Roshomon on the 1/9 Train

by

02/16/2005

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Two men on the 1/9 train, heading downtown at night. One of them has a head of wild brown curls that are pushed off his forehead by a headband. The look is part hoodlum, part Jean Michelle Basquiat. His eyes are bloodshot. His body, buried beneath a hugely puffy down jacket, radiates a tense poise. He sits with elbows on his knees, talking. Sitting across from him is his friend, slicked back black hair under a cap, a Confucian soul patch beneath his lower lip. He wears a white leather jacket, and hardly speaks.

The train enters the Lincoln Center Station, slows, stops. The doors open.

**

The rustling darkness of a sold-out movie theater. The lights have just dimmed. The Film Forum, with its dilapidated seats, its irascible audience, its excellent popcorn and programming, has revived “Taxi Driver,” for a one week run. It is the last show of the last night.

In a completionist mode, the theater is running the original trailer of the movie to go with the restored print, and so the audience is treated to the appetizer composed of parts of the main course they are about to experience—Jodie Foster, the teenage hooker, cruising third avenue in hot pants and a Bella Abzug hat, Harvey Kietel, the 12th Street Pimp, loitering in tight pants and in his Bella Abzug hat. Cybill Sheppard, Albert Brooks. And lost, angry, volatile, brilliant, frightening, very skinny Robert DeNiro.

But movie trailers always take liberties. This one has something the movie does not, a voice-over:

“The four most frightening words in the English Language,” says the low, ominous voice.

A voice in the darkened theater calls out, “My Dinner with Andre!”

The laughter subsides as the heckler adds, “Actually, Andre Gregory is one of my best friends.”

Then Robert DeNiro, in his Travis Bickle mode, flashes on the screen and pronounces the four frightening words: “You Talking to me?”

The trailer is over.

“Taxi Driver” commences.

**

From the Taxi to the Subway:

Two men stand on the subway platform at Lincoln Center, waiting for a train.

They are part of the great winter submergence of basketball in New York. In the summer, basketball is a la carte and free, a buffet laid out in nearly every park in the city. In the winter the game goes indoors and costs money. The public school gyms whose daytime life consists of screaming third graders, assembly, and “gym,” get a night shift, when the paying ballers assemble in tribes.

On Carmine Street, at the youth center: a tiny court, a twenty-five dollar annual fee, and mayhem.
On Mulberry Street: the fashion photographers, and other itinerant downtowners.
On 68th and Second Avenue: the advertising people, many of them Midwestern, with some Wall Street sprinkled in.
On the west side, behind Lincoln Center and its bright Chagall’s, sits Martin Luther King High School, whose gym is in the basement. Night Schooling. These two are have come from that game.

Showing up to play basketball on a summer playground is a slightly peevish experience, and totally democratic. Everyone arrives in a mood to insult, and prepared defend against insult, basketball related or otherwise.

The general attitude: “You Talking to me?”

The two players, fresh from their game, are joined by a third, peevish after losing four straight. There is some light banter, and then the dark tunnel begins to grow bright.

**

Taxi Driver: the screen fills with New York City streaming in dense, blurring, textural color. Travis Bickle’s cab drifts through every neighborhood. It’s summer, and the city is sultry, horny, dirty, ungoverned. In his cab, it is always night. Is it the film that gives the landscape such texture, some Scorsese magic? Or did the city have more texture? In Taxi Driver the whole city is, as Norman Mailer once wrote of Times Square back then, haunted by “fevers not abated, echoes of voices a block away which promised violence—if not for tonight, then for another.”

**

The train doors open.

Dave and Nick sit on one side of the train. I sit across the aisle. The subway isn’t a sushi bar, there is no need for us to sit like pigeons, craning our necks to talk, and yet in sitting across from them I knew right away I was taking a chance, because there is a Travis Bickle on every subway car, fuming, agitated, or at least bored, waiting to hear some stray undirected conversation to which they can respond, in one way or another, “You taking to me?”

Dave, Nick, and myself drift into a litany of recent atmospheric strangeness in the city, the old New York poking its way through the surface of the new like a bad but irrepressible dream.

First came the C Train Fire.

“We’re so used to the sleekness of the city!” we said. “It’s such a shock to discover half the subway system is held together by scotch tape.”

“There was one on Bergen Street six years ago,” said Nick. “Same thing.”

Then we moved onto the most recent city weirdness, the media saturated coverage of the shooting of a young woman on the Lower East Side. There were probably many reasons that story was spread across the front page of the tabloids for several days—her race, her youth, the neighborhood, even the bar, Max Fish—but surely among them was the audacity, or foolishness, of her having blurted out, “What are you going to do, shoot us?”

**

“You talking to me?”

**

“The awful thing about that whole scene is on some level I could understand how angry she must have been…” I say.

“Or how drunk,” says Nick.

“I can almost see myself saying that.”

“You think you’d say that if someone pulled on a gun on you?” asks Dave.

“In a way I could see it. On the other hand I might just break down and start crying, you never know, I’m not going to predict. But I could see myself mouthing off like that. Sometimes I get mouthy when someone is in my face.”

“I wouldn’t say that to someone who pulled a gun on me,” says Nick. “I grew up in New York, a different New York, and I was scared.”

“I grew up here too,” I say. “I was scared too. But it’s sort of morphed; I get kind of angry when someone is in my face. I get mouthy.”

“Why would you be scared?” says the guy with the wild hair and the headband, who is sitting next to Dave.

You talkin to me?

“Because,” I say, and turn to meet his heavy lidded bloodshot eyes. “I was smaller then. And fat.”

“That’s no reason to be scared,” says the headband.

“It seemed a good reason at the time. I was afraid, fat, and small!" I hold my hand out as though to illustrate, universal sign language for short. "And now I’m not so afraid, not so fat, and not so small. It’s one of those transitions you make.”

“You’re a big guy, so, you know, now anyone who rolls up on you is probably going to have a gun.”

“I’m aware of that,” I say. “I’ve given that some thought. What about you? You never get scared?”

“No,” he says, giving me this look. “Why would I be scared?”

“You never know.”

The Confucian figure with the soul patch, the cap, the white leather jacket sitting silently to my left, murmurs something, his friend turns to him, and the two streams of conversation separate for a while.

**

Dave, Nick and me continue about the recent life of the city. The man with the bandana, bloodshot eyes, still leans forward, elbows on his knees, like there is a coffee table in the middle of the subway that we are all sitting around.

We move on to the electrocution of that young woman on the lower East Side last winter.

“Someone’s dogs got a shock walking in Brooklyn just the other day,” says Dave.

“My friend works for Con Ed,” says Nick. “He said do not walk on any metal on the streets. All the wires are corroded by salt.”

“Avoid all metal?” says Dave. “That seems extreme. Maybe he was just getting off on having the inside scoop.”

“That whole thing was so upsetting,” I say, “probably the weirdest thing that has happened in a long time. It was like the city’s violent unconscious rose up to the surface and snatched somebody. The line between reality and fantasy got all blurry.”

“That happens sometimes,” says the man with the bandana. Commiseration or provocation. Always a fine line.

“That’s true, you can’t control reality all the time. Things gets mixed up.”

“It’s a beautiful thing.”

“In the best case scenario.”

A few beats of eye contact…

You Talking to me? You talking to me?

Then there is silence for a while and the two parties separate again.

**

A few stops later, the subway rolls into my station. The two men stand. Headband exits, and white leather jacket and soul patch stands and then pauses for a moment as though to address an audience. He delivers his single line of the night.

“Good night, gentleman,” he says, and walks out the door.

I stand a moment later, smile at Dave and Nick. “Good night!”

The doors close. The train moves on with Dave and Nick. They engage in a brief fantasy of violence—Tom and the two interlopers got off at the same stop. They wonder what happened next.

I walk down the platform with the two guys in front of me, bandana man swinging his arms. A tiny part of me wishes I’m closer to them and we had one last exchange, one more beat to the line, because I’m convinced the bandana man really just wanted to talk. They were going out, after all. It was a night for socializing. I want to rescue that scene on the subway from its ambiguity. But they are too far ahead, it would be strange to run after them and try to strike up a conversation. Still, I wonder where they are going.

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