Friday night, at the end of a long, draining day, I put on some music. Up came “The Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starliters. I found myself enjoying it far more than usual. It’s so simple. So happy. It begins the way many songs from the late 50’s and early 60’s did:
“They’ve got a new dance and it goes like this…”
Do you remember those days, when a dance became a “craze” and there were news stories about all the people doing it? That feels like another galaxy now.
Last week was one of the most tumultuous in recent American memory. It began Sunday night with a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shooting a Black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Before the details were even released, the streets of that small city erupted in protests, flames and mayhem. A car lot and furniture store were torched. A jewelry store was looted and destroyed.
In the nights that followed, more violence ensued, the National Guard was called in, and a 17-year-old with a semi-automatic rifle allegedly shot two people dead and wounded another. He later claimed self-defense.
Meanwhile, the Republican National Convention was in full swing and vitriol spewed from both sides. The political analysis, if you can call it that (it really should be called “snarky left” and “snarky right”) was predictable. Fox News lauded speakers like Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott and Vice President Mike Pence, while MSNBC derided them and a CNN host suggested people who supported President Donald Trump have “cognitive dissonance.” After hearing Melania Trump’s speech, singer Bette Midler tweeted out: “Oh, God, she still can’t speak English” and called the first lady an “illegal alien.”
Is everyone angry?
Elsewhere, professional athletes were venting their frustration at another Black man taken down by a white police officer. The Lions canceled Tuesday’s practice and issued statements in front of their facility. Lebron James tweeted “F— THIS MAN! WE DEMAND CHANGE! SICK OF IT!” Then two teams, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic, refused to play their playoff game Wednesday, walking off the court.
Soon other teams followed suit, in the NBA, the WNBA, Major League Baseball, soccer, the NHL, even a top tennis player skipped her match. Doc Rivers, the African American coach of the L.A. Clippers and the son of a cop, got teary-eyed in explaining why. “We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. … It’s amazing to me. Why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.”
Meanwhile, conservatives were not being shown much love either, not in the streets of Washington, D.C. As the RNC ended, politicians like Sen. Rand Paul (and his wife) were harassed, screamed at, and needed police protection just to get through. Vernon Jones, the Black state legislator from Georgia who supports Trump despite being a Democrat, was swarmed by protesters and reportedly called a “house n—–”.
Speaking of the president, in a single week, he used his convention as a variety show, pardoning a former bank robber, swearing in five new U.S. citizens and giving the first ever party acceptance speech from the White House grounds, which was hailed by his supporters, called illegal by his critics, and prompted former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar to tweet, “Get off our lawn.”
Are you sensing a pattern here? Anger shadows every event. Frustration is in every crevice. “Why are you so mad?’ is met by “Why aren’t you so mad?” You can hear our nation grinding its teeth and slapping its forehead. Everyone blames the other side. Yet everyone feels some form of helplessness.
Videos of white customers in a Washington restaurant being surrounded by Black Lives Matter protesters is horrible and unnerving. The protesters demanded they raise their fists in unity or suffer loud and ugly humiliation. At the same time, whatever you think of athletes staging walkouts, you cannot deny the anguish in the Black voices when they relate tales of unjust police confrontations or the too-early deaths of friends and family members. Their pain is real.
Charles Barkley said it this way: “It’s exhausting being black.”
How much more can we take?
Right now, it’s exhausting being human. All these events happened as Michigan passed 100,000 COVID-19 cases, America passed 6 million, and the world approached 25 million, with over 800,000 dead. We are still in many ways locked down after nearly six months. Yet the CDC last week announced you don’t necessarily need to get tested if you don’t have symptoms, just as parents were nervously escorting sons and daughters to college, praying they weren’t walking into a hot zone.
Meanwhile, exactly 15 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated our Gulf Coast, Hurricane Laura slammed it again, leaving at least 14 dead and yielding stories of heartbreak and bravery, including a group of nurses who remained inside a hospital to watch over 19 babies in an intensive care unit.
On top of all this, Friday night we learned of the death of Chadwick Boseman, the fine actor who was internationally beloved for his role as Black Panther. Boseman was just 43. Cancer. As if we needed to be reminded how that disease never stops haunting us.
It took me all these words just to get through one week, and I haven’t even mentioned the March on Washington, Jerry Falwell Jr. resigning from Liberty University in a sex scandal, the NBA’s Montrezl Harrell calling a white player a “b— a– white boy” without even a slap on the wrist, or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, one of the most hated tech figures on the planet, passing the $100 billion mark in net worth.
There’s no calm place to turn. Even churches are shut down. Our country feels feverish, depressed, bitter and torn apart. Julia Jackson, the mother of Jacob Blake, spoke eloquently through her pain last week, saying, “We are the United States. Have we been united? Do you understand what’s going to happen when we fall?”
We don’t, because it’s hard to understand how hard the ground will be when you’re tumbling through the air. And we are tumbling now as a nation, and praying for some sense of normalcy to put us upright, to let us catch our breath.
Is it any wonder then, when you hear an old and happy song, that you feel as if you’re remembering another lifetime? Who squeals at a dance craze anymore? Who can be that carefree? The “Peppermint Twist” came out of a popular New York City dance club in the 1960’s called the Peppermint Lounge. Thus the lyric, “Meet me, baby, down on 45th Street…”
Today, 45th street is 12 blocks from Trump Tower and a giant Black Lives Matter message painted across 5th Avenue. The Peppermint Lounge has long since been torn down. And the city itself is seeing a large exodus, spurred by coronavirus, protests, increased crime and a general sense of worry.
“They’ve got a new dance and it goes like this…” Don’t you yearn for even 24 hours of such simplicity? The country needs a break, but breaks are hard to come by these days. Anger is winning. “You don’t understand me” rules. Half of us see the world one way, half of us see it the other. And nobody is doing much dancing anymore.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.