The professional qualifications of cab drivers is a trite New York City observation: who among them was not an engineer or doctor in his country? I learned a few things last week from a hired driver who was not only a mechanical engineer, but an original gangsta of olive green: he served in the Soviet Army.
We started out talking about the catastrophic plane crash in Russia that killed all but two of the Russian hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, as it had just happened that day. (All eventually died.) He had some pointed opinions about the plane, which was supposed to be retired in three weeks.
This conversation was interrupted by the obtrusion of a small pond on the Grand Central Parkway; it had been raining for weeks in NY and that night’s rain had nowhere to go but the highway. Grigory slowed and steered around it, ridiculing the SUVs that hit the gas to blast through it. “Hit that fast, flood your engine. You hit it after braking hard, you warp your rotors. Then when you try to stop the car, it won’t brake regularly. You can cut them down, but then they’re thin here, thick there, and could crack or fail completely any time.”
I asked him how he knew this and he explained, “I served in the Russian Army.” No former Soviet I have talked to uses the S-word, but he was old enough that it had to be the USSR. “I drove an Army truck when I was 18, and going through a river, you have to take the belt off the fan and you can drive through water almost up to the hood. You don’t, the fan sucks up the water and sprays it over your spark plugs, so the engine dies in the river. You can go a few miles with no fan cooling your engine, so get to the other side and put the belt back on.” He then told me something about how to steer in a flood, which I lost when I told him he’d missed my exit.
The rain worsened, but it slicked off his windshield. “People don’t know, you drive on roads and so many cars are leaking. The oil, fluids, antifreeze get on the road, the rain brings them up and the cars drive through them spraying oil mist all over your windshield. Then the rain just smears around and your wipers oily too. To clean windshields, we would break two cigarettes in a napkin, fold it up and wipe the windshield down. Then rain flew off like a duck. This is a treatment from the carwash, but we used to do that in the Army.”
As we approached my house, Grigory saw some pine trees. “In Lithuania there was a time we were very poor. People were shooting pigeons to survive. My father used to gather pine needles and boil them down in a pot. There was no sugar, you drank it like that. There were vitamins in there, vitamin C. If you went a month without taking it three times a day, your teeth would loosen and fall out of your head like sunflower seeds.”
Like sunflower seeds.
As I got out, I told him he should write these things down. “Why? You can’t make money selling these,” he laughed. “My wife says I could be dropped on the moon with a shovel and I would survive.”