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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Who You Calling 'Hon'?

Baltimore's love affair with its quirky greeting is being tested by a changing population, overexposure and, now, a lawsuit over its use.

September 02, 2002|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BALTIMORE — It is a simple pleasantry, bandied on row house stoops and in hair salons and greasy spoons, a glottal Chesapeake endearment that has come to embody the off-kilter charm of this harbor city. For years, out of shared instinct and habit, Baltimoreans have addressed customers, strangers and each other as "hon."

In a tough town that cherishes its idiosyncrasies like dueling scars, the word has taken on a life of its own. "Hon" has become Baltimore's winking tribute to itself, a greeting that has cropped up in films, inspired a restaurant and beauty pageant, and been unofficially appended to one of its highway welcome signs.

But there is gathering discontent in the Land of Hon. The greeting sometimes comes off as a barb, curdled by class, racial and gender differences.

It is now at issue in a lawsuit filed against the Maryland State Police by a suburban Baltimore computer systems analyst who claims that a female state trooper went ballistic, arresting and mistreating him, after he called her "Hon" during an August 1999 traffic stop. When word of the lawsuit surfaced this summer, the "hon" case became a sensation on television news and radio talk shows.

Even in the city's blue-collar bastions, where the word is inescapable, some residents are beginning to bridle at the pervasiveness of Hon Culture. The city's demographics are changing. Affluent newcomers are replacing retiring working stiffs. Old neighborhoods are transforming. The gap between them extends even to their use of "hon"--between those who have used the greeting since childhood and those who have appropriated it as part of their new scenery.

"It's habit with me," said Frank J. Iula Jr., the analyst who is suing Trooper Kelly Austin in Baltimore County Circuit Court for wrongful arrest--the charges against him were dropped. "I call everyone 'hon.' I even call my son 'hon.' "

Stopped for going 78 mph in a 55-mph zone, Iula said, he stepped out to hand Austin his license and registration. When ordered back into his car, he said, "Look, hon, I'm trying to explain myself." Austin, Iula said, was enraged. When he called her "hon" again, she handcuffed and arrested him.

Austin declined to comment, but Maj. Greg M. Shipley, state police spokesman, said Iula "was not arrested for calling her 'hon' or anything else. He was legitimately stopped for violating the speed limit and failing to obey three orders from a police officer to return to his car."

Shipley and Iula's lawyer, J. Wyndal Gordon, disagree over whether police have a legal basis to arrest people for failing to obey orders to return to their cars. But of one thing Gordon and Iula are certain: the power of a pleasant word to get under a trooper's skin.

"I said 'hon' and all hell broke loose," Iula said. In a court deposition in March, Austin explained her reaction to the word. "You do not address people [that way]. You address people by their title." When Iula called her "hon," she added: "I interrupted him and said that he could address me as 'trooper.' "

Most Baltimoreans seem to maneuver through their daily "hon" exchanges without incident. The endearment is now so knitted within the fabric of everyday life here that it has become inspiration for entrepreneurs, artists and urban guerrillas.

A Baltimore restaurant, Cafe Hon, sponsors an annual Hon Fest--a pageant for ladies sporting bush-sized beehive hairdos. Last month, film director John Waters imported Hon Culture to Broadway in a musical version of "Hairspray," his nostalgic paean to the tacky travails of 1950s-era Baltimore.

Then there's "Hon Man," an anonymous mischief-maker who has spent a decade adding "Hon" to a "Welcome to Baltimore" sign erected on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway just south of the city. His placards are quickly torn down by authorities, leading him to tape up new ones within hours.

" 'Hon' is Baltimore," said the retired cab driver, who declines to reveal his name in print. "It's what you always hear in the blue-collar neighborhoods. It's a nicety, you know? Now who can have a problem with that?"

Yet even in the harbor-side neighborhoods where "hons" fill the air like gulls swarming above the docks, some Baltimoreans would just as well declare a "hon" moratorium.

"I get offended when I hear it," confided hairdresser Jaye Marquez, 36, as she waited out the end of her shift at Hair Systems Ltd. in Highlandtown. "It sounds like the old Baltimore to me, and I don't want any part of it."

Highlandtown, an east Baltimore enclave of working-class families near the freight docks, could well be Hon Central.

Hair Systems customer Al Bruno, 80, does not break stride--even behind a walker--as he regales Marquez and stylist Trish Freyer with a double dose of the usual. "Hi, hon; hi, hon," Bruno said with a wave, nearly tipping over the massive black toupee he had just readjusted on his pate.

Unlike Marquez, Freyer likes being called "hon." "I say it a lot, but that's just the way I was raised, hon."

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