John Waters | Paul Holdengräber
June 4, 2014
LIVE from the New York Public Library
Celeste Bartos Forum
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Good evening! (applause) Good evening. My name is Paul Holdengräber. I’m the Director of Public Programs here at the New York Public Library, known as LIVE from the New York Public Library. As all of you know, my goal here at the Library is to make the lions roar, to make a heavy institution dance, and when successful to make it levitate. After my conversation with John Waters, which will last about as long as a psychoanalytical session if your shrink is generous, (laughter) you will have the opportunity of asking good questions. (laughter) There will be a mike right here so that you can look John Waters in the eye.
Now, without further ado, let me introduce John Waters, who, as you know, was described by William Burroughs as the “Pope of Trash.”
JOHN WATERS: Thank you very much. This book, I’m going to read one chapter, but I kind of want to put it in context a little bit. The book is obviously about hitchhiking, and the first chapter of the book is fiction, where I imagine the very fifteen best rides that I could imagine and then I do the very fifteen worst rides, which ends in my murder, and then the last third is when I do the trip for real, which is twenty-one rides. This is a good ride, but one of my assistants said to me, “I can’t tell the difference between the good and the bad.” (laughter) This is good ride number 9, Bernice. And I’m halfway through the trip.
The sun is coming up and there’s no such thing as rush-hour traffic in this part of the country but, yet again (!), the very first car that approaches pulls over. The problem is, how do I get in? The entire vehicle, a beat-up yellow eighties Chevy Citation, is completely filled with books—every kind imaginable—hardbacks, trade paperbacks, but especially mass-market editions, some missing their covers. The passenger seat is piled so high I can’t even see who’s behind the wheel. Slowly, like a jigsaw puzzle being assembled in reverse, I see a face as she throws the books in the back, under the seats, even in her lap. “Sorry,” the rather haggard-looking woman in her late sixties, with the weakest chin I’ve ever seen in my life, mutters, “I like to read.”
“I can see that,” I answer good-naturedly as I jump in, pick books off my seat, and then pile them back in my lap. “I like to read, too,” I say, taking a gander at the eye-popping cover art of the vintage sex paperback Teen Girls Who Are Assaulted by Animals. (laughter) “This one is amazing,” I say, wondering what the editorial meeting at the publisher could have been like (laughter) to green-light this title. Here’s a niche audience I hadn’t imagined. “All books are amazing,” she corrects me with a passion. “Are you a librarian?” I ask cheerfully, knowing, after being the keynote speaker for several of their conferences, how wild librarians can be. (laughter) “Not officially . . . ,” she answers with practiced bravery. “I was . . . ,” she confides, “and then something happened and I wasn’t.” (laughter) Oh. “I’m John,” I introduce myself, trying to change the subject away from her obviously painful past. “They call me Bernice,” she answers without fanfare, “and I read your last book. I loved the chapter ‘Bookworm,’ but you’re too ‘literarily correct’ for my tastes.”
Before I can stick up for my published reading recommendations, she suddenly brakes for a car that swerves around some tire rubble on the highway, and a huge pile of cheap paperbacks stacked pack-rat style in the backseat collapses on top of me. I pick off Saddle Shoe Sex Kitten, (laughter) Some Like It Hard, (laughter) and Freakout on Sunset Strip, with the amazing politically incorrect subtitle Fags, Freaks and the Famous Turn the Street into a Hippy Hell.
“They’re not for me,” she explains as she pulls off I-70 onto a rural road; “they’re for my book club readers.” Before I can protest that I can’t go off the interstate, she tells me, “Don’t worry, I’ll take you back to the highway.” We cut back into an even less traveled country road, turn the corner, and see a Tobacco Road–style hut constructed entirely out of paperback books missing their front covers. The owner has shellacked the books to make them semi-weatherproof, but the elements have not been kind—the volumes, soaked through many times from rain, are swollen, tattered, and can’t offer much in way of protection. “Publishers don’t want cheap paperbacks returned when they don’t sell,” Bernice explains. “The newsstand managers are supposed to rip off the covers and turn those in to get their refund. The retail outlets are expected to then just throw away the books, but I rescue them from this biblioclasm and redistribute the volumes to alternative readers at the lowest end of the used-book market. I know it’s hard to imagine, but a few very dedicated collectors only want books with torn-off covers. It’s these specialized readers I serve. I am not alone. Flea-market vendors, paper-recycling workers, relatives of deceased dirty-book collectors, we are united in a mission to do what libraries cannot: bring the customer the lowest of the low in literature.”
“Ah, there’s Cash,” she says as a skinny, grubby fortyish-year-old white guy with a potbelly and a Prince Valiant haircut comes out of his self-styled reading room. I quickly realize by “Cash” she means her customer’s name, not actual money. Her books are, of course, free. “Cash is a very specific customer,” she explains. “His books must be soft-core and pre-porn, with a missing cover done by a collectible artist. He then actually reads these smutty volumes, writes endless critiques of the writer’s style, which he never allows anyone else to read, and then uses the ‘read’ book as a building block for another room in his shantytown abode.”
“Hi, Bernice,” shouts Cash in some sort of regional accent too obscure for me to identify. “Hello, sir,” she says with a literary grin, “this is my friend John.” Cash completely ignores me, so Bernice just goes into her routine. “I got some good ones for you today,” she promises as Cash’s eyes light up and he licks his lips in anticipation. “Here you go,” she says, “She’ll Get Hers by John Plunkett.” “With a missing cover by Rafael de Soto,” Cash yells back with postmodern literary enthusiasm. “I remember that one, Cash,” Bernice reminisces like the true pro that she is; “that was great pulp art but it’s gone now!” “Who wants to go to an art gallery?! I want to read!” yells Cash as he grabs the volume and hugs it to his chest in literary fetishism. “How about this one?” tempts Bernice, holding up a yellow paperback with both the front and the back binding ripped off. “Remember the pulp jacket with the sexy lady on the couch clutching the pillow like her lover?” she quizzes. “Restless by Greg Hamilton,” Cash shouts back like he’s on a quiz show, “with cover art by Paul Rader. And I’m glad the cover is gone. (laughter) I read these books, Bernice, I don’t look at them! I read every word until I understand perfectly what the author was saying just to me, the last reader these volumes will ever have.” Bernice hands him the damaged volume and he grabs it with scary gratitude. “See you next Thursday, Cash,” Bernice promises, and with that, we’re back in the car and off to the next outsider reader.
“I’m no judge of what people read as long as they read,” explains Bernice once we’re on the road. “Are all your books dirty ones?” I ask with great curatorial respect. “No,” she answers, “I’ve got true crime ones, too. A lot of libraries won’t carry the really gruesome ones. Just like bookstores, they discriminate—putting the true crime sections way in the back of the store. Hidden. Near the gay section.” (laughter) Before I can agree she gives me a sudden look of traumatic desperation that stops me in my tracks. “Believe me,” she whispers sadly as we suddenly pull into the driveway of a suburban ranch house, “I know about censorship.”
Out comes Mrs. Adderly, a most unlikely matron true crime reader still dressed in her housecoat. “Hi, Bernice. I’m glad you’re here. I got in a fight down at the library just yesterday. They take my taxes, why can’t I have a say in what books the library buys?” “Hi, I’m John,” I butt in. “I thought the library had to get you a book if you ask for it.” “Oh, they say they do,” Mrs. Adderly answers without missing a beat, “but they lie! I happen to be obsessed with ‘womb raiders.’ Are you familiar with that genre?” (laughter) she asks me point-blank. “You mean women who tell their husbands they’re pregnant when they’re not and then follow real pregnant ones, kill them, cut out their babies and take them home claiming they’ve just given birth?” I reply. “That’s the ones,” acknowledges Bernice, (laughter) impressed I’m so well-informed by this specialized field. “Well, I read Lullaby and Goodnight by D. T. Hughes,” Mrs. Adderly continues, “but there’s another one I want. Hush Little Baby, by Jim Carrier, where the ‘raider’ cuts out the baby with her mother’s car keys and the baby actually lives! Well, this literary snob of a librarian says to me when I ask if she has that book, ‘There’s no need to know about something that ugly.’”
“Yes, there is!” I yell in outrage, completely agreeing with Mrs. Adderly’s anger. “The public needs to know,” I rant, “that when you’re pregnant, strangers are following your every step, ready to jump out and cut out your baby with car keys! (laughter) Womb raiders are everywhere.” “Exactly!” agrees Mrs. Adderly, thrilled to have someone else in her corner. Bernice gets a sly grin on her face and whips out a mint-condition bound galley of this very title and hands it over. “Oh, Bernice,” Mrs. Adderly gushes, “you know how to make a true crime buff happy. Thank you from the bottom of my black little heart.”
We’re off. I’m impressed. Bernice turns on the radio and we hear that delightful little country song “Swingin’ Down the Lane” by Jerry Wallace and merrily sing along, harmonizing over the instrumental bridge between the verses. I continue picking through the books on the floor by my feet and laugh at One Hole Town, a hilariously titled soft-core vintage gay stroke book. “You want that one?” she asks with generosity. “Sure,” I say, mentally adding this rare title to my collection of cheesy gay-sex paperbacks. “It would go right along with my ‘chicken’ volumes,” I tell her. “You mean titles with the word chicken in them?” she asks immediately, understanding my oddball bibliophile specialty. “Yes, I’ve got Uncle’s Little Chicken, Trickin’ the Chicken, Chicken for Hardhat, even Chain Gang Chicken.” (laughter) “I know them well,” she announces with bibliographic respect.
“And you, Bernice,” I gently pry, “what kind of terrible books do you collect?” She freezes, suddenly protective of her most private scholarly taste, but then seems eager to have someone to whom she can confide. “The novelization of porn parody movies,” she admits with great pride. (laughter) “It’s a small genre, but one that is growing in importance,” she explains with deep knowledge of her field. “I tried to introduce these specialized volumes to the general public when I was head librarian in my hometown of Eagle. But Colorado is such a backward state! Trouble started as soon as I displayed Splendor in the Ass (laughter) and Homo Alone with the covers out instead of spine in. Busybody little prudes noticed and made a big deal out of it, but I stood against censorship. Porn parody titles need to be discovered and celebrated. I was vilified in both the local and national press, but I didn’t care! I fought back! I passed out valuable, extremely rare copies of Clitty Clitty Bang Bang (laughter) to any high school reader in the library who asked for it. Satire needs to be taught! These youngsters loved Clitty but I was fired! I called the Kids’ Rights to Read and the National Coalition Against Censorship organizations, but they wouldn’t help me. I became a scapegoat for the humor-impaired.”
Before I can offer my unbridled support, she pulls her car over to the I-70W entrance ramp and we are buried in sliding paperback books. With great concern and kindness she asks gently, “Do you have the Twelve Inches series?” “Yes,” I murmur in excitement, trying to stack Bernice’s volumes back up in some kind of order. “I’ve got Twelve Inches, Twelve Inches with a Vengeance, and Twelve Inches Around the World.” (laughter) “But do you have Twelve Inches in Peril?” she demands with excitement, whipping the title out from inside her glove compartment and holding it up like the Holy Grail. “No!” I shout with rabid delight, quivering in literary excitement. We look at each other in our love of disreputable books and she hands it over, completing my collection. “Thank you, Bernice,” I say in heartfelt appreciation, caressing this title like a sexual partner. “You must go now, John,” she says with sudden concern. “I can’t be exposed. My readers will continue to hide me. They know. They know I’m the best damn alternative librarian in the country.” “You should be proud, Bernice,” I say as I get out, bow in respect, and blow her a kiss good-bye. “Run,” she says with urgency; “run to read!” (laughter)
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What a pleasure.
JOHN WATERS: Thank you. I own all those books for real. They’re all real books.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: But tell me, since you’re talking about owning books, what are some of the more unknown objects in your collection that you could reveal?
JOHN WATERS: Well, I have things. People give me great stuff. I have the guest list to Rock Hudson’s funeral with everyone’s address.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Of what use is that?
JOHN WATERS: Private excitement. (laughter) I have Ike Turner’s will. (laughter) I have a lot of good stuff. I collect the novelization of movies, I collect—which is really a despised genre. But there are certain stores now. There’s a great one in San Francisco called KAYO Books that is beautifully curated and they collect uncollectable books. They have books about flight attendants. No, stewardesses books. You know, which you’re never allowed to say that word anymore. And so I don’t know, I collect books that most people wouldn’t have. But I collect regular books, too, but I have special sections, let’s say.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And you have special places in the various homes you have where you put books.
JOHN WATERS: Yeah, I know where everything is, sort of. Yeah. But it’s filled everywhere. It is like I’m a hoarder. But they’re in shelves, it’s not like they’re piled up. Well, in some places they’re piled up.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You’re a hoarder or more a collector?
JOHN WATERS: Well, a collector, but there’s a thin line as we know when it goes into insanity, right. But I still read all the books I buy, I don’t buy them and not read them. The porn title ones I keep out for art. It’s just the covers, you know, I like looking at them. And I have ridiculous, in the guest rooms, book by your bed might be a book called Single and Pregnant.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And do you think you do that to elicit in your guests a desire to leave?
JOHN WATERS: Yes. (laughter) My nieces and nephews have said to me, when we have a family get-together and they come from out of town, “We’re not staying in your house.” (laughter) They refuse to stay up in the scary room they call it. In my guest rooms I have my most alarming items, yeah, to discourage guests. My mother always said, “Guests and fish smell after three days.”
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Libraries should, I mean from what I understand from this chapter you chose, should collect everything.
JOHN WATERS: They are, you know, people that collect these books are complaining now. There’s a store in San Francisco called Magazine and these people that do, there’s Bolerium books, it’s amazing, they only collect left-wing, revolution, and gay books. So it’s really quite an odd selection. That’s the only thing they have really. But you can say, “Oh, I was at a riot there with the Yippies in 1968 at this corner,” and they have the flyer. It’s amazing, really, so this kind of stuff, but what they’re a lot telling me, is that the universities, because of political correction, when the people—the real collectors of this die they can’t accept it, because of political correctness and all sorts of things about. Which, I understand the political correctness thing. But because some of these are so politically incorrect.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: But do you really?
JOHN WATERS: I get it from both—no, I believe they should be able to take these books. If they were new printed like that maybe but these are showing a time before all this happened. You know, I have a book that I can’t believe has ever come out, and it’s just called The Love of a Fag. (laughter) You know, and I love that title, I’m really happy I have that book.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: It inspires.
JOHN WATERS: It’s in one of the guest rooms, because it makes me laugh every time I see it. (laughter) Or another one with this pitiful guy that says Enter from the Rear. (laughter) Yeah, I think these books need to be preserved. Yeah.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: We showed—just before coming down here we took you to the special collections to show you—
JOHN WATERS: The dirty stuff, right?
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Yeah.
JOHN WATERS: It wasn’t that dirty.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: It wasn’t that dirty, it was pretty—
JOHN WATERS: There was a fart joke, which was good.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: It was pretty tame in some ways. What did it inspire?
JOHN WATERS: It inspires to know that there’s always been this and people have always collected this. I did a show at the Warhol Museum called Andy’s Porn and they couldn’t wait to show me Andy’s real collection under the bed.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And they knew how to find it very quickly.
JOHN WATERS: They all knew where it all was, yeah. (laughter) But mostly they hide this in every collection. So you know I think it’s good to celebrate and to see people’s personal things they kept and everything. I know when I’m dead and all the people that work for me know where the porn is and to throw it out. Yeah. You should always tell people that. If you have that. Yeah. Or your parents have to go through it.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What is your single favorite book you have? Or maybe not single. You know what?
JOHN WATERS: That would be a tough one.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Okay, give me three.
JOHN WATERS: A children’s book called Dad’s in Prison. I kind of like that.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You say it with a lot of sentiment.
JOHN WATERS: I have another one that just says Is Killing Wrong? (laughter) I like that theological debate, right?
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JOHN WATERS: Teens and the Death Penalty. That has a good cover.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: The three books you’ve chosen all have a thematic kind of connection.
JOHN WATERS: They’re all on the same table. I’m just thinking—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Famously, you said, “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em.” Do you follow that advice?
JOHN WATERS: I’m a liar. (laughter) You know. I’d never get laid in Baltimore. (laughter) Mostly. I believe that spiritually. (laughter) But you know they have that thing in bars, everybody’s cute at last call. It’s similar. And, you know, I don’t always want to sleep with intellectuals. They’re so boring. I know enough smart people. I want to sleep with funny people. Who feels like talking about Alain Robbe-Grillet in bed, you know?
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You know, I sometimes—Well, I was just imagining what it would feel like to speak about—
JOHN WATERS: “Have you read The New French Novel?” It’s not the kind of thing that really gets you horny, I don’t think.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: No. I sometimes wonder with the changes now that are occurring and everything coming onto e-books what will happen. I mean, will the nature of dating change?
JOHN WATERS: It already has.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Will you be able to tell people, “Come and look at my iPad?”
JOHN WATERS: I guess, yeah.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I mean—
JOHN WATERS: It’s the same thing I mean, with, I think it’s more healthy now. Kids go out in packs, they don’t go out on dates, they go out with twenty people and see what happens. I think that’s a lot better than what I had to go through. But it’s weird to me, the sexual habits of kids, you know, everybody’s saying now in eighth grade girls perform oral sex on guys. And when I was young that was a home run, you know, not first base, you know, things have changed. And boys don’t have to do anything back. What happened to feminism? You know. (laughter) Girls are trade now? You know, I’m trying to figure it out, the sexual patterns of teenagers and the electric chair.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Your only real job was working in a bookshop.
JOHN WATERS: In bookshops. I worked at the Doubleday Bookshops and I ran the Provincetown Bookshop for many years. It was the greatest job. They let me have any books I wanted for free as long as I read them so I sold books all the time. They encouraged me to tell books to the customers and everything and it’s still a great bookshop, it’s still there, one of the owners, Joel Newman, is still there, he’s ninety-two years old.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You know when we had Keith Richards here at the library, one of the most surprising facts about him is that when he was a child he wanted to be a librarian.
JOHN WATERS: Really?
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: He said there were two institutions that mattered to him growing up: “The church, which belongs to God, and the library, which belongs to the people.” Isn’t that incredibly surprising? When you were a child what do you think you wanted—
JOHN WATERS: No, I didn’t read, because they made me read such boring books. I’d have to do book reports on The Life of Benjamin Franklin. (laughter) I rebelled from reading. I wanted to read Street Rod, that was the first book I ever really wanted.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Now you have to tell me what that is.
JOHN WATERS: And Hot Rod. That was like about juvenile delinquents. They were for young reader. But it was Street Rod, I think it was called. But when, in school, I didn’t start reading. Grove Press got me to read. Grove Press completely turned me into a reader. (applause) Completely. When I read Genet, I thought, “Okay, I want to read.” When I read The Life of Benjamin Franklin, I didn’t want to read.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: So you started reading—
JOHN WATERS: I read like Grove Press, you know, and I would read City of Night and Last Exit to Brooklyn and all that kind of stuff which it just made me crazy I loved it so much and I became a radical reader and a shoplifter of new books.