Do you recall the moment when you got the idea for Carsick?
When I thought up the idea, I was afraid to tell my agent, because I knew he’d go for it and call the publisher. At that point, I didn’t want them to say, “Yes,” because I didn’t know if I had the nerve to actually go through with it. He said he wouldn’t tell the publisher, but he did and called back the next saying they would do it—so that made it even scarier. Then, I got half the advance, which I put into an account and didn’t touch one penny of it, because I didn’t know what would happen on the trip.
But I’d hitchhiked when I was young. My mother dropped Pat Moran and I off at the Beltway so we could hitchhike to Provincetown. Back then, hitchhiking wasn’t thought of as bad. In private schools, all the kids hitchhiked home with their lacrosse sticks after school. And I’ve hitchhiked in Provincetown a lot over the past 10 years, because I hitchhike to the beach—although that’s different, because people recognize me. It was like hailing a limousine, to be honest. I’ve hitchhiked in Baltimore a few times in a blizzard when I couldn’t get anywhere, and I’ve hitchhiked home from Penn Station when there were no cabs. So I’d gotten my training wheels.
You know, I believe in the goodness of people, and everything I believed in came true. And thank god I wrote the part imagining all the good that could happen before I left, because I could have never thought that up if I had already done it.
You wrote those sections, imagining the best and worst that could happen, before you left?
Yes. I finished writing about my death two days before I left. I just barely got it finished. You know, it was easy to say abstractly that I was going to do this, but the day I walked out of here… [shakes his head] I never felt more like a moron than when I was standing in the rain at the end of my street trying to get that first ride. There were no cars! I just stood there in the rain for two hours.
My assistants, Susan and Trish, did a huge amount of research on this book before I went. We identified what would be the most moderate week, in terms of temperature, along Route 70. And, yes, the temperatures were moderate, but we forgot that it rains all the time. So for the first two days, I was standing out there in the kind of weather where they issue flood warnings. I couldn’t believe it.
How many days were you on the road?
Nine. It would have been longer, except for the Corvette Kid [who gave rides at the beginning and end of the trip]. As I got further west, it was easier to get rides. You don’t want to go near a city, because congested areas are the worst—people just aren’t driving very far. I had to learn all that. The best places to get rides were places that didn’t have fast food restaurants, just a little park area, bathrooms, and vending machines. At those kind of places, people tended to be driving longer distances, so they’d stop and linger, maybe walk their dog. They even exited at a slower speed, so it was easier for them to spot me. The only problem with those places is if you get there at the end of the day, and it’s dark and scary.
Did you ever feel threatened?
Never. But, at one point, I thought it was going to take a year. I had given myself two weeks, and I had a flight booked from San Francisco to New York, so I could accept a fashion award for Johnny Depp and Rei Kawakuba onstage at Lincoln Center. So I had to get back from hitchhiking to do that! Early in the trip, I was scared I wouldn’t make it, because getting rides was harder than I thought it would be. But who would ever think a cop would pick me up? And so many things happened that were really nice.
What sort of people gave you rides?
The people who pick up hitchhikers tend to be people who have survived something, who don’t play by the rules and are ballsy. But nobody hitchhikes today. I saw one other hitchhiker the entire time. And I was riding with the Corvette Kid and said, “Don’t pick him up.” I know, but I didn’t feel like riding with him, because he didn’t look like he’d be fun.
Did people recognize you?
Sometimes. But saying I was John Waters didn’t work a lot of the time. Some people certainly weren’t impressed, though they were nice about it. Overall, it didn’t really help me. You gotta take the rides you get, and you’ll get into anything. You are so down when you’re just standing there that it’s exhilarating when somebody stops. You’re just so glad to be covering ground.
I was struck that even on the road you were singing for your supper, sort of like your standup show.
I felt like a phone sex worker. Many people took me further than where they were going, because I was telling them stories. They also took me further to get me to a better drop-off area or to help me. People want to talk. They don’t pick up a hitchhiker to be silent.
Did you get a sense of attitudes in Middle America?
The people who picked me up were hopeful. The men all said how much they loved their wives. They all talked about how great their wives are, how smart they are, and how much they love them. So I tell all these women who say they can’t find straight men, “Go to Route 70!” No gay people that I know of picked me up. A few women driving alone picked me up, but it was mostly men. I think a lot of them figured I was gay, though I didn’t say I was. It seemed like they had all suffered some in their lives. They had beat something, and they were on the road feeling good and adventuresome.
Is that why they’re compelled to stop? They could relate to a guy by the side of the road?
I think they felt bad for me. People thought I was an old man down on his luck, and they were kind. They were just kind people that wanted to help. The 80-year old hay farmer who picked me up was so sweet, and I learned from him about spontaneous combustion in barns and that if you give pigs M&Ms they’ll follow you around. And I know he did not believe me for one minute when I told him I made movies. And he tried to give me money. In fact, a lot people tried to give me money. I was so touched by that.
I was struck by your willingness to make friends and your disappointment when it wasn’t reciprocated—like, in restaurants, if someone simply ignored you.
I can make friends. I like people, and I like hearing their stories. But those [motel] breakfast rooms were the worst. People wouldn’t even make eye contact. Eating dinner by myself at Applebee’s was the worst. And I looked, for me, fairly normal. I looked like an old person. I’d clean up when I went out to eat, but after being out on the road for 10 hours, I’d look in the mirror and think, “My god, no wonder nobody picks me up.” I was weather-beaten and had hitchhiking face, beyond the call of moisturizer. I looked like someone in a Walker Evans photograph.
Have you kept in touch with any of the people you met?
The Corvette Kid and his girlfriend came to my Christmas party. The band Here We Go Magic had dinner at my house in San Francisco. The young couple that I said look like Manson kids—she just had a baby and named it after me. The Kansas couple told me they were going to hitchhike to Baltimore for the [June 12th] book signing at Atomic Books. I don’t know if they were kidding or not. We’ll see.
You must have been amazed when the Corvette Kid drove across the country to give you a ride.
But he’s 20 years old! I did so much crazy shit when I was 20. What did he have to lose? When he first spotted me on Route 70, he was on his way to get his lunch at Subway. He did it for the adventure: good for him. He’d never been to California. But we realized that the two of us travelling together looked weird. His friends were like, “Way to go. You’re with a gay man in a motel in Las Vegas. Great.” And you can imagine what his parents thought. If you Google me, it’s not good. People thought that part of the trip was so bizarre, but why wouldn’t he do it? There wasn’t anything hidden. He was just a fun kid, and it was like we were in some reality show.
This book would make an excellent movie.
Here’s how I think it could be a movie. What really happened is the movie, and while I’m waiting for rides, I imagine the good and bad rides while I’m standing there. I never imagined how horribly long I’d have to wait for a ride. Even in the bad chapters, where I’m imagining the worst, I never wrote about having to wait for 10 hours!
Ultimately, what do you think of hitchhiking now?
I encourage people to hitchhike. It forces you to give up control, and it’s a liberating experience. Now, my life is so scheduled that I practically know what I’m doing every day for the next year. It was scary to give that up, but it was an adventure.
I’m never going to hitchhike across America again, but I know I could do it.
It made me want to drive across the country with some friends. It’s an incredible trip. I did all five [cross-country] routes when I was young, during the hippie years. It’s so beautiful. Kansas is amazing and so is going across the Rockies. It’s amazing to actually see it all.