One minute Unreal is standing in a 39-person circle on Menard Street in Soulard trying to learn a strange new language in which symbols for terms like "Beer Near" and "Whichy Way" will appear on the paved trail ahead and point us toward the finish line of the Big Hump Hash House Harriers' weekly run.
Next thing we know, water's pouring out the tops of our sneakers and vicious winds have tossed us into the fray of pitcher-passing among the Hashers at the Cat's Meow bar.
Beer Stop the refueling at the run's halfway mark is well under way.
The severest St. Louis storm in memory has proved no match for this roving, middle-aged frat party.
The Big Hump is like an underground battalion of foot soldiers whose mission consists of ridding the world of sobriety every Wednesday night. Each week they gather to guzzle a few brewskies, then set off on a two- to four-mile run. From south county to St. Charles, north city to the east side, they slog down paved and wooded trails, ditches even cemeteries and sewers. But the path, which is set by a pair of runners who get a head start, only reveals itself as the run progresses.
The idea is to have no idea where you're going, and to burn a few hundred calories in order to consume a few thousand. Include a few dirty jokes and bawdy songs, and the evening, by all accounts, is a rousing success.
This is no local oddity, no masked marketing ploy by the hometown makers of the world's best-selling beer to (further) boost sales. No, the Big Hump is one of three local and well over a thousand worldwide chapters of Hash House Harriers: also known as "the drinking club with a running problem."
Once the pastime of British colonials, these days Hash Houses cull from all walks of life, and the Big Hump is no exception. It boasts a rotating cast of roughly 70 Hashers: doctors, consultants, engineers, military personnel and stay-at-home moms, ranging in age from 21 to 70.
Some have run marathons. Others never ran two paces before joining the club. What they share is an affinity for crude humor. What they covet is the warm, fuzzy feeling of belonging to something.
No stranger to running, Unreal found it difficult to resist the Big Hump's recent invitation to peer inside their little cult for Hash #557.
But long before the storms hit, the danger in this adventure showed itself from the get-go.
First comes the e-mail from a woman known as Viper Snatch hashers use Hash Names (more on that later) with a few tips. "We have plenty of beer and water, but if you drink something else, feel free to bring that along. I'm a big wine drinker, so I bring my own bottle."
There's more: "A couple pointers: Don't wear new tennis shoes or you will have to drink a beer out of them, and don't wear white underwear we occasionally do 'undie checks.'"
Then there's the weather. The forecast for Wednesday, July 19, calls for a high of 99 degrees and a heat index pushing 115. A call to Viper Snatch Tuesday night is reassuring, however. "Don't worry," she says. "I walk half the way, because I fell last year and I'm still recuping from surgery. We've got all kinds of people. We even have a guy in a wheelchair."
Midday Wednesday Viper Snatch (who has sixteen previous runs under her sports bra) reports that she warned everyone to be on their best behavior for the benefit of the visiting ironist (that would be we). "I told them no peeing on each other, and blow jobs only on the side of the trail. I also said to drink a lot of water beforehand, because we don't want to be puking in front of you. That would leave a bad impression."
At this Viper Snatch laughs. Evidently puking is a rite of passage.
Two hours before departure, Unreal briefly surfs over to the Big Hump's Web site (www.big-hump.com). The revelers are meticulous record keepers, compiling all kinds of stats and posting notes on future outings as well as recapping every run.
Take this rambling dispatch from Hash #551 on June 7:
Along with the excellent weather, we had an excellent turnout including 6 virgins. As was noted: "We have more virgins than the senior prom!" We can thank Viper Snatch for deflowering two virgins, Suck My Bag for two and Just Barb, two; once again, right along the lines of the score card at senior prom....
Due to the large contingent of virgins the hare gave a very detailed chalk talk which unfortunately still missed some of the markings which eventually showed up on trail. After our grope shot, the pack splintered into runners, walkers and auto hashers....
The three groups eventually found the beer stop in an industrial parking lot. We were progressing smoothly until one of the workers looked out the loading dock door and decided we needed to take our party elsewhere....
The increasingly fragmented pack gradually found its way back to the on-in. Several of the group couldn't resist the temptation of running past a small liquor store without sampling some of the stock. Who could blame them? ...Unlike the previous week, we completed circle without police interruption. We swung low and moved the festivities across the street to Hooter's. Blonds, blonds and more blonds. I haven't seen so much bleach damage since I worked in a Laundromat.
Three hours later, Unreal is crammed into the Cat's Meow watching sheets of rain sail past and listening as a soaked pack of drunks sing to the tune of "Meet the Flintstones" "Meet the Hashers."
Hashing, as it is known today, began in the early 1930s in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when a group of British civil servants and businessmen stationed there sought respite from boredom. They took up playing "Hares and Hounds," a venerable schoolchildren's game in which a designated "hare" gets a head start in a race. The "hare" leaves a trail of paper scraps for the pack of "hounds" trying to catch him.
The game was christened "Hash House Harriers" in 1938, with the arrival in Kuala Lumpur of an English accountant named Albert Stephen Ignatius Gispert. Harriers are rabbit-hunting dogs, and "Hash House" was the slang sobriquet for the Selangor Club, a social club where "G" as Gispert was called and his cohorts let off steam over post-run plates of ground beef and pints of beer.
"G" and many of his original hashing compatriots died in World War II, but their pastime persisted, surfacing at military bases and in the hometowns of retired civil servants across the globe. Last summer came news that the Malaysian government conceded to the Kuala Lumpur-based Hash Heritage Foundation's twelve-year effort to build an International Hash House and replace the Selangor Club, which had been torn down circa 1964. Reportedly the new home base will house a hashing museum, meeting rooms and (of course) a members-only area and bar.
For Hashers who relocate or like to travel, the benefits of membership are fairly simple to cash in. Time was, a quick search for "Harry Hasher" in the Yellow Pages of any city turned up a phone number to call for information on the local chapter's next run. With the Internet, clubs from Baghdad to Boise, Honolulu to Helsinki, are just a Google away.
"Postage and I travel a lot, and we always stay with hashers," says the Big Hump's leader, Purple Muffin Stuffin' (yep, that's PMS; a veteran of 231 prior runs, thank you very much), referring to her partner, a mail carrier who goes by Postage Tramp (222 Hashes). "We've never stayed in a hotel. Hashers are so welcoming of new people."
Hashers have an array of worldwide events to plan their vacations around. Between PanAsia Hash, EuroHash, InterAmericas Hash and scads of regional Hashes, somewhere there's a race nearly every weekend. Members of the Big Hump will represent their local chapter this October at InterHash 2006, the biannual world Hash being held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and co-sponsored by clubs in Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and China.
"There'll be thousands of us taking a train to Chiang Mai," says Shiggy Stomper, a 64-year-old from Collinsville who hashes with his wife, McWhiz, most of the time in the Belleville area. "We'll start in Singapore. It's a seven-day trip and we'll stop seven times and drink and party at each one. It's a whole week's worth of partying just to get ready for the big party in Thailand."
Part of the fun in Hash-roving comes from learning the sport's various provincial traditions. At least one club is said to host a naked Hash; many feature an annual dash in dresses. San Diego inaugurated that shtick in 1988 as a homage to a Virgin i.e., newbie Hasher who ran the trail in heels and a red dress, then finished the night hot-tubbing with her new pals.
St. Louis' Big Hump honors its founding on St. Patrick's Day 1999 with an annual Green Dress Run. The club rents out rooms and meeting halls in a downtown hotel for the event, which usually draws 75 to 90 participants from the local contingent and across the nation.
"You know you're a pathetic Hasher when you know what dress size you are and you're a male," cracks 43-year-old Duzzy Cum (size 16; Hashes: 269). "I go to Famous-Barr every year now and buy my hosiery. Fishnets. And they just look at me, like, 'What the ?'"
Perhaps the more apt question is: Why?
"We don't care who anybody is, or what they do for work," Hasher Bama Mate, a thirtysomething brunette, patiently explains. "We just try to relax. That's what the Hash is all about: blowing off steam and not being judged."
In fact, most members of the Big Hump know little about one another, right down to their last names. (Most did not want their identities printed in this story either.) During a Virgin's first five runs, fellow Hashers refer to him or her as "Just [First Name]" as in "Just Unreal."
After the fifth run, the club positions the member-to-be in the center of a circle and asks an array of bizarre questions, including: "What's your favorite farm animal? Sexual position? Strangest place you've had sex?" The Hashers formulate the wittiest Hash Name they can muster based on the inductee's answers, or on a memorable episode that occurred during a run.
Everybody knows Famous Anus, for example, as the guy who had intercourse in the parking lot of Famous-Barr and professed to be homophobic. Purple Muffin Stuffin', the future Grand Master (GM), or chapter president, got her moniker after she gave Bama Mate a purple vibrator on her birthday.
And Pee Pole? He's the telephone company worker who was atop a pole one day when a guy appeared out of nowhere and took care of business beneath him.
For many Hashers the outing offers an array of potential mates and/or an escape from the humdrum of domestic life. As Viper Snatch puts it: "For those of us that have bad marriages, this is our reprieve." She adds, pointedly, "You leave your spouse at home."
Other Hashers insist that the Big Hump's weekly jaunts are about drinking not sex. Weekend Hashes are another story. "You find a lot of men with blow-up sheep on Hash weekends," Bama Mate imparts. "Apparently a lot of single men like to fuck blow-up sheep."
The humidity is on the rise as the Big Hump gathers around a cooler of Budweiser in a picturesque brick-paved courtyard in Soulard. This evening's pre-Hash host is Meta Arsehole, a goateed 49-year-old who works for a downtown logistics company and has Hashed 171 times. Meta, it so happens, read an article about Hashing in Maxim in 1998 and joined his then-local chapter in Cleveland a year later. (It took him that long to find them.)
"Of the four of us who went Hashing that first time, at least three are still doing it," Meta boasts. "One is the GM of Cleveland, and one is the GM of Silicon Valley. So we've done really well."
When Meta moved to St. Louis three years ago, the first call he made was to the Big Hump. On this balmy evening he's right in the thick of the pre-Hash social, where "stretching" consists of tossing back a few cold ones, extending a hand to Virgins and a hug to Backsliders (figure it out for yourself).
Meta is joined tonight by Suck My Bag, along with Frankie the Dick-Thrusting Pussy Eater and Pee Pole. Deep Pockets, who cut his Hash teeth in Zimbabwe, is here for the first time, as is Just Kelly, a kilt-clad redhead from Denver who's in town on business. Viper Snatch, who invited Unreal via e-mail, reveals herself to be a plucky, 38-year-old blonde who discovered Hashing last year during a stint with the military in Guantánamo Bay. She roams the pack collecting Hash Cash the weekly $5 entry fee (there are no annual dues) between swigs from a bottle of 2004 Robert Mondavi chardonnay. "Come on, take a sip," she entreats.
Never far from Viper's side is Cubs Suck, a 36-year-old Chicagoan who resumes the sport each time he breaks up with a woman. "Hey, Lazy Ass! Late as usual!" yells Cubs Suck, scooting over to a sunny-blond man who just arrived in a wheelchair for his ninth Hash. "What the fuck is up?!"
Suddenly a whistle shrills. "Circle Up!" calls Postage Tramp, the Hump's Religious Advisor (RA). It's time for everybody to "hash-hush!"
Just now the temperature plummets and a brisk wind commences to churn. The only Hasher to take notice is Hopeless. "My wife just called," he announces, mid-sip and headed for the Circle. "Tornado warning. Eighty-two-mile-an-hour winds."
Meta Arsehole is ready and waiting with a plunger strung with Christmas lights in one hand, and Just Mike joins the Circle holding a water gun in the shape of a penis. "We used to have a guy in Korea who had a huge plastic penis," Shiggy reminisces. "If a girl touched him, it would pop out of his pants."
Dapper Sapper, who's in town for work from Toronto, and the Grand Master PMS step into the center of the circle. Previously named this evening's Hares, they will head off first and mark the trail with mounds of flour and chalk etchings every 25 yards. Fifteen minutes later the Pack will give chase. If we catch the Hares mid-task, we get to pull down their pants. But first Dapper and PMS proceed with Chalk Talk, in which they translate the strange language of markings they'll leave on the pavement to guide us.
A simple mound of flour, or an arrow scratched out in chalk, indicates that we are On Trail, or headed in one possible direction. Further marks will tell us if it's a True Trail the one that leads to the finish line or a Blow Job. In the latter case, we must head back to the previous marking and head off in another direction in pursuit of a True Trail.
In essence the trail seems to resemble one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books, where a variety of paths ultimately lead to the end. Numerous rallying symbols will pop up on the paths to keep our spirits up. BN, for Beer Near, means we've almost reached the BS, the Beer Stop, or halfway point, where a cooler full of Budweiser awaits. (Tonight it'll be a bar.) The wind is so loud that Unreal can only guess at what Dapper Sapper is saying will transpire if we come to a Titty Check.
Eventually, a line of flour will signal the On In: the end. There the hashers will gather again for a round of hash awards and namings. And, of course, more drinking.
Chalk Talk dispensed with, everyone in the circle shouts out their Hash Name and Postage Tramp gives the Sacred Blessing: The Hares kneel before him, and Postage sprinkles flour on their heads and wishes them Safe Trail. "Tonight that means not getting hit by lightning," says Shiggy.
The Big Hump has never canceled a hash not for an emergency, and certainly not for weather. "Like the postal service," says Postage Tramp, who ought to know.
Fifteen minutes later Postage blows his whistle and the pack takes off around the corner of Menard and Shenandoah, just as the rain begins pelting down.
The first marker, an arrow, is a cinch to spot just one block west. We hang a right and head up Eleventh Street, straight into the north wind, which is growing stronger by the second.
Two blocks ahead someone spots a fading Check translation: Trail splits off in any one of four directions. Four of the sprinters probably marathon runners dart ahead looking for Trail, as they call it, but the flour and chalk have disappeared in the rain.
We circle several blocks and jog in place beside Soulard Market as the rain torpedoes down. We exchange sighs and grunts. "Man," moans a Hasher. This pack is lost.
Eventually a Hasher who knows the Beer Stop location rejoins the pack and yells: "To the Cat's Meow!"
It's every Hasher for himself now, racing past swaying stop signs and out of the path of falling tree limbs.
"See, Hashing is perfect for situations like this, because there are no rules," yells Meta Arsehole as we round a corner and close in on the tavern. Two steps before Unreal arrives, a wind gust blows us into a newspaper stand, then sideways onto the bar's stoop.
Twenty Hashers make it into the bar before the rain begins rushing past in horizontal sheets. "Ooooh!" they purr gleefully when, moments later, the power goes out.
Pitchers of Budweiser are flowing. A round of "Meet the Hashers" draws laughs from the bartenders. Every few minutes a Hasher or two step outside to shoot pictures of themselves surviving the storm.
Next door a tree has fallen on a truck, and downed branches have made a maze of the street. Whiney Bi+ch (232 Hashes) cracks about the array of erect nipples showing through soaked Hasher shirts. "Ah, the ambiance," Postage revels.
Just before the rain lets up, a police car races west on Sidney Street. "That could be Hashers up there!" Shiggy yells with alarm. It is finally becoming apparent that maybe not every Big Hump member has made it safely to the Beer Stop.
Before long, however, PMS and Dapper Sapper arrive, reporting that they saw street signs blow over. Bama Mate, Famous Anus and Meathead straggle in, having taken shelter on a stoop not far from the bar. Lazy Ass and Just Frank show up unfazed; they'd stayed behind at Meta's. And here comes Duzzy Cum, who witnessed a building façade collapse on a car and ended up all the way over on Gravois Avenue at Hodak's.
"At one point I did, like, a Gilligan's Island move around a lamppost," he'll later relate. "And then I saw this tree its limbs were gone. There were no branches on it anywhere. I'm like: 'What the fuck?'"
There's little chance of restarting Trail now, the weather having moved everyone several steps closer to shitfaced. On the short trot back to the On In party at Meta's, Just Anthony steps on a power line and singes his shoelace, just as a TV antenna plunges from a rooftop onto the sidewalk in front of him.
"Hot damn!" he shouts. And keeps running.
The Big Hump convenes back on Menard in one last circle for the weekly awards and naming rites. Postage Tramp, the RA, whistles and yells in an attempt to keep the Hump's attention focused. (Think back to the eighth grade. Now think back to the last hour of the last day of school.)
Awards for the FRBs (Front-Running Bastards) go to Hopeless, Anthrax Tampax and Lazy Ass. Follow the Urine Trail and Duzzy Cum get DFLs (Dead Fucking Last). "Awards," in this case, amount to a song that ends with "Drink it down, down, down, down," as the recipient chugs a beer.
The Hump moves along to the most revolting ritual of the evening, in which Hashers receive headbands to commemorate their anniversary runs. Anthrax Tampax and Puss 'n' Boobs, celebrating their 71st and 10th runs, respectively, kneel in front of Queen of the Pussies and Viper Snatch, who stick headbands down their pants, gyrate grotesquely, then rub the headbands over the honorees' noses and, finally, tie the headbands onto their heads. All the while, the Circle sings (to a remastered tune of the U.S. Field Artillery March, "The Caissons Go Rolling Along;" as with so many things Hash, it helps to think Girl Scout campout gone horribly wrong):
You can tell by the smell
that she isn't feeling well
When the end of the month comes around.
You can bet it ain't sweat
When her underwear is wet
When the end of the month rolls around.
Well, it's hi-hi-hee in the tampon factory
Yell out your sizes loud and clear.
We've got small, we've got large
We've got enough to fill a barge
When the end of the month rolls around.
Drink it down, down, down, down...
By now the police have driven past without bothering the Big Hump, but one of Meta's neighbors, approaching with a cigarette in one hand and a full tumbler in the other, is seething. "Excuse me, but whoever's party this is, how long have you lived here? We just had a huge storm and it would be nice if you could quiet down."
PMS manages to steer her away, perhaps with a whispered promise that the crowd will disperse shortly.
"This Hash is much more family-oriented," opines Just Kelly, the visitor from Denver. "There's not as much cursing and nudity here. It's different everywhere you go."
The group opts to move the naming ceremony to an afterparty at Hammerstone's. There, Just Susan, a huge fan of the Dave Matthews Band who once pulled over on I-70 to have sex, is baptized Do My Butt.
Next comes Just Jenny.
"Nobody much liked Butch Whacker, because of your ex-boyfriend," who turned out to be gay, says PMS. "Some kind of liked I Don't Wanna Ride Her, because of your ex-boyfriend, and because you look like Winona Ryder. So we didn't go with I Don't Wanna Ride Her but we did go with I Wanna Ride Her!"
The Hashers cheer and hoist their glasses to their newest sisters.
The end of the evening is the time for storytelling and reflection. To be sure, the Big Hump has been through a lot together.
There was the time it rained so hard that the cooler at the Beer Stop in an Illinois state park washed clean away. And the run only a month ago when a pair of bicycle cops chased them out of a parking lot near Barnes-Jewish Hospital. (They all happened to be wearing lamp shades on their heads.) And the many fraught occasions post-September 11 when Hares were accosted by police officers who thought the flour they were tossing in the streets was anthrax.
Despite the weather, tonight proves no exception to the only real rule: Hashers must come to have fun.
"It was one of our better turnouts," Meta observes.
"I had a lot of fun," adds Duzzy.
"It was good. It was good," PMS pronounces.
The Grand Master's eyes are narrowing, and from the mellow look that suffuses her face it seems the toughest part about Hashing is probably Thursday morning.