Dmitry Samarov

July 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Look at these two links before you read any further.

I think I probably first met Dmitry in about 1998. I was a barista at Jinx and he’d sit in there painting all the time. When I crossed the street on my 25th birthday to start working at Rainbo, Dmitry was already sitting there waiting for me. Given the unlikelihood of either of us approaching a stranger to talk, he and I probably had to be in the same room a few nights a week for five years before we ever approached anything like a conversation. And since then we’ve enjoyed that sort of easy-going camaraderie between people who never make plans to see each other, but see each other a couple times a week and are as likely to talk as not.

I’ve been a fan of his paintings since the first time I saw them years ago – impressionistic urban still-lifes and fleeting landscapes as expressive with a wild and sophisticated use of color as they are in austere black and white. His eye for finding composition in the world he inhabits and his technique for rendering it are equally exceptional. Many time over the years I’ve enjoyed watching people discover his work, witnessing cynical people or people I’d never known to think about painting, unexpectedly stop in their tracks when coming across one of his paintings, saying, ‘hey, wait a minute. This is pretty good.’

His blog is one of the few that I’ve ever been in the habit of following, his narrative voice calm, dry and observant, empathic and funny. University Of Chicago Press will be releasing his book Hack this coming October. It collects stories and paintings from his blog.

Last Monday I met a guy about a thing for an hour around lunch, then worked on mixing a song for four hours until around dinner, then went to Minor Threat cover band practice before meeting Dmitry for this conversation over a bottle of wine at midnight. So, yeah, as the interviewer I think I talked a little too much and as is our nature in common, the conversation drifts a bit. But at least this time I recorded it correctly – I’m getting better.

And it’s important to note, to understand the tone, that Dmitry is laughing most of the time through this entire conversation. I started adding (laughing) in parentheses, but it became quickly redundant. So just assume the man is chuckling whether you think it’s funny or not. He’s got that kind of sense of joy in the world, you know, loveable-curmudgeon-style.

DS: I’m trying to write less and not more. I think I’ve been writing too much.

TK: So how has the blog changed since the book has come together?

DS: Since the book has come together, I think it’s changed a lot. Because it’s the first time, last spring I was sending blog entries to the Reader for a while, for about four months. So that was my very first exposure to an editor, ever, you know.

TK: They would see what the blog was . . . and?

DS: I’d send stuff to Allison who was the main editor. She’s gone now. She was the editor there for 5,000 years.

TK: Yeah, I remember when she left.

DS: So I’d send her the things and she’d you know, correct things. So that was my first exposure to that and then I got working with the guy that edited the book.

TK: So the book deal was already happening by the time you contacted The Reader?

DS: The book deal happened, I mean, by the time the book comes out in October it will have been close to two years. They take their time over there.

TK: Well, how long did it take to put together?

DS: Um, probably about three-quarters of a year. Going back and forth.

TK: And you were still doing new blog entries at the time?

DS: Oh the whole time, yeah. My cut-off for the stories that are in the book was the fourth of July last year. That’s the last thing I wrote. It’s not the last thing in the book because the book isn’t chronological.

TK: So how did the structuring work?

DS: I didn’t want to do a reprint of the blog. So I knew it wasn’t just gonna be a chronological thing where I pick whatever, the greatest hits, because I didn’t see the point of that being turned into a book. You could just go into Kinko’s and print that. You know, that’s not a book. That’s a blog that’s printed. Which I guess is happening a lot.

TK: Well, what’s the distinction? Because the blog has a natural order, you know this thing happened and then this is the next thing that happened.

DS: Right because it happens in reaction to actual events. So I knew I wanted it (the book) to be different than the blog. I didn’t know how at first. So the first time I grouped the stories together thematically, basically. So I’d have a chapter of drunk stories, a chapter of cab-headache garage stories and so forth. And one of the first people that ever read that was Shay (friend in common) and she read it and said, ‘well, all these things are all the same together, you know? Too much of the same.’ So, that made me sit there and try to come up with a different structure and what I came up with was the days of the week.

TK: And were you strict about looking back at the blog entries and knowing – this is the day of the week that this really happened? Or it was more impressionistic?

DS: Fairly strict. Some there was a gray area. I mean, obviously I kept rereading and rereading this stuff, which was sort of painful. But it was more obvious in some of the entries than others.

TK: More obvious which day of the week it’d fit in?

DS: Yeah. But some were more general – early in the week, late in the week.

TK: And then making those decisions it becomes about how the book reads? Because you’re expecting a different thing from a reader reading a book than reading a blog. So how were you aware of shaping the reader’s response?

DS: Well, I knew I needed some sort of structure and the big central problem is that there is not a beginning, a middle, and an end to these stories. They’re not linear. They’re just episodes. You could throw them in a pot and reshuffle them in many, many different ways. And there needed to be some sort of beginning, middle and end. And because the job is an every-day-job and it happens all the time, the days of the week seemed to make sense.

TK: Well, it’s a very natural sense people have of that beginning, middle and end.

DS: Yeah.

TK: So do you have days off?

DS: I used to have more days off. I used to have more days off until I got this brand new cab.

TK: That cab out there, it’s yours?

DS: Well, no. I rent it, but it’s a brand new cab and they assigned it to me and the problem is that if I give up that cab then somebody else will get it and I’ll be forced back into driving a crappy Crown Vic.

TK: So it’s a matter of circumstance that you were given the brand new cab?

DS: I’d been there long enough, I guess. There’s a waiting list for brand new cabs as they enter circulation. Prior to that I’d just do sort of ‘catch-is as catch-can’ for most of the years because I wanted the flexibility of just taking time off. But more and more the problem was I’d come back and they wouldn’t have anything for another week or two.

TK: Yeah, that happens in the book.

DS: Yeah. The stuff that’s in the book, like waiting 18 hours or a week or two for a cab, that gets old.

TK: So working more now means you can keep this new cab indefinitely?

DS: Well, I always could. I could’ve kept any of them indefinitely.

TK: But after a certain number of days it becomes more expensive to keep it and take a day off than it is to turn it in?

DS: What I used to do before I got this cab was I’d work three or four weeks and then I’d take a week off. I’d come back and put my name on the list and wait however long it took for the next available cab.

TK: So the three or four weeks you were working, you had no days off?

DS: Yeah.

TK: And so how many hours a week is that?

DS: Probably average 70, 80 a week. But, whatever hours I wanted. So, I’d have to fit everything else I do around it. So basically, I’d have to sleep, paint, write, you know, drink every once in a while and then drive. That’s my whole life.

TK: So do you sleep, paint, write every day? I know you don’t sleep every day because I read the book.

DS: I try. I try to. Let’s put it this way: It’s a better day when I’ve done something creative or whatever you want to call it to start the day than when I haven’t.

TK: To start the day?

DS: Yeah, I do all that stuff before I go drive. Especially for painting I like daylight. So, yeah, it’s all after I wake up, early afternoon for the couple hours I’m awake before I go drive. I like daylight. I like windows.

TK: Yeah, I got that thing too. There’s something about if you wake up and start working on something creative, it’s so different than doing your errands and then trying to do something creative. Different life force invested.

DS: Yep. The chores definitely take a backseat to a disgusting extent sometimes, you know?

TK: Yeah, 80 hours a week of chores?

DS: There’s not much time. There’s not much time. But yeah, those are my priorities. I need to get the art-stuff done. Then I gotta make a living driving the cab and then if there’s any time left over I’ll clean the bathroom.

TK: Right. So the back of the book, it refers to Mike Royko and Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren.

DS: Right. The hyperbole?

TK: Right, well I realize that’s the way people sell things –

DS: Yes, they need to sell things.

TK: Yeah, right. I understand that you weren’t like ‘I’m gonna insert myself into this tradition.’ But they are all very Chicago-centric guys.

DS: Right, yeah.

TK: So, as someone who was born in Russia and then you didn’t move to Chicago until college, right?

DS: Yeah, 1990.

TK: So you were 20? 18?

DS: 19.

TK: So if they’re going to sell the book as part of this tradition of Chicago-centric people, what’s your sense of how Chicago shaped the book?

DS: Oh, a lot. In fact, Nelson Algren introduced me to Chicago before I ever got here. I read Nelson Algren in high school. I had weirdo, hipster older friends. I worked at a movie theater kind of like The Music Box here in high school and had these weirdo, hipster, older friends that hung out a lot around there, one of whom was actually a cab driver briefly. So who knows if that played into it, but he was the guy that introduced me to stuff like Nelson Algren and weird Z-Grade slasher movies.

TK: So Chicago was romanticized for you before you got here?

DS: I don’t know if it was romanticized, but that’s what I thought Chicago was. It wasn’t Al Capone. It was all junkies, two-bit whores and stuff.

TK: So how does your image of Chicago live up to what you as a twenty year old expected it to be, now that you’re obviously –

DS: A 40-year-old?

TK: Well, now that you’re a 40-year-old that’s pretty ingrained here right?

DS: Yeah

TK: You don’t see yourself moving?

DS: No, no, no. I really don’t. I don’t know what that would take. It’d surprise the shit out of me.

TK: But Nelson Algren, Studs and Royko, those are guys that loved Chicago deeply, right? So do you feel that sort of sense for the city? You drove a cab in Boston, right?

DS: Yeah.

TK: Can you imagine having written this book about driving a cab in Boston?

DS: No, no I couldn’t. My first writing project was writing about Boston, cab-driving in Boston. But that thing, that was barely writing. There was a sentence or two on each page and mostly it was just pictures, because you know, I never had any ambitions to write ever. Writing happened because of the job.

TK: So writing takes a backseat to painting and the writing happens because of the job?

DS: Yeah.

TK: So when you wake up in the morning, are you more drawn to write or to paint?

DS: Writing has always been the side-project. I think it always will be. It’s like if you’re in a band for 20 years and the band never went anywhere and then you started this side-project doing stupid covers and it blew up. That’s what this book is to me. You know?

TK: So, then do you imagine a second book? This goes back to the first question of how the blog has changed since the book. Are you self-conscious writing the blog now thinking, ‘oh, can this be anthologized?’

DS: I’m certainly more aware from the editing and re-editing and re-editing and re-editing and having input from people that have spent their careers and lives reading and writing.

TK: You’re more aware of choosing an active verb on the first pass?

DS: Structure, sentence structure. The sources of it (the writing) still don’t change at all. But, I think I’ve gotten a little better technically. I mean, when I started the blog, and I didn’t change any of the old entries; they’re much more polished in the book. But I had this whole thing that I think I got from Celine with the ellipses that I was just addicted to. Everything had ellipses.

TK: What’s . . . Oh, Journey to the End of The Night?

DS: Yeah, that guy. Like I had this idea that’s that how I was going to write. I wasn’t gonna write in sentences. I was gonna write in fragments. And it took me awhile to sort of quit that.

TK: Yeah, my first draft was all dashes. I got pretty obsessed.

DS: And one of the great things these editors beat out of me was like, ‘Just stop it. Put a personal pronoun in at the beginning. Say “I” every once in a while.’ I wouldn’t say “I” in any of the sentences. Shit like that.

TK: What’s your sense then, if you’re leaving the “I” out, and the whole time I’m reading the book I’m thinking, ‘is this about Dmitry or is this about Chicago? Is this just about people?’ So what’s your sense of your role as the narrator?

DS: Well, it’s not a memoir. It’s not. I really struggled, really wanted to not insert myself. Every once in a while it was unavoidable, like where I enter the stories when I need to intervene or do things.

TK: And obviously your opinions –

DS: Yeah, there are judgments all over the place. The guy actually, the acquiring editor at U of C Press remarked that there was a lot of moralizing in this book and in the shit I write. Which I guess is whatever, a part of my personality that can’t be helped?

TK: Well, that’s not saying so much about you as much as that’s a risk of writing something that is a memoir of sorts by nature, even if you’re aware of not wanting it to be one, because you are writing as yourself, not a first-person narrator.

DS: Well, yeah, there are judgments made all over the place in the book. I realize this. But what I mean it’s not a memoir is that it’s not about the every-day details of my life. I really was more interested and am more interested in these people and the city.

TK: Well, that was really interesting. It didn’t hit me at first, but it was a sort-of bubbling-up, this ‘oh, I know Dmitry.’ So I have a real sense of who the first-person is. But if I didn’t know you, there’s nothing that says, “I have red hair and a beard.”

DS: Yeah, none of that.

TK: You refer to being Russian.

DS: The people I meet, 95% of them or 99% of them, never learned anything about me. I didn’t offer anything about myself. You know, I didn’t give anyone my life history aside from maybe like, “I’m from Russia,” which was always so incredibly fascinating.

TK: The race thing is definitely very interesting in the book.

DS: Well, I could’ve written the whole book about the race thing you know, because it happens all the damn time. And it’s happened so many times, I have fun playing it different ways because I know when it starts, you know. Sometimes I’ll goad them on. Sometimes I’ll completely stay silent. I’ll just want to see what they’ll keep saying, because that’s interesting.

TK: So what ratio of Chicago cabdrivers are white?

DS: Oh, a very, very small.

TK: So these peoples’ shock –

DS: Oh, it’s legit. It’s from experience.

TK: There’s nothing about how people state it that isn’t offensive. Obviously, that’s part of why you choose them to write about, like when it’s shocking.

DS: No, but I didn’t, you know, some of the times when it was offensive I didn’t write about it – many times. But the offensive part is that they feel at ease that they can talk about this stuff because I’m like ‘one of them.’ That’s the part that really fucking pisses me off. That’s when like, you don’t know a damn thing about me, and like I’m gonna fuck with you now.

TK: Yeah, that’s a very real thing . . .

DS: Of course, and so the recurring thing is like, ‘Why are you, you who is one of us, doing this, which is what underlings should do? Which is what the under-class should be doing.’

TK: Yeah, that underclass which I can identify according to pigment.

DS: Yeah, pigment or thick accent or weird outfit or whatever – the ones that don’t look like me. But I look like them, at least enough like them to confuse them.

TK: So, what is your camaraderie with the other cab drivers?

DS: Zero

TK:  Zero?

DS: Practically zero. One of the things that I like about the job is that I’m free now to have – I don’t have coworkers or bosses. And I have plenty enough going on with other stuff that I can think about and do in my downtime.

TK: You know something interesting that comes up, when you’re at the garage in the book, you’re referring to situations and characters that are archetypical and frustrations are always familiar. But maybe only once or twice do you explicitly acknowledge that you know this or that guy.

DS: Yeah, I do not know them, no.

TK: They must look familiar?

DS: There are familiar people. There’s a couple. I think I only mention one or two cabdrivers in the book, maybe three specifically. Early on there are a couple things about cabdrivers – The little episode called “Burnout” about the old white guy who was like The Ghost of Christmas Future or whatever, this horrible vision of the future. A couple other ones, but other than that, no. Not too much interaction at all.

TK: So are any other drivers or the owners aware of the blog or the book? Has it ever come up?

DS: Almost never, although, there’s a cabbie newspaper that was up until recently reprinting blog stories.

TK: But it didn’t identify you in any way?

DS: Well, it said Dmitry Samarov. But no one ever came up to me and said or figured out who it was. There’s this guy Ed who I mention in the book briefly, who’s one of the only lifers I’ve ever met who’s happy to be a cabdriver. I actually hadn’t seen him for awhile, but we were next to each other on Halsted in Greektown the other day, just a couple of days ago, and he saw me and was like ‘hey, I’ve been liking your stories in the newspaper.’ And that was the first time I ever knew if anyone even read them or gave a shit.

TK: Any cabdriver?

DS: Yeah, the cabdrivers. Because I don’t make any money on that either, but it’s such a different demographic that it was totally worth it.

TK: Any money on what?

DS: Contributing stories to the cabbie newspaper. Even if a couple of them read it just out of boredom you know, that’s pretty cool. But there’s no feedback practically. The people at the garage don’t seem to know. I mean they have my name and everything, so I guess they could figure it out. Maybe when the book comes out maybe a couple of them will notice I imagine.

TK: Right, well that bike-messenger book came out some years again. You mention it in the book.

DS: Yeah.

TK: And you know Sam that used to work at Rainbo?

DS: Sam that was in your bands, yeah. I never knew him personally, but I know who you’re talking about.

TK: So he used to work with the guy that wrote that book.

DS: Travis something –

TK: I don’t know. But there were these displays even.

DS: Yeah, “the Ninja-Warrior of the street.”

TK: Well Sam used to work with him and popped up in the book a couple times.

DS: Really, not flatteringly?

TK: Eh –

DS: Sam was a messenger too?

TK: Yeah, yeah.

DS: Oh I see.

TK: And it’s not that it wasn’t flattering, but it was sort of a caricature of him. And that book, it was like you’d walk into Borders and there’d be like a cardboard cutout of the guy.

DS: Well, they asked if I wanted an author photo and I didn’t. I don’t have an author photo. I don’t want to do that. I mean, I’m gonna probably end up being on like Public TV at least for this thing. They have connections with the local stations. But I don’t have very much interest in, you know, the personal whatever or putting my face on the cover of everything. No, I have no interest in that at all.

TK: That’s because of your personal disposition?

DS: Yes.

TK: Well, sure of course. That’s a given, but I mean, does any of it have to do with feeling vulnerable in some way for writing these – vulnerable to other cabbies or the companies?

DS: Oh, no, no, not at all. It’s funny, one of the marketing things we’re hoping to do is putting an ad for the book on the top ads, you know on the top of a few cabs. Which was my idea. I thought it’d be really funny at least to put it on my cab. An ad for my book on top of my cab, at least it’d be a funny picture. So we’re working on that. We’ll see if it works out, if there’s money. That company that has that contract wants to put it on 25 cabs, which is a lot of frickin’ money and it’s a University Press and I don’t know if they’ll go for it. But, yeah . . . It’s an open question, marketing. But I just think it’d be funny to at least have that ad on top of my cab.

TK: So that’s very different compared to when the book was written, that you have one cab that will be your own.

DS: Well, yeah, that’s the plus side I guess. But, eventually I’m thinking, well, one of the reasons they resisted assigning me a regular cab in the past is they looked at my history of leasing from them and they saw all these gaps where I’d take a week or sometimes two weeks off, several or a bunch of times a year. And they think, ‘well, for the new cabs we need somebody who’s just gonna always be there.’ So that’s the thing.

TK: So does that change things? You said before you’re better when some of the art-practice gets attention before work and that’s the priority.

DS: Oh yeah.

TK: So are you gonna have to re-shuffle your approach?

DS: I’ve been trying. I’ve been adjusting. This has been going on for about four months now. I’ve had this cab four or five months.

TK: But at that point the book was done, at least the first drafts?

DS: Pretty much, yeah. It’s been done and I had a final look over it about a month and a half ago or something, two months ago.

TK: And the last entry was a year ago, Fourth of July.

DS: The last writing, but then lots of editing and reshuffling stuff.

TK: Well, what I’m getting at is, I wonder if knowing that that’s all done allows you the sort of mental space and freedom, you know that mental space that opens up at the end of

a big project. So you’re thinking at least subconsciously, ‘oh, maybe I can just work a lot now.’

DS: Oh yeah.

TK: Because there’s something validating about the book, right?

DS: Sure, yeah. Seeing that (points to the book) was really validating. It’s an actual thing now. You know, because up until a week or two weeks ago, before I got that, it’s still . . .

TK: Abstract?

DS: Yeah. And I’d been involved with all this on-line crap for a while now and a part of me still doesn’t think it’s real.

TK: Well and this still isn’t the hardcover, so it’s still –

DS: Yeah, but it’s like almost like a real book.

TK: This is definitely an object.

DS: Yeah. And where I come from is like a place with paper and canvas and paints and pencils.

TK: You got a Facebook page?

DS: Nah. I don’t do the Facebook. I love the twitter.

TK: Oh yeah, you say in the book that it helps you take notes.

DS: I’m the kind of person that can’t skip anything. So Facebook, if I’m gonna participate I’m gonna fucking be on there all the time and I’m gonna look at everything everybody said. I’d have to. The great thing on twitter is everything is 140 characters . . . and the double-edged sword of the Internet, now everyone can share every minute detail of their lives, but it hasn’t made anyone more interesting, you know?

TK: The tough lesson of punk rock.

DS: The good thing is that anyone can start a band and the bad thing is that anyone can start a band.

TK: And it turns out that not everyone should.

DS: Yeah, so, about the blog being different from a book, I still was hoping and am hoping that the episodes can be read separately. That you can flip the book open and read one of the little entries and get something out of it, you know.

TK: Yeah, it’s super-engaging. I read it in I think three sittings and every time I had to stop reading I was wishing that I could’ve kept sitting with it.

DS: Well, that’s a great compliment. Thank you.

TK: Well, it’s especially a great compliment because it is episodic. There’s something about short chunks that keeps you reading, because it’s not like John Updike or something and if you start the next chapter that means you know you’re sitting there for another hour. You keep flipping if it asks only another minute at a time of you.

DS: Yeah, nothing is more than a page or two. Three I think is my record.

TK: But that keeps the reader engaged in a counter-intuitive way, because when you think of getting sucked into a book, you think it’s because you need to know what happens next. But there is no cause and effect in your book.

DS: There isn’t. Yeah. There really isn’t and that’s part of the randomness of it all and that’s the way the job is, that you get these little fragments of things and then you can fill in the stuff in your mind. But there’s not any connective tissue between one thing and the next really. It’s only that I saw them or heard them you know.

TK: Yeah, I think you did a really great job of stating how people pop in and out and you have no sense of their lives before or after.

DS: No.

TK: I also really liked, and I think I really liked it because I’m always really guarded against it, in my own stuff or in whatever I see, I’m always guarded against sweet moments. But you do a really good job with those couple moments. Like the moment where you and the woman hug each other, you do a really good job of not coming across cloying or sentimental.

DS: Well, unfortunately or fortunately, sentimental is not a thing I’ve ever been accused of, or (of being) really romantic for the most part. But I was definitely aware of I didn’t want it to be so one-note, so dreary and horrible. I didn’t want it to seem like it’s just all horrifying drunks. It’s not all awful. The majority of the rides are just plain and nothing really happens. So I wasn’t gonna write about too many of those because there was nothing to write about.

TK: Well, they’d become about you and your drifting mental space when nothing happening.

DS: Yeah. And that wasn’t what this whole thing was about.

TK: So then, do your interactions with so many different people – I mean so many different people that can afford to ride in cabs –

DS: Yeah, that’s certainly not every kind of person that can afford to take a cab.

TK: So does this more often reconfirm cynical feelings towards the common man – the phrase “common man” being a phrase I use self-consciously –  or are you aware of feeling pleasantly surprised?

DS: I have been actually. Every once in a while I’ve been surprised. And also, part of it is personal. Part of it is, ever since I was a kid, my – I don’t know – my manner or whatever, people have accused me of being negative. ‘Oh Dmitry hates everything.’

TK: That’s just a Russian thing, man.

DS: It is a Russian thing. But it’s made me self-conscious enough about it that it’s like, ‘okay, this is not what it (the book) is gonna be about.’ And I’m gonna make an effort.

TK: Well, not the book, but the experience of driving the cab.

DS: Well, yeah, strangely I don’t think it’s soured me on humanity any more than I was soured before. I mean, I still think 90% of it is shit.

TK: That’s a self-respecting ratio.

DS: Yeah? That’s optimistic?

TK: Eh, it implies a sense of dignity, high standards, but also openness.

DS: No, they’ll surprise you every once in a while. And I just, my main thing is I just can’t get enough of watching people and listening to them. It’s just endlessly fascinating. It’s my own little theater and I get to sit in it and they all perform.

TK: And you’re an audience of one.

DS: And they’re performing for me. And it’s not always, it’s really not to make fun of them or judge them or think that I’m better than them. I’m certainly not.


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