MOSCOW — IT was clear from the start that the middle-aged man in the mechanic's green overalls was no average Moscow cabbie.At first sight, the twinkle in his eye set him apart from other drivers scanning the crowds emerging from Moscow's Vnukovo Airport in hopes of finding a rich foreign customer. When he readily accepted the offer of 200 rubles ($4) for a ride to the center of the city - the going rate, which other drivers nevertheless rejected moments earlier as "pitiful we knew we had a winner. My colleague and I had bigger plans: We needed a driver for the day, and hoped 500 rubles (well above the average monthly salary here) would buy the service. Nikolai Bozhenov jumped at the offer. As it turns out, 500 rubles a month was exactly what Mr. Bozhenov was earning before he was laid off last spring from his job as a manager at the Ministry of Military Industry. Bozhenov held a position of responsibility. He oversaw production of instrument panels at 15 factories around the Soviet Union, a function that is now theoretically being handled at the republic level. "Somehow I doubt my old job is really being done," he says wistfully. "I don't think they know what to do in the republics." Bozhenov will soon have lots of company among the swelling ranks of Moscow's white-collar unemployed, who account for 90 percent of the capital's jobless. With the decision to abolish or drastically cut back 80 Soviet ministries, Bozhenov may even find keen competition for fares. Many of the newly redundant bureaucrats also have automobiles and, without immediate prospects for suitable employment, will likely put their most marketable asset into service. His car, he insists, represents the only perk he got from his job. He was able to buy it after only a three-year wait instead of the usual 10 years. Bozhenov says he is holding out for a job in his field that pays enough to live on. White-collar jobs are scarce; some 85 percent of the openings in Moscow are for blue-collar workers. ve been offered work as an engineer-mechanic, but the pay was only 500 rubles," he says, turning his neon-green Lada onto Moscow's main thoroughfare, Tverskaya Street. "Back there, at the Yeliseyevsky [a well-known grocery store] they're selling sausage for 162 rubles a kilo. You see what kind of inflation the so-called democrats have brought us?" Nowadays, he says, he needs to earn 3,000 rubles a month to support his wife, a nurse-practitioner, and his daughter, an education student. For now he gets a monthly unemployment benefit of 70 rubles and earns between 200 and 250 rubles on a typical day of driving. When Bozhenov got his pink slip after 14 years at the ministry, he was given two options: take two months' worth of pay or take one month of pay and the right to register at the Moscow Employment Center. Bozhenov surmised that the employment center wouldn't have much, so he took the two months' pay. "I worked hard to get where I was," he sighs, tuning the car radio to one of two new Western FM rock stations. "I went to the engineering institute nights while I worked at a factory. I also got a degree from the Moscow Higher Party School." "You get a real education there - history, literature, philosophy," he adds defensively. "Now it's all for nothing." Bozhenov had joined the Communist Party in 1967, and remained a member until it was banned. He voted for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-conservative Russian nationalist who placed third in the republican presidential election that swept Boris Yeltsin into power. "You see that white building there? That was my office," he points out as the car cruises around the Garden Ring on the way to the Monitor bureau. "I never knew what that building was," I respond, eyeing a building I have passed countless times before. "You weren't supposed to," he says cheerily.