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How Good of a Cabbie was De Niro in ‘Taxi Driver’?

I asked three New York City cab drivers to size-up Travis Bickle’s taxi-driving skills in the hopes of finding out whether the crazed psychopath might also have been a decent cabbie

In preparation for the role of Travis Bickle in the Martin Scorsese masterpiece Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro got a cab driver’s license and worked as a driver for more than a month, pulling 12-hour shifts just like his character. While that certainly helped De Niro prepare for the role, I began to wonder something after my most recent rewatch of Taxi Driver on Netflix: How good of a cab driver, technically speaking, is Travis Bickle?

I mean, aside from the whole “descent into madness” thing, is he a competent cabbie or do his creepy, stalker hobbies get in the way of his work? 

The only way I could find out was to reach out to a few real-life taxi drivers to give Bickle an honest performance review.

What do real cab drivers think of Taxi Driver?

John McDonagh, NYC cab driver since 1977, author and star of the one-man-show Off the Meter: I enjoyed Taxi Driver. It really captured the loneliness of driving 12-hour shifts. Back then, there were no cell phones or anything, so once you left the house, you were on your own. You couldn’t contact anyone. 

The movie actually came out when I got my hack license, and there were a lot of similarities between me and De Niro’s character. I’d just gotten out of the Army, and he’d just gotten out of the service and gotten his hack license, too. De Niro, in real life, had gotten a hack license, and if you look at his and look at mine, they’re not that far apart!

De Niro’s actual cab driver’s license alongside John McDonagh’s 

Andrew Kanninen, cab driver in NYC and the Hudson Valley since 2009: Taxi Driver is definitely a product of its time. A lot of the norms he dealt with haven’t been around since Giuliani was in office. It’s an amusing movie, though. He’s an interesting specimen, and there’s a reason why he’s a big archetype in American popular culture.

Edward Crawford, actor and writer, original host of Cash Cab (unaired), NYC cab driver from 2001 to 2002: I loved Taxi Driver! That movie still resonates with me for the feelings of loneliness and darkness. Cab driving is weird — it’s the loneliest job, but you always have someone with you.

Bickle works from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., six or seven days a week. Is that safe?

McDonagh: You can still drive that many hours now. That’s pretty common. It’s not safe at all, though. You get tired, and there’s the stress of people yelling at you, jumping out without paying or throwing up in the back. He did the night shift, which I’ve done too, and you had to be really on your toes back then not to get robbed or anything. It was a lot of stress.

Kanninen: Yeah, those hours are pretty standard for a cab driver. 

Do the animals really come out at night, as Bickle claims?

McDonagh: Oh yeah, they do. To make it worse, the animals also drink and smoke weed and do heroin and snort coke. People are out of their minds! They’ll argue with you about the meter, yell at you to turn the radio to their station or complain about the route you took. That happens quite a bit.

Did you ever have to “clean cum and blood off the back seat”?

McDonagh: That happened, but it wasn’t that often. 

Kanninen: I cannot say I’ve done that. Just vomit from time-to-time.

Crawford: I never had to do that. I did have an experience once when it was prom night and a young man and a young girl got in the cab, though. I guess they did what they had to do. It was my last fare of the night, and I just dropped the cab off afterward. I have no idea what was back there.

I did find teeth once! You always find glasses and wallets, and I always returned them. One time, I took a dollar out to get myself a cup of coffee, because the guy had like, $700 in his wallet. He could care less, that guy. He was just happy to get his wallet back.

Should a cab driver carry a gun?

Crawford: No. I don’t think so.

Kanninen: It depends upon where they work. In New York City nowadays, the driver is hermetically sealed from the passenger, so no. But in Travis Bickle’s day, it was a necessity.

McDonagh: I never saw a driver with a gun. When I was at the garage, though, I saw guys with billy clubs and blackjacks under the front seat in case something went down — then they could beat the passenger with it. You could get away with that back then too because there were no cameras. If you did beat a passenger, you could just leave them on the street corner and drive away. You could get away with a lot more back then.

What about all of Bickle’s creepy, stalker behavior?

Crawford: When I was a cab driver, I would sit sometimes, have a cup of coffee and people watch, but that’s about it. I never stalked anyone. 

McDonagh: De Niro’s character is nuts. He does a lot of things you might think about doing, but he goes out and actually does them. That’s why it’s a movie. If it was about a driver who worked 12 hours and didn’t shoot anybody, that’s not much of a movie.

Most importantly though, is he a good cabbie?

Crawford: Looking at his driving, he seems to know what he’s doing. He’ll get you from A to B, so he’s pretty competent as a cab driver. But as a human, I don’t know — he’s pretty fucking creepy.

Kanninen: Eh, driving is driving. He does fine. There is one thing I noticed, though. There’s a part of the movie where he’s walking and we see him take a drink from a flask. He’s heading southwest on Park Avenue against the shadows, which means it’s sunset, not sunrise. My point is, he’s actually drinking to prepare for a shift, not to recover from it. So that’s concerning.

McDonagh: There are pieces in Taxi Driver that most people, especially today, wouldn’t pick up on. When he gets paid, he puts the cash in a cigar box, which was standard back then. When he picks up a passenger, you see him pick up his clipboard, and he’s writing. When you went out in those days, you were given a trip sheet by the dispatcher, and for every person that got into your cab, you had to write down where you picked them up, how many people and what time you picked them up. Then, when you dropped them off, you had to write down what time you dropped them off. If you didn’t do that and you were pulled over by the Taxi and Limousine Commision, you were given a ticket for not filling out your trip sheet. So he’s doing what he’s supposed to there.

Also, when he’s driving, he stops for red lights and he goes for green lights. He doesn’t drive fast, and he’s observing everything around him. He might have been insane, but he was driving like a sane person.