I wish I’d had a taxi driver like Dmitry Samarov when I immigrated to Chicago. Our driver got lost on the way from O’Hare Airport, pulled over on a dark, midnight road by the Des Plaines River so we could check our map, then crashed through roadwork and over a bunch of orange traffic cones. Samarov seems a more careful driver, a meticulous observer of people and a sharp storyteller.
“Where To? A Hack Memoir” is a series of linked vignettes that are wry, hilarious and sometimes melancholic. Samarov, the immigrant “progeny of Soviet intelligentsia and an art school graduate,” describes the cab driver as a passing presence who sees the ugly, the beautiful and the inexplicable. Cab drivers are frequently immigrants, former professionals, now “forced back down to the bottom rung of the societal ladder.” They contend with a gritty city and ruthless cops. The bureaucracy is a time-sucking revenue collector, its authority figures despotic. Passengers are lovelorn, snowbound, disabled, drunk, sweet, amusing, obnoxious and sometimes famous. We glimpse it all.
Samarov’s charming paintings of people, places and cabs are scattered through the book. His written portraits are deftly imagistic. He describes a passenger’s hair “like a pile of glistening black-brown wood shavings piled artfully atop her head in an abstract sculpture.” Cyclists under the influence struggle to get in the cab because “letting their limbs know what’s required seemed to be a laborious task.”
His view is at times tender. A snowstorm “slows the city to a crawl and muffles its clanging. It reminds me of how small we are in relation to the world.” Lovers of Chicago will relate to those moments. It’s also a portrait of change and the city’s disappearing structures, whose absence “makes reconstructing memories that much more precarious and unreliable.” I would have liked Samarov to slow these reflective passages, but that would have made a different work.
This is a book you can enjoy quickly for laugh-out-loud entertainment. A leisurely read offers insight into what makes our city tick. It’s like a taxi ride, zipping about the city. I recommend it as a perfect holiday gift or a take-home reminder for city visitors—or anyone who’s had the pleasure of taking a Chicago cab. (Toni Nealie)
Where To? A Hack Memoir
By Dmitry Samarov
Curbside Splendor, 190 pages, $15.95