Standing in a casual Gramercy Park bar on a crisp Sunday afternoon in late February, I am surrounded by patrons with nicknames like Rack ‘n’ Roll Her, Ow My Balls and Doggie Erectus. A half dozen of these characters line the bar in their winter running apparel with beer pint glasses in their hands. I turn to the left and face a lanky man towering over me in his tiger-print, footed pajamas. I turn to the right and, across the billiards table, notice a trim pirate with an Irish accent showing off the yamaka beneath his captain hat. He speaks excitedly with Snow White adorning a full crinoline skirt on top of her running leggings.
These characters comprise only a small percentage of the New York City’s Hash House Harriers and an even smaller percentage of hashers worldwide. The self-proclaimed “drinking club with a running problem” fused trail running and beer drinking into a hobby in 1938, bringing a group of people from various walks of life together in unexpected ways.
I discovered the Hash House Harriers by pure happenstance. Stumbling across the eccentric running group’s website, I contacted Speedo Gonzales, the man behind the New York City hash’s witty weekly newsletters, to satisfy my curiosity. His advice to me in working to understand the hash and how it functions was simple: “just come on down and run with us, and see for yourself!”
Fast forward two weeks, and I find myself standing alone outside Brotherhood Synagogue along the edge of Gramercy Park, the designated meeting place for this weekend’s hash event. Goose bumps cover my exposed neck and shins, and a shiver runs down my spine as I march in place to stay warm. Outside the building’s black painted gates, I wait for something to happen.
As I wonder if I read the address incorrectly, I notice a middle-aged man walking along the sidewalk toward me in athletic attire and sporting a backpack . “Is he one of them?” I ask myself. “How do you tell?” I guide my attention to the cell phone in my hands, sending an awkward glance in his direction every few seconds. He stops in front of the gate, looks around and turns to face me.
“You here for the hash?” he asks with a smile, noticing my nerves.
“Umm… yeah, yes I am. Do you know if this is the right place?” I reply.
“This is where they said we would be starting, but I’m sure they’re all still at the pre-lube.”
“The pre-lube,” he repeats with a laugh. “The bar at the corner. Follow me.”
Ignoring all advice my mother ever gave me regarding interaction with strangers, I follow this man with muscular legs and silver gray hair to the corner of Gramercy Park South and 3rd Avenue, the entrance of Barfly. I take a deep breath and slide inside the bar behind him.
Within seconds, the introductions begin. It turns out the stranger from the street, Jumpin’ Jack Gash, is a long-time veteran of the hash and is visiting the Manhattan group from his new work post in London, England. “If you want to know about the hash, you should talk to this guy right here,” he says as he grabs the shoulder of a man wearing more cow-print fabric than I ever imagined possible. Ball cap, backpack, kilt and all coordinated with wavy black and white splotches. With a friendly smile and a firm handshake, he introduces himself. “Hi, I’m I Feel Tower,” he says. His kind eyes and mild demeanor relieve my remaining anxiety as I strike up a conversation.
“Nice to meet you, I Feel Tower,” I say, feeling a bit silly as I repeat his name aloud. “Do you mind me asking how you got your name?”
“Long story short, I had sex in Paris. I think it’s probably best if we just leave at that,” he says, chuckling.
“Alright, fair enough,” I giggle in return.
“I’m noticing that everyone has these nicknames… Can you explain how that works?”
He begins to tell me how each hash kennel goes about the naming process differently. Some groups require the hasher to run a set number of trails before earning their name, which is considered a badge of honor. Others wait for the hashers to do something embarrassing along a trail, drawing inspiration for their names from their infractions. Others use stories uncovered from their past like I Feel Tower, allowing them to relieve their humorously mortifying memories. Regardless, hashers call out their names with pride. Given names are known but simply fall by the wayside.
Before our conversation can continue, two hashers near the bar entrance scream, “Chalk talk! Chalk talk! Virgins, outside!” I leave I Feel Tower’s side and wander out onto the freezing street corner with the two veterans and several newcomers who look even more confused than I do. With pastel sidewalk chalk between their fingers, the men with tall blue and green socks reading “BEER” and “ON-ON” begin to explain how it all works.
It turns out these two hashers, referred to as “hares,” designed and laid today’s trail throughout the city, using a variety of chalk marks on the streets and sidewalks to guide the rest of the group, known as the “hounds.” After finishing their pre-lube drinks at Barfly, the hounds begin their trek through Manhattan by following a series of directional arrows, circled “X” checkpoints, and false trail markings to the “on-in,” or the bar at the end of the trail. Ranging anywhere from three to seven miles, the hashers stick together by screaming verbal cues—“on-on, are-you, on-one”—throughout the maze of city streets. This particular trail includes a “drink check,” or a beer break where the hares serve the hounds in public spots along their designated running path.
“Got it?” one of the hares asks us.
We all stare back in silence.
“Just stick with the group and everything will be fine,” he says with an amused headshake.
As chalk talk concludes, the rowdy group of tipsy, costume-clad hashers gathers outside Barfly. A whistle blows and the group begins to run, the “front-running bastards” leading the pack along the beginning of the trail marked by light pink chalk arrows on the sidewalk. Like a lost child, I follow after the semi-drunk runners. Their athleticism surprises me; I pick up my pace to remain in tow. Street signs no longer bear any significance in revealing my location. Hell, I don’t even look for the strange marks on the ground described to me by the hares. I simply look for the backs of t-shirts screaming “I run for beer” and “I hash naked,” careful not to lose the pack as distance grows gradually between each runner.
Reaching the first checkpoint, the hashers begin to fan out within a one-block radius to search for the next directional arrow. Several runners, including I Feel Tower, remain at the check awaiting screams from their fellow hashers revealing the next point in the trail. “So I never got to ask you why everyone is wearing costumes,” I say as I catch my breath. He explains that hashers will find any excuse to dress up during their runs. This weekend’s attire in particular is inspired by Purim, a holiday described briefly as “the Jewish Halloween.” They also flaunt their best pairs of bunny ears on Easter weekend, their tartan plaid kilts when the annual Scotland run arrives, and even red dresses when the nationally observed Red Dress Hash run debuts in the late summer months.
I am taken back by just how much I Feel Tower knows about the Hash House Harriers and their history. Invited to the Richmond, Va., hashing kennel for the first time by his brother-in-law in 1997, I Feel Tower was hooked instantly. He loved that he had found a way to socialize, exercise and explore his city simultaneously. “I’ve gone to about 100 different kennels over three continents in about six countries since 1997,” he says. “I’ve probably logged in nearly 1,000 trails.” He also founded a dozen new hash chapters of his own, two of which are in New York: The Long Island Lunartics Hash and the Queens Black Knights Hash.
A former librarian, I Feel Tower has compiled an incredibly detailed, biographical account of the hash’s beginnings and how it has expanded across all seven continents with around 4,000 different kennels today. “The hash originated from an English schoolchildren game called ‘hares and hounds’ paper chase, “he explains. “One boy or girl would pretend to be the hare, and the rest would follow as the hounds. The hash occurred when grown men, British ex-patriots in Kuala Lumpur, started doing the paper chase through the jungles, through the tin flats, through the palm olive groves, through the city. They would have a paper chase, and they would end up at the end with a tub of beer.
“Back in 1938 in Kuala Lumpur,” he continues, “Most of the original founders were associated somehow with the Selangor Club, now called the Royal Selangor Club, and they had a residence behind the big clubhouse up on the hill, which had a dining hall. They referred derisively to the dining hall as the hash house because the food tasted so bad. At one point, they were required to name their group, and they came up with the Hash House Harriers, because they were a harrier group and it was an alliteration.”
Before he can continue his story, the leaders of the pack find the next point in the trail, and we are on the move again. “On-on!” they scream, echoing down the string of runners. I look up to find a street sign for the first time since starting the trail: the intersection of Spring Street and Crosby Street. I attempt the mileage math from Gramercy down to SoHo, but I soon give up as I realize that we have been weaving in and out, up and down, all over lower Manhattan. Content with my slight grip on my whereabouts, I continue jogging along with the pack.
“So,” I say as I pace alongside I Feel Tower, “Have you ever gotten sick from the running and the drinking?”
“I did get sick once—but from typhoid fever,” he says. In 2002 his kennel in Richmond hosted Virginia’s Inner-Hash, a sort of conference that involves all of the hash groups coming together to run a trail and drink as much as they desire. “It was my job to lay the big Saturday trail, and we were going to have some really good, heavy shiggy. The shiggy is the rough terrain: the mud, the rivers, the swamps, the briars, the poison ivy. As I was going around the campground, I found this tributary of the Mattaponi River, which was just a black awful swamp as deep as you could imagine. You had to swim in it, it was that bad.
“We got into the swamp, and I set beer about half way through in a trash bag up in a tree. We stopped and we were chest-deep in this black water drinking beer and talking about the trail, and I had to go the bathroom. I thought, ‘This will only improve the water quality, I’ll just go right here and no one will even know.’ The water backed up into my system and I got typhoid fever. I had fever spikes of 103 degrees and lost 12 pounds in 12 days. But I survived, and we went back and set the trail again, and it was a big hit. It did nearly kill me though.”
I Feel Tower finishes his tale as we reach the next checkpoint and wait again for the next “On-On!” yelp to continue. Speedo Gonzales, who had overheard my running conversation with I Feel Tower and recognized me, introduces himself for the first time in person as we stand idly on the street corner.
Lifting his dinosaur mask from his face, he asks, “So what do you think?”
“I can definitely see why you suggested I just show up and try it myself,” I respond jokingly.
“Yeah, it’s just one of those things you need to experience. I’m glad you decided to join us,” he says.
“Me too,” I say. “I’m having fun. I’m completely lost and have no idea what’s going on, but I’m having fun.”
He smiles and shakes his head, knocking the dinosaur mask back down in place over his face. Before I have a chance to speak again, he sprints off to find the front-running bastards and help lead the group along the trail.
The New York City Hash House Harriers kennel started in the 1980s. From doctors to car mechanics, New Yorkers of drastically different backgrounds gravitated to the hash for a little exercise, a lot of drinking, and a social scene unlike any other in Manhattan. Hashers new to the city found solace in the hash, seeing as it instantly provided a group of eclectic and welcoming friends, a family in a their new home away from home.
“On-on!” the runners in front of me call and I follow. I hear the tinkling of the bell attached to I Feel Tower’s cowhide ensemble as he approaches my left side, and he begins to tell me what it was like to visit the Mother Hash as we continue along the trail.
“I went to Kuala Lumpur in 2002 for an Irish wake for a deceased hasher called Titanic from my home city. I had just started the Titanic Memorial Full Moon Hash in Richmond, and his mother and widow were on the first trail. That very next month, we went to Kuala Lumpur together to participate in his Irish wake, and it was a huge event. The entire Klang Valley was there, we all wore the same t-shirts; there must have been 400 people.
“When I first landed in Kuala Lumpur, I was staying with Titanic’s widow. I had maybe slept for an hour or two, and I woke up not really knowing where I was with two people I had never met before telling me to get in the car to go hash in the jungle. It was 100 degrees, we were in the jungle, we were climbing 45-degree hills, we hashed through a village of aboriginal people who were squatting on the land and living in primitive huts. The last part of the trail was the first time they put me on a block of ice for an extended period of time—bare-bottomed.”
A new mark appears along the trail, the letters “DC” inscribed by a standard checkpoint circle, signaling that a drink check is near. Several yards ahead, hashers gather around the two hares serving pale ale, origins unknown, in red miniature Solo cups. As everyone hydrates and socializes, I continue talking with I Feel Tower. “I have to confess most of my friends are hashers,” he says. “They say adversity tends to bond, and we experience a lot of adversity in the hash from near-misses with arrests to crazy weather conditions. And of course with the hours we spend in the bars drinking together, it’s pretty hard not to bond.”
“I can see how that would work,” I say as I take a sip of my beer that is surprisingly refreshing after running several miles. “What makes this hash different from the others you’ve visited?”
“Well, everyone is mainly younger professionals in New York for their big adventure, and so some part of that zeal for being here is there with the group. They work really hard—everyone who lives here works really hard—and they play really hard, they drink really hard, they run really hard, and they just have a really great time. That’s what makes New York unique.”
When the beer runs out, we continue along the trail. I pass West Side Highway signs, the Freedom Tower construction site, the waterfront along Battery Park. The sun begins to set and the cold wind grows stronger. Luckily, we come across a circled “BN,” meaning that beer is near. Soon we reach the “on-in,” a bar along Chambers Street. Disoriented by the 90-minute, wandering trail run and my overpowering thirst, I don’t even read the bar’s name before stepping into the warmth and grabbing a glass of water. Everyone cheers around me as they enter the bar and order their first post-run pint.
I find a vacant seat in a nearby corner and sip my water as I replay my first hashing experience in my mind. An unexpected sense of accomplishment washes over me as I piece together all the blurred city scenery, nonsensical rules and characters that comprise this semi-anonymous community. A nearby hasher in a gray newsboy cap approaches me, introducing himself as Coney Lingus.
“Hey, you did great today,” he says encouragingly. “What did you think? We didn’t scare you away, did we?”
“Thanks, I’m still making sense of everything, but it was a lot of fun,” I respond. “Do you come to these things often?”
“Oh yeah, I’m like furniture around here,” Coney Lingus says. “And don’t be fooled—the trail is over, but we aren’t done yet.”
A piercing whistle blows. “Circle up, circle up!” yells one of the hares. Leaving their pub tables and barstools, each hasher grabs their beer and heads toward the hare, forming a semblance of a circle with the middle serving as an empty stage. A table behind the hare is loaded with full beer cups known as “down-downs,” or chugging beers that are awarded to individual hashers, accompanied by a variety of vulgar songs sung to common anthem and nursery rhyme tunes. The post-run ritual, aptly named “Circle,” begins.
The creators of the trail are called to the center of the circle first. Once down-downs are placed in their hands, the group begins to sing in unison:
Why were they born so beautiful?
Why were they born at all- at all!
They’re no fucking use to anyone,
They’re no fucking at all- at all!
They may be a joy to their mothers,
But they’re a pain in the asshole to me!
Drink it down down down down down down…
Everyone continues singing the last line of the song until the two hares finish chugging every drop of beer in their cups, turn the empty glasses upside down, and shake them above their heads. I turn to I Feel Tower with an incredulous look on my face. Reading my mind, he says, “Sense of humor is the one requirement. There are people who walk trails, there are people who don’t drink, there are people who don’t sing. Everyone is into some aspect of it, but the main common denominator is a sense of humor.”
The next down-down goes to the hasher with the best Purim costume. After calling the Jewish pirate to the center of the circle, the group begins to sing again:
What a wank what a wank what a wank wank wank,
What a wank what a wank what a wank wank wank,
What a wank what a wank what a wank wank wank,
What a wank what a wank wank wank!
Drink it down down down down down down…
He follows the same procedure as the hares before him, chugging the beer and tilting the glass above his pirate hat.
Next, the hares call all of the virgins from chalk talk into the middle of the circle. I join my fellow newcomers on display with full glasses of beer in our hands. After asking for each of our names and an explanation of what made us join the hash today, they start to sing:
Here’s to the virgins, they’re true blue,
They are Hashers through and through- hey!
They are assholes, so they say,
Tried to go to heaven but they went the other way!
Drink it down down down down down down…
The song fades as we each finish chugging our beers and shaking our glasses, following the examples of the veterans that went before us. We smile at one another, former strangers celebrating our initiation into this strange yet entertaining group of runners and drinkers. I return to my seat next to Coney Lingus, wiping the beer foam dripping my mouth with my sleeve.
“Nice job! You’re one of us now,” he says with a nod of approval.
“Thanks,” I say proudly.
“So, do you think you’re gonna come back?”
I take a sip from my new glass of beer. “Definitely.”
Originally written for my graduate literary reportage class