It is one of the more iconic images we see every day on nearly every corner in the built landscape. Bold, red, and shaped into a perfect octagon, outlined with a white border, the sign has the simple, impossible-to-misconstrue message: STOP.
But, as these things go, they don’t always carry only that text. Pranksters and jokesters, the graffiti-addled and social justice-minded have taken the (traffic) law into their own hands hither and yon. Their doctored stop signs take the familiar to the absurd and hopefully give us a laugh or a ponderable notion while we apply the brakes and look both ways.
Stop sign alterations are so common that mass-produced white-on-red stickers are available for just this purpose. We included a couple examples of these (see STOP the Trump Kleptocracy and STOP elder neglect, below), but The Orbit generally considers these “corporate sign-jacking” that isn’t nearly as interesting as the bespoke variety.
There’s really not much more to say on this topic, so now we’re just going to …
In what was once an overgrown hillside, there is now an inviting oasis of beauty, love, creativity, and wonder. A lovely tree canopy shades maybe a half-acre of lush green grass, glowing groundcover, sculpted walking paths, and picture-perfect spots for repose.
The park is centered around a fantastic constellation-like sculpture created from repurposed bowling balls suspended on metal rods. The space offers educational placards, an outdoor cooking and dining spot, and the most impressive little free library you’ve yet seen. It’s also right in the heart of the city and almost no one knows about it.
Even the most hardcore of Pittsburgh’s many ramblers, nature freaks, and urban explorers can be excused for never having visited Central Park. The tiny off-the-books greenspace has no directional signage from nearby Fifth Avenue and exists at the back of a one-way-in/one-way-out single block of row houses.
The neighborhood is technically West Oakland (at least, that’s what a D.I.Y. welcome sign tells us), but it’s really in the void. The area does have the claim to fame that Andy Warhol was born here–the house has since been demolished–but it’s still not on anyone’s way to anywhere. Just past the tail end of Uptown, downhill from The Hill, and around the bend from (West) Oakland proper, little Moultrie Street exists in a world of its own.
“This is an illegal art exhibit,” says Joseph Szabo about the vision-turned-reality he’s worked on for the last eight or ten years. The ambitious project converted overgrown vacant land across the street from his home into the magical pocket park it has become. “Central Park in New York City is my favorite place in the world. I created this as an homage to it.”
Indeed, those familiar with that more famous Central Park can have a bit of fun matching some of its well-known features to Szabo’s landscaping work. As Szabo explains it, the plot of grass along the street, as well as an adjoining lot freshly planted with fruit trees, is The Great Lawn. Twisty pathways make up The Ramble. A D.I.Y. brick oven/grill and its nearby picnic table allow the visitor to simulate Tavern on the Green‘s al fresco dining and cooking experiences. Likewise, a mosaic garden feature with the word Imagine references a similar element of New York’s Strawberry Fields and Belvedere Castle is recreated through a cobblestone stairway leading up to an elevated veranda overlooking the full expanse.
As to the “illegal” nature of Central Park’s creation, it’s certainly true that Szabo began hacking away at the undergrowth without formal permitting or any of those pesky property ownership concerns. By now, though, it’s drifted into a much safer legal gray area.
Community group Uptown Partners provided huge assistance connecting the project with the city and grant funding. Szabo specifically cites U.P. former director Jeane McNutt as instrumental to the process. “Without her help and enthusiasm, Central Park would not be what it is.”
The city, in turn, removed the original jersey barriers that bordered the space and installed large stones used as seating around the central sculpture. City works crews also donated 1500 retired Belgian block paving stones that went into the creation of Belvedere Castle (and elsewhere).
“This is the best thing I’ve done in my life,” says Linda Lewis, Szabo’s longtime next-door neighbor and partner in the project. The informal team of two doesn’t use titles, but Lewis describes herself as “A concerned neighbor of Moultrie Street who worked to develop and maintain the area for children to play; for families to have their annual Easter egg hunt; and for mothers to bring children to get a book or game from the free library. And, I love hearing the birds and seeing the deer.”
Beyond the zillion hours of hard work–after their full-time day jobs–Lewis says, “Joe and I developed this area and spent thousands over the years.” We can also verify that Lewis acts as the unofficial archivist tracking progress on the park. Linda produced way more photos than we can include here, but they show the development of Central Park from an out-of-control/nature-without-man thicket to its gradual clearing, sculpting, and building-out. It’s even become a venue for community events.
“The Central Park project is never done, I’ll keep working at it for as long as I live, God willing,” says Szabo on whether the park is ever complete, “I would like to replace the main entrance with something more substantial. I’m thinking about the arch in Washington Square Park. The Romans built arches just for the hell of it–works for me.”
“I’ll hopefully connect the park to the hillside on Orr Street as Central Park East,” Szabo says of future plans, “This is where Andy Warhol was born. My idea is for a sitting area in a outdoor homage to his studio in SoHo, The Factory. I’m thinking a picnic table by the wall under Kirkpatrick Street, painted silver, and of course many of his silk screens hung on this wall. Andy Warhol’s family lived at 72 Orr Street for his first three years.”
To see Linda Lewis’ before pictures of the space after having experienced it in person is a shocking and awe-inspiring revelation. How could a person look at that untamable mass of bushes and trees, poison ivy and knotweed and think I could turn that into a mini-replica of Central Park?
Ms. Orbit, just as enthusiastic about Szabo’s grand vision, says of this thought process, “That’s the creative spirit in all of us–in order to create magic, sometimes you have to have preposterous instincts. It helps to let go of common sense and reminds us of what any of us can do: we can create magic.”
The term hero gets thrown around a lot–probably way too much; visionary, slightly less so. But to this blogger, no one deserves those descriptors more than folks like Joseph Szabo and Linda Lewis. They’ve spent their precious free time, not to mention money, on a hard, physical, labor-of-love open for all of us to experience. That action converted a neglected hillside into a free-to-all public space virtually from thin air … er, from thick jaggers and stinging nettles. That creation is one full of nature, art, relaxation, and yes, magic.
Szabo’s use-what-you’ve-got aesthetic turned discarded bricks, leftover bathroom tile, and post-renovation kitchen cabinets into a Willie Wonka-goes-back-to-the-land-style fantasy world. If this isn’t the work of real American heroes, you show me what is.
Getting there: Central Park is at the end of Moultrie Street in West Oakland/Uptown. Moultrie can only be accessed from Fifth Avenue. It’s very close to the north end of the Birmingham Bridge and even has a marker on Google Maps.
The big mural is painted across multiple sheets of protective plywood covering the back entrance to an old brick building. On it, there’s a stark two-tone portrait of a young woman in glasses and shaggy hair with an indeterminate facial expression. Is that a subtle Mona Lisa smile or just let’s-get-this-over-with ambivalence at being photographed? We’ll probably never know. The woman is identified as Melissa “Missy” Kira (1993-2020).
At the base of the portrait is a small table decked out with those most reliable hallmarks of any active memorial site: saint-sporting veladoras (Mexican prayer candles) and bundles of flowers arranged in vases and laid out across the ground. There are also garlands and tchotchkes, glassware and bottles of mysterious origin.
Kira’s memorial isn’t alone. The redbrick courtyard hosts three different wall-sized tributes to young activists, musicians, and community members. The murals are rough, charged with emotion, and resemble the iconography of the Rest in Punk message that appears on a couple of them. Any one of the paintings would blend seamlessly into the design language of Xeroxed flyers for a church basement all-ages show, patches on the back of a denim jacket, the cover art for a Crass record.
It’s also a scene straight out of old Pittsburgh–and one that’s increasingly rare to find today. What with seemingly every vacant lot and empty building in the East End actively getting converted into Legoland “luxury loft” apartments, it’s harder and harder to locate these kinds of off-the-books public/private spaces for a small community to gather, mourn, celebrate, and remember.
While these three punk rock memorials are the most elaborate we stumbled across in the last twelve months, they’re far from the only D.I.Y. remembrances out there. Americans have taken their mourning of the deceased out of the formality of pristine cemetery plots and into the streets everywhere. It’s a really beautiful kind of mass emotional release–the intensely personal act of grieving in the very public sphere of sidewalks, roadsides, fences, and utility poles.
Memorial Day is the holiday we’re supposed to honor the Americans who’ve given their lives in the service of their country. However one feels about the nature of war and American foreign policy, we should absolutely respect those who really did pay the ultimate price.
At the same time, the holiday is also an ideal opportunity for us to reflect on those we’ve lost who didn’t die in battle–or, perhaps, died fighting very different types of battles. Often, like the three punk rock memorials, these were young people who passed way before their time. Even if you’ll never have a commemorative portrait of you painted on a brick wall, we all know we’d be lucky to be loved enough for friends and family to construct a wooden angel and climb a craggy hillside to install it–or even just to lash some stuffed animals to a telephone pole.
So on this Memorial Day we celebrate all of the fallen that we never got to meet and all the people who loved them so much they took their grief into their own hands, D.I.Y. style. May they rest in punk.
In the wild hillside that runs between Bigelow Blvd. and The Middle Hill, there is an oasis of street art (err … steps art? tree art?) clustered in the forgotten land around one particular set of city steps. There are sculptures and collages, weird art photos and paintings on wood. Our favorite tin can pole artist has a whole trove of terrific pieces here.
Maybe we’ll do a story on the whole thing at some point, but it was one particular piece, nailed to a utility pole, that caught the attention on this day. In it, the artist has taken a discarded piece of sheet metal and painted a rough but unmistakable black silhouette of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline. There are the spiky towers of PPG and the peaked triangles of The Gulf Tower and Koppers Building. The artwork is inscribed with the simple throwback message City of Champions.
Mere minutes–OK, it was probably a couple hours–after posting our last trip down skyline way, there it was again. The artist who hand-painted the storefront for the old Yinzers in the Burgh didn’t have a lot of vertical room to work with, but made the most of what s/he did have. In city official black-and-gold–but squashed as if in the footpath on one of Godzilla’s benders–the downtown Pittsburgh skyline is still undeniable.
So, here you go, Pittsburgh: another couple dozen+ graphic renderings of the downtown skyline coming from storefronts and retail signage, community groups and folk art. Like that famous body part/Van Patten, eight of these collections should be more than enough, but this is a gift that just keeps on giving. I’m sure we’ll be back with #9 in the series soon enough.
To call metro Pittsburgh landlocked is a little unfair. There’s water everywhere–just try to leave the house and avoid it. Big rivers, little rivers, creeks, and “runs”; more rain, fog, mist, snow, and ice than we know what to do with. Come July, just walking through the outside air will feel like slamming headlong into a vertical wall of steam. That said, it’s certainly true that the closest ocean is a day’s drive away; heck, we don’t even have a lake, great or otherwise.
So it’s a little weird that so many homeowners living so far from a body of water vast enough to actually need a lighthouse have chosen to erect them–incongruously, oxymoronically–as decoration for their yards.
We’re not talking just one or two here, either. Lawn lighthouses are a legitimate phenomenon of American detached housing. It’s hard to travel a suburban block and not spot an example of the tell-tale tapered tower and its elaborate paint job poking from someone’s hedge row. The nation’s front yards, mulched garden beds, porches, and water features have got a ton of decorative lighthouses and Allegheny County is no exception.
It’s not 100% true, but the lighthouse seems to most often be the cherry on top of an already perfectly immaculate yardscape. They’re like bonus trophies awarded to the homeowners who’ve already won greenest grass and most weed-free expanse titles. The mulch around them is almost always perfectly raked, the flowering shrubs, just so. Lighthouses are often the sole decoration to outside space equivalents of fancy architect houses: clean, organized, and without distraction … but it’s hard to imagine anyone actually lives there or walks on the emerald green.
Anyway, we like them enough to whip out the camera most of the time we spot their glassine window cupolas hiding a water meter or standing tall over an on-the-nose lawn island of big stones.
So here you go, America: turn on your love lighthouse and let it shine on.
Lighthouses and Friends
Like meatballs, sometimes lighthouses don’t want to be alone. Whether paired with front yard Marys, a matching lawn windmill [you know we’ve got a collection of those going too!], dress-up gooses, or all-of-the-above, lighthouses that aren’t in the pristine environments described above often end up in some fun company.
The Lighthouses of Neville Island
Perhaps it should be no surprise that Neville Island would be particularly invested in lighthouses. They still don’t have a real one the island, but at least the place is surrounded by water which gives it bragging rights in these parts.
Anyway, there were almost enough Neville Island lawn lighthouses to make a whole collection of just those. However, knowing we’re already pushing it with a subject likely of little interest to anyone with a real life, we decided to bundle them here so we can get on with all the even less meaningful topics on the to-do list.
Most people will blow right by without ever giving the place a second thought. The little post-war brick and cinderblock house sits a comfortable distance off Stanton Avenue, tucked behind a curve in the road, and probably won’t even catch your eye when you’re barreling up the hill. It’s not the house itself that’s so exciting here, but rather the miracle of the multiplying Marys that is taking place out front.
Five years ago, your favorite hyper-local electronic publication ran a story that attempted to round up some of our favorite Marys from all over the place. [See: Hail Mary! Front Yard Mary Roundup (Nov. 27, 2016)] Yes, it was naive to bundle so many Marys from so many places together when seeking them out and collating them into location-based sets is so satisfying. Lesson learned.
Anyway, in that story, most of the way down, there’s a photo of this same Stanton Ave. address, but with merely three Marys against the aqua-blue foundation wall. If anyone is equipped for a miracle, it’s a woman who can conceive pregnancy with a holy ghost–so we shouldn’t put human cloning past The Blessed Mother. But this jump in the population begs so many questions: Can Mary immaculately replicate herself? Where do they all come from? Will there be more? Look, I’ve seen Multiplicity and things didn’t work out so well for Michael Keaton, so let’s all keep our fingers crossed.
Stanton Heights won’t bowl you over with its Marys. Between the neighborhood’s detached homes, large yards, big hedges, and fenced-in backsides, just locating a Mary here and there can feel like no small achievement. Rest assured, though–they’re around.
It takes a patient blogger who no longer sleeps to rise at the crack of dawn, trundle up the big hill, and criss-cross every block, each dead-end alley, and explore all the places, courts, and ways to get a thorough accounting of Stanton Heights’ Mary scene. [Side note: if you’re a Heights resident whose Mary was not found or you just think she deserves a better photo, please get in touch.]
That’s about all there is to say here. On this Mother’s Day 2021, we salute all the mommas out there from the O.G. Mother of All Mothers–you’re all immaculate in The Orbit‘s book!
There is a melancholy to the exhibition: themes of darkness, loneliness, one very literal cry for help. Among the images, you’ll find birds soaring in flight and stretched-out cats, abstractions and twinkling stars–but these are the exception.
If Orbit staff were laying out a catalog for the collection, our cover would feature the image of a single small piece installed on a utility pole. In it, a figure has been cut from a tin can lid and painted a rich spring green. The devil’s horns are bent and rusted and his eyes are cut out to make us believe we can stare right through the back of his cranium. In hand-lettered paint marker is a simple descriptor alluding to exactly that: A Lost Soul.
Elsewhere, there are instructions to Give yourself to the nite (sic.), a pair of unoccupied dinette seats, our favorite tin can pole artist’s tell-tale devils, martini glasses, hearts, and arrows. The artwork is made from recycled metal bits and bobs, a discarded cutting board, even the door from a standard-issue mailbox.
It is artwork from the trash bin, placed deeply out-of-sight–as if thrown into the void–and likely only ever experienced by fellow lost souls who hear the cryptic pieces whispering from cracks in the wood … or maybe that’s just the way it seems.
Skunk Hollow, the deep valley that separates Bloomfield from Polish Hill and North Oakland, won’t appear on any regional cultural guides; you’ll not find it featured in glossy magazines or listed among Pittsburgh’s next hottest neighborhoods. In fact, “The Hollow” doesn’t even show up on maps of the city (at least, not by that name). Its derisive title is merely a people’s collective dismissal of the out-of-sight/out-of-mind not-quite-a-real-neighborhood.
There are some good reasons for all this. Skunk Hollow hosts one of the more convenient spots in the city to illegally dump a La-Z-Boy recliner or an old television–plenty of people have chosen to do just that. The handful of businesses located along Neville Street are not what you’d call boutiques–they’re more of the rock-moving, general contracting, and looking-for-new-occupants varieties. Japanese knotweed has completely consumed the steep hillside and makes an effective trap for all of the blown-around street trash as it washes over Bloomfield’s banks.
So if the Convention and Visitors Bureau wants to pitch Skunk Hollow as a special place for out-of-towners to explore on their limited time in the ‘Burgh, they’ve got their work cut out for them.
But for those of us waking up ridiculously early, obsessively walking many mental health miles at daybreak, the Hollow is a welcome open air experimental art detour. Its randomly-curated works speak to the solitude of the early hour and themes of escaping into the night, tiny devils playing hell with our synapses, and you are not alone messaging make for a kind of communal balm for the disconnected.
The Skunk Hollow Art Walk is not what you’d call accessible. There is one big hill, one Y-shaped flight of city steps (we’ll get to those), and a road surface with no accommodation for pedestrians. Worry not, though, it’s unlikely you’ll see any other human beings–with or without vehicles–during the length of your visit. Walking in the street tends to work out just fine when you’re the only one there.
Viewing the environment on foot is an absolute requirement as all the little objets d’art are scaled for up-close examination and located in the kinds of niche spaces one must poke around thoroughly to see at all. One of the photos here (I loved kissing her in the rain, below) was achieved only by climbing up the hillside, bearhugging a utility pole with one arm, and then using the dumb selfie camera so I could get a photo of a tin can painting that I couldn’t actually see from my precarious position.
For the directionally-challenged, don’t worry about getting lost in Skunk Hollow. There is only one road that traverses the short distance between Bloomfield’s backside and the old Iron City brewery. In typical Pittsburgh fashion, it goes by three different names–Lorigan, Neville, and Sassafras–in its approx. 3/4 mile run.
Most of the art is found along sloping Lorigan Street, from the Ella Street steps down to the bottom of the hill, so a greatest hits visitor could drop in for some tin can pole art and still make it to Tessaro’s for an early dinner. But really, why not go “full Hollow” and walk the length of it. It’s a little more spartan at the bottom, but by the end you’ll be rewarded with some great wheatpaste pieces on the old brewery.
The last time The Orbit reported from Skunk Hollow we were on the step beat, there to check out the great Ella Street (aka the “Try Try Try”) city steps. We’ll not go over all that here, but this bit of you can do it self-affirmation infrastructure is totally of a piece with the collection of street art that surrounds it.
What’s been added to the steps (since that 2015 story) is its own terrific set of oddball ephemera. The bolted-on scrap parts truck (photo above) is thankfully still there, right at the lowest landing. It’s been joined by a tiny sculpture of simple chairs, placards, handrail ramblings, one repurposed wooden puppet-like thing, and a mystery mailbox.
A fancy art museum, this ain’t–but then again, no one visiting The Carnegie gets to experience the thrill of risking both poison ivy and tetanus in their bloodthirsty pursuit of new tin can pole art. As combined art happening/aerobic workout, Skunk Hollow is hard to beat. Plus, the hours are great and the price is right.
Yes, attendees of the Skunk Hollow Art Walk will have to negotiate some broken glass and a few salty words committed in spray paint on the jersey barriers along the roadside–oh, there’s also that mystery odor. But, like poking through a thrift shop or digging through used records, a visit rewards the patience of the art lover willing to do a little work for a commensurate dose of oddball magic.
The giant wall holds a lot of history–and likely not a few secrets. Two tall stories high and spanning the full depth of the lot–from the sidewalk on Wellsville’s Main Street all the way back to the service alley–this space did a lot of living. Demolition on the building that used to be here exposed a (former) interior wall that is an archeological treasure our shallow American memory will have to substitute for “real” finds like Sutton Hoo or Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The plaster walls still cling to a rich palette of battered colors. Each room had been painted in an entirely different scheme and what remains are beautiful antique reds, pale yellow-greens, and deep melancholy blues. There are channels on the surface where we see clear outlines of the old building’s load-bearing interior walls, a staircase, plumbing lines, slotted holes in the brickwork for tall floor joists.
With all this, it is one particular section of the wall surface that intrigues more than the rest. In it, we see the intersection of three colors, each scarred, smeared, and pockmarked with age but still brimming with verve. A strong yellow line runs due north-south and gives the whole thing the composition of a modernist painting. Everything exists in perfect right angles.
The obsession with wall quarters began way back in 2015 with a reporting trip to Forest Hills. We were there to commune with the ex-atom smasher and later found ourselves by another, similar, inside-outside lot. Amongst the rubble of felled bricks and illegally-dumped housewares were four squares within a larger square: the right side faded green-blue, the left a dirty white; plaster above, cinderblock below. The section lines could not have been more precise.
It was perfect: balanced and meditative, color, material, and texture arrayed in transcendent harmony. It’s the kind of lightening bolt that may only land once in a generation–heck, once in a lifetime if you’re lucky.
But, wall-watching naifs that we were back then, the hard truth wasn’t fully understood. It seemed obvious that we’d run into more big, glorious, quad-sectioned walls just as soon as the mind was opened to them. Why, once you set the controls for Marys or Steelermobiles or The Dog Police you see them everywhere–wall quarters must be just as easy … right?
Well, you know where this is going. No, it is not easy to locate a perfect wall square–and this poke-down-every-alley and look-inside-any-abandoned-property keister is here as a material witness. Six years later–six years of looking for these things!–and we’ve come up with merely a handful of specimens. A lot of them aren’t even that good!
But if you take the collection we did manage to cobble together and throw in a (good-sized) set of bonus/pseudo-wall squares, we end up with a pretty nice haul. Hopefully they’re as pleasing to Orbit readers’ eyes as they are for staff to deep focus on when we’re destressing in Chez Orbit’s salt cave. Breathe in, breathe out, close our eyes and say it until we believe it: everything is going to be all right.
Row House Rejoinders
I’m not going to lie, The Over-the-Wall Club has some purists who frown on the relatively easy wall quarter pickins found in row house blocks. While it took us half a decade of constant scouring to come up with just the few “real” quarters (above), any Sunday stroll through the South Side Flats or the Mexican War Streets will reward with a bounty of these interfaces between next-door row houses.
With brickwork and foundations in a continuous plane, it just takes neighboring homeowners with different color preferences and a little bit of luck (steps, stoops, porches, and downspouts all get in the way; sloping hillsides break a lot of linear connections) to get really nice, perfectly squared-off intersections.
No Room for Squares
As with life, things on a wall don’t always line up perfectly. One shouldn’t let that diminish the shear ecstasy of a beautiful mixed-media surface, though. An extra drain pipe here, foundations that don’t line up there–we’re all better off to roll with these as … not imperfections, but rather elements that broaden the depth of the final composition. Ain’t nobody perfect, but a wall with a whole lot of problems sure might come close.
Behind a six-foot brick wall sit two side-by-side row houses facing a thin alley in Bloomfield. On the left is a typical Pittsburgh wooden worker house: two up/two down, three windows wide, no decorative flourishes. Immediately abutting it is either a small house with an unexpected garage door or a small garage/workshop with an apartment upstairs–it’s not really clear. Everything is painted red.
This is a prime specimen for the row house fancier who wants a single, coordinated palette: lots and lots of red with just enough white trim to outline features of the two houses and make design snobs’ blood pressure rise. On a sunny day, with a big blue sky and just one wispy cloud dancing above it, don’t that look like America, man.
After the mental and physical exhaustion of last week’s sob session, it’s time for some spring cleaning. We’re sitting on sixty-eight stories in draft mode–so it’s well past time to clear out the cupboards, beat the rugs, and maybe throw some things away. Yeah, we may never get to Andy Warhol’s weight set or great Men’s Room signs, but if the brain will cooperate, expect a return to the weekly format for a while.
For the latest installment of our Row House Romance series, we’re digging into that elusive sub-genre of row house watchers–the side-by-side bestest buddies that decided to dress up in identical outfits. (Or, at least, came pretty close.) Enjoy.
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.Hopefullywe’ll be back to our regular diet of upbeat stories on disappearing towns, sad toys, and partying alone in the cemetery soon enough.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wrapped in plasticis 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 AppetiteDiet‘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.]
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.
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.