Taxi Driver: A Look at NYC’s Inglorious Past

The legacy of Taxi Driver includes the gentrification of Times Square.

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver
Photo: Sony

Taxi Driver, the claustrophobic street classic by Martin Scorsese, is a deeply nuanced masterpiece. Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a cabdriver who wants to be a person, like other people. He could be someone like anyone else but he’s really just looking for an excuse to waste some of those other people. When he finally does, Travis is declared a hero instead of the accident-waiting-for-a-place-to-happen that he really is. Taxi Driver also features Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, and a phenomenal performance from a 12-year-old Jodie Foster. But the star of Taxi Driver is New York City.

Scorsese set most of his early films in New York. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was a notable exception. While Mean Streets caught street level gangsters in their everyday routines, it was shot with loving warmth and a tinge of both nostalgia and a sense that he never wanted to see that neighborhood change in any way. Even the violence had a sense of fun, jumping up on pool tables and calling each other mooks before you retired back to the bar or got hassled from some cop who couldn’t tell a pocket knife from a stiletto unless you slipped him a twenty. Scorsese’s breakthrough Little Italy love letter ended with a harrowing evening scene that didn’t leave the escaping heroes dead, but condemned to live. It was only a tease of what was yet to come.

Taxi Driver is very prescient. It is a horror film that lays the groundwork for sociopathic killer flicks like Silence of the Lambs, which also starred Foster. Taxi Driver casts New York as a looming monster. A terrifying creature that spawns the wannabe assassin turned mass murderer.

The opening shot at 41st Street and 8th Ave. is kind of reminiscent of Stephen Spielberg’s aquatic horror hit Jaws, with the cab as the shark coming out of the city smog. Travis Bickle’s eyes are as dead as a Hammerhead surveying the streets, sniffing blood, or worse. Hell’s Gate in the East River is one of the most dangerous waters in the tristate area to navigate, but the concrete city’s waters are infested by a lone shark, as opposed to the usual predatory loan shark with incalculable vig. The grill of the cab bares fangs, hungry pincers passing terminal bars looking to bite. Pearly white teeth like the ones Bobby Darrin, from the Bronx, sung about in “Mack the Knife,” a show stopping tune about a sociopathic killer.

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Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s film is painted by the streets, concrete and steel. The faded yellows, greens and reds of the traffic lights spill from drizzling rain and are washed into the sewers with the sensuality of an impressionist artists’ brush. So much is made of the violence of Taxi Driver, which occurs in so short a time, that the lush beauty of New York City’s night occasionally takes a back seat, obscured by the cum stains and occasional blood. Martin Scorsese is often lauded for capturing the ugliness of the time when he actually uncovered its beauty and by unearthing it, condemned it to the gentrification of a rapidly approaching past.

I blame Taxi Driver for the Disneyfication of midtown. Travis Bickle wanted to clean the garbage off the street. It kept him up at night, hacking up lungs already damaged by whatever Agent Orange he’d sucked down in as a marine in Vietnam. “The days go on and on,” he complains. “They don’t end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention.” If Bickle stuck to being worried about keeping his conscience as clean as his driving record, New York City might have survived the Giuliani years intact, rather than be broken up and sold to the highest bidder to be cleansed to something the perennial nightrider could appreciate.

Bickle drives to escape the encroaching, inevitable sickness, just wanting to get through another night with no particular place to go except to keep moving ahead of the stench. The stink of the place that made him sick passes almost as fast as the night. “All the animals come out at night. Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal,” Buckle observes. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” The crabby cabbie saw action in all parts of the city, never realizing that he was at home everywhere. Everyone in the city is ultimately alone. A crowd is a great place to dive for the cover of universal anonymity. “I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”

Travis tells candidate Charles Palentine that he wants to flush the whole city down the toilet. He says that when his cab is in midtown on their way to a nice hotel in a better neighborhood, the Hotel Olcott at 27 West 72nd Street. Travis has a big problem with midtown, a love-hate relationship with the area peep shows and the temptations of seventies New York City. The first thing that out-of-towners and commuters hit when they got off the bus was the streets surrounding Port Authority. From there, for Bickle, it all goes downhill. Even to the East Village where he finds the little piece of chicken Iris hustling her ass for Sport at 226 East 13th Street, between Second and Third Avenues. Keitel is so schivy and yet so sensual as the pimp. Scorsese uncovers a layer of degeneracy rarely captured on celluloid. It is hard to look at but very important to witness the manipulations and machinations of pimp and whore, which rhymes with sewer, as my mom used to say.

Bickle can’t unsee what he’s seen and the twenty dollar hush money is the incessant silent reminder that he has to rip up the canvass. The gritty film stock Scorsese pushed so many frames through the camera is too much for a sociopath who wants smoother edges, longs for the kind of cinematic cleanliness that will only come from a future digital age. “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time: True force. All the king’s men cannot put it back together again,” the cabbie says. This was the New York City of Abe Beame, who happily agreed with Bickle, and Koch and Dinkins. Mayors who fixed what could get fixed when the fix was in, until one came along to fix it and broke a spiritual center.

So now we’re living in a post Bickle world where all that filth got flushed and all we got is ass-grabbing Elmos and silly string junkies peddling furry huffs to furrier huffers. Back in the seventies you could get anything at any time, if you knew where to look, and Travis would go anyplace any time. He saw it all and envisioned a cleaner world and condemned us to live in it. No matter how fast Bickle is passing through those streets, even as he’s getting pelted with eggs and trash cans in Harlem, he’s never really just passing through. He is always on a mission, kind of like the Terminator guy in Terminator, but with a mean glint and a paranoid double take. Mr. Clean with a .44, ever see what that could do to a woman’s face? Not to mention the more intimate travesties it can impose. Out with the old.

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You get a last glimpse of the old New York Times Square in Basketball Diaries which was shot just before the place got the overhaul. That was the scariest era of 42nd Street when it was deserted because everything was shuttered and it was just a corpse on the sidewalk waiting for chalk. Bickle had something to do with that. I was sure of it then and I’m sure of it now. Guiliani saw something in that hacker’s head and said, by gub, just as soon as I throw all these hoodlum Mafiosi off my streets I’m going to sell all their shit to Disney so they’ll never recognize it. Like rain dogs, lost forever in the puddles.

The New York City you see on the screen in Taxi Driver is still the New York City I see in my head when I’m walking here. The same streets Dustin Hoffman limped after the studly urban cowboy Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy, the 42nd Street that housed a Flea Circus in the forties and fifties. I remember when freebasing hit in the early 80s and you could get ether on 42nd and 44th Streets. You could get chloroform too. Ether was more fun than base, walking up Eighth Avenue, sharing a rag as you walked past the Show Palace. You could get really good codeine cough syrup at the clinic right across the street from the methadone place which was next to a hole in the wall magazine store. Travis drives past signs showing cigarettes are about fifty cents and all the unadvertised signs that handjobs against a parked car could be had for five bucks.

Anita Nymphet is playing at the old Rialto Theater, but Travis walks Betsy down 8th Ave. on their first real date to catch “2 EXCITING ADULT HITS. Bold XXX ENTERTAINMENT ‘SOMETIME Sweet Susan’ also EXPLICIT! PROVOCATIVE! Swedish Marriage Manual,” playing south of 47th Street. De Niro met his first wife Diane Abbott doing the scene at the Show & Tell theater, at 737 8th Ave between 46th and 47th Streets, where he keeps asking for her name. One of Bickle’s last pickups before the date is the strip club Show World Center, right outside Port Authority. I think it’s funny that Show World Center is now the Laugh Factory because comedians used it as easy punch lines for years. Coney Island Pizza was bought by the Sbarro’s chain.

There are fucking Duane Reed stores superimposed on every frame of the old city now. Even the old Museum of Arts & Design which you can see in the background when Travis takes Betsy to lunch at a Charles’ Coffee Shop at the corner of 58th & 8th Ave. is a Duane Reade now. Ask the Duane Reade pharmacist whether pie with a slice of yellow cheese is a good choice and he’ll prescribe you with delusions that the whole world is a yellow taxi. Joni Mitchell couldn’t have seen that coming. Maybe if Neil Diamond, who was the first choice to play Travis Bickle, signed on to do the picture, they might have renamed him Duane Reade.

There were CTowns south of 110th Street when Taxi Driver was shot. The no-tell hotel where Travis takes Iris with plans of escape isn’t far from a real whorehouse on Fourth and 11th that stayed in the neighborhood until the late nineties. So much is obscured by those piles of brick and mortar. Behind those street exteriors are the darkest parts of the interior minds of New York City’s loneliest outsiders. We don’t see underground gambling places like the Gulag on 14th, but we know there’s something happening behind every fire escape. Scorsese plants himself in the middle of the worst element of a lonely interior. Not content with pulling an Alfred Hitchcock-style cameo outside the Charles Palantine campaign headquarters at the corner of 63rd St & Broadway when you first see Cybill Shephard, he is the catalyst that pushes Bickle into the sewer. Travis says he doesn’t carry a gun. That changes after Scorsese pays the fare for an idling engine. He looks just like De Niro plays him in Angel Heart. Travis buys his arsenal with a window to the world, showing how all of the city is within striking distance.

Here is an example of where the old New York City comes in as a horror creature. The gun dealer Easy Andy is a ghost of old gangster New York. If Steven Prince, the actor who played Easy Andy, was forty years younger, he could have been one of the Dead End Kids rivals in the Lower East Side social drama Dead End. Easy Andy is from the street and knows what works out there. He’s got it all and a cool leather bag to throw it in. He’s got more than guns too. He’s got everything the backgrounds promised as Bickle’s cab prowled the streets. Guns, pills, dope, all COD. He’s a wise guy.

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Peter Boyle’s brainiac character is the Wizard of the 57th Street terminal, where the L, the West Side Elevated Highway, used to bracket the city. You can still see pieces of it lodged in old buildings that would collapse if they were excavated. They are load-bearing debris now. The Wizard is like the L, he has a unique vantage point on what’s coming and going. What’s what on this side of the river and the specks of light in the expanse across the Hudson. He’s got a philosophy that encapsulates the whole spectrum of thought in a mishmash of extremism and extreme tolerance. Everything that could happen has happened in his cab and it’s taught him what life is, and it’s all a contradiction. He’s not that removed from Matthew, who I’ve been calling Sport, who tells the Mohawked Bickle that he once had a horse, on Coney Island but she got hit by a car.

That is very prescient. Not just because De Niro wore a Mohawk before the punk era, and which Scorsese revisited in the brilliant comedy After Hours, but the image of an old horse being killed by the new. The gentrification of the city killed a part of us that’s been here since before the Five Points era. Nothing’s really changed, it’s just been moved. What used to be 44th Street can now be gotten in the east 30s, but now you need an invitation to get buzzed in.

Travis goes from creepy vigilante, which starts when he shoots the kid robbing his grocery store, through failed national assassin to a headlining hero by the time he gives Betsy free ride to the St Regis Hotel, 2 East 55th Street at Fifth Avenue. That is the journey Travis shared with the city. But they both paid the full fare.

See, it was a sick mind that wanted to clean the sickness off the streets. The filth and scum that made Travis Bickle’s head hurt and made him think he had stomach cancer is largely hidden from sight in today’s metro area. The rats are all wearing mouse ears now. The problem is that the midtown area was envisioned by an equally sick mind. People from out of town lured by the Wall Street rush of the eighties who wanted to impose their vision on the city they bought to live in. They saw franchises where the cabbies in Taxi Driver met at Belmore Cafeteria, on the corner of 28th & Park, which was owned by the cook. Now it’s probably a Duane Reade.

Try getting cigarettes for fifty cents at a Duane Reade.