Authors: Tom Pitts
For Cheryl, always.
There’s a lot of people I’d like to thank for helping me through the writing of this book. First and foremost, my wife, Cheryl, and my children, who put up with my obsessive behavior during the actual writing. Brian Stannard for the excellent painting and Eric Beetner for his talents and patience putting the cover together. Thanks to Michael Mohr for the editorial input, and my agent, Liz Kracht for believing in the story—even though it was too damn sleazy for the big boys. Also R. for speaking to me so honestly about his life in the “trade.” And last, but not least, Brian at Snubnose for taking it on without blinking.
Tom Pitts’ Hustle is, quite simply, one of the very best novels I’ve read in a long, long time. There’s just no other way to describe it. Years from now, I’m convinced it will be viewed in the same light as the early work of Charles Bukowski—as a ground-breaking classic. To be honest, there is no one to compare Pitts to with this book. It will be the novel that will be considered as the first—and best—of, for want of a better term—“hustle” noir.
Perhaps the best comparison—not in the writing, but in the revealing of an underworld lifestyle—would be to Robert Beck’s seminal classic, Iceberg Slim. The difference is, Pitts doesn’t attempt to portray his protagonist as heroic as Beck does, but more along the lines of Jean Genet’s character Divine in his brilliant Our Lady of the Flowers. But, while both of these writers and both of these books use the settings of the underworld of sex-for-pay and/or aberrant sex-for-pleasure, there is a significant difference in Hustle, in that Pitts’ protagonist, Donny, isn’t portrayed as a man who sees himself as a maverick or a rebel, raging against the system and defiantly proud of his rebellion, but simply as a human being to whom drugs have reduced to an intolerable lifestyle which he is unable to escape, although the entire book is about his struggle to do so. Both Iceberg Slim and Divine embrace their lifestyles, but Donny does not. That is the difference and why, even though there are similarities in settings and lifestyles, Donny is more akin to Bukowski’s Martin Blanchard than Divine or Slim. And yet, he isn’t like Blanchard either. The thing is, he’s an entirely different character than just about anyone in literature. Donny shares similarities with other literary creations, but in the end, he is a whole new creation. And, because of that, Hustle is a whole new category of noir.
And, while Donny doesn’t see himself as heroic, of course he is. He’s a survivor and that is the best proof of heroism that exists. He’s proactive on his own behalf to escape the hell that he’s in and against more terrible odds than Hercules or Atlas ever faced and what makes him extremely likeable is that he doesn’t see himself as heroic in the least.
Hustle is going to be seen by its critics as both remarkable and abhorrent. Often both by the same critic. It’s going to offend some crime writers I suspect, because compared to their own work, which of course they will in their own minds, they’re going to realize that their efforts—compared to Pitts’—are more along the lines of The Hardy Boys Have Adventures in Sugar Creek. In other words, there are many pretenders and posers writing crime and noir novels, who have little or no experience with the element they are writing about. Pitts knows his milieu and better than anyone I’ve ever read. His novel rings loud and clear with hard, honest truth. He knows these guys and he doesn’t judge. Readers looking for the comfort of stereotypes are bound to be disappointed. Like Bukowski’s Martin Blanchard, he allows his characters to have souls and, indeed, insists on it.
Pitts told me that there was some pressure on him to edit some of the rougher parts to make it more palatable for readers. In his words, “They're trying to have me soften it a little, I'm trying to hold fast.” Please do, Tom! If any of this gets “softened” it will only prove that as a culture, we have, indeed, become so PC’d we’ve lost our souls. To “soften” this book would mean literature has lost to moronic politics. And we’ll all be the poorer for that.
—Les Edgerton, a
uthor of The Rapist, Just Like That, and The Bitch
It seemed like it would be fun. Everyone referred to it as a party.
Hey, you wanna party? Do you like to party?
The drugs—the things he really loved—were called party favors. It made it all seem that much more normal, like they were flappers from the roaring twenties asking who was going to bring the champagne.
You got party favors?
first time was for the party favors—just went to some shitty hotel with two guys. Donny only had to be with one of them. The big guy said the little guy couldn’t get it up, that he was too high. But he was wrong; the little guy got it up. The little guy only watched, but came three times. Maybe he didn’t like the idea of someone else touching his dick. Donny couldn’t blame him. Should have seen his friend.
It was easy, or at least it got easier, so Donny returned to the corner.
Down on that corner, everybody knew each other. Everybody was into each other’s business. The boys depended on each other for information. Information was survival. They all knew the regulars, the older men who would cruise the corner in their luxury cars. They got to know who was married, who liked to party, who liked it freaky, and who was HIV-positive. Some of the tricks didn’t care who knew, but some liked to keep it a secret.
HIV-positive thing never really bothered Donny much. A trick was a trick; that’s what rubbers were for. They all used condoms—or said they did. Some of those freaks gave up extra money to go without, but not with Donny. He wasn’t there ‘cause he liked the sex, he liked the party—more specifically, the party favors. Some of those older johns, they would carry a sack of the shit just for the pick-ups. They never used it, probably drop dead of a heart attack if they did. But they all knew, down on Polk Street, speed was like candy at the schoolyard.
After a few more tricks, it seemed silly to keep doing it just to smoke a little crank; might as well walk out of there with a few bucks. At least then you could buy some downtown, help you forget all the bullshit you just went through. This is how Donny met Big Rich
. Big Rich could get that cheap brown Mexican dope no matter what time of the night it was.
Big Rich had been down there longer than any of them.
He was bigger, tougher, and more street-worn than the rest of them, but he was still handsome enough to be desirable. His few years on the corner added up to eons of experience. He was a seasoned pro. Rich could smell vice before they ever hit the block. He’d give a high whistle whenever he heard them coming and the boys would all start moving, walking, lighting cigarettes and talking on cell phones. It’s not like they were fooling anybody. Everybody in the city knew what went on down there.
Big Rich’s appetite to party was insatiable.
So was his need for cash. He needed speed to work and heroin to live. He’d already burned through the regulars. He knew how to size up the fresh meat. He could tell by the make and model of the car—even just the headlights—if the guy inside was real money or just flash. It was Big Rich who showed Donny how to steal from the tricks. He taught all of them the finer arts of being a hustler.
“In the car, that’s easy,” Big Rich said.
He was on the corner proselytizing the new boys. “Then you just tell ‘em you want to see it, all of it, get ‘em to pull their pants down all the way. After you start, just go through their pockets while their pants are sittin’ around their ankles.”
“Multi-tasking,” someone joked.
“Exactly,” said Rich, serious. “But if they wanna do
, then it ain’t so easy. Better to tell ‘em that you don’t feel safe on the street, tell ‘em you got busted in a car just last week, it’d be better if you go to a room.”
“That way you know if they have any more than what they
’re willing to spend on you, if they’re serious,” said one of the boys, eager to be part of Rich’s sermon.
Donny just listened, took it al
l in. To him, Rich seemed like one of the good guys, like he had their best interests at heart. They didn’t have pimps down there; Rich was the closest thing they did have—someone who was looking out.
’re in the room, it’s easy,” continued Rich, “If they got party favors, y’all know how to palm ‘em, or just get greedy and suck ‘em up. Start smoking and blow it straight up into the air. Shit, once they’ve paid for a room, they got their name on the register downstairs and they don’t want any trouble. Believe that.”
“What about the money?
” asked Donny.
on. You know, you tell ‘em you like it clean, get ‘em to go into the bathroom, wash it off. When they do, you grab what you can. You know this shit.”
It was true; Big Rich had been schooling Donny from the first week he was on
the corner. He looked out for Donny. The first time the two of them met, they went together to do a show for some old fucker who just wanted to see them get hard. They did their thing. The old guy did his. All by himself. Then he left the room. Maybe he had some shame issues. Guilt, regret, whatever. Big Rich and Donny stayed in that room for two days, even ordered room service. Finally, the drugs ran out, and so did they.
cops rolled on the corner and broke up their little pep talk. Just a black-and-white, probably didn’t even notice them. But even the sight of a police car got them nervous. Everybody walking, talking, acting like they belonged somewhere else. Of course, none of them did.
After the crew had scattered like
frightened pigeons, Big Rich and Donny stood alone on the corner.
“Got any smokes?” Big Rich
Donny said. It wasn’t always true, but he’d be a fool to pass up any offer of a free meal.
“Let’s go get a slice from
the Arab. I wanna talk to you about somethin’.”
The two walked down Polk
Street and Rich bought them both a slice from the Arab. The Arab was the owner of Alzer’s Pizza on Polk. Even though his name was emblazoned above the door, the boys referred to him only as the Arab.
“For here,” Rich told the Arab.
“To go,” replied the Arab. Alzer hated these boys in his place. They were bad for business. He knew they shot-up in the bathroom; he was the one who had to clean the blood off the walls.
Donny and Rich took their slices, packaged in white cardboard to-go containers, and sat down anyway. Th
ey picked a spot near the front window. There, they could watch the street and not be easily heard.
“I been thinking,” said Big
Rich, “about the long haul. Y’know, ripping these assholes off for drug money ain’t too satisfying. We get maybe two days well out of it and we’re back to sucking dicks.”
Donny nodded and chewed his pizza. It wasn’t too
warm and it wasn’t too good. Alzer had probably given them the stalest slices in the shop. He’d had better pizza out of trashcans.
“Thing is, we go
to these guys’ houses all the time. Steal a few nick-knacks, shit we can pawn before they know it’s gone. It ain’t nothin’ really. These are million-dollar houses we’re sittin’ in. Sick fucking perverts who make more money than God. They don’t know how lucky they are.”
,” Donny said with his mouth still full of pizza.
“And we can help ‘
em appreciate how lucky they are.”
Donny still didn’t see what he was getting at.
“We pick one of these old fuckers, someone with a wife, a family, you know. Shit, he don’t want to turn his world upside down. Someone who’s got so much dough that it won’t hurt to pay us off. And keep paying us off. Like a weekly paycheck, so we can stop this bullshit we’re doing out here.” Big Rich pointed to the traffic outside the window.
Donny had heard his friend go down this path before. There was nothing new about blackmailing johns. It was the second oldest profession in the world.
“I thought you said it was a bad idea. That it never worked out.”
Aaah,” Big Rich held up his finger, “this time we do it right. We get in-convertible evidence. So it’s not just my word against theirs.”
“Incontrovertible,” said Donny.
Incontrovertible. That’s the word.”
“Bullshit, that’s not how you say it.”
“It is. Convertibles are cars.”
“Shut the fuck up, Donny. You don’t know. This is my plan and I’ve been giving it
a lot of thought. We just find the right guy, in the right circumstance, and then we get it on film. That’s it. We tell him we’re gonna expose him, put it on YouTube or some shit and let the money roll in.”
“You got it all figured out, w
hy don’t you do it?”
“Because, Donny, I need someone to hold the camera.”
Rain had started to fall when the boys left the pizza shop. It was
only a spit, but enough to make them not want to go back to the corner.
“Let’s call the man,”
Big Rich said.
“I only have eleven dollars,” said Donny.
“I thought you said you didn’t have any money?”
money,” Donny said.
“That’s okay. I can get a front from Hector. I don’t owe him anything.”
Donny was relieved. The habit that he’d acquired from daily use of heroin had shown no signs of slowing down. Nowadays it seemed he only had a few hours before he was going to feel sick. He could already feel the irrepressible yawns coming on and the rain was not helping with the chills.
“Let’s go back to my hotel
room. I got a bag of fresh works,” Big Rich said. He pulled his cell from his jacket and stepped under an awning while he scrolled down to Hector’s number. He spoke into the phone with a serious look on his face. After he finished, he turned to Donny and said, “Twenty minutes.”
They marked the
time walking back through the Tenderloin streets until they reached Big Rich’s place on the worst part of Eddy Street. Deep in the Tenderloin, the streets were lined with vagrants despite the weather. Old men sat slumped, piled in rags, looking like heaps of garbage. Women with stringy whiskers on their chins talked to themselves as they pushed carts filled with garbage only they valued. Every few feet there were drug dealers offering pills of every variety, most of which, Rich and Donny knew, were a rip-off. All of these cast-offs were out there no matter what time of day or night, lining the sidewalks. Human waste.
The rain had picked up now. H
eavy gobs pelted them as they both stood facing the door of the old hotel, waiting for the man behind the front desk to recognize them and buzz them in.
The door buzzed and they walked into the tiny
, dank lobby. The small Indian man behind the desk said, “Ten dollars.”
“C’mon,” said Big Rich
. “We’re only gonna be here a minute. You know, Donny. He’s here all the time.”
deposit, ten dollars,” the man said.
gonna go up and get my wallet,” Big Rich said.
Last time,” said the desk clerk, “Last time.”
The boys were
buzzed in through the inner gate that separated the lobby from the stairs and bolted up, two steps at a time.
They got to the room and Donny was hit by the familiar funk of his friend’s filth. There
were pizza boxes and empty fast-food containers piled high on the old dresser. The bed was unmade and the sheets were speckled with blood from Big Rich cleaning his rig after using it. On the nightstand beside the bed stood a dirty glass of water on a patch of black, the dark carbon smudge from where Rich’s spoon sat when he cooked his dope.
ignored the blood on the sheets and plopped down. It was dry blood after all.
right back. Don’t touch nothin’,” said Big Rich as he checked the time on his cell phone and slipped out the door.
Donny nodded and stayed sitting
on the bed. He pulled out his own cell to see how long it would take his friend to return. He sat waiting, wishing he had some drugs of his own. He reached into the breast pocket of his denim jacket and pulled out a glass stem with a blub on the end. He examined the bulb. It was cloudy and white. He held a disposable lighter to it and rotated the bulb around. Barely a puff of smoke. He sucked it in and held it.
He tilted his head up
expecting to blow out the smoke and nothing came out of his lungs at all. On the ceiling he saw more blood spatters. There was so much blood up there it looked like a Jackson Pollack painting. Donny knew how it could be, the rig getting clogged, blood coagulating; you gave it a little pressure to squeeze out the goop and squirt, there it went, half your shot was on the roof. The shitty coke they got from the Mexicans was the worst. It’d gum up your works in a minute if you didn’t find a vein. And no one wanted to squirt out any of that shit.