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John Waters is out to shock us all once again, this time with Carsick, his new book chronicling an eight-day hitchhiking trek west along Route 70, from his home in Baltimore to his San Francisco apartment. Frontiers recently spoke with Waters, who recounted his experiences along the journey ("There was not one bad person. They were all kind and helpful.") and his sordid history with hitchhiking from a young age ("Those were my training wheels").
Before you run out to purchase Waters' new work, available today, we share this first look at Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.
Photo by Greg Gorman
Going My Way?
I haven’t felt this excited or scared for a long time. Maybe ever. I just signed a book deal resulting from 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. Simple, huh?
Am I fucking nuts? Brigid Berlin, Andy Warhol’s most dangerous and glamorous sixties superstar, recently said to me, “How can I be bad at seventy?” She’s got a point. I mean, yes, I’m “between pictures,” as they say in Hollywood, but long ago I realized, as a so-called cult- film director, not only did I need a Plan B that was just as important to me as moviemaking, I needed a Plan C, D, and E. But Plan H, for “hitchhike”? I’m sixty-six years old, for chrissake.
“Why would a man who has worked so hard his whole life to reach the level of comfort you have, put yourself in such an uncomfortable position?” Marianne Boesky, my New York art dealer, asked me when I told her of my “undercover travel adventure,” as the publishers were calling my new book in trade announcements. A onetime actor in my early films who had a recent homeless past was even more alarmed when I hinted that I might do a hitchhiking book. “You’ll never get a ride,” he warned, telling me he had tried hitchhiking himself out of necessity in Florida last year. “No one picks up hitchhikers these days,” he griped with disgust. “No one!”
Even successful hipsters seemed shocked when I confided my plans. “Nice knowing you,” a California photographer buddy muttered with a laugh over dinner when he realized he wouldn’t see me again until after my hobo-homo journey was scheduled to be completed. God, I wondered grandiosely, would I be like JFK on those recently released secret White House tapes, where he was heard planning his first day back from Dallas before anyone knew he’d be assassinated, commenting on what a “tough day” that would be. If he only knew.
What am I trying to prove here? I mean, I’m not bored. An ex-convict woman I recently met claimed her criminal past was not a result of a bad childhood but just because she “wanted an adventure.” I do, too. Kicks. But hasn’t writing and directing fifteen movies and penning six books made me feel complete? My career dreams already came true years ago and what I do now is all gravy. Shouldn’t I be retiring rather than sticking out my thumb? Retiring to what, though? Insanity?
Will I be safe? I know serial killers routinely pick up hitchhikers and murder them, but aren’t the victims, unfortunately, usually young female hookers? Yeah, yeah, I know about Herb Baumeister, “the I-70 Strangler,” who choked at least sixteen gay men to death, but he picked them up in gay bars, not on exit ramps of truck stops. Yet I must admit even truckers I know are fairly nuts. One of them must have raised a few of my neighbors’ eyebrows when he came over to visit and parked his eighteen wheeler right on the small, quiet residential street in front of my house, taking up half the block. He’s funny and sexy and straight but a real freak and likes to horrify me with his stories from the road. How he travels, high on speed, picking up teenage runaways and screwing them in the back of the truck or driving full speed ahead in the night, carrying a bag of someone else’s clean urine prepared for any random drug tests as he masturbates into a sock. He laughs when he admits sometimes illegally dumping huge loads of gravel in the middle of an unsuspecting suburbanite’s lawn if he knows he’s overloaded and a weigh station is coming up that will be open. Suppose someone like this guy picks me up?
Can I really give up the rigid scheduling I’m so used to in real life? Me? The ultimate control freak who plans, weeks ahead, the day I can irresponsibly eat candy? Sure, I’ve got all my interstate routes planned out for the trip and I think I know how many truck stops there are and how far apart they are, but so what? Will I really get out of the car if my ride strays from my route but is still headed west? I keep thinking beggars can be choosers, but I have to open my mind to the possibility I may be wrong.
We are all bums, a radical left-wing poster boasted on the wall of my bedroom in my parents’ house in the sixties. I remember the rage this particular slogan caused in my father. A bum. The worst thing you could be in his book. Now that he is, sadly, gone, can I finally become one? A vagabond? A freeloader? Is it possible to be a vagrant when you own three homes and rent another place in Provincetown for the summer? Will this book end up as a new spin on that now dated but incredibly influential 1961 nonfiction book Black Like Me, where the white author, John Howard Griffin, hitched and rode buses through the South disguised as a black man to see how it feels to be discriminated against?
Photo by Shauta Marsh
John Waters discussed his new book with us in an exclusive interview here.
I am afraid just the way the Black Like Me man was. But of different things. Like bad drivers. I’m amazed every person driving their car isn’t killed every day. Riding along at high speeds in lanes just a few feet from each other. Texting, talking on the phone behind the wheel. Or just plain driving while stupid! Nobody is really a safe driver. I worry my own involuntary backseat driving will cause problems for anyone who picks me up. Will cries of “Slow down!” or slamming imaginary brakes from the passenger side cause bad will with my host drivers? I’m never in the front seat of a car if I’m not behind the wheel except when I take taxis in Australia, because I read the drivers there think you’re snooty if you get in the back. Where I live in Baltimore, if you got in the front of the cab, they’d think you were robbing them and probably shoot you.
I’ve had a good history with hitchhiking. It’s hard to imagine today, but in the early sixties my parents expected me to hitchhike home every day from high school. All the kids did. The roads were filled with preppy teenage boys, lacrosse sticks over their shoulders and their thumbs out. I’m sure just as many serial killers were behind the wheel then as now, but you never heard about them. Nobody warned us of the dangers of hitchhiking. Evil definitely did not seem to be lurking.
Of course perverts were out there, and I hitchhiked every day with a hard-on hoping one would pick me up and give me a blow job. Many did. On this trip, I guess I’ll still technically be horny while hitchhiking, but I may be carrying a Viagra in my pocket instead of an erection. Is all hitchhiking gay? Aren’t truck stops and Levi’s-clad tough-guy hitchhikers staples of porn movies? My planned route is I-70 West, and if I’m lucky enough to get a ride going that way, I’ll be able to find out if there really is such a place as the Kansas City Trucking Company—or was that just the title of a fictitious garage in that classic gay film directed by Joe Gage? I saw the real El Paso Wrecking Corp. on my drive from El Paso to Marfa, Texas, and almost drove off the road remembering this sequel. If there really is such a place, maybe I can get dropped off there and make friends.
I drove all five cross-country interstate routes in the United States when I was a young man and loved it. We used to get “drive-away” cars, where the owner gave you the keys and you paid the gas and delivered the car to an address on the opposite coast. I even remember singing “America the Beautiful” stoned on hashish with my fellow travelers (David Lochary, Steve Butow, and David Hartman) as we drove toward a beautiful sunset in Minneapolis. Looking back, I’m amazed anyone trusted any of us considering how we looked at the time, but even though we violated the rules by taking other passengers (and drugs), we always did deliver the car in one piece. But come to think about it, we didn’t ever pick up a hitchhiker then, and that was in the heyday of the hippie years. And in 2012, I expect someone to stop?
I still hitchhike in Provincetown to Longnook, the most beautiful beach in Truro (about ten miles away). I usually ask someone to go on a thumbing date with me. Author Philip Hoare, artist and singer Kembra Pfahler, the late and great art dealer Colin de Land, have all joined me alongside the highway. And we’ve never had any real trouble either. Once I was hitching with photographer Henny Garfunkel, whose extreme hairdo and stunning fashions can make children cry, and a man did a U-turn and picked us up—never a good sign. As usual, I got in the front and the woman hitchhiker got in the back. It smelled inside, like he was living in his car or something. I had a sudden flashback to the scene I wrote in Pink Flamingos where Mink Stole’s character says to her husband, played by David Lochary, that she’s tired of “ just driving around . . . driving around” looking for female hitchhikers to pick up, kidnap, and then have raped and impregnated so the babies could be sold on the black market.
Photo by Greg Gorman
John Waters discussed his new book with us in an exclusive interview here.
“See that safety sticker?” our vaguely creepy driver asked. “Yeah,” I said hesitatingly, looking at the Massachusetts official emissions-test sticker on the inside of the windshield. “I drew that myself,” he chuckled with a leer. I turned around to see Henny’s wide-eyed look of panic but it was all a false alarm; he dropped us off at the beach without incident.
But sometimes I go alone and I’m never sure if the drivers who pick me up recognize me. “Who is this man in the car?” a confused child who had never heard of hitchhiking once asked his mom and dad after I got in. “Why is he in this car?” he continued as I squirmed in embarrassment under the kid’s hostile glare and tried to explain what hitchhiking was.
Another time, a handsome long-haired pirate type stopped to give me a ride in his pickup, and just as I was about to jump in the front, he smiled and said, “No, you’ll have to ride in the back, my dog’s up here in the front.” Ha! Suddenly put in my proper place around such rugged hippie good looks, I laughed and happily climbed up into the open truck bed. I was thrilled to get a ride with such a sexy devil even if I could only see his beautiful long hair from the rear as he pulled off toward Provincetown.
Even weirder was the time the A&E Biography TV show was doing a segment on me and asked if they could shoot me hitchhiking in Provincetown and I reluctantly said yes. The crew hid in the bushes, and when I got a ride, they jumped in their van and followed. The nice local fisherman who picked me up not only didn’t recognize me, he didn’t see the crew either. Nervously eyeing the cameramen hanging out their windows, shooting us as they tracked our car, I casually mentioned to my ride, “Don’t look over now on your side of the car, but there is a film crew shooting this whole thing.” “Okay,” he said with a shrug, completely unimpressed, and then drove for ten more minutes before dropping me off at the beach. Even when the crew jumped from their vehicle to film my exit, he never ruined their final shot by looking into the camera lens. What a pro.
One time my hitchhiking date was Patricia Hearst. As we walked toward Route 6 from Provincetown, we quickly got a ride, but I don’t think the driver recognized us until we got in, me in the front, her in the back. He kept doing double takes looking over at me and finally said, “Are you John Waters?” and I said yes, and at the same time he looked in the rearview mirror I said, “And that is Patty Hearst.” He looked totally shocked but I could tell he realized it was her. “He made me do it,” Patty deadpanned, and I was so proud of her improvisational skills. We were now a hitchhiking comedy duo.
Coming back to Provincetown that day with Patty was harder because we had to hitchhike right on Route 6, a highway with cars whizzing by, which made it seem more like real hitchhiking. It took some time for us to get a ride and I could tell Patty was starting to get nervous, especially when we were finally picked up but asked to “switch cars” by the driver, who hooked us up with another ride from a friend in North Truro, the next town before Provincetown. Later, her husband, Bernie, whom I love but realize is the head of security for Hearst Corporation, was a little perturbed when she told him of our day’s adventure. “Oh, come on, John,” he said with impatience, “hasn’t she had enough trouble?!” I guess he was right. But have I?
Is there such a thing as “unfamous”? If so, that is what I want to be on this trip, yet go right back to “famous” if need be. I’m recognized in public about 80 percent of the time across this country, but during the other 20 percent when I’m not, I get pissed when I realize how shabbily other people must be treated every day. When store clerks or airline reps do suddenly recognize me and get nice after being grumpy when they didn’t know who I was, I get testy right back.
How will my so-called fame, or sudden lack of it, affect my life as a bicoastal tramp? Can slumming on the road or begging rides on interstate entrance ramps live up to my fantasy of being a David-Niven-from-the-gutter glamorous vagabond? Who could recognize me driving by at 70 mph, anyway? And even if they did, who would think, “Oh, that’s John Waters, the filmmaker, alongside the road in the middle of Utah”? Once I climb in, will they believe it’s me even if they know who I am, or think I’m just a John Waters impersonator? Which I am in a way every day . . . only older.
I will definitely carry a cardboard sign. That Depression-era gimmick has worked well for me in the past. Not San Francisco or bust but just I-70 west with San Francisco on the other side, a double feature of hitchhiking pleas. Plus a backup sign that a friend actually saw a hitchhiker carry ing in one of those pot- harvesting Northern California towns—I’m not psycho.
Photo by Greg Gorman
John Waters discussed his new book with us in an exclusive interview here.
Now there’s a psychological profile that can stand alone. Of course, a scary driver might see that visual, chuckle to himself, and think, well, I am! and pull over, but I will maintain my belief in the basic goodness of people.
I’m not going to set up ridiculous rules for myself in the hitchhiking adventure. I mean, I’ll have money, carry credit cards and a cell phone, and plan to stay in motels if no one is kind enough to invite me to their family’s home for a sleepover. No tourist sites, though, or visiting friends. This is an irrational vacation, not a tour. Some friends tell me that off the interstate on the secondary roads I’ll have a better chance of being picked up because those drivers are “hiding something,” but am I anxious to get a ride with a drug dealer or a mule who is carrying kilos of heroin hidden in the chassis of the car? If I get stuck in the middle of the night, I’ll do anything I have to do to survive—even call a limousine, if necessary. One thing I know, I won’t take a ride on a motorcycle.
I imagine hitchhiker manners are a gray area. What if they’re bad drivers? Do I offer to take over if they are falling asleep at the wheel and refuse to pull over for a nap? Suppose they won’t let me? “Hey, wake up!” will get old quickly, and how many times can you grab the steering wheel in the nick of time after they nod off and begin to drift into the breakdown lane at full speed toward a family gathered around their vehicle while changing a flat? Oh God, suppose I have to help change a flat?! I have no clue how to do that. If I had to change a flat tire or die, I’d be dead.
And what about sleeping myself while someone else drives? That somehow seems rude to me. Don’t people pick up hitchhikers to have someone to talk to? Letch after? Vent to? Besides, if I fell asleep, they could easily turn off the main road, go to a secret satanic location, and cut off my head and put it on a stick.
How do you say no if a car stops to pick you up on a lonely highway, you run a quarter of a mile to get in, and you see a gang of six tough black guys inside? See? I’m already racially profiling and I feel guilty. They could be normal college students, couldn’t they, or 1960s freedom fighters lost in some mysterious Twilight Zone time warp? One of my favorite hip-hop groups? Even fans who recognize me from my old Court TV show, ’Til Death Do Us Part? But if they’re not and I smell trouble, what do I say? “I’m doing a reality show and there’s a satellite camera filming us right now”? Maybe they’d believe it! I guess what I’d really do is just chirp, “Hey, homey, thanks for stopping,” before yelling “SHOTGUN” and pushing the front- seat passenger over to the middle without showing fear.
Suppose it all goes wrong? Nobody picks me up. I’m robbed. Beaten. I will already have half the book advance, so I can’t quit. Should I put my hitchhiking dough in a special CD account I can’t touch before I leave, just in case I chicken out? Would I have the nerve to call my editor, Jonathan Galassi, and tell him of my cowardice, my literary spinelessness? Just imagining the humiliation of my Pope of Trash crown being so besmirched is enough to give me shingles, what ever they are.
Or could I just make up the whole book and say it was true? How would anybody know? It took years for scholars to figure out that John Steinbeck’s supposedly nonfiction Travels with Charley: In Search of America, a well-reviewed bestseller published in 1962 (and still in print), was in fact total bullshit. Instead of driving cross-country in a pickup, staying in campgrounds, and chatting up the locals, as the author claimed, he actually had company with him, stayed in motels and luxury hotels, and made up the conversations. According to writer Bill Barich, quoted in a recent New York Times article, Steinbeck was “discouraged by everyone from making the trip.” He was too old, “trying to recapture his youth, the spirit of knight-errant.” Uh- oh. Could that be me?
Nah. I don’t think I could lie. I’m not sure I’d want to be JT LeRoy at this stage of my life, and besides, being the centerpiece of a literary hoax is one of the few ways to be “bad” that is never funny. But why not take a chance and, before I go, think up the very best that could happen on this trip? Imagine the worst, too. Both as novellas. And then, after fantasizing on paper, go out in the world, do the real thing, and hopefully live to report the results. Fiction. Nonfiction. Then the truth. All scary. Go ahead, John, jump off the cliff.
Read Frontiers' recent sit-down with John Waters by clicking here.
Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America
336 pp., $26
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)