Time to restore a smile to Baltimore's official face

November 28, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SOMEWHERE OUT there on the side of a highway, which is his natural habitat, is a man with a paintbrush and a dream. He is the Hon Man. A long time ago, in a more uptight era, the city of Baltimore talked itself out of his benevolent gifts. But now a new day is arriving at City Hall, and it is time for the Hon Man to come in from the cold.

Remember the Hon Man's dream, Bawlamer? It goes back to the early days of this grim city decade, when that first official inscription appeared on the last stretch of the Baltimore- Washington Parkway, just as Oriole Park at Camden Yards came into view.

"Welcome to Baltimore," the sign read.

But then, in an inspirational burst that seemed to arrive from the very heart of a Highlandtown front stoop, or a raw bar counter at Lexington Market, the sign was hand-lettered to read:

"Welcome to Baltimore, Hon."

Hon.

It seemed so sweet, and so heartfelt. And so unself-consciously Bawlamer, shedding its formality even in its printed bureaucratese.

And, not to be minimized, it seemed a public relations gift from the gods, all the unpretentious mother- tongue familiarity of the city summed up in three letters that delivered a roadside hug to the entire world as it arrived on our doorstep.

It's a no-brainer from there. You figure out the obvious -- that everyone entering the city from someplace else will return home and tell their friends about this sign capturing the open friendliness of Baltimore from their moment of arrival -- and then you make as many of those signs as you can, and put them on every entrance here from highways to rail lines.

At which point, things being how they were, the exact opposite happened. All the brilliant and high-minded people in government around here took what was intended to be a smile and knocked out all of its teeth.

Now the time has come to turn this around. The mayoral administration of Martin O'Malley moves into office in the next 10 days, looking to shed the dreariness of the last 10 years. It begins with a simple step: Lighten up. Embrace the city's idiosyncrasies, the things that make us unique -- and run with them.

The deep thinkers in the Schmoke administration kept tear- ing down the "hon" sign. Then the language police got into the act. They found sexism where none was intended. Stuffy university professors wondered aloud if "hon" really was linguistically peculiar to Baltimore.

When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke went to Annapolis one morning six winters ago, he found himself facing a semi-serious legislative proposal to blackmail the city into adopting "hon" or risk the loss of state financial support.

The mayor chuckled uncomfortably and said he'd think about it. Then he jumped into a car and got himself out of Annapolis before the joking got too heavy-handed.

By this time, he knew the grumbling about "hon" and didn't want to get anywhere near it.

The grumbling came from some politicians who found racial exclusionism in what was intended as a simple endearment.

Larry Young, for example. The former senator, who now hosts a morning talk show on the radio, said "hon" was a term used strictly by white people and was thus inappropriate to use as a municipal welcome for people of varying colors.

"Maybe it should say, `Welcome to Baltimore, Bro,' " Young suggested.

To which many immediately pointed out that Young needed to hang around more white teen-agers, for whom the term "bro" was both a standard greeting and an unspoken acknowledgment that the street parlance of black teens was a barometer of cool for adolescents of all colors.

But Young's point is well taken.

Yes, "hon" is mostly a white expression. And, to be accurate, only certain whites, mainly out of the working-class eastern and southern parts of the city use it -- so harmlessly, and with such warmth and affection over so many years, that many others have adopted it as their own good-natured patois.

But, since the original "hon" sign was intended as an embrace, and not a stiff-arm, why not also go for "Bro"?

The city is home to those of all backgrounds. Why not let the municipal welcome signs reflect this? Who says signs have to be boring?

Acknowledge the richness of the city, and put the appropriate welcome in all the municipal languages: Polish and Italian and Chinese and Greek, Indian and Spanish and Korean and Yiddish.

And stick a "hon" on the end of it.

Or a "bro."

Or anything that tells the world a little bit about who we are. We talk a little funny, and we make fun of that simple fact. We slough off all formality, and we laugh at that.

And we know how to have fun with our self-image, instead of making each other nuts over a smile that we inexplicably wiped off our own faces.

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