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.