Taxi Driver

Directed by Martin Scorsese

I was a taxi driver for nine months at the end of the 80s in Seattle, when I was 24. Probably the best job I’ve ever had. (My parents hate it when I say that.) Not only did I get the use of an authentic classic Checker cab (just like the kind Robert De Niro drives in Taxi Driver) for the entire week, but I was able to set my own hours (11 AM to 11 PM I preferred), get all my errands done in the course of the day, impress my friends whenever they needed a ride anywhere, and come to utilize the "down time" I had as effectively as I could and wrote a cornucopia of songs (I always had my classical guitar with me), got to know the fretboard better, and read Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfires Of The Vanities between bells. I didn’t approach the job with the same mindset as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s classic 1976 film of alienation and frustration. If anything I lucked into the position: I needed a job and I happened to have a friend who had a friend who owned his own cab company.

My social life at the time was bountiful, I was very gregariously interconnected and I came nowhere near the poisonous thoughts of angst as Travis does. Rick, the owner of the cab company, didn’t want his Checkers used for nickel and dime trips to crack houses: that’s what Yellow Cab is for, he’d say. (The standard cabbie joke at the time was: Have you heard about the new AIDS test? Free needles for Yellow Cab drivers.) In fact, most of the time I’d just sit on the hotel lines at the Four Seasons, Westin and Stouffer- Madison Hotels waiting for trips to the airport. My personal best was seven airporters ALL back to back one afternoon. And driving cab on New Year’s Eve is an absolute gold mine. I worked until 4:30 am and made 450 dollars. Designated driver for hire can be truly rewarding. Rick made sure his cars weren’t treated like vessels carrying cargo from hell and in fact was even able to line up having my cab used in a car commercial for the Ford Scorpio. I got paid by Ford to let them use my cab in a little parking maneuver while I watched the Pistons in the semi-finals on a Trinitron nearby.

All three of the cabs in Rick’s company were decked out in beer bottle green with a two-inch checkered border running the length of the cab at belt level. The only real problem I ever had with my cab was that it had a slow power-steering fluid leak. My first week of driving cab I got a bell off the Four Seasons: two Amway wives wanted a ride from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. (!!!), so I took them up and dropped them off to lunch with some friends of theirs, took them around Stanley Park, then drove back to Seattle sailing down I-5 on a fresh June day as I looked down at one point and realized I was doing in excess of 110 mph, all the time the wives in the back happily nattering away, never realizing the speed. You see, it felt as if I was just doing the flow of traffic and the cab didn’t have so much as a rattle, even at that speed, to let on how the pace of the traffic just kind of let it spread its wings like they were always meant to be spread. That’s a Checker.

But, nine months as a taxi driver is more than enough to get your share of what the lifestyle has to offer, because it IS a lifestyle much more than just a job. You’re sitting in traffic all the livelong day, and your only other company besides your rides are the other cabbies. And generally cabbies are cabbies for life. I can walk by the hotel lines now, eight years later, and still see the same faces that were driving back in 88 when I was a hack. The kid who never made it past eighth grade with something weird going on in his face who was a huge King Diamond fan. The woman as large as half the front bench seat with the stuffed animals in the back window. The Rake.

With cab driving it takes a long time to hone your cabbie instincts because you find that every day of the week is different from every other day, every season is different, and depending on which sports team is having a home game, or which convention is in town, or if it’s Seafair...all of these events have to be "played" precisely, and no other cabbies are going to fill you in on their own personal strategies. Therefore you read the newspapers thoroughly and basically get to memorize EVERYTHING that is or will be happening in town.

In defense of cab drivers, it is not the position itself that facilitates any sort of sociopathology, which is an accusation you could extract very easily from Martin Scorsese’s film if you were intellectually lazy. Travis Bickle chose to obsessively crawl around the seediest parts of the city when he in fact could have simply tried to get his fares elsewhere. There IS a level of skill and talent involved in knowing a city inside out and trying to organize in your head how to get from point A to point B as fast as you can (especially during the various rush hours of the day) while all the time making entertaining conversation with your charge so you’ll get a decent tip and have them enjoy the ride knowing that you ARE taking the fastest route.

I didn’t realize how significant those nine months were to my driving skills until in the past few years friends of mine started to comment on how I "drive like a taxi driver," which must imply that I can read traffic and traffic lights more astutely than most people and just generally push against the flow of the traffic as if I had to get someplace with the meter running. I actually take it as a compliment because I never had an accident, even though my cab was hit three times by negligent drivers who were incredulous to realize that although their sidewalls had been caved in, the mighty Checker, all reinforced metal, would escape with nary a pencil-thin line of paint sacrificed on the bumper by the offending car. TANKS, I tell you. An assemblage of the toughest metal Kalamazoo had to offer. My cab was a ‘78 with just over a million miles on it (same block, different trannie) when I drove ol’ Frank, as I dubbed Cab #3. Yes, it had the infamous jump seats in the back. Always a hit with the passengers. (Checker went out of business in 82, so for anyone with more than just a passing fancy in this classic American automobile, grab a copy of Auto Trader. They will only increase in value.)

Driving cab not only do you get to know every inch of your cab, but it becomes an extension of your body, practically. This ton of machinery you navigate throughout town and country ALL day, and it really does affect how you spatially relate to objects and distance. So when you do get out of the cab and go for a stroll down by the waterfront, for example, it is a markedly different way of orienting your psyche to your surroundings.

I don’t understand how the general ambiance of cabs in Seattle deteriorated to the point where the Westin Hotel recently laid down the law as far as cleanliness standards and dress codes for the cabbies. I took real pride with Frank, kept my cab immaculately clean, always wore a white linen shirt and a fresh pair of black Levi’s and just generally behaved as if I was a chauffeur, which is the type of license one is supposed to get in order to drive cab. I believe Seattle is an easier town than most to get a chauffeur’s license. 35 dollars and a clean record was all it took for me in 88.

No matter how fondly I think back on driving cab, it’s just much too dangerous these days to consider reliving the experience. Taxi drivers are constantly getting shot or stabbed, and carrying a piece was never a option that ever entered my mind.

Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film, which is now being re-released in a restored color print, with a stereophonic version of the Bernard Herrmann score, is a film that does not grow dated or overfamiliar. I recently saw the 20th anniversary re-release of this classic film and was able to see it from many different perspectives. Not only have I been a taxi driver, as well as a Scorsese aficionado, but it was the very first R-rated movie I snuck into as a kid at the good ol’ Lewis & Clark theatre by Sea-Tac airport, back when it was merely a triplex. I paid to see the PG-rated All The President’s Men, then just snuck under the ropes.

Taxi Driver is an incredible character study, as the viewer gets to witness the gradual disintegration of a personality every pathetic (and empathetic) step of the way and see precisely what makes the tumblers fall. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who decides to get a job driving cab because he can’t sleep at night and just travels by bus during those hours anyway. You can tell the lessons Director of Photography Michael Chapman (who also shot Raging Bull, The Wanderers, Hardcore and The Last Waltz) learned by working with Gordon Willis on Jaws and The Godfather. The colors are dark and rich and portray the seediness of the areas Travis travels. He is drawn to the seediest parts of town out of obsessive indignation as well as fascination. His social skills are so retarded that he feels completely estranged from the rest of humanity and when he feasts his eyes upon someone whom he believes is a true vision of loveliness, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), he takes it upon himself to "save" her from the soullessness of her everyday life, a life he patronizingly feels she doesn’t even have the intellectual perspective of to realize as being shallow. (My friend James noticed that not only is Scorsese in the back of the cab in a cameo, but he’s also on the steps of Palantine’s campaign headquarters drinking a beer when you first see De Niro looking at Cybill Shepherd from his taxi.)

The Bernard Herrmann score (his last, he died the day after it was completed, on Christmas Eve 1975) is beautiful. He basically takes that most classic of songs about yearning and opportunities that are strictly imaginative, the old jazz ballad "Laura," and rewrites it into the most lush, evocatively romantic song. Travis’s failed attempts at trying to romance Betsy are measured with equal parts sincere effort and hopeless execution: he dresses the part and brings a present of the song she had previously told him he reminds her of, but he takes her to a hard-core film (the only kind he knows) and she walks out in disgust and won’t have any more to do with him. All the same, he calls her for another date, and in the most important scene in the film we get a shot of Travis on a pay telephone—and then, as Betsy is turning him down, the camera slowly dollies to the right and looks down a long, empty hallway. As if the pain of being rejected is too much for the viewer to witness. This is in stark contrast to the eventual, almost inevitable killing rampage Travis embarks upon as the camera goes so far as to adopt slow motion so we can see the horror in greater detail. As if the rejection is more painful than the murders. Travis has been shut out so systematically, so often, from a piece of the action that eventually he has to hit back somehow.

Who knows what horrors a character such as Travis witnessed as a Marine in Vietnam? All we can witness is his ineluctable failure to be able to fit back into the social fabric he left behind to serve his country. And I believe this is why this twenty-year-old film is as relevant today, if not moreso, than when it was released: For the past three decades the streets have been filled with the dazed and confused spirits the military abandoned as soon as their tours of duty were over. As much damage has been done to American society by cutting off refuge to the psychologically disabled than all the casualties and fatalities from the Viet Nam war that never came back. When faced with life and death on a regular intimate basis, is the implication, how can one ever become fully integrated back into a soulless, materialistic society?

Travis dutifully sends his parents an anniversary card every year (with the illustration on the card portraying them as a couple of "scouts"), yet lies to them about his employment as well as any romantic involvement in his life: He uses his unrequited obsession with Betsy as a surrogate "girlfriend" in a pinch.

An even more frustrated Travis then meets Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old runaway turned prostitute who is managed by a long-haired pimp known as Sport (Harvey Keitel). Travis becomes obsessed with "rescuing" Iris from her situation (since he’s failed in trying to "rescue" Betsy from her position as a politician’s lackey), turning himself into a one-man killing machine as he prepares for a bloody crusade he believes will put the world to right.

It’s fascinating to observe the way Travis balances his estrangement from women with his own code of honor and ethics and the respective males he feels he has to finally exterminate in order to "save" the females he has chosen to "rescue." Males (one a presidential candidate, the other a pimp) whom he sees as controlling the lives of Betsy and Iris while also recognizing each of their own oblivious complicity in their respective soulless charades of life, as if his is any more ethically or morally sound. It is these males who, nevertheless, have in common the ability to approach a woman without getting everything wrong, which is the tragic situation Travis is terminally locked in. His frustration is fueled even further by the fact that the females he observes are simply "protected" by the other males employment of them, which is the extent of the males purpose in each of their respective lives, no more, no less. Therefore, using his combat training, Travis resorts to what he believes is his ideological trump card to secure the attention of both females: protecting both Betsy and Iris from the males who protect them falsely: the presidential candidate Palantine and Sport. With the human arsenal he carries on his person, Travis goes out one fateful day with blood on his mind. Even though he is thwarted at the entrance to Central Park at Palantine’s campaign, he changes his strategy instantly and goes straight to Sport to manifest his form of vigilante justice. His taciturn nature being such that, regardless, someone was going to be killed for their reduction of the souls of the females he sees as being victims.

Though the film is shot in 35mm, for the whole killing scene itself, when Travis first approaches Keitel in the doorway, it’s shot in 16mm and then slowed down. Not only is it shot in slow motion, the sound is messed with too, to give it all a macabre nightmare feel to mirror the derangement of Travis’s senses when he finally snaps.

My friend Russell (who lived in NYC from 78-85, said that he’s actually seen the drum guy on the corner. Gene Palma. The guy who was doing "a little Krupa.") and I were discussing after the film how there really wasn’t the concept of sociopath as celebrity (Manson notwithstanding) until AFTER the film came out, because Son of Sam, Chapman,, Ray et al were all after 1977. There’s no real way you can see Travis as a hero in any redemptive way. He has murdered when his own life was not threatened, and the implication as to why he was not imprisoned is that Bickle, who had been shot during the killing spree and eventually lapsed into a coma, lay in his hospital bed teetering between life and death when Iris (with her pimp dead, as well as the notorious Mafioso behind her pimp) decided to take the money Travis left her and returned to her parents who were so overjoyed to have their daughter returned to their safe haven of domesticity that they declared Travis a hero on their own, which the tabloids exploited. Therefore public sentiment swayed the judge to look the other way and redeem Travis as a "hero." As a result, no matter how twisted Travis’s view of reality and fantasy, not to mention his own judicial sense of guilt and retribution, his code of vigilance is warranted, née sanctioned by society at large.

You can tell in one of the film’s last scenes when Travis is talking with the other cabbies that there is a reverence given to him because of his survival of his journey through hell, which was denied him was he had just started driving cab. He is rewarded with inclusion into the exact same level of camaraderie he was estranged from until the incident because he hadn’t been "tested." The scariest thing about the film, though, is that when it ends and vigilance has been distributed, you know that Travis has had no change of consciousness. He has learned no moral lesson, nor received any perspective of his insistence of taking the law into his own hands. He keeps driving cab, so the assumption is he still can’t sleep at night and he’s still obsessed with Times Square. His fuse, for all intents and purposes, is still lit.

Taxi Driver won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, and De Niro was honored as Best Actor by the New York Film Critics. The film was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Foster) and Best Musical Score. Here is a film that was nominated for four major awards and didn’t win anything. What won that year? Rocky. But which film is going to be remembered throughout cinematic history as a highpoint and significant sociocultural artifact?