The Sound of No Hands Clapping: A Flyer that Won’t Go Away for the Show that Never Happened

photo inside former Quiet Storm coffee shop, Pittsburgh
Interior of the old Quiet Storm, after the stage had been removed, c. 2011 [photo: The Chubby Vegan]

We’ve all pondered the sound of one hand clapping, but what is the sound of no hands clapping?

In the late 1990s, a former “nuisance bar” on Penn Avenue called The Quiet Storm was shut down after the nuisance of having a man knifed to death on premises. In its place, a coffee shop/vegetarian restaurant/leftie command center opened. The new owners painted the walls a patchwork of bright colors, refloored the space with a random splattering of leftover acrylic tiles, added fresh flowers to the tables, displayed them in thrift shop vases–but they kept the old name.

By the early-aughts, The Quiet Storm had added a small stage, a minimal PA system, and quickly became an ideal performance venue for Pittsburgh’s local musicians. The back half of the big room could comfortably host a hundred audience members and with no liquor license, the venue’s BYOB policy made for easy, fun, cheap nights out.

So it was with some pleasant surprise that my band at the time, The Hope-Harveys, were offered a prime Friday night spot, just a couple weeks away. We (and The Cuff, the other band on the bill) did our due diligence at getting the word out, flyering throughout the city, inviting friends. This was going to be a good night.

Rock video for “Antarctica, I’m Yours” by The Hope-Harveys, c. 2004. Video produced by David Craig, starring The Failed Mime and band.

The anecdotal responses started to follow a pattern: “Oh, man, I’d be there, but I’m going to that Johnsons show.” The Johnsons Big Band were something of a local phenomenon at the time and their record release show–with its scene-de facto mandatory attendance policy and near guarantee for onstage anarchic drama–was booked for the same evening in a small theater across town. [Your author was a big fan and likely would have been there himself, but for.]

We arrived, we set up, we kibbutzed with The Cuff. But that was it. No one. No friends, no local music gadabouts, no spouses and no girl/boyfriends of band members. Not a single audience member–paying or otherwise. The Cuff had a pregnant bass player at the time who wasn’t feeling great and had decided to see if anyone rolled in late before committing to performance. Our band had no such prerequisite.

Moments before taking the stage, the sound woman had just one request. “You guys know how to run this stuff, right?” she said, gesturing to the sound board behind the coffee bar, “I’m going to try to catch that Johnsons show.”

Postscript: Johnsons Big Band, The Cuff, Hope-Harveys, and the much-beloved, but not sustainable venue are all gone. But fifteen years later, if you’re on Morewood Ave., on the block between Centre and Baum, you can still see a flyer–sun-bleached and half torn off though it is–advertising The Hope-Ha… and Cu…

torn and sun-bleached flyer for rock-and-roll show on steel pole
The flyer that won’t die for the gig that didn’t happen, Morewood Ave. Advertisement for The Hope-Harveys and The Cuff at The Quiet Storm, c. 2004, still partially visible in 2021.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally submitted to a literary magazine seeking first-person stories from musicians about memorable experiences occurring while on stage. Never having even heard back from the journal, I’m using it here, dammit. Rock on.

A Hardship Post: The Lowdown on Getting Low, and Down

ornate building in dilapidated condition with the word HEALTH over one storefront
Not all health is good health. Former Monessen Savings and Trust Building, et al., Monessen

Preface: In the six+ years I’ve been doing Pittsburgh Orbit, I’ve made every effort to make it not about me. There are no bylines to my writing and the photographs are uncredited. I don’t include a bio and most stories are written in third person (or with a “royal we“). I’m not one that wants personal attention but I do want readers to focus on these (hopefully) interesting things all around us and appreciate them while we can.

That said, I’ve been going through some heavy personal stuff and–much to my chagrin–that’s the only thing my fancy brain can focus on right now. The subject is perhaps an odd choice to include in the Orbit–or even to make this kind of private info public at all–but the shame and stigma of mental illness is one of its most dangerous native features. If you can’t hang with that–or it’s just, uh, too depressing–I get it; you’re completely excused. Hopefully we’ll be back to our regular diet of upbeat stories on disappearing towns, sad toys, and partying alone in the cemetery soon enough.

large wall mural, only partially completed
Not right in the head/an incomplete picture. In-process mural, South Side.

Something isn’t right, all of the time. This is the water in which my brain swims and it’s how I’ve always been. No matter how good the occasion or how temporarily high the mood, there is a gnawing caution to not get too excited, to not enjoy it too much. This won’t last, the killjoy noggin chimes in to remind me, good things never do.

Dysthymia (aka persistent depressive disorder) is chronic, low-grade depression. It’s not among the more cinematic I wanna kill myself or I hear voices flavors of mental health affliction; it’s what used to be called “depressive personality.” That charming descriptor was deadnamed some time in the ’70s or ’80s for its less offensive and more clinical-sounding current title. Most of the time, it is entirely manageable with some low-octane pharmaceuticals and reasonable lifestyle choices.

mural of characters from Winnie the Pooh painted on wooden fence
Not quite right. Mural, McKeesport

Just like where I come from and who raised me (and who didn’t), dysthymia has affected everything about me. A half-finished painting is almost always more interesting than when it’s “done.” Forty-five degrees and drizzling is never bad weather–it actually feels pretty natural. Summer, with its relentless sunshine and unrealistic expectations for carefree fun, is the very worst of seasons. It’s why the minor third and flatted seventh sound so much better than their sprightly major cousins; Nick Drake, the Elvis of Sadness, gets a lot more spins than, you know, the Elvis of Elvises. I like my humor dry and dark.

painting of violin with with words "No Violins" and "No Crying"
Violins welcome. Outside art, Bloomfield

It’s also been a driving force in the Orbit aesthetic. Many people–some of whom are married to me–find spending a Saturday in, say, the Mon Valley to be “depressing.” The idea that I would return–over and over again, by choice, in my precious free time–to towns many view only as models of vacancy and despair, depopulation and collapse, where “they should bulldoze the whole place,” just doesn’t make a lot of sense to them.

stained glass window of figure in garden with many glass panes missing
Only half there. Mausoleum stained glass, Allegheny Cemetery

I don’t see it that way. Las Vegas is depressing. Suburban sprawl is depressing. Grown-ass adults scoring the likes on their selfies is depressing. Places with lovely bones, rich histories, big personalities, and flowers growing through the cracks in the sidewalk are fascinating, warts and all.

They’re also a convenient parallel for those of us who suffer from mental illness. We can’t throw these places–and, more importantly, the people who live there–away, just because the industries that built them abandoned the people who built the community. Likewise, there are those that would discard people who get brain sick as defective, broken, lazy, weak.

artwork of a man wrestling a bear
Man vs. bear (artist unknown)

Winston Churchill famously called his depression The Black Dog. I liken my experience to a different animal.

I’m in the woods and there is a bear chasing me, every day, all the time. He’s not one of those friendly bears. No, if the bear catches up with me, I will be mauled to death. I can outrun the bear, but only if I never slow down, never look back, never trip on a rock or pause to take in the view. If the bear gets me, gone are the relatively benign “blues” and “sads” we all experience and in comes the full battery of clinical symptoms: sleepless nights and loss of appetite, racing thoughts, guilt, shame, uncontrollable emotion. It becomes impossible to access joy.

It’s a good lifestyle for getting things done. When something wants to kill you, you don’t waste a lot of time on dumb TV, sleeping late, or doomscrolling. But being hyper-productive because the alternative is a hospital stay is no way to live.

deflated basketball in empty lot
Deflated, people say, they’ve got the blues or had better days. This ain’t that. Sad basketball, Lawrenceville

Anyway, I’ve been running for a long time–it’s been seven years since the last big one–but just recently that ol’ bear caught up to me again with a sneak attack I could never have prepared for. In the parlance of my psychiatrist, this is a “double depression” (I prefer “Double Bummer“)–a debilitating clinical depression on top of the everyday low-grade stuff. In the on-brand attempt to make lemonade from guilt-ridden lemons–and no capacity to write about anything else–I thought I’d take the opportunity to share one person’s perspective on dealing with the noonday demon.

If you’ve been there, this may be all too familiar; if you’re one of the lucky ones that never experiences major depression, maybe this will help you empathize the next time a friend is afflicted–and they will be, even if they’re too ashamed to tell you the truth about it. Regardless, I hope it can help someone.

large public statue, wrapped in plastic
He’s (almost) dead, wrapped in plastic. Christopher Columbus statue, wrapped, stacked, and packed for relocation, Schenley Park

Wrapped in plastic is maybe not as common a metaphor as greatest hits like The Thick Fog, Wearing a Lead Suit, or Stuck in the Depths of the Ocean, but it’ll do–and the Orbit archives contained a good photo to illustrate. The world is still going on out there, but at best we can only see it through a gauzy film; arms and legs too restricted to be of any real use.

This experience of having one’s eyes wide open–knowing exactly what we’re missing (or, at least, what the brain’s unreliable narrator tells us we’re missing)–is endemic of the experience. It’s watching our lives fast-forward to the near end when we can only dodder about while the world blissfully continues without a second thought about us.

two 1970s Lincoln Continental front ends joined together to make a single art car
We don’t know which way we’re going, either. “Two Face,” Schaefer’s Auto Art, Erie

There’s no right way to go. It’s a conundrum: when The Brain Fog takes over, every decision is the wrong one and every action taken is disaster. Doing nothing puts you into self-imposed solitary confinement; doing anything guarantees failure. Yes, this also describes the intersection where West Carson, Steuben, South Main, Sawmill Run, and The West End Bridge roll the dice to see which piece of infrastructure will claim a human life today.

brick wall with word "No" painted on it
NO, South Side

No, just no. Republicans have famously become The party of ‘No’. No, you can’t bring that bill to the floor; no, there will be no discussion on the topic; no, we don’t have any ideas of our own. But if a person really wants to get down to the no-no sound, he or she just needs to take the D train, downtown. That’s the fastest way to get to hurtin’.

It’s here in this underground club of mind control experimentation that the brain’s wondrous capacity for life-threatening distortion will override any inconvenient, fact-based truths. In a kind of scorched-earth one-upsmanship, the body follows the noodle’s lead and raises the stakes by impairing the ability to move. Want to do the things you love? No, you can’t. How about some simple relaxation? No–the body may be at rest, but the mind is on a wild crime spree in Crazy Town. Want to laugh, sleep, communicate like a human being? Ain’t gonna happen.

downtown Pittsburgh viewed from distace, at night
Nighttime is the wrong time. Downtown Pittsburgh after dark.

Nights are the worst. The daily experience of lying in bed, unable to sleep, night after night, is a living hell. To spend an evening–heck, every evening for the duration of the depression–alone with one’s devastating thoughts is like being on a long drive with someone that hates you. Unlike Bon Scott’s view of hell, this is a bad place to be.

As I write this (section), it is 2:38 am. Two melatonin tabs, deep breathing exercises, a sleep meditation recording, and one prescription-grade horse tranquilizer only bought me one hour of shuteye. I’m averaging around three hours sleep a day; if I get five I feel like I won the lottery. Like clairvoyants or time travelers, we know the day ahead is already ruined well before sunrise.

plastic skeleton on front porch with arm raised to wave hello
Hello neighbor, we’ll be over…sometime. Skeleton friend, Lawrenceville

Making friends with Death is one of the oft-overlooked bright sides to a clinical depression. Yes, there are others. Don’t discount the No Appetite Diet‘s ability to burn off some of the lockdown 35 in a most ruthless fashion or all the extra time one gets when you can’t sleep past 4:30. Every morning is a like three “fall back” time changes right on top of each other. Just imagine all the things you have no energy to do with those extra hours.

But as a lifelong wake-up-screaming-in-the-night worrier about the unknown hereafter, when one’s twenty delirious waking hours every day exist on a cold cocktail of dread, exhaustion, guilt, despair, and self-loathing, death is still a haunting specter–but it’s no longer the terror it once was.

[Side note: personally, I have never been suicidal and don’t intend to start now. But if you are anywhere near that mindset, sweet Jesus, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.]

metal folding chair with hand-written sign reading "Please do not move chair. Therapist coming."
Help is on the way…as long as there’s a place to park. Therapist parking chair, Lawrenceville

Something hopeful. I’ve been through this enough times to know these things end–they always do. It doesn’t feel that way when you’re in it–the brain is making some very convincing arguments that we’re in a hopeless situation with no possible resolution and no means of escape.

But that’s not true. We can beat this, it’s just really really hard. For me, I have to go into a holistic mind/body regimen like Rocky prepping for Drago: long, heartbeat-elevating daily walks/bike rides; being open, honest, and talking with anyone who’ll lend an ear; professional help; cut out drinking and mainline fruits and vegetables; do everything you can to ensure a decent night’s rest. (This last one is a particularly tough nut to crack, see above.)

The very best thing, for me at least, is what I’m doing here: writing about it–heck, writing about anything. Even when I’m unable to pick up the guitar or focus on a movie, I can get my head deep inside a piece of writing and feel like I’ve learned something in the process. It’s why this little blog post, authored gradually over a couple weeks of ups and downs, turned into an epic saga–I just kept having more to say, and it felt good to get it down. Getting thoughts out and organizing them, reading them back and clarifying ideas, the old gadget of writing a “letter never sent”–these things really work.

public art sculpture of UFO in Mars, PA
We’ll get out of here, one way or another. The Mars UFO.

Lastly, when Mrs. Orbit read an earlier draft of this piece her reaction was, “It’s good, it’s heavy, and people are really going to worry about you.” Please don’t. I will be fine and I do know that I’ll get through this … eventually. This past week was way better than the week before (when most of the above text was written) and I’m legitimately feeling like I’m emerging from the fog.

But it’s a good reminder that people are suffering all around us, all the time. The isolation and anxiety of the pandemic has sent previously-epic mental illness rates through the roof. Please check on any friend you haven’t connected with recently; make sure your neighbors are OK; call your mother. Nothing gives a person in depression hope like a friend just reaching out to ask, “How are you? Are you doing OK?” … and then letting them say whatever they need to let go of.

A Four-Point Program for Snow-Shoveling Scofflaws

large Queen Anne-style house with snow-covered sidewalks, Pittsburgh, PA

Such a pretty house! It’s a shame the owners can’t afford a show shovel. Harriet Street at Fairmount/Roup, Friendship.

Winter. Whether it’s a pox for the seasonally-depressed, a brief, rosy-cheeked window into Yankee fortitude, or a no-questions-asked excuse to stay inside, drink hot chocolate, and watch British detective shows is up to the individual. Regardless–and despite the last two years’ near complete absence of winter–you’re going to have to deal with it sometime.

For the record, The Orbit has no problem with the season. Sure: it’s cold and it’s dreary, but there’s a lot to recommend it too. In any case, the worst thing about winter is undoubtably its potential for calamity. When trodden-on sidewalk snow turns to ice, a simple walk to the bus stop or coffee shop becomes a death-defying task. This no-so-balanced pedestrian has personally twisted ankles, thrown out hips, and landed plenty of (quite literal) pains in the ass on uncleared ice. There’s basically been at least one of these painful falls every year of my life.

Twisters Ice Cream shop with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

This ice is neither gourmet nor Italian. Twisters: you don’t get to take the season off–clean up your act! Bloomfield.

But it need not be this way! If just one person from every household simply pulled out the snow shovel and put in ten or twenty minutes at the appropriate times, the city’s sidewalks would exist in a perpetual walk-friendly state–it’s not that hard. We live in a climate that gets snow–we all know it’s coming. Shovel it once just after the snow stops falling, maybe throw on some rock salt, and nature will take care of the rest…until the next snowfall.

Plenty of people do a great, diligent job, but it is remarkable how many households refuse to make any effort in cleaning their walks. This is far from a mere nuisance, irritant, or old-guy “get off my yard” rant–it’s an extremely dangerous public health situation. Every year, people die from falls on ice and they sure as heck break a lot of bones and twist a lot of joints. Older neighbors and people with disabilities are especially at risk.

large brick Victorian house with snow-covered sidewalks, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship, maybe. Caring about fellow human beings, not so much. Evaline Street at Harriet, Friendship.

This year, The Orbit is fighting back–and we hope you do too. Here is the Four-Point Program for Snow-Shoveling Scofflaws we’ll be implementing this season:

1. We’re watching you.

This blogger doesn’t stop walking when it gets cold, nor does he let a little snow get in his way. But, as mentioned above, it does become a huge hassle when the walks aren’t cleared and sidewalks turn to ice.

I’ll have my little notebook and an adequate pen that writes in sub-freezing temperatures. Addresses, dates, and a record of failure to clean walkways will be recorded. If you try: you’re off the hook. No shoveling: you’re in the book.

“I was out of town,” and “I had the flu,” and “I don’t own a snow shovel” are not acceptable excuses. This is why God invented teenagers. If you physically cannot do the work (or just don’t want to), there are always plenty of neighborhood snow-day youths roaming the streets, shovels and salt in hand, looking to make a buck. Flag one down and you’ll have semi-reliable snow service until he or she heads off to college. Likewise, if you have elderly or infirm neighbors, make the effort to help them clear their walks. The city’s “Snow Angels” program helps pair volunteers with homeowners for exactly this purpose.

large brick house with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

House on the hill, snow on the sidewalk. Winebiddle Street, Friendship.

2. You’ve been served.

Lest anyone think snow shoveling is merely the neighborly thing to do, rest assured it is absolutely the law of the land (err…the city). As officially stated in the City of Pittsburgh Snow Removal Ordinance:


Every tenant, occupant or owner having the care or charge of any land or building fronting on any street in the city, where there is a sidewalk paved with concrete, brick, stone or other material shall, within twenty-four (24) hours after the fall of any snow or sleet, or the accumulation of ice caused by freezing rainfall, cause the same to be removed from the sidewalk.

To this end, I have prepared a handbill that contains the pertinent citation details and will be carrying a stack of these wherever I go. The guilty will receive a letter of justice they’ll not soon forget!

large brick house with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

Winebiddle, whine-a-lot. Friendship.

3. I’m calling your ass in.

The city’s 311 Response Center exists “to help with any non-emergency City of Pittsburgh concerns.” Believe you me, they’ll be getting an earful–or perhaps an In Box full–from this tax-payer! Like Ol’ Saint Nick, we’ll be recording who’s been naughty. Unlike Santa, however, we don’t deal in coal–we’ll just go straight to the po-po. I’m going to be that pest that lets 311 know every snow-dodging ne’er-do-well and feet-dragging layabout on my beat. We’ll see if you can’t clean your walk after that first citation comes in, Jack.

snow-covered sidewalk in front of brick house in Pittsburgh, PA

“No sidewalk parking.” Apparently no sidewalk walking, either. This serial offender on Main Street has not shoveled snow from his or her sidewalks in the last 17 years. Lawrenceville

4. Public shaming.

Just in case the response to that 311 call is either slow, unheeded, or ineffectual, the “nuclear option” is to do what the Internet does best: public shame! Now, normally I’m against this brand of hot-headed anonymous vengeance, but desperate times call for desperate measures–we’re dealing with people’s lives, here! It’s time to get on the neighborhood NextDoor group and flyer the telephone poles. Heck, maybe we’ll get a big billboard on Bigelow Boulevard like Billie Nardozzi! Let’s all hope it doesn’t come to that.

large brick house with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

Shady/side, snowy/walk. Bayard Street, Shadyside

A note on the photographs: These pictures were all taken the same day, Friday, Dec. 15, roughly 48 hours after our first real snow the previous Wednesday. It wasn’t a big one and was followed-up by a warming up melt-away over the weekend, so everybody’s getting off clean…this time. The weather may not be so cooperative with our next snow, so consider this a warning.

The Orbit’s Summer Vacation, Part 2: Coming Home

hillside covered with green vines, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh in the summertime: one big green blanket. Oakland house and hillside (from Panther Hollow).

The grass, it turns out, was a lot greener back home.

Summers out West are well-known to be sunny, beautiful seasons. Even still, Portland was going on fifty-nine straight days without rain by the time this blogger touched down last month. In his eight days in Oregon, there was just one light sprinkle to break the streak. Like a Zen koan, it happened over night when there was no one even awake to witness it. The rare grass patch that wasn’t bone dry and scorched pale yellow had to be getting daily attention from a hose-wielding lawn-obsessed gardener.

You won’t get that in Pittsburgh where a walk in the summer can often feel like swimming standing up. But the off-the-charts humidity here sure does make the grass–and tomatoes, raspberries, trumpet vine, knotweed, sunflowers, and everything else with a leaf and a root–grow like it’s been fertilized by nuclear worms. That lush, unbroken carpet of green was the first thing we noticed from the tiny cabin window during the decent to Pittsburgh airport.

statue of mythical man of steel Joe Magarac in front of US Steel Edgar Thompson Works, Braddock, PA

Myth-maker: Joe Magarac, Man of Steel, Braddock

Pittsburgh and Portland share a lot more than they differ. Both are mid-sized, post-industrial, suddenly-on-the-national-radar cities. Given that, we can’t help but compare them–plus, it’s a good excuse for an Orbit story.

Last week, we looked back on this recent trip with both respect and envy for some of Portland’s nuts-and-bolts urban accomplishments and comfortable living [at least, if you don’t have to come up with the rent check].

This week: the corollary. It’s easy to get caught up in the newness and romance of a vacation spot, but what did we appreciate all over again coming back home?

onion domes of St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church, Homestead, PA

There is power in an onion. St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church, Homestead

Recently, we rode the Orbitmobile from the mingling hoards of off-their-nut Steelers fans down at the stadium up to the Polish Hill home of Simeon Larivonovoff, the last in a line of Russian icon painters going back 659 years. In between and en route, we purchased one of Sunseri Brothers’ enormous “atomic” pepperoni rolls–an $8 expense that supplied three ample, mindbendingly-delicious meals (and one minor case of heartburn).

One of these endpoints was indeed a reporting trip [more about this, later]. Regardless, it only occurred after-the-fact how typically Pittsburgh the whole experience was. Our compact little city, where nearly everything can be navigated by bicycle in 15- or 20-minute jaunts, is filled with and over-abundance of strange histories, brilliant views, criss-crossing cultures, bargain thrills, and intense civic boosters–yes, especially when it comes to sports. There they were, all wrapped up in one little happenstance mile-and-a-half ride.

city steps nearly overgrown with knotweed, Pittsburgh, PA

Public transit, Pittsburgh-style. 57th Street city steps and overgrown hillside, Lawrenceville

The thing is, it could have been any day, heading in any direction. Pittsburgh’s infrastructure–designed by billy goat, operating under the Department of Cattywumpus–ensures we all get to negotiate the jumble of weird streets, steep topography, and the dead-ends of benign neglect almost anywhere within the city. Without even trying, pretty much any detour, reroute, or casual exploration is going to get strange.

Pittsburgh is both geographically and culturally at the exact midpoint between East Coast, Midwest, and Appalachia–and yet it’s none of these, really. But for the people who live here, that’s probably a fair cross-description of personality stereotypes. Generally, Pittsburgh people are warm, funny, goofy, nebby, fired-up, and attitude-free. Yes, we are also legendarily cheap and–to the chagrin of some–football-obsessed.

two men wearing black-and-gold kilts and Steelers jerseys at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

Terrible kilts, great people. Steelers fans, Heinz Field.

And what about that city-to-city comparison? Portland is a really fine town whose biggest problem seems to be self-inflicted–it’s a victim of its own success. So what did we miss about Pittsburgh? What have we got going for us?

In a phrase, it’s a sense of place. Pittsburgh has it in such many and deep ways that we’ve dedicated this entire web site to celebrating and documenting our unique city. This turned into a terribly difficult piece to write, just because the subject is too near and dear, too much to discuss, too hard to boil down.

I’m going to drown you with pronouns now. Somewhere along the way in that trip out West, I found myself feeling like there just wasn’t the kind of there there that we have here.

map of America depicting use of "you guys", "y'all", and "yinz"

[graphic: The Internet]

Portlanders speak with no discernible accent–except possibly a vague California LiteTM upspeak. Pittsburgh is home to a unique American dialect that is so hyper-local it really only extends to the Allegheny County line. There’s a whole lexicon (famously, “yinz,” “redd up,” “sweeper,” “gumband,” “jumbo,” etc.), unique accent, inflection, and the dropping of that pesky verb to be.

Portland is a foodie town where everything is “locally sourced” and comes with a narrative that would sooth the Brontës. Yet no one could name a weirdo regional food equivalent to the steak salad, city chicken, Primanti’s sandwich, Lenten fish, or The Devonshire. Brestensky Meats will sell you a seven-pound kielbasa in the shape and size of a regulation football–complete with laces. Heck, we’ve got a whole series going on weird pizza.

fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski from church fish fry

Both sides now: Lenten fish sandwich with haluski and potato haluski, St. Maximillian Parish, Homestead

Like Pittsburgh, Portland has plenty of defined neighborhoods, but frankly, they’re really indistinguishable. Everything east of the Willamette River is basically flat and adheres to the same approximate giant street grid. Nearly every lot has a single detached house with its own yard. The locals don’t even seem to bother–everything is just referred to by its off-bias quadrant: “Northeast”, “Southwest”. Apparently one quarter of the city’s educated white liberals are more snobby and another’s are more laid back, but man, I’m telling you–it’s a stretch.

sign reading "Witamy do Polish Hill", Pittsburgh, PA

Witamy do (Welcome to) Polish Hill

In Pittsburgh, when you go between neighborhoods, you know it. There’s a new street system (if there’s any pattern at all), the block sizes and architecture all change, the names and faces go from Italian to Polish, Jewish to African-American, students to old-timers. You probably crossed a bridge or climbed a steep hill to get there. A couple areas are fancy-fancy; others have more vacant lots than standing buildings.

Outside the city, it’s a whole other layer of distinct. The old industry towns carry the same fascinating boom-and-bust history, but are now so hauntingly beautiful and heartbreakingly tragic that we feel honored and lucky to be witness to what often feels like the last gasps of their painful denouements.

entertainer Frankie Capri in Elvis-style dress with electric guitar, keyboard, and conga drum

High culture. Frankie Capri, performing at the Original Oyster House, 2016.

In a word, Pittsburgh is just kooky. I’m really happy to live in a place where stair steps disappear into vacant hillsides so overgrown they’re impassible. A place so comfortably out-of-touch that stirrup pants and Zubaz will always be in fashion. I want to live where there are five ways to get anywhere, and they’re all wrong. Where names like Zatwernicki, Freyvogel, Scoglio, Kusmircak, Blosl, Czegan, Fabijanec, and Walkowiak seem normal–the Smiths, Jones, and Williams are the weirdos.

I hope this is always a place you can buy kluski and pretzel salad from older ladies with blue hair and babushkas in Catholic church basements, where children win national marbles championships year-after-year, where strangers hug, high-five, share beers, and tell tall tales because they’re all wearing black-and-gold. Pittsburgh, I’m glad to be home.

exterior of Bestwick Auto & Truck Service company with graffiti "I [heart] Pittsburgh"

Yeah, me too. I [pretzel heart] Pittsburgh.


Thoughts on a Coffee Mug

coffee mug with image of a duck

A well-used coffee mug

As of today, this part-time blogger has worked at his full-time job for eight years.  That’s a long time.  And, as it turns out, that’s a lot of coffee.

I showed a colleague from California how to use our non-intuitive single-serve coffee machines last week (the LA office uses much more efficient/less wasteful giant urns–my campaign to get ours replaced is a whole other topic).  After we got the mud flowing, I made a dumb joke that “after four thousand cups, you get pretty used to it.”

Not terribly funny, but it got me thinking: How many cups of coffee have I actually drunk here? Do I really want to know?

As it turns out, I’m way over that meager 4000-cup guess.  By my estimation, I have consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,600 cups of coffee, just on this job, here at the office–and that’s a conservative estimate.

My math: three cups a day (it’s often four) x five days a week x 47 weeks a year (?) x eight years = ~5,640 cups.  That’s a lot of coffee!  I may treat my lungs like the Queen of Sheeba, but my entrails get the rented mule shuffle.

That made me think about the mug that has made the down-the-hall, around the bend, to the machine walk and refill journey with me right since the beginning.  It was a present from my former ESL student Tony back before I started this job–part of a wrapped gift package that also included a similar-but-different mug (birds maybe? I can’t remember–it’s long since gone) and a bag of coffee and some nuts (or something like that).  I think he got it at Big Lots.

The mug features two identical images of the same duck with a score of duck varieties named in different typefaces around the outside: King-Necked, Red-Crested, Gadwall, Mallard, Mottled, Pekin, Hookbill, etc.  Eight years of looking at that image and I still haven’t bothered to identify the type of duck pictured on the mug!

How many things get used 5,600 times without any kind of breakdown?  The only maintenance this mug has ever needed is its daily (minimal, I’m afraid) scrub before cup #1; the only wear and tear some thinning of the silk-screen (?) print job on the top lip-meets-brim edge; and (no surprise here) some staining on the inside.

I don’t know if I’ll still be pushing digits and influencing pixels in eight years, and I don’t know if my body will let me keep drinking black gold like it was holy water.  But to you, faithful duck mug, may we have another eight great years together!

Blogger with coffee mug and sad clown painting

The author on the job: you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps to have a coffee mug.