Aug 02, 2023, 05:55AM

John Waters Talks Baltimore

“You can’t really harm Baltimore.”

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John Waters and I hadn’t talked in decades. I hung out with John in the bad old days before Hollywood swept him away to fame, and international notoriety. He was notorious back then, but for me, Waters represented a coming of age, going back to the 1960s American pop culture. He signed the personal permission slip for people like us, that freaky fringe, to feel accepted. It was okay to be unique. Like many social misfits, I evolved into something different, resembling whatever’s considered normaland respectable by today’s standards. Even John became respectable as a filthy elder statesman.

Sometimes, lines blur. I thought those freaky characters in Pink Flamingos were the real-life people I saw. I was naïve. Like the crazy people you met every day on the streets of Baltimore. I believed the filthiest people alive were flesh and blood folks and not actors playing in offbeat underground films like Warhol’s superstar posse but with greater depravity, and a desperate sense of purpose. From all tomorrow's parties to the party never ever ends. You can forget about the tomorrows. In reality, it never happens that way, like in the movies, and I was guilty of assholism.

John told me once, any publicity is good publicity, and he only gave interviews when he has something to promote. Because of the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike we couldn’t discuss the upcoming movie based on his novel Liarmouth. We talked about one thing we have in common, Baltimore!

Tom DiVenti: There’s a controversy right now about the demise of the original landmark building, Martick’s restaurant, being torn down. Martick’s was Baltimore’s haven for beatniks, bohemians, hippies, punks, and weirdos. People like us. I asked his thoughts, and we agreed that we didn’t know what to think about it. After all, Martick’s was an institution for cultural diversity, and it’s debatable for the criminally insane.

John Waters: Way before I knew you, Martick’s was the first place I hung in downtown when it was still a bar. Maelcum Soulworked there, and later Pat Moran worked there. So that was a huge thing in my life. My mother used to drive there to drop me off in the alley, because she said maybe here, you’ll meet some people like you. Morris Martick knew I wasn’t 21 but he knew about Roman Candles, the movie I made with Maelcum. It made the local papers, so I hung out in Tyson alley next to the bar and people would come out and bring me drinks.

TD: I heard they called it Go-Go alley and of course everyone we knew, including me, worked there at some point. Maelcum Soul, a true bohemian, was the first star in John’s earliest films, Dorothy, The Kansas City Pothead, Roman Candles, and Eat Your Makeup, along with Divine, and Pat Moran, who later became a lifelong friend/associate and go-to gal pal assistant to John. She made stuff happen and became a leading casting director for Hollywood productions shooting in Baltimore and the current head of a national talent scout agency. I inquired about the area surrounding Martick’s (Mulberry St.) during that period.

JW: It was hippie central, the Haight Ashbury of Baltimore. It was The Leather People, the sandals shop, and Mee Jun Low, the first Chinese restaurant I ever went in. It was all beatniks there and horrible Abe Sherman’s great bookstore on the corner. Later, on Read St., Pat had a shop called Divine Trash and Chuck Yeaton had Omar the Tentmaker boutique (A slang expression for a person experiencing an erection that raises the cloth—trousers or sheet—covering his genitals much like a tent.) And upstairs from Chuck’s shop was Divine’s apartment where we filmed the inside set of Female Trouble.

TD: I mentioned the legendary scene where Divine eats the dogshit on the street. That’s misunderstood. The one fact/act people always remember.

JW: Divine didn’t act like that in real life. But here’s something you can look up online. It’s a real scam. I saw recently, somebody is selling chips of cement from the sidewalk where Divine ate dog shit and they’re selling pieces of it for $25. Imagine what the neighbors think watching people chipping up their sidewalk. Like a holy relic. There was a real movement where they wanted to put a statue of Divine eating dog shit near the original spot. The mayor okayed it at the time and wanted it, but even I wasn’t for it. I mean, if there ever was a statue of Divine, he wouldn’t want it to be that! Eating dog shit! Come on. But, there was this whole thing, and they got all these signatures, all of this happened and then it didn’t. Thankfully, but you never know.

TD: Every news story about Baltimore is negative unless it’s about you. You’re its goodwill ambassador. I always said even though Baltimore is quirky it still has an inferiority complex, and you’re its biggest cheerleader.

JW: It did have a complex back when I was growing up, but it doesn’t anymore. Then it was like, you don’t wanna come here. That’s one thing I think that I did help with, is getting rid of that inferiority. Now we should embrace our image. Have a bumper sticker that says, “The Wire, it’s still like that. Dare to live here.”Remember when Trump called Baltimore a shithole with all the rats and roaches! Every news team in the world called me for a comment. I said we like our rats and roaches! You can’t really harm Baltimore. I’m always amazed when people say to me, I moved to Baltimore, and I always ask… why? Hey, I get it if you love it and grew up here. I get why they do, because it’s still affordable to live here. There’s still a Bohemia, kids can be poor and creative.

TD: How does it feel to have the first gender-neutral bathroom at the Baltimore Museum of Art named in your honor?

JW: Here’s what I really liked. First of all when we had the ceremony Elizabeth Coffey—the first trans that was in Pink Flamingos—came down and cut the ribbon opening and took the first piss in front of all these officials and all that. The thing is in gender neutral bathrooms the stalls go floor to ceiling so it’s much easier to have sex in there. In the old days, for men, one would on the toilet and the other would have to have two shopping bags to stand inside of so when you looked underneath the door all you would see is a pair of feet and two shopping bags. Now you don’t have to do that anymore.

TW: Speaking of sex in public, I read somewhere about felching, involving a straw and sucking a bodily fluid from another’s private orifice. What’s up with that? It’s like an extreme sport.

JW: I never heard that one, with a straw? That’s for sissies! That’s for felching bottoms, not felching tops! It doesn’t require a straw! That’s one thing I’ve never done. I have to tell you; not everything is good to the last drop. You’ve got to leave some stains unspoken.

TD: You have a unique way of blending high art with lowbrow comedy. Not only in your films, but your art works, spoken word, and books. There’s nothing hidden, it’s a social satire mixed with dark humor and imagery.

JW: I don’t try to preach to you. To me if you can make people laugh, they’ll listen and change their minds. The best thing is, Hairspray is the most devious movie I ever made because nobody realized it was a message movie. Now it gets rave reviews and it’s playing in every high school and not one person in Florida is bitching about grade schools doing Hairspray because they don’t announce that Edna is always played by a man. That’s a secret between the actors and the audience. Tracy doesn’t think her mother is trans. So, they don’t know how to attack it. Lenny Bruce went to jail for saying fuck and now they say fuck on network television. Pink Flamingos recently played on Turner Classics uncut. How could that possibly be? And the description was, weird fat woman lives in a trailer. That’s the best blurb I’ve ever read for Pink Flamingos.

TD: What’s your take on heaven, hell, life, death and reincarnation?

JW: I certainly don’t believe in reincarnation. That could be worse than hell. What if you come back as someone you hated? Unfortunately, you only get one life, but that’s what I believe is true. I wish I could believe in heaven or hell, but I don’t believe anyone I know would’ve gone to hell. I think what you go through in life, there’s always some reason. I believe in the opposite of original sin. Everyone is born innocent until something happens. Limbo is the most ludicrous place; I mean where do all those babies go? Where are they? With Saint Christopher squatting in some abandoned child-molesting church. I did write about my death and how I’m going to beat death in my last book, Mr. Know-It-All. I’d rise back up for the resurrection. Everybody will come back for the resurrection. Nobody will be able to find an apartment. It’ll be in Baltimore. And are they nude? I believe in the basic goodness of people. I’m an optimist but could there be something that I don’t know about? Absolutely. There could be because I guess that’s what the higher power means. The higher powers that I was taught or heard of, I don’t believe in. But since there could be a billion planets and stuff like that, I believe in science. Who knows? Could there be another universe? Of course! I don’t believe in Astrology. I always say feces is my sign if they ask me.

TD: When I think of you, John Waters, the man, I see a little bit of Vincent Price, some Gomez Addams and you finish the last one. Fill in the blank.

JW: Don Knotts.


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