Wearing a black suit with light blue seersucker sleeves and pockets, a white shirt buttoned tightly around his neck, black-and-white stripped socks, grey camouflage slip-on sneakers, and his signature pencil thin mustache, John Waters sits next to a vase of red roses adorned with a bow as he signs copies of his new book, Role Models, at Atomic Books in Hampden.
Greeting more than 300 hometown fans, the 64-year-old “Pope of Trash” is in his element, signing everything from a National Bohemian beer can and sex toys to X-rays of a man’s broken legs (the guy literally crawled into the store from his wheelchair) — even a baseball, though Waters quips, “I hate sports.”
The faces of those shuffling into the small independent bookstore on this muggy night range from young to old, bedraggled to refined, all united in reverence for a living, breathing Baltimore treasure. Two elderly women waiting in line were Waters’s neighbors of nearly 17 years when he lived near Druid Hill Park. A young family that now lives in Waters’s childhood home in Lutherville is here, too.
When the signing wraps up, Waters looks satisfied. New York is the next stop on his book tour, but he says Baltimore has given him the best turnout thus far. Is he ever surprised by who comes out to meet him? “Yes,” Waters says, but not because of the obscene or outrageous. “The older I get, the younger my audience seems to get,” he says. “And that’s wealth, I think. Not anything to do with money but the crossover, the fact that my work has lasted. That’s wealth.”
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When you think of Baltimore, you often think of John Waters. The 64-year-old cult filmmaker has secured the title of legend in his hometown and for anyone born and raised here it’s a thrilling experience to meet the local, world-known celebrity. So it seems only fitting that I was giddy with excitement when I secured one of my first assignments as an editorial intern at Baltimore magazine covering a John Waters book signing at Atomic Books in Hampden earlier this month.
The signing for Waters’ new book, Role Models, was set for Saturday but before then I was in New York earlier in the week with my mother and a friend showing an Italian relative the city. After a slew of sightseeing and a stroll through Central Park, which soon became a quest to figure out how the hell to get out of that maze of twisty pathways, we were walking down 5th Avenue among throngs of summer tourists when I spotted a man with a pencil thin mustache about 20 feet away coming towards us.
Dressed in a pinstripe suit with a white shirt buttoned tightly around his neck and carrying a brown leather brief case, it was the Pope of Trash himself. I stopped and turned to my mother, alerting her like some kind of ship’s lookout about who we were about to run into. “Mr. Waters!” she said. “Baltimore natives!” I said. Waters said hello and smiled and went on his way. The encounter lasted only a few seconds, but was one of the highlights of our trip. For a couple of Baltimore tourists it was surreal to run into our hometown movie maker in a city as large as the Big Apple, let alone when I would be interviewing him in 48 hours.
When I did talk to Waters on Saturday at Atomic Books he remembered the couple of excitable Baltimoreans from earlier in the week in New York. Despite the fact that Waters splits his time between several different cities, he remains the man from Baltimore who has made a career pushing the envelope of good taste. Seeing him walk through the hordes of people on 5th Avenue that day, many seemed oblivious to who they were walking next to: The Prince of Puke, the Pope of Trash, the man who brought us Pink Flamingos and Hairspray and forever changed what was acceptable to show in movies.
To them he may have just been a peculiar looking man who is one of the last on earth to sport a pencil thin mustache. But to us and the rest of Baltimore, he will always be one of our own, no matter what city he’s in.