John Waters refuses the weed I offer him.
I had a feeling he would, but there was a good reason to offer. His new book
Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America
is divided into three sections: "The Best that Could Happen," "The Worst that Could Happen," and "The Real Thing." The first two parts are fiction, and pretty much every ride in the Best involves the offer of drugs at some point. In fact, Waters' very first (fictional) ride comes from Harris, "an art-school type dressed in brown jeans and an old Charles Theater T-shirt." When Harris asks why Waters isn't making a film, the director explains the difficulty of funding. So Harris, which was also Divine's real name, says, "I'm a pot dealer . . . don't worry, there's none in the car, it's all on my West Virginia farm, but I've got plenty of cash. How much do you need?" The pair then make their way to Harris' farm, dig up some cash, and send it back to Baltimore via a corrupt FedEx office.
"All your life you raise money for movies—I've been doing it for 50 years," Waters says, sitting in the library of his impressively appointed Tuscany-Canterbury home wearing a Comme Des Garçons jacket. "It was a fantasy, the best thing that could happen, when accidentally someone backs your movie and then says, ‘Oh, we don't care if it makes money and we will give you no notes, do what you want'—you know, does the opposite of what happens when you get money to make a movie. And that's how it started off the very first ride. It's all fantasies about what could happen."
He shrugs and adds, "I had some generous pot dealers help me in the beginning of my career. Statute of Limitation is over."
In the absence of a fairy pot dealer to help finance his films, Waters has become as much author as auteur in recent years, penning several books over the last decade. Whereas his last book, 2010's
, consisted of journalistic portraits of Waters' heroes,
twin novellas provide the reader with a portrait of Waters himself.
"It's all based a little on the truth," Waters says. "I don't really want to be nude in a carnival with hatchets being thrown at me, but I like the idea of it. It is show business to me. I like adventures. And all the adventures in ‘Best' and ‘Worst' are way more extreme than happened for real. Have I ever had sex in a demolition derby car? No, but I've been in a demolition derby car—and I would. I'm not saying I wouldn't. I've been to demolition derbies, I'm not saying there aren't cute people there. But the ‘Worst' stuff, who would want to be with an autoerotic asphyxiation poisoner? That would be a bad date."
Waters laughs and crosses his legs—his pants matching the Jeff Koons dog balloon sculpture across the room. "I did date a knife salesman once. He was an unsuccessful one. This [one in the book] was a successful one. Who would sell knives door to door? ‘Who is it?' ‘I'm selling butcher knives.' ‘Oh, come in!' I couldn't believe it. I said, ‘Did you think that was going to be a good career?' He said, ‘Well, yeah.' I'm still friends with him. Looks like an insane game show host. Even scarier selling butcher knives." Of course, if a knife salesman were to come to Waters' door, the first thing he would see is an "auditions" sign on an electric chair.
Out on the imaginary road, in addition to the knife salesman, the fictional Waters meets a bank robber with an amazing cock, gives a handjob in a demolition derby, joins a freakshow, hangs with a rogue librarian (
), gets bootleg Jujyfruits, goes to a rave in a junkyard, is raped by aliens and develops a magic asshole, shits all over himself, is arrested in a sodomy sting, has "I'm an Asshole and Proud of it" tattooed on his chest, grows a goiter, and is ultimately murdered. And those are only a few of the adventures—each of which, while imagined, was assiduously researched.
Waters spent two years writing the fictional parts of the book after he penned what he describes as the "shortest pitch ever: I, John Waters, will hitchhike alone from the front of my Baltimore house to my co-op apartment in San Francisco and see what happens."
Partly, the real hitchhiking trip was an attempt to escape his regimented life and have an adventure. "My calendar, I could show you, is booked for a year," he says. "If I have a hangover, I plan six months in advance. I'm going to have it on my calendar. I'm joking a little. My life is very organized, I'm very controlled. I'm not against that, it's how I get a lot of things done. But, could I give that up? Because you cannot plan, when you hitchhike across the country, how it's going to happen. You can't plan how long it's going to be. You can't plan what's going to happen."
The other part of his motivation was an attempt to test his own celebrity. "Because I travel all the time in airports in America, and I'm recognized all the time. I don't care. I'm nice to people, I do every cellphone picture, but I always see people maybe at the airline and they don't recognize you and they're kind of shitty, and then they do and then they're nice—then I'm mean to them because then I think,
God, you climber
It's hard to imagine a voice more withering than Waters' as he says these last words, as if, for the Pope of Trash, to be a climber is the worst thing possible. Out on the open road, he didn't experience any climbers or get much benefit from his own fame.
Before he left, he half hoped no one would notice him, but as soon as he was standing there waiting for someone to pick him up, "I was practically auditioning my mustache," he says, sticking out his chin a bit and using his hands to frame his famous facial hair, which he had some trouble keeping properly trimmed on the road. He also had to forgo most of his avant-garde fashion and settle for practical clothes, including underwear which he would discard. Diarrhea was his biggest fear on the road: "That is the worst thing that can happen when you're a hitchhiker. Mercifully, on the very first day, I went,
I'm not eating.
Because I don't know how I'm going to deal with that. You can't say, ‘Pull over' when you're in a car and somebody's in a hurry and you're hitchhiking. And you can't be overly stopping to pee."
Waters stands in the rain over an hour by St. Paul Street looking like "a sopping-wet junkie Mary Poppins" before he catches his first real ride, which takes him only as far as Northern Parkway, where a minister's wife makes a U-turn, picks him up and drives him to where I-70 meets the Beltway, talking to her sister on speakerphone most of the time.
After a couple more rides, Waters gets a lift with the "Corvette Kid," a "twenty-year-old sandy-haired Republican towncouncilman" from Myersville, Md. The kid drives Waters all the way to Clairsville, Ohio, to the great distress of his family (he was only going to Subway for lunch before he picked Waters up). Later, the Corvette Kid drives out West on a crazy mission to catch up with the auteur and becomes the throughline of the nonfiction section of the book.
Waters' tale of his trip is populated by a wide variety of other characters—including the band Here We Go Magic, who took the trip public with a series of tweets. Soon, news that Waters was hitching went viral, and he eventually had to tell his sisters to inform his mother of the trip. (Waters did not want us to run one of the more erotic fictional excerpts—the chapter on Ready Whip, the wondrously endowed bank robber—because we are a hometown paper.)
When Waters finally reaches his San Francisco apartment, he writes, "It's almost as if I don't know how to act or speak anymore back in my real life."
"I say it was midlife crisis, because I wanted an adventure, I wanted to take a chance," he says back in his Baltimore home. "When I was young I would just move with $500. I would hitchhike to Provincetown. But not at 66, which was how old I was when I did it. I knew my street cred would go up with young people. So my street cred's still important. I was proud of myself after I did it.
You actually did it
. That still surprises me. I remember waking up every morning thinking,
You're still doing this
. You have to go out there and face the humiliation—not exactly humiliation, but when I walked in the breakfast room with that [hitchhiking] sign, everybody else would look away from me. Fame did not help there. Those truck drivers did not know who I was, and if they did, they were
telling their friends they knew who I was."
Still, the nonfiction part of the book is filled with warmth for the people who gave him rides—and, weirdly, a hope for humanity.
"Hitchhiking is always an adventure," Waters says. "It's always a little bit sexual, it's always a little bit scary, and always you're going to meet somebody, and it's a fair trade of trust, I think, to get in someone's car you don't know and for them to let you in. I believe in the goodness of people. The hitchhiker in the [
with a birthmark, I thought he was cute. I don't have normal taste. I'd pick him up in a second."
And, as with so much of Waters' output, the inspiration came from Baltimore, where he grew up hitching home from school. "That was the normal thing to do. It wasn't thought of as bad. And it was the same perverts picking you up then as now," he says. "You just didn't tell your parents. Everybody who hitchhiked—so a pervert picked you up, just say ‘no.' Unless it's a killer, but you get on a bus and the driver can be crazy. It's dangerous to go out in any way."
Waters is able to give a detailed account of Mobtown's hitching mores of days past, describing the ways that female prostitutes would hitch on Baltimore Street and male prostitutes on Eastern Avenue. "When I grew up, if you hitchhiked on Eastern Avenue, if you were a man, you were turning tricks for free, but your father did it, your grandfather did it, it didn't even mean you were gay, it was just somehow part of it," he says with authority. "Now if you hitchhike on Falls Road, that means you're hooking."
Waters says he often hitchhikes home from the train station, but it is more like hailing a limo because people recognize him, pick him up, and drive him straight to his door. And he once hitched home from a bar in a blizzard. In his cross-country trip, he sees only one other hitchhiker, whom they don't stop and pick up, but he has picked up hitchhikers in Baltimore. "In the full daylight, I picked up a kid in Highlandtown and he started huffing glue in the front seat and he said, ‘You want some?' and I thought,
Not now, it's 10 in the morning—maybe on a Friday night I would have tried it with you.
But I thought,
Wow, he just made himself comfortable
. He started right when he got in the car . . . I didn't throw him out, I gave him a ride the whole way."
Just as in the fictional sections—and in our interview—Waters refused the drugs he was offered on the road. "I wasn't really going to smoke pot hitchhiking," he says. "‘Cause then when they let you out you're stoned, standing somewhere, and that would be scary. So I thought,
I don't need to be standing here stuck stoned when the police come
And, in the end, as with much travel, coming home can be the biggest thrill. "There's nowhere left cheap that's anywhere but here," he says of his hometown. "We got edge, baby. Come on down. We got it. I feel revitalized when I come home. I'm always surprised. It's always mixed, people hanging out together. So I think it's better than it's ever been."
He acknowledges that things have changed some. "In New York, I don't know a good corner jukebox-y bar," he says. "There's hipster bars, but they're expensive, selling $27 martinis. There are a lot of bars doing that in Baltimore and doing it well. There are some bars now that are Brooklyn, New York. But I'm looking for Brooklyn, Baltimore."
And hitching might just be the way to break out of our comfort zones, even within the city. "About hitchhiking in Baltimore, I think,
Summer's coming. Let's bring it back
. I think we should have organized hitchhike contests and go from opposite neighborhoods like Cherry Hill to Guilford and have exchanges—people hitchhike and spend the night in that house or visit the bars in that community. I'm really for, you know, Baltimore's a city of neighborhoods, that we mix neighborhoods, going to each other's neighborhoods—[people] that never go there. Maybe hitchhiking is the answer. I think hitchhiking in Baltimore is still probably—I think you'll get a ride."
Waters' own hitching days are probably over, because people would think he's trying to promote the book, but he has been toying with another idea. "It would be a good book, to take every drug I took in order," he says, but quickly adds, "This will hold my street cred for a while."
John Waters will be signing
at Atomic Books on June 12.
To hear his hitchhiking soundtrack, please visit