This article was first published on November 21, 2007 in The eXile.
It was just after 1 a.m. on Monday morning when I pulled my rental car up to my apartment building. I’d just spent the last 48 hours working as a private taxi driver, during which I clocked 30 hours and 450 miles on Moscow’s impossible streets. I felt like total shit. I had barely slept over those 48 hours, subsisting on Coke, gum, tobacco, Snickers bars, and my meds.
I had carpal tunnel cramps in my right hand from jerking the stick shift in my rental; my left calf had long since gone numb from straining on the clutch.
And the worst of it was I had nothing to show for it. I had barely made enough to cover the cost of gas: 1,300 rubles, or just over $50. This in what has been ranked the world’s most expensive city.
I embarked on this assignment to learn what life is like for one of Moscow’s most familiar, and most under-appreciated species: the gypsy cabbie. What would happen to me? Will I get robbed at knifepoint? Will the cops shake me down? Will drunk chicks offer to fluff me for a free ride to Mitino?
For readers who have never been to Moscow, gypsy cabbies, or private cars who pick up customers who hold their hands out, are the primary means of taxi transport. In Russian slang they’re referred to as bombily, or “those that bomb,” for the way they attack you in packs when you stick out your arm on the side of the road. They generally drive one of half dozen models of rusted out Soviet-era cars, which come screeching to a stop millimeters from your femur bones. Because the profession in dominated by the good peoples of Russia’s southern rim, Caucasians and Central Asians, Moscow gypsy cabbers rarely know where they’re going, and are rarely treated with respect. They charge too much, bitch about the fare, blast obnoxious popsovy music or shanson, force political conversions on you, and drive like Kamikazes.
If I was going to work as a true gypsy cabber, I’d have to get the right car. This means driving some version of a boxy, rusted-out Zhiguli. Extra points are given for windows that don’t open and seatbelts that don’t work–and if the seatbelts do work, I’d have to do the gypsy-cab thing and tell my client, “There’s no need to wear it, I’m a good driver.” And be really offended if they don’t listen.
Dozens of car rental agencies offer brand new Zhigs for cheap. Most haven’t been redesigned since the early Brezhnev years, meaning anyone can rent a classic Zhig for anywhere from $25 to $100 per day.
But right away I ran into problems. Zhiguli rental agencies are suspicious of anyone who doesn’t have a Russian passport. Every agency I called refused me on the grounds that I didn’t have a Moscow residency permit. They were afraid that I could split straight to Alaska with it, and they wouldn’t be able to find me. My guess is that they’ve had more than a few of their cars taken south and over the Caucasus Mountains, never to be seen again.
After a Zhig, the cheapest, shittiest car I could find was a 2007 Nissan Almera, as bland an economy car as you can get. Unlike a real Zhiguli, the Nissan had airbags, properly functioning brakes and cabin that would not fill with noxious exhaust fumes every time I revved the engine, but it would have to do.
I was full of optimism as I started my first bombila run on Friday night. Real-life bombily have told me that a person can easily make a couple hundred dollars on a Friday night. But after my first few hours on the circuit, it was clear the big bucks weren’t coming my way. The competition was too fierce.
After cruising down Tverskaya and making a few loops around the Garden Ring, it hit me: at any given time, I was competing against at least ten other cabbies within a 25-foot radius. The difference between non-taxi Zhigs and their bombila offspring was easy enough to spot. The cabbies hung on the right side of the road and maintained a bumper-to-bumper formation. They crawled at under 25 mph through potential pick-up zones and raced at suicidal Gone In 60 Seconds speeds through the pedestrian-less areas.
This is a dangerous business when Moscow roads are slick with ice, as it was last weekend. But it’s the rule. The trick is to leave very little space between you and the car ahead of you, so that no other cabbie can cut in and steal your fare. You also have to watch out for the civvie Zhigs and other harmless-looking non-Russian cars; they might be playing uninterested until a fare comes along, then they’ll cut in and steal it.
I had half a dozen fares stolen from right under my nose before I managed to pick up my first client, at around 1 a.m. I cruised my gypsy cab Nissan outside 16 Tons, the Moscow club that hosted eXile’s Xth anniversary party last summer. A guy flagged me down to drive two chicks to Opera, an elitny dance club about a half a mile up the street. The girls were both wearing miniskirts and short black fur coats. It was a straight shot and I didn’t bother to ask how much he was paying.
“You’ll take care of these girls, right?” he said as he placed a couple of bills in my palm.
“Of course,” I said, thinking he’d be generous with his fare. But the guy was just putting on airs for the ladies. In my hand were two crumpled 50-ruble notes. But compared to the fares I’d collect over the next two days, it was a jackpot.
I didn’t get a good look at the girl in the back, but the one sitting in the passenger’s seat next to me had a typical clubbing blond look. It was below zero outside, but she was wearing fishnet stockings. She was probably around 19 and had a pretty face pocked with acne scars. She pulled down the mirror and started covering them up with powder. She also fumbled with the window controls, accidentally opening her.
“Yes, it sure is hot,” I joked.
“What?” she asked in an annoyed tone.
“Nothing, I was just making a joke,” I said. That was the end of our conversation.
As soon as we started driving, the chick in the back started trashing the guy who had paid their fare. She recounted how the last time she was at Opera, she ran into him while she was on the arm on another guy.
“He saw me with at the club with a different boy, but he never came up to me. He was too embarrassed to come up, so he pretended not to see me. The guy I was with was sooooo cute!” she laughed.
The narrow street in front of Opera was gridlocked with Mercs and Porsche Cayenne SUVs getting parked by valets, as well as gypsy cabbers dropping off people and waiting around for whoever didn’t make it past face control. The way the street and entrance were laid out made it a convenient place to hunt for fares. I decided to swing around and make another pass when I ran into two friends walking down the street.
Dave and Matt were drunk and on the way to a brothel. I probably should’ve kept working, but I decided to be friendly and give them a lift. After all, isn’t this what being a bombila is all about? The freedom to be your own boss and do what you want when you want to do it? Besides, nothing pleases gypsy cabbies more than driving their fares to brothels or tochki.
On the way, Dave had a change of heart. Instead of whoring, he wanted to roll with me. Why not? I thought. I’ve seen pairs of guys pick up fares, sometimes guys even do it with their girlfriends when they have nothing better to do. But would people, and especially girls, get into a car with two sketchy dudes? The usual rule is “never ride with two guys.” Or so I thought.
We rolled up to two ladies in the Kitai Gorod area, both sovok secretary types in their early 30s standing outside of Zolotaya Vobla. This chain of beer halls is the Russian equivalent of TGIF, with a name that translates as “Golden Salt-Cured Fish”; it’s a huge hit with the podmoskovie crowd that metros into the city to work. Instead of quirky hostesses covered in flair, the chain features AK-toting guards on weekends.
The girls were hesitant to get in. But after a bit of cajoling, the cuter of the two came up to our car to negotiate with us. Before we cold figure out where she was going, her friend pulled her away.
Unfazed, we rolled around the corner to the huge crowd outside Tema Bar, a middle class student dance club. This time, we had better luck, or maybe just drunker clients. It was another pair of girls, one cute, one less so. Initially, they refused our offer. But we were persistent, slowly cruising down the street after them with our windows down, like true bombily. After a few other cabbies turned them down, they reconsidered us. They wanted us to drive them to a location on the edge of the the MKAD — Moscow’s outer ring road — for only 300 rubles.
“Nu chto?” the less cute girl said to her friend. “They look like nice boys, and they got a really nice car. I don’t think it’s that dangerous.”
“Of course not. We’re nice boys,” I said.
“Who’s he?” she said, pointing to Dave.
“He’s my navigator,” I answered.
“Oi! Is this a Nissan?” she suddenly switched the subject, as if only now realizing I was driving a “nice” car. “I like Nissans, they are great cars. Do you like yours? Oh, but you don’t have leather seats.” They seemed to forget their fears as we talked about the optional winter package I had supposedly sprung for.
The girls didn’t pick up on my slight accent, but when they found out the guy in the passenger seat was American, they started to blush.
“Yes, we live out by Kashirskoe shosse. We live in a village. We are just village girls,” they giggled. As I drove, Dave laid the sleaze on thick.
“Come on, let’s all hang out together. We’ll come up for a while, get to know each other,” he said as we pulled up to their house. They didn’t say yes, but they didn’t exactly get out of the car, either. They sat in the back seat giggling a little too long, when they should have been reaching for the handle. It was as if they were waiting for us to make some definitive, forceful move that we never made. They got out of the car and we drove to a nearby kiosk for some beer.
At 3 a.m. we swung by Rai, another elitny dance club. Here we got a totally different reaction from the oligarch-hunting dyevs. As in, no reaction. Rick Deckard would call it lack of appropriate emotional response–a sign that we’re dealing with androids.
But it seemed a matter of degree. Our taxi services were also rejected by the clients at Fabrique, a club a few rungs down the cool ladder from Rai, but at least there the girls responded by giggling.
By 4 a.m. we still couldn’t get a second fare. Going for broke, we decided to scrape the bottom of the nightlife barrel at Zona, a prison-themed nightclub out in the boonies considered hip by podmoskovie teenagers. (You might remember the club as being the one that face controlled me because I was in a wheelchair, in my story “Hell On Wheels.”) The street outside the club usually teems with patrons, but today the only activity was happening inside a jumbo patty wagon parked right outside. It was stuffed with shaven-headed dudes staring forlornly out the windows. As a club employee later told me, the militsia carried out a huge drug raid that day.
We decided to hang out in the club and wait for everyone to go home so we could offer them a ride, but no shakes. Twenty people were left in a club designed to hold over 2,000. And they were all under sixteen and broke. They were obviously waiting for the metro to open.
By the time I got home, it was 7 a.m. I had driven 166 km and made 400 rubles.
On Saturday, I left the house at 6:30 p.m. and hit the Garden Ring. Right off the bat, I picked up 200-ruble fare from a father and son who were going out to Konkovo, southern neighborhood on the edge of Moscow. The guy, a jolly fat man who barely fit in the front seat, was well mannered and polite. He asked about the weather and told me about his friend’s dacha which had an indoor shashlik grill so you could make it any time of the year.
As I drove back into the center, I saw traffic cops out in full force. They were pulling people over left and right. What were they doing out on Police Day, their holiday? The night before, the cops all but vanished. They even managed to foul up a Lada rental I had lined up because the agency couldn’t get through to the local precinct to check my criminal history. Apparently, they were boozing it up hard and didn’t bother with answering their phones. Today, they seemed to be on every corner, and in a bad mood.
The number of bombily out on the streets seemed to double, causing small traffic jams at most of the key pick up spots. I circled the center in vain for another five hours, but failed to pick up a single fare. During this time I grew sick of the techno CD I had burned to make things more authentic, and popped in some Radiohead.
Finally, at 11 p.m., I picked up my second fare of the day in Kitai Gorod, next to Red Square. They were an indie couple who had hung out at Krizis Zhanra and Solyanka, and now wanted me to take them to Il Patio, a crap Italian restaurant chain.
They were shocked that a bombila was listening to Radiohead. “What is Moscow coming to?” the dude said to his girlfriend.
As he got out of the car, he told me I was the best cab driver he’s ever had.
After dropping them off, I headed to bombila spawning heaven: Pushkin Square. The place was crawling with gypsy cabs picking up people coming out of the metro and the dozens of stores, restaurants and clubs in the area. On my first pass, I swooped in on three chicks, edging out a competitor, a black window-tinted BMW. They wanted me to drive them to Fresh, some club out by Staraya Basmannaya that I had never heard of, for 200 rubles. I pulled over while one of them called some guy who knew the club’s exact address, but the girls weren’t happy about what he’d told them. They had wanted to hang out with another crew of boys, but now they were going to have to hang around with the guy that gave them directions.
“Oh, well. Maybe, they’ll drive us home this time,” one of them said. They lived all the way out in Tsaritsino, a rought district on Moscow’s southern edge.
I said I’d be working all night and proposed that they call me if they needed a ride, but the idea didn’t appeal to them.
I dropped off the girls and returned to Pushkin Square. The place was even more congested than before. Zhigs of all types and colors circled around a never-ending stream of people, seeking empty crevices and jamming into them as rudely as possible. I was about to pick up another fare when the urge to urinate hit me hard. I drove in search of an appropriate alley.
After pissing, I managed to pick up a fare on my third pass of Pushkin Square. A petite brunette who had been denied entry into Zhara, while her girlfriends were allowed in. The poor girl needed to get to Kolomenskaya and offered to pay me 300 rubles. I had no idea where that was, but agreed anyway.
Her name was Tanya. She was some sort of actress and had won an MTV acting competition. No wonder the girl had no idea how to get home; all she did was talk. She complained about gaining weight, about people not leaving her alone, calling her all the time to go out, about the fact that people thought she was short, about her aunt who was Spanish and lived in Spain, about how she had been going out for three nights straight. I’d have thought she’d be depressed after getting faced, but she just wouldn’t shut the hell up.
I had no map, so I had to call a friend for directions to Kolomenskaya. Tanya had no idea where she lived. Even when we finally arrived in her general neighborhood, she couldn’t tell which building was hers. It took me more than an hour of trial-and-error looking to deliver the girl to her doorstep.
“Oi, I don’t pay attention to such things. My boyfriend usually drives me. But he’s out of town now,” she giggled.
It was the trip out to Kolominskaya that broke me. I popped a double-dose of my time-release ADHD meds, but they didn’t seem to help. I was awake, but my mind started wandering. I somehow managed to drive all the way out to Moscow’s edge, to the MKAD, and back…twice! I lost track of time, and couldn’t even make coherent notes on my tape recorder. My bladder problems steadily worsened. The need to piss came a few times an hour. I considered stopping over at an apteka and buying a pack of Depends adult diapers.
Finally I gathered myself up, and drove back at Opera. As I pulled up, two chicks–a cute girl in her early twenties and her ugly sidekick–were crossing the street to catch a car. It was an easy 150-ruble fare; they had gotten faced at Opera and wanted to try their luck at 2nd-tier Fabrique.
As I pulled away with the girls, a Jaguar with tinted windows raced up behind me, honking its horn and flashing its high beams. I let it pass and pulled in behind it at a red light. The Jag’s window rolled down and someone inside started throwing what looked like napkins and food scraps at a Lexus SUV standing next to it. I never understood what happened, as we went different directions.
I dropped the two girls off and decided to stick around Fabrique’s exit to catch people leaving the club. A while back, I talked to a gypsy cabbie about spots controlled by local gypsy cab mafias. Most well trafficked metro stops have their own little mafia territories and, according to this cabbie, Fabrique is one such place. Randomly picking up fares as you drive by is allowed, but parking or systematically dropping in for business is forbidden under threat of bodily harm–possibly even death.
I decided to test this theory and double-parked in the taxi queue. Soon my bladder got in the way again. I had to leave in search of another place to pee as soon as I arrived. I drove around aimlessly, occasionally stopping to relieve myself.
By 4:30 am, I needed a break. I stopped at a kiosk at Chistye Prudy and got a Coke and Snickers bar. Then I spotted a lone girl not far away, who was holding out her hand. Four gypsy cabs had already lined up to give her a ride, but all of them rudely sped away without her. It turned out she only had 200 rubles and she needed to get to Vykhino, the last stop on the southeast purple line. It normally costs at least 400, but I agreed to take her.
“There is one thing, though. I’m with a boy,” she said, pointing to a Kroshka Kartoshka [Baked Potato] kiosk behind her. Sure enough, a scrawny kid was making his way towards the car with a bag of salted spuds. The way she said it, it was obvious she expected me to throw her out of the car. Not only that, she’d have understood me if I did. As if it was obvious that I was only agreeing to give her a discount because of her miniskirt, young age, and high-rapeability factor.
Her name was also Tanya. She and her boyfriend had just been in a club called 13, located not far from the KGB’s old headquarters at Lubyanka. She was 16, studied at a business institute, and has relatives living in the infamous gangster district of Brateevo.
“This is a nice car,” she said as she munched on her greasy potato spud. “Why do you have to work right now? I mean, you own a car, and not just any car but a Nissan. You shouldn’t have to work if you own such a car.”
Supposedly Tanya was majoring in accounting, but her understanding of money obviously didn’t include concepts such as maintenance and gas. To her, getting a non-Soviet car was like winning the lottery. You were set for life.
We dropped off Tanya’s friend off first. “Aren’t you afraid to drive with strange men at night like this?” I asked her.
“No, why should I? If I caught the car in the middle of the forest, then I might be worried. But not if I catch a car in the center.” Her rape prevention training was obviously lacking.
At this point I had been driving for about 12 hours straight. I wasn’t really sure where I was when I saw two girls in skirts and high heels come out from under an overpass and hail a cab. By now it was around 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, somewhere in an industrial zone. You’d think I’d have the fare sewn up, but somehow two bombily, three if you include me, materialized out of nowhere. The two cars queued up to snatch the fare but neither took it. That’s because the girls had no money and wanted to go far, where the elite Rublovskoe Shosse intersected the MKAD ring road.
“Please, you have to help us,” the girls pleaded as soon as they came up to my window. “We never really do this, but we really have no money and are lost.”
How could you say no to two cute girls in miniskirts and high boots? If I was a real cabbie, I would have made full use of this situation by pulling over and striking a deal. “I’ll drive you the rest of the way, but you gotta do something for me…” But I was too nice. And way too tired.
They got in and told me their story. Their names were Yana and Nastya. Yana was a Semitic-looking brunette. Nastya was a Slavic blond. They had gotten wasted at a house party and were stopped by two cops as they were leaving the building. The girls were 17. The cops said it was illegal for minors to be out that late and shook them down for their last 1,000 rubles.
Although the girls denied it, they talked as if they were high on ecstasy. The told me about their feelings, how they became friends, where they worked, how they went to Malta together, about all the boys who were courting them, how Yana lived all alone in her apartment.
The two girls lived in adjacent buildings. I dropped off Nastya and then Yana. When we pulled up to her podyezd, she asked me to feel a bump on her leg. “Is this natural?” she asked. She was making it too easy, doing everything but asking me to come up. But all I wanted was to go home.
Shit does happen here: in September, it was discovered that a gang of cabbies operating in Moscow had been chloroforming and raping women for years. Given how much sensitive information some of these girls give away unprompted, I marveled that it doesn’t happen more often. But after driving around all night, I now understand that most cabbies are just too damn tired to be sociopaths. Raping and murdering doesn’t seem so fun when you’re dying for sleep.
“Thank you so much,” Yana said as I she got out the car. “It’s nice to know that there are good people left in Moscow.”
I mumbled something in response like a true bombily and hit the gas. Thinking of nothing but my bed, I drifted back home along Moscow’s deserted Sunday morning streets.
What would you do if you found out your fare was a homosexual? We put the question to three veteran Moscow gapsy cabbies.
Valodya Lvovich, 42, Radio Engineer
“That’s a stupid question. Everyone knows that homosexuals are too scared too leave their homes, let alone to catch cabs. I saw a program about it on Channel 1.”
Bronislav Sergeyavich, 36, Unemployed
“Cho, blya! Homosexual? You mean a fucking fairy? I’d do what we did to them in the zona, I’d make him my bitch. But because we’re free men, I’d have to kill him afterwards. “
Danila Ivanovich, 47, High School Teacher
“Ha! You know, that reminds me of a good old joke. You know the one, it ends with ‘only homosexuals ask that question.’”
This article was first published on November 21, 2007 in The eXile.
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