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Still Waters

Still, it’s interesting to witness the extent to which Waters lives in the third person. Everything that happens is inspiration, fuel. His life barely has time to hit the ground before he turns it into something else—a movie, an artwork, a routine. “I trade deer meat for crack! I can’t make that up. So good. Every once in a while I love to be so stunned by something somebody says, and they say it without irony, without realizing how fucking brilliant it is … from my world.”

Cry-Baby is a story of drapes and squares battling it out for a pretty girl, and the protagonist (played by Johnny Depp in Waters’s film) is based on a boy named Morris who lived across the street in a small and slightly ragged house. “My parents were horrified that the family moved here—looked down on ’em. Morris never even would look at me or talk to me, but I hung around with his brother. He was Cry-Baby. My parents would never have allowed me to be a drape, but I was definitely a drape sympathizer and I thought they were really sexy. I’m sure it was a sexual thing that I didn’t even realize at the time.”

All his work, of course, is autobiographical. He points out his old bedroom—he would listen to people singing black spirituals on their way home from church, as Tracy Turnblad does in Hairspray. In A Dirty Shame, “in some ways I am Big Ethel,” the head neuter, who is appalled by the complexity and weirdness of all the perversions in her community. “I just don’t understand this coming-out-a-second-time thing—you’ve already told ’em you’re gay and now you’re gonna let ’em know you’re a bear? The poor parents! Here’s where I had a little horror house where I’d charge people a quarter and then spray ’em with a fire extinguisher and kick ’em,” he says, indicating a garage. Around the corner is the white house where Divine—Harris Glenn Milstead—used to live. “Carol Wernig introduced us. They would gamble for pimple medicine, Clearasil, that they used as lipstick.”

Divine, like many of the original Dreamlanders, is gone now; he died the week after Hairspray came out. “Things remind me of them,” Waters says of his old friends. “They don’t go away. The saddest is when somebody you know dies and everyone they’re friends with is already dead. You can’t even gossip about them.”

In Hampden, the Williamsburg of Baltimore, one of Waters’s assistant directors has started a feminist sex store with her now ex-girlfriend, and Waters goes in to say hello. He asks if they have anything for men. “We’re for people of all genders,” says a serious young woman with pink hair at the counter. She shows him the Black Orchid, a masturbatory device for men.

“People used to use liver!” Waters says. “Well, let me see the vibrating cock rings.”

She looks nervous. “I think we’re out.”

“I can get through the week,” he replies, and we leave to go to his art studio, a big room next to a wedding photographer’s office.

Inside, there’s a great picture on the wall by Waters’s friend Nan Goldin (who photographed him again for New York): Waters is in his twenties, sitting, talking, and smoking at a banquette with Cookie Mueller, one of the chicken fuckers in Pink Flamingos, who was also Fassbinder’s drug dealer. Her mother used to call Waters “Beelzebub” because she thought he was such a bad influence. Mueller died of AIDS in the eighties.

On the floor, there is what looks to be a kind of self-portrait-in-progress: dozens of empty Crème de la Mer jars, Maybelline eye pencils, and shavings Waters has arranged in a pile. “You see,” he says. “It all ends up in something.”