by Nicole Skeltys
Man About the House
Where I have settled in Pittsburgh, the freight trains wait until dusk then come out like great mechanical cows and commence their lowing which continues long into the evening, increasing their frequency in the early hours. I am a poor sleeper, waking often in the witching hours after midnight. In Melbourne, I would lie awake for hours, with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company. But here in the railway-zippered suburb of Lawrenceville, I will never again be alone at night. I am kept company by the conversation of the freight train horns. Every half hour or so, a new blare of exquisite tonalities erupts, a unique plaid of harmonics that is flung into the universe. Its 5.00 am as I write this propped up in bed with my faithful laptop Larry, and Larry and I have been digging horn solos for hours.
There is no predicting the rhythm or timing of the blares. Sometimes they are short, insistent bursts suggesting urgency, danger, get out of my way. Other times, they are are long, languid squirls of sound, like the cries of a delighted lover. The cry of each train as it rattles through is so erratic, that I think it must surely reflect the different moods of the men pushing the horn. Before I got up to write, I lay awake and listened closely to what I imagined to be the morse code of yearning. Some railway guy was leaning against a metal cab interior, he finished a cigarette and flicked it out the window, he reached over and and pushed on the horn pedal (or pulled the lever, depending on how old the train is) according to how he felt about his life at that exact moment in time. And motionless under my mountain of borrowed blankets, miles away, I heard it and I got it. Like him, I could hear what the sound contains: the the off-key, stained satin, diaspora of emotion that sums up our lives.
The freight trains have been providing the romantic soundtrack to our new lives, as Tanya and I settle into our second floor apartment, right above our buddies Scotty and Dan. My nights of sleeping on the floor of Scott and Dan’s basement were now over. No longer did I have to battle with my constantly deflating air mattress while Tanya rustled and flopped behind the makeshift curtain that Scott had pinned up to separate our sleeping areas. I had my own completely solid mattress – heaven! T and I each had our own room – heaven again! It was typical of the great good fortune that had swooped upon us as soon as we arrived in Pittsburgh: the cheap, groovy little oak paneled, bi-level apartment above our hosts just happened to have become vacant. It was all too easy – why don’t we just move in?
We did, however, have one hurdle to cross before we could settle down after our exhilarating but exhausting 5 months of being on the road. And that was our potential landlord, Jim. We needed to persuade Jim to hand over the keys to us, that we would be good tenants. Jim, according to Scotty, was around quite a bit. And usually fairly tanked.
We first met Jim when one day he was bustling into the back yard, about to climb to the steps to the 2nd floor apartment. Scott saw him from the kitchen window and called him over to introduce us. He poked his head into the kitchen, saw us, and his eyes bugged. He knew that Scotty and Dan had a couple of Australian women, “aussie chicks” staying with him for a while: but our corporeality, the actual sudden presence of two female bodies in a house that had previously only contained two young male bodies clearly hit him with some force. He barked a slightly startled hello and after some awkward pleasantries, asked with great curiosity how long we intended to stay. When we replied maybe for the long term, and that we might be interested in the 2nd floor apartment, Jim looked even more startled and affected a skeptical stance: “Well. We’ll see, we’ll see. We can talk abart it, we can talk abart it.” He backed away and retreated up the back stairs, carrying his 6 pack of Yuengling lager.
Over the next couple of weeks, Jim’s presence became familiar, as every second day he bustled up and down the back stairs and rattled and banged away upstairs fixing whatever it was that needed fixing in the wake of the last tenant. Jim was probably in his late 40s, early 50s, and was a ‘yinzer’ – what the locals call native Pittsburghers. This meant he was never without a baseball cap, even (or especially) indoors and at night, talked in a crimped, guttural Pittsburgh accent, drank goodly amounts of lager, barracked for the Steelers and engaged in a blue collar profession – in Jim’s case, he was a plumber. Tanya had further expanded on the classic yinzer definition by including what she regarded as the defining physical characteristics of native Pittsburgh men: they looked like moles. Cute, cuddly moles perhaps, but moles nevertheless.
When we had finally made the decision to stay, we lay in wait for Jim’s next appearance. One afternoon we spied him out the kitchen window, coming through the gate with his tool box in one hand and his lager in the other, looking every inch an industrious mole. We stopped him and told him we were definitely interested in renting the apartment. Jim affected a skeptical stance again. “Well, nah, well nah, do yez have a job? How are yez gonna pay the rent if yez dont have a job?” Luckily Tanya had just been offered some teaching work at the Point Park University film faculty; I mumbled some outright lie about doing “contract work”.
However, as it turned out, Jim didn’t actually require much convincing. He tried to look hard nosed, and complained sternly that “every tenant sez thar gonna pay the rent but they don’t” (his last tenant had split without warning, rent in arrears). But moles, as we know, do not have hard noses, they have soft noses, and after chatting to Jim for a while, he loosened up quickly. Soon, we were heading up the steps and he was showing us proudly around the newly painted apartment. He showed us how he was now fixing the shelves in the kitchen and even started asking us what other repairs we thought we might need. This was a first for Tanya and I: neither of us had ever had a landlord who was anxious to improve a property to the tenant’s liking. Jim was turning out to be just like everyone else we had met in Pittsburgh: generous-hearted to a fault.
At one point, as Jim was showing us the downstairs bedroom he said: “Theres a bedroom for one of yez.” then he glanced at us and added in an almost apologetic tone of voice “Or both of yez! What yez get up to is none of my business! You know yez can do what yez want, do what yez want. Doesn’t worry me!” He paused and he looked at us. We smiled broadly and didn’t respond. We moved out onto the verandah so Jim could show us the sealant he intended to apply to the railings. We mentioned we would be continuing to share some facilities and tasks (such as gardening) with the boys. Jim couldn’t help himself again: “Well, nah, one big happy family is it?” he asked with another meaningful stare in his wide eyes. “I mean, I don’t want to pry, what yez all get up to is your business, none of my business, yez can get up to whatever you want!” In Jim’s mind, 227 45 St had clearly turned into a hothouse of sexual intrigue – just who was sleeping with who? The possibilities were endless! and exciting! anyway you cared to think about it.
T and I just smiled knowingly back at Jim after every leading statement and continued to ask questions about the apartment. We let his imagination continue to cook away.
The Boston Marriage
We started to move in our very few belongings the last week of October. As we set up our new home over the following weeks, we became aware that there was a term for our new co-habitation status. Scotty sent us a link to an MS article entitled “So are you two together?” The article was about women who decide to move in together to provide each other with emotional support, share financial responsibilities and work together on creative or other kinds of joint endeavors. Other people (such as our landlord, who reminded me strongly of the forever perplexed and titillated Mr Roper in the classic ’70s British sit-com “Man About the House”) would often assume a lesbian relationship where this was not the case. The term for this kind of living choice was a “boston marriage” – a term derived from Henry James’ 1886 novel The Bostonians whose main female characters have chosen to move in together as each other’s “helpmeets”.
Our ability to actually set up the rudiments of a household was assisted greatly by the financial generosity of donations from family and friends, particularly those triggered by the now infamous “flying mattress incident”. We were also highly dependent on the only two people in Pittsburgh we knew with cars – Charlie and Scotty – to help ferry us around to buy household goods and act as our surrogate husbands. One glorious day, we found three perfectly good (if somewhat faded) armchairs, plus a couple of sidetables just sitting outside a church around the corner from us on 46th St. Scotty was once again pressed into service with his Chevvy pick up, and by late afternoon our loungeroom started to look like a loungeroom.
Jim continued to drop around and fix things, and we started to enjoy his company. One night when we were hanging out with Scotty downstairs, he even went next door to the mysterious AmVets hall (he was a Vet as it turned out) and bought us all back a bunch of beer. This was no small favor as in Pittsburgh, for reasons that defy all logic, you can easily walk down the road and buy dangerously cheap wine and hard liquor from a liquor store, but the only place you can buy beer is from specially designated outlets. Why relatively low alcohol beverages are in restricted supply whereas serious liver and brain corroding beverages are everywhere is beyond me. But it made us especially grateful to Jim for saving us having to go on a quest to find a distant beer depot.
Our Boston marriage was certainly more functional than Jim’s. Jim had divorced after only 4 years, but 2 years later the divorce proceedings carried on and were clearly causing him a great deal of pain and anxiety. We felt sorry for him, as he had a good heart, and clearly his general yinzer fondness for brews had developed into a stronger addiction to cope with post-marital stress. However, he had not lost his sense of humor and he too became another surrogate husband, cheerfully complaining about “typical women, always wantin’ stuff done round the haus” as he trudged in with his tool box and beer to fix a blocked drain, or to bleed the heaters.
Jim was perhaps becoming a little too comfortable in his role as surrogate husband as one night last week he gave a perfunctory knock and walked in the kitchen door, starting to tell me how the boiler pressure was all wrong and needed adjusting when he stopped dead in his tracks. There I was sitting in the loungeroom in our borrowed pine hutch having a drink with another man. It was only Charlie, who had dropped in briefly after some new errand he had uncomplainingly done on our behalf. However, the sight of a strange man in our apartment was enough to make Jim visibly embarrassed, and clearly provided yet more fodder for an already inflamed imagination. He moved quickly upstairs to Tanya’s attic room to adjust the bleeds, then hurried down back past us again moving quietly and sheepishly as if he had interrupted something momentous. I burst out laughing after he left.
The extraordinary alien
Something momentous did occur, though, a couple of days later, as I accompanied Charlie to see an immigration lawyer about my plight. My visa was due to run out the following week. To say this caused me some anxiety was an understatement: I had just put down a deposit and moved into an apartment in a town I was determined to live in with no legal means of staying or working there. This was a major cause of waking up in the middle of the night and spending hours focusing on train horn harmonics. Charlie had to see the lawyer on behalf of Dan Jemmett, a British playwright who also wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. He asked me to come along so we could get some advice on my situation too.
Prior to the meeting, I did some research on visa categories, and for the first time I saw a glimmer of hope. The category of visa that Dan was applying for might – just might – apply to me. That visa category was an EB-1 or “extraordinary alien” visa. To qualify to be an “extraordinary alien” you had to have received an academy award (it was THAT easy); but more relevant to my situation, you could also be considered if you had an outstanding record of achievement in your field of endeavor. As I scrolled through the criteria, it dawned on me that my years of slogging it away punching out electronic and electronic influenced music, album after album, might make me an “extraordinary alien”. After all, I had been nominated for an ARIA once, wasn’t that kind of extraordinary? It certainly stunned me at the time.
Charlie oscillates with nervous energy pretty much all of the time. As we sat in the all white po-mo waiting area, I too was oscillating – if someone could have plugged us into a circuit board and hooked us up to an amplifier, we would have made a very high pitched sound. Larry, our lawyer, greeted us warmly and ushered us into the conference room, asking us to take a seat at an extremely long walnut table. The small talk consisted of Larry’s plans for the sterile white foyer – he intended to use it to showcase local artists’ work. Charlie quickly jumped at the chance to offer to broker curatorial services as part of a deal, and within minutes he was gone, ferried away by the marketing lady to talk artwork turkey. I sat alone with the lawyer, almost unable to keep my buttocks on the chair due to anxiety and looked at him as a penitent with heavy sins might look at a confessor.
Larry asked me what I wanted and I mumbled that I well, just wanted to stay here, and write and perform music. Larry nodded enthusiastically and, after asking after my visa status, noted that we were “looking at a rather tight timeframe” to sort all this out. Then he put on his glasses and started reading the material I had sent him – my CV/biography and the two pages worth of self-promoting bravado I had put together as my claims to be an “extraordinary alien”. The funny thing was, though, that as I had sat down the previous night, gone through the acceptance criteria and jotted down my potential claims, I realised that I had, in fact, achieved stuff. I had always moved through my music career like a salmon spawning up-stream: I never looked behind me or thought about what I’d done, after an album or project had been completed and promoted, I just wanted to hurry up and get onto the next one. But as I forced myself to go back over the last decade, particularly over the tons of press clippings that I’d scanned before I left Australia, I thought maybe if you were looking at all this from a consciousness other than my own self-deprecating Australian consciousness, particularly if yours was an American can-do, boosterish consciousness, you might form the opinion I was a person of some note in my field. You might start slowly mouthing the words “extraordinary alien”.
Larry scanned the documents silently then put them down and looked at my half-terrified, half-pleading face. “This is excellent. No problem, I’m almost certain you will qualify. The green card takes about a year, but in the meantime we can rustle up an application that should be able to get you a temporary work permit so you can stay here while we work on the EB-1 process.” It was a Rocky moment. I leapt up from the chair and punched the air:”YEEEESSSSSS!!!!” I cried, then composed myself and sat down. It did indeed seem possible that I was not just any old alien; I could hear the theme from Close Encounters start to build, I could see the massive disk of light descend from the sky over the Devil’s Tower formation, I could see rows upon rows of speechless people, faces upturned in awe: they were looking at me as I emerged triumphantly from the spacecraft and started to walk grandly towards them: watch out America here I come – I’m an extraordinary alien!