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Pittsburgh (Part 1): The End of the Road?

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by Nicole Skeltys

Pittsburgh: Je T’aime!

As I write this, we have been living in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, for almost 3 weeks. Lawrenceville is an inner working class Pittsburgh suburb which is in transition to becoming a funkier neighborhood. You can tell its ‘up and coming’ because there are little designer clothes shop down on Butler St (the main drag) and several quirky art galleries. You can tell it has not yet ‘up and come’ because the eateries are still dominated by low rent diners offering hoagies with 6 kinds of meat and plenty of cheese, and you can’t buy soy milk or sourdough rye bread anywhere.

Lawrenceville, like other similar inner Pittsburgh areas, features steep, narrow streets, zig-zagged with rows and rows of semi-detached houses. These are wooden, thin, multi-storied turn of last century structures with peaked attics, many of them seemingly drawn crookedly by children, then painted in all colors of the rainbow. Most houses have cute little yards and gardens (including ours). Architecturally, sometimes you could be in Amsterdam, sometimes northern England. The air is fresh, the streets are clean. Now, as fall fades the days in earnest, there are psychedelic shocks of colour everywhere, as the maples and other desiduous trees burn themselves up in explosions of orange, scarlet and yellow. Combine this with sweeping views from every corner, and you’ve got one hell of a picturesque town.

In Lawrenceville and the nearby Strip district, the landscape near the river is dominated by shambling old warehouses from Pittsburgh’s former days of steel mill prosperity. At night, freight trains pass by somewhere near here and are heralded by their long lonely piping. I’m hearing it now as I type. Truly one of the loveliest melancholy sounds you can ever hear.

Before we came here, when we announced we were going to spend fall in Pittsburgh, many people looked at us incredulously: “why on earth are you going to that stinking cesspool of a town?” they asked. The answer then was because we wanted to see our poet buddy Scott again, and because he and his roommate were generously offering us a free place to stay for 3 weeks (in their basement). Our fully funded residency with the Blue Ridge colony in Georgia had fallen through at the last minute, and we really needed somewhere to go after New York that cost little, or no money for accommodation.

Pittsburgh in the ’60s was described by Frank Lloyd Wright as “hell with the lid off” : a polluted, grimy, rough steel town. Then in the ’70s and ’80s, the economic basis of the town steadily collapsed as the US became a net importer of steel, and several other iconic companies (such as Heinz) moved many of their jobs elsewhere including overseas. Pittsburgh lost about a quarter of a million jobs throughout the ’80s, earning a reputation then as being being one of America’s dying, crime riddled “rust belt” towns. But since then, the town has reinvented itself remarkably: its economic base is no longer resource based, but high tech (robotics, biotechnology, medical research and healthcare), academic (the town boasts 8 universities) and (most encouraging for T and I) the arts, supported by numerous foundations and private philanthropists. Boosterish Pittsburgh bank advertisements now quote Forbes.com: “Top 10 world’s cleanest and greenest cities”, and Places Rated Almanac: “No 1 most livable city in America”.

The more we saw of Pittsburgh in the days following our arrival, the more we thought we might have found our new home at long last.

On our first Saturday here, there was an open day where punters could wander into the various local Lawrenceville studios and see artists standing proudly by their creations. T and I spent a glorious sun drenched afternoon wandering from site to site, pouring over paintings, photos, hand-made graphic novellas and encyclopedias, ‘found objects’, all the while chomping on corn chips and chugging down wines. Everyone we met was happy and relaxed. They told us how cheap it was to live, which meant it was possible to live as an artist and not starve. One woman, a photographer, had moved here from California and her business was now booming – so much so that she had recently purchased a beautiful old former 19th working man’s singing school for $80’000 and was fitting it out into a photographic studio, artist rooms, performance space and multimedia complex.

Most people we met expressed amazement at meeting real live Australians – their first reaction also was “Why on earth are you in Pittsburgh?” It appeared Pittsburghers, like most Americans, think of Australia as an impossibly distant sun drenched utopia which no-one in their right minds would ever want to leave. But when we explained that we were artists looking for a new home, everyone quickly told us how great Pittsburgh was for artists, how happy they were living here, and they urged us to stay with great warmth – they really meant it. Local artists liked new artists to move to Pittsburgh, so the community gets bigger, and there is a richer social and creative life for everyone. Everyone gave us their emails, one artist even gave us a free copy of his book of full color prints. And without us having to wheedle at all, people plied us with the names of people in funding bodies that could help us out.

At the end of the day, we walked home, a bit sozzled and on a huge high. “That was one of the most magical days we’ve had on our trip” Tanya said. I agreed. I felt somewhat overwhelmed, like I’d just been to a love-in and licked everywhere. T said: “My dream has always been to set up my own photographic studio, specialize in portraits. Rents are so cheap, warehouses are so plentiful, you know I think I could actually do it here” I agreed again. Someone with T’s extraordinary talent would shine here, and the infrastructure was affordable, it could be done. In Sydney, rents were the same level as New York. In Melbourne, all the old warehouse spaces had been snapped up by developers and turned into ‘yuppie dog-box’ apartments a decade ago. And when we boarded the plane for North America in May, 1500 people were moving into Melbourne every week, the rental vacancy rate was less than 1% and rents were skyrocketing.

But no matter how cheap it was to live here, would we be able to make a living? It seemed that one person might actually know the answer to that question. As we had wandered around around the Lawrenceville artist studios, the person most artists urged us to meet was a guy called Charlie Humphrey. He is the head of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers Society, the Pittsburgh Arts Center, and the Glassworks Center. He is “the man” they said, the guy who knows everyone in Pittsburgh, he is the philanthropic sluicegate that directs trickles of funding into the quivering outstretched hands of artists. We decided it would be a good idea to see if we could meet with Charlie – very soon.

Charlie: Patron Saint of The Jilted Brides

Sure enough, after we sent Charlie an email outlining our improbably large span of artistic projects (filmmaking, musical performance, video clip production, book writing, travel blogging, photography) he got back to us straight away, saying he was keen to meet us – that day. That was Monday.

However, Monday was the day I had planned to henna my increasingly rat-like hair (I had not had any hair grooming since leaving Australia, except for a $3 bangs trim by a Mexican barber in Austin, who left me with a marked diagonal slope up my forehead). We delayed the meeting until 4 pm so Tanya could slap the muddy slime all over my head at midday, and I could sit there for a few hours, my head incubated in a garbage bag while underneath my follicles changed color as quickly and remarkably as the autumn foliage. When I rinsed all the muck off, I blow-dried my locks and stood back and admired how new I looked. I was more confident now, I could meet the chief executive officer of a prestigious art institution, assured that my radiant mane would speak volumes about my creative skills.

Finally, it was time to set off for our important appointment. We slammed the door behind us at 3 pm, an hour ahead, because we didn’t have a car, couldn’t afford a taxi and the glory days of Pittsburgh public transport had long passed: we had to walk there. Up the cardiac conditioning hills of Lawrenceville, along the ‘Little Italy’ stretch of Bloomsfield (which T and I joked should be called ‘micro-Italy’ due to its barely noticeable Mediterranean character), then over onto Shadyside, along traffic choked Baum Avenue, left into Melwood Avenue, up to the headquarters of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers Institute. As the droll receptionist paged Charlie and said “There are two Aussies here to meet you”, I realised that, although I had no expectations whatsoever, I was nervous.

We were greeted enthusiastically by a tall slender man with a mop of greying hair, boyish face, curious kindly eyes and quick movements. As he spoke to us, he oscillated ever so slightly with nervous energy. Within minutes, I could tell this person was not cut in the senior arts bureaucrat mould that I was used to jousting with – he was not the kind of person that “had tickets on themselves” as my mother used to say (Australian slang for a self-important person). Far from that, Charlie was like everyone else we had met so far in Pittsburgh – down to earth, warm and friendly. As the conversation progressed, he too made it clear that he wanted us to stay. “You women have media coming out of your pores. I would consider it a moral victory if I could help you stay in Pittsburgh”. He said he would send any work he could our way, and he would introduce us to “everyone we needed to know” in the film and post-production community.

Sure enough, the next day Charlie set the ball rolling for what turned into a week of frenzied networking and socialising. Within a few days, Tanya was being asked if she would like to apply for a job as video projection mistress with a cool multi-media troupe called Squonk Opera. A few days after that, Point Park University asked if she was interested in applying for a position in the film school there, teaching camera and lighting, something she knew lots about due to her training as a cinematographer. Off her own initiative, T got work as a camera operator to film a motivational ‘wealth creation’ seminar, and was following up a number of other leads on the ever bountiful Craigslist.

Charlie’s most spectacular act of generosity, however, happened when I showed him my last two CDs – the Dust album ‘Songs‘, and the as yet unreleased Jilted Brides album ‘Larceny of Love‘. I had hoped that a US label would want to release ‘Larceny’ (we certainly couldn’t afford to manufacture any), but I had low expectations. In the face of world wide plummeting CD sales, these were very grim times for independent labels, most labels were cutting their roster, not looking for new bands. But it turned out Charlie’s hands weren’t full enough being the CEO of three major artist institutions, he also played in a band and ran a small music label (no wonder he oscillated!).

At the end of last week, Charlie asked us if we would we like him to manufacture 1000 ‘Larceny of Love’ CDs for us courtesy of his label “Uh Oh Music”?. He loved the music and wanted to be part of the project. We were over the moon. At last, someone was taking a punt on our music, someone thought we were truly destined for a brighter future. And we would have something to sell at gigs, just like any other ‘normal’ band.

That’s it, we agreed, we are staying here. We also agreed that Charlie should henceforth be known as “The Patron Saint of the Jilted Brides”, and was clearly in cahoots with the rock and roll angels who had guided our journey thus far.

Jean Luc Godard and kidney beans

The apartment just above Scott and Dan’s had become vacant just before we came to Pittsburgh. We decided to rent it out, from the first of November. It was only $600 a month, for a spacious bi-level two bedroom place, renovated kitchen, polished wood floors, garden, and a large balcony with (of course) spectacular views. Our neighbors would be a Veterans hall with fairly mysterious goings on on one side, and a gay couple, Timmy and Jimmy in a little bungalow on the other. When Timmy and Jimmy found out we were moving in, they were delighted. Scott and Dan were excited. Rosy pictures of neighborly pot lucks, swopping garden cuttings and sharing wireless internet access appeared in everyone’s minds.

But the strangest thing about the course of events of the last 3 weeks was that is has been like a Godard film. On the one hand, the visuals are all pointing in one direction – happiness, Anna Karina smiling seductively to the camera, beautiful Paris streets, Hollywood musical poses, bonhomie! But underneath, the soundtrack is subtly telling a different story – dialogue out of place, inappropriate music coming in and suddenly stopping, strange sound effects hinting at another world behind what is displayed on the screen. Something is wrong.

That something hit Tanya first. As we started to talk about the costs of setting up the flat (bond, furniture, utilities) she became more agitated. “I’m really going to have to budget” she said, as she had often stated over the course of our journey. But then this became “Actually, I don’t know how I can do this”. T was about to slip into the shark infested waters of credit card debt. The sea of red was already lapping at her bank statements. I said, “Well, I’ve still got cash, we’ll get by”. I had been managing my cash stash like a life support drip, carefully restricting money flow to essential homeopathic droplets.

But over the last few weeks, the financial market Frankenstein had kicked its way into the US/Australian dollar exchange rate and strangled the value out of our pathetic currency. When we arrived in May, the OZ dollar was equivalent to the US dollar. Almost overnight, it lost 40% of its value. I was hemorraging cash, faster and faster.

The make matters worse, the sleeping arrangements in our basement camp were terrible. My blow up mattress regularly lost its air during the night, and as we had no pump in the house with which to blow it back up (we relied on a car pump), I lay for hours awake, twisted on the slowly but insistently deflating lumps of my alleged bed. I tried sleeping on a makeshift arrangement of cushions for a few nights, but this was scarcely any better than lying with my spine crimped into the floor. The floors were paper thin, and Dan’s every animal-like movement, along with his sub-woofered I-Tunes playlist, echoed down hour upon hour into our airless, dark living quarters, further disrupting sleep. Each day, I was running on the adrenaline of being in a sensual new place with wonderful people who instantly called me “friend”, a place that was seemingly the answer to both T and my longings for a new home. But as the days progressed, my sleep deprived mind started to feel more and more unhinged. I found it harder to concentrate. I felt physically weaker, frightening memories of radiotherapy fatigue started to come back. My emotional stability started to slip.

T and I ran out of food and went for a grocery shop at the local Shop and Save. We found ourselves trying to get enough food for both of us for a week on $40. This isn’t actually possible, notwithstanding the appealing giant tins of kidney beans for $1.69 that we purchased. I sat on the bench outside the supermarket as T passed the supermarket chain’s discount card back to Scott so he could use it for his own purchases too. I put my head in my hands and noticed all the spittle from previous bench occupiers next to my feet. When T came out, I said, “I can’t take anymore of this. I feel completely bleak about my future.”

When we got home, Scott went to work at his $5.00 an hour job at the local coffee shop, and I tried to get some daytime sleep on his free bed. Later in the afternoon, I heard a knock on the bedroom door. T came in, tears in her eyes. She had called her father, a man who had separated from her mother when the family was quite young, a man with whom she had a complex and often difficult relationship. She summoned up enough courage to ask for help, and she expected rejection. But he had come through. He even sounded proud at what she had managed to pull off in our crazy American adventures so far. He gave just enough (“no more!”) to help her get on her feet and start the new life that was clearly just about to happen.

T was overjoyed: “We are going to be ok! We are not going to freeze and starve through the winter!!” she said. We hugged and I was overjoyed too. A great weight was lifted from my heart. I had never ceased to worry about T’s financial situation, which had been more precarious than mine since the beginning of our journey. T’s bravery was paying off, long deserved opportunities were opening up for her here. She deserved a break, she deserved the opportunity to establish herself as a formidable photographer, videographer and artistic force to be reckoned with in Pittsburgh and indeed the whole Goddamn US of A! And I was very moved that she was saying “we” would not starve, that we were indeed a team, we would sink or swim together.

Warhol, mattresses and rude awakenings

When T’s money came through a couple of days later, at my insistence, we headed off to buy two new mattresses. I explained that I couldn’t bear another night without a full sleep, I would literally start to crack up. I was already starting to lose it.

Scott kindly agreed to drive us out to the Northside to forage for mattresses, despite the fact that time would be tight – he had to be back at his coffee shop to work at 3 pm. To our enormous delight, we found two Queen mattresses worth over $1300 in the clearance section of the store for only $300 US (make that $515 in Australian pesos). Giddy with our purchasing good luck, and euphoric at the idea of a good nights sleep at last, we tied the mattresses awkwardly onto the Scott’s Chevvy pick-up and took off home with our booty.

Half way there, Scott started to accelerate faster down the highway, anxious to get to work in time. What followed next happened extremely fast and was very shocking. I looked out the rear window to see one of the mattresses rear up with the windforce factor and fly off the truck, off into the face of 3 lanes of busy traffic.

I screamed at Scott to pull over. T and I stared horrified as cars started to veer around the huge obstacle that was half flying, half bouncing across the lanes. A pile up was surely imminent. We somehow got into the emergency lane and pulled up. As the car skidded to a halt, I wondered with terror if a serious accident had occurred yet, and if not, how on earth we were going to get the mattress off the highway before one did. But as I turned to look out the rear window again, what I saw was a surreal divine intervention worthy of a Spinal Tap tour tale- the mattress was being safely dragged towards us under the chasis of a 4 wheel drive under which it had become stuck.

The SUV stopped behind us. T, Scott and I piled out, shaking. I was sure the driver was going to go nuts at us. But instead, a friendly middle aged woman got out and was far more concerned about the (now completely ruined) state of our mattress than the fact that we had almost caused her to have a major accident. She explained apologetically that she had no choice but to try and drive over the mattress because there were cars on either side and behind her who would have collided with her had she attempted evasive action. She waited patiently with us while we struggled and heaved to try and remove the mattress from under the car body, into which it had become wedged. She was on her way to the airport, but was seemed completely unphased and joked that “it was lucky she set off early”.

Finally, after much struggle, we got the smouldering, tattered remains of the mattress out and had no choice but to pitch it into a trench by the side of the road. As the woman turned to go back into her SUV and resume a (hopefully completely uneventful) trip to the airport, she dug into her wallet and stuffed something into Scott’s hands. Scott, who was (like the rest of us) still in a state of shock, stared in disbelief at his hands – she had given him $25. He started to protest, but she just hopped airily back into her truck wishing us the best of luck and took off.

If you are going to have a highway accident with someone, that woman is the one to do it with.

On the way home, we hardly said a word. My dreams of a good nights sleep lay crumpled off a Pittsburgh highway (we got to see all its lovely layers that would have made it so comfy because they were all now shredded and exposed, like a filleted and smoked fish). We did note that we were very, very lucky that potential catastrophe was averted, that angels had most certainly been at work here to save lives. But the mood in the Chevvy was as dark as the looming thunder clouds.

That night, we tried to cheer ourselves up by attending two Pittsburgh arts events that sounded promising. At the Pittsburgh Fim Institute, there was the opening of an installation by Bill Daniel, an artist who claimed he led a hobo life in a vegetable oil powered truck and made films about his experiences. Sounded like our kind of guy. Then after that, at the Wexner Center, there was a screening of Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests” with live soundtrack performances by super-stylish mood-meisters Britta and Dean, formerly of lauded US indie band Luna.

We arrived at the Institute early. Our new landlord Jim, a lonely middle aged guy who was spending most of his afternoons lavishing attention on fixing up our apartment, kindly offered to drive us to the Institute (after T dropped a few heavy hints), thus saving us another hour’s walk. When we got there, we made a beeline for the bar to try and calm our nerves and temporarily blot out the loss of money which we couldn’t afford. Later, the artistic irony struck me; two of the biggest and most prestigous contemporary art museums in Pittsburgh are The Mattress Factory and The Andy Warhol Museum. The image of our mattress flying freakily down the highway would have made for perfect Warhol footage, slowed down infinitely and looped. If only I had had the presence of mind to whip out the handycam instead of hyperventilating in horror!

Half way gulping down a wine, I turned around to find to Charlie in the foyer with his beautiful wife and one of his college student daughters. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits and looking forward to the night’s entertainment. I realised with growing alarm that I was ill-equiped to deal out conversational niceties, and slunk off to look at Daniel’s installation. He had a lot of ‘road memorablia’ stuck here and there on the wall, plus a scrapbook of ‘hobo’ musings and doodlings that he was trying to sell. In his bio, Daniel lists a prestigious string of awards, including a Rockefeller nominee and current Guggenheim fellow. I should have felt excited at the idea that in America someone could call themselves an itinerant while still receiving lots of money. But instead I felt nothing.

We got a lift to the Warhol/ Britta and Dean concert with Charlie and his wife, in their BMW. Once there, I ordered a whisky for myself and T which turned out to be almost pint-sized. I watched the performance in an alcoholic daze. Some of the staring, tear streaked faces of Warhol’s screen test victims mirrored my own bleak soul-state too well. After a while, I realised I couldn’t take anymore and suddenly got up. I stumbled past the rows of Pittsburgh’s glitterati, mumbled my apologies to a startled T, and fled. I found myself outside in the pouring rain. Next thing I know I was in a stretch limousine with a chubby guy who liked ’80s music. Luckily, I could still remember where I lived, or rather subsisted, although everything else in my consciousness was fading from view. The limo driver and I finally got home, after singing together many ’80s hits playing on the local hits and memories stations. I groped my way up the stairs to sleep on the remaining, surviving mattress in the freezing cold in our new apartment, which had yet to be connected to heating or electricity.

As I lay there, the reality of my financial situation hit me with complete clarity, a rude awakening. I was going to run out of money very soon. And, unlike T, I was not a dual citizen, I did not have an American passport. I only had a tourist visa, that, like my money, would run out in a few weeks. I couldn’t work here. I couldn’t stay here. What had I been thinking all this time? Why on earth did I think I could make a new life here? For the first time in many weeks, I was in a bedroom by myself. And for the first time since I had left Australia, I cried all night.

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