Oleg Merkulov isn't a typical D.C. cab driver. For starters, he keeps a camera mounted to his dashboard. It's mostly there in case of an accident, but as it turns out, Oleg made an amateur film called Jolly Mob Cab. It's about a cab driver (played by himself) that gets flagged down to be a getaway driver for a member of the Russian mob, and then gets tangled up in a life of crime.
The idea for the film came from a real life situation. A passenger he had picked up twice asked Oleg if he would make "deliveries" for him. Oleg turned him down, but kept fantasizing about what would have happened if he had said yes.
While Oleg the character gives himself over to the mob and becomes callous, real-life Oleg seems to take his morals pretty seriously. He keeps a postcard of his hometown of Riga, Latvia, along with a picture of a Russian Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, both taped to the console in his cab near the radio.
On a recent Friday night, riding along with Oleg as he worked, it became obvious fairly quickly that his job could easily lend itself to his interest in film, because he meets quite a few characters.
This includes the evening's most memorable passenger, whose name is Sarah. She had obviously been drinking quite a bit, and on top of that, she lost her phone while she was out in a bar, and couldn't respond to a number of texts that ex-boyfriend had sent. But Oleg immediately lent her his phone, and started chatting with her. They talked the whole ride about all sorts of things, including Sarah's background in acting, bad experiences she'd had in cabs before, and even relationships.
When they finally arrived at Sarah's destination (her ex-boyfriend's house) it wasn't exactly a smooth transition out of the car. Sarah wanted her ex to pay for the cab ride, and he couldn't find enough cash. She started yelling, but Oleg knew exactly how to handle it. He quelled the fight, thanked them both, and smiled the whole time. Sarah couldn't stop thanking him.
"Thank you for being an amazing cab driver," she said as she got out.
"Thank you very much for being an amazing passenger!" Oleg graciously responded. "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. For instance, 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... the window... I heard a hit," says Oleg. "He kicked... my window out. All the glass went flying all over me."
While this is obviously an extreme situation, it wouldn't be all that unusual for Oleg the character. In Jolly Mob Cab he even gets beaten up and handcuffed to his steering wheel. While, thankfully, Oleg hasn't faced this kind of scenario in real life, he has had to use self-defense on the job.
"Nobody ever hit me," he explains to some passengers. "You know, a couple of guys tried to twist my hands like that, but then I twisted back because I used to take Hapkido."Despite the hazards and long hours he spends behind the wheel, Oleg seems to maintain a certain kind of optimism. 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 Oleg had ethical objections to U.S. foreign policy at the time.
"You know, the problem was it was 1999," he explains. "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. So, it was stupid of me, but I thought, you know, how can I even translate."
It's exactly this kind of frank openness that probably makes it possible for his passengers to be so open with him, though.
"Friday and Saturday night people are very different," says Oleg. "[During the] daytime they all go from point A to point B, business like. But at nighttime, people relax. People get drunk, you know. People get wild."
Luckily, it's not quite as wild as in the movies.
[Music: "Van Ness" by Jason Mendelson, from MetroSongs, Volume 3: Red Handed]
Photos: Jolly Mob Cab