New York 1976: Cab-driving in the artistic heart of the universe

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Robert De Niro as Travis BickleImage source, ALAMY

When writer and broadcaster Michael Goldfarb drove a New York cab in the 1970s he lived in the same neighbourhood as the low-life characters represented in Martin Scorsese's film, Taxi Driver. His customers and fellow cab-drivers, on the other hand, included some of the city's top writers and artists.

"Glass, Philip Glass."

The dispatcher's voice muffled by the thick Plexiglas window - for his protection, not ours - called out again, "Philip Glass".

A short guy with a ruffle of dark curly hair reached up to the window, got his hack licence and trip sheet and walked over to his cab.

Late autumn 1976. Einstein on the Beach had premiered to critical raptures a month earlier. Philip Glass was now famous, very, very famous and here he was taking his shift at Dover Garage along with the rest of us wannabes. You had to admire his style. He continued to drive for years after that great success. I think it was part of his work process, a single nine-hour, overnight shift could provide a composer whose work was based on repeating patterns of notes with many ideas on repetition, and how to build sound into breathing texture. Nine hours at the wheel eventually puts a driver into a kind of hypnotic state - sort of like Glass's music. Although the violent eruption of sound - 20 cabs behind you all hitting their horns at the same time because you are in a reverie and a nanosecond late taking off at a green light, sudden, screaming, life-saving application of brakes, or, worst sound of all, the crash - rarely figures in Glass's music.

Image source, ALAMY
Image caption,
The composer Philip Glass in 1976, the year his opera Einstein on the Beach was premiered

In the mid-70s as the city's economy sank deeper into recession its arts scene remained not just vibrant but innovative, and cab-driving hooked you up into its heart. The month I began driving, one of my fellow Dover hacks had a piece in New York Magazine - Night Shifting for the Hip Fleet. He hit the jackpot. The article was optioned by some television producers and three years later arrived on screen as the sitcom, Taxi. The show was a huge success. Danny De Vito became a star playing the short, irascible dispatcher Louie. Sarcastic and nasty, but in a funny way.

The real Louie was just like that - short, not quite as round, irascible - but there was no comic spin to his withering sarcasm. He thought we were losers, we returned the compliment.

Image source, ALAMY
Image caption,
Danny Devito as Louie (left) and Judd Hirsch in the long-running TV sitcom Taxi

Six months after I began driving, Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver opened. Suddenly cab drivers symbolised the city as it careered into anarchy, in much the same way that hedge fund guys symbolise the city's anarchy today. Anything the traffic will allow - the cab driver's credo - is the Wall Street speculators' credo as well.

Scorsese's film tells the story of Travis Bickle, a paranoid loner, who drives the night shift. He tries to save an underage prostitute, Iris, one of a crew working the East Village streets under the eyes of a pimp named Sport. Robert De Niro plays Travis, Jodie Foster is Iris and Harvey Keitel is the pimp.

The film had been shot in part around the corner from my flat but it depicted the life at the corner of my block, East Twelfth Street, near the corner of Third Avenue, where a platoon of streetwalkers - all dressed as ladies, though not all of them were - worked 24/7. They disappeared into walk-up flats around the corner or climbed into the cabs of the truck drivers who stopped by. There was a rubble-strewn vacant lot between Third Avenue and my building and just under my window was an abandoned Citroen 2CV up on blocks. Citroens were not sold in America then, so how it got from France to the East Village will remain one of the unsolved mysteries of our time. But most nights, there was a steady creaking of its rusty springs as the hookers conducted business in it.

Trip Sheets

Image source, Other

Michael Goldfarb wrote and presented Trip Sheets as part of Radio 3's The Essay series. You can listen again to all five episodes on the BBC iPlayer. Last week the Magazine published the first essay, describing his first weeks in New York, waiting for his break as an actor.

Many of the characters in Taxi Driver were drawn from this group. The pimp who oversaw the whole scene had long straight brown hair with a little flip where it hit his shoulders. Harvey Keitel wears a wig just like it in the film. The star of his stable was a pubescent girl who couldn't have been more than 14, just like the Jodie Foster character. I watched her age three decades in the three years I lived on the block. The track marks on her arms, her face growing puffy with alcohol and occasional beatings.

At first the ladies tried to hustle me, but after a while they realised I wasn't a potential john. Walking home from a shift, we'd exchange greetings - "Hey sugar!" "Hey!"- and occasionally engage in more ribald conversation which I could not possibly tell you about.

In describing these streets and this life I am not being romantic. I am not nostalgic for mud or a wild youth. There was an implicit bargain in coming to New York to be an artist back then, you would starve and that was the price for artistic singularity. I drove the cab not because it was a hip thing to do, I drove because it allowed me to make my rent and have time to look for acting work. And I drove for the challenge to who I was - a middle-class, good Jewish boy with a degree in philosophy, who probably should have been in graduate school. But there are no doctorates given for life experience - the academy is a poorer place for it. By the time I was finished with the cab I could have passed a viva in urbanology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, Spanish-Caribbean history, New York City history, Marxist theory, cultural studies… If there was an academic discipline called The Street, I would have passed a viva on that as well.

Shape-up offered lessons in all these subjects. Not everyone in the garage was an artist. Most were guys just trying to make a living: Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, revolutionaries trying to organise the working class to catch the next wave - the most recent one, in 1968, having passed without the overthrow of capitalism.

Image source, Getty Images

The garage was an example of something that has disappeared from American life with the end of the military draft. A place where people from all backgrounds come together in roughly equal status, like boot camp. Whatever you were before, at Dover Garage you were a driver. That's how the dispatchers saw you and that's how we saw one another. You got a degree in philosophy? Great. So what? This guy dropped out of high school, that guy did two tours in Nam, that guy's wife died of cancer and left him with three kids. Your story - no better than theirs. And if you were an actor this was the greatest education in the world - constant observation of people, their gestures, their faces, that's how we develop our art. There were 100 different human types to observe while waiting for a cab at shape-up.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Stella Adler

I studied with the legendary Stella Adler during these years. That's what she taught me. A terrifying woman who had been a founder of the Group Theatre - the well-spring of all mid-century American drama. (The Group's first production had been Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty, a play about the New York City cab strike of 1934). She was the Group's leading lady and muse, got Brando his first Broadway job. She was a very great teacher. She knew that there was no point in being kind to aspiring actors - the business was cruel, and she could be as well. "Get off the stage!" she would shout, or sneer, depending on her mood, if an exercise was not going well. Her worst insult: "You're middle-class, you're boring me."

Sometimes as I left Stella's I would see Harvey Keitel coming up the stairs for her famous script interpretation class. He had already made Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Ridley Scott's The Duellists. He was a star. But that was the profession as it was practised in New York then. The work on your instrument never ended and because there was never enough paid work, even for stars, you took class with the rest of us.

Stella began her first lecture seated in her throne. She looked out at us, eyes smouldering: "Three thousand years of human tradition. Three thousand years…" As actors we were part of a tradition that went back that far, she reminded us, to the Greeks, to Epidaurus, to people sitting in community to watch stories acted out.

But the cab linked to another tradition - the tradition of bohemia stretching back 150 years to Paris. Bohemia had migrated along with the title of "cultural capital of the West" from Europe to New York after the war and been rejuvenated by the Beats and others. Allen Ginsberg lived two blocks east of me, William Burroughs a few blocks south. They were familiar faces in the neighbourhood. But that's not why I lived where I lived - we all chose the East Village because it was cheap and you could walk anywhere and its streets were wonderfully mixed and a daily challenge to your preconceptions.

We chose it because there was a sense of community and money wasn't the sole arbiter of worth. You could be honourably poor, and your work still admired.

We lived where we lived because it was the artistic heart of the universe.

Image source, Rex Features

Sunday night late March 1976, cruising up Fourth Avenue through Union Square, just by Max's Kansas City, 10 minutes' walk from my flat, a young man flags me down, he and two others slide into the back. The middle of the three possesses the most famous head of white hair in New York. Andy Warhol. No, I do not say a thing. Andy Warhol's whole persona and the world he has created around himself is cool - actually junkie-cold, disinterested - and it would be remarkably uncool to recognise him.

We are going straight up Park Avenue to Sixty-sixth Street where he has a townhouse - he is rich now - and enough of a New Yorker to know that to drop him at his front door would be more expensive. I would have to go around the block, because of the city's one-way system, so the corner is just fine.

The Academy Awards are being given out the next day and he and his two young, extremely attractive companions spend the entire ride talking about who will win an Oscar. That is, the two young men do most of the talking. Warhol is quiet. The two young men discuss film in fanzine language. They sound like a couple of gossips under hairdryers in a beauty salon on Queen's Boulevard rather than the companions of arguably the most famous artist in New York.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Andy Warhol

Opportunity knocks not once when you drive a cab, but all the time. My flatmate Mark had written a script called Crazy Sad Songs - it was good - and even though it was not Warhol's kind of material, as I pull over at the corner of Sixty-sixth and Park I speak for the first time and say, "Mr. Warhol." He looks surprised to hear his name. "I have a very good script that I think you might be interested in." "OK, why don't you contact Fred Hughes and drop it off?" He gives me a number to call at the Factory and gets out. Warhol's friends giggle.

Simple as that - and the phone number was for real.

We called the Factory the next day and did go and visit Fred Hughes and did leave Crazy, Sad Songs with him, and no, they weren't interested in it.

Another close call.

I aspired to an acting career but as I drove, my fate was echoing in my head - although I did not recognise it then. Torrents of words flowed around my brain as I went up and down the avenues. Novels, opinion pieces, articles, the story of my life. Driving the cab was a 3D real-time exercise in autobiography.

I was born in the city and moved away when I was eight. Each shift behind the wheel had the potential to take me some place that would unblock memories.

Image source, AP

I frequently passed the intersection of Eightieth and Madison Avenue. On the north-east side of the street was PS 6, my primary school. On the north-west side Frank Campbell's Funeral Home. Every time I passed through that intersection I had a vivid memory of looking out the window of my first-grade classroom at the crowds blanketing the corners on the day of bandleader Jimmy Dorsey's funeral at Campbell's.

Now on a slow autumn Monday, as I rode up Madison Avenue in the 70s that image was going through my mind when a tall man stepped off the kerb outside Campbell's funeral home to flag me down. I veered over and picked him up. Another man and a woman got in first and then the fellow who had hailed me. Recognised him instantly. "Philip Roth?" "No, but I look like him." It wasn't said as a joke, it was said in a tone that meant I'm not interested in talking to you. Roth gave me an address on Lexington in the 50s and we set off.

It wasn't that long a drive. He and his companions had just seen Sweet Movie, a film by Dusan Makavejev, a Yugoslav director who had a bit of vogue in New York in the mid-70s. They spent most of the ride debating whether the critics were correct in saying it wasn't as good as his last film, WR: Mysteries of the Organism… I could have told them on this one the critics were right, but I had been pretty much told to zip it, so I kept quiet.

Image source, ALAMY

Instead I multiplied the autobiographical musings which got me through most cab-driving shifts. Roth's work had eerie points of contact with my own life. His most notorious fictional protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, had got his bachelor's degree at Antioch College in Ohio. I had, in real life, got my bachelor's degree at Antioch College in Ohio. Gabe Wallach, hero of his first full-length novel, Letting Go, had a love affair disintegrate against a backdrop of graduate studies at the University of Chicago… My heart had been broken when my girlfriend went to grad school at U of C and dumped me. In My Life as a Man, the hero Peter Tarnopol lives in a brownstone on Twelfth Street between Fifth and Sixth near the New School… I too had lived briefly in a brownstone on that block.

We arrived at our destination. I made eye-contact through the rear-view mirror. "Well, you may just look like him but I really like your writing, Mr. Roth." "Thanks, you know how it is, it gets to be a drag sometimes."

He got out, the tip was correct - neither more nor less than I might have expected. I blurted out: "I went to Antioch College, my girlfriend dumped me when she went to the University of Chicago, and I lived on 12th Street, Where am I going next?"

He laughed and said: "That way, down Lexington Avenue."

Michael Goldfarb writes and presents Trip Sheets as part of Radio 3's The Essay series - listen here on the BBC iPlayer. He is a former London bureau chief for National Public Radio, and the author of Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance.