FROM CHAUFFERED TO CHAUFFEUR: Once viewing the world from the comforts of the back seat, these two former MPs work the daily grind as celebrities of a different sort.
KLAIPEDA - In the Lithuanian Parliament, they might have encountered bumpy legislative turbulence, but while behind the wheel of their cabs, the ride is bumpier and much riskier, as some riders tend to be rowdy, belligerent and pugnacious. There is no need to say that some of the passengers are drugged out or bleeding, pleading for help from the cabbies. One would freak out at such a job perspective, but Kestutis Gaska and Vytautas Sustauskas, two ex-MPs-turned-cabbies, grapple with the routine quite successfully, employing their personal charm, impeccable diplomacy and… oh, yes, their prominence!
How the heck, many futilely wonder, did they end up driving taxis? Their stories are quite different, requiring separate stitches to sew up their unique personal experiences.
“I reckon it has been my fate. You cannot run away from it,” Gaska chuckles as he goes on about his unusual life story, explaining his most unexpected turnabouts. “I may have been bitten hard in my life, but I do not bear any anger whatsoever. I enjoy my life to the fullest. Who told you that a white-collar dork cannot whirl round the wheel? More importantly, I love it,” the 67 year-old man grins as he switches his story’s track to his troublesome childhood.
After the Second World War, his parents and elder siblings had retreated to the West, as the emaciated and scrawny orphan was left in the care of some distant relatives. His future might have looked quite gloomy if the mighty fate had not been on his side, ultimately tossing the boy into the hands of his granddad’s brother, Ignas Gaska, the former minister of the then Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Republic of Lithuania. This Soviet-era big shot has shown all his sympathy and determination while bringing up the distant relative. The boy had been sent to an exclusive secondary school in Vilnius, where he excelled in English and, later, graduated from Kaunas Polytechnic Institute. Having earned a science degree, he exuberantly plunged into different industrial and scientific fields of work, mostly everywhere assuming leading roles.
It was back in the ’90s, when Perestroika’s Lithuanian version, Sajudis, broke out, engulfing the Candidate of Sciences into politics under the flag of the reformed Communist Party, the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party. “Honestly speaking, I had been far from politics until Sajudis started. I went to the election with my open heart. No one stood behind my back, as I consider myself to be a self-made man. I want everyone to believe that most members of the parliament from my tenure, from 1992-1996, were the most dedicated, sincere and clan-backing-free representatives of their electors. No one ever talked about corruption, bribing and catering to the needs of clans then, as such a word was unheard of then. The corruption flared up and grew when businesspeople gripped power. From that standpoint, I was clean and rather naive in politics. That is why I have never made any personal, far reaching, privilege-soaked connections while in Seimas. When my time in parliament was up, I shut its door and started thinking: “Jesus, I have nowhere to go!”
To tell the truth, it was not just then when the ex-parliamentarian sat behind the cab’s wheel. Over nearly a decade, he shuffled between many jobs, ranging from middle-rank scientific work, to leading industrial assignments, but in none of them he felt in his shoes. “I felt that something was missing in my life. I began thinking I needed something much more challenging, providing me personal independence. Besides, my Soviet education was not good any more for a serious scientific job. More importantly, I have to admit, I am not an easy-going person, as I am too demanding for my employees and I tend to raise hundreds of unnecessary questions to my employers, thus, exasperating them,” he says, as he acknowledges that he has swapped several political parties, some of them quite extreme, in his political career. A few years ago, he found himself in a position where no one wanted to hire him for a white-collar job, forcing him to assume lowly jobs at construction sites and, ultimately, to sit behind the wheel.
“My story might sound weird to many, as people may assume I am some kind of a whacko or a booze-addict,” the once high-profile politician sighs. He explains that “I could not make ends meet solely relying on my lousy retiree pension, which is 800 litas (230 euros) a month. Besides, I am a divorced father of a teenage son, obliged to make monthly alimony payments. So I applied to a local cab company and was offered the job. The heads of the company looked a bit bewildered seeing my CV, but, God bless them, they gave me the chance.”
“I had always liked machinery. Earlier, in 2002, I had studied auto repair in the U.S. I do not want to sound cocky, but I have proved my worth; I take my job very seriously. Before sitting behind the wheel, I always prepare myself accordingly, which includes proper grooming and respectable clothing. Many do not believe me when I maintain that I love my new job. It gives me independence,” said Gaska to The Baltic Times.
To make a decent living, he says he has to work long hours, sometimes up to 15 - 17 hours a day. The industry employs hundreds of cabbies in Vilnius. According to Gaska, only the most determined and hard working cab drivers survive. Even behind the wheel, dealing with sometimes rowdy and belligerent passengers, the ex-parliamentarian retains his solid composure. “I never give in to my passengers’ emotions.
The worst things happen when cab drivers succumb to that. I believe that the cab driver’s position is very grateful, as many people that you see probably first and last in your life, tend to pour out their hearts to a stranger. What I do is listen. I can admit sometimes it used to be much harder to listen to frivolous blabbing of some counterparts while in the parliament. Often, when I feel right about my riders, I confess to them my life’s turns. Some are surprised and say that I do not look like a cabbie,” the cheerful working retiree giggles.
Some time ago, he picked up a prominent member of Seimas that he used to work with. They began to chat, fuming at the politics. “I told him that the current Seimas is the weakest, the least responsible and full of jokers. In approving my notion, he nodded and swore all the way until I dropped him off at Seimas. He left a brilliant tip,” Gaska snickers.
“If I were in a position to adopt legislation regarding the activity of the cab companies, first, I would hunt down all the illegal cab companies. Second, in the capacity of a Vilnius Municipality Council Member, I would review all the traffic-lights in Vilnius. It drives me crazy that I have to stop every ten meters at 4 a.m. It is a waste of time and money,” the famous cabbie maintains. Until recently, he kept his political ambitions in fighting for the Vilnius mayor’s office next year. However, his bid has been shattered, as Seimas has not given a green light for a direct Mayor election. The cab driver says he has collected over a couple hundred signatures supporting his candidacy. Yes, mostly from apolitical passengers.
The other celebrity cabbie, the eccentric Vytautas Sustauskas, who besides being an ex-parliamentarian, also collects such titles as Kaunas’ ex-Mayor and leader of the extreme political party, Union of Lithuania’s Freedom, after two years spent on the streets of Kaunas, at the beginning of the year quit his venture as a cabbie. Different from his upbeat and cheerful counterpart in Vilnius, Sustauskas sounded low-spirited while talking to The Baltic Times.
“Damn the country that cannot take care of its most devoted crusaders for freedom. Who cares that with 35 years of work experience I am left to survive with a mere 750 litas? The country that I have devoted my life to has stripped me of my pension, adopting a crazy law slashing pensions for working retirees. Being a cabbie is the toughest job, particularly when you are 65 years-old, as it involves much danger, belligerent passengers, poorly lit streets and bumpy roads,” the politician-by-day-and-once-cabbie-at-night claims.
His determination to sit behind the wheel has drawn wide uproar not only in Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania, but in the whole country as well. His critics would say that Sustauskas’ election as Kaunas mayor had drawn an even larger hoopla, fearing that he might pave the way for the most radical political powers in the country. However, his rise to political stardom, dubbed the rise of the king of bums, has been swift. His fall was abrupt and painful, as most people have renounced the eccentric, leaving him alone and jobless.
“When I started working as a cab driver, I felt like being the most wanted cabbie in the city. People would stand in a long line in order to get into my cab. They would jump over the cab line in order to be given a ride by me. People would invite me to different venues and would pay big tips just for the possibility to have a glimpse of me. However, other cabbies would always be angry and tease me, nicknaming me “Mayor.” I could not withstand their sneers over the walkie-talkie, so I switched my gadget off, picking up passengers mostly at the Municipality,” Sustauskas admits.
During over two years behind the wheel, he has ferried dozens of drugged out cab riders, split up numerous fights on the streets, consoled fussy street-walkers, picked up prostrate strangers at night, dealt with flamboyant gays, tracked down unfaithful spouses – the situations that could easily get another cab driver in trouble, but not the most prominent.
The celeb cabbie has thrown out an ardent fight against an ex-Minister of Transport and Communications in pursuit of cancellation of a ruling obliging wearing seatbelts, both for cab driver and passengers. After the homicide of a cab driver, followed by an unfavorable court verdict, the ruling has been revoked, something Sustauskas is proud of.
He claims that 59 cabbies have been killed over 20 years in Lithuania, however, the number raises some doubts. The celebrity ex-cabbie is still counting on his charm and “magic,” as he intends to throw a blow, as he calls it, “the last fight,” for Kaunas mayor next year. However, under no circumstances, will he throw in a cab’s clutch - it is over.