Eight-Stone Press


HON: Past, Present, & Future

Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore! COVER

Pub Date: March 31, 2011

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HON: Past, Present, & Future
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INTRODUCTION
~ Baltimore’s “Hontroversy” ~
William P. Tandy

The word “Hon,” as an abbreviation of the word “honey,” is hardly unique to Baltimore. Indeed, in cities all along the Eastern Seaboard, and beyond, you will find the term employed with varying degrees of affection, from the waitress pouring coffee to the mother addressing her child.

“Hon,” in fact, is everywhere.

Yet many who live here regard this colloquialism as intrinsic to Baltimore’s character as the Orioles, painted screens and Old Bay. For them, the word, as much as anything, harkens back to the city of their youth. The city of their mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers - strong, predominantly white working-class women whose memories forever call them home to a past as resilient to the erosive ravages of time as the marble steps of an East Baltimore rowhouse.

“‘Hon’ - an ages old local salutation and term of endearment with roots in the city’s southern predilections - is not only considered common property by generations of Baltimoreans but a birthright,” writes native son Rafael Alvarez. [Alvarez, Rafael. “Robert Irsay in a Dress.” northbaltimore.patch.com 31 Dec. 2010.]

But not everyone pines for those rose-colored days. Indeed, for some, “Hon” evokes quite a different Baltimore: one of blatant racism and segregation. One in which, some claim, that same waitress in addressing a black patron as “Hon” did not have to call him “Sir.”

This complexity of character no doubt inspired Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, whose body of work - most notably, the 1988 comedy Hairspray - is rife with “Hons”: tough-talking house fraus fiercely devoted to family and whatever they believe to be right. The late drag queen Divine, an integral fixture in Waters’ earlier work, often depicted these women through comically grotesque representations: loud-print housecoats and dresses, beehive hairdos and outdated eyeglasses.

Over the years, Waters - who grew up in Lutherville, just north of Baltimore (read: outside the city) - has been criticized for his outrageous depictions of a culture from which he himself was not born. But cities, by their very nature, are dynamic creatures - they must be, like the great white shark, always on the move, lest they perish; to be sure, today’s Baltimore is not that of the previous generation, nor was theirs the Baltimore their parents knew. Gone, for the most part, is the thriving commercial port upon which the town was built. Gone, also, are its attendant blue-collar industries, having fled for infinitely cheaper, foreign shores. In their stead, an influx of new blood - young urban professionals spending untold fortunes to inhabit spaces originally built for local shipwrights, longshoremen and laborers. Ousting generations from the only place they’ve ever called home. Or, worse - nothing....just block upon desolated block of rowhouses, drugs, violence and despair now their only inhabitants.

Baltimore still has its Hons, but today, many of them live beyond the city limits, in places like Dundalk, Essex or Parkville. And today, many in Baltimore find in Waters’ work something that, I think, was always there: a certain connection to and (albeit tongue in cheek) celebration of a cultural heritage that at one time regarded him as nothing short of its own downfall…

*****

Few will dispute that Café Hon, a kitschy restaurant in the city’s Hampden neighborhood, all but owes its existence to Waters’ outrageously tacky interpretations of the Baltimore “Hon.” The giant pink flamingo that adorns the front of the restaurant is, inasmuch, an open admission of that.

The brainchild of local businesswoman Denise Whiting, Café Hon occupies prime real estate on West 36th Street, or “The Avenue,” as it’s locally known - Hampden’s “Main Street.” The Avenue once housed all the day-to-day necessities of a blue-collar mill town: grocery stores, restaurants, barber shops, pharmacies, shoe-repair shops and the like. But in a scene all too familiar to many cities, the neighborhood fell into decline as its industrial lifeblood either dried up or moved elsewhere.

By the early 1990s, the area had begun to attract the so-called “creative class” - artists, writers, actors, musicians, etc. - with its affordable housing. Predictably, the creative sorts were, in time, followed by business-minded people seeking to capitalize on the burgeoning “scene.” Among them was Whiting, who first established Café Hon in 1992, with an emphasis on simple, diner-like fare.

Two years later, Whiting held a contest for “Baltimore’s Best Hon,” and with that HonFest was born. Held in early June, the annual street festival - ostensibly “a celebration in honor of” Baltimore’s working-class women - has grown into a three-day spectacle of people, food, music and, of course, the “Baltimore’s Best Hon” contest, in which contestants try to out-Hon one another by donning such outlandish garb as faux-leopard print, feather boas and cat-eye glasses.

Though HonFest indisputably pumps outside dollars into the community, it has its critics. Many residents curse the crowds, their trash, the noise, the impossibility of cramming all those visiting cars into an urban neighborhood that can scarcely contain the ones that already live there. Moreover, rather than interpreting it as “celebration,” some fundamentally damn the whole thing as crass exploitation, even mockery, of a blue-collar culture that can no longer afford to live there - one having little in common with the tourists and county residents who patronize HonFest.

Today, the Avenue remains Hampden’s center of commerce, only its storefronts now house boutique art galleries, coffee shops, spas, gift stores and restaurants. Meanwhile, Whiting’s “Hon-pire” has grown to include a candy and souvenir store selling mass-produced merchandise stamped with her logo: a UN-inspired “euro oval” featuring a white background and black border, surrounding bold black type - not unlike those stickers adorning the back-ends of Volvos and Saabs advertising vacation spots like North Carolina’s Outer Banks or Martha’s Vineyard. Only instead of “OBX” or “MV,” Whiting has tailored the image to her own end: “HON”…

*****

Downtown Partnership spokesman Mike Evitts shared the sentiment of many Baltimoreans upon learning that Denise Whiting had obtained a commercial trademark - several, in fact - for the word “Hon.”

“Are you kidding? You can’t do that,” Evitts told Baltimore Sun reporter Jill Rosen in an article dated December 9. “That’s like trade-marking the word ‘sweetheart’. In the civic sense, it’s un-ownable. It’s not something you can litigate over; it’s a state of being.” [Rosen, Jill. “Sorry, Hon, It’s Trademarked: Café Owner Owns Rights to Word.” The Baltimore Sun 9 Dec. 2010.]

Nevertheless, she had done just that. Whiting, in fact, had been collecting federal trademarks since 1992 (beginning with her Café Hon logo). However, though a matter of public record, her actions had remained below the public radar for years….that is, until a December 8, 2010, article in The Baltimore Messenger, a community newspaper catering to the city’s north side, in which she discussed the opening of her souvenir store:

Whiting has registered the word “hon” as a federal trademark and has a licensing agreement with the Maryland Transit Administration to use the word in its ad campaign for its fare cards, she said. [Perl, Larry. “Hometown Girl on the Avenue in Hampden to Reopen as HONtown.” The Baltimore Messenger 8 Dec. 2010.]

It wasn’t long before the proverbial shit hit the fan. Online comment boards exploded with local outrage: How could the US Patent and Trademark Office have possibly approved a trademark for a work that’s long been a part of the public lexicon? And why would someone even think of doing it in the first place? The news quickly tore across social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

In the coming days, Whiting did little to improve her public image.

“People are going to be mad,” she told The Baltimore Sun. “People are going to be mad they didn’t think of it themselves…There will be those that think it’s a brilliant marketing campaign and get it. There will be people that just get mad and won’t be able to comprehend.” [Rosen, Jill. “Sorry, Hon, It’s Trademarked: Café Owner Owns Rights to Word.” The Baltimore Sun 9 Dec. 2010.]

In a follow-up article, Whiting told the Messenger that she would not “go after everybody that uses the word ‘hon’.”

“But,” the article continued, “she said that if people try to sell merchandise with her trademarked oval logo on it, ‘I’ll sue their pants off.’” [Perl, Larry. “Café Hon Owner Defends Herself Against Criticism That She Trademarked the Word ‘Hon’ for Financial Gain.” The Baltimore Messenger 12 Dec. 2010.]

“She’s not trying to suggest that people can’t use the word ‘Hon’; it’s that they can’t sell things using the word ‘Hon’,” Kathryn Miller Goldman, Whiting’s attorney, told The Baltimore Sun. “People can’t take her mark and put it on their goods.” [Rosen, Jill. “Sorry, Hon, It’s Trademarked: Café Owner Owns Rights to Word.” The Baltimore Sun 9 Dec. 2010.]

Of course, no reasonable person would fault Whiting for protecting that which she had worked so hard to build - namely, Café Hon and HonFest. But if her intentions were indeed limited to her restaurant and street festival, as she maintained, why had the Maryland Transit Administration been compelled to seek her approval for its “Hon” ad campaign, which made no direct reference to either of Whiting’s business ventures? Nor is the MTA, upon last examination, in the business of selling sweatshirts and shot glasses. Never mind The Baltimore Sun’s report that “when a local nonprofit organization wanted to have a Hon-themed fundraiser, [Whiting] only charged them $25.” [Rosen, Jill. “Sorry, Hon, It’s Trademarked: Café Owner Owns Rights to Word.” The Baltimore Sun 9 Dec. 2010.] Many perceived Whiting’s actions as an attempt to commercially monopolize something - a word, an image, a “state of being” - that belonged to all of Baltimore. Something that had been there long before the swank art spaces and Mini Coopers, long before Café Hon.

“She didn’t invent Hon,” Stephen Yasko, General Manager of Towson University’s WTMD-FM, wrote in a December 12 online editorial. “She found it, sculpted it, and turned it into something that makes money.” [Yasko, Stephen. “A Statement from Our GM About the Trademarking of the Word Hon.” wtmd.blogspot.com 12 Dec. 2010.]

In a December 20 editorial in The Daily Record, attorney James B. Astrachan, a partner in the Baltimore firm of Astrachan Gunst Thomas Rubin and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, wrote:

Granting to Café Hon a monopoly over the word, even if used with stores and napkins, is the equivalent of removing the word from the public’s use, risking that each time a person uses the word, commercially, he or she would be improperly subjected to a claim of trademark infringement regardless of how the mark is used. Evidencing that this is a real risk is the recent report that Café Hon “allowed” the Maryland Mass Transit Administration to use HON (not CAFÉ HON) on ads but insisted on creative control as if it was the owner of the word, which apparently it thinks it is. [Astrachan, James B. “So Sue Me, Hon!The Daily Record 20 Dec. 2010.]

And so the Internet flame wars raged on; one Facebook group, “No One Owns Hon, Hon,” surpassed the for-real Café Hon page in its number of “fans” within a matter of days. A handful of demonstrations were staged outside Café Hon. Non-Baltimore news outlets like National Public Radio and The Orlando Sentinel picked up the story. And then there were the comment boards on various news sites that in no time at all, as is so often the case, devolved into vitriolic personal attacks.

The whole matter came to a would-be head in early January 2011, when Bruce Goldfarb, a local writer and proprietor of the website www.WelcometoBaltimoreHon.com, threw down the gauntlet by issuing a 2,700-word “Hon Manifesto” in which he outlined a plan to sell mugs bearing the word “Hon” (though not in Whiting’s exact style) online.

“It appears that the only way the issue will be resolved is in court,” wrote Goldfarb. “Somebody has to put the bell on the cat’s collar, to pose a test case to resolve the issue once and for all.” [Goldfarb, Bruce. “The Hon Manifesto.” welcometobaltimorehon.com 4 Jan. 2011.] By that logic, he reasoned, Whiting would be left only two choices: to litigate the issue and risk losing her claim on what many consider an already weak trademark, or do nothing and risk trademark dilution.

Perhaps sensing that she had overplayed her hand, Whiting’s camp issued a press release on January 19 in which she apologized “for creating the impression that I can stop people from using the word, and for causing such an outcry here.” The same press release included a statement from Ned T. Himmelrich, an attorney for Whiting:

In 19 years of using her mark, she has only written two demand letters. When you consider how often Baltimoreans use the word, and how many businesses use it for other products and services, it becomes evident that she has been a responsible trademark holder. [Sharrow, Ryan. “Café Hon Owner Whiting Apologizes to Baltimore.” Baltimore Business Journal 19 Jan. 2011.]

Nevertheless, many of Whiting’s critics remain unconvinced.

*****

There are those, of course, who defend Whiting, convinced that she is nothing more than a shrewd businesswoman whose determination and acumen have helped revitalize an otherwise ailing neighborhood. There are also folks, natives and transplants alike, who consider the whole “hontroversy” much ado about nothing - wasted effort and misplaced priorities in a city facing dire socioeconomic realities like gang violence, drugs, poverty and urban blight.

The same, of course, might be said of pro football. (But don’t tell the fans that.)

“Despite social plagues that land parts of Baltimore on statistical charts associated with the Third World,” wrote Alvarez, “if a community doesn’t fight for the legacy of its grandmothers, what will it fight for?” [Alvarez, Rafael. “Robert Irsay in a Dress.” northbaltimore.patch.com 31 Dec. 2010.]

One thing is certain: in a world full of disposable causes, such a sustained backlash seems to suggest more at play than simple “envy” (as some have suggested) of one savvy businesswoman’s foresight. In drawing on the viewpoints of a wide variety of contributors, this special edition of Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore! intends to explore the term “Hon,” its relationship to Baltimore past, present and future, and why so many feel so strongly about it…

WILLIAM P. TANDY
March 2011


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