PROVINCETOWN – John Waters suggested that I hitchhike back home to Falmouth.
“It’s summer, you’re on Cape Cod, try hitchhiking,” said Waters, the filmmaker best known for his cult films, Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, and Cecil B. Demented. Waters has an apartment in Provincetown, and has just published a book, “CARSICK:” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), about his 2012 hitchhiking trip across America. “I don’t think serial killers are going up and down Route 6 looking for prey.”
I briefly considered the best that could happen, and the worst (which now specifically included serial killers roaming Route 6) , and I quickly decided to drive my car back and read his book instead.
The book is divided into three parts: The Best That Could Happen; The Worst That Could Happen; and What Really Happened.
It turned out the best that could happen was that I would get an interview with John Waters, an iconic cultural figure whom I have been aware of for decades. The worst that could happen was that I had never actually seen any of his movies and I didn’t even get a copy of his book until I was on my way to the half-hour interview. And what really happened was that Waters was gracious, endearing, and hilarious.
He was also the biggest cheerleader for hitchhiking that I’ve met in decades.
“I’ve always hitchhiked,” said Waters, explaining that he hitchhiked to Provincetown 50 years ago for his first visit. “Somebody just said to me ‘It’s a weird place, you’ll like it,” and they were right,” he said. “I worked at the East End Bookshop and the Provincetown Bookshop.”
Decades later, during the summers when he was in Provincetown, he would still occasionally hitchhike to Longnook Beach in Truro, about ten miles away. He said he has gone on hitchhiking dates, and one such date, with Patty Hearst, he describes in the book.
In the interview with Cape Cod Wave, Waters described hitchhiking from Provincetown to Truro as “training wheels,” for the adventure he had thought up and accomplished in May 2012 – hitchhiking at 66 years old from his home in Baltimore to his apartment in San Francisco.
It was performance art on Route 70 West. Sure, it was an interesting way to get across America. But it was definitely, in the end, a form of show business by a man who has always performed.
“I was a puppeteer at 10 years old. People stopped hiring me when I put fake blood on the puppets, “ said Waters. “I had a career at 12. I knew what I wanted to be – the filthiest person alive. All of my dreams have come true years ago. This is all gravy.”
The filthiest person alive was suggesting it I hitchhike back to Falmouth. What could go wrong?
“You might get hit by a car and get killed,” he said of what he perceived as the biggest danger of hitchhiking.
So there’s that.
“All the criminals I know were the most against it,” said Waters about when he announced the plan to his friends.
Although he still hitchhikes on Cape Cod in the summer, he said his last long hitchhiking trip prior to the book was 40 years ago when he went from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Yet even on the Cape, he said, he had interesting moments. “I had a ride once on Cape Cod where someone had a gun and shot it out the window. It was like ‘Play It As It Lays’ by Joan Didion or something,” said Waters.
Although the criminal friends were against the idea of a cross-country hitchhike with the specific idea of writing a book, Waters said, “It would be the kind of thing my friends would expect me to come up with.”
“I told the people I work with. They thought it was a bad idea,” he said “I told my agent, I said, ‘Don’t tell my publisher.’ “ The publisher found out, thought it was a great idea, and he had a contract.
While writing the fictional Best That Could Happen, and the Worst That Could Happen parts were “like writing a movie,” Waters said of the actual trip, “I didn’t know (what was going to happen). That was the whole point of writing the book.”
He spent a year writing the fictional Best and Worst parts, and also spent that time planning the trip, including getting a AAA Triptik.
He packed light. “You don’t want to be lugging steamer trunks when you hitchhike,” said Waters. He brought along a fake crocodile bag, a slicker, good boots, and cardboard hitchhiking signs, including one that read, “I’m Not A Psycho.”
The morning he started, he said he asked himself, Are you really doing this?
He was, but he learned, “You don’t feel like you’re hitchhiking until you are dropped off in a place where you don’t know where you are.” For him, that was western Maryland.
While he had already imagined the worst that could happen, he said he had a few plans to help out in case he ran into actual trouble. “I had a fame kit,” said Waters..”I showed them my Director’s Guild of America card. It was so ludicrous, as if it would give me immunity.”
Also, he said if there were problems, he was going to claim, “I am filming a reality show. There is a satellite following us” and hope it would be believed.
Many people recognized him, he said. Some drove past him and then circled back as if to ask, is that really John Waters hitchhiking in Kansas, or wherever. It was. On the other hand, he said, when he talked about his movies, “Many of them thought I was a homeless person with delusions of grandeur,” said Waters.
“One person came over and gave me money,” he recalled.
“A cop saw me,” said Waters, “and came back to check on me. He gave me a lecture to shake the sign to attract attention. I was humiliated to get a bad hitchhiking review from a policeman.”
Although he did not see other hitchhikers, Waters said, “Once I saw a homeless person walking along. He was the only person who said hello to me in Ohio.”
It took him nine days and 21 rides to get from Baltimore to San Francisco. Along the way, he learned or recalled a lot of old hitchhiking rules such as, “You always want to get off after the city,” and “sleeping is bad hitchhiking manners.”
One of the reasons he did the trip, beyond writing a book, he said was for the adventure and the human connections. “There is a moment where you’re both at ease when you realize it’s going to be okay,” he said of first getting into a car and the driver and hitchhiker assess each other.
Although his fictional worries, or thrills, “were either sexual or scary, neither of those things happened when I did it for real,” he said.
Instead, he discovered a sweet side to America, and he learned the patience to wait for hours in the pouring rain while being ignored. His biggest worry the entire trip, he said, was that he would never get to San Francisco. “I was scared it would take a year,” he said.
An indie rock band, Here We Go Magic, picked Waters up and tweeted about it. Waters said when one friend of his saw the news, the friend was sure Waters had a breakdown or dementia.
The truth was more interesting. Waters said he learned that, “What is called Middle America is a lot more open-minded than than the radical liberals I know in show business on the east or west coast.”
He said many of his rides never asked or were indifferent about show business, In fact, he said, “I was interviewing them more than they were interviewing me.” And the famous film director was reminded of a simple truth, “Everybody has drama in their life,” he said.
When Waters finally arrived in San Francisco, he said his doorman barely flinched when he announced, “I just hitchhiked here from Baltimore.”
His friends, when he reached them by phone, had a different reaction. “People started crying.” said Waters, “They were so relieved.”
Of the trip, Waters said, “It wasn’t fun. Once it was over, I felt proud of myself for doing it. I knew it could be a good book.”
Hitchhiking across America at 66 years old is something weird John Waters thought up, and then sold.
Maybe not John Waters weird. But the Best That Can Happen, and the Worst That Can Happen wander into a John Waters demented sexual joyride, and then path through hell – and it’s often unclear which is which.
In his fiction, there are many references to his movie characters and dialogue, and it almost felt like a perverted version of Stephen King’s “Misery” in which every one of Waters characters, for better or worse, is his number one fan.
But it’s the true story of John Waters hitchhiking across America that shows the sweet side of a man who said to Cape Cod Wave, “getting a ride is exhilarating. Every time you get a ride, you are so happy.”
“The last time I picked up a hitchhiker, it was a teenager who started huffing glue,” said Waters. “At least he offered me some.”
Waters turned down the glue but loved the adventure, he said.
After suggesting I hitchhike home, he also recommended that I pick up hitchhikers. “Stopping to give someone a ride instantly makes you a better person,” said Waters.
The best that ever happened to me hitchhiking was on Martha’s Vineyard when a little old lady, maybe 75 years old and 5 feet tall, picked me up and invited me over her house for tea. Her husband had just passed away, and for more than an hour she told me all about him.
The worst was the last time I picked up a hitchhiker. It was a guy going from Mashpee to Falmouth, and he made it clear it would be fun to kill me but he had something else to do that day.
“Reality is never as exciting as your fantasies,” said Waters.
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— Brian Tarcy