The cabbie idles up to the curb outside Whitlow’s in Clarendon, rolls down his window and punches a number into his microphone.
The synthesized piano chords of “Faithfully” crackle over an FM signal on his radio.
And he sings like Steve Perry, if Perry were a jolly Filipino man with an endearing but incomplete grasp of English.
“Highway run / into the midnight sun . . .”
Girls in summer dresses turn their heads. Guys in untucked button-down shirts drop their jaws.
“Wheels go round and round / you’re on my mind . . .”
A young couple break from the crowd and tumble into the cab, trailing the sweet stink of rum.
“OhmyGodIwannasing,” the woman says, grabbing the song booklet on the back seat.
“What the [expletive]?” the boyfriend says.
“Britney Spears,” the woman says. “Number 8256. Can I get the mike?”
“What . . . is this?” the boyfriend says.
“It’s a karaoke cab,” the woman says as “. . . Baby One More Time” starts playing.
The lyrics scroll on a small screen rigged under the meter.
“Oh, baby, baby . . .”
The boyfriend slinks down in the seat and covers his face with his seat belt.
By the time Red Top Cab 145 merges onto Washington Boulevard, the boyfriend is bellowing Blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again?”
In this cab, at this hour, it’s 1999.
Which is about when Joel Orbina Laguidao, 42, moved to Virginia from the Philippine island of Mindanao because his wife got a job in a bank. He became a cabbie because he liked to drive and was accustomed to three-hour truck rides hauling coconuts from the mountains into the port city of Davao.
Three years ago, he started to get bored, so he bought a portable karaoke machine, 2,000 songs and a bunch of wiring.
Now he sings. By himself, when he doesn’t have a fare, and with bar-hoppers at the top of their lungs as he ferries them from the Clarendon strip to their apartments.
Picture: The windows down, the wind in a brunette’s hair as she sings “Desperado.”
Imagine: The cab-shaking choreography when frat boys howl “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Beware: The ear-splitting decibel level of three young women wailing “Ohhh, we’re halfway there! Ohhh-oh, livin’ on a prayer!”
“Normally I play larger venues,” says writer Matthew Hurtt, 24, who’s catching a ride to Pentagon City just after midnight.
“Number 8511, please.”
Hurtt does his best Elvis.
“We’re caught in a trap / We can’t walk out . . . Next exit, please . . . Because I love you too much, baby.”
Joel never stops smiling. Neither do his passengers.
Sometimes they puke in his cab.
Sometimes they stiff him on the fare.
Sometime they don’t remember where they live.
Sometimes they sing well. Sometimes they don’t.
Before he goes out on a night shift, Joel kisses the face of Jesus, which is carved into a walnut-sized gold ring on his left hand.
It’s dangerous driving a cab after dark, he says, but karaoke keeps the mood light.
“America is to make money and spend money,” Joel says. “I’m lucky. I’m the boss. I have flexible hours. I have daughter born in America. I pick up and drop off her at school.”
Joel visits his homeland once a year but is reminded of it every time he turns on his karaoke screen. Lyrics play over rotating digital photos of the Philippines.
Azure seas and terraced valleys set against the view out his windshield.
The Cheesecake Factory.
One day, he will go back for good.
But now, at 1:50 a.m., he has roommates Katherine Clark and Tessa Lahr, both 23, duetting “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
“Do you have a card? I’m gonna call you every time,” Clark says as they disembark on North Taylor Street. “Just livin’ the dream, out here in Ballston, with our karaoke cab.”
At the end of his shifts, on the way home to Alexandria, Joel likes to serenade himself with Bon Jovi. With the microphone’s echo feature switched on.
“I wanna laaay you dowwwn in a bed of roses.
“For toniiight I’ll sleep on a bed of naiiils.
“Ohhh, I wanna be just as close as your Holy Ghost is.
“And laaaay you dowwwn on a bed of roses . . .”