It’s A Good Thing You’re Here: On By Hook or by Crook

Shy (Silas Howard) and Valentine (Harry Dodge) in a scene from <i>By Hook or by Crook</i> | Steakhaus Productions
Steakhaus Productions

“This guy Al once said, for at least I know with certainty that a man’s work is nothing but the long journey to recover the two or three simple and great images which first gained access to his heart.” 

– By Hook or By Crook (2001, Dir, Silas Howard and Harry Dodge)

1.

It’s the summer of 2021, Pride Month in New York, and I’m carrying Kay’s bike up and down subway platform staircases, holding it with one arm wrapped around the body of it, above my head. She’s wearing a floor-length dress, the sun is beating down, it feels too muggy to be June, and yet it’s still refreshing. I have travel stomach: upset, bloated, anxious for no good reason. We’re heading to the Drag March. I make a couple of jokes about having a service gender, how earlier at lunch with Rainer I kept wanting to refill everyone’s waters at the table. I stop and buy cigarettes, putting Kay’s bike down for a moment. We get to the park and sit on a bench while we wait for everyone else to file in. The woman next to us is also named Kay, and she smiles at our wicked youth. My Kay pulls out her cigarettes and I pull out mine, turning to knock her hand away and light her cigarette for her. She laughs and says you really weren’t kidding about being FTM now. 

By Hook or by Crook (2001) finds two trans guys in their early 30s, flailing. They are broke, and when they meet each other, getting their asses beaten. It remains unclear if the beating that ignites the friendship between Val and Shy is a gay bashing, or just simply a guy assaulting someone on the street. Either way, Shy steps in and tries to help Val. Hours later, after he’s protected his new friend, Shy steals Val’s wallet. They are both starving. This isn’t a movie about community, it’s not even really a movie about queer solidarity of any kind. It’s certainly not a movie about how finding your “Chosen Family” can save you. It’s a movie about friendship

Val and Shy are both rejected by most social groups, the rich, the gay, the straight, the cis—pretty much society as a whole. No one offers them community, not even each other. Shy’s actions actively harm Val throughout the film, at one point getting him thrown in a psych ward under a 51/50 hold. In spite of this, both manage to build lives. They have precarious places to sleep, they have food to eat, they have Tab and tequila to drink. They have FUN. They try to make themselves into the men of westerns. They have the kind of friendship men have had for decades on screen (and in life); one where they can’t really talk directly about what’s happening in either of their lives, but manage to talk about it enough that an understanding can bloom between them. 

In recent years, I’ve begun to pass as a trans guy. This isn’t exactly correct, and isn’t exactly incorrect. The easiest way to describe what my gender is these days is (apologies to the trans people I know and agree with who hate this term) an AMAB genderqueer person. I came out as genderqueer about nine years ago, and dove into being femme. None of this ever connected for me; it always felt as if I was trying to convince everyone around me I wasn’t a man, instead of figuring out what not being a man actually meant to me. I was desperate to get away from something that didn’t fit and had no idea what to go towards. This went on for years, and then eventually faded, and I settled into different aspects of my gender that fit. It turned out that a softer masculinity fit me well. It turned out that with a mullet, thin stubble, and the proportions of my body, I fit into a certain perception. It’s happened on dating apps, on the street, at restaurant jobs. At one restaurant I worked at, two lesbian couples tried to take me home in the span of a week. 

This misconception, or miscommunication, or misreading, is the most I’ve felt affirmed in my life. It’s possible that most of this has to do with aging, becoming more comfortable in my own skin. I find I need the perceptions of others to mirror my internal ideals less and less. I am sorry for bragging, but I don’t think this is the whole of why this feels so good. I think it has to do with being able to be closer to other people, without how I want to be perceived getting in the way. 

2.

I should start over, I’ve forgotten the plot. By Hook or by Crook centers on Valentine and Shy, two trans guys played perfectly by Harry Dodge and Silas Howard. They meet in an alley after Shy moves across the country to San Francisco. This isn’t the San Fran of post-Harvey Milk, or even of the middle of the AIDS crisis—it’s a George W. Bush Era San Francisco. There’s little magic, and plenty of poverty. Shy is escaping the legacy of his dead father and his own lack of funds, and deciding on a life of petty crime someplace new. Valentine, on the other hand, hasn’t decided on much of anything. When the two meet there’s violence, and then the kind of night anyone in the service industry is familiar with, where someone who won’t shut up insists they just got paid and have to buy you a drink. 

We never see either of them apply for a job, or even look for one really. Jobs that pay enough to live and don’t kill trans people are few and far between. It’s also hard to picture either of them explaining anything to a manager. Why they are late, why that report hasn’t been completed and submitted to someone who doesn’t even want to read it. Why that table is mad at them. 

Late last year, I was as broke as Shy. Or maybe not as close, but the margin was razor-thin. Russ, my dear friend and practically my twin, got me a job at a restaurant they had worked at on and off for the last three years. We were now moving from friends to coworkers. We were the only two servers, the only two trans people, and the only two queer people at this restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. We were surrounded by people who could generously be called rockabilly. I don’t mean that in any kind of fun or charming Gen Z way. There was a wall of the restaurant covered in old beer labels, which the owner and manager thought was a cool touch. There was a Jack Skellington doll on a couch for the entire holiday season. I want to be more specific though: I mean that these were people who believed themselves to be alternative and that meant they thought they were better than other people, including the two younger trans servers. In my ten years in the workforce, I’ve worked many different kinds of jobs—restaurants, grocery stores, ice cream shops, bars, editing for small presses and literary magazines. All of those jobs are basically the same thing. They are all customer-facing. I guess what I’m saying is I’ve had a lot of jobs and I’ve never been treated this poorly for this little money. 

Our bosses had active contempt for us from day one. There are many theories, or forms of armchair analysis that could explain this, but the only real foundationally true one is that they fucking hated queer people. Every day there would be a new comment about me sucking cock or fucking some random man, two things I was doing very little of at the time. (One thing about poverty is that, for me anyways, it does very little for my libido, and does in fact seem to stifle it. Or at the very least, it makes me so busy that finding a lover becomes impossible.) This was done to no other employees. We were both misgendered daily, usually in an over-exaggerated way to make sure that we were clear on exactly how they saw us. There are times when being seen as a dirty little faggot is pleasurable and fun. I’ve never found this to be true in a workplace. But we were broke. We were desperate and trans and neither of us knew (or to this day, knows) how to knock over a liquor store. 

When I think back on the five months of my life spent working at this stupid job, I see one thing. Russ kicking open the back door and me turning to the owner and saying I mean, I fucking quit actually. 

We’ve never been each other’s family. We’ve never tried to be each other’s community and solve all of our problems together. But we’ve kept each other alive. We’ve quit jobs together. We’ve stayed sober together, We’ve made each other laugh until my sternum felt like it was drifting through my rib cage, and I almost puked in the backseat. The night we quit and walked out, Russ drove like a maniac down Fullerton Avenue and screamed out the window. I screamed my head off. We never had to go back. It’s not like the food was any good. 

3.

I don’t want it to seem like I’m being unfair towards community or the family unit. I think both have their time and place for being positive forces in the lives of queer people. I’ve just also recently read Sarah Schulman’s Ties That Bind, so I am a little biased at the moment. 

In it, Schulman points out that while the advice of many therapists—go seek out your own family in the world, shut out your family of origin if they refuse to accept you—is all well and good, it doesn’t actually solve the problem. Instead, it often leads to us re-enacting our family-of-origins’ problems and harms onto other people, and having no way of handling the resulting conflict.

At the beginning of the film, Shy steals Valentine’s wallet, full of the money he’d just received from a cashed check. His father had been somewhat of an outlaw, a low-time crook, teaching Shy to dine and dash, and little else. Not how to stay put, not how to love effortlessly. Shy shows up on Valentine’s doorstep and tells him that he is sorry, doesn’t repay him, but does tell him that they can make that money together. From there, they are stuck to each other, failing to rob others, successfully robbing a vending machine, stealing a car, getting caught. Their journey has nothing to do with success, or even classic American outlaw narratives. They aren’t romantic. There are no beds covered in cash, just bags of quarters.

By Hook or by Crook doesn’t really have much to say about poverty—or rather it doesn’t much comment on it. Poverty is horrible, it ruins your life, it makes mobility impossible, and makes community even harder. Poverty isn’t made shiny in By Hook or by Crook; in fact, most of the film seems to be covered in a thin layer of grime or dust. 

It’s March 7th, 2023, and I’m broke again. Russ and I are in their roommates’ car driving to Wisconsin. It’s the first day of my Saturn return, and we have tickets to Bruce Springsteen because Russ practically bankrupted themselves buying us tickets for Christmas. They gave me the gift a month before Christmas because they couldn’t wait. We’d quit our jobs a week and a half before, and are both floating now in the beginning of the month. Our rent is paid. How we’ll pay rent next remains a mystery, but for today, there’s a man from New Jersey with a guitar, and we’ve never run like this.

When the boys get caught in the movie, Shy gets off without saying a word, they don’t have shit on him. Val’s mental health catches up with him, and he ends up tricked by cops into a 51/50 hold. Val’s girlfriend is furious, not even Tab and tequila can fix this wrong. The villain isn’t Shy, it’s the legal system, but Shy doesn’t come out smelling like roses, and he knows it. He’s caused irreparable harm by getting Valentine caught up in his re-enactment of his father’s petty crimes. He’s done exactly what Sarah Schulman said he would, albeit years before she wrote it down. He’s created a community that only continues the harms caused by the family. And his solution is the same as Sarah’s. The family has to be confronted. 

So he tracks down Valentine’s long lost–and never before met–mother, and breaks Val out of the psych ward. 

The film ends before we meet Valentine’s mother and find out if it actually did fix anything. We don’t really get any kind of closure actually. We meet these men, and then they move on. They’re still broke as shit, still failing at mostly everything, and now they have the cops up their asses. Shy’s relationship with a social worker that starts mid-film is going nowhere really. Neither of them has many friends outside of each other. They both have Billie (Stanya Kahn), Valentine’s joyful and loving girlfriend, but that’s about it. And yet, nothing about the film’s ending is bleak. By Hook or by Crook is almost never without its moments of absurdity or joy. It’s always holding up a mirror for how poverty actually feels. For how it feels to make friends with a guy who isn’t your twin, in this life or in any other, but could just maybe be a long lost brother. 

By Hook or by Crook does all this without any real money, without making a giant splash, and without many films attempting to carry on its legacy. It’s rare to find the film programmed or written about anywhere. (I did my damnedest while researching this essay and found that it recently screened in New York, and that was about it.) I don’t want to draw too much attention to its status as a hidden gem, but I do think it’s interesting that, in an age when capital-C Community means everything, we’ve mostly neglected a movie about friendship. 

There are plenty of straight films and cis films about friendship. I could easily use up all three thousand words I’m allotted here listing them, but a full-length feature film about two trans guys just being friends is something that, to my knowledge, has no peers. By Hook or by Crook makes the claim that family and the state can’t save us, and that sometimes, even when prevented from finding the structures of support that actually could save us, what actually keeps us warm, fed, and loved is friendship. We can still rely on each other, even if it’s just the two, or sometimes three, of us. 

At the Bruce show, Russ stood outside the single-occupancy bathroom while I pissed and hit my Juul. They held my tote bag and water bottle and coat for me while they did this. While I was in there, a group of people walked by and pointed at the single-occupancy bathroom. One of them asked, “Who the fuck is that for?” and another pointed at Russ and replied, “For whatever that is.”

I wish I hadn’t been in the bathroom but I’m glad I was. I don’t think it would’ve helped either of us for me to be arrested for assault in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I didn’t have the money to cover bail and they didn’t either. Instead, they told me about it after the show. I’m grateful for this because it means the money I would’ve had to spend on a trial gets to go into the apartment we’re moving into together. It’s not the great open road, it’s not going to find one of our long-lost parents (we both know who our parents are, for better or worse) but it does make me feel like the ending of By Hook or by Crook. It’s not a promise to never be poor or to never be angry or to never fracture or cause fractures. It’s a promise to walk three steps behind your best friend. 

The other night, I came home from work to the apartment Russ and I now share with enough money in my bank account to live. I told them all about my night, another first date with yet another bisexual man. I made gnocchi while they sat at the kitchen table and did their weekly testosterone shot. And I told them everything.