In the beginning was the word. And the word was Hoosier.
-- Howard Peckham, Indiana: A Bicentennial History
The fifteen-minute short film "Hoosiers Are From Mars" is devoid of opening credits. Instead, a pack of silhouettes -- one clearly boasting a mullet-coiffed noggin -- emerges in front of a tangerine sunset and an American (or is it Confederate?) flag. Cue celestial Star Wars background music and scroll, the text of which addresses a certain unique St. Louis phenomenon:
A long time ago, in an uncivilized town far, far away ...
According to Webster's Dictionary, Hoosier is a nickname for a native or resident of Indiana.
But Midwestern folklore tells of another use of the word "hoosier" hidden to everyone except residents of Saint Louis, Missouri (pronounced Missoura).
Saint Louisans agree that hoosier is a noun but use the term negatively to describe individuals a step above white trash.
After years of secrecy, a band of inbred Saint Louisans united to reveal the true meaning of the word to the rest of the world.
It is out of respect for the ancestors and the progeny of Saint Louis residents that the silence is now broken ...
Cut to a shot of the Gateway Arch as seen when one is heading east on Market Street downtown. A red Trans Am whizzes along with two hoosiers onboard, followed closely -- too closely -- by a lone man in a beat-up Dodge pickup, sporting a mullet. As the Dodge tailgates the Pontiac onto southbound I-55, the Sammy Hagar classic "I Can't Drive 55" blares at top volume.
Suddenly the hoosier driver flips off the pickup's pilot. "Hey, jackass! Hey, dickhead! Pull the car over, you fucking hoosier!" he yells, as Mullet maneuvers alongside him in the adjoining lane. "Your fucking mullet -- get a fuckin' haircut! You'll get your fuckin' ass kicked, you understand? You do not tailgate like that, you motherfucker!"
A dream sequence ensues in which Hoosier Driver vanquishes Mullet with a green light saber and some well-placed judo kicks while his sidekick, Hoosier Passenger, smashes the pickup's taillights.
The frame flips to the hoosier pair exiting a Washington Avenue meat market at closing time with two sleazy-looking divas in tow. Their first stop: White Castle. As the gents wolf down their burgers, one of the girls encourages them to share.
"Can I have a bite?" asks Hoosier Girl Number One, a tall, big-haired blonde clad in a flashy silver dress that resembles aluminum foil.
"I think she's talkin' to you," Hoosier Passenger says to his buddy.
"She's talkin' to you, you cheap hoosier," replies his cohort. The two men break into mocking laughter and refuse to share their grease, much to the dismay of their backseat belles.
Outside the gents' crash pad, the ladies are invited up for some Busch beer and a cuddle.
"Well, I do have to go to the bathroom," says Hoosier Girl Number Two, a short, busty bottle blonde.
A quickie game of Rock-Paper-Scissors ensues to determine which hoosier gets first pick of the pair. Hoosier Driver wins. As Hoosier Girl Number Two goes off to use the bathroom, he throws the mack down on the tall blonde in the kitchen.
"Shouldn't we go in there?" she says, pointing to the bedroom.
"I think we're fine right here," he says, peppering her with kisses.
"What about your roommate?" she inquires.
"Don't worry about him -- he's gay."
Just then her friend emerges from the can, and Hoosier Girl Number One excuses herself to use the facilities. With his pal passed out on the couch, Hoosier Driver wastes no time in moving right in on Hoosier Girl Number Two -- only to be abruptly cut off by the taller blonde, who has quickly wrapped up her bathroom break.
"Fucking hoosier!" cries Hoosier Girl Number One, slapping our hero's face.
"Hoosier? You're the hoosier!" he fires back.
"I can't be a hoosier!" she blurts, making a beeline for the door. "I'm from Granite City!"
"I don't know what it is about Hoosiers," said Hazel, "but they've sure got something. If somebody was to make a list, they'd be amazed."
-- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle
The etymology and meaning of the term "hoosier" has been a matter of debate for centuries. And it seems the more the word is studied, the muddier its definition becomes. When Jeffrey Graf, a 29-year veteran of the reference department of the Indiana University at Bloomington library, set out on his own scholastic search for the origins and significance of "hoosier," he ended up with a 24-page essay that only served to stoke the confusion wrought by the mysterious little term.
"It's always been a matter of curiosity, I think because it's so unusual," reports Graf. "It's always mentioned in any sort of longish work about the state. And it's interesting, because they haven't quite solved the riddle of its derivation."
In his essay, which is accessible online at www.indiana.edu/~librcsd/internet/extra/hoosier.html, Graf cites nearly 50 possible origins for the term, most of which reflect simpleton tendencies at best and, at worst, downright human filth. The most outlandishly entertaining of the possible explanations comes from the poet James Whitcomb Riley, who was quoted by Jacob Piat Dunn in the latter's 1907 article "The Word Hoosier" as saying in conversation, "The real origin is found in the pugnacious habits of the early settlers. They were vicious fighters; and not only gouged and scratched, but frequently bit off noses and ears. This was so ordinary an affair that a settler coming into a bar room on a morning after a fight, and seeing an ear on the floor, would merely push it aside with his foot and carelessly ask, 'Who's [sic] ear?'"
Although many have dismissed the "Whose Ear?" story as the product of Riley's imagination, a bemused Dunn deems the theory "quite as plausible, and almost as well-sustained by historical evidence, as any of the others."
"It's absolutely lost any derogatory meaning in Indiana," says Graf. "It's not the first time somebody has adopted a term that could be perceived as derogatory. I suppose it's the same as adopting 'Quakers' for Society of Friends. They were called Quakers because they shook before the Lord. Methodists were accused of being methodical in their beliefs.
"I don't know that it [Hoosier] means much of anything anymore. It means you live in Indiana," Graf goes on. "'Hoosier' in Indiana is ubiquitous -- in names of tire companies, oil suppliers. I can't think of another state where you might refer to its inhabitants by its nickname. 'Hoosier' basically eclipsed the old debate between 'Indianan' and 'Indianian.'"
The St. Louis usage of the term does earn a brief mention in Graf's hoosier opus. Here Graf refers to a 1987 article on the topic in Names: The Journal of the American Name Society, in which author Thomas E. Murray (now an English professor at Kansas State University) notes that in St. Louis, "hoosier" occupies "the honored position of being the city's number one term of derogation."
Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Elaine Viets concurs. "I've always defined a hoosier as someone who goes to a family reunion for a date," says Viets, corresponding by e-mail from her home in Hollywood, Florida, where she now writes mystery novels full-time. "In St. Louis, it means a low-rent person -- much lower than a redneck. You can be born a redneck, but you must sink to hoosier status."
A wee bit harsh -- until you consider that, while at the Post-Dispatch, Viets offered the following: "Hoosiers are destroyers: They get into fistfights and people are always calling the police about them. They have a car on concrete blocks in the front yard and are likely to have shot their wife, who may also be their sister."
St. Louis lawyer Bob Reinhold takes a slightly different view. "If I ask people, 'Are you a Bosnian?' they'll say yes. Nobody admits they're a hoosier," says Reinhold, who wrote a term paper on the term's local usage while a student at St. Louis University some 35 years ago. "Basically I came to the conclusion that 'hoosier' was a term that should not be used because it's a negative connotation that has more connection with class snobbery than anything else. I do not approve of the use of the term."
"Would you rather be a Puke?" snorts the learned Graf, invoking a nineteenth-century term used to denigrate Missourians.
He has a face like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.
-- Walt Whitman, describing Abraham Lincoln in a letter to friends
Based on an actual foray by childhood friends Paul Henroid and Ali Shah into the St. Louis night, "Hoosiers Are From Mars" -- which debuted at last year's St. Louis International Film Festival -- is only the tip of the iceberg for what Henroid, the film's screenwriter and producer, envisions as a franchise based on the local use of the term. (Shah stars in the short as Hoosier Driver and is also credited as co-creator.) The pair, who are planning a Web site, have wrapped production on a sequel, "Hoosiers: Attack of the Clones," and are about to begin filming the series' third installment, "Hoosiers: Find the Venus," a dialogue-heavy chick flick for hoosiers that's as sharply cerebral as the first film was base. Although "Hoosiers Are From Mars" has only screened in St. Louis, Henroid and Shah are marketing it to the festival circuit and hope to meld their series of shorts into a feature-length film someday.
Past personal connections proved key in casting the ultra-low-budget first film. Henroid knew "Hoosier Passenger" Kevin Roark through a mutual friend; Shah and production coordinator Ted Burke tracked down Shah's former Oakville Senior High School classmate Dianna Wilson to play Hoosier Girl Number Two.
Henroid and Shaw grew up together in Oakville. Despite attending different high schools -- Henroid went to Vianney in Kirkwood, Shah to Oakville High -- the pair remained friends and hoosier-folklore enthusiasts. Henroid, who worked his way through Washington University Law School as a stripper, saw his Perry Mason aspirations dashed in his mid-twenties by a felony invasion-of-privacy conviction involving a hidden camera and intimate acts with several unwitting co-stars. After stints in California and Colorado, he started anew in the field of film production (irony, anyone?), writing and directing several documentaries -- including the award-winning "Lemp: The Haunting History" -- before teaming with Shah for the hoosier series.
"All white trash are hoosiers, but all hoosiers are not white trash," opines the 30-year-old Henroid. "White trash cannot have money; a hoosier can. One might say a hoosier is white trash with credit. For example, there is a rare breed of hoosier who comes across money and, shortly thereafter, immediately purchases a Corvette and speedboat.
"The holistic approach of determining hoosierdom is based on the totality of circumstances," Henroid continues. "That is, one would look at the number of hoosier versus nonhoosier traits prior to making a judgment."
One exception, Henroid cautions, is the hairstyle: If you've got a mullet, you're a hoosier, no matter what.
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where he has worked as an actor, entertainment-technology specialist and martial-arts instructor for the past six years, the 31-year-old Shah attempts to put a human face on his pal's pontifications.
"Hoosier is more about the behavior," says Shah. "A [martial-arts] student invited me to a black-tie benefit for Kirk Douglas out here. Beverly Hilton, ridiculously expensive -- chances are, every one of the guests has more money than the average upper-middle-class [individual] in St. Louis. I go into a bathroom, there're three guys in front of me. Not one of them washes their hands. Five minutes later, I could be shaking this guy's hand after he touched his cock in the bathroom. That's hoosier, man. These guys are probably not hoosiers, but did they act like it? Absolutely.
"People think just because they've got a college education and a nice house that they can make fun of hoosiers," Shah goes on. "But do they act like hoosiers sometimes? Sure. Paul and I openly admit it. I could be at Imo's, and I'll be so hungry that I'll be eyeing leftover pizza on someone's table and I'll be thinking about eating it. Paul let me listen one time to a message from a guy he'd never met who's looking for work from Paul. The guy is pissing while he's leaving this message, and he actually mentions it. You can actually hear the piss hitting the toilet."
Shah is just getting warmed up.
"A guy with a mullet down to his ass driving around in a '78 Camaro that he spray-painted himself -- that's obvious and typical stuff. What's just as important to me is that it's not always that obvious," he says. "Sometimes it's not the action, it's the motivation. I used to steal toilet paper from work or school in college. Is that cheap? Sure. Is that clever? Sure. Can that be hoosier? Sure. A single mom on food stamps taking toilet paper -- that's survival. You get a middle-class white kid and he's just too lazy to buy the toilet paper -- that's hoosier.
"Laziness can be a big factor of hoosierism. That's absolute."
IROC isn't just a car, it's a way of life.
-- Brad from Illinois, as posted on www.njguido.com, a Web site celebrating buff, tanned, macho Jersey Shore clubgoers
At four o'clock on a weekday afternoon, while most of St. Louis' adult population is clockwatching at work, the several dozen patrons of Hooch and Sixteen's in Granite City are listening to David Allan Coe on the jukebox and downing schooners of lager poured by a comely young bartender -- the only woman in the establishment. There's snow on the ground outside, but rock musician Rosco Villa is insisting that cold weather is no inhibitor to one particular hoosier pastime.
"They'll barbecue anywhere, including snow," says Villa, an Edwardsville native who says virtually all of the country-punk songs he writes for his latest band, Slick Kitty, are about hoosiers.
Tall, lean and tattooed, clad in cowboy boots, black Hustler T-shirt and blue jeans accessorized with wallet chain, Villa lacks only the mullet that would cinch his hoosierdom to even the most untrained pair of eyes. But that's cool -- Villa's hoosier and proud of it, a self-awareness that he claims is sorely lacking among his beer-swilling brethren.
"Most hoosiers are in denial," asserts Villa (who, incidentally, says hoosiers can indeed hail from Granite City). "You have pride when you say, 'Look at this house I bought.' Their sense of pride is funny, like, 'I just screwed some fat girl.' I was just sitting at the bar, and that was the conversation," he confides.
"I don't necessarily think calling someone a hoosier is derogatory, 'cause I have friends who are hoosiers," says Villa. "I work in construction. There's a different mentality. Hoosiers will say the wrong thing and not know any better. At a funeral, instead of offering their condolences, they'd say, 'Shit happens.' A friend of mine wants to get an El Camino because, he says, 'It's got room in the front for two of my girlfriends and my wife in back.'"
Another anecdote: "I'm hanging out with this guy from work. We go to a strip bar. There's this stripper hanging out at our table, kissing his butt. When she left, he's, like, 'Dude, I think she wants it.' I tried to convince him otherwise -- 'Dude, you're a moron' -- but he probably dropped $150 on her."
Although the term is most often employed to describe men, Villa begs to differ: "For every hoosier man, there's a hoosier chick. Say you're out on a date and she jumps up on the table and starts dancing to ZZ Top," he hypothesizes. "You just went out with a hoosier woman."
Can one isolate common hoosier traits?
Villa reels them off: cigarettes, whiskey, fat girls, Milwaukee's Best beer, NASCAR fanaticism, bumper stickers.
"A hoosier might not be able to put together a proper sentence," he concludes, "but that motherfucker can rebuild your transmission."
Two rifles placed above the door;
Three dogs lay stretched upon the floor --
In short, the domicile was rife
With specimens of "Hoosher" life
-- John Finley, "The Hoosher's Nest," 1833
Henroid and Shah aren't the only St. Louisans to have assayed an artistic interpretation of the enigmatic term. Late last year at Lemmons on Gravois, playwright Kevin O'Brien began staging "White Castle Dinner Theatre," a highfalutin musical parody of the hoosier lifestyle in which patrons are served an array of White Castle treats with the price of admission -- with the express cooperation of the Columbus, Ohio-based baby-burger behemoth. The production, which features musical numbers based on well-known hoosier shortcomings ("Why can't the hoosiers teach their children how to choose opera over Springer, over Shemp the rancid Stooge," goes one jingle), is scheduled for a run at the Bevo Mill this spring.
"Hoosiers are completely unpretentious and make a great audience," says O'Brien, whose Upstage Productions presents interactive murder mysteries around the Midwest. "The hoosier is always somebody else; that's one of the reasons why it's safe to make fun of them."
O'Brien, who spent a good portion of his adolescence in Washington, Missouri, points to that nearby town's sparse knowledge of the term as evidence of the phenomenon's tight geographic constraints.
"It's limited to a pretty tight radius," he notes.
O'Brien's artistic embrace of the St. Louis meaning of the term caught some of his loyal fans around the region by surprise. "When I read all this jargon about hoosiers in his newsletter, I sent him an e-mail asking him where he got his facts," recalls Evansville, Indiana, resident Patty Hudson-Ward, who has partaken of two O'Brien productions. "That's when I learned that the term was used to describe a class of residents in St. Louis and had absolutely nothing to do with Indiana natives. I asked a few people if any of them knew about the use of the term 'hoosier' in St. Louis, and only one did: my husband. His work includes the St. Louis area. He said, very often, St. Louis residents refer to him as a hoosier, knowing he is from Indiana but poking fun at their own intended meaning of the word for a joke."
For his part, O'Brien can't resist a jab at Hudson-Ward and her statemates: "It's like if someone was from the idiot state and they said, 'I'm an idiot!' They don't know what it really means. They've corrupted it."
Kelly Collins, regional marketing supervisor for White Castle, attended O'Brien's opening night and reports that he "found it very enjoyable." Still, Collins, like so many non-St. Louisans who aren't familiar with the local usage, was in the dark at first. "What [O'Brien] was describing wasn't familiar, but it was funny," he says. "But the way he was describing people in different communities, I got an understanding of what he was talking about. I could tell when he was describing an upscale neighborhood, when he was describing a neighborhood that was a little trashy.
"As far as poking fun of ourselves -- no, we wouldn't do that," Collins notes of his company's endorsement of the play. "We agreed to allow them to use our name because we liked the concept of a White Castle dinner theater. Any time people see your name, it's positive."
As far as O'Brien is concerned, "hoosier" and "urban white trash" are interchangeable terms. "White trash do a lot of things rednecks do, but they don't have the ambition," he says, citing stereotypical redneck passions such as hunting and fishing as advantageous behavioral traits. "White trash are despised in the country and city. The muffler falling off -- that's a defining characteristic. Hoosiers should be in the country, but they're in the city. Hoosiers are warm, generous, good-natured -- but you wouldn't want to live next to them."
The hoosier and the feudal proprietor agree together like oil and vinegar, like fire and water.
-- Harper's Weekly, February 21, 1857
On a snowy Friday night just before Soulard Mardi Gras, Paul Henroid picks up one of his hoosier-film crewmates, cameraman Pete McElligott, at McElligott's double-wide trailer -- dubbed the "hoosier house" -- near Festus. Together they head for the South St. Louis apartment of Kevin Roark (a.k.a. Hoosier Passenger).
A divorced military veteran who earns a living power-washing restaurant parking lots, the 27-year-old Roark is sitting on the couch/bed in his tiny apartment (where he lives rent-free in exchange for rehabbing the place), sipping from a can of Natural Light and suffering the aftereffects of a breakup with his longtime girlfriend.
Back on the road, the posse pulls up to the One Nite Stand on Gravois, a quintessential hoosier bar that boasts a Confederate flag on its marquee. Before entering, Roark sets his half-full Natty Light neatly outside the bar's door. Forty-five minutes later, on the way out, he picks up the can and consumes the remains.
"You know why I did that?" he asks rhetorically. "I'm a hoosier."
From there, the gang peels back onto Gravois for a rendezvous with Henroid's girlfriend and her party-animal mother in Soulard.
It is conveniently symbolic that Gravois -- a staunchly blue-collar strip that Roark refers to as "the Road to Hoosier" -- affords motorists a direct pavement pipeline from South St. Louis to Soulard, the two neighborhoods that constitute the alpha and omega of hoosierdom.
South City's neighborhoods are so closely associated with the term that Yelena Belyaeva-Standen, a St. Louis University linguistics professor who moved here six years ago from Russia, immediately picked up on the term.
"I lived in Carondelet, a hoosier area," says Belyaeva-Standen, who now resides in relatively hoosier-free Ladue. "'Hoosier' refers to men, mostly -- engaged in relatively low-skilled jobs, including mechanics, low-level maintenance, plumbers who lead nonchalant lives, outdoors, tan in the face, long hair. Associated with a six-pack of beer. I would say, also, rather untidy."
But not necessarily derogatory.
"I think 'white trash' is very derogatory," Belyaeva-Standen ventures. "I don't consider 'hoosier' a derogatory term. But it is not as nice as 'My neighbor was a plumber (and he was a very good plumber).'"
Playwright O'Brien argues that Soulard, too, boasts a rich hoosier history, although the area's renaissance, and the attendant uptick in property values, have threatened to eradicate the evidence.
"When I hung out in Soulard fifteen years ago, there were down-and-out hoosiers and ex-hippies who hung out at 1860's," O'Brien recalls, referring to the 1860's Hard Shell Café & Saloon, Ninth and Geyer streets. "They'd have parties and smoke pot all night, work as freelance house-rehabbers. Nowadays you have gays and yuppies. There are three distinct social strata."
Tracy Varley, co-director of the Mad Art Gallery on the neighborhood's southwestern edge, contends that Soulard's peak as a hoosier haven has long since passed.
"Attempting to brand Soulard as a hoosier epicenter is as off the mark as judging Audrey Hepburn by her hangnail," asserts Varley, a gregariously tangy redhead whose burly boyfriend and business partner, St. Louis County cop Ron Buechele, would likely dismember anyone who dared describe her as such. "After spending some time in the neighborhood, one realizes Soulard is more eclectic than hoosier, more money than drunk and clearly more svelte than pelt. It's the Brooklyn Heights of St. Louis. The property values alone on Twelfth Street undermine the hoosier ecosystem."
Perhaps, though, there exists a utopian hoosier caste system that sees working-class "hooletariat" intermingling with their slightly more upwardly mobile "hourgeois" brethren. Whereas a member of the hooletariat might worship NASCAR, sport a mullet, pour bourbon in his morning QuikTrip coffee jug, drive a dented Dodge truck and boast a South City homestead with a fridge on the porch, the hourgeois holds down a desk job at Anheuser-Busch, buys Blues season tickets, shoots Jägermeister to the point of incoherence on Sundays, rolls a mint Pontiac Fiero, barbecues pork steaks outdoors in the dead of winter and rents one-quarter of a four-family flat in Soulard -- where hoosiers of all stripes converge, in peace, after sunset.
At its core, Soulard's fate rests on the rails of its drinking establishments. Consider, if you will, that the head of the neighborhood's business association, Rudy Piskulic, manages a bar: Johnny's, on Russell Boulevard. And if there's one thing that unites all strains of hoosier, it's a penchant for gratuitous liquor consumption, as much in evidence at Johnny's as anywhere else. (In fact, during a recent Thursday happy hour there, a fat, balding, mustachioed clown could be seen attempting to pick up a waitress much younger than he amid the jukebox strains of Journey's "Only the Young" and the cacophony of motorcycles roaring past outside.)
Yes, as picturesque as the neighborhood has become, as European as it might feel during the daylight hours, Soulard still functions as a veritable Las Vegas for the hoosier night prowler. Though the quintessential hoosier may rest his head and buy his butts by the carton in South City, he hasn't realized his potential until he's racking up a DWI after Mardi Gras, belting out the lyrics to a George Thorogood song on karaoke night at Carson's or urinating like a Dandie Dinmont terrier on the redbrick walls and sidewalks of Soulard. There is a reason the neighborhood's name is spelled the way it is: Aspire as the area might to artisan chic, it is the hoosier's soul that owns the Soulard night (plus, soulard means "drunkard" in Cajun).
To borrow a common refrain from our vaunted Mardi Gras, if Soulard were to show St. Louisans its tits, H-O-O-S-I-E-R would be tattooed right between them. Because at the end of the day, you are what you eat, so long as White Castle wrappers still blow 'cross your streets.