John Waters' Big Adventure

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On the day after Mother’s Day, I’m walking up Charles Street in Baltimore, and I realize I’m on the block where John Waters began his epic, cross-country hitchhiking trip across America to San Francisco on the day after Mother’s Day in 2012, a trip he has now documented in his new book Carsick.

With the practiced eye of someone who’s done far too much hitchhiking himself, I size up the intersection where he started. I don’t know why he complained so much in the book. There are enough parked cars to slow down Charles Street’s four lanes to two but not so many parked cars that a potential ride couldn’t pull over to the side to let you in. For an urban street, it’s almost perfect, and sure enough, even at the unpromising hour of 6:30 am, he only had to wait an hour for his first ride.

Waters, of course, is the Baltimore filmmaker responsible for such movies as Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Peckerand Hairspray. It has been 10 years now since his last film, A Dirty Shame, but he has stayed active creating art exhibitions, making lecture tours, curating music albums and writing books such as this latest one. I’m not shocked that he would choose to hitchhike across the country, but I am shocked that he would get up at 6 a.m. to do it.

I turn off Charles onto the small side street where Waters lives. Little has changed since my last visit; the foyer still offers contemporary art photos and a pile of postcards advertising Mr. Ray’s hair weave. Waters pads down the stairs from his writing office and ushers me past his two assistants, Susan Allenback and Trish Schweers, who are major characters in the new book, and into the living room dominated by piles of expensive art books and a rescued-from-a-dumpster, ceramic replica of a Roman statue. We sit three-quarter-sideways at opposite ends of his couch for the interview.

Hitchhiking and the Modern Man

We start by swapping hitchhiking stories. He tells me about the driver who pulled a gun and waved it in the air just to show it off. I tell him about the soldier on leave who drove so fast that we made the six-hour trip from Provincetown to New York in four hours.

“Hitchhiking at 66,” he emphasizes, “is radically different from hitchhiking at 16. At 66, everyone thinks you’re a creepy homeless guy. But the actual experience of it is the same: the standing there, the waiting, the freedom, the uncertainty, the depending on strangers, the optimism. If you’re hitchhiking at 17 or 18, people are going to come onto you, but if you say no, that almost always ends it. Unfortunately, they don’t come onto you when you’re 66.”

Yes, and hitchhiking in 2012 is very different from hitchhiking in 1962. You just don’t see as many hitchhikers as you did in the ’60s and ’70s, when they seemed to be everywhere, when it was actually a problem at times to find a spot that you didn’t have to share with other hitchhikers. And why should people hitchhike when drivers are so reluctant to pick them up? Is it really that much more dangerous or is it just that the 24/7 news cycle amplifies every incident out of proportion?

“I think it’s because of what happened to that hitchhiker in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” he says. “There have been lots of horror films where the hitchhiker meets a horrible fate. I don’t think there are any more perverts out there than there ever were, but you’re more likely to hear about them now.”

For years Waters has spent his summers in Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, where it is far less risky to hitchhike than to gamble with the local parking regulations. So he and his friends often hitchhike to their favorite beach in Truro. It was on one of these jaunts that a light bulb flashed on above Waters’ head, and he realized that hitchhiking across the country would make a great book.

“Getting the idea for the book was like getting an idea for a movie,” he says. “It was like the ultimate high-concept movie pitch. I only had to say one sentence: ‘John Waters hitchhikes across America.’ I actually said more than that, but that’s all I had to say.”

Of Fantasies and Fan Service

Early on, Waters had the key insight that what makes hitchhiking so thrilling is not so much the rides that you actually get but the rides that you might get. When you’re standing there on the shoulder of an entrance ramp, watching the cars whiz by you, you can’t help but fantasize about the perfect ride: the sexually alluring driver who shares intoxicants and body parts while carrying you across several states.

And if you end up waiting too long, your mind will drift to fears of the worst-possible ride: the drunken religious fundamentalist with B.O. and a gun who will assault you and then abandon you in the world’s worst hitchhiking spot. Because so much of the hitchhiking experience is standing around waiting for a ride, there’s plenty of time for both the good and the bad fantasies to grow ever more elaborate.

Waters tackled this issue not by describing the fantasies he had while waiting on the side of the road but rather the fantasies he had at home while contemplating the trip. As a result, after a short prologue, Carsick is divided into three parts: “The Best That Could Happen,” “The Worst That Could Happen” and “The Real Thing.”

Waters fantasizes getting picked up by Lucas, a Demolition Derby champ who invites his hitchhiker to ride along as he drives his windowless car in competition at a county fairgrounds in Indiana. Amid gas fumes, screaming fans, grinding gears and crumpling fenders, Lucas whips out his big cock and invites his rider to jerk him off as he slams into his last remaining competitor. That was from “The Best That Could Happen,” not from “The Worst That Could Happen.” But Waters admits that his assistant Susan Allenback, after reading the two fantasy chapters, said, “I couldn’t tell which was which.”

“I understand that,” he says. “For a lot of people, giving a hand job in a car in the middle of a demolition derby is not something to wish for. But these are my fantasies. I knew about demolition derbies because I had covered one for All Things Considered on National Public Radio. And I’ve gone back, because I like them so much.”

Lots of terrible things happen in the second fantasy section: Waters has “I am an asshole and proud of it” inked into his chest by an unhygienic kidnapper/tattooist, has a driver’s goiter burst all over him and is jailed for suspected bathroom sex. But the reader gets the sense that the most upsetting scenario for the author is the driver who knows every line of dialogue Waters ever wrote and forces the hitchhiker to listen to an audition.

“I try to be nice to all my fans,” he insists. “When I’m in a grocery store, and someone asks me to do a cellphone photo, I say, ‘Of course. You bought me these groceries.’ I love my fans. In Japan, I’ve had little girls crying, coming up to me and saying, ‘Pecker! Pecker!’ Last year I had three guys propose to their girlfriends in front of me. I always think the guy is gay and just doesn’t realize it, but I never say that; I just pose for a picture with them. Of course, I make sure they’ve already bought the book. After all, I’m trying to make a living.

“The tattoos are weird. The best one was this girl who had the script from Female Trouble tattooed on her leg. It was so literary. But there’s a fan that everyone has—a fan who goes a step too far. When you’re trapped by someone who won’t let go, that can be a nightmare.”

A Shift in Medium

Writing these fantasy chapters was a lot like writing the scripts for his movies, Waters says. The only difference was that he was the major character and each ride was a mini-movie. It was like a collection of short stories rather than a novel. The first thing he does when he writes his screenplays is decide what genre he’s satirizing; then he thinks up the characters and the homes and neighborhoods where they live. “That’s important,” he says, “because how they live tells you who they are and what kind of set you need.”

It was the same with Carsick, only it was a car rather than a house that Waters had to imagine and describe. That was ironic, because he’s not a car guy at all. Even though he diligently researched and evoked each car in the fantasy sections, he barely noticed the cars in the real-life section. “I could never tell if one was cheap or expensive,” he admits. “All I cared was whether they were going to break down or not.”

It’s only when he’s decided on the genre, characters and setting that he dreams up the plot and dialogue. Once he has placed weird people in a normal setting, normal people in a weird setting or weird people in a weird setting, something interesting is going to happen, and he’s going to push those possibilities to the limit. That’s what makes him laugh. Not everybody shares his sense of humor, but enough people do to have given him a career. But he insists that his aim has always been comedy, not outrage.

When he retells one of his stranger hitchhiking experiences while sitting at the other end of the couch, he has this way of lifting his eyebrows in mock-shock toward his neatly combed short hair and simultaneously purring a droll laugh through his pencil mustache—as if both surprised and delighted by the strange behaviors the human race is capable of. In that trademark laugh lies the secret of his comedy.

While he was writing the fantasy chapters, Waters begged his literary agent not to share the idea with any publishers. “‘No, don’t tell them yet,’ I told him. ‘Wait until I actually do it. What if I chicken out and don’t do it?’ But I knew I would do it once I’d given myself the challenge. I wanted to give up control of my life for a while. It’s so organized. Nonetheless, I put the check for the advance in a special account and never spent a penny of it in case I had to return it.”

Who wouldn’t be a bit leery of standing on the side of the road in an unpredictable place and then climbing into the car of a stranger who will take you to another unpredictable place? What if he got stranded in Kansas for weeks on end? What if he got kidnapped and manacled in a basement? Well, either one might make for an entertaining book.

Ready, Set … Wait

So on Mother’s Day, 2012, two days after completing the fantasy chapters and exactly two years before our conversation, Waters strolled down his street to Charles Street, armed with nothing more than a Blackberry, a flashlight, a fold-up umbrella, credit cards, a digital tape recorder, a rain jacket, a scarf, two pairs of jeans, five pairs of boxer shorts, five T-shirts and a cardboard sign scrawled in a felt marker, “I-70 West” on one side and “San Francisco” on the other. On the northbound side of Charles Street, he held up his sign, his fake-crocodile-skin plastic tote bag at his feet and waited. And waited. And waited.

For all the terrible things he had imagined in “The Worst That Could Happen” section, he hadn’t foreseen this: the long periods of waiting without getting a ride. He waited an hour in the rain on Charles Street before getting a ride, but he found himself stuck in Frederick, Md. “Just when I don’t think it could possibly rain any harder,” he writes, “it does. I can’t believe it. My sign is so waterlogged it is becoming useless. Please, God, make a car stop. I catch myself praying, feeling like a complete hypocrite. But no, another 45 minutes and still no one stops.”

Later the same day, he adds, “I’ve been standing here now for more than two hours. Has my roadside charm disappeared? A cop slowly drives by, looks me over, but keeps going. Phew. I remember that ridiculous song ‘Ohio’ by Doris Day but feel the opposite of its geographically proud lyrics. ‘Why, oh, why, oh, why, oh, can’t I get out of Ohio?’ I want to sing out for the world to hear. Endless string of traffic, no rides. No eye contact from drivers.”

If he was surprised by the difficulty of getting rides, he was also surprised by the people who did pick him up. They were so much nicer than he expected. He got picked up by an African-American woman, a farmer, a biker, a young Republican town councilman, a cop, a coal miner, a Vietnam vet, a trucker, a pothead, a circuit-court judge, a pregnant woman and her husband, and even the indie-rock band, Here We Go Magic.

“I never write characters like the people who picked me up,” Waters says. “They were so kind and helpful. None of them asked me celebrity questions, but then again no one outside New York cares about that. I talked to them, because that’s your job as a hitchhiker: to talk to the driver. I learned things from them, like pigs like to eat M&Ms. They had all survived something; they’d all gone through something—whether it was being a meth head, a coal miner or being a band on the road for two straight years. Can you imagine? For some people, a road movie is their whole life.

“The characters in my previous book, Role Models, had extreme lives. The people who picked me up had lives that were interesting but not extreme. They had this non-judgmental attitude toward life that I admired. Of course, the judgmental people would never pick up a hitchhiker; it takes a non-judgmental person to pick up someone like me who looks like a homeless person with mental-health issues.”

A Storyteller Renewed

If the experience of hitchhiking restored Waters’s faith in average Americans, the experience of writing the book restored his faith in his career as a storyteller. He’d been worried that the implosion of the independent-film business would put him out of a job. But he has discovered that he can do the same kind of work he’s always done by writing books, going on lecture tours and creating art exhibitions—even if he never makes another movie.

“The independent film business as I knew it when I started is gone,” he says definitively. “DVD sales and foreign sales are gone. Lynda Obst’s book [Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business] is the best description of what’s going on. It all went away when the recession hit, and I don’t think it’s coming back.

“They told me I could make a movie about Carsick for $2 million,” he reveals, “but they would expect me to have stars. How could I pay for them plus a union crew and music rights out of $2 million? Why should I set myself up for failure? These days, I can write a book over the same period of time it takes to make a movie and make a lot more money. It took me three years from the first idea to the final edit to produce Carsick. Some of my movies I’ve done in two years from first idea to final edit, but some of them have taken three years. With a book, I don’t have to pay for a whole cast and crew; it’s just me and my two assistants, Susan and Trish.”

Waters hasn’t given up on filmmaking entirely. He still goes to meetings about making a movie, usually for his most recent completed script, Fruitcake, a children’s Christmas movie about a meat thief in Baltimore. Producers are interested, but they can never come up with enough money to pay for the cast, the crew and the music rights he wants.

“Will I ever make another movie?” he asks himself. “I don’t know. But I’m not going to starve. I’m completely booked for the next year: a book tour in the U.S., another in Europe, an art show, my live tours, my Christmas show. Even if someone wanted me to make a movie, I couldn’t start till next year. And, really, I don’t care what the medium is as long as I have a way to tell a story. I’m Uncle Remus. I like to tell stories. I’m lucky to have so many venues for doing that.

“The book is just a different way to tell a story. I’m creating the characters and the plot. That’s the most fun: the thinking it up. It’s all downhill from there, when I have to make it happen for the audience. But that moment when the characters are nothing more than my friends in my head, when no one else has met them or judged them, when I haven’t had to whore them out for money, when I haven’t had to make it real—that’s the best.”