Nick Aravanis used to stock the back seat of his cab with 23 brands of cigarettes, three brands of cigars, Life Savers, chewing gum, antacids, magazines, the morning paper and a sign that said "Help Yourself."
Three years ago, when Aravanis decided all this was getting a little expensive -- "besides, it isn't healthy to smoke" -- he worried that his tips would fall off.
Not to worry. This morning he leaves for his native Greece on a five-week vacation. The Alban Travel Service called him recently to tell him a round-trip plane ticket was waiting for him, the gift of an anonymous donor whose name the agency says it has sworn not to disclose.
A $761 tip.
"People would do anything for me. But this . . . " Aravanis suspects the donor may be a lawyer who helped him out after an accident recently, but he says he'll "never be sure."
Aravanis steers his cab, a yellow 1978 Chrysler LeBaron, onto 16th Street. At 73, this slightly stooped man with gnarled hands and bulbous nose is a deliberate driver. When he tells a story, he slows the cab down to 18 miles an hour -- in the left lane. "The people from the travel agency said all I had to do is come down and pick up the ticket," he says. "My wife has been visiting in Greece since April. I am so happy and grateful."
Although Aravanis can no longer afford to operate as a one-man mobile Welcome Wagon, the friendly atmosphere in his cab is remarkable, particularly in a venue of city life where brusqueness is the rule. He still offers riders a choice of Doublemint, Juicyfruit, Big Red or Rolaids. For a group of bankers who said they had to miss dinner for a conference, Aravanis bought a bag of burgers before picking them up for the return trip.
He is an avid tour guide, educating fares in everything from the history of the Masonic Temple at 16th and S streets NW to the nuances of military sculpture. ("If the horse has all four legs on the ground, the general died in retirement, but if one foot is up, he died in battle or before.") And he doles out homespun advice. ("I tell young girls who are getting married to never be completely undressed in front of their husbands. A man needs some mystery, I think.")
Aravanis and his family left Greece in 1920 and settled in Boston. At Belmont High School, Aravanis says, he was a wrestler, speed skater, baseball and football player. About 15 years ago, he says, a reminder of Aravanis' days on the gridiron stepped into his cab.
"It was Bette Davis," he says, slowing down again. "I had known that she lived around there and was about my age. So I asked her, 'Do you remember that game when Quincy played Belmont in 1927?' And she said 'Yes, I do. Quincy lost 7-6.' So I said, 'Do you remember who blocked the extra point?' She said, 'Why, no, I don't.' I told her it was me and she was so surprised. I blocked it with my nose, practically."
Aravanis's father moved to Washington with the family and opened a hat alteration shop at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. After his father died, Aravanis began running the business and in 1958 started driving a cab on the side. Aravanis habitually offered his customers a cigarette. When he discovered not everybody cared for his brand, he built a rack for a multitudinous offering of "treats."
"There's some drivers I know who say they wouldn't offer a customer a match," he says. "But that's not me. Just not me."
In his first year of driving, Aravanis says, he picked up his first famous fare: "I had John Kennedy in the car that year. I think I was the first person to tell him he'd be president. I said to him, 'You know, Senator, I think you'll be president some day. He said, 'Oh, Nick, that'll never happen.' "
Since then, Aravanis says, he has developed about 40 regular customers who call him at home for rides and has driven a number of stars: Kitty Carlisle ("to the Hilton, 1973"), Perry Como ("from the Sheraton to downtown, early '60s"), Mickey Rooney ("always smiling . . . to National, 1959"), Chief Justice Earl Warren ("to Baltimore, 1961"), Bennett Cerf ("I forget where"), Lyndon Johnson in 1959 ("didn't say that much"). The stars are decent tippers, he says, though the biggest gratuities have come from regular patrons.
He slowly climbs out of his cab at Meridian Hill Park, leaving the doors unlocked and the windows down, and walks to a bench where he sits and recounts the day of his longest trip and his best cash tip.
"It was one of my sightseeing things," he says. "I had this family in the car for six, seven hours. I took them back to their hotel. The father paid me. Then one of the daughters says, 'Oh, Mr. Nick, wouldn't it be great if you could drive us home?' I said 'Honey, where's your home?' And she says 'Atlanta, Georgia.' The father asked me how much it would be, and I said $400. We agreed and drove them all the way from Washington to Atlanta." He says he received a $250 tip.
Like many city drivers, Aravanis says, he has had his share of peril. One night 23 years ago, he says, he picked up two men and asked where they wanted to go. They directed him to "a place in Southeast I'd never been to, and I know Washington A to Z."
In those days, Aravanis still had the cigarettes, the cigars and the candy in his cab. He knew he was in a fix and told the men he was sending his two sons to college, that they should take the money, but, please, that's all.
"We were just sitting there in the car and they weren't saying anything for maybe five or 10 minutes. I could see them in the back seat, one is nodding yes, the other is nodding no. Finally they tell me to get out of the car, and I can see they both have guns and my heart is going, boom, boom, like this.
"And then one of the guys says, 'Mister, we were gonna rob you and maybe hurt you. But it's a nice thing you're trying to do for your customers and your kids. So we're gonna let you go.'
"It was amazing. They paid the fare and gave me a nice tip. Fifty cents."
Aravanis gets back behind the wheel and heads home. The ticket for Athens that came to him anonymously is secure in the pocket of his green plaid sport coat.
"I'm not an educated man," he says. "But even if I had a PhD, I'd be a taxi driver. I want people to get into my cab and feel like they know me, like it's their own home."
Nick Aravanis drives along Piney Branch Road toward his house in Takoma Park. After a few minutes of silence and careful steering, he turns to his passenger:
"Want a piece of gum?"