A couple of years ago, film director and writer John Waters decided to hitchhike alone from his Baltimore home to his apartment in San Francisco — and see what happened. The so-called Pope of Trash — the man behind the films Pink Flamingos and Cry-Baby — managed to get many rides — 21 in all. He chronicles his cross-country adventure in a new book called Carsick.
Waters started out around the corner from his home in Baltimore. "I stood right under this tree — right beside it," he tells NPR's David Greene, "and then it started to rain. And I thought, I can't believe this, I'm two blocks from my house and, I mean, pouring rain."
Along the way, things occasionally got desperate. "I would've gotten in with the Night Stalker, even if he escaped from jail and I heard it on the radio that morning, I would've gotten in his car," Waters says.
Once in the car, there was the challenge of making conversation for many, many miles. "It is intimate; it's their little stage, their little apartment," he explains. "And they set the rules, but you have to listen to know what those rules are. And it's always about talking — nobody picks up a hitchhiker to sit in silence."
Waters met all sorts of folks: a band from Brooklyn heading to Indiana; a couple on their way to vacation in Colorado; a young Republican representative from a small town in Maryland, who, after giving Waters a ride to Ohio, drove across the country days later to pick him up again.
Waters shares his story with Greene, and offers some advice on how to make an effective hitchhiking sign: "You need bold letters," he says. "You never put a question mark. Hitchhiking is a question mark."
On the danger being part of the appeal
When I was young, it wasn't thought of as bad. My mother expected me to hitchhike home from school — she didn't think that was weird. She didn't know that there were the same perverts that were out there then, and I looked for them! I couldn't wait to have one pick me up!
On whether he was "looking for a trucker"
I didn't say "a trucker," [but] on the road, I was open to the idea. Everyone should be open to the idea of sex when they walk out of their house, I think. You don't have to ever do it, but it makes life way more interesting if you fantasize and look at people and imagine their sex life and everything. I think that's healthy. ... I'm in that mindset as I walk out of the house every day.
On one night in a small town in Kansas when he was having trouble getting a ride
It was getting dark. It was in one of those rest areas that I had good luck in, in the middle of the country, that don't have fast food or stuff, they just have vending machines and a park, and people stop there and walk their dog and all. They're good because people are going long distances, but there was no one there. It was Kansas. The next town's like 300 miles away.
So it got to be around 4 in the afternoon, and I don't want to hitchhike at night and there's no motels. One car pulls in and they go in the bathroom. I say: This is it. And I'm standing there waiting and waiting, and it takes him forever, and I think he has diarrhea, goddammit. And then when he came out, he was so pissed to see me standing there [and said] "Excuse me!" I felt really like a pervert then.
On the people he met along the way and whether he turned them into movie characters
I didn't have to turn them into extreme characters to be interesting to me. What was interesting to me was how matter-of-fact they were about being kinda great, and being accepting and being completely unjudgmental, but at the same time trying to help people — that farmer that gave me money, or that other woman who wouldn't leave until I took the money. ...
It reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of people. They treated me very nicely — that had nothing to do with any kind of fame or seeing me on a talk show or that kind of stuff, so that was very comforting to me. Now, some of the people when they would ask me what I do, I would tell them and they didn't even believe me.
But I didn't care, I mean, I wanted to talk about them. And the ones that did, then I'd give them what they want. I'd tell them anecdotes about movie stars and everything they wanted to hear. That's fair. That's my job! I got picked up hitchhiking! Your job is to talk. Or have sex. And no one asked.
On this trip being something like a midlife crisis
I don't know, I think midlife crises are usually negative, and I think they're because you're unhappy with your life. It wasn't that kind of midlife crisis. To me, it was like, Hey, don't get too comfortable. Let's try to do something that's a flashback to when you were a kid and did this kind of stuff. And because I was an older man now, it's different, and what could that be? Is the experience the same? And it is the same. It's an adventure, and it was fun. I'll never forget it. I'll never forget any of the people who picked me up. And I doubt they'll forget me.
On why he hasn't made a movie in the past decade
Because nobody would give me the money to do it — the reason everybody doesn't make their next movie. There's nothing new to say about it. I still have meetings about it. Maybe I will. If I never make another movie, I'm fine. I'll write another book, I'll do another spoken tour, you know. I have many ways to tell stories that I like equally the same. I made a lot of movies. ... They're still playing everywhere in the world. They're on TV! Who would've ever thought they'd be on TV? Who would've ever thought?
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is moments like this that just scream John Waters.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAIRSPRAY")
RICKI LAKE: (As Tracy Turnblad) Mom, Dad, oh, Penny, my best friend, finally all of Baltimore knows I'm big, blonde and beautiful.
GREENE: That's a scene from the 1988 movie "Hairspray," about a teenager who became a star, on American Bandstand like TV show, and also a crusader for racial integration. It is vintage John Waters, the famously flamboyant movie director, who was once deemed the Pope of Trash. For him, nothing is too raunchy or outrageous, which brings us to his latest venture.
At 66 years old, he thought up a pitch for a book. It went like this. I, John Waters, will hitchhike alone from the front of my Baltimore house to my co-op apartment in San Francisco and see what happens. His publisher said, yes. And the account of his adventures is in a new book called "Carsick." First, Waters gives to fictional accounts of the trip, one goes well, one goes terribly wrong, both feel like a Waters' movie. Then he gives the account of what really happened.
We went to meet Water's at his home in Baltimore. We thought maybe he'd hitchhike with us or something. So we brought our own sign, begging for a ride on Interstate 70, which runs from Baltimore to Utah. I thought the sign was pretty good.
JOHN WATERS: That is the worst hitchhiking sign I've ever seen my life.
GREENE: I appreciate that.
WATERS: Like who could read them from a distance? I mean, you need bold letters.
GREENE: It was in black magic marker on cardboard. And it read, end of I-70 West question mark?
WATERS: And you have a question mark. You never put a question mark. Hitchhiking is a question mark. Hitchhiking itself is, will you give me a ride?
GREENE: OK, so lesson one about hitchhiking, the sign. Well, we asked Waters if he would take us to the spot, right near his home in Baltimore, where his hitchhiking saga began.
WATERS: I stood right under this tree. And then it started to rain. And I thought, I can't believe this. I am two blocks from my house. And, I mean, pouring rain.
GREENE: Yeah, but he didn't give up. Soaked, desperate, he finally got that first ride. And he headed west. Lesson two in hitchhiking, you've got to take any right you can get.
WATERS: I would've gotten in with the nightstalker, even if he escaped from jail and I heard on the radio that morning. I would've gotten in his car.
GREENE: Was it tough to get to know people? I mean..
WATERS: No, people...
GREENE: ...You're sitting in a very intimate environment, in a car.
WATERS: It is intimate. It's their little stage, their little apartment. And they set the rules. But you have to listen to know what those rules are. And it's always about talking. Nobody picks up a hitchhiker to sit in silence.
GREENE: Lesson three, people love to talk. Like the band from Brooklyn that picked him up on a way to a gig in Indiana, the couple on their way to vacation in Colorado, the young Republican town councilman from Maryland, who picked Waters up in his mother's Corvette, gave him a ride to Ohio, went home, gave the Corvette back to Mom, got in his Kia and drove several days to give him another ride. John Waters, being John Waters, he wasn't opposed to meeting a man along the way. You were interested in - I mean...
WATERS: Of course.
GREENE: ...You were hoping that maybe you'd have - get to know a trucker little bit.
WATERS: Of - oh, I didn't say a trucker. I said, in the road, I'm open to the idea. Everyone should be open to the idea of sex, whenever they walk out of their house, I think. You don't have to ever do it. But it makes life way more interesting, if you fantasize and look at people. And imagine their sex life and everything. I think that's healthy.
GREENE: OK. Well, another lesson, you have got to be prepared for the possibility that you just won't get a ride. One day, at a lonely rest stop in Kansas, he was having an especially hard time.
WATERS: There was no one there. It was Kansas. The next town's like 300 miles away. So it got to be around four in the afternoon and I don't want to hitchhike at night. And there's no motels. One car pulls in, they go in the bathroom. So I'm just standing there waiting and waiting. It takes him forever. And then, when he came out, he was so pissed to see me standing there. Excuse me, but I felt really like a pervert then.
GREENE: What was the most desperate moment?
WATERS: Susan can play it to you.
GREENE: Your colleague - your assistant?
WATERS: Yes, because I left a message where I kept trying to call her.
GREENE: That's right. Susan, his assistant, got this whiny voicemail from Waters, one night. She saved it. And she played it for us, when we got back to Water's house.
(SOUNDBITE OF VOICEMAIL)
GREENE: What's he saying?
SUSAN: He said, why don't you call me? You're torturing me. Oh. (Laughing).
GREENE: John Waters does always seem like he's performing, even here in his spacious home, overlooking a leafy neighborhood in Baltimore. You felt like Susan could be a character in a movie he's directing. But when we sat down with Waters, in his living room, it was clear this trip, and this book, were more than theater. He seemed to be taking stock of his life and his career and, also, learning something about the country. You met some characters on this trip.
WATERS: Yeah, they were characters. But not John Waters characters.
GREENE: So this - if these were people who wouldn't have been in a John Waters movie - I mean, was this kind of a grounding experience, in a way?
WATERS: It was an optimistic experience. It was - I didn't have to turn them into extreme characters to be interesting to me. Interesting to me was that they were - how matter of fact they were about being kind of great. It reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of people. So they treated me very nicely. That had nothing to do with any kind of fame or seeing me on a talk show or that kind of stuff. Now, some of the people, when they would've asked me what I do - and I don't - they didn't even believe me. But I didn't care. I mean, I wanted to talk about them. And the ones that did, then I'd give them what they want. I'd tell them anecdotes about movie stars and everything they wanted to hear. That's fair. It's my job. I got picked up hitchhiking. Your job is to talk.
GREENE: You said this...
WATERS: Or have sex.
WATERS: No one asked.
GREENE: And no one asked that?
GREENE: You might have had your chance.
WATERS: I try to be optimistic.
GREENE: Does this - you haven't made a movie in a little while.
WATERS: Ten years.
GREENE: Ten years. Why is that?
WATERS: Nobody will give me the money to do it. For the reason, everybody doesn't make the next movie. There's nothing new to say about it. I still have meetings about it. Maybe I will. If I never make another movie, I'm fine. I'll write another book. I'll do another spoken tour. You know, I have many ways to tell stories that I like equally the same.
GREENE: So has the moment passed for John Waters-type movies?
WATERS: No, I think now my - I think all movies - Hollywood now sells bad taste. I don't need to do it anymore.
GREENE: Your style is everywhere.
WATERS: Yeah, but they make $100 million. So, you know, it was different. I made exploitations for art theaters. They make bad taste comedies for the masses. And they do it well. I'm not against it. Good for them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HITCH HIKE")
GREENE: Well, John Waters, this is been a lot of fun. We really appreciate the time, thank you.
WATERS: Thank you very much. It was good. Now, are you going to hitchhike back to where you're staying?
GREENE: We're in Washington. We can - I think we can make it. But you've made me kind of want to hitchhike.
WATERS: The hitchhike to Washington would be, I bet, tough.
WATERS: And if you do, please, make a better sign.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HITCH HIKE")
MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Chicago city limits, that's what the sign on the highway read.
CHORUS: (Singing) Hitchhike.
GAYE: (Singing) Hitchhike.
CHORUS: (Singing) Hitchhike, baby.
GREENE: And if you are brave enough to relive the adventure with John Waters, his new book is "Carsick." It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.