Authors | Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem: Right Above Hope United States of America    PWF 2020

Jonathan Lethem, photo by Adrian CookWe were sitting in a bar and the song playing was “Keep Hope Alive” by The Crystal Method and Keith said “Wasn’t this song in that John Woo movie The Replacement Killers?” and Sarah said “No, it’s the theme song from Third Watch,” and Kiki said “I think it might be both,” and Garcia said, “I love this song,” and Evan said, “I think ‘keep hope alive’ might be the stupidest slogan, like, ever,” and Janice said, “I think Obama totally stole that from Jesse Jackson, anyway,” and Felice said, “You can’t steal hope, that’s stupid,” and Frampton said, “What is hope, anyway?” and we all shut up for maybe a full minute and then Luke said, “All I can think of is that performance by Allen Ginsberg where he chants ‘Don't smoke,’ which gradually turns into ‘Smoke dope,’ which then gradually turned into ‘Smoke hope."

Garcia said, “All I can think of is Emily Dickinson saying, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’.”

“So, Hope is the name of a drag queen?” said Garcia.

“Hope is a bird not in the hand,” said Kiki.

“No, hope is when you pretend a handful of feathers are a bird,” said Sarah.

“Yeah, that’s it exactly,” said Kiki. “You raise up your hand, you stare at the feathers, maybe blow on them to make them move a little, and you try to hear a song. Hope is hard work.”

“If it’s work it should pay a lot better than it does,” said Julius.

“Hope is defiant realism,” said the bartender, leaning in to our conversation. “Anybody need another beer?”

“No, hope is managed ignorance,” said Garcia. “I think we all need another beer.”

“Hope is a round on the house,” said Kiki to the bartender.

“A round on the house comes at the end of the night,” said the bartender. “So, you just go right on hoping, while I set up a round that’s on one of you or your friends.”

“Hope is pushing the button and expecting the light to turn green,” said Evan.

“Hope is a distasteful necessity,” said Frampton. “But don’t be too hard on it. You wouldn’t want to live without it.”

“I wouldn’t want to live with it,” said Felice. “First thing I do when I get out of bed is check myself head to toe for any symptoms of hope. If I detect any I call in sick to work and put myself back to bed until it blows over.”

“Hope is rose-colored glasses, that’s all,” said Garcia.

“No,” said Felice. “It’s rose-colored blindness. I like the darkness better without the filter.”

“Hope is an airport in Burbank,” said Julius.

“Actually, I think it’s the state motto of Rhode Island,” said Luke. “I’m pretty sure that’s actually true.”

“Check it on your phone,” said Frampton. “If you’re right, we all have to move to Rhode Island.”

“Yeah, and fly out of Burbank when we go,” said Julius. “It’s a really underrated airport.”

The bartender was waiting. We all looked at each other. Garcia paid for the round and said, “Hope is that moment when you’ve said some shit in a bar and you say ‘I’m pretty sure that’s actually true’ and someone pulls out their phone and in the moment before they check it and prove you’re full of shit – that interval, that instant, that’s hope.”

“So, you’re saying the digital acceleration of everything is basically crushing hope,” said Frampton. “Compressing it down to the size of how long it takes someone to google something and prove you wrong?”

“The amount of time it takes to prove hope is dead, exactly,” said Garcia.

“But it’s more beautiful this way,” said Kiki. “Because it’s so fragile, we can all feel it, in that interval. It’s unmistakable, because it’s so ineffable and brief, and it dies over and over again, so it must be alive, right?”

“Never google anything,” said Julius. “Never google anything ever again.”

I spoke up. They’d reminded me of a story. “In the early ‘90’s I knew a German guy who it turned out believed that Paul McCartney was in The Beatles after he was in Wings. I was at a bar with him and I couldn’t get anyone else to listen to our argument and it went on and on, with him just believing this totally ridiculous thing and I couldn’t prove him wrong. I even said, ‘think about the Beatles, the early Beatles, with the short haircuts and the fresh faces and the black and white photographs. Now think about Wings, with their long feathery hair and bell-bottom jeans and color photography’ and he just said ‘yeah, that’s what’s so cool about The Beatles, they had all these different looks’.”

“I guess the fresh faces thing didn’t help,” said Garcia. “Seeing as how Paul McCartney’s face was still fresh in Wings. Hell, his face is still fresh today.”

“Have you ever noticed that everyone who ever plays music with Paul McCartney dies?” said Felice. “I mean, think about it: John, George, Linda, Michael Jackson, plus all those weird early guys who died and didn’t get to be in the Beatles.”

“That’s really weird, but it can’t really mean anything,” said Luke.

Felice shrugged. “I’m just saying, if I were Ringo or Stevie Wonder I’d be very afraid.”

“Playing music with Paul McCartney is an expression of hope, then,” said Frampton.

“Yeah, and hope dies again and again, just like Paul McCartney’s musical collaborators.”

“Linda wasn’t really a full collaborator,” said Julius.

“That’s such a fucking sexist thing to say,” said Felice.

“See, I think the German guy’s vision of the world was very beautiful and hopeful,” said Kiki. “I wouldn’t have wanted to burst his bubble. To think that Paul McCartney would go from writing all those drippy vapid pop songs without any significant help from anyone else, because we’re not doing Linda any favors by pretending, and then shift into this richly challenging collaboration with other personalities who really challenged him, resulting in this incredible creative explosion, this really awesome mid-life career development.”

“Kiki, you might be the most hopeful person I’ve ever met,” said Julius.

“It takes a poet,” said Felice. “Just like Allen Ginsberg and Emily Dickinson. That’s why Kiki’s the most hopeful person you’ve ever met, Julius. Because she’s the only poet you know. I mean, ‘fragile and ineffable and brief’? ‘It dies over and over again so it must be alive’?”

“I know other poets besides Kiki,” said Julius. He sounded defensive.

“Yeah, sure,” said Felice. “But do you know hope?”

“I did,” I said. I’d been reminded again of a story. “You knew her too,” I said to Sarah. “Remember?”

“Remind me.”

“When we were still living together. In Greenpoint. In that railroad apartment, that crazy place with a Polish landlord, only cost $800 a month? With the alcoholic cab driver in the apartment next to us, the one who carried around the pistol in his cab? We were always so afraid of being out one night and hailing a cab and finding him at the wheel…”

“Where’s hope in this story?” said Garcia impatiently.

“Downstairs,” I said. “Hope was downstairs.”

“Oh, yeah!” said Sarah. “I remember Hope. She was a dancer, right?”

“A dancer and a performance artist. And she used to invite us down for Sunday brunch, and we went a couple of times, and she served everything on those little yellow plates? She could hear all our music, and all our fights, and our footsteps, and she never complained.”

“You lived over Hope?” asked Luke.

“Right above her,” I said. “Hope was below us, every day. It was a very special time.”

We all got quiet again for a moment, then the bartender said, “This round’s on me.” 

Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem

19.05.2020 Authors

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