John Waters discovers America

Film director John Waters writes about his hitchhiking odyssey from Baltimore to San Francisco in his new book "Carsick." He will discuss the book at the Free Library on Friday night.
Film director John Waters writes about his hitchhiking odyssey from Baltimore to San Francisco in his new book "Carsick." He will discuss the book at the Free Library on Friday night. (Getty Images)
Posted: June 13, 2014

You're on the highway in your swank, cherry-red sports car when you spot a hitchhiker. Svelte, tall, in his mid-60s, sporting a thin jet-black mustache, he's holding a crudely made cardboard sign that reads, "I'm not psycho."

Do you pick him up?

Plenty of people did when the man in question, the inimitable cult-film director John Waters, took to the road in May 2012 on a cross-country hitchhiking jag.

It took him nine days, 21 rides, and a lot of loitering at truck stops, rest areas, and highway shoulders, but the madcap genius behind such big-screen schlock shocksters as Pink Flamingos, Mondo Trasho, and Polyester  made it door-to-door from his Baltimore home to his flat in San Francisco.

Waters, 68, chronicles that unlikely trip in Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $15.60), which he'll discuss with singer-writer Wesley Stace at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library at 7:30 p.m. Friday. (The auditorium is sold out, but simulcast seats are available.)

Speaking on the phone from Washington, D.C., Waters reminisced about his youth when hitchhiking was common and safe.

"I used to hitch everywhere," he said. "Today, when you see a hitcher, it's probably a . . . prostitute," he said. Or an addict.

"I picked up a hitchhiker about five years ago. He was a glue-sniffer," Waters said. "But at least he didn't break with hitchhiking decorum: He offered me some." Waters politely refused.

Waters' passion for the road was ignited 40 years ago when he first read about Beat Generation icons Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.

"First thing I ever wanted to be was a beatnik," he said. "Other kids wanted to be astronauts or sports stars."

A well-crafted trip through Waters' fly-ball sensibility, Carsick is the filmmaker's seventh book and first since his acclaimed 2010 memoir, Role Models.

It opens with two novellas in which the author riffs on what might be his best and worst experiences on the road.

In "The Best That Could Happen," he's picked up by his fave porn star Johnny Davenport and a drug kingpin who gives him $5 million to make a children's movie. "The Worst That Could Happen" is largely unprintable. It features goiters, diseased genitalia, a tapeworm, and Waters' descent into Hell (where It's a Wonderful Life plays on an endless loop).

The last 100 pages cover the actual trip. Unlike some of his cruder, ruder films and books, it's an alarmingly gentle chronicle - albeit one peppered with scatological humor.

"I spent a lot of time at empty rest stops, waiting for . . . [people] in the bathroom to come out," Waters said by way of explanation.

A self-described control freak, Waters said the trip gave him a chance to let go of his neuroses.

"When you are hitching . . . you have to give up control," he said. "You cannot plan anything. You cannot book ahead, make reservations."

To his initial horror, he had to make do with chain motels and chain restaurants.

A newcomer to the world of fast food, he takes on the mantle of anthropologist, reporting back from such exotic lands as Outback Steakhouse, McDonald's, Ruby Tuesday, Applebee's, and Taco Bell. ("I had a Quarter Pounder. Never had them in my life," he said. "It was fine," he adds without much passion.)

Waters didn't leave everything to chance: He packed an emergency bag filled with cash, credit cards, a cellphone, a GPS tracker, and a "Fame Kit" with documents proving he was a celebrity.

The absurdity doesn't escape Waters.

"I mean, what am I going to do, pull out an Academy of [Motion Picture] Arts and Sciences card and [say] . . . 'This gives me certain rights in the state of Ohio?' " he said. "Will my American Directors Guild card give me immunity from prosecution?"

Most people thought he was homeless and offered him money. They didn't believe him when he identified himself as the director of Hairspray.

"When . . . I told them I was a film director, they'd have this look," he said. "Like I was telling them, 'Napoleon just got in your car.' "

Waters made fast friends with the indie band Here We Go Magic, who took him across Ohio, and a Republican politician from Maryland named Brett Bidle.

The 20-year-old Bidle, a Myersville town councilman, met up with Waters a couple of times on the road, driving him for hundreds of miles at a time.

"He was in his mom's Corvette driving to Subway for lunch, and he never made it back home," Waters said. "He had never heard of me. But I guess he wanted an adventure."

They made an odd couple.

"Here he was, a straight 20-year-old, and I am a fairly well-known gay man in his 60s," Waters said. "We laughed a lot when people saw us and assumed we were [sexual partners]."

Waters said his journey has deepened his appreciation for the American soul.

"So-called Middle Americans are far more open-minded and more game than most of the rigid-minded intellectuals I know on the East and West Coasts," he said. "They are open to people. They pick up a hitchhiker to help him, because they've faced some challenges in their own lives and they know sometimes people just need help."


John Waters: "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America"

7:30 p.m. Friday at the Free Library, 1901 Vine St.

Tickets: Auditorium sold out; $6 simulcast tickets available.

Information: 215-567-4341 or


comments powered by Disqus