Arthur Elmes' most memorable "sweet job" involved an impeccable dressed passenger on his way to a heavy date.
"Look, I want to stop at a beverage store," said the passenger. "This girl likes Lambrusco."
So they acquired a bottle of Lambrusco and continued to their destination, where the passenger began fumbling in his pockets. At last, overcome with embarrassment, he said he would have to borrow a few dollars from his girlfriend upstairs to pay the fare - but he would leave the wine for security.
Ten minutes later, with no sign of the passenger, Elmes was ready to drown his sorrow in a little Lamprusco. So he reached for the paper bag on the back seat - the paper bag with the clear outlines of the wine bottle inside.
Naturally, it was empty. "He had removed the wine. He had left the bag, still shaped like a bottle of wine, and he never came back."
Some cabdrivers call these adventurers "poke jobs" rather than "sweat jobs," because you poke the bag and your finger pushes right through, city cabdrivers explained during an oral history session yesterday at the Festival of American folklife here.
On another occasion, a less industrious deadbeat apologized profusely for not having any money. "Look, cabbie," he told Elmes, "if you take me back where I started from, I will be where I started from and you will be where you started from and everything will be all right."
Nick Arvanis, the legendary driver who used to stock his cab with 24 brands of cigarettes, plus cigars, candy and aspirin - all free of charge - recalled the longest ride of his career - to Atlanta and back.
"Oh, Mr. Nick," a very young passenger had implored him, "wouldn't it be nice if you could take us home in you cab?" Nick agreed it would be nice, and the boy's father agreed to pay $450 for the journey.
"Some of these drivers," interjected Elmes, "have been very fortunate to have trips to Georgia and Florida. I can't even get to Silver Spring."
Elmes and Arvanis became a part of D.C. Folklore yesterday, dredging up short and tall taxi tales for the Festival of American Folklife. Oralhistory jam sessions like theirs, held under a tent on the Mail, have become a staple of the festival, which is cosponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the National park Service.
In Washington, of course, the favorite subject of many a cabdriver is the zone system, "the albatross we all have struck around our backs," as 22-year veteran driver Bob Chapman put it.
Then came an account of the most dreaded menace of all.
"I picked up these two fellows from the Sheraton park, 22, 23 years old, well dressed," Arvanis recalled."I said, 'Where would you like t go?' They said, 'Never mind, we'll let you know. So I knew his was my night to be robbed."
Just the same, Arvanis took the two men on a roundabout route across the city.
When one of them asked about the rack of cigarettes, candy and cigars, Arvanis explained, "I like people. I like to make them happy."
Eventually, they came to a deserted block in Southeast Washington, and he waiting for them to pay. The two men seemed nervous. "I said look, boys, whatever you intend to do with me, go ahead," said Arvanis.
And the passengers obliged him by drawing two guns. Then one of them said, "You're a hell of a nice fellow. We were going to rob you but we're going to let you go. We'll pay our fare." They even gave Arvanis a 50-cent tip.
"I thought about sending it to Ripley's Believe It Or Not," he added.