Friday, April 15, 2011

Taxi Driver

Travis walks down 8th Ave. at 46th Street.
Iris stands in the doorway of 202 E. 13th St.
Travis meets the pimp at 204 E. 13th St.
202 East 13th Street, without the "ROOMS" pillars.
Travis and Iris go to Disco Donut diner on 14th and 3rd, now boarded up.
This furniture store seen in the background still remains on 13th and 3rd.
Travis waits for the gun dealer on the NW corner of 19th & 5th.
This hardware store sign on 19th between 5th & 6th can be seen in the movie.
The NE corner of 19th and 5th used to have a diner, now a Sephora.
28th & Park, site of the Belmore Cafeteria.
Muldoon's on 45th & 3rd appears in the beginning as McAnn's.
The new New York Times Building, site of the Terminal and Exchange bars.
The porn theatre Travis visits on 45th & 8th in the beginning seems to be demolished.
A porn theatre seen in the back as Travis walks down 8th Ave. is now the Tour Bus staion.
The campaign headquarters on 63rd and Broadway.
A few weeks ago I saw Martin Scorcese's 1976 cult-classic Taxi Driver on AMC, and decided to take a walk around the big city to some of Travis Bickle's haunts that can be seen in the movie, much of which has changed a lot. It's been a pretty lousy past few days weather wise, but I figure the gloom of the weather coincides well with the ambiance of this movie. Although we don't always like to admit it, it can be pretty easy to become like Travis Bickle, at least a little bit. I found a special about the making of Taxi Driver on YouTube the other day, in which they said that the movie is about more than just loneliness, but a certain kind of loneliness that feeds on itself, that prevents someone from ever getting where he's going. In the special, I think it was Peter Boyle who said something along the lines of how the city is where you go to get crazy, but it's not a normal place to live. (I'm paraphrasing a lot here. I'll try to find what he said later.) And although the city is crowded with people everywhere you look, it fosters loneliness and isolation because we're all trying to keep to ourselves. When I first moved back to the city, it was a feeling that was very real to me, but which I didn't expect to feel at all.

A lot of critics say that the subject matter of this film wouldn't fly today. The concept of the anti-hero, who walks the fine line between hero and villain, would be too controversial. Travis, through happenstance, kills a pimp instead of a presidential candidate, is lauded as a hero for saving an underage girl from a life of prostitution, and continues living and working as a cab driver around the city, but with an extra bullet or a wrong turn, he would've ended up killing the wrong person or even himself. Travis, in his intense isolation, is in desperate need to give his life some kind of purpose, some kind of righteous mission to validate his own existence.

On that note, I headed over to 63rd and Broadway, where the campaign headquarters was located. Then I walked down to 48th and 8th, where I used to student teach a few years back. In the nineties 8th Avenue from 40th-50th Streets switched to being a tourist industry hub from a porn industry one, and the station for those big red buses we see all over the city can be seen in most Taxi Driver movie posters as a giant adult theatre in the background as Travis Bickle walks along 8th Avenue. In this shot in the beginning of the movie, he heads for a smaller adult theatre and once inside tries to hit on the concessions girl. According to one of my favorite websites, New York Songlines, this later became a dangerous pimp hangout called "Little Annie's Full Moon Saloon" and was now a dive called "Collins Bar", which I looked up and has subsequently closed down as well. In fact, I think the building might be gone. There's currently a giant lot next to the Subway shop I used to go to all the time when I was immersed in the joys of teaching eight-year-olds.

Further down on 41st Street were the Terminal and Exchange Bars right next to each other -- two more dangerous pimp hangouts seen early in the movie that were demolished in 2007 to build the 52-story glass structure that holds a family-friendly cafeteria and the New York Times newest home since moving from 43rd Street, where it had been since 1913.

Across town there's Muldoon's on 3rd Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets, which used to be McAnn's, yet another bar Travis hung out at, seen in the beginning of the movie, and, on 28th and Park, a 1983 high-rise condo marks the spot where the Belmore Cafeteria was. This diner, which I guess was on the decline even back then considering when the new building went up, was a well-known taxi-driver hangout. Wizard takes up the lost cause of trying to help Travis tame some of his demons as the reflection of the Belmore's old neon sign shines on the building across the street. My father was a taxi driver for a few nights in the mid-seventies, and recalls it as being an awful job, but told me the Belmore was mentioned as a popular hangout by the other drivers in the garage.

I further walked down to 5th Avenue and 19th Street, my old stomping grounds, and the corner where Travis gets into a cab with gun-dealer/traveling salesman "Easy Andy". Tomorrow, oddly enough, it will be three years since Alger laid me off and I'm beginning to feel like God's Lonely Man a little bit myself. These buildings are all pretty old so they look basically the same now as they did in the movie, except the diner across the street (the north-east corner) is long gone and has been a Sephora for the past few years. However, about last September or so I found a great website that dissected the movie scene by scene, pointing out things in the background, and it seems the only storefront that remains exactly the same is a simple vertical hardware store sign on 19th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, seen when the cab drives off. When I was the generic assistant at Fred Alger Management around the corner, I was sent to this place often to go get keys made or buy nails.

As I walked along, I came to a boarded up one-floor structure on the southwest corner of 14th and 3rd. Slated for destruction, probably to make way for more NYU developments, in the '70s this was Disco Donut, a diner where Travis takes Iris out to lunch, and around the corner on 13th between 2nd and 3rd was where she lived and worked. I've added a video here of Travis and Iris talking for the first time and Travis meeting Iris' pimp for the first time, but YouTube might remove it soon ... they've done so with other scenes in the movie. Iris' silent friend was an actual child prostitute and drug addict who worked the city streets. She was about fifteen, and coached Jodie Foster on wardrobe, mannerisms, and the like. Harvey Keitel brought a great deal more depth to the role of the pimp than was originally intentioned. Originally offered Albert Brooks' role as the campaign manager, he asked for this one. Plus, the original plan to make the pimp black was scratched when it was thought that it would cause too much controversy, considering that the movie already contained a great deal of racial tension.

In the background, you'll see on the southwest corner of 13th and 3rd is a unpainted furniture store that is still there today, and the door at 202 East 13th Street used to be flanked by big, gaudy pillars that advertised "Furnished ROOMS". Probably the most famous picture of Jodie Foster as Iris shows her standing in this doorway, but Travis meets and talks prices with her pimp at 204, and the actual brothel with the bloody finale was at 226. All of these then-run-down buildings probably rent for thousands-a-month now. When I was standing on the block I saw a sign at one of them advertising co-op apartments. Boy have things changed.

That's what New York City blogs always seem to come down to these days: boy have things changed. Taxi Driver became a cult classic by telling the story of a loner who's disgusted by the cesspool that is Manhattan, but as many New Yorkers would say nowadays: At least he could afford to live there. At least he's not being pushed out. And a lot even say: At least the city had character back then. I don't know about that, although that time does kind of fascinate me. If this city is going to be salvaged for the middle class at all, though, its going to have to find a way to create affordable living and a low crime rate. Why having both seems so impossible is beyond me.