In person, Waters seems to have no limits on what’s appropriate to discuss. And yet even the freakiest among us have boundaries. When I asked Waters what he did for his recent birthday, it was the only time I saw him stutter. “I had a birthday dinner with…someone I’m…well, with the person I’m in love with,” he said. I asked him who, but he demurred. “Oh, I don’t talk about it,” he said. “As soon as you talk about love in public, it disappears.” He wiggled his hands in the air as if to show affection disappearing in the ether. “I always tell Ricki Lake, ‘Don’t be talking about stuff that way.’ I totally believe that.”
This is maybe the only glimpse of vulnerability that Waters betrays while we’re together.
Near the end of our conversation, he picked up a Polaroid camera from one of the coffee tables in his salon. He didn’t so much ask to take my photo as tell me that it was going to happen. “I have everyone that’s ever been in here,” he said as I smiled for the shot. He leaned in and raised his eyebrows as if he was about to tell me where a body was buried.
“And everyone has been here.”
I was tickled. Doesn’t everyone want to end up in some kind of John Waters archive? Who knows what weird shit he does with those photos; they’re all hidden away. “No one’s allowed to open them until 10 years after I die,” he said. “I have cases and cases of photographs. You’d think it would be fun to look at them, but it isn’t, because people are dead.”
Frankly, it’s hard to believe John Waters himself is ever actually going to die. He doesn’t believe it either. “I’m not gonna die. I’m just going to get that one bit of moisture in the earth when I’m buried and I’m going to suck it and claw my way up through the worms and burst out for the resurrection,” he said, slashing the air with his hand while cackling.
Regardless, his legacy has outpaced him anyway, and it’s clear that no one person will be able to take over as our filth elder in his absence. “The future of filth is up to young people,” he said. “The ones that have the duty are the ones that get on your nerves, the ones who, when they do something, you say, ‘But alright, that’s going too far.’ But you laugh.”
Even if the world is in its darkest place, Waters thinks, there’s still room for a good joke. “If the world is sad and sick, they more than ever want to laugh,” he said. “I’m an optimist. If this is the end of the world, at least we didn’t miss anything.”
As our interview was winding down, he offered to drive me into town, essentially a small intersection with a bookstore (where he picks up his fan mail, which, yes, he reads) and a few new restaurants. He drives a nondescript Buick. “I like people who are rich in Switzerland. They hide it,” he said. “Or I like how Brad Pitt’s famous. He just drives a shitty old car.”
I always wonder what celebrated weirdos would’ve done with themselves if they hadn’t found their niche. Can you imagine John Waters working in accounting? Or trying to help you buy a couch at West Elm? “I’d be a good defense lawyer, a good psychiatrist,” he said. “But I don’t know all the answers.”
He paused for a moment — though not a long one, because he talks so fast that your ears can hardly keep up. “No. The answer is that after you reach a certain age, you just have to take responsibility for your life,” he said. “You can blame it on other people all you want, but too bad. We’ve all been dealt a hand.”
All day I was anticipating a prosaic moment, a flash of Waters being flawed or tedious or unimpressive or unfunny or dull. No such thing. Even when he speaks plainly, it still connects with the little creep inside of you, 13 years old, eyes glued to Divine’s hip padding in Hairspray, your inner monologue wondering, Why does watching this make me feel happy?
Waters rescued generations of freaks from their loneliness. We’ve been lucky to have him. “Life ain’t fair. I’m lucky. I got a good hand,” he said as he turned to me and smiled one more time. “How was your hand?” ●
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