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Passerine Among the Natives

I'm counting minutes as she's making a documentary.

She was so attractive. I asked her name.

`Passerine Murray.'

`Passerine?'

`A 4-toed songbird living close to the ground.' She said it by rote. Her breasts pressed through her shirt, cats leaping for string.

`You work with Peter?' The birthday boy.

`With his friend Carly. At MediaGlobal.' She pointed to small Carly, across the room.

`What are you there?'

`I'm PA on a pilot.' Production Assistant. Shouting over Elvis Costello on the jukebox. She had long 30-year-old fingers, wrapped around a vodka and tonic. Her long hair was straight brown. The glass in her hand was sweating.

`What's the pilot? If you can tell me?'

`It's a comedy for HBO about lesbian gymnasts.' She rolled her eyes. `It's called Lickety Splits. But that's not what I'm about.'

`What are you about?'

`I'm working on a short film. A documentary.'

This is the fifth documentary described to me in a month. Evangelical Muslims in Florida. Cat ranchers. Barbershop quartets. Paraplegic swingers. The Amiga Demoscene. `Their story needs to be told.' If it's not a documentary, it's a theater group, a photography collaborative, a community Web site, a magazine for people `like us.' Or a literary salon.

`I lived among them for a year,' she said, naming a small, poor, war-struck country. I'd never heard of it. `It was profound.'

`What got you there?'

`My grad degree. I could have gone to Spain, or Ecuador, or whatever, but I needed something totally different. A country without suburbs.' She told me about the lives of native starving farmers.

`They gnaw igneous rock to appease hunger,' she said. `They use desert voles as fuel and live in huts made from the bones of hens. The huts are thatched with the villager's hair. They shave the hair each month with the sharpened edge of a manifold. They scavenged the manifold off a burnt-out jeep.'

`Hmm,' I said, nodding like a puppet.

`The cross in their church is made from a coat hanger. The Jesus that hangs there is a black-and-white picture of George Pepard with hair drawn on in marker.'

She kept speaking, and I lost her voice in the music and bar noise. Then I leaned closer, to hear her say, `I knew after all that that I couldn't come back and live a regular life. I couldn't get pregnant and drive a car.' So many people are running from normal. `I'd felt beauty. Once, they ran out of newts for the volcano festival, and I watched them chase, cook and eat a grandmother--but it was a true way to live. Do you know what I mean?'

I said `Yes,' loudly. She told me that the way of life of the natives was changing; while she was living there, someone from the outer countries brought in a dogmill-powered television. The natives had eaten the plowdogs the season before. This meant that the children were yoked for plowing, so they also hooked a child to the dogmill, but the television showed only static, so far away from a signal, and the child quickly collapsed.

`I was so glad it was only static. I couldn't have taken all of them trying to watch Letterman, or soap operas. They'll be gone in 20 years, you know, their language. TV will make it in, money will make it in, food. It's so important to capture it now.'

`How is it coming? The film?'

`It's difficult. We're trying to get funding. I put together a 10-minute short from videotape I took the first week, before they stole my batteries to heat water for a stillbirth.'

`What are your leads like?'

`A couple--my friend at VH1, he works on Behind the Music, and he's making a film about a group of monks who work with junkies, and he knows some people. And I know a woman who gets behind projects if they can feature her retarded son in some way. So between the two of them I can get started.'

`That sounds promising.'

`You have to make compromises. My friend works for the company that walks Edward James Olmos' retriever, and apparently he gives a lot of money for certain projects. I'm going to try to meet him, if I can work that connection. And maybe get some grant money. Or he could narrate.'

By now, I'd memorized her lips, hoping to remember them for later onanism, but I knew that if I tried to get off thinking of her, I would hear her voice telling me about the tribe, and then think of my own unmet goals and desires, my hunger for a wider audience, and then veer into fantasies of receiving the MacArthur grant, right before remembering all the writing I hadn't finished. All hope of release would vanish, and I would lie limply on the bed, a failure.

I wished then that she was the sort of person who watched television and enjoyed music, without grand goals, and that we could be talking about the Beatles, or college memories, or sex. I'm worn out on my own aspiration, and twice as worn on the hopes of others. But I can't blame Passerine; she wants to be a voice for those poor people below the equator. In a world of films and screens and Web sites, none truly speak for her, so she works to show us the world through her lens.

She began talking to someone else, and I went home without saying goodbye. Passerine didn't see me when she spoke to me; I was an audience along her journey, an ear with a body attached. I'm the same as she is, with my Web site and great dreams. I have nothing to say, only a way of saying it close to your ear.

Both of us want to be part of something, to do more than connect to the network of emotions and ideas. We want to be the network, and for our beliefs and creations to become the medium which communicates thought and feeling, like the work of the Lost Generation, Stein and Picasso and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who filled the space between the Wars.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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