This is a picture of Nicolas. He’s been my sometimes driver in Russia during the World Cup and nobody here knows it yet, but he is a national treasure.
I don’t know Nicolas’ last name but the first time he gave me a ride he asked my name. I said Kevin and he said, “Oohhh, Kevin Costner.” Then he added, “I am Nicolas Cage.” So I handed him one of the miniature Oscar statuettes I’ve been carrying around for some reason and we just stayed with Kevin Costner and Nicolas Cage ever since.
Kind of like Thelma and Louise.
I’m not sure what Nicolas’ real profession is. Sometimes he picks me up in a legitimate taxi with the decal on the door and the yellow light on top and sometimes he picks me up in a private car, in which case he stays out of the carpool lane. Either way he never turns the meter on and gladly accepts whatever I pay him.
But here’s what I do know about him:
His 80-year-old mother lives near the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, where he once lived. He is partial to Ukrainian vodka, is 58, has an expired U.S. passport and an expired California driver’s license and his grandfather was an artillery captain in Berlin. When I asked if his grandfather was on the German side, Nicolas pulled the cab over to the curb – he was driving a real taxi that day – and admonished me.
“No!,” he shouted. “He was on the Russian side.”
Nicolas has several odd, quirky traits. He mumbles to himself, a little like “Rain Man,” but always in English. And when his GPS interrupts him with an alternate route, he will trace the way in the air, waving his hands back and forth and adding sound effects like “zup” and “zip” for each turn.
His GPS device can also play music videos and he has eclectic tastes. The other day, on a 45-minute ride, he played Fats Domino, Del Shannon, Madonna, the racy theme from a Mexican telenovela, “Besame Mucho,” Brigitte Bardot and Rita Hayworth, among others.
Nicolas is a throwback to the days when taxi drivers were like barbers or bartenders, someone who would ask you how your day was going and fill you in on the latest news. His English is good but limited, so when he gets stuck he speaks in rapid-fire Russian into his cellphone, then reads me back the translation.
He also uses the phone to look up things on Russian Wikipedia. The Kremlin, he told me when we passed, was the oldest fortress in Europe. He also showed me the U.S. Embassy, the Russian pentagon, the justice ministry, the offices of Russia Today, Gorky Park and the first McDonald’s to open in Moscow. (The last landmark was clearly his favorite.)
On our most recent trip he found out I was a journalist on an expense account and handed me a couple of dozen pre-stamped taxi receipts. Fudging expenses is apparently a universal thing. (Note to boss: I didn’t keep those. I gave them to the guy from the Washington Post. Honest.)
I have one more ride scheduled with Nicolas, on Tuesday when he’s taking me to the airport for my flight home. He’s promised to bring me a bottle of his favorite Ukrainian vodka. And some more stamped receipts.
I can hardly wait.