Roadside Attraction: John Waters Hitches Across America

John Waters Reflects on His Hitchhiking Trip Across America and His Love of Baltimore

By Baynard Woods (City Paper, June 4, 2014)

John Waters refuses the weed I offer him.


“Hitchhiking is always an adventure,” says John Waters, who talked to City Paper about his new book CARSICK. (Photo by J.M. Giordano)

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 Role Models, consisted of journalistic portraits of Waters’ heroes, Carsick’s twin novellas provide the reader with a portrait of Waters himself.

"Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 6-3-2014, 336 pages)

“Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 6-3-2014, 336 pages)

“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 (see excerpt), 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.”

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