Legend has it that UK prime minister Winston Churchill, as World War II raged around him, responded to criticism of a proposed increase in England’s arts budget by asking, “Then what are we fighting for?” The quote is bogus, having been debunked by the venerable Snopes.com, but it taps into a real sentiment. Musicians, actors, dancers, painters, and filmmakers may not fix our pipes, drive our buses, or sell us food, but they sustain us emotionally. What better release is there after a weeklong slog through work or class than to shout atonally along to a beloved song amidst a sweaty crowd of likeminded audiophiles? When COVID hit, we lost the catharsis of live performance. Fans were hurt, but artists and their collaborators were devastated.
The life of an artist is one of grinding monotony, punctuated by fleeting moments of inspiration. On an early-2022 single, Pittsburgh emo act Short Fictions exhorted, “Don’t start a band/Unless you like spending time in a hot van […] Unless you like picking fights with your best friends,” later adding, “I think that this tour just might kill me.” The endless series of side gigs, sleepless nights, and scraped-together rent payments is made bearable by the euphoria of the show, along with the accompanying paycheck. Without these spiritual and monetary benefits, artists and their supporters have spent the past few years wandering in a wilderness of uncertainty. Pittsburgh felt the sting just as keenly as any other city.
In February 2020, experimental jazz musician and sound engineer Derek Bendel played his guitar at Hambones, a now-defunct Lawrenceville dive bar. Up the hill in Garfield, drag queen Princess Jafar worked to transform Penn Avenue’s Bunker Projects into an interactive haunted house as part of a six-month residency. Bendel’s show, along with some saxophone work he did for a musical around the same time, was to be his last creative job for months. Jafar’s haunted house would not happen at all; something far scarier loomed. At the time, though, as Bendel put it when we spoke a few months back, COVID was nothing but “an inkling,” a radar blip growing more insistent by the day until, one evening in March 2020, Tom Hanks got sick, the NBA cancelled its season, Trump caved and halted European travel, and America stopped.
Bendel and Jafar both described, in separate phone conversations, the initial flurry of support and excitement that zapped its way through the online arts community, a giddy we can do this that welled up out of the vacuum created by venue closures and show cancellations. Bendel’s experimental jazz cohort delved into livestreamed improvisation, while Jafar, cooped up at Bunker Projects with another resident artist (“It was me and a stranger […] washing our vegetables and our cereal boxes because we have no idea what’s going on”), organized a series of digital drag shows—featuring vibrant, diverse talent beamed in from France, Portugal, Lebanon, and South Korea—whose ticket sales and tips brought in thousands of dollars. Soon, though, as people began to realize that COVID was more than a temporary adventure and that their lives were actually going to change, the enthusiasm dried up. As Bendel sees it, the collective fatigue—a natural response to mass death, baffling public apathy, and governmental incompetence—was too much. Jafar quipped, “If you’re putting on an online show, you have to be more interesting than any movie on Netflix.”
Bendel’s main source of income had always been his sound production work, done on both a freelance basis and as a member of several local unions. He dropped from a staggering number of gigs in 2019 (“I’ve never had a full time job […] I wish I could give you a number of how often I would work […] Maybe two hundred days of work”) to exactly twelve in 2020. When venues shutter their ticket windows, it isn’t just artists and fans that lose out, but also the people who use technology to conjure the magical atmosphere of the show. Bendel, unable to make rent on savings alone after his unemployment ran out, turned to odd jobs; “I was working for a seeding company, walking up and down hills on a construction site, basically just to make ends meet.” When I asked him to elaborate on his internal state at the time, he lingered on the word “lost,” his easygoing tone belying the pain that haunted his recollections.
Jafar, like Bendel, used to supplement her creative work—drag game shows, drag talk shows, drag DJ sets—with part-time jobs. She explained, “I was a barista at Ace Hotel [in East Liberty]. A lot of my clients would see me in the morning for their latte, and then they would see me at night as Princess Jafar.” After her Bunker Projects residency ended, she had nowhere to live, and, with all of her planned events cancelled, uprooted to Ohio for the duration of the pandemic; she remains there still. She was forced to live with various sets of family members, some of them abusive, until she landed on a yearlong position as a live-in nanny. When I asked her how she managed to stay sane during that experience, she laughed, “I kept rationalizing it for myself by making it a sitcom, like ‘I’m this prissy city girl stuck in the middle of Ohio, changing diapers. Oh, I’m Uncle Jesse in Full House, and I’m this cool rocker who’s coming in to take care of a baby’.” She elaborated on the mindset, telling me, “As an artist, as a queer person, you just have to always be that street rat, Aladdin, always ready to just be adaptive and responsive.”
The lean times weren’t without their moments of joy. Bendel reported that, while many of his fellow creatives found themselves too despondent to play, he took inspiration from the concept of “woodshedding,” a term coined by “1950s jazzers, where they would just jump in their woodshed, and they would just practice, practice, practice until they had stuff down that they needed to have down to be able to be fluent in the language.” In his newfound free time, Bendel would retreat to the basement of the home he shares his with wife, brother-in-law, and niece, and spend hours tinkering with and refining his musical approach. Readers of the Pittsburgh City paper voted Princess Jafar, in the midst of her real-life nanny sitcom, as one of the three best drag queens in the city, even though she was stuck in Ohio at the time. Describing the day she heard the news, she said, “I’m with the kid’s dad who I’m nannying […] and I’m like, ‘Oh, I won second best drag queen for Pittsburgh.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh really? So you’re not just, like, a vagabond roaming the streets, in our house right now, watching our kids’.” I asked her how it felt to be honored, and she replied, “So much of drag is an illusion and a delusion, so it’s nice to actually get some things on paper once in a while.”
During my interviews for this piece, I sought tidy redemption arcs from my subjects. Adversity, then crushing depression, then a eureka moment, resilient growth, and transcendent change, in that order. However, because Derek Bendel and Princess Jafar are real people, these neat trajectories eluded me, the preferred storyboard panels blending together or not appearing at all. Bendel may have felt adrift as he wandered around the farms and construction sites of Western PA, but his union and his family supported him where the government did not, and he never lost the will to create. Jafar found strength in her identity—queer person, drag queen, Pittsburgher—hustling her way through the state of Ohio with both her pride and her sense of humor intact. No epiphanies for either, just adaptation and dogged endurance.
Jafar is set to return to Pittsburgh for good, riding high off her experience hosting The Princess is Right in February; the North Side’s New Hazlett Theater supported that in-person game show, cast entirely with queer people of color, with a $10,000 grant. Bendel is working a nine-to-five job for the first time, at a production company out in Greentree, and he maintains a faith that jazz gigs will trickle back into his life. He’s in therapy now, doing fine himself, but anger pierced his words when he spoke of friends, colleagues, and clients, their livelihoods eliminated with the stroke of a bureaucratic pen, abandoned by a government that never came up with a plan to help them; “It’s a travesty.”
Artists, the street rats who give our lives meaning, are like cockroaches; they’ve been around forever and know how to survive in suboptimal conditions. The latter species weathered the asteroid blast that wiped out the dinosaurs, and the former muddled their way through a global pandemic, a bit poorer, a bit more creative, and, thankfully for us all, more or less intact. Last July, I experienced live music for the first time in eighteen months, in the form of a do-it-yourself backyard show at a stranger’s house in Troy Hill. I sat on a blanket in the grass—ducks roamed nearby and a New York duo called Cookie Tongue, clad in feathers and face paint, stood amidst a menagerie of occult artifacts and spun psychedelic ballads for maybe a dozen people—and felt whole again.