GOOD RIDE NUMBER ONE
It's a beautiful Baltimore spring day—the perfect 68o morning. I decide to leave twenty-four hours earlier than everyone in my office thinks I will, so I can avoid all their nervous goodbyes. Susan, my longtime assistant who runs my filth empire with an iron fist, has always thought this adventure a ludicrous idea but knows I am just as stubborn as she can be, so she long ago gave up on talking me out of it. Trish, my other full-time assistant, who will actually be transcribing this book (I write by hand on legal pads before she puts it on the computer), is a little friendlier to the idea since she was briefly a teenage runaway. Jill, my art helper, seems all for the idea. My bookkeeper, Doralee, has given up being surprised by anything that goes on in our office but knows I will continue to get a receipt for every single penny I spend while hitching, since no one could argue this is not a business trip. Margarett, my housekeeper, laughed the hardest I've ever heard her (practically in my face) when I confessed my cross-country plans.
Just before I walk out the front door to leave, I look out back and see the fox that lives on my property happily roaming my wooded grounds and take this as a good-luck sign. I turn on the burglar alarm and leave feeling ... well, adventurous. I walk up my small residential street and am relieved that none of my neighbors see me carrying a hitchhiking sign or question why I am on foot carrying an obvious travel bag. I get to the corner of Charles Street and stick out my thumb and hold up my I-70 WEST cardboard sign that Jill designed for me. "Make the letters not too arty and certainly not STOP ME BEFORE I KILL AGAIN scary," I had mentioned, and she has followed instructions well. I don't feel ridiculous, I feel kind of brave.
I can't believe it. The very first car that goes by stops, and I run to hop in. An art-school type dressed in brown jeans and an old Charles Theater T-shirt is behind the wheel of a car so nondescript that I have to ask him what kind it is. "A very used 1999 VW Passat sedan," he answers in the kindest voice imaginable. I feel safe immediately. He doesn't even bat an eye that I'm hitchhiking, even though he recognizes me. "Wow, John Waters. I'm a fan," he announces, low-key. He so respects my privacy he doesn't even ask where I'm headed but offers, "I'm going as far as West Virginia if that's a help." "It sure is," I say, relieved I can avoid the tricky cloverleaf where I-70 West meets the Baltimore Beltway and there's nowhere to stand to bum a ride.
"Did you see Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void?" he asks with the excitement of a real film fanatic. "Of course—the best movie about taking drugs ever!" I answer, so happy he wants to discuss other extreme pictures and not my own. "I like the director's-cut version best," my driver continues, "it's more endless, just like an LSD trip." "I know Gaspar," I offer, "and you'd be surprised after seeing his films, but he's really a sweet guy." "I love fucked-up movies," my fellow film buff enthuses as he turns up the radio, and what's playing? "Hitch Hike" by Marvin Gaye. Unbelievable!
Is it me, or do I smell ganja? I'm a little out of practice as a pothead. I used to smoke grass every day of my life around 1964 to 1972, but now only rarely because it just makes me worry about mundane things. But sometimes, in the summer in Provincetown on a Friday night when I have nothing to do the next day, I'll smoke a little weed and get "launched," as my young friend and part-time pot smoker Frankie calls it when I start ranting and laughing while stoned. And of course I'm a good host—I have a small stash of pot in all my places of residence in case guests might want to smoke. Legal amounts. I hope.
"I'm Harris," he finally introduces himself, and I silently think, that's Divine's real first name, but keep it film-zealot friendly rather than Dreamland focused. Harris is a good-looking guy who seems laid-back, something I have never felt like in my entire life. I'm thrilled my first ride is so seemingly uncomplicated. "Are you a student at Maryland Institute?" I ask, thinking college would be the perfect reason for him to be in Baltimore. "No, I'm in business for myself," he says with a sideways glance that invites all sorts of speculation as we merge onto the Baltimore Beltway headed in the right direction.
"Have you seen Armando Bó's films?" I ask, feeling as if continuing our movie-hound conversation is definitely part of my "payment" as a rider. "I love his movies," Harris yells with enthusiasm as we head west on I-70, already on the first leg of my journey to San Francisco. "Armando's been dead for many years now but he deserves to be honored more," I shout over the music, and my highway host agrees. "That Isabel Sarli was so hot! Those tits were real, you know!" he hollers in mammary mania about the director's onetime mistress and the star of all his films. "And she's still alive!" I shout. "Seventy-five years old! I talked to her on the phone just recently," I brag, and I can tell he's impressed. "You're kidding?" Harris marvels in wide-eyed amazement. "I really did," I answer, holding up my hand to silently swear to God. "A South American trash-film enthusiast hooked us up, and although her English was a little rusty—but way better than my Spanish—I got to gush how much her films, like Fury, Fever, and Fuego, meant to both Divine and me."
"How come you aren't making a movie?" Harris suddenly asks with shy concern. I explain I had a development deal to make Fruitcake, a "terribly wonderful Christmas children's adventure," wrote the script, was about to make it, and then the recession happened, the independent film business as I knew it fell apart, and now all the distributors and film financiers want the budgets to be under $2 million, which I can't do anymore. "Well, I'll back it," he says nonchalantly. "What do you mean?" I sputter, not believing my ears. "You can keep a secret, right?" he whispers conspiratorially. "Sure," I mumble, and I can, especially if it's a good one. "I'm a pot dealer ... don't worry, there's none in the car, it's all on my West Virginia farm, but I've got plenty of cash. How much do you need?" "Five million, give or take," I confide with a chuckle, sure Harris is pulling my leg. "No problem," he says, beaming as if I had just asked him for spare change in Berkeley in the sixties. "But surely you're not serious?" I ask, thinking, how could this be possible? I've been trying to raise this budget unsuccessfully for five years. "It's no big deal," he says as we cross into West Virginia and I feel the thrill of illegal interstate financing. "Maybe we could form a limited partnership like I used to do in the old days," I offer. "Nah," he responds good-naturedly, "I'll just give you the cash and you pay me back if it ever breaks even." Cash?! I think in alarm. Five million dollars in cash?! "Good God, how will I ever explain this to the IRS?!" I ask Harris in bewildered excitement. "The Feds don't ask where you got it, do they?" he replies levelheadedly. "Just pay me back and I'll get the money laundered by a chain of nail salons I'm a silent partner in." "Okay," I say in shock, not wanting to blow the deal if he was possibly serious.
I'm so stunned by my new "business partner" that I don't even notice we've exited the interstate and are now driving on a country road. "We're near," Harris explains as he goes around the block a few times and zigzags back and forth on even smaller rural routes. I guess he's making sure we're not being followed, but I keep my newly green-lit mouth shut.
Finally, we turn off on a beautiful dirt lane with a natural canopy of trees overhead and then veer off on an unmarked long driveway nestled in the hills of northern West Virginia and go about another half mile. Ahead of us is a lovingly restored but not overly yuppified 1850s farmhouse overlooking a pond with a waterfall gently cascading into it. Expansive trees and flowering plants surround the entire idyllic setting. His incredibly striking wife, barefoot already in May and dressed in a pair of fire-engine-red jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt, is watering the potted flowers on the outdoor patio.
"This is Laura," Harris introduces us, "and of course you know John Waters and his films." She smiles a warm welcome and I can't help but notice she smells like pot, too. "I'm going to give him five million dollars to make his new film," he casually mentions, and she doesn't look particularly surprised. "Oh, that's sweet," Laura says, hardly looking up from the pot of black tulips (my favorite kind) she's just placed artfully on an outdoor table. "We've been looking to invest in films for such a long time," she offers happily. I grin but remain silent in stupefaction. "I'll make us some lunch," offers Harris, before trotting off to the main farmhouse to prepare as Laura follows, eager to help.
I just sit there in amazement at my good fortune. This is my first ride and already I'm going to be back in the movie business. Harris and Laura soon return and we feast on delicious chicken salad made from free-range birds that Laura confides she strangled with her own hands just this morning. After a dessert of freshly picked blueberries, Harris carefully folds his cloth napkin ("From Martick's," he proudly announces, a recently closed restaurant much loved by downtown-Baltimore bohemians) and says, "Let's take a walk, John." I eagerly follow him to a remote point of his property, and Harris reveals that we are now going "to dig up the cash." I keep my mouth shut. "Oh, honey," he yells to Laura, "call up that FedEx place and make sure our buddy gets his lazy ass to work. Tell him we got a special shipment coming up."
Harris turns to me and asks gently, "Do you have a FedEx number? If not, we have a dummy one we can use." "We're going to FedEx the money?" I ask in awe, amazed that Harris plans on giving me the money now! "Sure," he replies, "you don't want to carry all that cash with you on your hitchhiking trip, do you?" "Well, no," I stammer, giving him the digits, which I know from memory. "Great," he says, jotting down the account information, "we'll FedEx it directly to your address." On cue, Laura walks like a gazelle down from the house, carrying a stack of flat FedEx boxes ready to be assembled. She has a lovely, serene smile on her lips. Maybe this is the first of their millions they're giving away. You can tell philanthropy brings her a new kind of delight.
Harris grabs a shovel from behind the naturally distressed original barn door and leads me to an even more distant part of his farmland that appears to be overgrown with vines. "Here," he announces as he pulls up several clods of phony earth covered in prop foliage and begins digging. Laura slips on a pair of rubber gloves. Harris hasn't even worked up a sweat before I hear the shovel clink on metal. "Bingo," purrs Laura as she gives me a friendly wink. "Pay dirt," jokes Harris as he begins to hoist up, with his thin but muscled arms, a small industrial safe with a combination lock. Laura hands me the first of the standard large FedEx boxes and gets out a pistol-grip tape dispenser. She quickly notices from my panicked expression that I have no idea how to assemble these boxes and gently takes the packaging back. "That's okay," she whispers gently, "you deserve to be directing, not doing manual labor." Laura snaps the carton together in one swift motion and seals it with tape like Quick Draw McGraw and hands me back the box with the skill of a next-day-delivery artisan. Harris drops the safe to the ground and Laura swiftly dials the combination and I avert my eyes, hoping to not look greedy or, worse yet, sneaky. Harris moves to another spot of earth about thirty feet away, rips up more fake turf, and starts digging again. I hear him whistling "There's No Business Like Show Business" with surprising skill.
"Here you go," Laura says softly to me as she opens the safe door and hands me the first bundle of ten thousand $100 bills, which she assures me totals $1 million. It seems heavy to me but she scoffs mildly and says, "It only weighs about twenty-five pounds. I've had to carry $3 million strapped inside baggy winter clothes at customs, and believe me, that's a backbreaker, but I never complain. Helping keep Americans high is never easy or without toil."
"Here's more cash!" Harris cheerfully announces as he manually raises a duplicate safe from another "grave" in the ground and spins the combination lock like a safecracker supreme. "This ought to pay for a lot of music rights," he chuckles happily to me, holding up the next million dollars in bills. "Won't Johnny Knoxville like getting paid in cash?" Laura asks with a kindness so rare in show business today. "He sure will," I agree, impressed that she is so well-read on my career that she knows whom I want to star in my next film. How we'll handle Johnny's agent in an all-cash deal is something I'll figure out later.
It takes about an hour more, but finally Harris and Laura have dug up three other little safes and unloaded all the do-re-mi into nine large FedEx boxes. I gather this is not putting much of a dent in their nontraditional banking practices. "We trust you," says Harris warmly as he seals the last box. "Yes, we do," adds Laura, with a criminal-capitalist inner peace I'll never forget. "This is our small way of thanking you for all your films," she adds, "and we know Fruitcake will be a hit." "But don't change a thing in the script if you don't want to," Harris pipes in jovially. "We don't care if the film makes us our money back or not." "Come on," announces Laura with excitement, "it's time to get you up to the FedEx place. You've got a hitchhiking trip to go on." "And may all your rides be as prosperous as this first one," adds Harris with financial affection and artistic respect.
I embrace my new non-note-giving movie producers, and Harris and I load all the boxes into the trunk of his vehicle. We get in and wave goodbye to Laura, who is already back to potting her perennials like a serenely demented garden-club enthusiast. Just as we pull off, a black butterfly lands on her shoulder in a Douglas Sirk way, and she returns the farewell gesture with a smile that would put Julia Roberts out of business.
"Did you see Zoo?" Harris suddenly asks once we are on the road, eager to get back to cult-film talk. "Sure," I answer with pride, "that arty true-crime doc about the man who dies after getting fucked by a horse in Seattle. I toured presenting that film—even showed it at the Sydney Opera House." "That's the one," Harris agrees. "I felt for those guys who were involved," he reasons; "it was a sad story but told in a dignified way. Did you believe that animal-rescue worker who when interviewed on film after the zoo guys had left the ranch said she 'saw a small pony come up and give a bigger horse a blow job'? That was bullshit," Harris answers without missing a beat, knowing exactly the scene I was talking about. "I like animals," he continues, "but if that horse had a hard-on and did mount the guy, you can't call the sex act 'nonconsensual,' can you? If an animal gets it up, isn't he willing?"
Before we can finish this debate we pull up to the FedEx drop-off store, amazingly subtitled on the sign out front GOING POSTAL. Harris informs me that this is the only "corrupt" FedEx office in the country and he is their only customer. That he does so much business here keeps it open and off the map of corporate concern.
The clerk inside looks as if he just escaped from a Whole Foods employee jail. His hair is shaved into the FedEx logo, he wears a large nose ring, and "UPS" is tattooed onto his forehead. His onetime DHL delivery uniform has been sewn together with a regular USPS outfit to create the postmodern attire of a mentally unstable but proud letter carrier. His name patch reads RETURN TO SENDER. He and Harris are obviously buddies and greet each other with the hipster fist bump. No questions are asked as I fill out all the second-day-delivery forms, hoping to not seem too eager on the other end. "Done deal," announces Harris as he pulls out a giant doobie and hands it to Return to Sender. I guess it's some kind of tip.
"Thank you, Harris," I say sincerely outside as we get back into his totally unremarkable car. "Don't thank me," he modestly responds as he pulls out into traffic, always careful to obey the posted speed limit, "thank the pot smokers all over the Delmarva area. They're the real ones backing your new movie." With that, he pulls over to an entrance ramp to I-70W and bids me adios. "Here's my contact info," he says, handing me a business card printed on the old kind of "flash paper" that bookies and numbers-racket hoods used to use. I read the PO box number in Triadelphia, West Virginia, and Harris tells me to "read it again and don't forget it." I do. Suddenly with a flash of light the business card ignites, turns to ash, and disappears. "Happy trails," Harris says as I open the door to get out (suddenly a working film director again) and stick out my thumb. Harris accelerates and, looking at me in his rearview mirror, waves one last time just as he sees me getting immediately picked up by my next ride. And it's only 2:30 p.m.
Copyright © 2014 by John Waters