On July 14, 2016, as part of an in-depth feature on Natalie Portman, The New York Times published an email exchange between Portman and the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (inexplicably featuring many photos of Portman wearing scant clothing). Foer’s emails represented some of the strangest malaise ever expressed in a major American newspaper. In an effort to plunge into the tortured depths of Foer’s soul, I have recorded a dramatic reading of the emails, with the hope that this recording might help future generations make sense of the Foer predicament.
It was recently suggested by The New York Daily News‘s Alexander Nazaryan that Jonathan Safran Foer’s purported “truth about human experience” could be instantly dismissed due to Foer not really knowing a life without bona-fide hardship. Nazaryan came to this viewpoint not necessarily because he is bitter (he claims to be, but I don’t think he is), but because he was raised in Soviet Russia.*
Fortunately, one recent book is committed to a less abominably assumptive approach to human existence. Like Nazaryan, artist, author, and cab driver Dmitry Samarov also experienced a childhood in Soviet Russia. And I suspect that this background is one very salient reason why Samarov’s insights into everyday life in Chicago are so real and winsome, rather than trite and didactic like Foer. Eschewing prepackaged claims of Taxicab Confessions authenticity (although the show is mentioned twice), Dmitry Samarov’s Hack (University of Chicago Press, $20) is a slim yet thoughtful volume on what it is to live as a taxi driver. The book bristles with an intriguing street poetry, referring to a gas station’s “welcoming neon glow” as “fool’s gold” when Samarov describes the difficulties of finding a place to relieve himself and depicting the unusual dernier cri (“a straw cowboy hat and a green Day-Glo bracelet”) which elude the monied charlatans who hole themselves up in vacuous manses. Samarov is clearly interested in people, but, like the prostitutes, the journalists, and the psychotherapists who cater to their clients in similar fashion, he knows very well how his fares perceive him. He registers his observations in a rapid-fire yet unpretentious manner (many of his anecdotes originated on a blog), as if he has only a few minutes to capture a few sentences (or sketch one of the many illustrations accompanying his stories) before hustling for the next fare.
Samarov is candid enough to express his understandable self-interest, describing how he wants his cheeseburger more than an “angry man with a backpack [who] marches right up to the window and demands service” at a McDonald’s which prohibits walk-ups (and which generates a quick fare stream for wayward cabs in the area) while also showing us his reticence to reveal certain personal details to his more probing clients.
And why should the hack spill? After all, when we enter a cab with the idea of entering a conspiratorial trust with the driver, how much of our taxicab conversations do we truly remember? Isn’t there something inherently troubling about placing our trust with a stranger like this? Perhaps. This may be one of the reasons why so many “confessions” of this sort often depict the taxi driver as some dutiful stoic who has seen it all. But this take severely underestimates the hack’s ability to understand the implications of his observations. As Samarov himself writes when trying to peg a woman pushed into the back of his cab by a disheveled old man, “There’s no polite way to broach such a subject, so I content myself with speculating.”
Samarov is willing to impart his fears and dangers, even when they reveal unexpected thoughts about on-the-job dignity. Of dealing with incompetents and ireful types on the road, he writes, “I wouldn’t be caught dead out here if there wasn’t money at stake. The fact that the masses submit to it of their own volition makes me question my membership in the species.” Does this need for the take, often ruthlessly pared down by a cashier when checking the cab in, make Samarov any less superior to Foer? Not at all. But it’s refreshing to see Samarov marvel at the universe even as he seems conflicted about it. It’s this marvelous duality of being alive that books, especially in the hands of the prissy and the uptight, too frequently take for granted.
* And if you’re truly on the fence about whether or not Foer is a loathsome human being and/or an astonishingly overrated individual, consider the fact that Foer had the audacity to apply, and win, one of the coveted Cullman Center fellowships (which awards a $65,000 stipend, an office, and considerable resources to each winner) offered by the New York Public Library this year — this when Foer himself owns a $6.75 million brownstone in Park Slope (purchased in large part through the family’s coffers), is doing extremely well with the Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close film rights and foreign sales, and this after Foer’s equally pansified wife, Nicole Krauss, won a Cullman grant two years prior to her husband. A source informs me that Foer resigned from the fellowship, which explains why his name is no longer listed among this year’s fellows. Still, why would any remotely decent person do this? I suspect the answer is quite self-explanatory. If you go for an evening stroll through Prospect Park, especially when it is colder and more desolate in the wintertime, you can listen to the gelid pelt of Marie Antoinette-like sweat oozing from the west without surcease from Nicole Krauss’s privileged pores, which is siphoned into a special stock for the children so that they too can sup from the free ride tureen well into early adulthood. Given all the recent dialogue involving the richest 1% taking everything from the remaining 99%, it’s astonishing that the Foer family’s unrelenting selfishness and unfathomable avarice has gone without remark or rebuke by the literary community. But I digress.
[The following article is an excerpt from my soon-to-be-published book, Eating Young Jewish Writers.]
When I was young, I would often spend the weekend at my grandmother’s house. She would ask me if I was hungry. And when I would cry, she would tell me that I needed to toughen up and expand my gustatory horizons. It wasn’t until years later that I realized she was testing me to see if I had eaten a young Jewish writer for dinner.
You see, my grandmother survived the Great Depression eating young Jewish writers. It wasn’t that she was anti-Semitic or anything. My grandmother would scavenge around America looking for inedibles. Unfortunately, other hobos had eaten the rest of the food. When the rotting potatoes, discarded scraps of meat, skins and the bits that clung to bones and pits had all been exhausted, the people who were still hungry would turn to other human beings to eat. This was before the Holocaust, when one could still eat a young Jewish writer and not be declared a National Socialist. I remember attending hotel buffets: while the rest of us kept our meals vegetarian, there would be some adventurous diners who would gnaw upon young Jewish writers and think nothing of it. After all, Jews tended to write a lot of books. This was one of the reasons that Alfred Kazin made so many infrequent appearances in his younger days. He feared being eaten by those who weren’t picky.
It was my grandmother who taught me that eating a young Jewish writer saved you money. The meat would last a long time. You wouldn’t have to go to a butcher. You could just show up at some shul, wait for some eager young Jewish intellectual to open up his notebook, throw a burlap sack over his head, and whisk him away. You could really make a young Jewish writer last a long time if you had a walk-in freezer. Of course, you’d have to inure yourself to his shrieks of anguish as you chopped him up with the hatchet. But if you were hungry enough, well, the possibilities were limitless.
We thought my grandmother was the greatest chef who ever lived. And we’d enjoy our meals until we realized that we were eating human meat. Then we’d throw up onto our plates and ask for seconds. There was always plenty of young Jewish meat to go around.
When I was 2, the writers of all my bedtime books were young Jewish writers. The first thing I can remember learning in school was how to pet a young Jewish writer without accidentally killing it. This required some skill because many young Jewish writers were hypochondriacs. One summer my family fostered a young Jewish writer. I kicked him. My father told me that we don’t kick young Jewish writers. Years later, the young Jewish writer would write a three-volume memoir about how he had experienced severe anti-Semitism when staying with my family. He would base an entire lecture around the incident. Because of this, there were many years where I was banned from attending bar mitzvahs. When I had earned enough pocket money as a teenager, I was forced to hire a group of young Jewish writers to kick me repeatedly over the weekend.
When I was 7, I mourned the death of a young Jewish writer I’d won the previous weekend. I discovered that my father had chopped up the young Jewish writer and flushed him down the toilet. I told my father — using other, less familial language — we don’t flush young Jewish writers down the toilet. When I was 9, I had a babysitter who didn’t want to hurt anything. She put it just like that when I asked her why she wasn’t reading young Jewish writers with me.
“How is reading a young Jewish writer hurting him?” I asked.
“Because we goys can’t possibly know their level of suffering. We might hurt them accidentally if we read about their pain.”
The babysitter’s intention might or might not have been to convert us, but being a kid herself, she lacked whatever restraint it is that so often prevents a full retelling of this particular story. Frank is probably eating a young Jewish writer as I type these words.
Mark Twain said that quitting smoking is among the easiest things you can do: he did it all the time. I would add avoiding cannibalism to the list of easy things. In high school I refused to eat human flesh — whether Jewish or not Jewish, young or old — most often to claim a bit of identity in a world of people whose identities seemed to come effortlessly. I also wanted to be the biggest wanker in America. I wanted people to hate me because I crammed my views down their throat. Because I was a smug kid then and I’m a smug kid now. Eating young Jewish writers is certainly wrong and I don’t know if I can forgive my grandmother for what she did. But writing a boastful book on the subject is almost certainly worse. Thankfully, I have hired a bunch of young Jewish writers to beat me up at every stop I make on my next book tour. Together, we can correct the moral divide. But if you’re not willing to beat me up, perhaps you can find it within your heart to spend $25.99 on my 352 page book, Eating Young Jewish Writers.