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The Daddy of Depravity

John Waters teaches a master class on petty crime and civilized misbehavior.

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When I briefly attended college in Columbia, Missouri, ten years ago, I fell in with a group of townies who called themselves D.L. Punks, the initials standing for Desperate Living, the title of John Waters's gritty and murderous 1978 fairy tale. The "punk" part wasn't what it means today: no bondage pants made with sweatshop labor and purchased at the mall, no $100 Mohawks, no pierced eyebrows, no hardcore music, no Food Not Bombs meetings. To us punk meant a sort of Dumpster-dived glamour, a scrounged-together existence somewhere between industrious (build-your-own-furniture nights, where we took apart chairs and tables and made them into more dangerous items) and medicated (BYOR stand-up improv nights where the R meant Robitussin).

We carried photocopied Punk Passports we'd made, which allowed us to "participate in punk events/activities," "roam streets freely in a punkish air," and "attend punk council meetings." On the backs we kept track of our individual "punk points." I started with minus one for keeping my zines in pristine condition and ended up with plus one for having taped a local band off the college radio station back when I still lived in the college dorms. I still have my Punk Passport, which I'm sure is grounds for revocation.

I never asked the D.L. Punks why they chose that name. Best I can guess, since they weren't a wild pack of lesbians, is that they likened themselves to the residents of Mortville, bawdy criminals who eventually rebel against their insufferable queen.

John Waters came to Chicago last Friday to speak at Columbia College. Only 300 students--plus about a dozen media people and guests, including me--were able to go; tickets were free and dispensed on a first-come, first-served basis. Waters is exactly who I would've liked to have gotten advice from when I was in college--at the least he probably could've given me ten better reasons to drop out than the one I came up with, which was that the lighting was all wrong.

Waters began with his "early negative artistic influences." He said, "All young people need someone bad to look up to." Amen. For him, the holy trinity was the Wicked Witch of the West, the murderous child in The Bad Seed, and Captain Hook. "I prayed to them every night," he said.

"I could never understand The Wizard of Oz as a child--why Dorothy wants to go home in the end back to a smelly farm with a badly dressed aunt. She could live with monkeys and magic shoes and gay lions. I was the only one at the end, when she was clicking her heels, who was sobbing.

"We gotta teach kids it's cool to be poor," he continued. "When I was young I wanted to kill the rich, not be rich. I try to explain to them about welfare fraud. It's easy: You just go in and say, 'We don't have any money, and we have diseases, and we want to eat.' And they will give you emergency food vouchers, and then you have dinner parties. You can buy $200 worth of crabmeat with emergency food vouchers, and you see the woman behind you in line going, 'Oh my God!' freaking out. It's really fun!"

(Once when my friends in Missouri pooled their food stamps, the guy who was delegated to buy the week's groceries blew the whole wad on two enormous boxes of gourmet raspberry jelly beans.)

Waters waxed nostalgic about juvenile delinquents and that good old American teenage pastime, shoplifting. "We were really good at it," he said. "I had a special jacket for albums. I don't feel so guilty, because all the records I've stolen I used in my movies, and now I have to pay $25,000 each to put them in sound tracks, so they got their money back. It just took 40 years. When I was stealing the best thing I did was once [a security guard] saw me stealing, so I put it back. But she didn't see me put it back, so I walked outside and she arrested me and I sued and got $3,000." He said Divine was especially talented at stealing. "I saw him walk out of a store once with a chain saw and a TV."

But now, he said, "nobody shoplifts anymore. It seems old hat. What they do is dropping. Now, that's not mopping. Mopping is when drag queens just smash a window and steal a Valentino dress and run. Dropping is when you go to the worst thrift shop and buy the ugliest, stained, out-of-fashion thing and then sneak into Gucci and put it on the hanger and put it in the window and take a picture and run. I think it's great. I don't even know if it's illegal. It's kind of making a donation. It's shoplifting in reverse. Women fume in the high-fashion world when they see their window has been ruined by a stained maternity outfit."

He expressed disgust for the drugs kids do these days. "Ecstasy: a drug that makes you love everybody? That sounds like hell to me. And I don't have the outfit for a K-Hole. . . . What I like is poppers. That's my kind of drug. I still take them. Some days, a boring day, a special day at work, I can go upstairs and do a hit, spin around in my office chair--whee!"

And he gave us a nice idea for a hex: if you want to jinx someone, he said, "when they leave the room, just quickly lick their chair. And then they come back and they sit down and then something bad will happen to them. It really works." That's so much more civilized than my old MO: just peeing on stuff.

He left us with some final tips on causing a ruckus: "If you have a local politician voting against gay marriage, just send the skankiest drag queens to his house to yell fashion insults to his wife. Or get a bunch of crystal-meth freaks and have 'em hide in the woods and have 'em jump out and scare a pack of Boy Scouts. They deserve it."

I got the feeling he was exaggerating, that he might not have meant everything he said, but it was OK--he was just trying to rile up the kids. And, really, what could be more important than that?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mireya Acierto.

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