March 08, 2018

The Pimp, The Actor, and The French Intellectual: Notes from Hustlers & Empires



Doing nothing is a profession, and it’s very hard. Maybe the hardest thing there is. After all, the imaginary always belongs to someone. — Marguerite Duras



Black, blue, gold, interior, red sky.


Granite, mercury, blood, black rubber, deep dark waters.


Writer, intellectual, narcissist. A manic-depressive alcoholic who’s obsessed with her sexuality. She once was a passionate, rebellious child, but now is worn and languorous, sad and cynical. She has her own sense of moral direction which has no regard for social expectations or cultural constraints. She has been living by her own rules for so long she can no longer listen to anybody… ever… at all. She is lonely, yet always surrounded by lovers. She was raised in a foreign land by a single mother. Her oldest brother was a thief and junkie. Sexually abused as a child… slept with an older man to support the family… fucked her brother… she learned early on how money ran the world and how love was a useless emotion. She thrives on controlling people, especially through her sexuality. She’s living for annihilation.


Sex: Female.
Age: Fifteen (past) & fifty-five (present).
Heredity: Mother was French, father rumored to be Vietnamese.
Hair: Black.
Eyes: Black, brown, sometimes green, always dilated.


Neighborhood: Raised in a poor village in French Indochina.
Childhood home: Depressing, abusive, lonely.
Biggest disagreement with her parents: Wanting to stop sleeping with an older man; her mother insisted.
What was she like at school: Always the outsider. Smart, but mostly skipped class and met boys by the river. After she began her affair with the older man she was shunned. Students were forbidden to hang out with her.
Most important person to her outside of family: Her best friend and lover Helene.
Happiest childhood moment: Watching storms wash over their house during the rainy season.
First person she kissed: Her brother.
Biggest disappointment: Love.
As a child, what did she imagine her adult life would be like: Sexually adventurous, glamorous, full of accolades.


Current: Single. Alone.
How have her relationships been: Brief, passionate, doomed.


Who knows her better than anyone: Her editor.
Real friends or acquaintances: Acquaintances.
Makes her laugh: Everything. But mostly when people think they’re smarter than her.
Makes her cry: Too much vodka. But they are tears of rage.

Favorite book or author: Anything she wrote herself.
Favorite artist: Other than literature and film, she finds art frivolous.
Favorite film: Anything she filmed herself. And anything by Chantal Akerman.

Five things she couldn’t live without: Vodka, wine, cigarettes, a writing utensil, self-glorification, despair. (Okay, that’s six things.)

Most beloved personal possessions: A collection of green sea glass she found in Calais.
Introvert or extrovert: Both.
Most hated activity: Having to explain her work.
Most enjoyed activity: Explaining her work.

Political philosophy: Anarchist with capitalist and socialist tendencies.
Politically active/apathetic: Vive la révolution!
Bravest thing she’s done: Joined the French Resistance.
Scariest thing she’s done: Received her husband from Buchenwald.



America is being led to her death by racist power junkies coasting on a stupid trip — the fatal fantasy that soldiers and police can destroy with clubs and guns an indestructible force: the hunger of the human soul for dignity, justice, and freedom. — Iceberg Slim



Black, silver, red, gold, night.


Musty earth, sharp metal, glass.


Street hustler, pimp, rock star, narcissist. S/he has been spinning tales of bullshit for so long s/he can no longer remember the definition of truth. Highly manipulative. S/he has an IQ of 175 and a morality guided by the book of the street. Aloof, arrogant, full of attitude and confidence. S/he can turn on the charm but reveals nothing. Her/his heart is locked up tight in a block of ice. S/he has a traumatic background, an abusive mother, never knew her/his dad; has been hustling since the age of five. Ultimately s/he knows the pimping game is part of a racist system of oppression and therefore her/his puffed-up self-confidence is merely a band-aid on her already lost, battered soul. In and out of the pen, a victim of circumstance, s/he’s trying really hard to keep it together, trying to figure out why s/he can’t see the world through different eyes.

Rides the line between relevance and obsolescence, fly and desperate.


Sex: Female, sometimes male.
Age: Forty (in the past) & seventy (in the present)
Heredity: African-American. Her/his father was rumored to be part Swedish.
Hair: Black or white, depends on the wig.
Eyes: Sometimes dark, always cold.
Posture: Stately and self-assured. Untouched by your gaze.


Neighborhood: Poor black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.
Childhood home: Empty, abusive, completely unstable.
Parents’ relationship: There was lots of fucking, screaming, and furniture being thrown.
What was s/he like at school: Even though s/he had large numbers of friends, s/he always felt like an outsider. S/he was smart, but often skipped class and hung out downtown.
Happiest childhood moment: S/he can’t remember any, even though s/he knows s/he had some. It must have happened before the addiction started.
Saddest childhood moment: When her/his mom left Fred, the dentist, for a street hustler named Mack.
First person s/he kissed: Cookie, in the bathroom at school.
As a child, what did s/he imagine her/his adult life would be like: Sexually adventurous, glamorous, full of accolades.


Current: Single. But never alone.


Knows her/him better than anyone: Her/his dealer.

Makes her/him laugh: Seeing others fall.
Makes her/him cry: That well has long gone dry.
Is s/he happy with where s/he lives: Her/his apartment’s okay, but s/he’s rarely there. S/he’s in her car all day, in the clubs all night.

Favorite book or author: Malcolm X.
Favorite artist: Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet.
Favorite film: Trick Baby by Larry Yust.

Five things s/he couldn’t live without: Whiskey, cocaine, heroin, champagne, and handmade shoes of pussy hide.

Fears/phobias: Fearless.
Introvert or Extrovert: Extrovert.
Self-Centered or Selfless: Self-centered, always.
Most hated activity: Working for anybody else.
Most enjoyed activity: Seeing the cash.

Political philosophy: Just relax, baby… a hedonist with fascist tendencies.
Politically active/apathetic: Outspoken. But won’t march for anyone.
Religion: Pussy and cocaine, the only gods there are.
Bravest thing s/he’s done: Took a bullet for Party Time, her/his mentor.
Scariest thing s/he’s done: Survived nine months in solitary.



My mother always laughed when she hit me. I’m not waiting for you. I’m not waiting for anyone. — Toby Dammit, Federico Fellini



Bright green, purple, yellow, sunset.


Smoke, dust, wind. Plastic.


Washed up Shakespearean actor. Bi-polar. Arrogant, narcissistic, empty, no self-esteem. Struggles with his lack of a moral center. His only friend is the imaginary devil he creates in his head. He is difficult to pin down and morally elusive, both intellectually and personally. The performance has even lost track of knowing it’s a performance. He seems not to care about anything except provoking those around him and making them uncomfortable. Condescending to everyone, collapsing under the pressure to perform. He rides the line between relevance and obsolescence, terror and desperation. He’s holding onto that bottle as much as possible. Ultimately he knows he’s a fake, always has been a has-been, even when he was a star.


Sex: Male, but totally femme.
Age: Thirty-seven (past) & sixty-eight (present).
Heredity: Nordic, Anglo-Saxon. His mother was a Spanish Jew.
Color of Hair: Depends on the role.
Color of Eyes: Sometimes gray, always bloodshot.
Appearance: Crumpled fashionable rogue.
Defects, deformities: Birthmark on his penis that looks like a smiley face.


Neighborhood: English coal-mining town covered in tears.
Childhood home: Depressing, abusive, lonely. His parents were alcoholics who fought most of the time. Occasionally his mother warmed up to him but his father remained aloof. He had a younger sister he loved and tried to take care of, but the age gap was too great. He left home at fourteen.
Childhood hobbies: Lip-syncing to Shirley Bassey records.
Parents’ relationship: Each lived in a private, silent hell.
The most important person to him: Omar.
Happiest childhood moment: Smoking cigarettes and jumping railroad cars with Omar.
As a child, what did he imagine his adult life would be like: Sexually adventurous, glamorous, full of accolades.


Current: Single and drunk.
How have his relationships been: Dishonest. He uses lovers or they use him. Mostly into men; women will do.


Is he happy with where he lives: It’s okay, he’s rarely there. If he’s not onstage he’s either drinking or wandering the alleys.
Real friends or acquaintances: Acolytes.

Favorite book or author: Edgar Allan Poe.
Favorite artist: Egon Schiele, Allen Jones.
Favorite film: Teorema by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Five things he couldn’t live without: Whiskey, swagger, patent leather boots, applause, opiates.

Fears/phobias: Losing his audience.
Self-Centered or selfless: Ask the mirror!
Most hated activity: Getting onstage.
Most enjoyed activity: Being onstage.

Politically active/apathetic: Apathetic.
Religion: Publicly an atheist, deep down he believes in heaven and hell.
Bravest thing he’s done: Cut Omar’s lifeless body down from the tree and brought his corpse back to his family.
Scariest thing he’s done: Held onto the bottom of a train and rode for miles.

Michelle Handelman’s Hustlers & Empires, a three-channel video work and live performance, will be on view at SFMOMA from March 12–March 18. More information can be found here. —Eds.

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