John Waters hitches a ride in 'Carsick'

Film director's new book chronicles hitchhiking journey from Baltimore to San Francisco

May 30, 2014|By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

Featured in Scene If you saw a disheveled, clearly despondent 66-year-old man hitchhiking, would you pick him up?

Would you pick him up if you realized he was John Waters?

Two springs ago, Baltimore's most unrepentant degenerate set out on a mission of discovery. Beginning on Charles Street, not far from his home, Waters would hitchhike all the way to his San Francisco condo, following Interstate 70 most of way. There would be little in the way of advance planning; he'd be relying totally on his thumb and the kindness of strangers.

(OK, he did take along a GPS tracking device — a sop to his desperately worried family and friends, who seemed convinced they'd never see him again.)

The reading public is about to be let in on all that happened, and more. Waters' seventh book, "Carsick," to be released June 3 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, comes in thirds. In the first third, Waters imagines the best rides he could possibly have gotten, including one from a drug dealer who agrees to finance his next movie, no questions asked, and another that gives his body welcome (if perhaps somewhat disreputable) superpowers. The second third details the worst things that could have happened, a handful of nightmare scenarios, many of which cannot be described in a family newspaper, that lead to a gruesome end for our hero.

And then there's what really happened, a cross-country voyage with a cast of characters that includes an animal rescuer, police officers, a small-town mayor, a New York-based indie rock band and a 21-year-old GOP town councilman from Western Maryland — dubbed The Corvette Kid — who picks him up twice, and ends up playing the savior in Waters' little tale.

Riding in the passenger seat of Waters' car, heading toward I-95 on a predetermined route through East Baltimore, we spoke with Waters about what makes a successful film director, author and raconteur take up hitchhiking, what insights into the human spirit his trip offered and when — if ever — we'll see another John Waters film. He hasn't made one since 2004's "A Dirty Shame."

It doesn't read like you met a single jerk on the entire trip.

I did not. They were all very nice. Of course, in the worst fantasies, they were all monsters and jerks, kind of the most horrible people ever. I even felt guilty because one of the worst I imagined was an insane pet rescuer. And then really a nice one picked me up. I told her, "I besmirched you already in a chapter without realizing it." But she was great.

And even — I'm scared of pets. I got in the car, and a three-legged poodle jumped in my lap and kissed me. But when you're hitchhiking, your value system changes. I kissed the poodle right back.

You must have hitchhiked a lot when you were growing up?

I did. The farthest I ever went was probably San Francisco to L.A. and Baltimore to Provincetown.

So we're talking, like, the '70s, '80s?

Sixties.

How different was it?

Well, the difference was that the main places where you could hitchhike, the few ramps where the police wouldn't bust you, there would be a hundred hitchhikers. It was the hippie years, so everyone hitchhiked.

I was 16, 18, which is a lot more sexual than at 66. [He's now 68.] I got hit on a lot more at 16, let's put it that way. Anybody that says they've hitchhiked and have never been hit on is such a liar. But big deal, you say no.

Except — I feel bad, there were prostitutes, just regular hitchhikers, who were murdered. But as I said in the book, serial killers don't usually target 66-year-old film directors. That's why, when I did write my death, I did imagine someone for whom I would be the right type.

I meet a very gruesome death, and I actually wrote that death about three days before I left the house for real. I had just finished writing the best and the worst, and thank God, because I never would have been able to write those chapters if I had already done this.

You did write both of those sections before you started?

Well, the first drafts. You had to, because that was your fantasy of what was the best and the worst that could happen. Once you hitchhiked for real, all those fantasies go away. The drudgery of it, the daily shock of waking up in those hotel rooms and thinking, "I'm really doing this — this is no longer a book pitch, this is no longer an abstract, funny, high-concept pitch, which is what it was. This is reality, and I have to do it every day."

Now that it's over, I look back on it as a great adventure in my life. But the tedium of it during the day. … Every time I got in a car, I was desperate, I was so excited, I loved every person. The minute I got let out, the frightening tedium of it started again.

Not frightened of people, or that I was going to get murdered. I was going to spend the night in the woods one night, I almost stayed with a trucker in his cab one night. That wasn't scary to me; I figured that would make the book even better.

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