Memory—well, my memory—will sometimes persuade me to remember my memories with a specificity of a snapshot stared at and studied for the pop quiz that I assume life will throw at me on any given school day.
John Waters’ moustache did not knock me out of the way on a Provincetown street one summer afternoon. But that is how I recall my memory of our split-second encounter. He didn’t say or do anything, my memory tells me; his pencil moustache did.
The film director (and sometime “John Waters impersonator”) is 75 today (April 22, 2021), which leads to this minor anecdote; even a split-second with a charismatic individual can serve as a life lesson, I suppose.
Waters is famously from Baltimore, Maryland, but he resides part of the year in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Off-season, Cape Cod is a series of small towns interrupted by great natural beauty. Through the summer, it is a traffic jam, and the village of Provincetown at the tip of the Cape is a three-month-long street fair: life is better if you just park outside the village and bike or stroll cheek-by-jowl with ten thousand other outsiders who also do not know where they are going or where they are from. All 10,000 of you are crammed into a five- or six-block area of shops and restaurants: it’s Coachella but without Coachella.
Some 3,000 people live in Provincetown full-time, though, so on any given summer’s day, some 13,000 people are fighting for the same sidewalk space and lunch. About 3,000 live in Provincetown full-time, and one of them is John Waters.
One of those days, about a dozen years ago, I was walking in Provincetown with a friend and her son and my sister. I stepped into a bookstore to escape the crowd outside and discovered that the crowd inside was just as tightly packed and slow-moving. I also realized that I had not said anything to any of my companions about going into the store I walked into; from their perspective, it was as if I had fallen through a manhole cover. I turned around—mostly because there was no way I could get beyond the front of the store anyway—and put my sunglasses back on and pushed through the door.
John Waters is a famous film director, but he is famous in part for being a famous film director whose films have been more talked about than seen. He is also famous for being one of the most interesting figures in our culture and for his old-school and sometimes flamboyant personal style. His moustache is a part of his image. “I shave with my favorite shaving cream and put on La Mer moisturiser and eye cream. I trim and shape my moustache, then fill it in with Maybelline Velvet Black eyeliner pencil. That’s why they call it a pencil moustache,” Waters wrote in The Guardian last year.
I pushed the bookstore door open and none of the above was on my mind at that moment. I was looking for the friends I had callously abandoned 27 seconds earlier. How had they gotten so far from me already?
For someone who fancies himself a writer, I am not good at describing two sorts of thing: people or objects. Physical reality eludes me, both in life itself and in describing it. When he is not dressed in a colorful or otherwise interesting suit jacket for a talk show or red carpet appearance, when he is not impersonating John Waters, John Waters is a fairly nondescript individual. Or I am a fairly incompetent describer. He is incredibly slender. He was wearing a white t-shirt and shorts. His hair was cut short and thinning. And then there was the pencil moustache on his upper lip. It was as if I heard the moustache approach before I saw …
I did not look to my right as I stepped through the bookstore door and down a single step onto the sidewalk, even though this meant I was ignoring oncoming traffic, like an idiot. John Waters, on a bicycle, he did not make eye contact with me as I stepped into his path. His moustache did. He was onto and off the sidewalk with a resident’s ease, with the local familiarity that a seasonal crowd can not distract. And he appeared to have no intention to slow down, even for a collision. He and his bike and moustache bent his path an inch to the right and missed me without breathing an extra breath.
He zipped past me and I heard, sotto voce, “–ing, –ing,” as if he (or the ‘stache) had vocalized a warning just for me, conversationally, politely, one-on-one. It was a very gentle near-catastrophe.
My friend saw it all. She walked up to me and I asked, “Did you see who that was?” as we together watched him bike down the street. She asked me why I hadn’t tried to get in his way and stop him for an autograph. He seemed in a hurry, I replied. I think his moustache said something to me, I added.
It was less than two seconds of two lives not-quite intersecting, but it remains one of my favorite brushes with celebrity. Happy birthday, John Waters.
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