“A real hon would kick her ass and she’d cry,” said Baltimore writer Rafael Alvarez, sort of kidding and sort of not, but definitely among those spitting-mad yesterday morning to read about Whiting’s legal claim to the local form of address.
Since yesterday, when news of the trademarking plopped onto Baltimore’s consciousness like a glob of crab guts on a linoleum floor, there have been calls for a boycott of Whiting’s restaurant and civil disobedience at the next Honfest. A Facebook page has been created — “No one owns HON, hon‘ – with over 600 “likes.” There’s afake Denise Whiting Twitter site (“don’t retweet this or you’ll owe Cafe Hon ten dollars”), parody stickers like (“pHONy”) are proliferating and, on the Internet, there has been a tsunami of angry comments.
“It’s the final straw for a lot of people. The chees-ification of Baltimore culture has got to stop,” said Baltimore writer Michael M. Hughes, who started the Facebook campaign. “It’s the disneyfication of something, the cheapening of it, it’s not real anymore, it’s hollow. People are disgusted by this.”
Meanwhile, plans are already afoot, some actually somewhat serious, to challenge the Café Hon owner’s attempt to legally lock down the beloved three-letter word and image of a 60s Baltimore housewife in a housedress and hair-sprayed bee-hive hairdo that, despite the commercialization, still seems to many to epitomize Baltimore.
“Am I thinking of using my site’s name on a tee shirt or a mug? I am and I will,” said Bruce Goldfarb, founder of “Welcome to Baltimore, Hon,” a website that’s been active for about a year that catalogues Baltimore’s quirky characters, history and general zeitgeist.
But what if making and selling such products would bring legal action from Whiting?
“I would relish that: bring it on!” said Goldfarb, a freelance writer who believes Whiting’s claim to the word “hon” on tee-shirts, mugs, pens etc. is “a pretty broad claim” on something in such widespread use it would never hold up.
“I just patented the crab cake: hey, now she owes me money!” Goldfarb said. “That’s what I have to say to her.”
Likewise, William P. Tandy, creator of the ‘zine series “Smile Hon, you’re in Baltimore,” told The Baltimore Messenger he has no plans to stop his activities.
But Whiting says she has lavished time and money on nurturing the “hon” brand and deserves to both profit from it and serve as keeper of the flame, protecting an economic development tool for the city from misuse.
“I took ownership of it,” she told The Baltimore Sun.” “No one along the line has celebrated it or created as much with it as I have. When I started doing Cafe Hon in 1992, 18 and a half years ago, where was the city then? Where was Hampden? So you could say I took a little word, celebrated it and created change. Big change.”
Whiting’s lawyer told the Sun her client is not trying to stop people from saying the word, just from using it to make a profit. Turns out Whiting has had the trademark for awhile, confronting others who have put “hon” on souvenirs. She charged a non-profit $25 to hold a Hon themed fundraiser, according to the Sun, and is pondering ways to profit off the trademark, including asking the city to put a parking lot in Hampden near her restaurant if they come to her and ask to use “hon” in a tourism campaign.
Online comments have been overwhelmingly, sometimes viciously, anti-Whiting, calling her a carpetbagger, “money-grubber,” and “parasite.”
“Her ego matches the prices in her dive,” one wrote.
“You did not invent a product; you stole a local phrase complete with its history and unique culture and exploited it for your personal profit,” another said. “And now you have the audacity to claim legal ownership. Have you been eating lead paint?”
Whiting, who often compares herself with beloved-or-reviled Oprah Winfrey, told Larry Perl, of The Messenger, who broke the story Thursday, that the matter has been blown out of proportion.
“I have done nothing wrong,” she said
A kitsch claim staked
Whiting opened her Hampden restaurant 18 years ago and themed it to “celebrate” the image of the woman in the cat’s-eye glasses who scrubbed marble steps in 1950s Baltimore and turned up later in John Waters movies.
Since then, Hampden has prospered with trendy boutiques and restaurants and Whiting has marketed the concept with “hon” paraphernalia, the annual Honfest, the Little Miss Hon contest etc.
“Hon” became a noun (like “townie” or “guido” or “yuppie” ), as well as a term of endearment (like “sweetie.”)
“You want a refill, hon?” Baltimore waitresses still say.
The “hon” image has apparently supplanted sailing ships at the Inner Harbor as the main marketing motif for the city, judging by the art on the most recent New York Times travel piece on Baltimore.
Waters himself has gotten royally sick of it: “To me, it’s used up,” he said, in 2008. “It’s condescending now.”
“The people who come to Café Hon these days, they’re not from Baltimore City, they’re slumming, they’re yukking it up about ‘hons,’ laughing at them,” he said. “It’s like a minstrel show.”
Fake fur flying over this one!
Whiting’s defenders and her more numerous critics have been going at it online.
“She simply wants to know that that Word and the Style of the ‘HON’ is not doing anything to tarnish what she has built. And your just jealous because you didnt think of it…” jrbuck32 commented, on a Messenger story.
But Bawlmerhon shoots back: “No I did not think of it and neither did she !! Beehives and Cat Eeye glasses have been around for far longer than she has! What’s next trademarking Steamed Crabs ??”
On the Facebook page, the reaction has been more mocking, defiant and creative.
“Did you hear Hampden’s going to host its first reggae festival this summer? Get ready for MONfest 2011!”
“If I were to use a picture of my grandmother from the 60′s to sell something, you’re telling me this woman should get a piece? Will someone with a law degree and some money please tie this up in court?!!”
“I suggest everyone produce one item with “Hon” on it and place it one ebay for sale. Let Denise sue hundreds of us.”
Perhaps nobody in town has thought about hons in as many different ways as Alvarez, who asked to be described as “a local-born writer who has covered the authentic ‘hons’ and their families in Baltimore for 30 years. ” And then he pretty much went off. Some of the printable excerpts:
“This is what these disneyland hons don’t understand. A real ‘hon’ has no sense of irony about Baltimore they just ARE. And if you tried to make fun of them by talking or dressing a certain way they would punch you in the face. That is Baltimore.”
“When my mother, ‘a true hon,’ thinks people are making fun of her, she has been known to retort: ‘SMELL ME!’ That is a hon.”
“She hasn’t worn a beehive in 40 years – ‘too much trouble.’ A real hon wants to be comfortable. The Whitings of the world won’t let a hon evolve. To them, everyone is stuck in 1962. But the hons endure … to this day, from Arbutus to Dundalk and all points in between.”