DC cab drivers aren't always who they should be.
I had finished a meeting on Capitol Hill the afternoon that Mikhail Gorbachev completed the second of his two summit meetings with President H. W. Bush and was heading to Andrews Air Force Base for the flight back to Moscow. Our law offices were located at 15th and K
Streets downtown, two blocks from the White House and two blocks from the Madison Hotel where most of the Soviet delegation was staying. The ride from my office up to the Hill had taken an unusually long time because, stupidly, I had started the trip about the same time Gorbachev's motorcade was leaving for Andrews.
Climbing into a cab in front of the Longworth House Office Building for the ride back to the office, I told the driver the address and wondered out loud whether the traffic jam had finally dissipated.
"Yes," I heard a thick Russian accent respond. "Gorbachev at Andrews now."
In Washington, D.C., the career field of cabdriver is one of the most diverse in the city. In addition to native Washingtonians, cabs are driven by Africans from dozens of countries shouting to one another in obscure dialects over CB radios (incidentally, an excellent medium of communication to launch a surprise attack against the city). They are driven by Iranians, Lebanese, Afghans, Latin Americans, Central Americans, jaundiced school teachers and Ethiopians, among others, but I had never seen or heard a Russian before in D.C. This was June, and the Berlin Wall had come down within the last six months.
Looking up at the hacker's license hanging from the sun visor, I saw staring back at me a picture of a puffy, middle-aged Slav with a name typical of a first generation New England Presbyterian minister whose family had come from the Highlands. Everything about the cab
looked as it should. Two green Christmas Tree air fresheners dangled from the rear view mirror, the license was strapped onto the sun visor with two old rubber bands, and several pieces of stray paper had been tucked behind it. Two or three "No Smoking" signs of various kinds were taped to the dashboard and behind the front seats even though it was obvious the driver had been smoking a tobacco product not typical of the Americas.
Robert was doing very well. He was driving the route back downtown just like any other cab driver would have driven it, staying in all the correct lanes so that he could make the trick left hand turns only someone who had spent months driving in D.C. would know.
"Robert, it would have been so much simpler if Gorbachev had just flown by helicopter from the White House to Andrews like all the other foreign heads of state do. A five-minute flight for him and no traffic jam for us."
"OH, NO. No Soviet leader to ride in American military aircraft. Cannot be done."
With no prompting, he then went on to describe in detail the security arrangements for the entourage taking Gorbachev and the rest of the Soviet party to the airport. There was no doubt that this guy had not missed a briefing, but apparently he had no one to whom he could
demonstrate his comprehensive grasp of the logistics of Soviet-American summit conferences.
A long, drawn out “Yes.”
Every morning since Gorbachev's arrival, the parking lane along 15th Street from our building to the Madison had been one long line of black cars, each with a different white number prominently displayed in the windshield. I asked the significance of those numbers, and Robert described in mind numbing detail the ridership of each car, something only a Russian bureaucrat could appreciate.
And then I changed the subject slightly.
"You know, Bob, (there was no reaction to my calling him Bob), after all these guys go home and the hoopla dies down, you and I both know that everyone will soon realize this was nothing more than a lot of hot air, mirrors and blue smoke. The only thing the Soviets want to do is bomb us Americans into oblivion. All this talk about better relations is a load of crap."
At this Robert wheeled around in his seat and said emphatically, "You are WRONG. Soviet people very much want to be friends with America. Trip is very important in making goodwill."
We continued bantering for several more minutes about the merits of the summit conference and Soviet-American relations, Robert trying fervently to make me see the light and I enjoying listening to his accent get thicker and thicker as he got more worked up.
And then two blocks away from my building, he suddenly switched on the cab's dome lamp and looked at his watch. It was now nearly five o'clock, and it was hard to see inside the car without the light.
Until this point, Robert had been dawdling along, wrapped up in the
conversation, but having now realized what time it was, the jocularity drained from his body. He mashed the gas pedal and rushed the red light at the next intersection, staring at it intently. When it turned green, he charged up 15th Street towards K Street.
"Robert, I just realized I left something very important back up on Capitol Hill. Could you take me back there? I'll pay you for both ways of course. I'll give you a good tip if you can get me back up there quickly. It's very important for me to get this file back."
Without acknowledging anything I had said, Robert screeched to a halt in front of my building. "Immediately you must leave cab. Fare is four dollars and ten cents. Rush hour."
He was late, but not late enough to forget about the special rush hour fare. Capitalism must have corrupted Robert more than he was willing to let on, or the cab was being operated as a profit center by someone in the Soviet Embassy. Our transaction complete, the taxi screeched towards the crowd at the Madison. KGB agents must not like riding in strange D.C. cabs either.
I can understand why he picked me up, but I've often wondered, who had he just dropped off on Capitol Hill? Was it just a fare, or was it someone from the embassy? And if someone from the embassy, what was that person doing in a Congressional office buildings? Was someone from the FBI following us?
We may never know.