An Evening With John Waters On Hitchhiking And Middle America

Jun 24, 2014

John Waters has never been afraid of taking risks. His films have depicted everything from convicted criminals to coprophagia, and he’s often been in the news for his controversial opinions.

But, though he’d often hitchhiked in his youth, there was one particular risk Waters had never taken: coast-to-coast hitchhiking. So, two years ago, the director of “Hairspray,” “Pink Flamingos” and “Cry-Baby,” then 66, fulfilled the dream — and lived to tell the tale in his new book, “Carsick.”

Waters believes there is something about the people who will stop for hitchhikers that makes them “great people.”

“Most people that have picked up hitchhikers, something has happened to them, they’ve gotten through something, and they want help a fellow man.”

“They want to help people. Most people that have picked up hitchhikers, something has happened to them, they’ve gotten through something, and they want help a fellow man.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with Here & Now’s Robin Young at the Brattle Theater for Harvard Book Store‘s event, Waters discussed the book, which begins with his wildest fantasies of what might go right or wrong, and ends with a quiet appreciation of middle America after his journey.

“I was changed because my whole life I’ve fled the middle. I get along in prison and I get along at Cannes. It’s a shopping center that I’ve got trouble with.”

Traveling through middle America placed the exuberant director squarely in that middle space. The 66-year-old gay director met a cast of characters on his trip including a 20-year-old conservative Republican city councilman who became his travel companion.

“He just was on an adventure, why not? We were such an odd couple.”

Throughout “Carsick” and across Waters’ vast work a steady theme is apparent: welcoming the absurd and embracing the outsider.

“With ‘Hairspray,’ I think I accidentally hit on something– that a fat girl then stood for every kind of outsider in every country of the world,” Water explained. Encouragingly, he’s seen a difference. “Big girls, now, I don’t see any of them that look pitiful. They’re ready to fight, they look great. It’s radically changed.”


  • John Waters, film director and author of “Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.”
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please join me in welcoming John Waters and Robin Young.

YOUNG: Believe me, the applause is for John Waters. Last week, his fans packed the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a delightful evening at a Harvard book event with filmmaker and author John Waters. His films include the classic gender-bending favorites, "Hairspray" and "Pink Flamingos." His latest book "Carsick" tells the tale of his trip hitchhiking across the country two years ago to meet America. How would America respond to this, then, 66-year-old, joyously-gay, mustachioed, gentile eccentric from Baltimore with a cardboard sign reading, I am not a psycho? What about America's police force? What if he was arrested for hitchhiker?


JOHN WATERS: My assistant made this thing she called my fame kit, which was a little thing so that I could whip out my Academy of Arts and Sciences card - say, hey, I vote for the Oscars. I must have immunity here, don't I, you know?

YOUNG: As it turns out, several policemen gave John a ride, as did farmers, and families and a 20-year-old Republican city councilman in a Corvette, who became like a son. But the first two-thirds of his book are his wildest fantasies about what might happen hitchhiking. This being John Waters, the pope of trash, we can't share many of those stories with you. But suffice it to say, they feature sex with aliens and freak shows and characters that could be in his movies, in best and worst case road trip scenarios. Even without those, this might be a conversation for mature ears.


WATERS: As my assistant said I can't tell the difference between the best and the worst 'cause I realize not everybody wants to have sex in the middle of a demolition derby race in the car.


WATERS: But...

YOUNG: That was on the best list.

WATERS: Yes and the worst - I'm also with a gay, insane queen that is poisoning straight people because they do "The Electric Slide."


YOUNG: (Laughing) This is where you ask, is it possible to be gay and think someone is too gay?

WATERS: Yeah, well, that's true. They call that Gay Shame. In London, the have Gay Shame Day, which is really funny. It's all like hip gay people making fun of straight gay people. And I went to - they sponsored the anti-Pope march. This one lesbian woman was all, what do we want? And all the gay people would yell back, rational thought.


WATERS: No revolution is going to start with that cry. I promise you.


YOUNG: I think - if I'm in the same area, Divine, your childhood friend and then star of many of your films, commented to you, he was unsure of Richard Simmons.

WATERS: He felt homophobic for the first time.


WATERS: But one of the ideas, actually, about the carnival was an idea for a movie.

YOUNG: This is the freak show that you join.

WATERS: Yeah, they put me in the freak show as a man with no tattoos.


YOUNG: Why did you put yourself in that story?

WATERS: Well, I love a freak show and I used to go to them and all. And they obsessed me as a kid, when I went to the Timonium fair, which was the state fair in Maryland. They had to do 10 shows a day and I remember seeing them. And I don't know - the fat lady - I used to go in the tent by myself and just stand there and look at her. I felt bad for her, but I looked. I got my money's worth. And you know...


WATERS: And because of her, I'm on this stage today - really.


WATERS: So I imagined extreme show business, which that is, certainly, yeah.

YOUNG: And well - and you imagined that this book that you're going to, you know, write after you make this trip, it could be the modern-day version of 1961's "Black Like Me."

WATERS: Well, "Black Like Me" people forgot. And that book could never come out today, because it would be politically incorrect - because a white guy made himself look black and went around the country and saw how he was mistreated. I have that in the original "Hairspray" movie. Penny's reading it while she's waiting in line. That was a hugely successful book at the time. And this, in a way, was poor like me. That's what I was afraid it was going to be like. People thought I was a homeless man. People tried to give me money all the time, which was incredibly moving to me. But technically, I could've called a helicopter to come get me, really. I had a credit card, you know? I did do it for real. I mean, I almost spent the night in the woods one night. I had brush my - I was like Crackers in "Pink Flamingos." I was living in gas station lavatories, like "Pink Flamingos." And they say, let's live in gas station lavatories. It's not as glamorous as I made it sound, believe me.


YOUNG: He says, 'cause we need to make our life filthier.

WATERS: Yeah, I remember being in the Taco Bell and I'd been staying there for 10 hours. But once it's over, you forget. Then you keep repeating over and over, it only takes one car, which is true. And then you get a great ride and that 10 hours is kind of wiped out of your memory because the people who pick you up are so great. At least, everyone who picked me up was great.

YOUNG: Yeah.

WATERS: But they weren't extreme, in a way, like I imagined them in the book.

YOUNG: Well, I want to ask you about that, because you quote Mink Stole in "Pink Flamingo" when she says, she's tired of driving around looking for female hitchhikers to pick up, kidnap, rape and impregnate with babies that could be sold on the black market.

WATERS: Yeah, that's extreme, yeah.

YOUNG: But you wrote...


YOUNG: But - so I was wondering if the fact that you created these characters might make you, John Waters, in particular, a little more afraid of going out there?

WATERS: No, it didn't. In a way, I've always believed in the goodness of people. I teach in prison. They all said, don't do it. Carry a gun, take Mace. Are you kidding? I guess, they're around so many criminal elements that they fear for...

YOUNG: But nobody hitchhikes anymore.

WATERS: No, I saw one the whole way. And I told the kid that was driving, don't pick him up.


WATERS: I know, that's terrible, isn't it? I guess I'm not a communist hitchhiker. I don't share.

YOUNG: Why do you think that is? Do you think that the country has changed that much that we should be afraid of hitchhiking? Or that we are just so assaulted all the time with stories about what might happen to us if we hitchhiked that we...

WATERS: Well, I think the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" hitchhiker really made people never want to hitchhike again - the hitcher, the show. Hitchhiking is always vaguely sexual. I collect softcore porn books from '50s and '60s that have hitchhiking as a theme. There are so many of them.

YOUNG: In fact, you thought that all truck stops - that hitchhiking was gay.

WATERS: Well, is hitchhiking day? It kind of is, in a way. A big truck did pick me up, a giant 80,000 lb. truck. And as I climbed up those steps, I never felt gayer, believe me. '


WATERS: When I got in that truck and that driver - he was great. He was really nice. He said his daughter had been in "Hairspray." And he could not have been nicer. A lot of people, when I told them I was a film director, they would go, yeah - thought I was just a homeless person.

YOUNG: Or they thought you were Steve Buscemi.

WATERS: Yeah, well, that was - yeah, well that was in the fictional part.

YOUNG: I just have to finish that. You said, no, it's not Steve Buscemi. It's Don Knotts.

WATERS: Well, no because when I told Steve Buscemi everybody thinks I'm him, he said, they think I'm Don Knotts.


WATERS: I've got to put those stories altogether, right?


HERE WE GO MAGIC: (Singing) How do I know if I love you?

YOUNG: John Waters, at our Harvard Bookstore event at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is the music of his real ride number nine - the indie band, Here We Go Magic. When they picked him up in Ohio in their van, he said, cheerfully, it's the Manson Family. They said back, it's John Waters. They tweeted it out. It went viral. John Waters is somewhere across America. His book about hitchhiking across America is called "Carsick." It's half fantasy, half reality. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.


WE GO MAGIC: (Singing) Sweet to the touch and you smell like a flower. How do I know if I know you?

YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW. And if you've just joined us, we're sharing some of our conversation with filmmaker and author, John Waters at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts - a Harvard Bookstore event, promoting John's latest book. But his fans lined up to talk to him about his legendary career. Film classics like "Hairspray" and "Pink Flamingos," in which the overweight and the overlooked are given their moment in the sun. Here's one fan, 22-year-old Elizabeth (ph).


ELIZABETH: Well, I went to film school and that's kind of how I found out about you. You are taught in experimental...

WATERS: I was taught in the film?


WATERS: That's amazing because I was thrown out of film school.


WATERS: So - and it's changed so much that when I went to film school, they would have never allowed me to make "Pink Flamingos." I promise you.

ELIZABETH: You're just - you're a weirdo.

WATERS: That's my job, yup.

ELIZABETH: It's very inspiring for other people who are weirdoes, so thank you.

WATERS: Thank you.

YOUNG: Another young man spoke for his mother.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I told her I was coming here and she said to make sure you thank you for "Hairspray," so...

WATERS: Well, good, I'm glad she liked it. It's always amazing to me that one movie I made - 'cause, to me, the morals in the story of "Hairspray" - the same as the "Pink Flamingos," in a weird way - that outsiders win, when they embrace - you know, and they're attacked by jealous people that don't like them, stupid people. It is the kind of the same. But "Hairspray," I think I accidentally hit on something. That a fat girl then stood for every kind of outsider in every country in the world. People could do it. And today, I think "Hairspray" did help change that. I think that big girls now - I don't see any of them that look pitiful. They're ready to fight. They look great. They're - it's radically changed, I think. No one even tried out for "Hairspray," except a few people. When we made "Cry-Baby," hundreds of the girls came to try out, big girls. And so I think that has changed.

MAN: Well, my mom thanks you...

WATERS: Well thank her. Are you kidding?

MAN: So much.

WATERS: Tell her she bought me this jacket.


YOUNG: John Waters says he's convinced that after two films and a Broadway show, "Hairspray" will never go away. He fully expects it to be a show on ice. But his new book is "Carsick." John Waters hitchhikes across America - a Homeric journey he undertook two years ago, when funding fell through for new film. The first two-thirds of the book are fantasies about what might happen. For instance, a body part in his nether regions begins to sing.


YOUNG: (Laughing) That is not going on my show.

WATERS: Why? It's joyous.


YOUNG: But then John writes about what really happened, including - he was picked up by Corvette Kid, a 20-year-old Republican City Councilman from Maryland on his way to a subway to get lunch, who picks John up and drives him four hours to Ohio. Then days later drives 48 hours straight to pick him up again in Denver. So this gay 66-year-old filmmaker and his straight, Republican sidekick become the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of the road.


WATERS: We didn't talk about politics. He said, basically, my job is potholes. They're not Democrat or Republican issues. He just was on an adventure - why not? We were such an odd couple. And now, people tried - a swinger, three swingers we ran into, who - I recognized them - he didn't know what it was. And I went to the bedroom and he gave them his phone number. And so later they're tweeting him, let's all get together. I thought, well, what do they want - a five-way, grandpa, grandson thing?


WATERS: What are they looking for here, right? Three swingers and me and the kid, you know?

YOUNG: But what's lovely is how the same guy, you, who had all these fantasies - just wild fantasies about what might happen. And at the end, this man that - this John Waters is someone who's very concerned that this 20-year-old is going to go out and do a fraction of what you fantasized about.

WATERS: Well, worse - what's not in the book - at the end, he stayed with me for three days. We went out to dinner.

YOUNG: In San Francisco.

WATERS: And I heard him giving an interview to his hometown paper, saying, oh, you know, we just went shopping, out to eat. I thought, do you know what that sounds like?


WATERS: I mean, oh. But he had to drive home by himself. And I was like a worried father. And I really felt like a concerned dad when he was driving home.

YOUNG: Or like a conservative person. Like if he had done even a fraction of the things that you talk about in the book that you did, when you were a kid, you would've been upset.

WATERS: Well, I would have been worried for him. You know, he said, I'm just going to go out and I thought, fine, I don't blame you. But then, I didn't see him in the morning. And I thought, oh, my God. He picked up a hooker. He's cut up in the bedroom. I don't know. But no, he just hung out for a while. He was - we were in on odd couple, certainly. People that pick up hitchhikers are great people. They - I think the minute they stop, they're a little better. They want to help people. Most people that have picked up hitchhikers, something's happened to them. They've gotten through something. And they want to help a fellow man. Even the ones who knew who I was, they never asked me celebrity questions. They didn't say like, what's Johnny Depp really like? I wanted to hear what they had to talk - I wanted to know what it was like, you know - is beef feed or chicken feed better at the farm. And they would tell me all this.

YOUNG: From the 80-year-old farmer, who...

WATERS: Well, the 80-year-old farmer told me about how hay, if it gets too dry, spontaneously combusts - or wet. I forget. I didn't know that. The other man told me that if you gave baby pigs M&Ms, they will recognize you and follow you around forever.


YOUNG: Here's a young mother with her baby in the baby seat.


YOUNG: Picking you up.

WATERS: A minister's wife picking me up. And the first thing she said to me is, are you gay? And I was like, yeah. And she said, good.


WATERS: And I was like, good, why? Like I wouldn't it be a rapist or something? I don't know what she meant by good. No, she was lovely.

YOUNG: So what you think, at the end of this trip, if we're still on the Homeric theory.


YOUNG: So were you changed?

WATERS: Yeah, I was changed because I really - you know, my whole life, fled the middle. I get along in prison. I get along in Can (ph). It's a shopping center I got in trouble in, right in the middle of the mall walkers. But now these were people that were in the middle. And I think middle America has changed very, very much. I think people are way more open-minded. I think - I think it's because the Internet. I think they're exposed to so much. All the men talked about how much they love their wife, which I don't hear all the time in art communities. None of them - they all like to work. And they hate freeloaders and that's the odd thing. Hitchhiking is freeloading, really. But I offered to pay for something and nobody would ever take it. They were proud. They really tried to help people. They - I look like an old guy hitchhiking. I was, especially in that outfit. You know, a baseball hat - I looked like a serial killer.

YOUNG: What did the hat say?

WATERS: The hat said, "Scum Of The Earth."


WATERS: Which, as many movie buffs knows, was a great exploitation movie.


YOUNG: But do you think now you're ready to make a Bergman kind of - sort of quiet, physically different?



WATERS: Well, a movie, no. The movie I was trying to get made was a children's Christmas movie called "Fruitcake" about a happy family of meat thieves, so...


WATERS: So is that mid-America? I don't know. Where I live, in Baltimore, meat thieves are everywhere, you know? They knock on your door and say, meat man. You come down. You say, I want a pork butt and a pound of fried chicken. And then they'd go shoplift it and you pay half of what's on the label. So I don't know that I've changed so much. I think everybody else has changed some, more in my direction.

YOUNG: By asking that question, I meant - you know, you do say, at the end, if you ever hear anybody, again, mocking the flyover people...

WATERS: No, the flyover people. Well, I think the other, you know, liberals still use the word white trash, which I find incredibly offensive and as offensive as the N-word. And flyover people is even worse, because it classist and condescending. And so I always hated that word. But after I hitchhiked across the country and was with all quote, "flyover people." I really think that term makes you a major [BLEEP] to every enter it - yeah, major jerk to every - you can use that verb.

YOUNG: Yeah, thank you John Waters.

WATERS: Thank you very much.


WATERS: Thank you.


JOHNNY SEAY: (Singing) Here I am, walking down this highway. I guess I really look a site.

YOUNG: Part of our conversation with filmmaker and author John Waters at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the Harvard Bookstore event. His book starts with the was he imagines hitchhiking can be. It ends with the way it really was. But in every chapter, there's a song playing on the radio. This is Johnny Seay's "Hitchin' And Hikin'." There's Marvin Gaye's "Hitchhike," Bobby Curtola's "Hitchhiker." And Jeremy, the book, again, is called "Carsick." It'll either convince you to pick people up this summer. Or because of the fantasy parts, you will swear you will never do it again.


You know, I had to do last year. I went hiking at a park, outside of New York City and ended up at the wrong side of the park and had to hitchhike back to the car. It was only a five-minute hitchhike.

YOUNG: Did you hold up a sign saying, I'm not a psycho?

HOBSON: (Laughing) No.

YOUNG: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBR Boston, in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.