An artist and painter trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Samarov began driving a cab in 1993 to make ends meet, and he’s been working as a taxi driver ever since. In Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab, he recounts tales that will delight, surprise, and sometimes shock the most seasoned urbanite. We follow Samarov through the rhythms of a typical week, as he waits hours at the garage to pick up a shift, ferries comically drunken passengers between bars, delivers prostitutes to their johns, and inadvertently observes drug deals. There are long waits with other cabbies at O’Hare, vivid portraits of street corners and their regular denizens, amorous Cubs fans celebrating after a game at Wrigley Field, and customers who are pleasantly surprised that Samarov is white—and tell him so. Throughout, Samarov’s own drawings—of his fares, of the taxi garage, and of a variety of Chicago street scenes—accompany his stories. In the grand tradition of Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Mike Royko, and Studs Terkel, Dmitry Samarov has rendered an entertaining, poignant, and unforgettable vision of Chicago and its people.
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HACKSTORIES FROM A CHICAGO CAB
By DMITRY SAMAROV
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2011 DMITRY SAMAROV
All right reserved.
A raised hand generates an almost irresistible magnetic pull on a taxi driver. After some years, my mind is trained to seek its abstract form in light poles, reflections in parked cars, windblown tree branches, and, on a slow night, just about any likely shape into that desired signal—the symbol of time not spent in vain. Depending on the hour of day or night, what follows that hopeful gesture will vary from absolute silence to aggressive and often unwanted camaraderie, but in almost every case it begins with some sort of greeting.
On afternoons in the Loop, terse one- or two-phrase directives abound. Words like Ogilvie, O'Hare, Wrigley, Lakeview, Bucktown, Midway, Michigan and Randolph, Ontario, and Chicago, on and on. Like pushing the elevator button, they name their wish with no need for further communication. To expect more than an occasional thank you for the fare displayed on the meter and the sometime addition of a pre-calculated tip—worked out from countless identical trips—would be wishful thinking during downtown afternoons. There is a nonverbal contract made between passenger and driver to acknowledge that these transactions are basic and unremarkable, unworthy of excess comment or thought.
With the approach of twilight, tentative signals indicate that work mode is being shed and the thirst for social contact can be detected. Between calls and texts, the passenger might ask about how the day's going, usually without expectation or need of any substantive response. Like exercise done at the gyms so many of them attend, this verbal stretch is meaningless except to keep limber in preparation for the heavier lifting that may lie ahead.
In early evening, couples wait at the curb, peering furtively at every passing taxi, sometimes raising their hands after the car has gone by, prompting slammed brakes from more aggressive or desperate drivers. A man wears his button-down untucked over nice jeans, his getup completed more often than not with flip-flops; his date is dressed to the nines from the 'do to the makeup to the little black dress to the heels that make her teeter long before her first cocktail. They'll exchange pleasantries in gratitude for the lift. He'll talk to the driver to show her he's got that common touch; she'll talk to the driver if she's bored with her guy or nervous. Once in a great while, there will be a conversation that reflects their good spirits, one that will serve to start off their date in a benevolent spirit toward all and sundry.
Packs of men pile in through the night. They'll start with: Boss, Chief, Buddy, Dude, Man, Bro, Hey, and when they think they're being funny, Sir. They've had a few or more by now, so they break the ice instinctively and without prompting. They'll ask how things have been, as if with a long-lost friend, and will even feign interest at the answer. They'll ask where the ladies are, then go back to recapping the "talent" encountered up to that moment. There's the possibility of inclusion in their club should I want in. A story or two about "those crazy bitches" could well qualify me for lifetime membership.
As taverns empty, the greeting runs the gamut from drunken mirth to stone silence. Tipsy chicks continue flirting in the cab as if still sipping appletinis. They laugh too loudly, say too much, and create more intimacy than there should be with a complete stranger. Some recount their evening if there's no one to dial up at this late hour, needing a confidant to vent to. They'll ask for advice or empathy with no regard for their listener's qualifications or character. Their need to ease their burden trumps the caution they might've displayed before the sun set. Last are the ones who were over-served and know it; with luck their address can be extracted without too much hassle, and they can be left to drift off into that end-of-the-night-ride-home fugue state. Upon arrival, the lights have to be raised and the drowsing reveler must be addressed in a loud voice: "HEY, BUDDY, PAL, CHIEF, TIME TO WAKE UP, YOU'RE HOME. TIME TO SAY GOOD NIGHT."
There are things that happen regularly to a cabdriver—the daily headaches at the garage; the tedious annual steps to renew a license; the constant run-ins with the same characters (whether fellow drivers or street people).
The forgettable details that add up to much of the time spent on this job.
At the Garage
This is the guy who owns the place. He thinks you're scum, and whatever you want, the answer's the same—"Fuck you."
If the cab breaks down, it's probably your fault, and no, you don't deserve any compensation for the time you lost. To save money, he imports retired cabs from New York and puts them on the street in Chicago. The fact that they break down every other week doesn't faze him in the least; in fact, it gives him an opportunity to scream at his mechanics or random other underlings to find out how they've wronged him. This is the quintessential angry little man; a miniature volcano ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. If you should happen to talk back, he'll accuse you of anger management issues and threaten to revoke your leasing privileges. Best to steer clear of him if you plan to stick around.
These are the people who relieve you of your money. They run the gamut from slow and stupid to unhinged and spiteful to friendly and efficient. It's a crap shoot—depending on whose line you get in, it can be a trying forty minutes or a breezy ten. Some will greet you politely, get through the lightening of your wallet, thank you, and send you on your way. Some will pick fights with drivers over unsigned credit card slips or other minor infractions; the screaming back and forth will make the rest in the queue more and more agitated until they start joining in. Others will yell for all to shut up, that the bickering is just holding the rest of us up. There'll be calm for a bit until a cashier starts moving too slow, a driver forgets to bring all required IDs to the window, or one doesn't like the look on the other's face; then the cacophony erupts once more.
All the cashiers snap to attention, however, when the angry little man walks in. They cower in his presence, and that gets them moving double-quick. When he's out of sight and earshot, they go back to their previous pace—be that frenetic or glacial.
Some of the drivers hang around the garage like house cats. I see the same ones puttering around, playing listless games of pool, or just pacing back and forth. They're not the ones waiting for their cab to get fixed or the ones hoping a cab becomes available; they park instead of driving and prefer the fumes from the body shop to those of the moving vehicles on the streets. How they make their living is a mystery.
A recurring drama plays out nearly every time there are more than three or four of us waiting in line to pay the leases on our taxis: a guy will get in line, stand for a minute or two, then wander off to chat with friends or use the bathroom. When he returns, inevitably the line has grown longer, and he'll attempt to convince the newcomers of his rightful place. Depending on their disposition and his approach, this seemingly simple situation can escalate into a hilarious screaming tirade, often resolved by a self-appointed elder statesman who takes it upon himself to explain the proper etiquette of the queue. The funny thing is that no one involved ever remembers the last time and is apt to repeat the performance when they come in the next day. Two grizzled old-timers get into it over the good old days—the first insists a medallion (a metal badge affixed to the vehicle's hood, which proves that it's licensed by the city to be a taxicab) costs 32K, the second dead sure they were 50K at the time in question. "He still smoking the cocaine, the old fool!" the burnout shouts to all within earshot as the object of his scorn walks away, the disagreement apparently settled. Standing and waiting is drudgery, and this little drama makes it all a little more worthwhile.
The drivers I spot in the garage are rarely encountered out in the city, but maybe they're unrecognizable when driving rather than fighting over their spot in line or bullshitting with their buddies. So much of it is context—stripped of their taxis, away from the streets, they're not the ones out there trying to hijack your fares, but just guys trying to get through the day.
Every year Chicago taxi drivers are made to renew their chauffeur's license. The requirements: getting a physical, which isn't much more than a blood pressure check and a $60 fee; peeing in a cup to screen for drugs; going to your cab company and getting a letter stating that you make the mandated effort to pick up radio calls in under-served areas; and, finally, going to the secretary of state for your driving record. This last item is what gets most of us because even one moving violation is cause to delay renewal of the license. And we all rack up more than one.
Driver Safety class is held in a windowless utility closet of a room on the mezzanine floor of the cab company's headquarters. Despite the 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. hours stated and underlined on the sign-up sheet, it doesn't really begin until 9:45. We spend half an hour taking attendance, then watch videos about car crashes and such. It's time for role-playing after that—one person is the driver and the other a passenger, and situations are reenacted to the laughter and guffaws of the peanut gallery. A long, long lunch break kills two hours, then our instructor takes forty-five minutes to type up certificates proclaiming our successful completion of the course, and we're released to go back to work.
What is the purpose of this exercise? Perhaps it keeps city employees pushing paper or pixels. Yellow Cab doesn't charge its drivers a fee, but we can't get those hours back. Nothing is gained when time that could be spent earning a living is diverted to satisfy the whims of bureaucracy. Try driving eighty hours a week for a year and not getting a ticket—it's nearly impossible, so the city is assured of its repeat offenders annually.
The job is fraught with uncertainty, chaos, and danger, so it's a certain comfort to know that the city reserves a time for us every year to sit on our asses and bitch about our trials and tribulations. You'll see me there next year sitting in the back row doodling on the margins of the photocopied handouts to stay awake.
The Only White Cabdriver in Chicago
"You're the first white cabdriver I've ever had"—this, or some variant of it, is a common greeting when a customer enters the taxi. Sometimes "American" is substituted for "white," but in either case the implication is clear: You're one of us, why on earth are you doing what we expect only our inferiors to be doing? I usually congratulate them on their good fortune.
Either they want to hear my life story, or they want to launch into a litany of complaints about the "towelheads," the "sand niggers," the "slants," the "jigs," and all the other foreign strangers who cross their paths. Some want to bond over what they think unites us; this generally begins with sharing some bigoted remark aimed at other cabdrivers they've dealt with. When they don't receive a response, a pause follows, after which they say that they're not racist or anything, that they didn't mean to offend.
Two bruisers get in. They're headed to see the Blackhawks at the United Center and are a couple hours into their pregame preparations, to judge by the volume of their voices. "You're white."
I let it hang in the air, a strategy that gives the less brazen a chance to backtrack; not my passenger, who proceeds in a crude Hindi accent to ape the ethnicity of his usual chauffeurs. His pal is greatly amused and gives some sort of African accent a go. At the stadium, they pause before paying to make sure I know that there's a few bucks extra to honor the pale shade of my skin. That's right, they gave me an $8 tip for being white.
Sometimes I feel compelled to explain that I wasn't born here, that English isn't my first language. This is usually met with disbelief. It's true that I've lived here a long time, and I pass for a native without much trouble. My family emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1978 when I was seven. While this was a long time ago now, no amount of time will make the immigrant's sense of being from elsewhere fade away.
Others broach the subject differently. "It's so great to have an American driver," a woman says. I ask what it is that thrills her about this, and she can't really put her finger on it. She assures me that she's no racist, then says she likes that I speak English. I tell her it's not my first language, and she's floored. Now it's suddenly fascinating to find out where people are from. There are wows, oohs, and aahs. She wears that appreciative smile that says she's learned something. Would she bother if I was wearing a turban and a full beard? A dashiki and cornrows?
Apparently even immigrants and minorities assume that a taxi driver is likely from the bottom of the barrel (or from a lower caste, color, or creed than whatever the passenger happens to be, at the very least). A black guy tells me that I'm not like most cabbies. "You know what I mean, man ..."
"No, I don't," I answer.
An Indian student tells me that most drivers are Indian or Pakistani, and it shocks and confounds him to see me. "Why are you doing this?" he asks.
It's easier to condescend to a cabdriver if he has a thick accent, wears foreign garb, or can in any other way be thought of as lesser than oneself. Driving a cab is a first step for immigrants in this country. The education most gained in their home countries isn't recognized by our institutions, so they do what they have to, to put a roof over their heads. In that way I'm no different. Though my family came over when I was just a kid, in a sense I still haven't arrived here, and getting paid for what's important to me is but a pipedream. This is not to advocate for some color-blind, class-free utopia; having been born in one of those, I have no wish to return. Only a simple hope that new arrivals could be treated with a little more respect in a country founded by castoffs and mutts.
It's rare to run into a lifer who's happy about it. Most of them are burnouts, punch-drunk from breathing in exhaust for twenty, thirty years. One of the few I've met who is different is a guy named Ed. He loves to drive, has to do it every day. He owns his own cab, a Dodge Intrepid. We cross paths in our aimless treks around this town; sometimes I see him with his old lady at the Music Box Theatre.
Last night one of the oldsters sat at a green light ahead of me. After waiting a reasonable few seconds, I tried to maneuver around to his right. He rolled down the passenger-side window and started screaming. Neither my customers nor I could figure out his problem, to be so obviously wrong yet act with such righteous rage. The confrontation ended with him being forced to brake after I very intentionally cut him off; sometimes a point has to be made.
Most drivers aren't that far gone. They chatter to each other on their cells, argue loudly at the airport, race one another down Michigan Avenue. There are occasional feeble attempts to unionize, to band together against the powers that be: the city, the cab company, the customers, the wives. All these efforts are likely doomed to failure because the job is for lone wolves, and part-time ones at that. We're all aspiring to be elsewhere, and like the fares who slam the door behind them as they exit, most of us want out in the worst way.
I saw him in the left turn lane on LaSalle the other day, waiting to go west on Chicago. He rolled down the window and yelled out a question to a couple walking past. Obviously dumbfounded, they kept walking as if the cabbie had never engaged them in any way, while he smiled to himself, continuing the conversation under his breath.
I used to see him at the Checker garage before it went out of business and was absorbed by Yellow Cab. A worn puffy winter coat with a hood, thick black glasses, a black shirt with the top button buttoned and dandruff dotting his chest like a light dusting of snow on a winter's eve, white hair groomed in a '50s sort of way, buzzed short around the ears and neck. His skin reddened to an unhealthy hue, though probably not from boozing; he doesn't seem like the type—though what do we ever really know about people when they're out of our sight? He'd be in line to pay the lease on his cab, trying to shoot the shit with the others, coming off like some sort of space alien, causing them to take a step or two back, as if the distance would keep his insanity from crawling up their legs.
Excerpted from HACK by DMITRY SAMAROV Copyright © 2011 by DMITRY SAMAROV. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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