. I’m a real piece of shit. But I always justified it be the fact that I’m such a nervous cat that there’d be a body count if I had a license…
No, it’s way too easy to get a driver’s license in the country. There are so many people who shouldn’t be anywhere near the wheel of an automobile. People take t way too lightly. You’re driving a bomb on wheels and people don’t take that into account. The damage you can do with a car… Especially with the amount of distractions available these days.
As a cabbie, you had to deal with that. The people who expect you to be a personal entertainment device while you attempt to navigate a major metropolitan area. How did you manage to not have an adversarial relationship with every person who got in the cab?
Actually early on, I started thinking of them as being there for my own entertainment. Like I was in a little theatre and I was the only audience. They were performing for me, doing whatever crazy or stupid shit they were doing. That’s one way. And really I didn’t have that many problems with people. The drunks would get unruly sometimes and I’d have to push some people out because they were so wasted they didn’t know where they needed to go.
I think I’ve put those people in cabs before.
Oh yeah. I knew a lot of bartenders from working a lot of late nights and that was always the conversation, “Oh you’re done with them so now you’re dumping them on me.” Sometimes I had to drive people back to the bar because they didn’t know where their house was and their friends didn’t want to deal with them. And what was I suppose to do with them?
I definitely feel like it’s the friend’s problem. End of the day, it’s the person’s responsibility. I never bought into that notion of over serving, unless the bartender is begging someone to stay. We just give what’s ordered and cut ‘em off when they’re annoying.
It would sometimes work out in my favor. Best fare I ever had was this guy who hailed me at a gas station after going to the ATM, and his house was literally three buildings away. I drove him the three buildings down and he was so happy he gave me a twenty. The fare was like 3.25. But they were new twenties so it ended up being $60 bucks for three buildings.
And I don’t feel remotely bad.
State this guy was in? If I was an asshole I would have gone into his house, taken anything I want. I could have killed him.
I like that. You’re not an asshole because you didn’t kill him.
Yeah. It all balances out from times when I got the raw end of it.
I’ve never felt bad when someone was being obnoxious and I knew they were spilling money out.
In most cases if you’re taking a cab, you can afford it. Cabs are a luxury. It didn’t happen too often that a cab fare was life or death or super important. Happened occasionally but…the drunks? All gravy. Worst thing that happened to them was being out $60.
They were gonna be out that $60 regardless.
Do you want to go back to that stuff with my brother? (Note: in interview take 2, we’d had a delightful, long, and unrecorded conversation about his Samarov’s brother visiting to see Opeth in Chicago.)
Oh hell yeah. You were saying that your brother is 18 years younger?
They had him when I was senior year in high school. Reason we were talking about him was we were talking about Shel Silverstein and I was exposed to Silverstein because my parents would read that to him. Now he’s twenty-five and coming to town to come see Opeth. That metal band you were making fun of.
I will say it again. They’re a fine band and you are going to be so bored.
I’ll enjoy being there.
They have beautiful hair. It’s going to be like being around Baldur.
Are they like Dungeons and Dragons metal?
No that is the thing, that’s what I wanted them to be but it’s not really metal it’s more…prog rock. I think they were metal? But I think they’re famous for how good they are at guitar so get ready for some really good-ass guitar playing. If you can imagine anything worse.
I can imagine worse. And he’s really into that and it can be really enjoyable when you go somewhere with someone who’s really into something even if you don’t give a shit about it. Because you see it through their eyes. When he was growing up I’d make him mix tapes…
What would you put on the tapes?
The Ramones. Punk rock. And he ends up being into Guns and Roses and Iron Maiden. Goofier stuff than that.
Do you have a favorite Chicago punk band?
Oh even from growing up before I even go to Chicago…Naked Raygun.
It still freaks me out. There’s this bar called the Rainbow Club, where a lot of music types go and work. And one of the bartenders is John Haggerty from Naked Raygun.
I love Pegboy.
Yeah, he’s the guitarist in Pegboy. He’s not in the fake Naked Raygun. It totally threw me, this guys was serving drinks cos I remembered his music from high school.
I would have swooned. Pegboy was all I listened to.
He’s really nice, super low-key. Not too talkative.
No. I wouldn’t imagine. Do you not drink anymore?
Not so much. I live with my girlfriend on the outskirts of the city so…to go anywhere is a field trip.
Wait are you on the train right now?
Are there other people on the car? Do they want to kill you?
No. They seem to be alright. It’s loud enough and it’s a late train so there are always people drinking on this. They let you have beer. So that’s always a thing. A lot of these people are heading back to the suburbs. It’s all right. I don’t see any dirty looks. I’m not talking that loud.
(Note: here, a long digression about Twitter ensued.)
Speaking of social media, do you ever get feedback from cabdrivers?
Not so much. One of the nice things about being a driver is you don’t have to fraternize. You don’t really have co-workers. That’s one of the reasons I went back to it after tending bar and waiting tables…I didn’t want co-workers. So I don’t really have many friends who drive cabs.
I got into writing solely because of the job. I couldn’t draw everything that happened, all these stories, so I had to put into words. And to go back to what we were talking about not making the customers as my adversary, as years went on I became less jaded about people then when I started. I think was more cynical when I started.
It usually goes the opposite.
Yeah, usually. But I think I started out not thinking too highly of people so watching them make asses of themselves sort of humanized them. Made me more empathetic in some weird way.
I think that’s fair. Making any sort of art without a sense of empathy can be temporarily thrilling but not really lasting.
Yeah all the best things I’ve done, you have to get your judgment the fuck out of the way and just take the world as it is. Not editorializing. If you get out of the way, people will just tell their stories and things will happen. That’s what I’ve been doing lately. I’ve been hanging out the Chicago Cultural Center, which used to be the library and there’s all these people just sitting and hanging out, office workers, senior citizens, and homeless people. I’ve just been drawing them and listening to them talk. It’ll probably be the beginning of another book. But it’s the exact same thing as what I did in the cab all those years. Just listen to people and record pieces of real life.
That’s a nice thing about the book. You’re not shy with your opinions but you’re not passing judgment on everyone who’s passing through.
Most people get that, the ones who appreciate the book I guess. I had one terrible radio interview once. It was one of those manufacturing conflict guys and I got on the phone and right off he was like “you really hate people don’t you?” and I almost hung up on him. Like, did you read the fucking book?
Where was he coming from?
I guess he thought there wasn’t enough goodness of people spelled out or something. I don’t think I’m that negative but then again I come from a different culture. I’m Russian where…I often have cultural misunderstanding happen. There’s a deadpan humor that doesn’t always come across to people.
That makes sense. People often confuse dark humor for misanthropic. I was always a Mike Royko fan and he didn’t pander until his general decline.
Yeah, there’s a great Chicago tradition of being weary of the powers that be and listening to regular people. Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren. When I think of Chicago influence…I mean, in some ways Chicago has been my subject for twenty years.
Do you think of yourself within a Chicago tradition? A Russian tradition? Neither? Both? Or do you not think of it at all?
I don’t really.
I mean I don’t really think it’s my place to say, know what I mean? I’ve spent a lot of time here. I make art. I write. I like to think I have something to say about it. And if others associate me with the city or those people…that doesn’t hurt my feelings, know what I mean?