MS. REBECCA SHEIR
When it comes to our local, homegrown history, among those who witness much of the city's day-to-day routines are cabbies. I mean, they know what D.C.'s pace is like at 2:00 p.m. They know what it's like at 2:00 a.m. They watch as buildings rise and fall and as neighborhoods change and grow. And inevitably, as they do so, they meet all sorts of memorable people. Sarah Ventre brings the story of a cabbie whose experiences behind the wheel led to a rather unusual artistic endeavor.
MS. SARAH VENTRE
Oleg Merkulov was my cab driver once. I noticed he had a camera mounted on the dashboard. He told me that he keeps it there to record potential fender benders, but as we got to talking, he also told me that he had made an amateur film called "Jolly Mob Cab."
MS. SARAH VENTRE
Oleg wrote, directed and starred in the film. And the idea for it came from a real-life situation, sort of. A passenger he had given a ride to twice had asked Oleg to make deliveries for him. It seemed pretty sketchy, so Oleg turned him down, but he kept fantasizing about what would have happened had he'd said yes.
MS. SARAH VENTRE
In the film, Oleg starts out as an honest man, but ultimately he sells himself over to the mob in hopes for a better life and that makes him hardened, a fighter. In real life, he's a man who seems to take his morals pretty seriously. He keeps a postcard of his hometown, Riga, Latvia, and a picture of a Russian Orthodox icon showing the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, both taped to the console in his cab near the radio.
MR. OLEG MERKULOV
And we're just cruising, waiting for the passengers to flag us. Okay.
I rode along with Oleg in his cab on a recent Friday night from about 10:00 to 2:00 in the morning. And it became obvious pretty quickly why his job lends itself to interest in film, he meets quite a few characters.
Come in. Yes, come on in, please.
Do you take credit cards?
So where are you going?
The evening's most memorable passenger is named Sarah. And her night's been pretty rough. She's obviously been drinking a lot and lost her phone while she was out in a bar, which means she can't respond to the many texts she's receiving from her ex-boyfriend. But Oleg immediately lends her his phone and starts chatting with her. They talked the whole ride about all sorts of things, Sarah's background in acting, bad experiences she's had in cabs before and even relationships.
Well, hello, everyone on 88.5. I really want a boyfriend that is honest, cute, takes care of himself, has high morals and values and is romantic. So if you happen to be in this D.C. metro area and you're hearing my desperate call for help, please contact me. I'm Sarah. I really need you.
Yeah, but how can they contact you if you lost your phone?
When we finally get to Sarah's destination, her ex-boyfriend's house, it isn't exactly a smooth transition from cab to curb. Sarah wants her ex to pay for the cab ride and he can't find enough cash. She starts yelling and he starts worrying that the exchange will make it on the radio. But Oleg handles it like a pro, quelling the fight, thanking them both, smiling the whole time. And when it's all over, Sarah keeps thanking him.
Thank you for being an amazing cab driver.
Thank you very much for being an amazing passenger. Okay. Have a nice night, guys. Okay. Have fun.
Bye. Thank you, Sarah. Good luck finding your friend.
Sarah, you made my night.
Oleg says this sort of thing is typical for a weekend night. But it's nothing compared to some of the other things that he experiences. One time an angry man followed him because he wanted to pay with a credit card and Oleg couldn't take it.
I was sitting at the light and all of a sudden--I forgot about the guy already, right. All of a sudden the window, I heard a hit. So the guy kicked with his leg, he kicked the door, they bang in the door. Then he kicked my window out. All the glass went flying all over me.
This would not be all that unusual for Oleg the character. In "Jolly Mob Cab" he gets beaten up and handcuffed to his steering wheel.
In real life, Oleg says he's never faced anything that extreme, but he has had to use self-defense on the job.
You know, a couple of guys tried to twist my hands like that, but then I twisted back because I used to take Hapkido. You know, Hapkido is cool stuff. You just like twist, you don't hit, you don't do anything, just twist. And they're like, okay, okay, we're fine, you know.
Despite the hazards and long hours he spends behind the wheel, Oleg seems to maintain a certain kind of optimism. And unlike his film character, he says he's focused on more than the bottom line. He turned down that shady job that inspired his film and he once refused a job as a translator because the man offering it worked with the federal government.
And, you know, the problem was it was 1999. It happened in 1999. And the politics kind of stood in my way, because at that time, the United States was bombing Serbia and I felt very bad about it.
But it's this kind of frank openness that probably makes it possible for his passengers to be so open with him.
Friday and Saturday night people are very different, you know. Daytime they all go from point A to B, business like. But at nighttime, people relax. People get drunk, you know. People get wild.
Almost as wild as in the movies.
I’m Sarah Ventre.
If you're a D.C. cabbie we want to hear your tales of memorable moments behind the wheel. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook.
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