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Still Waters

In fact, there is fake food in every room. Fake sushi in the dining room, a leg of lamb in Waters’s office, rubber blueberry pie in his bedroom. In the guest room that doesn’t lead to the bomber’s room, there is a bookshelf on which Waters has organized the books by category, one subject per shelf: extreme weather, psychological disorders, Nazis, Catholicism, high society.

Not all the art Waters has collected is creepy or obscure. There’s a Warhol his high-school girlfriend bought for him for $100 in 1964, a Weegee photo of Johnnie Ray, a piece by Man Ray tucked in the living-room windowsill. “Art is my midlife crisis,” Waters declares. “I don’t buy sports cars.” In the dining room, there’s a series by one of Waters’s favorites, Cy Twombly, the names of “Five Greek Poets and a Philosopher” scrawled on paper. “Twombly invented scribbles as art! His work is incredibly beautiful, and it infuriates people … People like my dad will say, ‘You bought that?’ ”

Since his 91-year-old father, John Waters Sr., has been sick with cancer, Waters has been spending a lot of time with his parents, who live nearby in a “very, very fancy retirement community with everyone they’ve known their whole life.” But today Waters is driving the LeSabre to their old house, where he grew up, in a placid suburb called Lutherville.

On the slanted front lawn of that house, Waters shot Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Roman Candles, Multiple Maniacs, Eat Your Makeup, and Desperate Living. His father loaned him the money to make those early films. Though Waters mocks the decorum and conformity from which he sprang, the memory of this world has been essential to him. The thing he makes fun of is propriety: dancing school and suburbia, the traditional family and good taste. This is quaint. As Waters is the first to admit, popular culture is now as vulgar and vile as his wildest early films. (I’m thinking of an episode of the VH1 reality show A Shot at Love in which the bisexual MySpace star Tila Tequila has her male and female suitors eat the boiled penises of bulls to win her affection.) Waters, of course, has always been challenging authority, but now that there is very little authority left to challenge, it seems clear that he wouldn’t have spent his whole career thumbing his nose at a world for which he had no reverence. He wears suits, albeit deconstructed high-fashion versions. He sends out Christmas cards (this year’s pictured a car crash). Among his most prized possessions at both his apartment in New York and his house in Baltimore are needlepoints made for him by his mother and her friends. (Mrs. Waters stitched them to her son’s specifications: On his sofa in the city is a pillow picturing an electric chair.)

“I have this memory of wanting to be away from this. To be a delinquent, to be bad,” Waters says, pulling the LeSabre up in front of the big pink Victorian he was raised inside of before it was pink. (He matches it today, though, in his purple corduroys and a Comme des Garçons jacket with pink lining.) “Not against my parents … It was just a world they didn’t want me to be in. That’s what juvenile delinquents are about. I was never violent; I was never a drape,” he says of the Baltimore-specific term for bad teens, the stars of Cry-Baby. “I woulda been terrible! Squares coulda beat me up! But nobody ever really tried to, because they knew I hated authority even more than they did. Also I could make ’em laugh. And still I’m like that. My favorite places in Baltimore are these really real biker bars, and they’re lovely to me. They’ve even taken me to their clubhouses. It’s a different world—it’s Scorpio Rising. I don’t have to talk about movies; I don’t have to talk about art. We talk about their lives. My favorite anecdote, recently in Baltimore I asked this guy, ‘What do you do for a living?’ And he said, ‘Well, can I be frank? I trade deer meat for crack.’ ”

Waters warns me that he’s told this story before, and that by the time my article comes out this anecdote will be “all used up,” which strikes me as thoughtful but arbitrary, because much of what he says I’ve heard before. If you read Waters’s books and watch his one-man show This Filthy World, you will find that his conversation is peppered with reruns and standards. (“S&M looks silly at the beach”; “I know I look like a child molester.”) But it’s fine. John Waters’s recycling is more interesting than most people’s virgin material.