One Man’s Trash Is Now a National Treasure: John Waters Discovers America

John Waters has transitioned from working director into a kind of public spokesperson for the trash culture his films helped make, if not exactly normal, than at least generally accepted by the public.

John Waters. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
John Waters. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

Walking out of the elevator on the eighth floor of the West Village building where John Waters keeps an apartment in New York, I was startled by a deep, beckoning call of “Over here” that sounded a lot like Rod Serling’s “Good evening” greeting at the beginning of Night Gallery, but was also unmistakably—for anyone who’s seen Mr. Waters’s bizarre one-man show, This Filthy World; watched Pink Flamingos, which he narrated in an exaggerated Maryland accent; or caught his show on Court TV about people who kill their spouses—the voice of Mr. Waters. The Savant of Sleaze, the Trickster of Trash, the Court Jester of Camp—I could go on, but let’s just say, by way of a very likely unnecessary introduction, that the most famous scene Mr. Waters ever shot, from 1972‘s Pink Flamingos, features Divine—his one-time muse who died in 1988 and was the greatest of all 300-pound drag queens—eating a piece of real, fresh dog feces, retching briefly, then smiling for the camera like the star she is. Mr. Waters makes David Lynch—the only other avant-garde filmmaker to so carefully examine the murderous impulses of the American middle class—look like Michael Bay.

He stood in his doorway in a boxy jacket meticulously patterned with patches of different-colored dark fabric, a pressed white shirt buttoned to the neck and gray slacks that didn’t quite reach his ankles and rode up further when he sat down, revealing what I remember as orange socks. At 68, Mr. Waters’s hair is gray and thinning, but he keeps his signature Little Richard mustache dyed jet black.

Mr. Waters spends most of his time in his hometown of Baltimore, but he was making the rounds in New York promoting a new book, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, the title of which sums things up. He had a busy week in the city: on Monday, he hosted the CFDA Awards (where he joked that clothes should cost more and that people should never be nude, “which was fun since Rihanna was nude,” he told me with laugh, referring to the sheer dress the pop star wore that evening). On Tuesday he had a book signing at Barnes & Noble (he recruited a random 20-something from the audience to be the resident iPhone photographer because “you should never ask an old white guy to do anything”). Shortly after we parted ways, last Wednesday, he would take his traveling symposium on filth to the hallowed walls of the Public Library. It’s been a decade since the release of his last film, 2004’s A Dirty Shame, and in that time Mr. Waters has transitioned from working director into a kind of public spokesperson for the trash culture his films helped make, if not exactly normal, than at least generally accepted by the public.

“Do I miss sitting in a trailer at 4:30 a.m.?” Mr. Waters said when I asked him if he’s missed making movies in the last 10 years. “No.” He was sitting on a sagging couch that placed him awkwardly lower than me.

“I’ve made a lot of movies,” he continued. “I’ve done that. And I would do it again. I still have meetings about it all the time. So I want to do it, but if I don’t ever make a movie again I’d be totally happy. Do I miss it? In some ways I do, but it’s not driving me crazy I’ll tell you that much. I’ve made a lot of movies. They’re out there. Everything I’ve done, they’re on television—who would have thought they would ever be on television?—they’re pretty available all over the world. You can see ‘em, you know? So, it’s not going to kill me if I don’t make another movie. Thank God. If I had depended on just movies, yeah I’d be in deep trouble.”

Carsick unravels like one of his films. It’s divided into three sections—the fictional Best That Could Happen and Worst That Could Happen on his trip bumming rides from his house in Baltimore to his co-op in San Francisco, followed by a description of the actual trip. The imagined worst is about as upsetting as one of Mr. Waters’s more disturbed cinematic adventures, and the details are mostly unprintable, so let’s leave it by saying the section contains the passage “I knew it! Goiters are contagious” and concludes with Mr. Waters’ death at the hands of a severely herpetic man who “hate[s] all cult-film directors.”

The best that could happen in Mr. Waters’ world includes a generous drug kingpin who offers $5 million in cash to finance Fruitcake, the children’s film Mr. Waters has been trying to get made for the past six years; sexually stimulating a driver in the middle of a demolition derby; wandering into a secondhand drug store that sells used deodorant and a variety of expired prescription meds and is run by Edith Massey, the rotten-toothed supporting character in many of Mr. Waters’s films, long believed to be dead; a ride that ends with the declaration, “You have a magic asshole now, John. So do I.”

In reality, the trip took nine days, and included a lot of waiting, a number of dreary continental breakfasts at motor lodges and zero sex acts.

“I would rush over in empty rest stops when I’d see someone go in and use the bathroom and wait outside like a pervert for them to come out,” Mr. Waters told me. “And then they’d take a long time and I’d think, ‘Oh they have diarrhea!’ And they’re gonna be really mad when they come out and I’m there asking for a ride. And they didn’t know who I was so they just thought I was the bathroom pervert, which I really did look like. Alone. In a rest area. In the middle of nowhere. Yeah. I really did look like a pervert.”

And yet there’s a reason why America has so fascinated Mr. Waters as a filmmaker. The real thing has bizarre feel-good moments that are more like a lost midnight movie than actual life. He happened to be picked up by the band Here We Go Magic, heading to a gig, who took him through most of Ohio and made his travels go viral on the Internet by the time the ride was over. A 20-year-old Republican councilman for Myersville, Md., picked up Mr. Waters in front of a Subway in a strip mall while he was getting lunch and drove about four hours out of his way into Ohio to let him off. The councilman, named Brett Bidle (and, according to the county of Myersville, no longer a councilman), ended up driving for nearly 48 hours straight with no sleep to catch up with Mr. Waters in Colorado and drove him all the way to Reno before going on ahead of Mr. Waters and meeting him at his apartment in San Francisco. Mr. Bidle had never heard of Mr. Waters before.

“I think it was just so freakish and such a chance thing,” Mr. Waters said. “He was going to get his lunch at the Subway shop, you know that sandwich shop, and just never came back. And we both laughed. We realized how ludicrous this was as we were going over the Rockies together.”

Meanwhile, a Maryland farmer offered Mr. Waters a $10 bill because he thought he was homeless, and certainly didn’t believe he was a film director writing a book about hitchhiking. Mr. Waters told me his work teaching in prisons (“I could never teach at a college”) had long ago prepared him “not to be scared and to get along with people.” He helped a man who served a 27-year sentence for a double murder get out of prison. The man now works for the prison system and attends Mr. Waters’s Christmas party every year, “with the judge that sentenced him! Which is awkward, but she died this year. But they would be at the same buffet table. Only in Baltimore.”

The book, a kind of ode to America, fits with Mr. Waters’s belief that New York is no longer the creative center of the universe. “You don’t have to live in New York now,” he told me in his West Village apartment. “Everywhere is cool. I mean, when I was young, you had to move to New York. You’d never see any art movies, you’d never see any art, you’d never see anything. I always came here a lot, but I stuck in Baltimore because that was what I made the movies about. Now more than ever I like it best. We are cooler than New York.”

He first came to New York in 1966 to attend film school at NYU, He stayed for one class and was part of the first high-profile drug bust on a college campus at the Joseph Weinstein dormitory. There’s a chapter about it in a gloriously dated book by Richard Goldstein, a former Village Voice editor, called 1 in 7: Drugs on Campus. (“I turned a lot of people on to pot,” Mr. Waters said. “It wasn’t NYU’s fault.”) After he was kicked out of school, his parents took him back to Baltimore. On the car ride home, he joked that he tried to jump out at every red light. They told him he needed “extensive psychiatric treatment.” Like a lot of people in those days, mom and dad didn’t really know what pot was. They thought their son was a junkie. His shrink in Baltimore recommended Vietnam to set him straight. Mr. Waters got out of that ordeal by going to the draft office and, as he puts it, “checking all the boxes.” Instead of going to the jungle, he made a movie, Mondo Trasho. A structural disaster, it nevertheless included many classic Waters images like violent foot fetishists (a theme he’d revisit to much better effect with the serial Baltimore Foot Stomper in 1981’s Polyester) and naked hitchhikers, and introduced the world to Divine. His parents, after settling their initial fears that their son was a dope fiend, helped finance many of his early films, including, oddly enough, Pink Flamingos. They never did see that movie, Mr. Waters said. “Why make them suffer through that?”

In his apartment, there is a healthy amount of clutter and small stacks of books everywhere. A big monograph on Julian Schnabel sits prominently on a shelf and there’s a pile of Artforums in the walk-in closet. He doesn’t watch TV because “I love to read and you can’t do both.” Also: “It’s hard to turn on televisions now! You need three remotes. I can’t even plug something in! To turn on a TV is almost traumatic for me. Every time I turn on a TV I think porn is going to come on for some reason.”

What surprised me about the place, given that Mr. Waters is known to keep an electric chair in his house in Baltimore, is how dignified it looked, how staid, until he allowed me a closer inspection. The air vent above the bathroom was actually a hyperrealist painting of an air vent on a small rectangular canvas. Ditto that third light switch in the living room. What looked like a small strip of metal built into the floor by the front wall was actually a Carl Andre sculpture. In the bedroom, over his desk, he has hung one of Mike Kelley’s so-called trash paintings so that he’ll have the faint smell of garbage when he sits down to work. Looking onto the bed from above the dresser is a small Warhol depicting a pink silkscreened posterior, a gift from Mr. Waters to himself, one which gave him the pleasure of writing “A-Hole” in the memo portion of the check he used to pay for it. As he walked out of the bedroom and back over to the couch he cautioned, “That’s also an art piece,” pointing to a sculpture of a heap of excrement on the floor outside the bathroom.

If John Waters has perhaps mellowed his strangeness in old age, or at least—if his apartment is any indication—made it blend in with his surroundings, it’s less about him adapting and more because the world has caught up with him: he helped make strangeness safe and necessary. The weirdest thing about his hitchhiking story is not that a recognizable public figure is roughing it through America, but that no one is particularly shocked or scandalized by his voyage: some people knew who he was, but many didn’t; he was just a guy who needed help and they gave it to him.

Other than the fact that he was alone a lot of the time he was hitchhiking, he said the fundamental rules of traveling across the country aren’t so different from making films: make sure there’s no fighting and communicate with people.

“I believe in the goodness of people and always have,” he said.

One Man’s Trash Is Now a National Treasure: John Waters Discovers America