Photos by Philip Hoare
If you ask John Waters, Provincetown has become too dog-friendly.
“I’m more radical than PETA. I think dogs should be loose, running in packs downtown, jumping over the fence and biting everyone at tea dance — not in some S/M relationship,” Waters says. He produces a small plastic box embossed with the words barkstopper, ordered from an ad in the National Enquirer for $5, that supposedly produces a high-frequency sound.
“I always have fresh batteries in it, and it’s with me all the time,” he says.
We are seated at the kitchen table in Waters’s studio attic apartment, where the windows look out from gray-shingled walls onto the thin midday light of the harbor. On one wall, between a Nan Goldin self-portrait and a 1966 screen print advertising Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable in Provincetown, is a more obscure relic from the old days — a framed medical license he picked up at a flea market.
“That was the doctor in town that gave everyone diet pills in the ’60s. I was 6 foot 1 and 130, and I said, ‘I need to lose weight.’ And he’d give me Black Beauties, the strongest biphetamine pills, which kept you up for three days. And then you’d go back in a few days and say, ‘I lost them,’ and he’d give you a hundred more,” he says, giggling. “I love Dr. Hebert. He was like Marcus Welby, M.D. He didn’t know he turned half the town into speed freaks. During those years, people were talking a lot in Provincetown, cleaning their apartments a lot.”
Waters, the 68-year-old artist, author, and filmmaker, is taking me on his idea of a perfect Provincetown date — a tick-infested swamp about 10 miles out. He’s notorious for keeping to a schedule. He rises at 5:59 each morning to read the papers — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Post, and the Daily News. At 8 o’clock, he starts work — “I have to think up something fucked-up every day” — and at noon he phones his office in Baltimore for a meeting with his staff.
Before the swamp, our first order of business, at 12:30, is to drive through town redistributing the newspapers.
To probably no one’s surprise, the leafy, crumbling front yard where Waters collects his morning papers also serves as his elderly landlady’s pet cemetery.
“I call her Mrs. Puente,” he says, a reference to the 1980s Sacramento serial killer who murdered her elderly male tenants in a boarding house and cashed their Social Security checks. “I nearly fell into an open grave this morning. She was burying another cat.”
This is Waters’s 50th summer in Provincetown, where he is a strict Memorial Day to Labor Day resident. “I’ve been here in the winter,” he says. “I think it’s beautiful, but it’s not for me. But I get how that could appeal to two kinds of people, the ones who love to be alone and the alcoholics.”
After barely graduating high school, in 1964, Waters, with his then-girlfriend, hitchhiked to Provincetown from Baltimore and found a room to rent on Bradford Street. “That first night, our landlord tried to fuck us,” he says.
“First thing we always did when we got here was steal a bike, paint it, and then you had your bike for the summer.”
The next year, he lived in a tree fort on the edge of town with Boston-area gay radical Prescott Townsend, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Flo-Ann, among others.
“It was the most freedom I ever had in my life, living there.”
He got a job at the East End Bookshop, run by the late Molly Malone Cook and her girlfriend, Mary Oliver, the future Pulitzer Prize–winning poet.
“Molly encouraged being rude to customers. The customer was always wrong. People would ask for books, and she’d say, ‘Oh God!’ ” Waters says.
On Commercial Street in Waters’s gold sedan, we creep through a swell of tourists disembarking the ferry from Boston, roller bags in tow, proceeding onward as if on a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
“The sign of an amateur,” Waters says. “Take your rotten luggage to Bradford Street. That’s backstage.”
It’s the start of Bear Week, one of the more tolerated themed weeks. “I like it, and the town likes it, because they buy three entrées and they tip. But they’re getting fatter. It used to be chunky, but now it’s 700-pound people. Divine died because of that, so I have to say, ‘Be careful, boys.’
“Are there bear children?” Waters muses. “I’ve never seen a hairy little tyke scarfin’ honey.”
He pulls over and dashes into a gallery to drop off the day’s Journal and USA Today for his art dealer. Then it’s down to MAP, a shop owned by his friend Pauline Fisher, where he plops the tabloids onto the counter.
A few feet away, a young couple thumbing through a stack of books give Waters the side eye.
“Yes. Steve Buscemi,” Waters says, nodding.
Until recently, every day at 1 p.m., after his paper route, Waters hitchhiked to Longnook (he now drives), sometimes bringing along friends like Patty Hearst and Kembra Pfahler to sunbathe for exactly 30 minutes. Years of this gave him the training wheels for his latest book, Carsick, a New York Times best seller, which follows his 2012 hitchhiking voyage from Baltimore to San Francisco.
It’s Friday, Waters’s night to drink. Later he’ll have dinner with his friend Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author, who also just returned from a book tour. Then it’s off to Grotta Bar, a staple for Provincetown’s local celebrities and illustrious misfits, for “Scream Along With Billy,” a weekly performance by the writer and musician Billy Hough. Here Waters also throws an annual party with his friend Frankie Rice. This year it’s called “Protective Custody.”
“Then I go to the straight bars because I think they’re funnier. And I’m for minorities.” He points to the Underground, on Commercial Street, as we pass by. “I like that place. It’s townies with a bad attitude, gay people that don’t fit in anywhere else, scary girls.”
Further down Route 6, we’ve reached the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail. The entrance is marked with a sign, CAUTION TICK INFESTED AREA. NO PETS.
“Who would come down here after seeing that sign?” says Waters. “It’s not exactly welcoming, but it is very romantic if you get past the fear of ticks.”
Down the wood plank trail, two lounging young women perk up.
“Oh, my God. John Waters,” one says.
“How’d you hear about this place?” Waters asks.
“We’re making a dance here at 3:30.”
“With ticks? Be careful!”
“When you see someone else here, it’s awkward,” Waters says to me.
Is he currently involved with someone? “Kind of, yes. But it’s a complicated question,” he says. He’s been on two real dates here — “good dates.”
“I don’t go for people who want to be famous or are in show business,” he says. “I like people who are in totally other worlds.”
We stroll through the bony forest of saltwater-scorched trees, sunlight peeking in from the branches and onto the undulating moss-covered soil. It’s very theatrical.
Waters says, “I’m really just taking you down here to kill you.”