In October of 2004, John Waters was on a roll. His movie A Dirty Shame had just been released, he had a Christmas compilation album on the way and a hilarious cameo in that year’s Seed of Chucky, and he was in the middle of one of his college lecture tours, which are really more like a mix of standup comedy, pop culture critique, and Q&A session.
The tour in question would be bringing him to Webster University in St. Louis, my alma mater. This was a dream come true for me; to say I love the work of John Waters would be an understatement. While in general I get a kick out of most of his films, some of them — especially Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, and Multiple Maniacs — occupy a very special place in my creepy little heart. Not to say that something like Hairspray doesn’t also have a room in the Hotel de Coeur (it’s decked out with hideous wallpaper and a groovy sofa), but those movies in particular are great to me because they’re exactly in the vein of what I’d like to do as a creative person. Things like that tend to leave an indelible mark. There’s something about his approach that just sings to me.
Similar to South Park, Waters’ best work makes fun of squares yet also pushes the buttons of the people who think only squares deserve to be offended. His stuff is satirical, but it’s almost like a satire of satire, flipping American culture the bird with one hand but then giving it a good natured hug and/or handjob with the other. For all the talk of provocation in his work, there’s something about it that is genuine . . . perhaps vicious at times, but not mean-spirited. (Like me, Waters is an unrepentant and unironic fan of Johnny Mathis).
Even better, his first book Shock Value is one of the most valuable things I’ve ever encountered, because it taught me not to be afraid of being an artist. It’s a how-to guide for creating your own ridiculous little world, and to this day remains one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever read. Though I went to film school and don’t regret it, reading something like Shock Value is just as important, and arguably better, because you won’t be paying it off monthly for the next three decades.
Speaking of film school, as I said, Waters would be giving his lecture routine at my former stomping grounds. Of course, it went without saying that I would be attending. Unfortunately, film schools tend to be filled with a million other people exactly like me (which is why I spent my college years desperately hiding my love of David Lynch and Werner Herzog, and instead playing up my devotion to Jurassic Park), which translates to the show being sold out by the time I first hear about it. A dirty shame, indeed.
Just as I started my Charlie Brown walk of self-pity into the infinite night, i.e. getting drunk on Rolling Rock and complaining on the internet, a good friend of mine mentioned that she was able to procure a ticket. And, like Christ offering up his body and blood to save humanity, she offered the ticket to me, though this was arguably much more important because oh my fucking god John Waters. However, in keeping with the Jesus theme of this paragraph, I also felt very, very guilty about accepting. Me attending this event meant that my friend would not be attending. I was taking away someone’s chance to see John Waters in person. Even though it was all voluntary, I still felt bad.
The day of Waters’ appearance, I continued being wracked with Catholic guilt as I tried to decide whether or not I should just give my friend’s ticket back to her. I also had another decision to make. Waters was doing a signing at a local record store in walking distance of the university, so I could, theoretically, just go see him at the autograph session and forego his appearance later that evening. Decisions, decisions. I am not good at making decisions.
Like a possessed person or someone about to be abducted by aliens, I found myself heading to the record store without necessarily feeling in control of my body. When I arrived, Waters was wrapping up, signing items for the last few people in line. I debated buying something so he could autograph it, since I had failed to bring anything with me. I actually found the perfect thing: Charles Manson’s infamous Lie album on vinyl. I’d always wanted to hear it, and Waters himself had professed his love for that record on several occasions. I picked it up and carried it around the store for a few minutes. “Oh for fuck’s sake, this is so pretentious. It’ll look like you’re buying this just to impress him. Also, you don’t have a record player, asshole.” I quickly put the album back. I mean, we can’t look bad in front of John Waters. That would be terrible.
Pretentiousness successfully avoided, I continued wandering around the store. When Waters was finished, he started doing some record shopping of his own, so then we entered this weird phase that I like to call Oh No Big Deal, I Am Just Record Shopping With John Waters And Whathaveyou. I did my best to nonchalantly look like I was browsing the store when in reality I was Fanboy Attraction-ing one of my idols.
I really don’t think it’s a good thing to meet your idols. Let them continue to exist in your mind as these untouchable, mystical beings from the stars. Because when you meet them, in most cases they’ll reveal themselves to be the flawed human beings that you secretly know they are. We’re all just people and that goes for even the mightiest artists and celebrities. So I knew I shouldn’t be meeting John Waters.
But then I found myself standing next to him.
There he was, notorious pencil mustache and all. I’d seen him interacting with other people in the store and he was friendly and gracious and good-humored. There was no reason to fear. Nevertheless wracked by nervousness, I introduced myself.
“Mr. Waters. Hi. I just wanted to say I’m a huge fan of your work. You’re a big inspiration to me and I think it’s so cool that you’re here.”
He smiled with impeccable politeness and looked genuinely happy, even though I’m sure he’d heard this about five thousand times that day. He shook my hand. (Holy shit). Then, John Waters spoke to me.
“Thank you so much. I’m glad to be here. So are you coming to my talk later?”
Good question. Was I? Because I seem to remember now that I’ve been avoiding that decision. Well, time to decide, because John Waters is talking to you. You do understand that, right. What are you doing. John Waters has asked you a question. Please respond. This is not a drill.
My mouth started moving, the lips oozing out half-formed thoughts that went slopping to the floor in a pile at my feet.
“Am I going to the thing tonight? I, uh . . . I don’t know . . . I hope so!, ha, haha . . . you see I’m not sure because my friend, she gave me her ticket, and . . . um, you know . . . I feel bad because it’s sold out . . . so now she can’t go unless I find an extra ticket somewhere . . . I don’t know what to do . . . you know how it is, ha . . .”
I’m surprised this wasn’t in the newspapers because the oxygen definitely sucked out of the room and I’m sure we all looked like Ronny Cox at the end of Total Recall. My son, my son, what had I done.
John Waters bit his cheek in an irritated smirk, spiritually rolling his eyes so hard it about knocked me over. He shrugged and made this “well what can ya do?/I guess that’s just too bad/life is hord” face, dressed in faux sympathy to disguise his obvious annoyance. Waters clearly thought I was trying to hit him up for a ticket or a spot on the guest list. And like that, the conversation was over. He immediately broke eye contact with me, and walked away without another word.
John Waters snubbed me. And to make matters worse, I totally, completely deserved it.
He had every reason to think I was some opportunistic little jerkoff trying to weasel a favor out of him. And, to be fair, I’m sure part of my mind was hoping that he’d offer to help me out. I certainly wouldn’t have said no. But that wasn’t my primary reason for talking to him. I just wanted the experience of meeting someone in person who had such an immeasurable impact on me. But now I stood there, my interaction with him slithering out of the garden, and after eating this shitty apple I had become aware of my nakedness, and was ashamed.
I did go to the lecture that night, and it was great, but that’s really beside the point. It’s an afterthought, a footnote, following the self-induced humiliation at the record store. I think I went (instead of giving my friend her ticket back) in the vague hope of redeeming myself, but some things you cannot undo. It was so horrible that I almost wish there was a Stations of the Cross type of reenactment as I approach my grim train accident of a destiny. Here he is pondering the Lie album. Here he is perusing used CDs. Does he want that Marilyn Manson bootleg? Here, he nears John Waters. In his suffering there is such humanity, and we are redeemed.
Even when I tell this story today, I don’t receive the usual condolences or consolations. Instead, people blurt “oh my god, how embarrassing!” and wince like I’m describing a colonoscopy. If I can take anything from this, it’s that the only person who revealed himself to be an example of human fallibility is me. John Waters never broke character. He never violated my image of him, or my idea of who John Waters is supposed to be. John Waters remained John Waters. I doubt he even remembers this incident, but it’s something I will never forget.
This has been a story of disgrace.