Carsick is the New York Times bestselling chronicle of a cross-country hitchhiking journey with America's most beloved weirdo
John Waters is putting his life on the line. Armed with wit, a pencil-thin mustache, and a cardboard sign that reads "I'm Not Psycho," he hitchhikes across America from Baltimore to San Francisco, braving lonely roads and treacherous drivers. But who should we be more worried about, the delicate film director with genteel manners or the unsuspecting travelers transporting the Pope of Trash?
Before he leaves for this bizarre adventure, Waters fantasizes about the best and worst possible scenarios: a friendly drug dealer hands over piles of cash to finance films with no questions asked, a demolition-derby driver makes a filthy sexual request in the middle of a race, a gun-toting drunk terrorizes and holds him hostage, and a Kansas vice squad entraps and throws him in jail. So what really happens when this cult legend sticks out his thumb and faces the open road? His real-life rides include a gentle eighty-one-year-old farmer who is convinced Waters is a hobo, an indie band on tour, and the perverse filmmaker's unexpected hero: a young, sandy-haired Republican in a Corvette.
Laced with subversive humor and warm intelligence, Carsick is an unforgettable vacation with a wickedly funny companionand a celebration of America's weird, astonishing, and generous citizenry.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
John Waters is an American filmmaker, actor, writer, and visual artist best known for his cult films, including Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, and Cecil B. DeMented. He is also the author of a memoir, Role Models. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
GOOD RIDE NUMBER ONE
It’s a beautiful Baltimore spring day—the perfect 68o morning. I decide to leave twenty-four hours earlier than everyone in my office thinks I will, so I can avoid all their nervous goodbyes. Susan, my longtime assistant who runs my filth empire with an iron fist, has always thought this adventure a ludicrous idea but knows I am just as stubborn as she can be, so she long ago gave up on talking me out of it. Trish, my other full-time assistant, who will actually be transcribing this book (I write by hand on legal pads before she puts it on the computer), is a little friendlier to the idea since she was briefly a teenage runaway. Jill, my art helper, seems all for the idea. My bookkeeper, Doralee, has given up being surprised by anything that goes on in our office but knows I will continue to get a receipt for every single penny I spend while hitching, since no one could argue this is not a business trip. Margarett, my housekeeper, laughed the hardest I’ve ever heard her (practically in my face) when I confessed my cross-country plans.
Just before I walk out the front door to leave, I look out back and see the fox that lives on my property happily roaming my wooded grounds and take this as a good-luck sign. I turn on the burglar alarm and leave feeling … well, adventurous. I walk up my small residential street and am relieved that none of my neighbors see me carrying a hitchhiking sign or question why I am on foot carrying an obvious travel bag. I get to the corner of Charles Street and stick out my thumb and hold up my I-70 WEST cardboard sign that Jill designed for me. “Make the letters not too arty and certainly not STOP ME BEFORE I KILL AGAIN scary,” I had mentioned, and she has followed instructions well. I don’t feel ridiculous, I feel kind of brave.
I can’t believe it. The very first car that goes by stops, and I run to hop in. An art-school type dressed in brown jeans and an old Charles Theater T-shirt is behind the wheel of a car so nondescript that I have to ask him what kind it is. “A very used 1999 VW Passat sedan,” he answers in the kindest voice imaginable. I feel safe immediately. He doesn’t even bat an eye that I’m hitchhiking, even though he recognizes me. “Wow, John Waters. I’m a fan,” he announces, low-key. He so respects my privacy he doesn’t even ask where I’m headed but offers, “I’m going as far as West Virginia if that’s a help.” “It sure is,” I say, relieved I can avoid the tricky cloverleaf where I-70 West meets the Baltimore Beltway and there’s nowhere to stand to bum a ride.
“Did you see Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void?” he asks with the excitement of a real film fanatic. “Of course—the best movie about taking drugs ever!” I answer, so happy he wants to discuss other extreme pictures and not my own. “I like the director’s-cut version best,” my driver continues, “it’s more endless, just like an LSD trip.” “I know Gaspar,” I offer, “and you’d be surprised after seeing his films, but he’s really a sweet guy.” “I love fucked-up movies,” my fellow film buff enthuses as he turns up the radio, and what’s playing? “Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye. Unbelievable!
Is it me, or do I smell ganja? I’m a little out of practice as a pothead. I used to smoke grass every day of my life around 1964 to 1972, but now only rarely because it just makes me worry about mundane things. But sometimes, in the summer in Provincetown on a Friday night when I have nothing to do the next day, I’ll smoke a little weed and get “launched,” as my young friend and part-time pot smoker Frankie calls it when I start ranting and laughing while stoned. And of course I’m a good host—I have a small stash of pot in all my places of residence in case guests might want to smoke. Legal amounts. I hope.
“I’m Harris,” he finally introduces himself, and I silently think, that’s Divine’s real first name, but keep it film-zealot friendly rather than Dreamland focused. Harris is a good-looking guy who seems laid-back, something I have never felt like in my entire life. I’m thrilled my first ride is so seemingly uncomplicated. “Are you a student at Maryland Institute?” I ask, thinking college would be the perfect reason for him to be in Baltimore. “No, I’m in business for myself,” he says with a sideways glance that invites all sorts of speculation as we merge onto the Baltimore Beltway headed in the right direction.
“Have you seen Armando Bó’s films?” I ask, feeling as if continuing our movie-hound conversation is definitely part of my “payment” as a rider. “I love his movies,” Harris yells with enthusiasm as we head west on I-70, already on the first leg of my journey to San Francisco. “Armando’s been dead for many years now but he deserves to be honored more,” I shout over the music, and my highway host agrees. “That Isabel Sarli was so hot! Those tits were real, you know!” he hollers in mammary mania about the director’s onetime mistress and the star of all his films. “And she’s still alive!” I shout. “Seventy-five years old! I talked to her on the phone just recently,” I brag, and I can tell he’s impressed. “You’re kidding?” Harris marvels in wide-eyed amazement. “I really did,” I answer, holding up my hand to silently swear to God. “A South American trash-film enthusiast hooked us up, and although her English was a little rusty—but way better than my Spanish—I got to gush how much her films, like Fury, Fever, and Fuego, meant to both Divine and me.”
“How come you aren’t making a movie?” Harris suddenly asks with shy concern. I explain I had a development deal to make Fruitcake, a “terribly wonderful Christmas children’s adventure,” wrote the script, was about to make it, and then the recession happened, the independent film business as I knew it fell apart, and now all the distributors and film financiers want the budgets to be under $2 million, which I can’t do anymore. “Well, I’ll back it,” he says nonchalantly. “What do you mean?” I sputter, not believing my ears. “You can keep a secret, right?” he whispers conspiratorially. “Sure,” I mumble, and I can, especially if it’s a good one. “I’m a pot dealer … don’t worry, there’s none in the car, it’s all on my West Virginia farm, but I’ve got plenty of cash. How much do you need?” “Five million, give or take,” I confide with a chuckle, sure Harris is pulling my leg. “No problem,” he says, beaming as if I had just asked him for spare change in Berkeley in the sixties. “But surely you’re not serious?” I ask, thinking, how could this be possible? I’ve been trying to raise this budget unsuccessfully for five years. “It’s no big deal,” he says as we cross into West Virginia and I feel the thrill of illegal interstate financing. “Maybe we could form a limited partnership like I used to do in the old days,” I offer. “Nah,” he responds good-naturedly, “I’ll just give you the cash and you pay me back if it ever breaks even.” Cash?! I think in alarm. Five million dollars in cash?! “Good God, how will I ever explain this to the IRS?!” I ask Harris in bewildered excitement. “The Feds don’t ask where you got it, do they?” he replies levelheadedly. “Just pay me back and I’ll get the money laundered by a chain of nail salons I’m a silent partner in.” “Okay,” I say in shock, not wanting to blow the deal if he was possibly serious.
I’m so stunned by my new “business partner” that I don’t even notice we’ve exited the interstate and are now driving on a country road. “We’re near,” Harris explains as he goes around the block a few times and zigzags back and forth on even smaller rural routes. I guess he’s making sure we’re not being followed, but I keep my newly green-lit mouth shut.
Finally, we turn off on a beautiful dirt lane with a natural canopy of trees overhead and then veer off on an unmarked long driveway nestled in the hills of northern West Virginia and go about another half mile. Ahead of us is a lovingly restored but not overly yuppified 1850s farmhouse overlooking a pond with a waterfall gently cascading into it. Expansive trees and flowering plants surround the entire idyllic setting. His incredibly striking wife, barefoot already in May and dressed in a pair of fire-engine-red jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt, is watering the potted flowers on the outdoor patio.
“This is Laura,” Harris introduces us, “and of course you know John Waters and his films.” She smiles a warm welcome and I can’t help but notice she smells like pot, too. “I’m going to give him five million dollars to make his new film,” he casually mentions, and she doesn’t look particularly surprised. “Oh, that’s sweet,” Laura says, hardly looking up from the pot of black tulips (my favorite kind) she’s just placed artfully on an outdoor table. “We’ve been looking to invest in films for such a long time,” she offers happily. I grin but remain silent in stupefaction. “I’ll make us some lunch,” offers Harris, before trotting off to the main farmhouse to prepare as Laura follows, eager to help.
I just sit there in amazement at my good fortune. This is my first ride and already I’m going to be back in the movie business. Harris and Laura soon return and we feast on delicious chicken salad made from free-range birds that Laura confides she strangled with her own hands just this morning. After a dessert of freshly picked blueberries, Harris carefully folds his cloth napkin (“From Martick’s,” he proudly announces, a recently closed restaurant much loved by downtown-Baltimore bohemians) and says, “Let’s take a walk, John.” I eagerly follow him to a remote point of his property, and Harris reveals that we are now going “to dig up the cash.” I keep my mouth shut. “Oh, honey,” he yells to Laura, “call up that FedEx place and make sure our buddy gets his lazy ass to work. Tell him we got a special shipment coming up.”
Harris turns to me and asks gently, “Do you have a FedEx number? If not, we have a dummy one we can use.” “We’re going to FedEx the money?” I ask in awe, amazed that Harris plans on giving me the money now! “Sure,” he replies, “you don’t want to carry all that cash with you on your hitchhiking trip, do you?” “Well, no,” I stammer, giving him the digits, which I know from memory. “Great,” he says, jotting down the account information, “we’ll FedEx it directly to your address.” On cue, Laura walks like a gazelle down from the house, carrying a stack of flat FedEx boxes ready to be assembled. She has a lovely, serene smile on her lips. Maybe this is the first of their millions they’re giving away. You can tell philanthropy brings her a new kind of delight.
Harris grabs a shovel from behind the naturally distressed original barn door and leads me to an even more distant part of his farmland that appears to be overgrown with vines. “Here,” he announces as he pulls up several clods of phony earth covered in prop foliage and begins digging. Laura slips on a pair of rubber gloves. Harris hasn’t even worked up a sweat before I hear the shovel clink on metal. “Bingo,” purrs Laura as she gives me a friendly wink. “Pay dirt,” jokes Harris as he begins to hoist up, with his thin but muscled arms, a small industrial safe with a combination lock. Laura hands me the first of the standard large FedEx boxes and gets out a pistol-grip tape dispenser. She quickly notices from my panicked expression that I have no idea how to assemble these boxes and gently takes the packaging back. “That’s okay,” she whispers gently, “you deserve to be directing, not doing manual labor.” Laura snaps the carton together in one swift motion and seals it with tape like Quick Draw McGraw and hands me back the box with the skill of a next-day-delivery artisan. Harris drops the safe to the ground and Laura swiftly dials the combination and I avert my eyes, hoping to not look greedy or, worse yet, sneaky. Harris moves to another spot of earth about thirty feet away, rips up more fake turf, and starts digging again. I hear him whistling “There’s No Business Like Show Business” with surprising skill.
“Here you go,” Laura says softly to me as she opens the safe door and hands me the first bundle of ten thousand $100 bills, which she assures me totals $1 million. It seems heavy to me but she scoffs mildly and says, “It only weighs about twenty-five pounds. I’ve had to carry $3 million strapped inside baggy winter clothes at customs, and believe me, that’s a backbreaker, but I never complain. Helping keep Americans high is never easy or without toil.”
“Here’s more cash!” Harris cheerfully announces as he manually raises a duplicate safe from another “grave” in the ground and spins the combination lock like a safecracker supreme. “This ought to pay for a lot of music rights,” he chuckles happily to me, holding up the next million dollars in bills. “Won’t Johnny Knoxville like getting paid in cash?” Laura asks with a kindness so rare in show business today. “He sure will,” I agree, impressed that she is so well-read on my career that she knows whom I want to star in my next film. How we’ll handle Johnny’s agent in an all-cash deal is something I’ll figure out later.
It takes about an hour more, but finally Harris and Laura have dug up three other little safes and unloaded all the do-re-mi into nine large FedEx boxes. I gather this is not putting much of a dent in their nontraditional banking practices. “We trust you,” says Harris warmly as he seals the last box. “Yes, we do,” adds Laura, with a criminal-capitalist inner peace I’ll never forget. “This is our small way of thanking you for all your films,” she adds, “and we know Fruitcake will be a hit.” “But don’t change a thing in the script if you don’t want to,” Harris pipes in jovially. “We don’t care if the film makes us our money back or not.” “Come on,” announces Laura with excitement, “it’s time to get you up to the FedEx place. You’ve got a hitchhiking trip to go on.” “And may all your rides be as prosperous as this first one,” adds Harris with financial affection and artistic respect.
I embrace my new non-note-giving movie producers, and Harris and I load all the boxes into the trunk of his vehicle. We get in and wave goodbye to Laura, who is already back to potting her perennials like a serenely demented garden-club enthusiast. Just as we pull off, a black butterfly lands on her shoulder in a Douglas Sirk way, and she returns the farewell gesture with a smile that would put Julia Roberts out of business.
“Did you see Zoo?” Harris suddenly asks once we are on the road, eager to get back to cult-film talk. “Sure,” I answer with pride, “that arty true-crime doc about the man who dies after getting fucked by a horse in Seattle. I toured presenting that film—even showed it at the Sydney Opera House.” “That’s the one,” Harris agrees. “I felt for those guys who were involved,” he reasons; “it was a sad story but told in a dignified way. Did you believe that animal-rescue worker who when interviewed on film after the zoo guys had left the ranch said she ‘saw a small pony come up and give a bigger horse a blow job’? That was bullshit,” Harris answers without missing a beat, knowing exactly the scene I was talking about. “I like animals,” he continues, “but if that horse had a hard-on and did mount the guy, you can’t call the sex act ‘nonconsensual,’ can you? If an animal gets it up, isn’t he willing?”
Before we can finish this debate we pull up to the FedEx drop-off store, amazingly subtitled on the sign out front GOING POSTAL. Harris informs me that this is the only “corrupt” FedEx office in the country and he is their only customer. That he does so much business here keeps it open and off the map of corporate concern.
The clerk inside looks as if he just escaped from a Whole Foods employee jail. His hair is shaved into the FedEx logo, he wears a large nose ring, and “UPS” is tattooed onto his forehead. His onetime DHL delivery uniform has been sewn together with a regular USPS outfit to create the postmodern attire of a mentally unstable but proud letter carrier. His name patch reads RETURN TO SENDER. He and Harris are obviously buddies and greet each other with the hipster fist bump. No questions are asked as I fill out all the second-day-delivery forms, hoping to not seem too eager on the other end. “Done deal,” announces Harris as he pulls out a giant doobie and hands it to Return to Sender. I guess it’s some kind of tip.
“Thank you, Harris,” I say sincerely outside as we get back into his totally unremarkable car. “Don’t thank me,” he modestly responds as he pulls out into traffic, always careful to obey the posted speed limit, “thank the pot smokers all over the Delmarva area. They’re the real ones backing your new movie.” With that, he pulls over to an entrance ramp to I-70W and bids me adios. “Here’s my contact info,” he says, handing me a business card printed on the old kind of “flash paper” that bookies and numbers-racket hoods used to use. I read the PO box number in Triadelphia, West Virginia, and Harris tells me to “read it again and don’t forget it.” I do. Suddenly with a flash of light the business card ignites, turns to ash, and disappears. “Happy trails,” Harris says as I open the door to get out (suddenly a working film director again) and stick out my thumb. Harris accelerates and, looking at me in his rearview mirror, waves one last time just as he sees me getting immediately picked up by my next ride. And it’s only 2:30 p.m.
Copyright © 2014 by John Waters
Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: GOING MY WAY?,
THE BEST THAT COULD HAPPEN,
THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN,
THE REAL THING,
ALSO BY JOHN WATERS,
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with John Waters
In Carsick, John Waters writes, with gratitude, ''I'm alive and so many of my friends aren't.'' To be alive for Waters, the writer/director whose films range from classic celebrations of vulgarity and kitsch like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble to the sunny hit comedy Hairspray, meant setting off in 2012 on a two-week hitchhiking voyage from his native Baltimore to his second home in San Francisco. With TV Movies-of-the- Week and grade school lectures casting hitchhiking as a risky endeavor little short of a death wish, Waters in fact opted to write the first two-thirds of Carsick titled ''The Best That Could Happen'' and ''The Worst That Could Happen'' before hitting the road, as imagined possibilities for what carnal pleasures and deadly terrors might await him on the highway.
On his actual trip ''The Real Thing'' Waters accepts rides from strangers unique in their histories but uniform in their generosity. Young lovers helping each other stay off drugs. A cavalcade of moms. An indie rock band that merrily humblebrags on Twitter after finding Waters on the side of an eastern Ohio road. Even Brett Bidle, then a twenty-year-old college student and Maryland town councilman (not to mention proud Tea Partier and devout Methodist) who picked up Waters once, then drove nearly the full length of the country just to later meet him again. Each of these characters serves as another stretch toward the end of Route 10 West, and each a fascinating chapter in a pilgrimage that defies sociopolitical divides and finds Americans of varying creeds to be more alike in dignity than one might expect.
I spoke with Waters by telephone in mid-May. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. Nick Curley
The Barnes & Noble Review: I have to say, you sound exactly like you.
John Waters: Oh, good. I think I'm a little more throaty…a little more Kathleen Turner today, because I have laryngitis (Laughs). But it's getting better.
BNR: I really enjoyed this book, and thought it had such warmth and a true dramatic arc to its structure. You write in Carsick that this trip was an idea that you'd had some time earlier: what sparked your desire to hitch from Baltimore to San Francisco?
JW: I think it was because in Provincetown [Massachusetts], I had to hitchhike to go to this one beach. You couldn't get a sticker to go there unless you lived there year-round. I loved the beach so much that I would hitchhike there. I really liked it, and I would ask people to go on hitchhiking dates with me. It was really ''training wheels,'' and it gave me the idea, because I had hitchhiked so much when I was young, but never this far. At that time, hitchhiking was sexy and adventuresome, and very noble, I think. Even from my parents' viewpoint, it wasn't considered ''bad.'' Then, of course, when the Hippie years happened, there were so many hitchhikers that you had to fight each other off to find a good place to stand.
But today, I think I only saw one hitchhiker the whole way across the country, and I rudely told the driver not to pick him up. We're very selfish when we get a ride.
BNR: You said in the book that hitching was so commonplace that your parents expected you to thumb rides home from…
JW: …High school, yeah! They didn't think that was weird. But they didn't realize the same perverts who were picking me up are still driving around looking for young men today. And I was looking for them! And maybe I was even looking for them again this time, but I didn't attract too many perverts. I just attracted wonderful people. I mean, who knows what they're really like. They might have been murderers, but they didn't murder me. You do instantly profile people when you get in the car. I had a short ride with one man, who was going to pick up his mother, and who knows? He could have been going to pick up his mother to murder her! I don't know. But he was nice to me.
BNR: He wouldn't have been the first murderer to have a good rapport with his mother. I wanted to ask you a little something about your one-man show This Filthy World, in which you talk about going to the library as a kid and stealing the subversive books marked, ''See Librarian.''
JW: Yeah, because they wouldn't give it to me.
BNR: You discuss the pleasure in reading Sigmund Freud's case histories, Naked Lunch, and other mature works at a young age. Would you recommend Carsick to children like yourself in search of a thrill?
JW: Yes. Because God knows they'd get it. I mean, the worst and best parts of this book include murder, violence, diarrhea, sex. Everything that kids want to read about. Kids want to hear about the most horrible things that can happen to you. So yes: I believe that if a seven-year old kid has heard of Naked Lunch and is daring enough to want to read it, he's old enough to read it. A kid can self- censor himself, I think, if they really hate something. I wouldn't give this book to children that were unaware of it. You can't horrify a kid on purpose. But if a kid already knew who I was, or saw my movies… Sure, I don't think this book is going to hurt him. I don't know why I said ''him,'' because my women fans can be equally bizarre.
BNR: You have a quotation that's taken on a life of its own: ''If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them.''
JW: Well, I talk about that in my second book [Role Models]. I'm maybe a little bit of a hypocrite. I think Lady Bunny busted me on that in an interview I read. She said, ''I thought he had been with people who were criminals and stuff.'' Which is true. There's something really cute about looking at the home libraries of thieves. And then I was later asked: ''Could you ever fuck a racist if they were cute enough?'' I say send something in the mail to shut them up. That's really how you deal with racists: you can teach them something, up to a point.
But I said that quote, and it did get a lot of play, and now I've expanded on this concept with the idea that you should reward people sexually when they give you books for presents. I believe in rewarding people sexually for giving me books. I think it's proper literary manners. It's sort of a thank-you note.
BNR: Given that you're someone who champions literature, you have a home library of, at the printing of this book, eight thousand four hundred twenty-five titles and counting…
JW: I think that was in the period of Role Models, wasn't it? Or was it this book? I must have nine thousand by now. Divided in three homes.
BNR: I'm wondering who the great readers in your life have been. Who turned you on to great books?
JW: It wasn't that great, I'll tell you. I didn't read until Grove Press made me a reader. I hated reading in grade school and junior high, because they gave us the dullest books to read. If they had given us Tennessee Williams… They gave us the life of Benjamin Franklin. Incredibly, terribly boring books. I remember the first books I ever read on my own were Hot Rod and Street Rod, and they got me going. But I didn't really read until censorship happened. Grove Press really made me become a reader by publishing Jean Genet and William Burroughs and all those kind of books that caused trouble. They turned me into readers. I thank Barney Rosset. To this day, I read because of him.
BNR: It's amazing how many interviews I've done where people bring up Barney Rosset.
JW: Yeah! He changed everything, by publishing Genet and just so many other great writers. Could I read Alain Robbe-Grillet today? I don't know. But I loved him back then. So [Rosset] really did force people's taste in literature to completely change, and make it adventuresome and fun and cool to read, where before, in school… Oh, it was torture! Every summer you had to do book reports on the last things you felt like reading. The list they gave you to pick from, believe me, didn't have Hot Rod and Street Rod on it. They had books that were so dreary that it made me avoid reading until I was seventeen years old.
BNR: In the chapter of Role Models entitled ''Bookworm,'' all of the books which you cite as your all-time favorites seem to be about sort of different varieties of intelligent outcasts, and particularly women and children: In Youth Is Pleasure, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Two Serious Ladies, The Man Who Loved Children, Darkness and Day. The characters at the core of those stories are outsiders who learn to become bold and confident in their eccentricity.
JW: Well, each author treats his or her characters with great respect, and finds dignity in their lunacy, especially Jane Bowles. I mean, Two Serious Ladies is the best novel ever. When I re-read it for that book, I would burst out laughing in parts. Any book that can make you burst out laughing by itself is such a strong book. I think that all the characters in all those books became that strong in secret, and they realized they were strong when nobody else did. They kind of lived a life on the edges, but not really ever wanting much more than that. They liked being on the edge. They pushed the edge. So that's always been exciting to me, characters like that. I guess with the children, it's even one step further, because they don't have the power of being a white male.
BNR: Did reading teach you to be yourself?
JW: I think I was on my way to that before I read. But certainly Rock & Roll helped make me who I am. Elvis Presley happened, and I saw him twitching for the first time like an alien. You can't imagine how dreary and horribly boring the 1950s were until Rock & Roll happened. That's why it did happen, because there was an explosion. Everybody had a gray flannel suit, and then you saw Elvis, who scared the hell out of everyone's parents. To me, that was the moment when I was liberated from the '50s. And then reading Tennessee Williams was when I finally realized there was such a thing as bohemia, which I didn't know about. That was what I was searching for. And I still am.
BNR: The supplemental soundtrack list you supply in the back of the book contains fantastic selections, most of them 1950s and '60s rock that I'd never heard before.
JW: Most people have never heard those sides before. Go online, on YouTube, then pay for them and listen to them! But at the same time, a lot of the best-known songs about hitchhiking are country songs. There aren't a lot of Soul songs except the famous one, [Marvin Gaye's] ''Hitchhike.'' Almost every song about hitchhiking and there's obviously many-many-many songs about hitchhiking are country or novelty songs. And those have always been a favorite of mine: vintage, pure country songs. So there's plenty in it for you to listen to.
BNR: The more frenetic acts that you have on there, like the Sonics and Nervous Norvus, offer so much to contextualize an eerie experience, and your mindset during your increasingly frenzied rides, real and imagined.
JW: I have a song that's on the radio in every ride. But in real life, we never listened to the radio. Every ride I ever had, I don't think the radio was ever on.
BNR: Did your drivers prefer talk radio?
JW: When someone picks you up hitchhiking, they don't have talk radio on. They want your talk. Or they want to talk. You don't want to talk over somebody else.
BNR: I hadn't thought of that.
JW: I think the only time we listened to music was with [rock band] Here We Go Magic, and they gave me their CD. We played my mix tapes, and they had some mix tapes, too, that they played me.
BNR: In your introduction, you in fact talk about learning that Steinbeck's road memoir, Travels with Charley, was largely a work of fiction, and that this in part inspired your choice to pen these fictional best case- worst case scenarios of what a cross-country trip would be.
JW: That's true. I didn't know that until last year or something, when The New York Times broke that story, that it was totally bullshit, that book. Which is still in print, and is an award-winning book that is complete nonsense.
In these scenarios are my fears and hopes, I think. I could have never written those chapters, which remind me very much of my earlier movies, unless... I couldn't have written them if I had already done the trip. So I am really glad I didn't wait to do any of them until after I had done the real trip, because I don't think it would have been the same.
BNR: Some of the scenarios outlined in your second act, entitled ''The Worst That Could Happen,'' are graphically brutal. Imagined encounters with serial killers…
JW: …And diarrhea, which is truly the worst thing that you could imagine happening. Realizing you've gotten picked up by somebody who won't let you out.
BNR: That and superfans over-quoting your work.
JW: Yes. [Laughs] Or an insane dog handler. That one's pretty lewd, too.
BNR: You cite [Pier Paolo] Pasolini's film Salo and certainly, sections of Carsick reminded me of it.
JW: [Laughs] Great! Salo is such a beautiful movie. I presented that at the Toronto Film Festival a couple of years ago, and watched it again. It's really an elegant movie. It is a film about storytelling. And I tried to write this book in my voice, with a sense of storytelling, just as I am speaking to you now, because it's really me telling these stories, as if sitting around the campfire.
BNR: The story of this book could have been perhaps a Times headline: ''In Ohio, Beloved Pope of Trash Murdered."
JW: Well, I do get murered in Las Vegas in the book. But in real life, I felt like I was being murdered in Ohio when I stood there for ten hours a day with nobody picking me up. Ohio was tough.
BNR: Are you a big daydreamer? Are you someone who conjures up these elaborate fantasies of doom and success?
JW: That's my job, is to daydream. But I have to write it down. That's the difference. If you're a writer, you record those moments. Daydreamers forget to write it down. [Laughs]
No, for fun I don't sit around daydreaming. I mean, I guess I do all the time. I'm always watching people and thinking up stories about them. But no, I go to work in the morning, and that's when I write it down.
BNR: So many of these true-life characters who join you on your journey out through the course of the real thing, have their own dark pasts, or wild back stories, but who now seem to have pulled themselves together. While you're coming at it differently than Steinbeck, their lives are stories of a certain steadfast American attitude, of redemption and family ties. So many of these once troubled men credit their wives as their saviors and greatest supporters…
JW: Listen: I've never had so many heterosexual men talk so well about their wives as I was when hitchhiking across the country. I called it a ''feminist highway,'' because all the men spoke about how great their wives were, which I don't always hear in my own life. The people that pick you up hitchhiking have usually fought through something in life, and they're willing to give somebody else a chance. Most people thought I was a homeless man. You don't see a sixty-six year-old man hitchhiking. Some recognized me, but they would dart past and then say, "Did I just see John Waters?" Why would I be standing there with a sign? Only once did somebody go, ''Ha, John Waters!'' right when they pulled over, and that was a block from my house. The first ride. Even that took a long time to get, because there weren't any cars.
BNR: As a reformed bicoastal elitist, I feel I learned something from the openness and generosity of these people you meet.
JW: And they're just as open-minded, too. They just don't like people that don't work. That's one thing that I found in the middle of America, that they don't like freeloaders. They don't mind slackers, because slackers don't usually try to get something for nothing. But they do mind people that are just bullshitters and people that are complaining all the time and don't work. That's what I would think got the most complaints.
BNR: It really challenges some judgments and assumptions that we might make about the phrase ''flyover people'' that you renounce in the book's acknowledgments.
JW: When people say the term ''trailer trash,'' I'm offended. That's the last accepted racial slur, I think. It's like saying the N-word to me. But people say it, all because liberals say it. And I think ''flyover'' is so dismissive. Look: there are assholes everywhere. It doesn't matter where you live. There are assholes, and not one picked me up. It's a classless group, assholes, because there's rich assholes, there's poor assholes, there's middle-class assholes. But I didn't have an asshole pick me up, and I don't think assholes pick up hitchhikers.
BNR: It seems that perhaps the biggest fear of all in writing a book like this, as suggested in your introduction, would be that either no one would pick you up, or that your drivers would prove uninteresting.
JW: No, my worst fear was I would walk up to the corner, and the first guy was going to San Francisco that took me. [Laughs] How dull.
BNR: Roll credits.
JW: But I would have gotten out. Which would have been funny, too, to have to escape.
BNR: I'm reminded of Sarah Finlayson, the minister's wife who picks you up. On the phone, Sarah's sister says, ''Be careful with my sister,'' and you reply, ''I will,'' while acknowledging that a serial killer would say the same.
JW: Exactly. Because so many people had said to me, ''A woman by herself will not pick you up.'' But the first ride was a woman by herself with a baby, and the second ride was a woman by herself. So you never really know. It depends what kind of woman. She was interesting. And she was coming from her exercise class. She was going a mile or so, and she took me fifty miles, just out of kindness. It was raining, and she wanted a little bit of adventure, too. I love that about a month later, she went on the radio and did a whole show about it. Good for her!
BNR: It's a terrific moment, and one that illustrates a central crux of hitchhiking, which is that it's a barometer of trust.
JW: To stop or to get in is trust. And an adventure. And a date. It also does involve sex, in a weird way, because it's such a cliché, due to all the erotic literature about women and hitchhiking. You take a good look at each other. You have to instantly profile that person when you get in the car, and you say, ''Well…'' But I let them set the conversation, talk about what they want to talk about, and I would never get out my Blackberry and look at it, I would never get out a tape-recorder. I made notes when I got out. I told everybody I was writing a book. I think a lot of them thought I was just homeless or demented. I wanted them to talk more than I wanted to talk. But I talked when I knew I needed to, to sell them on the ride.
It helps to talk, when hitchhiking. The more you can share about yourself, the better. Because people were very generous to me. They would take me a little further, or they would pull off to good spots when they were going to drop me off. Because the whole problem with hitchhiking is where you get dropped off. It has to be in the right kind of place to stand, where you can get a ride, and that's complicated in cloverleaves and stuff. Or where two highways meet? That's a bad place for a hitchhiker.
BNR: You avoid strip malls and city centers, where people are just going from one place to another, shopping locally.
JW: All cities are bad. You don't want to get near a city when you're hitchhiking. Because there's local traffic, and you don't ever want local traffic.
BNR: Speaking of this notion of trust, and finding people who look decent or suspicious… Do you think you're a good hitchhiker because you have faith in the goodness of others, or that you're able to read people?
JW: I think I'm a good hitchhiker because I can listen to people. I've taught in prison. I know all kinds of people. I can get along in the fanciest dinner party and I can get along in the scariest bar. I can get along with extreme people. And this time, the only challenge when I was getting along with ''the middle,'' which is a world I very seldom explore. I must say that it was just as much fun and just as interesting as both extremes that I usually spend most of my time in.
BNR: I particularly loved the long, ennui-filled periods of waiting for someone to pick you up.
JW: Well, you might have loved it as a reader! As a hitchhiker, it was torture!
BNR: Because that's the real peril.
JW: That's the bad stuff. Because you think, ''This is going to take two years.'' I scheduled two weeks for this trip. But you know, there were days… now that it's over, it's hard to really remember those fears, because I know I did make it. But the thrill, if that's the word… The mantra I kept repeating is, ''It only takes one car, it only takes one car.'' And that's true. But sometimes you wait for a long time for that one car to show its soul.
BNR: That waiting also illustrates something about how we resist helping the poor, in large part, because we're scared of them…
JW: Well, I don't think we're scared of the poor. We're scared we will be poor. [Laughs]
BNR: But that fear creates a situation where perhaps we're afraid that we'll be abused in some way by acting charitably.
JW: I don't know. I was never afraid standing there. The people that picked me up never seemed to be afraid of me. I think that people who pass you by, I would say eighty percent of them had never seen a hitchhiker, and most of them would never even consider doing it themselves. They don't know how to deal with it. When they saw me, they'd just throw their hands up. It's better, I think, when they make up a fake excuse for why they can't take you, or they mime making a turn. That's at least polite. One hard part was that I was never standing near a place where there was a red light where you could walk up to cars. The best was when I'd land at a park-type facility in the middle of the country, because then they're going slow, and most of those people are going a long distance, and they get to see you, and sometimes when they stop, they see you and they notice you. It's always a split-second decision.
BNR: Waiting on the side of the road, you write, ''Maybe regular people don't talk to strangers. Maybe that's why I've made no friends here.'' Which is a very simple but eloquent idea.
JW: That was even truer when I was eating at night in some chain restaurant or truck stop. I'd think, ''God, nobody talks to each other; they just stare at the TV on the wall.'' I thought, ''Do I look that weird?'' But they just don't talk to strangers. I'm always talking to strangers, so I don't have a fear of them. I thought it was only children who weren't supposed to talk to strangers.
BNR: There's something about becoming an adult that indoctrinates us to this idea that being regular or normal means we're incurious or dispassionate. To that end: do you hope that this book produces more hitchhikers? Does it advocate the act of hitching?
JW: I think it encourages people to do it. But I don't want to be blamed if somebody reads my book and then they go out and get murdered. Use common sense. But you have about the same chance of dying as you do getting in a car accident on a summer vacation with your family. I think the only thing you should ever be scared of is staying home and never going out, and never taking a chance. And the older you get, the more chances you've got to take, or you stop experiencing things.
BNR: And that's coming from a sixty-eight year- old thrill seeker.
JW: Yes! I am ''a sixty-eight year-old thrill seeker.'' That's a good way to put it.
June 18, 2014