When Scorsese’s Taxi Driver came out in 1976, it drew a lot of attention for its graphic violence and unforgettable portrayals, including Robert De Niro as disturbed cabbie Travis Bickle and Jodie Foster as an underage hooker. But when I first saw the film I had a couple of additional thoughts. For one thing, I was drawn to the soundtrack’s lush and haunting music from Bernard Herrmann — probably the best movie composer not named Mancini or Williams. One of the best pieces was the theme song itself, with it’s mournful sax solo creating a perfect dark mood. But I had a second reason for finding the movie a little special. For a while in the late 1960’s, I was a taxi driver myself.
It goes without saying that I was not Travis Bickle or anything resembling him, but I did have a few adventures of my own (including one involving hookers) and the whole experience was eye-opening. That began the very first day of my training, which consisted of me riding along with an experienced driver — without pay. Although that might seem a little unfair, it was consistent with the way they had things set up. As a cabbie you were sort of self-employed, with the company furnishing the taxi for a percentage of your earnings, so it wouldn’t have made sense for him to give me a cut.
While he was showing me the ropes he also revealed a few ways to bend the rules. Some of the tricks revolved around trying to avoid turning the meter on – a firing offense – but the one I remember most involved the wives and girlfriends of inmates being held in the big prison near our city. They’d arrive at the bus station and then take a taxi out to the prison, which was a nice, profitable fare for us. However, he’d try to find two or three arriving on the same bus, take them all at the same time but charge each the full fare — while only reporting one to the company.
When I finally got my own cab I was too much of a straight arrow to use any of his tricks, but I still had other things to learn. One of the first was that the older, veteran drivers got the newer cars and conversely the newer guys got the old, worn-out junkers. Halfway through my first day – and I am not making this up – my taxi’s transmission locked up as I was driving through the busiest intersection in the city. It created a horrendous traffic jam while I waited for the tow truck. A few weeks later, the steering locked on me and I narrowly missed crashing. Eventually I was trusted with a better car and things went a little smoother.
One day I received a radio call to make a lunch pickup at a local restaurant and deliver it to a big house in an iffy neighborhood. The door was answered by a middle-aged woman wearing a robe, and she told me to bring the sacks of food inside. Once I did, I was immediately surrounded by a half-dozen women – all dressed in skimpy gowns – grabbing at the food while flirting and teasing me about my red face. I was a young guy with a wife and toddler at home and as square as could be, so I beat a hasty retreat — but I did get a five-dollar tip.
I only spent a few months as a cabbie, but it was quite an education and I met all kinds of people. One that especially sticks with me is the young lady who climbed into the back seat of my cab with a little blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms. As we drove she cooed down at it, “Aren’t you just the cutest little thing? My little bundle of joy. My little sweetie. My cute little monkey.”
I heard all this from the front seat, and was chuckling to myself while thinking how people talk silly to their babies, but then we pulled up to a red light and she asked me, “Isn’t he cutest little thing?” I turned, thinking that even if the baby was ugly I’d have to say something nice. She held him up to me — and it actually was a monkey, dressed in baby clothes.