My one experience of hitchhiking was in Baltimore in 1991 after an art event called The Hair Ball. I was with my boyfriend at the time, and the person we wanted to get a ride from was no stranger — it was John Waters. We had come down from Philadelphia to deliver a VHS tape of an “art film” we had made called States of Anguish. (See it on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2.) Having recently discovered Waters’s Trash Trilogy, and arguably his most notorious trio of films, which include Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, we were entranced by the world he and his Dreamlanders had created. So inspired, we made our own movie, which consisted of a series of vignettes of said boyfriend, Gregory, dressed in primitive drag and acting out various scenes evocative of the film’s title.
After we nervously presented him with our tape, he raised an eyebrow and said, “This is a video … of you two?” We delighted in the salacious implication. Stalking him, we went to the bar we had overheard he would be going to after the party. There we waited patiently until he got up to leave, then followed him outside and begged for a ride back to where we were staying. It was a fifteen-minute drive at most. He graciously agreed. (Okay, I know this isn’t technically hitchhiking, but it’s bumming a ride nonetheless.)
I got the chance to speak with John Waters again, twenty-three years later, in his San Francisco apartment. We talked about aging and taking risks — the kinds of risks he brilliantly imagines (in best- and worst-case scenarios) and then actually takes in his most recent book, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). I mention sections where he describes long periods of waiting for rides that I mistakenly characterize as being awful. He corrects me:
“Waiting for a ride is not awful. Awful is when you have cancer. It was an adventure! My street cred went up, I felt brave, I was happy that I did it. It wasn’t awful like awful can be.”
DINOSAUR: Were you ever scared?
John Waters: I think you should be scared if you stay home all the time, if you stop going out. Or if you think that people had more fun when they were young than they do now — you’re wrong. I think staying home can be scary. Or not changing, or not being curious about what is going on today. To me, that is bad for your health. [Hitchhiking] was my midlife crisis — I would never buy a convertible. I won’t even ride in one for fear of someone thinking I’m doing it to feel young. To be middle-aged with a Porsche convertible is mortifying! Spending money on a sports car is a bad idea. If you’re rich, buy art. I want a car that no one notices so I can do hit-and-runs and get away with it. My car is so plain, I couldn’t describe it to you. I don’t even know what color it is. It’s no color.
So you make a concerted effort to be anonymous.
In a car, yes — nowhere else! I want an unremarkable car that always works. And is big. And has enough room with a trunk that no one knows what’s in it — in case it’s you!
Some of my favorite landscape artists are Robert Adams (specifically the photos of Denver from the 1970s) and the Canadian Group of Seven (highly stylized rural landscape paintings). In Art – A Sex Book, you have a painting by Christopher Johnson called Free Beer.
That’s the only landscape painting I own, still, to this day.
I said I wanted the cover of my book to sort of look like a Fairfield Porter painting — one that that was like good taste about bad taste.
Do you think landscape art can be sexy?
Sure! Landscape art can definitely be sexy. Lee Friedlander does great landscape art. He’s my favorite. His photographs are sexy in an outsider way. He actually becomes the landscape. In his self-portraits … he climbs inside and shoots out. Another one from Art – A Sex Book is called Mended Spider Web [#19 (Laundry Line)], where [Nina Katchadourian] goes around and fixes spider webs that are broken. That’s insane. That’s a landscape that’s insane!
You don’t mention anything specific about the landscape until Kansas and its “minimalist geography.”
I didn’t care what it looked like as long as I had a ride. Then the only time I ever began to look at the landscape was if it was a long ride. You only notice landscape when things are going well. It’s a luxury to be able to notice the landscape.
I like bleak landscapes. Newfoundland and Iceland are some of my favorite places I’ve visited. You describe Utah as “Nothing. Beautiful nothing … . It’s so bleak that we are both energized by the extreme landscape.”
It does! Certainly Wellington, Utah. It looked scary, like the Twilight Zone, and very different than any landscape I’ve ever seen. It looked very foreign to me and maybe not very welcoming, which I liked. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to go to a bar there. It was a colorful, eccentric town, but I’m not sure in which direction. Maybe rattlesnake churches! I like that kind of desert-rat community. Needles, California, is one of my favorite places — because of the name, and because it’s usually the hottest place on the USA Today map. It is like 103 at night. I respect their lifestyle. They’re tough.
Would you comment on one of my favorite Carsick quotes: “… I’m all by myself, the way everybody really is no matter where you are. … I just stand there feeling the power of being alone and hopeful”?
That is a great power — that’s optimism. I think you are always alone in a way, and there’s nothing the matter with that. When my parents died, everybody was around, and [I wondered] were they conscious of being in a hospice, or did they feel alone? Does it matter? When I am dying, I don’t want people sitting around looking at me. You want to get that picture, those images, out of your mind. I don’t want people to remember me at my worst —the second before I die. That’s not exactly a glamour shot!