Anyone who has experienced a Poison Waters performance or had the chance to talk to the beloved Portland drag queen knows her connection to the community is legit. But in addition to the performance chops and charisma she’s been bringing to the local entertainment scene for decades, there’s something about Poison Waters — whose name is also Kevin Cook — that really raises the bar for all other local icons: he’s been carfree and a proud public transit rider for life.
Before his drag alter ego came to be, Kevin Cook was a kid growing up in east Portland’s Parkrose neighborhood. His family survived on meager incomes, and without money for a car, they had to figure out other ways to get around.
“We were very poor, oftentimes living on no income. We didn’t have a family car the majority of the time,” Cook told BikePortland in a recent Zoom interview. “It wasn’t an option to get a car when you turned 16 in my family. That just wasn’t a reality.”
At first, Cook mostly relied on walking to get where he needed to go, which kept him pretty limited to the Parkrose neighborhood. But then he discovered the bus – and eventually the MAX train when it launched in 1986 – and the whole city opened up.
“I took the system anywhere it would take me,” Cook said. “This sounds so cheesy, but TriMet taught me that all of our city is accessible if you knew which bus or train to get on.”
When the MAX blue line launched, Cook shared that he would take the MAX from the Gateway Transit Center near Parkrose to downtown Portland and hang out in Pioneer Square, encountering a side of the city he’d never experienced before.
“It was really fantastic to me to look out the window and see all these neighborhoods I never really paid attention to because I never left Parkrose much,” Cook said.
Cook would people watch at Pioneer Square, awed by the punk and New Age crowd who wore leather jackets and had piercings and multicolored hair. This was around the time he started discovering downtown nightclubs and finding out about the world of drag that existed at places like Darcelle XV Showplace and (the now-closed) Embers Avenue.
“It really was like Alice going through the looking glass,” Cook said. “This train brought me to this kind of wonderland.”
Over time, Cook began to get more involved in the entertainment world and adopted the persona of Poison Waters. But he didn’t see a need to get a car, instead walking or taking the streetcar downtown to shows.
With the rise of social media came Poison Waters’ big break as the transportation icon she is today. In the early days of Instagram, Cook started posting photos documenting trips on the Portland Streetcar, which was eventually noticed by local transit higher-ups. Things really took off during the pandemic when TriMet hired Poison Waters to do some public service announcements about wearing masks on the bus. The agency got other local icons (like the Blaze the Trail Cat) to participate in the campaign too, but it was Poison Waters’ ads that really made waves online.
From then on, she was the de facto face of TriMet, which is all the more meaningful if you know about Cook’s lifelong relationship with Portland public transit. Other people in local transportation took notice, too. The Street Trust recently started getting Waters onboard for big events – she hosted their first annual Pride Ride back in June and was a wonderful emcee at the Alice Awards last month.
Cook said if he had to rely on a car, Poison Waters might not even exist. (At least, she certainly wouldn’t be able to look so good.)
“I spend so much money on my professional stuff, like costumes and wigs, which costs a lot of money,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to spend what I spend and look the way I look if I had a monthly car payment and insurance and gas and all that crap.”
Cook wants to combat any negative stereotypes that surround public transit by showing the diversity of people who use it for all kinds of reasons. A lot of times, celebrity endorsements like this can feel a forced, but with Poison Waters, you know you’re getting the real deal. So next time you’re standing out in the rain waiting for the bus and feeling very…unglamorous, just know that there’s at least one local icon who would beg to disagree.
“I have to show the bus is literally for everyone; all genders and races and generations,” Cook said. “It never occurred to me that there was a bad stigma about riding the bus. I thought, ‘oh, this is so cool.’ I thought it was a privilege to have this service.”
Taylor has been BikePortland’s staff writer since November 2021. She has also written for Street Roots and Eugene Weekly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org