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Still Waters

Desperate Living (1977); Cry-Baby (2008).  

Even his misbehaving is methodical. On weekends he “eats irresponsibly.” (The rest of the week he prepares his meals from recipes in Cooking Light magazine.) He goes to bars only on Friday night. “I’ve always drank like a coal miner with a paycheck every Friday night of my life, since I was 15 years old,” he says. It’s one of his things. Every other year he takes a Christmas vacation. “It sounds so ludicrous; I take a week off and go to Gstaad with my friend,” Waters says. “I go there every two years and I don’t work. We go to great dinner parties and they go skiing and I go to the top of the ski lift and drink Ovaltine and read hardbacks. I’m the only person that comes down on the ski lift.”

But other than that one week out of every 104, Waters says he “think[s] things up in the morning; I sell ’em in the afternoon.” At present he is juggling work on an upcoming art show for his dealer, Marianne Boesky, with getting financing for Fruitcake and writing a book. “It’s called Role Models, and it’s a self-portrait where I write profiles of other people and how much I love them and how much they changed my life and influenced me—famous people, criminals, people you’ve never heard of.”

“If it ever was shocking, my sense of humor seems mainstream today. What’s on television is even ruder than anything I ever had.”

Waters is fascinated by outlaws. He taught classes in a prison for six years and is close friends with Leslie Van Houten, who is serving a life sentence for stabbing Rosemary LaBianca sixteen times in 1969 at the behest of Charles Manson. Waters visits her regularly and has a magnet made out of her photograph stuck to the refrigerator at his place in New York City. “A psychiatrist once suggested that if I didn’t have the outlet for my rage that my films provide, I might be in prison myself. Who knows?” Waters wrote in 1983.

In one of the guest rooms at his house, there is a painting of the Wicked Witch from Snow White by the serial child killer John Wayne Gacy, which is only slightly more disturbing than the other artwork in that room: a door that seems like it leads to a closet in fact opens to a site-specific installation by Gregory Green called Work Table #7. It is the imagined room of a bomber, and it almost vibrates with psychosis. On the desk is an envelope of pubic hair, a hot glue gun, tools, and bits of metal. “There’s every single thing you need to build a bomb except gunpowder,” Waters says with satisfaction. A picture of Camden Yards hangs on the wall, sawdust is heaped in little piles on the desk, shreds of newspaper cover the floor with headlines of violence and destruction. “It has a certain aggression to it,” Waters says offhandedly. “I saw it at an art show and said, ‘Pack it up!’ And that was before 9/11. Talk about artistically incorrect!” He shuts the door. “I don’t show this to everybody.”

Besides being gay, the other reason Waters couldn’t have a regular wife is that he’s never lived with a lover and never wants to. “I have the luxury of being single,” he says, strolling past his bed. (On top of it, the letters J-O-H-N are rendered in stuffed felt, a gift from Paul Reubens.) “As a single man, you get invited to the best dinner parties.” When he’s had serious boyfriends in the past—three or four, depending on how he counts them—they’ve always lived apart. “Even when I’m in love I don’t want to live with them.” Waters divides his time between his homes in Baltimore, Provincetown, San Francisco, and New York, where he has a pied-à-terre off lower Fifth Avenue. “I can go wherever I want. So much better if you go to their house and they can come to yours. If you have a fight, you can get away, there’s no pouting room. Besides, I wouldn’t want someone who would allow themselves to live in my place without changing it to more of theirs.”

The pale-gold stucco house in North Baltimore Waters bought with money from Cry-Baby is a museum and a shrine. One of the first things you see upon entering is the electric chair Divine died in in Female Trouble. Across from it is a fake machine gun in a violin case from the set of Guys and Dolls that was given to Waters by Johnny Depp. There is a congratulatory note that came with flowers from Martin Scorsese stuck to a bulletin board above Waters’s enormous collection of Polaroids: He takes one of every single person who walks through his door. (After he dies, the Polaroids and all Waters’s papers and professional detritus will go to the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives, as will a portion of Scorsese’s.) A framed pair of Patty Hearst’s glasses (“She was wearing those when she got arrested!”) hangs on the wall in the bathroom downstairs, next to some photographs of couch cushions that somehow look a lot like a vagina. On top of the toilet there’s a bowl of fake brownies and cookies.