A 'Hack' Shares Years Of Stories From A Chicago Cab Cab drivers often find themselves playing amateur therapist, confession-taker and witness. In his new book Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab, long-time cabbie Dmitry Samarov shares his tales from the road.

A 'Hack' Shares Years Of Stories From A Chicago Cab

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. A cab driver's role, writes Dmitry Samarov, is to play a bit part in others' lives and be compensated for it. But that understates the cabbies' roles as amateur therapist, confession taker and witness to all sorts of moments: a first kiss, a breakup, the occasional drug deal and many drunken adventures.

Artist Dmitry Samarov started driving a taxi many years ago to make ends meet. Eventually, he started writing a blog, now combines text and drawings in a book that describes some of the people he's met and the places he's been.

Cab drivers, what have you learned about human nature? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dmitry Samarov will join us in a few minutes. We're having some technical problems. Later in the program, writer Dave Eggers wants to raise the quality and prestige of teachers by raising their salaries. In the meantime, we're going to get some callers on the line. Sara's(ph) on the line, Sara calling from Nashville.

SARA: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, how are you?

SARA: I'm well. I'm actually working right now. Yes, I drive a taxi, and I'm one of the few American drivers, actually, in the area. And the main thing you learn about people driving a cab, because I drive a wheelchair van now - I drove the party shift when I first drove, now I don't - what you learn on the party shift is trust your instincts. Get out of situations that seem bad quickly. And people really like alcohol a whole lot.

CONAN: I think other people have come to that - the party shift, does that mean after the bars close?

SARA: Yeah, well, that means - this is Nashville, so the bars, it's kind of almost every night it goes on. And it was actually a lot more fun driving the party shift, but it was a lot more unreliable, and you ended up in a lot more bad situations. Driving something like a wheelchair van, where you're mainly getting people to and from work and to and from medical appointments, it's not nearly as much fun, but you're a lot safer. But it's just not as much fun.

CONAN: A lot more predictable. I was interested in your earlier job, Dmitry Samarov in his book "Hack" describes different days of the week as having different characters. Is Monday the same as Saturday?

SARA: Actually not quite because you've got less casual partiers on Monday. But Monday nights in Nashville, it's a lot of songwriters' nights. So a lot of industry people go out, and they're at bars and checking out bands, and checking out songwriters and all that.

So you've actually got some of it almost every night of the week here.

CONAN: And Dmitry Samarov is an artist, and that's what - started driving a cab to pay the rent because he wasn't paying it being an artist - I wonder, do you do something else in addition to driving?

SARA: Not really. I lost my job after a medical situation back in April, 2009. It was a really bad time to find yourself without a job. After about three months, it wasn't that nobody had offered me a job, it was that no one had even called me for an interview.

And I was getting terrified, and one day I saw an ad in the paper, cab drivers needed, will train. And I grew up in a bigger, scarier city than Nashville, and I just said all right, I'm tough, I can do it. So that's what happened.

CONAN: Sara, thanks very much, good luck.

SARA: Bye, have a good day.

CONAN: You, too. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Brock(ph), and Brock's with us from Valley Springs in California.

BROCK: Well, good afternoon. I'm going to give you average, rather than famous, and then later if you want to ask me about Pavarotti, I've got a good one about him, too.

CONAN: Okay.

BROCK: But this is an average night in New York City: An older couple, late 50s or early 60s, gets in the cab. They're obviously financially secure, going to a nice address on Park Avenue. It turns out to be a seven dollar fare. When they get in the cab, the tension is so thick I'm afraid to say a word. And normally, as a cab driver, you speak to passengers. I'm afraid to say a word. I can just tell something awful is going on.

And we drive absolutely in silence, not a word between them, I'm afraid to say a word. And I just know something has happened. We get there, and he pulls out a wad full of money, and he's looking through it for a 10. She grabs the whole wad out of his hand, throws it in the front seat, violently, and screams: Take it all. And then she gets out of the cab, and I expect him to wait there and get the money back because there's over 60 bucks there. He just meekly follows her right up the steps.


BROCK: Yeah.

CONAN: I can understand why you remember every detail of that story.

BROCK: Oh, yeah. I mean, I never of course knew what he had done, but the tension, you could just feel it the second they got in.

CONAN: And tell us the story about Pavarotti, then.

BROCK: Well, this is a happier story. It was on the night in the early '80s, about '83 or '84, when he was doing a benefit at the United Nations to raise money for children somewhere. Everyone knew Pavarotti was coming to town.

My wife used to ride with me at this time. I had a Checker. So she was in the front with me. And we had passengers, we're going down 59th Street, and there's Pavarotti in front of a hotel with a woman who, I guess, was his business manager. She spoke English. He didn't speak all that much in the cab.

He's looking for a cab. Well, you can't miss Pavarotti. So I tell the guys who are in the cab, sorry, you guys have got to get out. I'm taking Pavarotti because he's (unintelligible) going to the U.N. And sure enough, he's going to the United Nations. But it's 5 o'clock.

If you've been in New York at 5 o'clock, there are a thousand people crossing at every corner. So the only way to get from 59th and 5th over to the U.N. in any time - and he's in a hurry - is to do a zigzag, make a right turn every time you can and a left turn every time you can and go a block at a time.

But that means you have to go through the people who are crossing. However, I had Pavarotti, and a Checker is an expansive cab, so anybody could look in the window and see that it was him. And so what my wife and I did is we - every time the light would change, we would simply go, and the people were going to have to jump back. And we'd put our hands out to indicate hey, we're coming through. We're not waiting while you cross the street.

And every one, they would raise their fist, and then they'd look, and they'd see it was Pavarotti, and they'd understand. And the whole way, every time I did it, the only words he said the whole trip is every time, he would clap his hands like a six-year-old and go: Oh, you're cutting people right in half.


BROCK: And, I mean, he was like a child in a man's body. And I later spoke to a friend of mine who knew some of his entourage and said that's the way they described him, also.

CONAN: Well, Brock, thanks very much for the story. Appreciate it.

BROCK: You are very welcome, bye.

CONAN: And we've managed to make contact with Dmitry Samarov, who joins us now on the phone from Chicago Public Radio, and his new book is "Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab," and it's nice to have you with us today.

DMITRY SAMAROV: Hello, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I understand your cab is your only car. Is it parked outside Navy Pier there?

SAMAROV: It is, well, in the lot, correct.

CONAN: In the lot. So that's how you got to this interview?

SAMAROV: Absolutely.

CONAN: That's interesting. We're asking your fellow co-workers, your colleagues in the cab industry, what they've learned about public - about human nature. And it seems to me that's a lot of what your book is about.

SAMAROV: Absolutely, yeah. You meet all sorts of people. You meet them at all sorts of times in their life, and you play a small part in it. They share - some of them share directly with you as a person. Others, you just overhear. It's kind of an amazing thing.

CONAN: How has the cell phone changed your job?

SAMAROV: The cell phone? It's funny, I actually - my first stint as a cab driver was from 1993 to 1997 in Boston, and I actually had one of the earlier cell phones, which entailed having, if you remember, an antennae that you had to then attach to the top of your vehicle, the bag phone, the whole deal.

And then - so I actually took calls back then, but yeah, a lot of my regular customers will contact me via text or by cell phone. So it helps.

CONAN: I also wonder, you get to hear a lot more conversations with people from the back of the cab because they're talking to their friends, their lovers, everybody else.

SAMAROV: Certainly, yeah. I've learned very well not to answer conversations when - before double-checking that they're speaking to me and not to their phone.

CONAN: Yeah, that Bluetooth thing can be very confusing.


SAMAROV: Uh huh. Well, also, I mean, I have my back - the back of my head to them. So I can't see who they're talking to, so...

CONAN: I don't know if you heard the story of the man, the driver trying to part the sea of pedestrians in New York with Pavarotti in the back, but you write in your book that when you're in Chicago at rush hour, and the people spill into the streets, your inclination is to part them with your cab, too, a little less gently.

SAMAROV: Well, everybody has those thoughts. I hope you understand from reading it, that I meant that in jest, of course.

CONAN: And that you try to annoy a bus driver at every opportunity?

SAMAROV: Well, bus drivers tend to take to the roads as if they own them, and they take their sweet time sometimes. And we have to let them know that there are other fish in the sea.


SAMAROV: It can be (unintelligible).

CONAN: And the other ongoing relationship you have is with bicycle riders.

SAMAROV: Uh huh. Yes, bicyclists come - there's more and more of them here in Chicago. I'm not sure about D.C., but they certainly have to be reckoned with. And they zip through in between cars, and you have to be very careful. And I've had many interesting interactions with cyclists, both positive and negative.

CONAN: You described - somebody, I was unaware of this, wrote a book about bicycle messenger - who compared them I think to ninjas.

SAMAROV: Ninjas, medieval knights, yeah. There was a - I couldn't get through the whole book, but the gist of it was that yeah, they were some sort of mythical warriors out against the rest of the world. And I don't know that I share the man's view.


SAMAROV: I didn't have such highfaluting ideas about my job, ever. I still don't.

CONAN: And taxicab drivers, we're asking about human nature, philosopher kings to a man?


SAMAROV: Well, I suppose that when you spend a lot of time on your own and have a lot of time to ruminate about this and that, perhaps you get to a point of having ideas about the world in a certain way. And some of the cab drivers certainly enjoy holding forth and sharing their wisdom.

CONAN: We'll talk more with Dmitry Samarov in just a moment. His book is called "Hack," and we do want to hear from those other philosopher kings of the road. Cabdrivers, what have you learned about human nature? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Every cab ride begins with a raised arm followed by some form of greeting. That introduction, Dmitry Samarov writes in his new book, varies predictably by time of day.

In the early afternoon, riders are terse. Once 5 PM hits, riders are ready for some social interaction, and as the night goes on, and the pubs close down, people piling into the cab can be downright ridiculous.

You can read more about the rhythm of the cabbie's night in an excerpt from "Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab." That's at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We're asking cabdrivers what they've learned about human nature. Call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dmitry Samarov is with us from Chicago Public Radio. And I was wondering if I could have you read a brief excerpt, if you have your book there.

SAMAROV: Certainly. What would you like me to read?

CONAN: And this is on Page 37, the first paragraph, where it starts - it's an excerpt titled "Vampire Hours."

SAMAROV: "Vampire Hours," sure.

(Reading) Hauling up and down empty avenues on winter weeknights can be its own kind of purgatory. But in those instances, when one feels like the last being drawing breath, the others make their presence felt. The truly dedicated drinkers, the lonely lunatics for whom time of day or place don't matter, the speed-addled tow truckers, the cops looking for an excuse, and the other cabbies fool enough to be out fighting for the few sorry scraps left to be had.

CONAN: An excerpt from "Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab." Let's get Matt on the line. Matt's calling from Phoenix.

MATT: Hello, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MATT: You know, I just recently started as a cab driver a few months ago, after leaving the corporate world. And what initially struck me as just so unusual was just the breadth of society that you come into contact with on any given day. And I'm sure your author could agree with that, that, you know, one minute you'll be taking a wealthy businessman to the airport, and the next minute, you might be picking someone up who has all their belongings in a grocery bag with them.

And it's just interesting at the end of your day to reflect back on just the variety of people that you've come into contact with that day.

CONAN: Dmitry?

SAMAROV: Certainly, yeah. There's probably few jobs where you see both the variety of people and variety of neighborhoods in any given city that you're doing the job in, and it changes all the time. It's like, you know, if you have a TV of 150 channels, and it switches every 10 minutes.


MATT: And Dmitry, I don't know if you ever ran into this yourself, but for me, I found a lot of my business, especially as it got toward evening, was made up of people in all different kinds of work, whether it be drug dealers or prostitutes or...

SAMAROV: Oh certainly.

MATT: That were engaged in a lot of, you know, things that aren't mainstream. And, you know, as an average citizen driving around, day to day, you don't see these things, and you don't know what's going on behind those hotel room doors or in those apartment complexes or whatever. And it really just blew me away what was happening right in my own neighborhood, without me knowing about it, until I came across it as a cabdriver.

SAMAROV: Absolutely. Yeah, I've taken prostitutes to some of the nicest apartment buildings in downtown Chicago, and a lot of these things happen at night after a lot of people are asleep, that's for sure.

I tend to work until the bars close. So I see a ton of that.

MATT: You really have to reflect back that you can't judge your customers, though, because that's how they make their living because that's how you're making your living, off of their living. So the money all spends the same once it's in your pocket. So you can't really - it's kind of conflicting sometimes, but it's not your place to judge them when they're in the backseat of your cab.

SAMAROV: I agree.

CONAN: Does the phrase aid and abet ever cross your mind?


MATT: Sometimes it did, and at what point do you draw the line? And I think each person has to do that for themselves, where they feel comfortable with it. You know, I've had some customers who I picked up, and they went and picked up their customer in my cab and were trying to negotiate their business deal in the back of my cab, if you know what I mean.

And, you know, at some point you have to just say I'm not comfortable with where this is going and, you know, part ways.

CONAN: Dmitry, you write about one episode where a man got into your cab and got off at a drug dealer's house and started screaming: give me drugs.

SAMAROV: Yes, yeah, it was actually outside of a public housing project. Yeah, he - for a lot of the ride, he wouldn't tell me what it was that he wanted, and he assumed that I just knew what he wanted. And I think that particular individual had problems even greater than a drug habit.

But he - this was the same man that also told me that he was in town to impersonate Chris Farley at Second City. So I'm not sure that - how in touch with reality he was to begin with.

CONAN: Matt, thanks very much for the call.

MATT: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Levi(ph), Levi with us from Portland.

LEVI: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LEVI: I was wondering, Dmitry, do you notice that people constantly as you the same questions every day? Like: where are you from?

SAMAROV: Oh yes, yes. They - there's a certain kind of passenger that likes - wants to know my life story.

LEVI: I just kind of feel like there's always this presumption, like, that only immigrants are cab drivers, and...

SAMAROV: Oh, that. OK, I wasn't sure where you were going with it. Oh absolutely, yeah. The running refrain of basically all my years driving a cab is what's a white guy doing driving a cab, if you want to just really boil it down. Or there's a lot of presumptions that go with that, but yeah, but why - sort of, you're one of us, what are you a doing menial job for, kind of thing.

Yeah, it's a running thread. It repeats over and over again. I could have written a whole book of just those stories, which would have probably been more depressing than what I ended up with, I hope.


CONAN: Levi, thanks very much.

LEVI: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to Laura(ph), and Laura's calling from Phoenix.

LAURA: Hi, my name's Laura Casinova(ph), and I used to be a cab driver. And I'm now a psychologist. And I always found it very interesting, being a cabdriver, I noticed that you really have to, kind of, be a social chameleon because as earlier callers said, you've got such a wide variance between the clientele you may be working with.

And I was interested in psychology a bit before cab driving, but it really kind of sparked my curiosity, because I found I was able to - you know, without getting myself into any kind of dangerous situations, you know, be able to handle people that, you know, typically I run into a street, and I would walk the other way.

You know, or at the same time work with very high-level business people who, you know, for them it's like I'm just going to give you a 50, I don't care if the ride was four dollars. You know, and so it really is interesting, I think, in terms of when you're driving a cab, you need to have - you're primarily working for tips. And so if you really want to do well with tips, you kind of need to bond, in some ways, with the fare.

And so I always found that fascinating, and it led me into psychology, and now I'm a psychologist.

CONAN: And you were able to pay for college by being a cabdriver?

LAURA: Largely. I had some additional funding. I got some grants and scholarships and things of that nature. But cab driving was very lucrative. I, before cab driving, was a bartender, which was also lucrative, but... I drove cabs - I'm calling from Phoenix, but I drove in an area called Flagstaff, which is in northern Arizona.

There's about 75,000 people, and it was - I was one of the only female drivers in the city. So, you know, fortunately the male drivers - this was back when we did dispatching on the little, you know, CB devices and whatnot - they were really cautious about making sure I wouldn't get into too much danger, if I was going somewhere that they had concerns, or with a fare that they had concerns, they would make sure to, you know, be near or be available if I needed, but...

CONAN: Dmitry Samarov, have you ever considered northern Arizona? It sounds like there could be some opportunities.


SAMAROV: Well, I don't know that I'd be able to distinguish myself, as she has, but I don't know if the climate would suit me, either. But who knows?


LAURA: It's beautiful, actually. It's 7,000 feet, it's all mountainous and forest, but - and then one other thing I was going to say, and I'll go ahead and let you guys continue your interesting conversation, but I don't know if anyone else has had this experience, but of course, you know, you occasionally get the fare...

Usually you collect fare at the end of the ride. So you'll get a call for a ride from somewhere to somewhere else. They get there and say I don't have any money and hop out. And so I got in the good habit of, you know, paying attention right when we got somewhere, if I felt it was someone who may not have the funds or the fare, and I'd reach back and grab one of their shoes.



LAURA: I don't know how legal that is, but let me tell you, there were about - I've probably done it about 15 times, and about eight times, people came back because I'd say, you know, I'm sorry you don't have your fare right now. I'd be more than happy to give you your shoe back as soon as I receive my fare. So if I'm not on shift, call the cab company, and I will make sure to get it to you immediately.

And I had eight people come back and return their fares that way.

CONAN: Laura, thanks. I think that may be a new technique.

LAURA: I don't know.


CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.


LAURA: Thank you for your time.

SAMAROV: I've never attempted that. I've had my share of fares run out on me without paying, and I've never chased them or considered that.


CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Brad. Brad's on the line with - San Francisco.

BRAD NEWSHAM: Hi. Yes, my name is Brad Newsham. I'm the - for 25 years, I've driven a cab in San Francisco, God's favorite city. And I am now the president of the Cab Driver Anti-Defamation League. And I listened until - I think it was minute 18 of your show before you used - anyone used the dreaded little epithet C-A-B-B-I-E, which I am trying to drive out of the English language, if I can.

CONAN: It could be a losing fight. Is that an offensive term?

NEWSHAM: Well, most cab drivers don't use it. Out here, we don't like it. I know it's a little different in other places, but out here - you know, anything you add an ie to, a diminutive, you - it's a way of diminishing someone. I don't suppose, you know, people at NPR like being called newsies or anything else short like that.

SAMAROV: Wow. Don't you think there are some bigger problems in the world than this - I'm sorry - with all due respect?

NEWSHAM: Oh, sure. Absolutely. Absolutely. But, you know, you've driven for a long time. How do you feel about that? Does it grate on your nerves? I know Chicago is a little different.

SAMAROV: Absolutely not. I have no problem with it. In fact, this is the first I've ever heard of this.


NEWSHAM: Out here, it's kind of common. It's known. It's not a...

SAMAROV: I've been called many, many worst things than cabbie.


NEWSHAM: Oh, me too.


CONAN: Brad, is hack preferable?

NEWSHAM: Not really. What's wrong with cab driver?

CONAN: Don't you have a hack license?


SAMAROV: It's sort of an (unintelligible) - an archaic term. I mean, it comes from hackney carriage. And most people that I've - I talk to, younger people especially, don't even know what it means in that sense.

NEWSHAM: That's true. I get that. I just think that cab driver has straightforwardness and dignity going for it. It's accurate. And, you know, a lot of the people who throw it out easily, it is clearly sometimes a way of putting down a person. Hey, cabbie. You almost can't say the word. Say it five times, and see if you can keep from laughing.

CONAN: Well, I'll guarantee you, as a longtime reporter, I would not object to being called a newsie, though that's usually somebody who delivers the newspaper. I would object to being called a hack, which is another definition...

SAMAROV: In your case, Neal, that might - that may be offensive. It's understandable.

CONAN: Brad, thanks very much for the call.

NEWSHAM: You bet. Thank you.

CONAN: A lot of foreign correspondents call themselves hacks. We're talking with Dmitry Samarov. "Hack" is his book, "Stories from a Chicago Cab." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And I wonder, Dmitry Samarov, most people's impression of cab drivers comes either from "Taxi Driver," the movie that featured that monstrous checker cab, or from the movie - the TV show "Taxi."

SAMAROV: Yes. Yeah.

CONAN: And I gather from your description, the garage is not quite a sunny a place as it was in the TV show.

SAMAROV: No. Actually, I mean, there's bits and pieces of that show - and overall, I think it's a great show. But, yeah, that sort of fun-loving camaraderie is - maybe it's a thing of the past, or maybe it was a bit romanticized and cleaned up for network TV. But, yeah, the garage can be a very contentious place and an unhappy place, because drivers that are sitting in the garage are not driving and making a living. They're waiting either to pick up a taxi or wait for their taxi to be fixed by the shop. And - or they've just brought it back from an accident or something else, or they're paying for their lease. So, not much happy stuff happens at the garage, in my experience.

CONAN: Let's go next to George, George with us from San Jose.

GEORGE: Good afternoon. I pity the customer who says, hey, cabbie, take me to Frisco.


CONAN: Yes. He could be in for quite a tongue-lashing. Go ahead.

GEORGE: The reason I'm calling is because a cab driver sees such a wide variety of the society. And the wealth distribution in this country has changed a lot over the past 30 years, the time cab driver's been driving the cab. I'm wondering if he's seen any difference in the way people behaved 30 years ago versus now, because of that wealth distribution change.

CONAN: I don't think he was driving a cab 30 years ago.

SAMAROV: Well, yeah. I've started in '93 so - and, yeah, I wouldn't be - I'm certainly not qualified to answer that. But as far as more of sort of upturns and downturns in the economy, we certainly feel it. I mean, I remember in - around 2006, 2007, business got really, really bad before it was announced to the nation that we're in some sort of recession or financial downturn. It hit us pretty badly.

GEORGE: Do you notice because, you know, 30 years ago, CEOs made 50 times more than the average worker. Now they make 500 times more. Do you notice that the very wealthy customers give you a much bigger tip now than they did when you first started driving a cab?

SAMAROV: Well, there's - the thing is that the most wealthy customers don't tip the best. The people that tip the best are people that have worked in the service industry or do: bartenders, waiters, waitresses. Those are the people that tip the best. In fact, yeah, many of my wealthiest customers tip very, very badly. It's very commonplace, I think.

CONAN: George, Thanks very much. Twenty percent, is that what's expected nowadays?

SAMAROV: It really goes all over the map. But businessmen who take cabs out to O'Hare, which is approximately a 35 to $40 cab ride, I'm lucky to get 10 percent on a tip, typically.

CONAN: Hmm. Here's an email from Sidou(ph) in Cincinnati: This is what I learned from driving a cab eight years ago: Never judge a book by its cover. I was once scammed by a well-dressed, executive-looking man on his way to the airport. Another time, I was treated and tipped well by a baggy clothes-wearing teenager whom I felt apprehensive about when I picked him up from a phone booth.

Is that a lesson to be drawn?

SAMAROV: Oh, absolutely. One of the things that I hear complaints about from customers is that they weren't picked up based on their appearance or where they were going. And one of the important things - facets of the job is you have to take a person where they want to go, and you take any person that asks you to go there. That's the job.

CONAN: Dmitry Samarov writes about his job in the book "Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab." Thank you very much for your time today. Good luck with the book.

SAMAROV: Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Up next, the Teacher Salary Project hopes to keep the best teachers in the classroom by paying them more. But where will that money come from? We'll talk with co-founders Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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