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Pittsburgh – The Hawaii of the Mid-Atlantic

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by Nicole Skeltys

Hot tubs and city parks

After only three days back in Pittsburgh, I found myself sitting in an frothy outdoor hot-tub on Mt Washington, framed by stunning views of the city. Bedecked with lurid plastic leis, with a handsome young gentleman by my side, I quaffed a strawberry daiquiri and cracked jokes to camera about how Pittsburgh was internationally famous as the Hawaii of the Mid-Atlantic. You would not normally find this activity listed in a job description. Unless, of course, you wrote that job description yourself. In November last year, Tanya and I were commissioned to write and shoot a short series of films for the Mt Washington Community Development Corporation promoting their new regional park – the Grandview Scenic Byway Park. I managed to include a hot-tub scene in the storyboard, which goes to show anything is possible when you put your mind to it.

While the journey from Melbourne to Pittsburgh was an aerial marathon that left my body clock thoroughly mangled, it was nevertheless a relief to get back to the USA and put my antipodean hospital holiday behind me. MOFO (the giant uterine fibroid that took me medical hostage when I got to Australia) seems to be finally giving up its civil war on my nether regions. And Pittsburgh now looks glorious in full spring mode, worthy of a Shakespearean sonnet – complete with waving daffodils, courting red robins (one of whom has made a nest on our kitchen door) and streets splashed with blossoming pear trees and redbuds.

Tanya and I are now working hard to finish off these films in time for our deadline of 1 June: they will be screened at the outdoor cinema events held throughout summer in the city’s parks. Scott has also joined us to help with shooting and animations, and we now even have a (working) name for our little multimedia team: Cheek Productions.


The week after I got back, I decided to get involved with local politics and try and make a civic contribution to my adopted home. I had spent years involved with the Green Party in Australia, and felt the need to get involved with environmental and social justice campaigning again. I volunteered to help out with the Peduto primaries campaign and, later in the year, do what I can to help his reelection to Council. Quite apart from being a 100% nice guy, Bill has an impressive track record on local green issues, a completely sensible approach to cleaning up local government finances and rorts, and an impeccable record on helping disadvantaged constituents.

Last weekend, I found myself stuffing envelopes in the Peduto headquarters in Shadyside, a mail-out for a fundraising night at the Center for the Arts. Thus began my education in local American politics, Pennsylvania style. I learnt, for example, that voters are almost drowned with democratic options – here you can vote directly for a mess of positions that in Australia are neatly taken care of by bureaucratic and political appointments: Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, Coronor, School Director, District Judge, to name but a few (but not dog-catcher – I checked). Apparently voter turn out for these elections is “dismal”. I have a long way to go to figure out how this town ticks politically, but at least I have made a start.

Peduto, on the other hand, running for the position of Councilman for City Council District 8, has so much popular support that his one Democrat rival for the position recently dropped out of the primaries race. The campaign is now about voter eduction and empowerment, or “building the base” as Bill calls it.

After envelope stuffing, I continued to further the cause of base building by heading down to Cappys, a bar on Walnut St, Shadyside, where once a month Bill hosts a night of VJing where he plays people’s favorite YouTube clips for a $5 donation. All proceeds go to a changing range of worthy community groups. Last Saturday, Friends of the Urban Forest were the beneficiaries. This group encourages the planting and protection of Pittsburgh’s city trees. I got chatting to some of the members while Cappys filled up and images of giant Cookie Monsters with death metal voices and two year old evangelical preachers flickered over the big screens. To my delight, at one point someone requested an old Parliament-Funkadelic clip, and I got to revel again in seeing an aging Garry “Starchild” Shider prance around stage wearing nothing but diapers.

As midnight came and went, the urban foresters decided to drop into Lawrenceville’s once a year ‘Art All Night’ celebration and I tagged along – particularly pleased to get a lift back to my suburb given I had otherwise no idea how I was going to get home. ‘Art All Night’ proved impressive – hundreds of artworks by local established and amateur artists arranged in large warehouse spaces not far from the riverside. Despite the wee hours, the event was still packed and garage bands thrashed away. At one of the community tables, I noticed a considerable number of brochures for local neighborhood community and arts groups (such as Construction Junction which recyles old refrigerators by encouraging artists to decorate them then turn them into arthouse kegs!) The diversity indicated Pittsburgh’s capacity for healthy grassroots innovation, albeit mostly at the single issue and small scale art enterprise level.

After about an hour, I left the still milling art crowd and started to make my way home down Butler St. As I shuffled along I ruminated on something one of the urban foresters had told me, that “there wasn’t much eco-raver or hippy culture in Pittsburgh”, which I was disappointed (although not really surprised) to hear. My Melbourne group household would often refer to ourselves as ‘hippies’, despite the fact I don’t think any of us actually own a tie-dyed T-shirt (although Roland did look really good in a large fluffy pink top hat I once found in an op shop). The term ‘hippy’ functioned as a kind of shorthand for our identification with greenie/ collectivist values and lifestyles (not to mention old school techno parties in forest settings).

But just when I was having my “I miss hippies” moment of sadness, a bike wobbled up beside me, and I caught a flash of rainbow tie-dyed T-shirt, sandles, long hair and scraggy beard. “Hey, Thunderbirds is a great bar! Why don’t you come inside and let me buy you a drink?”. I found myself staring at what looked to me like a bonafide aging alternative lifestyler sporting a big grin, so I said “Sure” and we headed into the bar. As Ed introduced himself and bought me a screwdriver, I fairly quickly realised that looks can be deceptive: Ed quickly explained he had been “drinking all day”, happily lived off “hamburgers, they’re the best food you could possibly want” and, despite my probing, seemed to have no idea about local organic farms or ecology groups. Nevertheless it was fun to chew the (factory farmed) fat for a while. However, Ed eventually brought the conversation around to how “hot” Australian women were and that I was no exception. That was my cue to thank Ed for his generosity and continue my shuffle down home to 45th St under the milky warm night sky.

My future role in a martial arts action flick

Once my jetlag wore off, I started to apply my newly cleared mind in earnest to the fairly substantial problem of how I was going to survive for the duration of my three year artists’ work visa in America. My nights were now (once again) punctuated with brainstorming sessions with Tanya, exploring ideas for creative enterprises that might bring us in some cash.

Late one restless night late last week, I had a Eureka moment and hatched an idea for a music project that might – just might – attract the interest of a few local sponsors. It was a project I would feel completely passionate about and had the potential to bring a lot of joy to people involved with it, myself included. It was my Latest Big Idea. I hastily scribbled out the proposal, crunched the numbers and nervously sent a draft off to Charlie for comment.

A couple of days later I fired off an email applying for the job of an extra in a Nick Nolte martial arts action movie called Warrior which is about to commence shooting in Pittsburgh. Within minutes, the phone rang and one of the casting crew was putting my name down on the full-time extras list, requiring my presence on set for 5-6 days a week for 4 weeks starting 11 May. While the pay is minimal and the hours long, nevertheless its an income, and the opportunity to see how a medium budget (by American standards) mainstream film is slammed together.

And who knows – maybe I will be ‘discovered’ and I will find myself playing character female bit parts in future B-grade movies (chain-smoking school canteen mom, hot roller derby coach, love-lorn ferris wheel assistant at a Pennsylvania county fair) or best of all, both Tanya and I could star as The Jilted Brides, a faded glamor girl duo playing dim old Southern saloons in a cool remake of Easy Rider from a girl’s perspective directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring the ghost of Heath Ledger.

Well, at least I can dream:-)

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