For Denise Whiting, there's no turning back on HONFest. The offbeat street festival that celebrates the beehive hairdo and the daffy, sweet-natured women who wear them is now in its 23rd year, and for Whiting, its founder, it's a signature event on the Hampden calendar.
Whiting, who owns Café Hon, on 36th Street, or just "The Avenue," says HONFest represents the heart of a community that continues to develop while managing to retain its sense of identity, from a rising dining scene to the funky antique, clothing and record shops that mark the fiercely anti-chain store stance of neighborhood retailers.
While the real Hons, depicted with masterful detail in John Waters' classic film ode to 1960's Baltimore, "Hairspray," may have receded in real life as styles changed, their endearing and oddball attitude has not, Whiting said.
HONFest, which stretches the four blocks from Falls Road to Chestnut Avenue, will be held June 11 and 12, and Whiting, 57, can become emotional when talking about the ideals behind her creation.
"They are based on our past but are not a thing of the past; Hons are in our hearts," she said recently. "It's all about moms taking care of people, being that person in the family that really holds things together in the community, and the church suppers and looking out for the kids in the neighborhood when the other mothers are working.
"It's the inner kindness and love that every single person has, and that's what epitomizes the whole Hon culture. I thought on the 20th year for HONFest, 'I don't think I'm going to do it anymore,' but there's so much love and happiness in the air, I can't possibly stop. That's the story."
HONFest is also about spectacular splashes of color, clothing and flamboyance that give the event a Mardi Gras feel.
Hons, both men and women, love the tacky: leopard-print dresses, pink flamingo feather stoles, plastic sunglasses with fake pearl chains, and wigs and real hair piled high as a chimney.
"It's a ball; it's so much fun," said Carol Breining, owner of the Mud and Metal crafts shop on The Avenue for the past 21 years. "Lots of pink feathers; everybody has a good time. It's very entertaining just to watch the people. Plus, you have the music and arts and crafts. It's very celebratory. It's very: Here we are! We are embracing who we are, and we're having a damn good time."
Artists at Breining's shop have come up with a few specials just for HONFest, including coffee mugs inscribed, "Someone in Hampden Loves You" and another with a more risqué greeting.
"It's one of the wonderful events that pulls us all together and makes us all work together and benefit everyone coming in to experience the event," Breining said. "The most wonderful thing about Hampden is that the merchants really work together to make it a great experience to be here. We're not competing against each other."
All the stores and restaurants on The Avenue will try to do something a little special for HONfest.
The new Daniela Restaurant, which opened in April after the owner, Daniela Useli, expanded from her tiny storefront pasta and pastry shop down the block, plans to serve cocktails for passers-by from the porch balcony.
"We'll have wine, too, and probably some Italian beers as well, if that will be possible," said her nephew, Luca Useli. "I want to do Negroni and Compari, Italian stuff, but if somebody comes and asks me for Long Island Iced Tea, I'll make it. We want everybody to be happy."
Whiting said about 80 vendors, mostly food and crafts, will line the street, while full lineups are scheduled for three music stages. HONFest also will host its second annual oyster shucking contest with renowned shucker George Hastings and oyster-shucking knife designer Dale German judging.
Following up on last year's "Boys of Hampden" calendar, a "Girls of Hampden" response will be sold in stores with proceeds benefiting the Hampden Family Center. There also will be a dunking booth raising money to pay for the calendar. Whiting, who modeled as a mermaid for the calendar, promised to be in the booth toward the end of Sunday but said it will cost $1,000 to take a shot at her.
There will be a "Hug a Hon" booth if you need a little TLC; a Glamour Lounge, with Hon stylists eager to convert you; and the Best Hon Contest at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
"The HONFest is a city tradition now," said Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents District 14. "Because of the nature of the neighborhood and the policies of not trying to find chains, you have a lot of wonderful characters, people, running these businesses. They all have personalities and stories to tell. It's just enjoyable. Just to go shop just to be with the owners is fun. We want to keep it in the family, to meet people as well as come to buy things."
Clarke, 74, said she plans to start at one end of HONFest, walk down one side, cross the street and head back. "It takes me half a day," she said. "I'll take pictures and see people I don't usually see."
Hampden is a tightly packed residential neighborhood listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and Clarke said that, at times, its businesses and homeowners have knocked heads.
"Everybody just wants to be able to breathe," she said.
Ernie Grill, 92, a retired firefighter, and his wife Elaine, 80, who worked for 41 years in the insurance business, have lived in the 3600 block of Roland Avenue, right off the main strip, for about 50 years.
Grill used to complain loudly about the trash from HONFest but said he has since made peace with Whiting. The Grills sit on their porch every day and will be out there for HONFest, perhaps making only a brief venture into the maelstrom.
"A couple years ago, [Whiting] had a HONFest, and she gave out yellow shirts," Grill said, "and I had a yellow shirt and yellow socks and a yellow hat. She had this big thing down there where they made crab cakes, didn't they, Elaine? Right down on the corner. Big crab cakes. I got the first one. And I walk up The Avenue, and I'm all in yellow, and she's in one of the restaurants and said, "Mr. Grill! What'd you think of my crab cake?' I said, 'It was all right, but Friendly Farms has better ones!"
Grill and his wife started laughing at the story.
"Hons? We get along very good now," he said.