Dry Hustle was published in 1977, and over the following 30 years, while Sarah Kernochan made a name for herself as a screenwriter, director, producer, singer, pianist, songwriter, and journalist, her book was on my want list. It turns out to be worth the wait.
Hippie girl Randy comes to NY with her boyfriend, and with, at his request half a pound of cocaine concealed on her person. He calls himself a neurophenomologist, but basically he’s a coke-head. Their plan falls apart, and Randy goes to work as a taxi-dancer. Kristal, a gypsy proficient in the art of getting money from men and giving nothing in return, takes young Randy under her wing.
“The first place you should never have to go is hungry,” Kristal says. Also she says, “I’m pleasingly plump. Anyone doesn’t like it can keep skinny eatin’ shit.”
“A good sadist is hard to find,” Kristal explains, after setting up a top-dollar gig with a man who wants to be abused by Kristal while Randy looks on and jeers. Kristal’s particular area of expertise is the story about why they need to be paid up front, a different story for each man. This poor sucker, like all the others before him, will arrive at the rendezvous to find no dominatrix and no apprentice.
Kristal teaches Randy all the ropes and then some. Money yes, sex no, is the operating principle. But then…. Randy meets a guy who seems to be a shining example of hippiedom, and falls for him like a ton of hashish. But when he and Kristal meet, they immediately recognize each other as master hustlers, and start talking shop. Cody is a motorcyclist in a gang of one, who says, “I don’t need any of the brother shit, just so I can ride a bike.”
Sarah Kernochan is a splendid writer. The Dry Hustle characters were based on a pair of real women she hung out with in the sleaze district of New York. Here is the beautiful description of Kristal eating:
Her eyes were narrowed to slivers, as if she were on top of a mountain facing into a steady powerful wind and she were eating to gain the extra weight needed to stand fast, immutable, immune, impenetrable, against the power.
A long, long time ago, I read that Karen Black would be playing Kristal in the movie. In fact, that’s probably how the book got on my want list in the first place, because Black is a favorite actor. She would have been great, but it never happened. Then Bette Midler was going to play Kristal, and I would have hated that. Kernochan and Glenn Close were school friends – why on earth didn’t Close get this movie made, and play Kristal herself?
Kristal sums up her worldview:
You can fool alla the people alla the time. One at a time. You got to do them one at a time, that’s why it’s a life’s work.
In A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago (1922), Ben Hecht describes a representative member of an earlier generation of taxi-dancers:
The wise, brazen little virgins who shimmy and toddle, but never pay the fiddler. She’s it. Selling her ankles for a glass of pop and her eyes for a fox trot. Unhuman little piece. A cross between a macaw and a marionette.
Dance Hall Racket with Honey Harlow