Untethered: In Pittsburgh Everyone Knows Everyone and I’m Sure I Do Too

Welcome to Untethered, a new column by me, a person who has basically never been single in their whole adult life. Herein, I’m publicly committing to, above all else, dating myself and building community around me not based on the relationship escalator — for the indefinite future. I’m curious about what that looks like, genuinely, and hope you’ll explore that with me!


I hold the puppy in my arms while strangers mill around outside of a taco truck. I’d run into my friend at a gallery crawl / art walk type of thing that takes place every first Friday of the month. This 2.5 lb creature, who is only supposed to grow to be five lbs and is covered in silky black fur, snuggles in my arms and sniffs me with his teeny nose. His mom had handed him to me as soon as I told her about the breakup.

“Here, you need to hold him,wp_postsshe told me.

He rests his head on my forearm for a time before fidgeting for a return to his mom’s arms. The puppy’s mom is another of the many mutual friends of my ex and me. Pittsburgh is often called “The Biggest Small Town” because it is actually a difficult task to meet someone you aren’t connected to in some way via just a few hop skips or jumps. You are almost always going to run into more people than you think you will when going out to any event. So, naturally, I’ve been running into connection after tenuous connection that is difficult to navigate.

Then, there’s the fact that I almost didn’t recognize my friend because she’d donned a long straight-haired wig over her usual curls, completely changing her profile. To make it even more difficult, she was wearing a new pair of glasses with a Completely Different Shape. Friends, I have to tell you, I am mostly recognizing you via a combination of context, hair, gait, voice and style. The part of my brain that clicks and tells me who someone is just by seeing them has always hovered at around 25% or so of what would be optimum functionality. It’s called face blindness. And yes, this has led to a bevy, a list I could write but won’t, of embarrassing incidents and unintended social faux pas. It makes it so that every social situation has the potential to devolve into a bizarre puzzle game where the cost of losing is potentially hurting someone else’s feelings. Still, I do my best out here, as we all must.

Before I held the puppy in my arms, I’d actually come from the gallery my ex-husband-who-is-not-my-most-recent-breakup-but-here-we-are-mentioning-him used to manage. He’s long since left town, and it has a new manager who I don’t know. But who did I run into, but a person who I fully believe was my ex husband’s old boss! But I’m still not sure that’s who it was! This is someone who went to our wedding, who I’d attended fundraisers with, who I had met on multiple occasions. And still, I was standing there like: “according to context this person is surely X and he definitely has his head shaved like X always did but like, I don’t remember this middle aged white man having this face”!! If I had to draw him, I would have drawn a completely different looking person! I left hoping it was who I thought it was. I didn’t call him by name because, well, you never know.

Back to the Taco Truck with the adorable puppy and company! I feel the need to explain to you that this couple is kind of split, that my ex knows the puppy’s dad, the musician of the pair, and I’ve helped the arts leader (puppy mom) of the pair and her team with fundraising over the years. They’re older, parental figures to us. We’ve eaten with them on countless occasions, attended each others’ events, and know a network of the same people. I helped her write the letter she posted on social media that eventually helped her get a new kidney. Unlike some people who were squarely friends with one or the other of us, I felt like, here, I could at least claim that we all had our own relationships to each other. I can see in my friend’s wide eyes that she’s shocked by the news of the breakup. We were the kind of stable-seeming couple that people thought would be together forever. I mean, I thought that at one point. Now, I’m navigating each of these social connections, testing the waters, seeing who might still want to be a part of my life and have me in theirs. “Seriously. Don’t be a stranger,” she tells me, her eyes locking right on mine, for emphasis. I believe she means it, and I start to wrap my head around a world where at least some of our mutual friends may still want to know me.

Oddly, then, maybe emboldened, maybe just somehow intoxicated by a couple of tacos, I move onto a gallery owned and run by a mutual friend. I approached and, at first, in the dark, and I think — especially — as I was alone and not in what he would have recognized as my paired form, the owner doesn’t know it’s me right away. Relatable.

He starts to give a spiel, “This is an adults-only exhibit — oh…” he catches who I am while I’m smiling at him, laughing a little, because, of course, he knows I’m game for whatever indie video game art he’s curated. He smiles huge, and I’m highly amused to watch someone else go through the same steps of recognition I always have to. I step aside while he shouts the full extent of his exhibit’s forewarning at newcomers behind me. We catch up for a moment, and I can’t tell if he’s heard the news. This time, though, I don’t share. If it’s already spread through all my ex’s friends, then he’ll know either now or later.

I go in. And friend, listen, I like weird art, gross art, confrontational art, and I am beyond fucking delighted by the first thing I see — a video game done up in what I can only describe as the hyper-realistic, “gritty” skin of so many contemporary video games, usually ones that involve fighting and shooting. One gallery goer is manning the controls while a group of people watch the display projected on the gallery wall and shout and cackle whenever something new happens. It looks to me like this game takes place entirely in a rather crusty men’s restroom. When I came in, the POV player was peeing in a urinal, just a stream of yellow splashing down that went on for way too long. It was more urine than any person can actually produce at one time, a fact which has the people collectively gathered in the gallery ABSOLUTELY CACKLING. The player moves on to explore the restroom and then a character, a man in a white collared shirt and beige slacks with big clear glasses and a thin mustache enters the restroom and stands at the urinal. The player approaches and the man unzips his pants to reveal a gun. What follows is an incomprehensible mini game where the player has to disarm the gun by licking it up and down. The tongue that appears on screen is heinous and red. I think I clapped. I definitely took a video of it and proceeded to show it to anyone who wanted to see it for, like, my entire weekend.

After a quick goodbye to my friend, I head back to my car. But along the way, I come across a lemonade stand run by SWOP Pittsburgh (mutual aid situation for sex workers if you’re interested). The sign reads “Lemonade, $4. Spit, $2.wp_postsI donate to get a lemonade and am, if we’re being completely honest, incredibly tempted to ask for spit in it. As I’m mulling over my options here, one of the tablers asks if they know me from somewhere. I look at their face, panic because I’m already hyper aware I am batting…I don’t understand baseball, but something really bad…with recognizing people tonight and say “Maybe! I’m definitely around? Maybe a dance night???wp_postsI try because this person looks queer, and maybe I saw them at Jellyfest. I also have to always wonder if, though it rarely happens, whoever is asking this is an Autostraddle reader, but I never lead with that because saying Autostraddle out loud is a thing in and of itself. I then wonder…could it be? A man walks up and disrupts the chat and my awkward descent into a cavern of anxiety, so I thank them, tell the man the lemonade is indeed good and worth buying because I want him to give them money, and then head out. I ponder this as I drive to what is, yes, another dance night. (I really like dancing, okay?) While I tap my fingers on the ol’ Subaru’s steering wheel, I acknowledge the feeling that I might actually know this person, but then — despite Pittsburgh being Pittsburgh — I say something to myself like “what’re the chances?”

The next morning, I woke up to a text asking me if I was at the gallery crawl the night before. It’s a queer person I met online and have been talking to, but barely. This was the exact same person I’d bought lemonade from. I make some coffee before I text back, hand on my forehead, dying inside, that I thought it might be them but clearly just psyched myself out of saying anything because I didn’t think it was likely. They absolutely do not care, a thing which is incredibly refreshing, and we agree to get coffee on Thursday so we can talk about nerdy shit.

I’ve been doing a lot of coffee-should-we-be-queer-buds meets. These are cool! Meet someone, connect somehow, see if they wanna grab a matcha or something. At one such meet with someone who happened to have grown up in Pittsburgh and never left, I mention I seemed to be (KNOCK ON WOOD) having good luck with making new friends. I did say this before my dizzying and harrowing Friday night of Not Recognizing Anyone. And this is, of course, entirely contingent on continuing to put myself out there. People in Pittsburgh, especially those who grew up here, tend to be cliquey. And to be honest, this was maybe the only person I have met in recent times who was from-from Pittsburgh. Usually, I’m meeting and making friends with other transplants. The other person laughs. I laugh, too. We talk about how I don’t want to come across as full of myself, but like, as with anything, effort can in fact produce results.

And because this is now the third installment of writing this column and it’s been six weeks since I was dry-heaving with anxiety when I was trying to go out dancing, I thought I’d list some progress I’ve made in terms of battling social anxiety and living life as a single person trying to build and participate in community:

  • I’ve gotten used to the ritual of pulling out Instagram after having a fun conversation with someone so we don’t lose touch. My Instagram DMs are just as active as my text messages.
  • I’ve stopped being afraid of texting people to see if they want to hang. As it turns out, it might be a nice thing to receive a text from someone who wants to sit around and write together or grab a coffee or go for a hike.
  • I have indeed realized that if you keep going to the same places you will see the same people and your connections with those people will deepen. You’ll notice I keep going back to the same dance nights! I’m not like some kind of Italo-Disco fiend (although not gonna lie, it is great to dance to), but the fact of the matter is that I run into people I know at these things. Fun people who I like! Then we catch up, throw down some moves together, and say we really need to hang out as we leave but, like, in a sincere way, not in a “let’s do lunch sometime way.”
  • There is something nebulous here about the fact that I do believe tapping into a scene of queer people in their thirties and forties with a decent amount of extroverts, especially ones who will organize an event and invite people, who will smash their friends together like dolls and insist they get to know each other, is of immense value. I feel like we do a lot of introvert appreciation on this site, but did you know that if you’re quiet or an introvert or highly anxious that you can find extroverts and via some kind of Outgoing Person Magic, it’s like you kind of pick up some of their social superpowers by being in their orbit? Hot tip from me to you!
  • I haven’t dry-heaved with anxiety lately! Goals!

I guess that, sometimes, working on yourself can feel like playing whack-a-mole. If I’m not dry-heaving alone in my car and have moved onto not wanting to lock myself in a tight dark closet when faced with the prospect of meeting new people, then what pops up but the old chestnut of not recognizing human faces — a thing no one expects and which comes with vast and varied opportunities for offending new friends and potential friends and further offending enemies, even! But if I hadn’t started trying to make new friends, I wouldn’t have had to deal with this. Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of the Self-Work Whack-a-Mole!

And for the folks following along for Redwall Summer, stay tuned for updates in the next volume.


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Nico Hall

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director, and has been fundraising and working in the arts and nonprofit sector for over a decade. They write nonfiction and personal essays and are currently at work on a queer fiction novel and podcasts. They live in Pittsburgh. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram as @nknhall.

Nico has written 179 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. Face-blindness is much more common than people realize! My wife has a touch of it.

    Do you also have trouble with directions, Nico? Like, navigating your way to places? Because weirdly face recognition and direction-finding are often linked in the brain.

    • I love extroverts so much. Truly they are doing so much community building work and making it look like just the Most Fun (and also it is the Most Fun). But they’re, in so many ways, folks who tie us all together. And I think that’s cool!

  2. is there a generally agreed-upon explanation for why pittsburgh tends to be cliquey/hard to break into as a transplant? twin cities people say the same thing and i’m always curious about what gives, particularly in the places that people actually do choose to move to (vs, like, small town x where people don’t really leave or arrive- that makes sense).

    • I think it is because there are a lot of people who grew up here or who come here young and tend not to leave. I think people get comfortable with their crew and tend to just see the same people over and over, too. There’s also a geographical element. Pittsburgh is divided by hills (really mountains) and rivers into a lot of very distinct neighborhoods, each with their own vibe and even with their own social circles. People joke that people won’t cross rivers or that if you have to cross a bridge to see a date you’re in a Long Distance Relationship. I don’t know if the geography element is there in the Twin Cities but I do suspect that maybe that kind of long-term resident thing might be going on.

    • As someone who grew up in Pittsburgh but hasn’t lived there as an adult (I’m in my mid-30s) I can only say that going back there is really fucking weird and it’s changed so much and I can’t really recognize it for the city that I know it to be. Nothing I can quantify there, but I can see there being resistance to change and general unhappiness about how the city has changed. Going to the Strip when I visit my parents is a huge source of sadness for me.

      Also, as Nico alluded to, most of the people I went to high school with still live there, went to a school in town (or Penn State) and are friends with all of their high school / college friends. I guess that leads to double entrenchment of not needing up social circles as much in addition to holding a candle for the way things used to be.

      Just guessing / thinking out loud. Also go Steelers.

      • Pittsburgh HAS changed over the years. I remember going to Pegasus (gay club for anyone reading) downtown in like 2008 and downtown being DEAD and dark and unpopulated. And now? There’s stuff there. People are out at night. There’s def gentrification and it’s brutal as it is everywhere else, but there’s also a lot of people resisting that and hanging in there. It’s definitely different though, I agree. And yes to what you’ve said about holding a candle for the way things used to be and not feeling a need to expand social circles. Very true.

    • I hear this about every large city and country, actually. So I wonder if it’s simply a product of a big-enough population making it easier for people to choose to stay within a small radius/burrow. Which is, in fact, more convenient and affordable so it makes sense (even though it limits one’s possibilities). In contrast, I’ve mostly lived in small towns and unincorporated places so I’ve rarely had a problem with cliques. What I do find difficult is building *queer* community and dating! I accept that I either have to be the one to drive long distances amd make more effort, or move. Pros and cons everywhere!

  3. i moved to pittsburgh 16 years ago but left for a while and i just came back. i love my friends here but i also want more and so this gives me a lil bit of hope. i went to that first friday crawl too and also bought some lemonade lol. saw a lot of old friends and even made a new one. where else do you find these new pals?

    • One thing that works has been to just be forward about following up with acquaintances. And then one of the best ways I’ve been meeting those acquaintances is by letting existing friends know that I’m generally looking to hang, to do things, and saying yes when I’m invited to situations! And then talking to strangers at those situations! Sorry I’m like…how is this working? And the answer is I think talking to people who are essentially strangers but who I’ve been introduced to in some capacity. I also recommend picking something / somewhere to volunteer with where there are also people who you might want to get to know, and then sticking with it so that, once again, you’re seeing the same people over and over — and one of them just might be friend material!

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