Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hustlers R Us

I think my fascination with hustlers came from being raised without any practical defenses whatever. I was gullible, naive, inexperienced, guileless: a mark. And until I could learn to think like a hustler, I would always be a mark.

Survival techniques in a rough world were never taught by my parents.  In their view, you try to follow the path of righteousness, and avoid people who are aggressive, rude, obstreperous, or just plain bad. That leaves out a lot of business people. So if you want to make it in business, best to forget it. Take up stenography. My father never stopped saying, a propos of my career in the film business, "I don't know how you stand it. They're all such sharks. You should get out."

But I didn't, because I had studied other hustlers, and how they maneuvered. The more I understood and adopted their strategies, the stronger I felt in the world.

The first hustler I ever viewed up close was a boyfriend. He was exotic: a Jew, for one thing, and he was fierce. He never backed away from a conflict but just yelled louder than anyone else until he won. To a repressed WASP, this was fantastic! He stayed up nights plotting and rehearsing strategies, including me in, assigning me my roles. He taught me how to hold my own with those who would undermine or underestimate me. (He was also paranoid and manic depressive but that's another story.)

My second hustler was Marjoe, the faithless evangelist who was the subject of my 1972 documentary Marjoe. He never seemed to sleep either. He was always preparing his moves, setting up the barricades front, back, left, and right, because otherwise someone would take advantage of him while he was busy taking advantage of others. You could understand why: his own parents were thoroughly untrustworthy and tricked him out at every turn. I can't say that his modus operandi instructed me in any way, but he was a great case study in survival.

My third and last hustler, as I hit the extreme end of the spectrum, was Kristal who, unlike the other two, was actually and definitively a criminal. I never aspired to be a bunco artist. But, through absorbing Kristal's lessons (presented at length and unexpurgated in Dry Hustle), I learned how to read people and adjust my game plan accordingly. It made me stronger in dealing with the unavoidable adversaries who crop up in show business.

But I could never achieve the full mastery: that coldness that levies the stab in the back, the finishing blow, the chop to the neck. I couldn't relinquish that bit of humanity that my three hustlers had long ago sacrificed.   

I think my parents would have been proud of that.

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