John Waters Is Not a Poppers Pig


By Aaron Hicklin

What do you keep in your freezer? Vodka? Coffee? Maybe some ice cream. John Waters uses his to store poppers. Boxes and boxes of them. 'Would you like some?' he asks, striding over to the kitchen in his Manhattan pied-'-terre and retrieving a bottle of them, the way other people might offer guests a soda. 'I made a giant bottle of Rush for my last art show, and the owner of the poppers company sent me a lifetime supply,' he confesses. 'It's really embarrassing 'cause I forget when people go to get ice and they see, like, a case of poppers.' He emulates an unsuspecting house guest recoiling in horror. 'Oh, my God, he's a poppers pig!' This picturesque expression prompts another tale. 'My friend told me the worst story,' he says. 'He went home with somebody that really was a poppers pig, who came out of the bedroom with a mask on that was hooked to a bottle of poppers so that he could give blowjobs and breathe poppers at the same time!' Waters laughs. 'I'm afraid people think that's what I am when they look in the freezer and don't say anything.'

John Waters is a terrifically entertaining storyteller, delighted by human foibles, and one of the least misanthropic people you can hope to meet. In his new book, Role Models -- a series of digressions on people who inspire him -- he claims to have been an angry child, but it's hard to imagine anyone less angry these days. 'I always say it's really great to be mad when you're 20, but if you're 60 and mad you're an asshole,' he says. 'You can bitch about your parents until you're 30; after that, shut up.'

His own parents seem to have spent a good part of their lives abetting their freakish -- and freakishly talented -- son, even if they didn't approve of his antics. Waters's father, who died last year, even fronted the money for Pink Flamingos, thereby doing more than anyone to facilitate his son's lifelong war on taste. (He did, however, draw the line at watching it.) His mother played her part, too, shuttling her son to Martick's, a bar in downtown Baltimore where he would stand outside chatting to the delinquents and fruitcakes that would later populate his movies. 'No matter how nuts I was, my parents made me feel safe, and that -- psychologically -- is the only thing you can do for your kid,' says Waters, trying to pin down the distance that separates his brand of lunacy from a cult like the Manson Family, whose hideous, theatrical, and deadly spree grabbed his attention in the summer of 1969 and never quite let go. He was working at the Provincetown Bookshop at the time and remembers being astonished by the physical resemblance of Manson's gang to his own. Was this just a twisted through-the-wardrobe version of his own social circle?

The comparison is not as outlandish as it first appears, and has since been sharpened by Waters's friendship with Leslie Van Houten -- 'one of those notorious 'Manson girls' who shaved their heads, carved X's in their foreheads, and laughed, joked, and sang their way though the courthouse.' In a lengthy, compassionate chapter in Role Models, Waters makes a strong case for her parole, while offering a mea culpa for lampooning the Manson murders in his early movies 'without the slightest feeling for the victims' families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids.' That mea culpa includes Multiple Maniacs, which he made just before the murder trial, and Pink Flamingos, which he made right after. In Maniacs, Divine even taunts David Lochary's character, Mr. David, with the line, 'How about Sharon Tate? How about that? Had yourself a real ball that night, didn't you?' Pink Flamingos is dedicated to three of the Manson women.