Restless and dissatisfied with his life as a dishwasher in a small Texas town, young Joe Buck outfits himself in a flashy cowboy outfit and heads for New York City, confident that his fortune will be made by selling himself to wealthy, sex-starved Manhattan women. While traveling by bus, he recalls some of the events of his childhood--the father who abandoned his wayward mother, the endless stream of men who visited his frisky grandmother Sally, and a series of sexual encounters during adolescence, including a gang rape of both Joe and his girl friend Annie. After checking into a seedy Manhattan hotel, Joe takes to the streets and eventually picks up Cass, a rich, coarse, middle-aged blonde. Although they make love in her East Side apartment, Joe not only fails to collect a fee but ends up giving her $20 for cab fare. Later, at a cheap Broadway bar, Joe meets Ratso Rizzo, a crippled, tubercular petty thief and con artist who volunteers to work as his pimp and manager. Although the two misfits have a falling out when Ratso sends Joe to the sleazy room of Mr. O'Daniel, a homosexual, religious fanatic, they patch up their differences and agree to share Ratso's dismally cold room in a condemned building. Almost in spite of themselves, their mutual loneliness leads to genuine friendship as Ratso shares with Joe his fantasy of someday living a life of luxury in Miami Beach. Economically, their partnership meets with little success, as Joe's typical "conquests" turn out to be as unprofitable as his encounter with a timid student to whom he gives himself in a 42nd Street theater balcony, only to discover that the boy cannot pay. Their situation appears to improve when Joe meets Shirley, a chic swinger at an underground party in Greenwich Village, and earns $20 for spending a wild night with her. By now, however, winter has taken its toll on Ratso, and he can no longer walk. Determined to get the bus fare to take his friend to Florida, Joe brutally beats up an aging homosexual in a hotel room and steals his money. Ratso manages to stumble onto the bus, but dies as they reach Miami. Facing an uncertain future, Joe puts his arm around the dead body of the only true friend he ever had.