Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Taking John Waters to Task for Backlash Against Honfest

Once a year, the Hons take center stage here in Baltimore. Hampden, to be precise, home of the Miracle on 34th Street," is also Hon capital of the world. Hon ground zero, if you will. The annual Honfest hit the ground running this past weekend and attendant fireworks didn't disappoint.

But before we get to the persnickety controversy, let's get one thing straight. The celebration of Hons is a time honored tradition in these quirky parts, a dubious distinction Baltimoreans proudly wear on their sleeves.

This Baltimoron is no expert on Hons, having grown up in the vicinity of the now mammoth Sinai Hospital complex and world famous Pimlico Racetrack, later becoming a faceless mass in the white flight to suburbia, but I do know a thing or two about visceral affiliation with hometown identity. Los Angeles is inextricably linked with all things Hollywood, Wisconsin with cheese, San Francisco with streetcars and the Golden Gate Bridge, Detroit with Motown, Washington D.C. with the business of politics, and Baltimore with hons and crabs.

Is that a faux pas? I'm just speaking from the heart, hon.

No, seriously now, the distinctive accent, fixation with spirited birds, crab a la everything, Nipper the phonograph dog, Natty Boh, marble steps, Bromo Seltzer Tower, Preakness, and Honfest distinguish Baltimore from its more tony neighbor down I-95, although as far as the cartographers are concerned we might as well be one and the same. Ever notice how Washington, D.C. is prominently featured on every map and Atlas but Baltimore barely cuts the grade? Do you have any idea what it's like to live in a town with a combined population approaching two million (Baltimore City and Baltimore County are governed by different municipalities but are essentially the same area) and forever be lumped into the same locale as a place that couldn't be more different if its survival depended on it?

Yes, I'm talking about D.C. Twin cities we are not. Siamese twin polar opposites is more like it.

Just like the Preakness and pro sports teams named after birds, Honfest is uniquely Baltimore. The history of Hons, so I'm told, began with the hard-working woman of World War II. When the GIs returned, these enterprising young ladies continued to work. Hey, Baltimore is not a town of Ritz. I imagine back then money was just as tight as it is now. These second incomes helped support an upwardly mobile but modest lifestyle during the boomer age. You can't fault women for wanting better lives for their families.

As the story goes, women didn't work in executive positions, they took hard scrabble jobs. So on weekends, they liked to get dolled up and party. And Baltimore being the kitschy town that it was (and is), dolled up meant tight outfits, massive jewelry, appalling makeup, and hair piled high to the sky. Think New Jersey south of the Mason-Dixon. Beehive hairdos were all the rage and nobody wore them better than east side Baltimore. The higher, bigger, shinier, and stiffer, the better. Believe me when I say John Waters didn't have to think long and hard when he thought up the title to Hairspray.

More about dear John later.

Anyway, these dolled up, tight laced, beehive wearing, red lipped, smoking ladies eventually became known as Hons. It must have something to do with the way Baltimoreans talk because I remember being called Hon quite a bit on the streets in and around the racetrack. Even now when I venture to the Inner Harbor some gum cracking waitress will shout out a Hon or two. A term of endearment really, just an abbreviated "honey" with the glory of Baltimore "OH" lovingly wrapped inside.

Ever been to a sporting event with Baltimoreans and notice how they scream in unison "OH" when they get to the "Oh say can you see" part of the Star Spangled Banner? It's all connected I'm telling you, in an Oriole birds and "dem O's" quirky kind of way.

When Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood decided to reinvent itself as the suburbs of City rather than a dingy mill section of town, Mom and Pop businesses moved in like crazy. Today, a stroll down The Avenue is like walking around New York's TriBeCa, there are so many unusual shops and restaurants to see. Not to mention a liberal dose of second-hand store gold mines. Hampden is one of a kind because it's uniquely Baltimore, much like Fells Point but without the water.

Some time ago, CafeHon -- the jewel of Hampden -- began a one day neighborhood gathering to celebrate Baltimore fashion and culture, affectionately christened Honfest for those who dare to be kitsch. The annual event has since morphed into a two-day festival with an anything goes mentality, many abandoning all form of reason in their quest to become Hon chic. These people have their hair done in beehives, wear obnoxiously loud clothing and stilettos, don so much makeup they look like Kelly Osborne on Halloween, and enter Hon competitions for the chance to be crowned "Miss Baltimore Hon."

I know. I know. It sounds like an Iowa corn festival and maybe in some respects it is. Baltimore is a big city comprised of little neighborhoods. There really is a hometown feel, an indescribable slice of life you can't get anywhere else on this planet. Honfest has the potential to transform into a monumental party on the same scale as today's Mardi Gras (but definitely NOT Mardi Gras before Katrina -- that would be stretching the build up too far).

Okay. I've done my best to describe Hons and Honfest. Now we get to dear John. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan, a huge fan of John Waters, his brand of entertainment, and his take on life. If it weren't for Waters, Edith Massey would never have become "The Egg Lady," there'd be no such thing as front lawns decorated with pink flamingos, and Divine would have been just another drunken whore stripping for tips down on The Block. Waters savored these seedier spawns of Baltimore and in doing so made them mainstream. The magnitude of his success is a little shocking considering his film making origins. I mean honestly, back in the 1960s, he was the probably the first person to film a transsexual devouring dog crap. Steaming dog crap. With a hint of lemon.

As a native Baltimoron who wears her Honness as a badge of honor, I have no qualms taking Waters to task for his recent statements against Honfest. For the record, he lambasted the celebration saying the Hon image was so overused he would no longer utter the word or use the idea in any of his scripts. Not only that, he urged the City of Baltimore to stop supporting the event, claiming people who now participate do so to denigrate Hons.

Yup. The native son and one who paved the road for unbridled madness now turns his back on the monster of Honfest, professing lack of authenticity mars the luster. Reminds me of Dr. Frankenstein and monster remorse, although in that story the monster tried to kill anything in its path and wreak mayhem.

In contrast, Honfest is a harmless lovable fuzzball, a chance to bond with homegrowns giving Baltimore a distinct flavor separate and apart from that political metropolis down I-95. The fact that the idea caught fire with so many out of towners is all the more reason to revel in all things Hon, don't you think? Waters really missed the mark and that's a low down dirty rotten shame.

Seriously, hon, we're talking two days. Two days of blissful merriment and bustling business for tiny Hampden. Waz all de fuss har?