Sal’s refusal leads to a late-night confrontation, a destroyed boombox, a fight, a police response and the death of Radio Raheem (the late Bill Nunn), who is lifted off the ground by three cops and choked with a baton until his Nike Air Revolution high-tops go limp. “It ain’t even safe in our own . . . neighborhood,” shouts Cee, played by a young Martin Lawrence.
“Never was,” counters Coconut Cid (Frankie Faison), the voice of wisdom. “Never will be.”
As we plunge into the summer of 2020, I’ve been thinking about how prophetic “Do the Right Thing” was. After the police-related deaths of black men and women in Minneapolis, Louisville and Atlanta (say their names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks), America itself has become Sal’s Famous. Protesters, fed up with police brutality and institutional racism, have taken to the streets to vent an anger that has been building, and occasionally releasing, for generations.
In Lee’s cinematic language, summer is not an escape. It’s not a time for family vacations, trips to the beach or afternoon ballgames at Shea Stadium. Summer is a pressure cooker, the steam intensifying until the pot can no longer contain the force within and then — bam! — the whole damn thing explodes. Maybe the summer of 2020 will be like that, I don’t know. But I do know that the early attempts to treat the season as just another annual escape have not fared well.
So where does that leave us? And what does any of this have to do with hot dogs?
The intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests has given us a rare opportunity to take what some might see as a Lost Summer and turn it into a kind of national experiment. A time to question everything, including the opinions we hold dear. To me, Sal’s downfall in “Do the Right Thing” is his rigidity, his inability to question some of his basic beliefs about business. He was an old-school patriarch, merciful when people followed his rules, cruel when they didn’t. Had he viewed his pizzeria more as community asset than a personal one, he might have found room in his heart — and on his Wall of Fame — for photos of Prince, Eddie Murphy, Magic Johnson, Run-DMC, Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X.
Take the all-American hot dog. I originally intended this column as a lament to something lost, namely those games on the Major League Baseball calendar that have already disappeared, and along with them my chance to sit in the bleachers with a dirty-water dog in one hand and a cold beer in another. This may be the first summer in all my years on Earth that there will be no baseball, no organ music in the stands, no walk-off homers, no cool outfield breezes to soothe my sunburned skin, no peanut shells underfoot, no seventh-inning stretches, no love of the game. I feel a genuine ache over this, but I also have enough perspective to know that whining about this over the course of a column, in this era, does little but parade my privilege.
Yes, a hot dog doesn’t taste as good without a ballpark spread out before you. I know. I’ve tried. I’ve visited a few of my favorite haunts lately: Meats & Foods, Ivy & Coney, Haute Dogs & Fries and Ben’s Chili Bowl and ordered all kinds of dogs. Chili dogs, Chicago dogs, ballpark franks, half-smokes, you name it. I’d picked them up from makeshift counters and from masked workers doing their best to maintain six feet of cushion. It’s a transaction that screams danger, not summer. (By the way, I still love the dogs at each establishment, and you would do well to support them.)
I’ve also been thinking about a long-recurring bias around hot dogs: that one should never squirt ketchup on them. It’s a tired campaign, put forward with particular vigor from folks in Chicago and Detroit. Claiming your preference for the condiment is a sign of your stunted adolescence. The theory is that sweet, commercial ketchup has no place on a dog dragged through the garden, Chicago-style. That may be true: The flavors of a Chicago dog may be ruined by ketchup (though lots of testing is obviously required). If so, this is the kind of regional tradition I can support.
But somewhere along the way, this personal preference/regional variation has calcified into a hard-and-fast rule, one promulgated by no less an authority than the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, which says no one past the age of 18 should put ketchup on franks. The age demarcation is telling. The implication is that you’re not a fully functioning adult, with all your faculties intact, if you like ketchup on dogs. But let’s just call this what it really is: bullying. A small and comical form of it, yes, but bullying all the same. I mean, you know what else ketchup has, besides sweetness? Umami, and umami makes everything taste better.
Intolerance has another connection to hot dogs and the link-obsessed immigrants who largely introduced the snack to America: During World War II, while our troops were fighting Nazis in Europe, the federal government placed thousands of German Americans in internment camps for the duration, in clear violation of their civil rights. The same executive order, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that turned Japanese Americans into enemies of the state did the same to those with German ancestry. It continued the demonization of Germans that started during World War I, when many were forced to conceal their identities and culture to survive in the land of the free.
Germans have survived their period of marginalization in America with no apparent long-term effects. You can jog while German, drive while German and barbecue while German. There are no Karens calling the cops on Germans. So why do African Americans still fear for their lives in their own neighborhoods and on their own streets? Why are they still fighting for equality? Could it be that, like Sal in “Do the Right Thing,” the people in power just aren’t listening to those who have supported their dreams? That they’re benevolent when in charge, but not so accommodating when the status quo is upset?
It’s something to think about as you’re noshing on your hot dogs during this quiet — and disquieting — summer.