Establishment embraces Waters

Testimonial: The city fathers celebrate the filmmaker who celebrates the city's tastelessness.

June 30, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Live long enough, the saying goes, and you will see everything.

You may even find out that the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce is capable of irony.

And, on the same night, you may discover that the director John Waters is capable of being without it - at least momentarily.

Waters, who has celebrated everything about Baltimore that the chamber usually prefers to gloss over - the crime rate, the scary bars, the rats and the cockroaches - was the Chamber of Commerce's guest of honor Wednesday at its eighth annual meeting. He sat politely in the Constellation Ballroom at the Hyatt, listened to the usual gung-ho speeches filled with the usual rhetoric about the Inner Harbor and our booming economy and, of course, don't forget those tall ships. He ate the usual hotel salad, with the now-ubiquitous raspberry vinaigrette, followed by the usual chicken and steamed vegetables.

But there were signs, from the first, that this evening would be anything but usual.

"Why is Divine in the middle of the table?" asked a bemused Stan Keyser, as he took his seat at the $100-per-plate dinner ($75 for chamber members). Cardboard cutouts of Waters' late, lamented leading lady decorated every table. (Imagine those old-fashioned anniversary bells, the ones made of crepe paper. Now imagine the same thing, shaped like Divine in the mermaid-style red gown she wore in "Pink Flamingos.")

More startling still were the bumper stickers at every place setting: "Come to Baltimore and Be Shocked!" they proclaimed.

It's a slogan Waters has been promoting, by his estimate, for at least 25 years. He advanced the idea in the Baltimore chapter of his memoir, "Shock Value," first published in 1981. And, while his introduction to the 1995 edition notes that he doesn't stand by everything he wrote back then, Waters still believes Baltimore should celebrate its ... eccentricity.

"I know the city has tried other slogans," he told an appreciative audience that included state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris and several City Hall types. Mayor Martin O'Malley, however, was at Pier 6, performing with Los Lobos and the Chieftains." `Baltimore is Best,' `The City that Reads,' " he enumerated. "But face it - why lie? It only leads to derision."

Waters then quickly ran through his list of suggestions for promoting Baltimore. Those familiar with his written work, in "Shock Value" and "Crackpot," may have recognized a one-liner here or an anecdote there, but it's safe to say that the chamber audience was not overly familiar with Waters' oeuvre.

"Local color is what we do best here and we should exploit it," Waters said. His ideas included:

A new festival for the city that loves festivals - perhaps a "Shock Festival" or, on the first warm day of spring, the "Naked Festival," which would showcase the odd Baltimorean custom of wearing virtually no clothes when the temperature climbs to 60 for the first time.

Publicizing the fact that frontal nudity is still legal here. "They don't have that in New York!" Waters noted gleefully. "Don't tear down the Block, make it better."

Highlighting unusual and unheralded tourist sites, such as the bar that features (Editor's note: If you're eating breakfast, you might want to skip this paragraph) the "Wall of Snot." Waters claims there is one, which features contributions from the bar's regular customers. "Whether you like it or not," Waters said, "there are tourists who would rather see a Wall of Snot than tall ships."

Promoting how fat-friendly Baltimore is. "We're the mayonnaise capital of the world," Waters noted.

Waters went so far as to suggest that the city's No. 1 ranking in sexually transmitted diseases could be turned into a plus. "At least you can get a date here," he noted.

He talked about the less-celebrated neighborhoods, such as Morrell Park and Remington, rhapsodized about the city's bookstores and movie theaters, from the Senator to the Apex ("a great porno theater at peace with the community"). He spoke of the joys of eavesdropping here, whether it's a woman refusing dessert at a posh restaurant - "Christ no, I'm bloated" - or a housewife celebrating the first signs of spring: "I just saw a fly!"

"If you're ever depressed in Baltimore, just go sit outside and something worse will happen," Waters concluded.

Then he posed happily with his plaque, which honored him for helping to create Maryland's film industry, and signed autographs.

Was it the oddest public speaking request he had ever had? Oh no, Waters said, that honor probably goes to his father's Rotary Club. Was he flattered that the chamber wanted to pay him to speak? Or surprised?

"Nothing surprises me anymore," he said. "But I was honored - with no irony. The fact that they put out the bumper sticker - it's why the city works for me. Everyone has a sense of humor."

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