A Taxi Driver on Taxi Driver
By Dmitry Samarov / Art by Dmitry Samarov
I’ve probably seen Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver a hundred times. On the first week of July, the Music Box Theatre showed a restored print in honor of its thirty-fifth anniversary. I went Sunday, then again Thursday. I don’t remember the first time I saw it but I must’ve been pretty young. No other movie’s had a bigger impact on my life.
When I first began driving a cab back in fall of 1993 in Boston, that film provided my first frame of reference. Whenever I drove through steam coming up from manhole covers, the image of Bickle’s hulking Marathon doing the same in the movie’s first shot would start in my head and Bernard Herrmann’s score would surge as if out of nowhere and follow my taxi down the nighttime Boston streets. When smartass college kids asked if my job was like the show, Taxi my comeback was always that it was more like the movie, Taxi Driver. They’d either laugh nervously or get real quiet after that. But it wasn’t Bickle’s need to cleanse the world through biblical bloodletting that attracted me; it was that tank of a car rolling through the city. A cabdriver sees the ugly, the beautiful, and the just plain inexplicable, as few others can. Being a passing presence in dozens of lives a day leaves its mark. I took Bickle’s, “I go anywhere, anytime,” as a modus operandi.
Oftentimes, when I tell people about being inspired by the film, they get a worried look on their face. I’m no John Hinckley so I don’t take the movie as a call to action. Read literally, of course, what Bickle does is insane, but no one should take it literally (unless your plan is to kill Ronald Reagan to prove your love for Jodie Foster, of course). After seeing the movie with a bunch of friends on Sunday, a spirited debate continued all the way to the bar. The question was: is Bickle just insane? One of the guys, in particular, insisted that no sane person would ever take a girl to a porn theater on a first date and think it was okay. He couldn’t accept much of what happened as believable in any way. My take has always been that the character can’t be taken literally, he isn’t just some guy and the story’s not a slice of life. This is a man who talks about a rain coming and washing the streets clean of scum, of being God’s only man, of his life just needing a sense of a place to go. He’s trying to save us all. Given that Scorsese trained for the priesthood and Schrader was brought up in a restrictive Calvinist household, it’s no surprise that they’d make a movie about a fallen angel or holy fool (or whatever alternate otherworldly type one might imagine). He sees the world as ugly and wants to make it beautiful. He never seems to get anyone’s jokes, he doesn’t connect with anyone else really. Betsy’s the Madonna figure and Iris is the whore; these and other characters are archetypes rather than just plain people. I never identified with Bickle aside from sharing his loneliness.
A man alone, hurtling through nighttime streets in a taxi, all kinds of humanity passing past the windshield; now that I’ve become intimately familiar with. There’s a scene where a passenger (played by Scorsese) describes in detail how he’s going to murder his philandering wife. I had a drunk man tell me once that he had no money for the fare and that he was going to go into the house and kill his wife. He wanted to know what was I gonna do about it? I told him to do what he wanted but to get out of my cab, as he’d wasted enough of my time. There’s often no proper way to react when a stranger unburdens himself in this way. The movie gets the odd fragmentary relationship between driver and passenger just right.
I’ve never driven a cab in New York but there’s an image of that city lodged deep due to this film. I got to know Boston and then Chicago the way Bickle got to know New York. I’ve never felt the need to save a soul, much less all souls the way he did, but I wouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel without his example. The job puts you at a strange remove from others and only certain types of people are suited towards that sort of isolation. It’s always fit me to a tee. At the end of the film, after the massacre and after he’s hailed as a hero, Bickle’s back in the cab, outside a hotel, waiting for a fare. Whatever happens to a cabdriver, sooner or later it’s always back to that wait, sitting and hoping for that fare that will take him away.
The Russian-born Dmitry Samarov is a prolific painter, watercolorist, and sketch artist, and is the author of www.chicagohack.com, an original blog brimming with the cab driver’s art and his dry, empathic, often hilarious stories. Samarov’s first book, Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab, was published by University of Chicago Press in October 2011.