It’s funny how, in the 10th month of Covid, some of the things I miss most are things I hadn’t thought were missable. I miss the barbershop, for instance, for reasons that would be obvious if you saw me. I used to make weekly trips, but I haven’t been since March. I feel as if I look like a mashup of Frederick Douglass and Chewbacca’s neck. I’m pining for the pomp and circumstance in the process of the cut, the ceremony of the barber raising and snapping the cape before smoothing it on me and fastening it around my neck, the sting and lovely stank of peroxide applied to my fresh hairline and newly speck-free neck. And then the big reveal — the moment when the artisan has finished and spins me in the chair to face the wall of mirrors and witness the masterwork.
I miss, too, the heat of a club so packed, I feel invisible in it, when you’re feeling nameless, weightless and bodiless but somehow also all things at once. I miss the subtle shift in barometric pressure when new blood enters a regular evening run at LA Fitness. I miss sitting in my car a couple of hours later and discovering a knot on my knee that happened during the game but didn’t matter enough in the moment to register. I miss how precious those “How Introverted Are You?” internet quizzes used to make me feel, because everyone’s avoiding small talk now and I feel less special. I miss mouths.
I am also missing — craving, fiending for — what used to happen when I’d see my dad. He’d come over my house to see the kids, maybe, or to watch a Steelers game. He’d knock on my door a bit too hard, as though he were the cops or something. I’d let him in, and the moment he’d pass through the doorway, we’d dap, and then we’d shift, like water, to a chest-to-chest embrace.
Sometimes I’d get annoyed because my dad smokes Kools and I could smell them on him. But that’s just what happens with dap. You get so close, and hold the hug so tight, that you can smell old cologne, new Juicy Fruit, stank breath, starched collars, the outside, stale snacks, fresh cuts and all the rest of the accumulated funk of life.
I remember when my dad and I first dapped each other up. It was 1997. My parents were about to drive back to Pittsburgh after moving me into my freshman dorm at Canisius College in Buffalo. My mom cried and hugged me. I think I expected a hug from my dad too. So I was surprised when he dapped me the same way I dapped my homies and the same way I’d seen him dap his homies. It signified a threshold crossed: I was still his kid but somehow not a kid anymore.
As long as I’ve known what dap was, it’s been a form of currency. It used to be an aspiration too. I’d watch the old heads at the hoop courts at Pittsburgh’s Mellon Park and Pennley Park dap. I wanted to be close to them. I wanted them to feel me. But mostly I wanted them to want me to be close to them. And I’d know, from witnessing those snap interactions, whose giddy was genuine, whose beef was real, who was too focused on the next game to give dap much mind and who thought he was too cool to get too close. I’d sit on the sidelines, and I’d wish one day to be the one everyone dapped with solemn reverence. The one who’d come through and inspire bruhs to pause shoelace tightening and stretch routines just to embrace him.
Eventually I became a dap connoisseur, archiving the subtle distinctions in dap-hold-embrace steez. There are those who dap and then hug so that only their right shoulder grazes the right shoulder of the dap-ee. And those who dap and then give the shockingly robust full-body hug, as though they’d just returned from Saturn and were grateful to see another live human. There are the brothas who — how can I say this delicately? — maybe didn’t grow up around that many of us, and their dap timing is a bit off. But they fill that rhythm gap with earnestness and effort. There are the reluctant dappers, who clearly do it only because they believe they’re expected to and don’t want things to be awkward. But nothing is more awkward than dapping someone who’s dapping you as if you smell like eggs.
In 2014 the Smithsonian magazine Folklife published a fascinating story on the origins of dap by the artist Lamont Hamilton. I loved reading it. I shared it with my friends. I quoted things from it. And yet something about it just didn’t feel right to me. Dap, Hamilton writes, is an acronym for “dignity and pride” that “originated during the late 1960s among Black G.I.s stationed in the Pacific during the Vietnam War.” It was conceived as an act of solidarity — a substitute for the Black power salute, which was banned by the military. Naturally, dap was considered dangerous by many white officers and enlisted personnel.
I struggle to believe in the newness of dap. It feels like something that’s centuries old, not decades. And also like something that developed organically, not intentionally. But maybe I’m skeptical because I can’t imagine Black American life without dap. I can’t imagine existing here without a secret way to greet — a “hello” that speaks at a frequency so low, it enters our souls through our soles — a way to speak to my homies without words, in which we grip wrists, smack palms, pull shoulders, press chests, wrap arms and say everything.
It’s that part, the touch, the junction of bodies, that I miss most. I get it from my wife and my kids, and that’s great, but that’s a different part of me. I didn’t realize how much I missed that other part until I went without it while missing other people. Like my aunt Doe (who died in April) and my uncle Donnie (who died in September) and the memorial service my family had for both of them in October. The service was held in New Castle, Pa., which is just 46 miles from my house. I stayed home. I didn’t feel it was safe — for me, for my wife and my kids and for the family we’d see there — because who knows what we might’ve been carrying with us when we arrived? So many things were missed this year. So many things missing. So much grief without touch. So much grief because we’re without touch.
I’m fearful that when this ends, dap won’t come right back. Even after the vaccine, how long will it be until I feel safe dapping a homie I haven’t seen in months? Or even my 73-year-old dad? What will replace this way that brothas hold each other and shine for a moment to guard ourselves from America flattening us?
Maybe we’ll invent something different. I think that’s it. We’ve done it before. We’ll do it again. We’ll find a way. Because some things matter too much to keep on missing them like this.
Damon Young is a contributing opinion writer. He is the author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays” and a co-founder of VerySmartBrothas.
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