For most of 2011, Baltimore was embroiled in a very unusual controversy.
A whole community, it seemed, turned against one person. There were protests and boycotts, confrontations, acts of vandalism, venomous flame wars waged in online forums, and at least one restraining order.
Baltimoreans are notoriously easy to provoke into mob violence. According to accounts, in 1772 a seafaring visitor from India stepped off the dock in Baltimore with an umbrella — a contraption never before seen in the New World. He was accosted by an unruly gang that pelted him with rocks. Dr. John Davidge and his colleagues received similar treatment when they began teaching anatomy with human cadavers in 1807; a mob broke through the door of their lecture hall on Liberty Street, stole the cadaver and dragged it down the road. The first blood spilled in the Civil War was during the Pratt Street Riot of 1861, and more than 100 people were killed during the B&O railroad strike and riot in 1877, which grew into America’s first national labor strike.
No wonder it’s called Mobtown.
This time, the provocation was a word: Hon. More precisely, the dispute was about one person’s claim of ownership of the word.
Usually, intellectual property law isn’t the sort of thing that gets a mob riled up. But that’s what happened.
And the conflict resolved with an unlikely make-a-wish ending that is only possible on contrived TV reality shows.
Because that’s what happened.
It’s a strange chapter not just in the history of Baltimore, but apparently entirely without precedent. The episode was followed closely by lawyers and linguists, made news around the world, and is discussed in business schools as a case study in how one unassuming word can drive a thriving enterprise to the brink of ruin.
And I had a front-row seat through the whole thing. This is how I risked my job, my marriage, and a potentially catastrophic lawsuit to play a small but pivotal role to help Baltimoreans liberate a word.
A Honderful Life
Café Hon is a restaurant located in Hampden, a working class mid-town neighborhood centered around 36th Street, known as The Avenue. Former caterer and business school graduate Denise Whiting opened Café Hon in 1992, and since then has substantially grown her business and presence in Baltimore.
Café Hon is inspired by the kitcshy sensibilities of John Waters’ films, particularly the garish big-haired Hon caricature exemplified by Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. The 30-foot pink flamingo in front of Café Hon is another nod to Waters, whose films include Pink Flamingos.
Whiting also operates the Hon Bar next door to Café Hon, and in 2010 opened the HONTown retail gift shop across the street on the corner of 36th and Roland Avenue.
She is perhaps best known as the founder and host of Honfest, which began modestly in 1994 and has grown into a three-day event that attracts tens of thousands of people to The Avenue every year. A high point of Honfest is the Baltimore’s Best Hon contest, in which costumed women Hon it up to extremes — leopard prints, feather boas, cats-eye glasses and very big hair.
Whiting’s popularity and public support probably peaked in the fall of 2009, when large numbers of residents rallied to her side in a dispute with the City of Baltimore over the giant flamingo in front of Café Hon. In one of her last public appearances before resigning in disgrace after a conviction on corruption charges, then-Mayor Shelia Dixon was present for the unveiling of a new flamingo on Nov. 18 of that year.
The first inkling of trouble was a Dec. 8, 2010, story by Larry Perl in Baltimore Messenger mentioning that Whiting owned trademarks for the word “Hon.” The story gained traction when reported in more depth the following day by Jill Rosen in the Baltimore Sun.
According to Rosen, the Maryland Transit Administration was launching an advertising campaign for its Charm Card rider pass that featured the image of Charlene Osborne, a former Baltimore’s Best Hon winner. The ad also included the phrase “Get yours, Hon.”
According to the Sun article, MTA’s advertising agency obtained clearance from Whiting in order to use the word. “She didn’t charge them money, but she did insist on approving each individual ad, poster and television commercial,” Rosen reported.
“I Took Ownership of the Word”
Baltimore was abuzz with this rather curious information. Twitter feeds cropped up with handles like TakeBackHon, NotCafeHon and Honicide. Somebody commandeered Café Hon’s Twitter account and renamed it CafakeHon. Facebook was quickly populated with groups and pages, including private, unlisted by-invitation protest groups. One group, “No one owns HON, Hon” rapidly gained more than 3,100 “likes.” Café Hon’s Facebook page, by comparison, had 1,957 “likes” at the end of 2010.
Outrage poured out in dozens of comments to a brief Dec. 9 item in City Paper:
“Worst person in the world. I hope John Waters flings his poop at her.” [Ed21201]
“This exploitive hussy needs to stop making fun of people’s grandmothers and crawl back into whatever hole she squelched out of.” [Madophelia]
“Pretty sure the actual women she’s mocking and/or paying homage to would kick her ass if they had a chance.” [seriously]
“Now a lot of us feel like idiots for supporting her and that damn flamingo.” [Sam]
On Dec. 10, venerated copy editor John McIntyre, the Baltimore Sun night production manager and self-described “veteran drudge” who blogs about “language, usage, journalism and arbitrarily chosen subjects,” weighed in the emerging “‘hon’ kerfuffle.”
“The question, really, is how far one can go to trademark a word in the vernacular,” McIntyre wrote. “But that question is a legal one, and no one apart from lawyers and linguists is apt to find it to be stimulating.”
On Dec. 11, Sun columnist and radio show host Dan Rodricks offered his view of what was being called the “hontroversy.”
“The response to Whiting’s move has been so strong and negative — so much so that you wonder if Café Hon’s owner has squandered the good will she’d established with her customers,” Rodricks wrote. “Here’s why: You can’t own something that doesn’t belong to you.”
In counterpoint, language maven McIntyre crafted a “modest defense of Denise Whiting” that accused the restaurateur’s detractors of just being envious. “I do think that I can detect something simmering beneath the unfavorable comments: envy,” he wrote.
“Denise Whiting has determinedly and efficiently exploited a set of Baltimore stereotypes to make a buck, and she has been good at it,” said the Kentucky-born McIntyre. “The American capitalist free enterprise system we all endorse, right?”Print