In this, the seventh of his books, John Waters — the evil genius of Baltimore, the living, breathing embodiment of camp, the man with the bristling pencil-thin mustache and vocabulary that would make a drill sergeant blush — betrays his deepest and darkest secret. In these pages the apostle of outrage — the actor, writer and director whose contributions to cinematic glory include “Pink Flamingos,” “Mondo Trasho” and “Hairspray” — reveals himself to be a . . . sentimentalist. Yes, Waters hit the road in the spring of 2012, thumbing his way across the country on what he calls “my hobo-homo journey,” at the end of which he found himself grateful for all the generosity extended to him by “absolutely, undeniably marvelous people who give me faith in the kindness of strangers.”
Wow. In the good old days of newspaper journalism, the days when boys were copyboys and men were city-desk drunks, this was the sort of explosive disclosure that caused people to run around shouting, “Stop the presses!” Have we really grown so blase today that we can merely shrug at the news that Waters, who has spent almost all of his 68 years trying to shock and appall, at heart is just a big ol’ puddy tat? Shrug we may, but I’ll bet that over in Baltimore the Washington Monument — the real Washington Monument, as Baltimoreans insist ad nauseam — is quivering at its base.
Truth to tell, though, surprise has always been Waters’s stock in trade: sometimes, as an especially notorious scene in “Pink Flamingos” vividly illustrates, surprise of a rather unpleasant sort, but surprise all the same. That scene, in which the celebrated actor Divine feasts on goodies contributed by a dog, appeared in 1972, when Waters was himself a pup, and now, more than four decades later, Waters still has a decided proclivity for blood and guts, but underlying it all is a highly developed sense of fun, a desire to amuse more than to shock.
Waters had just turned 66 when, in May 2012, he left his house in northwest Baltimore, stuck out his thumb and began what everyone who knew him regarded as a singularly risky, improbable venture, if not indeed simply a fool’s errand. He says that he’d often hitchhiked when he was young — I’m only six years older than he is and can confirm from personal experience that we all did it back in those days — and that he still does from time to time while summering on Cape Cod, but this time his aim was less to get himself from one coast to the other at the lowest possible cost than to accumulate raw material for a book. My own entirely off-the-wall guess is that he thought “Carsick” would make a great book title and then proceeded to turn it into reality.
Whatever the real reasons behind the “hobo-homo journey,” Waters has made a funny, engaging and — of course — occasionally outrageous book out of it. It comes in four sections: a brisk introduction followed by two fictitious chapters, in the first of which he imagines the best hitchhiking trip he could take and, in the second, the worst; then he gives us the real trip, which clocks in at only a little over 100 pages. His encounters on the “best” trip include one with a little old lady who sells trashy books, what she calls “the lowest of the low in literature”; and another with various denizens of “an outlaw truck stop” in Utah through which he’s shepherded by a driver named Gumdrop. As for the “worst” trips, they include a ride with “one of the most frightening drag queens on earth — one that couldn’t ‘pass’ as a woman even to Stevie Wonder or the late Ray Charles” and an arrest in Kansas for allegedly committing sodomy.
Both of these imaginary trips are amusing, and they give Waters the chance to give full rein to his powers of invention; not everything that he invents can be discussed in polite company, not to mention a family newspaper. By contrast, the real trip, which began in Baltimore and ended 21 rides later at Waters’s apartment in San Francisco, provided only faint flickers of fantasy. Waters, “the ultimate control freak who plans, weeks ahead, the day I can irresponsibly eat candy,” was apprehensive about the unknown, so he packed his “medium-size fake-crocodile-skin plastic tote bag” with various changes of clothing and an odd lot of supplies, among them “a bag of raw almonds, some trail mix, and two bottles of Evian water for nourishment, a ‘fame kit’ to prove to cops that I’m not just homeless, a stack of autographed, embossed PS: THANKS FOR THE LIFT business cards that a fan had sent me years ago that I recently discovered in my studio, and, of course, my TripTik booklet prepared by AAA, whose employees thought I was driving across the country, not begging rides.”
As it turned out, the worst part of the trip didn’t approximate anything he’d imagined but was the quotidian reality of hitchhiking: the endless waits, sometimes in lonely and isolated places, for the next ride: “I’m amazed I never imagined waiting this long in any of my ‘worst’ ride chapters. I have been hitchhiking today for about nine hours and have only been inside a car for less than ten minutes. And it’s only Day Two! I will never get to San Francisco.” His plan was to stick with Interstate 70, which goes nonstop from Baltimore to San Francisco, but since hitching is illegal on the interstates themselves, he had to confine himself to truck stops, rest areas, entrance ramps and other places where people might be driving slowly enough to pick up a stranger.
In these places, especially the truck stops, the city boy found himself smack in the middle of Terra Incognita: “Here is a world I have never been in, in my life. I feel excited! I go in a Starfire convenience store and buy more water, then I head over to Ruby Tuesday for dinner. Another first for me. I sit at the counter and try to appear friendly to the other trucker types who are also eating, but nobody takes the bait. I order tilapia and it’s actually delicious. I like Ruby Tuesday, I decide, feeling that I’m almost passing for a normal person. Maybe regular people don’t talk to strangers. Maybe that’s why I’ve made no friends here.” Other franchised eateries proved less friendly to his taste buds, but bad food is part of the American road experience, part of that strange new world that Waters apparently never knew existed beyond the borders of Baltimore’s gay and artsy community.
His two best rides were with the members of “an indie band called Here We Go Magic, which I stupidly and unhiply have not heard of,” who are as thrilled to have John Waters aboard as he is to be with them, and with a “twenty-year-old, sandy-haired Republican councilman” from Myersville, Md., with whom he strikes up a wildly improbable friendship that seems have given equal (and wholly platonic) pleasure to both parties. This young man “has no idea who I am even after I tell him,” but he clearly gets a kick out of chauffeuring this notable eccentric, so much of a kick that he drives halfway across the country to give Waters another ride.
It was this young man, as well as a number of members of both sexes, who treated Waters kindly and generously, those who knew who he was and those who did not. He had “not one scary ride, not one bad driver, not one car accident, not one incident of police harassment.” All in all a cool trip and a delightful book.
For a Q&A with John Waters, see today’s Style & Arts section.
By John Waters
Farrar Straus Giroux. 322 pp. $26