Once seen only on cartoon characters and nerdy inventors, the propeller-topped beanie has become the hippest -- make that the freshest -- headgear among black youths in Baltimore, who have launched a trend now spreading to other East Coast cities.
In fact, the multicolored beanie has become so coveted that it, like Nike sneakers and leather jackets, already has figured in an alleged crime. A 10-year-old is charged with using a pistol to hold up a 9-year-old East Baltimore boy for his beanie.
But for most wearers, the beanie is about style rather than stealing, and police say no other crimes involving the hot hat have been reported.
Most kids seem to want the beanie for an age-old reason: "I saw one of my friends wearing one," said Ronald Johnson, 13, his propeller twirling gaily atop his head as he talked with admiring friends outside Tench Tilghman Elementary School.
Baltimore's quick jump on the trend has swamped the beanie's seller.
"Baltimore is the beanie capital of the world," declared Stacy Samuels, the Berkeley, Calif.-based manufacturer of the multicolored prop-caps. "I have 35 stores there ordering them. And it's already spreading to Washington and Philadelphia."
In the unpredictable yet trackable way that fads cut their swath through the country, this one apparently can be traced to a rap artist named Kwame, who wears a beanie in a video released about six months ago, "Oneofdabigboiz."
Brian Randolph, a 20-year-old sales clerk at the Baltimore clothing store Seif's, saw the video, bought a hat for himself, wore it to work and persuaded his boss to stock them.
And the rest, as they say, is retailing history. Others have started selling them too, usually charging between $10 -- the price set by a street vendor at Madison and Milton streets -- to $14.50 at Hats in the Belfry at Harborplace.
Mr. Randolph bought his beanie at Hats in the Belfry, which now sells as many as 144 of the caps in one weekend. Seif's has sold more than 1,000 hats in the two months since its stores in Mondawmin and Old Town malls began carrying them.
"Right now, it's 100 percent city blacks," Gilbert Goetz, owner of Seif's, said of his buyers. "But I have a couple [white] salesmen who come in and buy them for their kids and their friends."
Baltimore has surpassed the former No. 1 beanie customer, Disneyland, in per capita sales, says Mr. Samuels, a hippie turned entrepreneur who first made the cap about 15 years ago for a friend, the '60s figure Wavy Gravy. He has steadily increased production since then, catching a sudden wave of popularity this year.
"I sold 100,000 last year, and I'll probably sell twice that this year because of Baltimore," said Mr. Samuels, whose other "occupation" is as "Banjo Man," the super fan who wears a beanie and cape to lead cheers for the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Athletics.
Although just about everyone calls them beanies, these toppers aren't quite the hats of "Beanie and Cecil" fame that older generations might recall. Rather, Mr. Samuels said his innovation is that baseball caps rather than bill-less beanies form the base for the requisite propeller.
Mr. Samuels said he's heard that some drug dealers have adopted his hat, replacing former headgear of choice, such as Los Angeles Raiders caps. He's unfazed by that, saying, "It can only make it a better world. That's the idea of the hats."
Some parents worry about the connotation, though.
"He asked me to buy the hat, but I don't like them because of the image that they cut -- of drug dealers, of being bad," said Tina Katz, a Baltimore woman who nonetheless succumbed to the request of her 6-year-old son, Sam Cox. Underneath his beanie, Sam silently sucked his thumb and refused to comment.
Schools have not reported any fights among students over them, said Karen Poe, a spokeswoman for Baltimore schools.
The school dress code prohibits hats of any sort inside schools, she said.
One principal said she thinks the trend is "an East Baltimore thing."
As for Mr. Randolph, the sales clerk who helped create the craze in Baltimore, well, he's so far ahead of the curve that he's already stopped wearing his beanie.
So remember, you heard it here first: Mr. Randolph is now wearing a sun visor that looks like a chicken with a face on the bill, a tail in the back and wings on the side.