The movie opens with Joe Buck (Voight) leaving Texas for New York City (New York City??) to find fame and fortune as a "hustler." With the poignant "Everybody's Talkin'" playing as the main theme, the opening credits sequence is a montage of locations in and around Sweetwater and Big Spring, Texas, as Joe Buck heads for, and eventually boards and leaves on, the bus to NYC.
Makes you wonder if The Alamo was responsible for that theater shutting down. Incidentally, the 1969 Oscars, where Midnight Cowboy beat True Grit (another John Wayne film) for Best Picture, is sometimes considered to be the transitional moment when "old" Hollywood gave way to the "new."
Joe Buck is too pure at heart to be an effective "hustler," so lucky for him, "Ratso" Rizzo (Hoffman) offers to be his "manager."
Unless I'm mistaken, I believe this was a "planned accident." In other words, it was reshot until the "right" cab came into the scene:
Ratso scams and steals from Joe Buck, and Buck is back on his own, walking a pre-Giuliani, pre-Disney Times Square with John Barry's haunting "Midnight Cowboy" (Grammy Award for best Instrumental Theme) providing the soundtrack:
The next morning, Buck spots Ratso again through the window of a streetside cafe - his overjoyed look of recognition quickly becomes one of vengeful hate, and he demands justice. Ratso invites Joe to share the filthy condemned, East Village tenement building where he lives.
As he watches Joe enter the lobby of a hotel from across the street in order to attempt yet another "hustle," Ratso daydreams of the good life in Florida.
Ultimately, the ailing Ratso collapses (due to pneumonia), and is unable to walk at all, as winter sets in.
Joe beats and robs a customer to raise the money to take them to Florida (the "promised land"), where Ratso can hopefully recover in the warm weather and Joe can find honest work.
They leave on a southbound bus, with Joe discarding his cowboy clothes enroute...
...but Ratso dies as they approach Miami. Joe is alone once more, and wary of the future.