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The education of John Waters

The eclectic director has many muses — from Johnny Mathis to Leslie Van Houten — but Baltimore may be his biggest

May 21, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Waters is also the last unabashed admirer of Sigmund Freud. Waters writes that he made "friends with his neuroses through psychiatry." In person, he riffs, "Freud was wrong about a couple of things, but he was right about a lot, and he got a lot of ideas all at once. I love what I quote in the book, where he says psychotherapy is 'turning hysterical misery into common unhappiness.' They don't do that any more! I know pills make you 'even,' which saves peoples' lives, I know. But many people don't need them. It's appropriate to be depressed sometimes. You just killed somebody in a DWI accident, you should be depressed. You're not supposed to never feel sad."

One wonders what Freud would have made of this book's panoply of mothers, who often raised healthy children in spite of themselves. Waters' own mother seems terrific. He writes, "My mom used to drive me down from our safe, then almost country-like neighborhood to Martick's, a bar known (at the time) for its bohemian customers. 'Well,' she'd sigh as she dropped me off outside, knowing I couldn't get in because the owner was aware I wasn't twenty-one, 'at least here you might meet some people you could get along with.' "

Now he says, "When I look back on that, it was amazing. And it is amazing. And even though everything I've made, even this book, [my parents] probably wish I didn't, they're proud that other people like it. They were encouraging and tolerant and, now that I look back on it, scared. And they made me feel safe. And that's why I could write this book; that's why I'm here today. No matter how insane I was, there was something inside me that I knew: I knew that I had them."

These days, he thinks that Baltimore is "doing great," too. His current "favorite place" (if not his "happy place") is Lithuanian Hall, which has Soul Night the first Friday of every month.

"It's all young kids dancing to their grandparents' music, not their parents'. It's a great club. I still go out and find places. I just like to watch the new kids and see what 's going on. Baltimore still has really great bars; it has more edge than New York. It's always been a town of beauty parlors, churches and bars. Still is."

Waters' neighborhoods to watch

When John Waters' mother dropped him off at Martick's, he says today, "It was a great place, but the big thing was just coming downtown, where I could really see all the things I was listening to or reading about."

Downtown didn't just mean the area Waters refers to with affection and awe as "Baltimore's notorious red-light district, The Block." It also meant " Lenny Bruce, and Bohemia," and roaming characters like the "drag freak" named Pencil — "a great influence on me," he writes, "defiantly courageous in the face of hatred, rabidly enticing despite his repellent packaging, and soooo happy to be living a life totally against the laws of the times."

I asked Waters to characterize comparable Baltimore neighborhoods today. This is what he came up with:


"If there is a demimonde today like the kind at Martick's, it's in Hampden. Hampden is an uneasy mixture of redneck culture and hipster culture, which I love. Hampden is definitely the hipster neighborhood and a great neighborhood. It's become what Fells Point was for a while, but it moved."


"Walmartt will kill Remington from ever being a hipster neighborhood. I hate Walmart. I know it gives people jobs, which is a good thing, but I don't think it treats its employees well, and it's one of the biggest censors of R-rated or NC 17 movies, or cutting-edge CDs, in the world."


"Westport could have been the next Hampden, but now that'll be like Harbor Place."


"Now, Highlandtown has room. The recession has stopped the forest fire of yuppiness from jumping from block to block. The Creative Alliance is a good thing!"

Station North

"Who would have ever thought we'd have hipster bars on North Avenue? It was actually going to be named James Brown Boulevard before he went to prison. I think that they should name it that again. Imagine your address being 2214 James Brown Boulevard!"

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