Skyline Nine Times, Part 1: Let’s Talk About Murals

detail of mural depicting stylized downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Bright lights, mid-sized city. Mural depicting downtown Pittsburgh … or, at least, PPG Tower is represented, Uptown

Tall towers thrust skyward into a night sky lit up in aurora borealis-like technicolor fantasia. The buildings, black in darkness but each lit from hundreds of glowing window insets, cant in wild directions with the hyperextended angularity of so much German expressionism.

The painting covers a full exterior wall on a little building on Gist Street, Uptown. Whether or not it’s supposed to represent downtown Pittsburgh is questionable, but with the spiky spires of PPG Tower clear in the foreground the mural must at least be inspired by its host city.

mural on brick wall with downtown Pittsburgh skyline and the Eiffel Tower
The Paris of Appalachia. Frenchi’s, Oakland

Like tribbles, vape shops, and yes, Omicron cases, art and design representations of downtown Pittsburgh’s skyline seem to mutate and regenerate at an exponential rate. Why this, our ninth story on the subject, had so many new skylines collected in just the last few months that we’re breaking the recent arrivals into two parts.

This then is Part 1: Let’s talk about murals where we get down with original artistic creations painted directly to brick, cinderblock, and plaster (plus one “outside art” painting). Next week, we’ll be back with Part 2: Designs, Signs, and Outlines.

Until then, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the skyline.

detail from mural featuring downtown Pittsburgh in shades of purple
Erotic City I. Strip District
Mural of downtown Pittsburgh with monkeys holding wrenches
Erotic City II (with monkey mechanics!). Apex Auto, South Side
Mural of Gulf Tower on rounded brick wall
If you have to pick just one skyline element… Gulf Tower, Strip District/Downtown
detail from mural featuring downtown Pittsburgh with jigsaw puzzle pieces
A puzzling city. Uptown
mural depicting yellow bridge and downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Revolution City! Spirit, Lawrenceville
mural of yellow bridge and downtown buildings
Roaming City … but parking is reserved for K-2 employees. K-2 Market, Garfield
mural of woman, farm, vegetables, and downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Earth Mother/Vegetable City. East End Food Co-op, North Point Breeze
painting of downtown Pittsburgh skyline on wood panel on front porch of small house
The city that makes a great impression…istic art subject. Outside art, North Side
detail from mural featuring tops of downtown Pittsburgh's tallest buildings
A Strip District view of the city. Strip District
detail of mural including section of downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Green City. Uptown
mural including crude rendering of downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Flood City. Beltzhoover
shipping container painted with mural including Pittsburgh skyline
The city aglow. Mobile stage, Three Rivers Arts Festival
detail from mural featuring downtown Pittsburgh skyline
A sketch of a city. Salem’s Market, Strip District
large mural including skyline of downtown Pittsburgh
The city with a little bit of everything. Manchester

Let’s Get Small: Bite-Sized Art at the Silver Apple Gallery

little free art gallery with sign reading "Silver Apple"
The newest, tiniest art space in town. Silver Apple Gallery, Main Street, Lawrenceville

“A gallery for all,” declares artist Kirsten Ervin. That mission, inspired by Mayor Gainey’s pledge to make Pittsburgh a city for all, is one of the guiding principals behind the city’s newest, tiniest, and Covid-accessible…est art spaces.

The Silver Apple Gallery, located on Main Street in Lawrenceville, is a project of Ms. Ervin (aka Ms. Orbit) and yours truly. It has but a few cubic feet of display space, parking may be scarce, and don’t count on filling up on hors d’oeuvres at openings, but there’s a lot we can do with this little addition to the art scene.

Inspired by the area’s first little free art gallery, in Sharpsburg, The Ms. asked her Mr. to construct something similar. That turned into a Christmas project/present executed by the most amateur of carpenters from (mostly) scrap wood and a recycled Window by way of Construction Junction. The name was inspired by some fake fruit found at the Center for Creative Reuse and an homage to the great Morton Subotnick. Mild New Year’s weekend weather let us install it right away.

side panel of little free art gallery featuring a cut out silver apple on a red background
How ’bout this apple?

We plan on running the gallery in two modes, alternating month-to-month—but don’t hold us to that; we’re still making this up as we go along.

On the odd-numbered months (January, March, etc.) the space will operate as a little free art gallery. It will remain unlocked and available for artists to drop off their work to show and give away. (Just, please, keep it community-friendly: nothing depicting violence, hate, or overly-sexual.) Like little free libraries, passers-by, collectors, and fellow artists are encouraged to take a piece of art if one speaks to them.

artwork of tiny monster in a dress inside glass display box, created by artist Kirsten Ervin
Kirsten Ervin’s tiny monster in a tiny dress inside a tiny box at the Silver Apple Gallery

On the even months, we’ll turn the space into a full-on tiny art gallery. These will have dedicated shows by individual artists, created for the unique environment. Silver Apple, uh, staff will assist in the hanging, presentation, and lighting the shows. During this time, the gallery will be locked and artists have the option to sell their work directly to those interested. In the Art All Night model, this exchange will be entirely between seller and buyer—The Silver Apple will neither charge a fee nor take a commission.

In February, we’ll be hosting the first individual two-week shows by artists Suzanne Werder (Feb. 1-14) and Ricardo Solis (Feb. 15-28). If you’re an artist who’d like to show at The Silver Apple in the future, either get in touch with us through our Instagram account (@silverapplegallery) or here at the Orbit. When it becomes virologically safe to do so, maybe we’ll even have some little openings on the front porch.

Artist John Lee with his art inside little free art gallery
We caught artist John Lee as he snuck by to drop off his painting “Super Flexible Birdman,” which became the first exhibited piece at the Silver Apple Gallery

“We want The Silver Apple to be accessible, fun, and delightful,” Ervin says, “Hopefully, for people that just stumble across it, the gallery will lift their days. This is our gift to the community and ourselves.”

So please, if you find yourself somewhere around Lawrenceville, stop by, take a peek at what’s in the gallery (it changes every day!), and bring a dog biscuit for Halo, the husky next door.

surrealist pen-and-ink drawing including long serpant and many animal figures with human faces
A Dan Ivec pen-and-ink drawing—likely with a fantastic title we’ll never know—showed-up in the gallery just yesterday.

Silver Apple Gallery is located at 255 Main Street, Central Lawrenceville. Hopefully it will contain something interesting every day of the year, but it may be a little hard to see after dark. To keep up with goings-on at The Silver Apple, we recommend following our Instagram account: @silverapplegallery.

Reading is Lit! A Year with Little Free Libraries

little free library by steps to large library and music hall in Homestead, PA
Little free library outside big free library, Homestead

Patrick Kenzie is tough private investigator from the mean streets of south Boston. He drinks too much, isn’t afraid to take a punch to the nose, and grew up with a “hero” fire fighter for a father who liked to knock him and his mother around.

Kensie and his partner have taken a case from some back room-dealing politicians that will lead them from fancy downtown Boston to cop bars, rundown mill towns, and burned-out ganglands in an action/suspense-filled journey that, you guessed it, will see more twists and turns than a shore-leave midshipman with a stack of dollar bills in his pocket.

little free library painted blue and red with large circular window holes
Designy little free library, Octopus Garden, Friendship
little free library with door made from mosaic glass
Blue hour/glass mosaic little free library, Pittsburgh Glass Center, Garfield

Shakespeare, it ain’t. Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War (1994) is full of clichés and develops its characters just enough for us to not really care about them. But its brutal honesty about the way race and class color greater Boston’s poorer boroughs was an impressive subtext to this otherwise standard-issue genre story.

Despite its dubious literary merits, the book was a completely enjoyable—if, I’m sure, ultimately forgettable—potboiler that read just fine with one’s feet up by the fire on a weekend retreat to the Laurel Highlands. Inside the paperback’s front cover, an after-market rubber stamp informs readers This book visited the Fisk Street Little Free Library.[1]

little free library attached to tree in residential neighborhood
Little free library and NARCAN dispensary, Highland Park
little free library in front of retail storefront
Little free library with Fred Rogers tribute and festive gourd, Garfield

At this time last year we were all neck-deep into coronavirus lockdown, mach I.[2] If you’ll recall, the entire Carnegie Library system was inaccessible for some time. When it opened again, it was with a phased approach that first included a strict no-browsing/request books online/contact-free pickup approach.

That all makes perfect sense and your author applauds everyone at CLP for everything they did to make the full catalog available as soon as possible … but it’s just not the same. One wants to go into the library, poke around, allow the displays of new titles and seasonal picks to catch the eye, let some kismet have a chance to drop something unexpected into our hands and inject it into the brain.

little free library in alley behind row houses
Back alley little free library, Lawrenceville
little free library made from former cabinets resting on cinderblocks
Up-on-blocks little free library, Lawrenceville

It was under these circumstances that the now-omnipresent little free libraries (LFLs) really started to make sense. I had seen them all over—everyone has seen them all over, they’re everywhere!—but never gave the libraries much time or deep catalog consideration.

And then suddenly, these same little free libraries were the only libraries available. At some point in 2020, this blogger found himself poking more, bringing a few titles home, and contributing already-consumed books to replace the ones borrowed.

As a new year’s resolution (for 2021), I decided to dedicate the year’s book-reading entirely to items found randomly at whatever little free libraries I happened to stumble upon.

little free library in front of small apartment building
Professional-grade little free library, Lawrenceville
little free library on decoupage'd pole
Party-on-the-pole, business-in-the-penthouse little free library, Friendship

The year started with bang—or maybe with dessert. The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King (2012) is Rich Cohen’s amazing history of how Sam Zemurray, a Russian immigrant to the American South, hussled his way into becoming the don of big fruit and transformed (physically, agriculturally, and politically) much of Central America in the process. This includes, among other things, inciting a war in Honduras.

Zemurray is an amazing (true life) character, but the history of how bananas came to, and took over, America (at least, where fruit is concerned) is truly riveting. I went from thinking of bananas as a pleasant enough year-round option for my morning yogurt to imagining them the way visitors to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair or immigrants arriving at Ellis Island first experienced them. Recommended … although I don’t think it’s still available at the 37th Street LFL where I both checked it out and returned it.

little free library with umbrella attached
Umbrella’d little free pantry, Lawrenceville
little free library painted with flower scene
Flowers in the snow little free library, Waldorf School, Bloomfield

If you could hang with A Visit from the Goon Squad‘s non-traditional narrative, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (2012) took the same unorthodox approach on the page, but wrapped it in an engrossing—and legit laugh-out-loud—tragi-comic skewering of modern tech yuppies slash pull-at-your-heartstrings family drama. Yes, it’s “now a major motion picture,” but trust me: read the book; skip the movie.

Harold Robbins’ The Betsy (1971) marries the ambitious world of automotive innovation with enough male fantasy soft-core sleaze to keep the motor running and the pages turning. Robbins’, it turns out, is still the highest-selling American author of all time[3]—a fact that’s hard to believe. Read The Betsy and the reality that those superlatives rarely match artistic merit is made all too clear, but this reader has no regrets.

little free library located by public steps
Only-accessible-by-steps little free library, Fineview [tip: Laura Zurowski]
little free library hand painted with sky and clouds
Painted sky little free library, Polish Hill

In-between, there was some British detective novel; one from Oprah’s Book Club; a suspense novel set in Weimar Berlin with a plot about ex-pats attempting to locate the last heir to the Romanov dynasty—I should have kept a list.

But this isn’t a book review site or even a book review post. Today, we’re just trying to appreciate the loving acts of community that are the creation of little free libraries … and little free pantries, community resource centers, art galleries, and everything else people offer up as gifts to their neighbors, visitors, and random passers-by.

inside free little art gallery with donated paintings, illustrations, and photographs
Getting all meta at the free little art gallery, Sharpsburg
little free library painted purple and green
Welcome to the ’80s little free library, Harmony

If you host a little free somethingorother, hats off to you [side note: we’d love to hear about the experience]; if you “check out” materials provided from them, hopefully they’ve brightened your days. They have mine—so much so that we’re installing one at Chez Orbit. More about that later.

Until then, keep (or start!) reading, visit your neighborhood little free library, and have a happy new year.

little free library painted black and white
Two-tone little free library, Polish Hill
tall and thin little free library with square windows in door
Phone box-style little free library, Verona
little free library painted aqua blue
The books aquatic little free library, Bloomfield
little free library with graffiti tag on front
Graffiti’d-upon little free library, Lawrenceville
little free library with cut-out hearts in windows
Little free library love, East Liberty
little free library with tar shingles on roof
Shingled little free library, Bellevue

[1] The history of where the books in little free libraries have been, and where they came from, would be really interesting. We encourage other LFL stewards to do something similar.

[2] The actual timeline is so foggy at this point, CLP may well have been fully open by January, 2021. Regardless, the experience of being without full access to the library during the first part of the pandemic was very real.

[3] Apparently this distinction is a toss-up between Robbins and Danielle Steele, so Robbins may be second on the list. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_fiction_authors

The Collectors: Mix and Mingle with Kris Kringle, Paul Schifino’s Secret Santas

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Wind-Me-Up Santa, Robot Santa, and Abnormally-Long-Torso Santa are all part of Paul Schifino’s massive collection

It’s about time Santa Claus turned the tables on us. We only have to remember one of him, but His Redness has to keep track of the names, addresses, personal wishes, naughty/nice status, and illegal home invasion strategies for every child on the planet.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
You Could Even Say He Glows Santa

A visit to one particular Lawrenceville row house reveals us mere humans as once again way over-simplifying the wide world of Santadom. Why, there’s not just one Jolly St. Nick! No, here you’ll find Robot Santa and Motor Scooter Santa, Glowing Cologne Santa and Tootsie Santa. They share mantle space with Santa-Wan Kenobi, Light-up Cookie Jar Santa, Wind-Up Articulated Santa, a two-dimensional Pepsi-Pimping Santa, and Santaralli—the nickname a portmanteau of Ol’ Bowl-Full-of-Jelly and the Italian holiday cookie affixed to his tin foil-wrapped belly.

In between, there are kindly Santas, smiling Santas, mischieviously-winking Santas, and slightly-menacing Santas. Tin spinning top Santas rub red-robed elbows with home ec project Santas, crafts-gone-wrong Santas, ceramic Santas, and various sleighs laden not with presents for good boys and girls, but perversely with even more tiny Santas as cargo.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Sad-faced Santaralli and Big Smilin’ Santa

“It’s because I love Christmas,” Paul Schifino tells The Orbit in one of the year’s most explosive revelations. That love started early. “When I was kid, there was this man in our neighborhood, Mr. Mayo, who would dress up like Santa Claus, visit all the houses with children, and every one of us got a toy.”

The artifice of Mr. Mayo attempting to fool the youth of 1960s Carnegie with his dime store red suit and add-on white whiskers mattered not. “I didn’t even care that I was lied to,” Schifino says, “I’m just such a fan of Christmas.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Crystal Bowl Full of Jelly Santa

The collecting bug began some forty years ago with a particular figure found at a long-gone Carson Street antique shop. That wind-up Santa, made of molded tin in 1960s Japan, moved in elaborate head-turning, arm-oscillating ways. Paul gave the original to his sister when he recently acquired a superior edition that included the original Merry Xmas sign. [See photo at top.]

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Santas upon Santas

Since then, the collection has grown, and grown, and grown. While this season’s display occupies both surfaces of a big, double-decker mantlepiece and nearby cradenza—let’s say hundreds of Santas—a less-restrained decorator could have taken over the entire house with what remains in the basement archives.

“I have enough Santas to do all of that,” Schifino says, motioning past a pair of big antique curio cabinets and additional shelving, “But I like that these get put away after Christmas and then I bring them out once a year for the holiday.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
A bouquet of Santas
detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Blow Your Horn Santa and Big Bunny Santa

It seems every Santa in Schifino’s collection includes an origin story. This little ceramic Santa was handed down from his grandparents, its legs glued back on after after a tragic fall; that one a gift from a neighbor. Some were mini craft projects recycling Santa-themed candy packaging; others were bedazzled by friends who know just who to gift a tiny Santa, wrapped in tin foil, with an ancient cookie strapped to his chest like a suicide bomber with a sweet tooth.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Old-school bobblehead Santa with a basket full of tiny Santas
detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Whole lotta Santa goin’ on

By far, though, the majority of the collection originates in the region’s flea markets, antique shops, and thrift stores. “Most of these cost two or three dollars,” Schifino told us. “Of course I could buy them on the Internet, but that takes all the fun out of it.”

“I buy Santas all year—especially during the off-season,” says Schifino, “The actor Don Brockett—he was Chef Brockett on Mr. Rogers—also collected Santas and when I’d see him at flea markets I’d always try to stay ahead of him so I could get to the Santas first.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Santootsie, Scooter Santa, and the gang

Christmas—and the holiday season, writ large—means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it is indeed “the most wonderful time of the year”—but we know that’s not a universal truth. For the rest of us, the emotions that kick in as soon as the days grow dark, the colored lights turn on, and Christmas music takes over the oldies station are much more nuanced.

Santa collector Paul Schifino in front of a portion of his collection
The Most of Christmas Present. Santa collector Paul Schifino with a portion of his Santa collection.

The sentimentality of the season may be the toughest nut for many to swallow. But even for your Bah, Humbug-curious author, seeing this mass of glowing, grinning Santas, lovingly brought out for their once-yearly starring role, is enough to warm the soul.

Each little Santa bears not physical gifts, but memories and imaginations—of who owned these figures before they came into Paul’s collection and how they arrived here, now. They’re souvenirs of Sunday trips to the flea market and mementos of friends and family past and present. That may be Santa’s greatest gift of all.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Glowing church with big little Santas

The Collectors is an Orbit series focused on interesting personal collections and the people who assemble them. If you know of someone with a great collection, please let us know.

See also: The Collectors: KISS and Tell with Bruce Gleason (Pittsburgh Orbit, June 23, 2019)

Vestibuler’s Day Off: Package Delivery Post-Its with the Most-Its

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
The ghost of Christmas past. Please leave all boxes etc. in screen door. Package delivery instructions, Bloomfield

In the back. That’s where Pittsburgh wants its packages delivered; not out front, right on the street. That is, unless the request is to place items Over the gate, Through the gate, Behind the gate, or Inside the gate, under the awning.

Some want their deliveries In the vestibule, Inside the door, or In the screen door. Others are more specific: On side of house on table, one; Up the side steps in front of the door, another; a third: Please bring floor 2 packages to side door up stairs down walkway.

hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of house
Leave packages inside the door. Garfield

We’re redirecting deliveries Next to the large wooden planter box, Under the mailbox (behind the flower pot), Next door, At the Cricket store, and Across the street at People’s Grocery.

We also set conditions on our parcels: Please place light packages over the fence; heavy packages go here [who decides what the light/heavy threshold is?] and Please, if package fits, place between doors OR deliver to side door thru gate at right.

Some of us believe our carriers have special secret knowledge. Mail Courier: Please deliver the letter in my mailbox to the correct address … this is not it.

messages for package delivery written on wooden front door of house
PLEASE place light packages over the fence / heavy packages go here. Lawrenceville

Being a delivery driver cannot be easy work—especially right now, mid-pandemic, as the Christmas season officially gets into high gear, and when just about everyone is ordering from the Internet—at least, some of the time.

We’ll add the obvious aside here, that this is all one more reason to shop locally and independently as much as one can. The money you spend close to home supports local businesses, stays in the community, and creates the kinds of Main Streets populated with life that pretty much everyone wants to see.

hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of house
Please open door + put packages in vestibule. Garfield

There are many many stories of Amazon drivers who are unable to take bathroom breaks, monitored by cameras their entire workday, and docked points for taking a drink of water or changing the radio station.

Amazon’s drivers are reportedly given 30 seconds to make each home delivery. That’s not a lot of time for anything, let alone to stop the vehicle, locate and scan the package, haul it to the customer’s front door, and get back to the van. Now, imagine if the delivery address includes a note requesting packages not be left at the front door, but instead be taken “to the back,” or “up the steps,” or “to the side door through the gate.”

mailbox with hand-written instructions for package delivery
PLEASE place big packages inside door. Bloomfield

It’s a lot to ask—even when the instructions pretty much always include please and thank you—but the reasons homeowners make these requests is obvious, too.

If you live in a row house—as your author does and where almost all of today’s photos were taken—there is often no separation between the sidewalk and one’s front door. A package delivered to the front steps is as exposed as something left right on the street. It is effortlessly easy for the most part-time of thieves or teenage pranksters to pick up that intriguing brown cardboard box, pop the corn, and make an evening of the random possibilities that await within.

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
ATTENTION!! Do Not Leave Packages on Steps. Please put all packages to your right next to the large wooden planter box. Lawrenceville

It’s a conundrum—one the home builders of the late 19th century could never have anticipated. So called “porch pirates” are their own well-known menace, even when they’re not targeting row houses. Today—just spitballin’ here—architects are probably integrating some kind of hidden/protected package receiving area right into the fronts of new housing the way the automobile was welcomed into the home in the 1950s and ’60s.

hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door
Please put all packages inside door. Bloomfield

So with Black Friday behind us and Santa’s elves already packing for non-stop December deliveries, let’s all consider the overwhelmed and under-valued “last milers” who bear the brunt of all that Amazon Prime “free” shipping. They may not be able to “put all packages inside the gate under the awning,” and that’s O.K.

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
To: postal persons and UPS persons. The door is opened. You can put the packages in the door… Johnstown
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of house
Please leave packages inside the purple door. Garfield
handwritten sign reading "Mail Slot" taped above mail slot in front door
So that’s what that’s for! Mail Slot. Lawrenceville

Package/Gate or Packagegate

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please put all packages inside the gate under the awning! Polish Hill
message for package delivery written on paper attached to glass front door of house
Please—if package fits—place between doors OR Deliver to side door thru gate at right. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please drop packages behind gate. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Act I: The request. Please place packages over gate. Lawrenceville
note attached to gate reading "Thank you"
Act II: The gate. Thank you. Lawrenceville

Take a walk on the porch side

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Mail slot is on side of house by gate. Troy Hill
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please put packages on side of house on table. Millvale
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please deliver packages to the side porch. Lawrenceville
handwritten message for package delivery taped to front door of house
Please bring floor 2 packages to side door up stairs, down hallway. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Place packages up the side steps in front of the (?) door. You can reach me … Polish Hill
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to glass door
Please place packages on side porch. Bloomfield

Have you seen the back?

instructions for package delivery painted on wood scrap
Please deliver packages to back door through gate on Cedarville. Bloomfield
instructions for package delivery taped to front door
Deliveries around back please. Bloomfield
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to brick wall
Please leave packages in Back. Lawrenceville
mailbox with hand-written instructions for package delivery
Please deliver packages to back door. Bloomfield
hand-written message with package-delivery instructions taped to front door of house
Please deliver all packages in the back. Bloomfield
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of business
Please leave packages in the back. Garfield
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of house
Please leave all packages at the back garage. Garfield

Not here, not now

instructions for mail carrier written on paper taped to mailbox
Mail Courier: Please deliver the letter in my mailbox to the correct address … this is not it. Lawrenceville
hand-written message with package-delivery instructions taped to front door of house
Please leave packages for 4207 Main St. on porch of 4211 Main St. Bloomfield
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please use Willow Street entrance for all deliveries: mail—food—packages. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery written on front door of residence
Please use side door Apt 1A. Do not leave pkgs here. Monongahela
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to glass door
Please leave packages at Cricket Store if no one is home. Bloomfield
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of house
If you have a package and there’s no response on the Ring, please send to our neighbor across the street @ People’s Grocery. Garfield
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please use other door and mailbox. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
FedEx, UPS please leave packages next door. Strip District
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Do not leave packages here! Lawrenceville

Someone is home: find them!

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
“Delivery person” Ring bell to the right for 15-30 seconds. I am alway at home during the day. (sic.) Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Ring doorbell and knock loud. Repeat both. Repeat both. Bloomfield
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Giant Eagle delivery: ring bell or call on phone. Millvale
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please ring door bell. Please don’t leave packages on steps or in the back. Come back if need to. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Delivery person please knock hard on back door!!! Homestead
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Someone IS home for signatures … please find adult … Troy Hill

Special thanks to Orbit faithful Paul and Mark who came up with “Vestibulers Day Off” and “Post-Its with the Most-Its,” respectively, when your author was unable to think of anything nearly as clever. It’s always Snark Week with those two.

Won’t You Be My Neighborhood Welcome Sign? Part 2

welcome sign for the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh
Manchester, where the greatness of its neighborhood welcome sign is matched only in its cotton candy skies

Thanksgiving’s back, baby! The good news is that last year’s cancellation has been repealed and, by Thursday, families will reunite to resume the polite political discourse, subtle lifestyle judgements, and long-unresolved childhood issues they so dearly missed last year. Sure, the inevitable post-holiday spike in coronavirus cases spreading throughout our union won’t be pleasant, but how will we get to the mu or omicron variants if we don’t all do our share?

Regardless, the city of Pittsburgh will welcome visiting friends and family members when and however they get here. We can collectively cross our fingers that enough folks have been boosterized to handle all the close-quarters jawboning and cross-table finger-pointing that ensues.

neighborhood welcome sign for Fineview, Pittsburgh painted on retaining wall
Fineview

Said visitors will be arriving to a changed city … at least, somewhat. The last two years have been ones of big investment and a little growth. There are plenty of new Legoland™ condos and not a few painful demolitions. But we’ve also seen the creation of some exciting new public spaces and a lot of renewed neighborhood pride.

Why, Fineview’s big retaining wall welcome mural, on Warren Street (photo above), didn’t even exist during Thanksgiving 2019. We like to think the Orbit pointing out the neighborhood’s previous, underwhelming sign had something to do with that, but perhaps it was just coincidence. (For reference, see our first story on this subject from 2018.)

neighborhood welcome sign for Garfield, Pittsburgh painted on side of small market
The Garfield gator!

Whatever prompted neighborhood do-gooders to take up brush and paint, wood and brick to celebrate the pride they have in their corners of the city, we love it. Here then is Part 2 of our neighborhood welcome sign roundup where the casual sign-spotter can enjoy some great new additions to the streetscape, check in on old favorites, and peek at a couple Easter eggs. Sit back with the popcorn … er, turkey sandwich, and watch as Deutschtown and Lawrenceville continue their welcoming open arms race for the most total signage.

A final note:Yes, we’re still missing plenty of place/signs—the southern neighborhoods are woefully underrepresented so far—so there will be a Part 3. Until then, be understanding, try to avoid the petty squabbles, and leave some room for dessert.

mural for Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh including praying hands and angels
Praying hands. Manchester
mural on brick wall for Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh
All the colors. Allentown
long brick wall painted with mural of setting sun under river bride and the text "Lawrenceville Alive!", Pittsburgh, PA
Lawrenceville Alive!
mural on side of row house with Sasquatch and "Deutschtown" (neighborhood name), Pittsburgh, PA
The Deutschtown Sasquatch!
mural of woman with flowers in her hair for the Deutschtown neighborhood of Pittsburgh
Ja, die Deutschtown Fräulein ist sehr schön
Homewood
sign for West Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh reading "This ain't Uptown! Welcome to West Oakland: birthplace of pop artist Andy Warhol"
This ain’t Uptown! Welcome to West Oakland, birth place of pop artist Andy Warhol
welcome sign for the South Side neighborhood of Pittsburgh
South Side. Come and sit here.
Welcome to Spring Garden
cinderblock with stencil image of pig climbing stair steps and text "Troy Hill," Pittsburgh, PA
The Troy Hill welcome cinderblock (since removed)
(Love) Friendship

While The Orbit will always prefer the touch of the human hand, we’d be negligent to not include professionally-produced welcome signs. Some of these are obvious custom jobs and others look mass-marketed. The signs for Stanton Heights and Morningside each look like they were ordered from welcomesigns.com (see below). C’mon, gang! Follow Fineview’s lead and hire a couple artists to work on a nice street-facing retaining wall!

large welcome sign for the Deutschtown neighborhood of Pittsburgh
Welcome to Deutschtown: a national historic district
neighborhood welcome sign for Larimer, Pittsburgh
Larimer. Welcome to our neighborhood.
neighborhood welcome sign for Greenfield, Pittsburgh
Greenfield welcomes you
neighborhood welcome sign for Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh
Welcome to Squirrel Hill
large welcome sign for the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh
Lawrenceville [By the way, The Pilgrim is back at GetGo. We hear you’ll be thankful for every bite.]
neighborhood welcome sign for Stanton Heights, Pittsburgh
Welcome to Stanton Heights neighborhood. Hopefully our homes are better weather-proofed than our welcome sign.
neighborhood welcome sign for Morningside, Pittsburgh
Welcome to Morningside where the echinacea runs free

See also: Won’t You Be My Neighborhood Welcome Sign? (Pittsburgh Orbit, June 10, 2018)

Possessed to Impress: Sad Toys, Haunted Dolls Edition

baby doll missing one leg on brick street
The haunting of the one-legged baby of Brick Street. Lawrenceville

Those eyes! Haunted, possessed, staring blankly or looking right through you—take your pick. Any way one describes these quite literal baby blues, they’ll either do a number on you or you’ve got no heart. The form of this particular plastic baby doll—naked, broken, mud-stained, body caked with an unknown white substance, missing one foot and the other leg—is to elicit pathos of most primal variety.

There, on rain-soaked century-old brick paving, we find a counter to all the ghosts, goblins, witches, and boogeypeople that get the big press this time of year. These unsung, woefully innocent, and generically “creepy” children—nay, mere babies!—lay lost, damaged, bugged-out, and now seem to exist in an undead state of demonic reanimation.

baby doll left on sidewalk
Those eyes! Lawrenceville

Little child dry your crying eyes
How can I explain the fear you feel inside
‘Cause you were born into this evil world
Where man is killing man and no one knows just why
What have we become just look what we have done
All that we destroyed you must build again

Vito Bratta / Mike Tramp
face of baby doll removed from body
Face/off. Deutschtown

If we’d only listened! Sure, Denmark’s White Lion weren’t writing in their native tongue, but for ESL Rock, these 1987 lyrics proved as prescient then as they’ll inevitably be for … let’s face it, every future generation. Why, the crying children of the mid-1980s are now well into their 30s, bringing up youths to whom they’ll eventually have to “explain the fear [they] feel inside.”

Creek baby [photo: Lee Floyd]

On this perfect Hallowe’en Day—overcast and drizzling, right on cue—we salute all the lost babies, Barbies, doll parts, and broken hearts that can make any day a Hallows Eve … if you know where to look. Sure, we’ve all been born into an “evil world,” but if you’re not lying face down in the gutter, abandoned in a creek, or missing too many body parts, there’s still a bright side, right?

baby doll face down on edge of street
Coked-up and face down in the gutter. Marshall-Shadeland
baby doll face down in the woods
Sad in plaid. Munhall. [photo: Lee Floyd]
The ol’ tree baby. Lawrenceville
Barbie doll with blue hair left on leaf-covered ground
Every British detective show begins exactly like this. Blue-haired Barbie. Mellon Park
doll's legs sticking out of debris from demolished house
We’ve all been down, but have you been “buried head-first in a demolished house in Rankin” down?
doll's leg in pile of debris
Spare leg. Hill District
Barbie doll mermaid on gravel lot under car
Car mechanic pink mermaid Barbie. Hazelwood
brightly dressed baby doll on edge of road
The lighter side of sad toys! North Oakland
baby doll face down in the woods
Tenderfoot, underfoot. Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]
doll with large weapon in tall grass
Jungle warfare. Grass warrior. Bloomfield
River ape [photo: Dan Rusnak]

Automata Transmission: Ken Draim in the Membrane

detail of automata artwork of older sailor onboard ship
Detail from “Unterwasserwelt,” a hand-cranked kinetic artwork created by Pittsburgh artist Ken Draim

The little boat is lifted into the air on a delicate structure of thin poles and wire rigging. You’d swear it was aloft, but for the abstracted waterline letting us know we’re an omniscient third-party able to see the full depth of the craft as it navigates dangerous waters. At the bow is the unmistakable bloodhound jowls of Humphrey Bogart. He’s sporting the exact black hair, thick eyebrows, and three-day stubble we expect. Astern, a fully-coiffed Katherine Hepburn, barely holding in her contempt for the man she’s trusted with her life. A nameplate on the side of the rusty steamship tells us what any classic movie lover already knows—the craft is the African Queen.

large automata sculpture of steam-powered boat from the movie "African Queen"
“African Queen”

Resting on a tabletop, the sculpture is a beautiful objet d’art all on its own. But turn the little crank handle at the side and the whole thing bursts to life. The vessel doesn’t so much rock back and forth, but lurches in the awkward way that passing waves disrupt movement on water, tossing everyone and everything in their way. As this happens, the big engine propeller spins; buoys, bumpers, and trawling nets swing wildly; Bogey and Hepburn’s spring-loaded body parts are given a shake that will require the best chiropractors … if they ever make it to Kinshasa.

wooden sculpture of Humphrey Bogart in the movie "African Queen"
Bogey. “African Queen” (detail)

“It doesn’t have to be super complex to get a magical look,” Ken Draim tells us, “There’s a story to everything and that’s what’s important.”

Draim is the creator of “African Queen”—and many others in its spirit. He’s been building kinetic art—automata—for at least the last dozen years. Draim’s creation of these little moving fantasy worlds follows decades as a painter, sculptor, builder, furniture maker, and tinkerer. We were lucky enough to catch a number of his still-available automatons at his home in Bellevue on the eve of delivery for exhibition.

automata artwork of small fishing boat tossed on sea
“Buoy Tender’

Pretty much everything in Draim’s artwork has been built from scratch—from the internal mechanics to the rusty hulls of tanker ships, cartoon-like motor vehicles, and carved wooden people. Much of the rusted and battered structural elements look like they were salvaged from the real thing but, to paraphrase Dolly Parton, it takes a lot of love to make something look this rundown.

Draim started as a painter—beautiful, dreamlike, cubist-inspired works that look not-unlike light refracted through stained glass—but gradually moved into the third dimension.

“I found an old pachinko machine which I wanted to rebuild into something different,” Draim says of an earlier project, “But with my limited engineering skills I couldn’t make the balls go where I wanted them to.”

“I got into boat-building,” Draim says of the big, table-top-filling fantasy ships he constructed in this period, “From there, it was just one more step to make them move.”

Just one more step. “Mystery Ship”

Let’s be clear: it may indeed be “just” one more step to make a sculpture of a boat move, but that is one big step.

“It takes time to do all this,” Ken Draim tells us, “It can take all day just to make a gear do a thing.”

We believe him! Watching these wood and wire sculptures come to life is magical. We are all naturally drawn to a little boat surfing wild seas right there before us but Draim very intentionally makes all the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of his machines visible. To see a crank turn an axle that holds a gear that works a cam or spins a belt or pushes a pole or squeezes a hose sparks its own how did he do that? curiosity. Like the repetition of train cars rattling across track or those old Pathé films of things getting made, the rhythmic movement of the gearing—and the gentle clicking that comes with it—is soothing and satisfying in ways that never make it to self-help guides.

Un bâtiment très actif. “Rue Lepic”

Ken and his wife, partner, and ace videographer Sara moved to Pittsburgh four years ago after decades of living, creating, and running a gallery in Taos, New Mexico. They had no specific reason to relocate to the Paris of Appalachia besides wanting some more city stuff, a larger potential art market, and an obvious big change in scenery. The Pittsburgh cliché “big city with a small town feel” seems to fit well with the couple’s taste.

Draim’s “10th Street Bridge,” a large piece with unique counter-directional spinning wheels/traffic lanes, was an early response to their new home. Ken and Sara landed first in the South Side flats before purchasing a home in Bellevue. The third floor of the house is now devoted to what Ken describes as “the best studio I’ve ever had.”

Welcome to Pittsburgh. “10th Street Bridge”

Ms. Orbit—our consultant for all things aesthetic and most things marital—was there for our tour. “What’s special about Ken’s work is that each one feels like it has a life of its own,” she says, “The movement is jerky; there is so much humor. Some of the pieces almost feel like they’re going to fall apart.”

“There are a lot of people making cutesy automatons nowadays,” Madame D’Orbit continues, “But they can be boringly unimaginative. Ken’s work makes you wonder ‘Who are these people? What is life like in this world?’ There’s a personality, a story, real quirkiness to each one.”

Motion simple. “The Ocean in a Crate”

That’s about as a good summary of the experience as we could ask for. So welcome to Pittsburgh, Ken and Sara. Unlike what some of the city’s detractors will tell you, hopefully you’ll find it neither boringly unimaginative nor about to fall apart.


Ken Draim currently has a number of available pieces at Exposure Gallery (412 Beaver Street, Sewickley) and one may reach him/see more videos of his other work at his web site, FaceBook page, or one of two YouTube channels.

Ken and Sara Draim holding an automata sculpture
Ken and Sara Draim with “The Bather”

This Way Out: Arrow Collecting, Redux

ghost sign for Bill's bar painted on brick wall
Ghost sign for a ghost tavern, but the arrow’s still there. It was that way to Bill’s, East Vandergrift.

Direction—am I right? Who doesn’t need a little more of it, especially now. The world’s fallen apart, all trust is gone, no one seems to know where they’re going. Someone, anyone—heck, anything—show us the way!

Enter the simple arrow. Yeah, we’ve still got a few of them lodged in the backside, but we love them just the same. The arrow guides us through some of life’s many mysteries with that most basic of graphic forms. It points us clearly this way or that; up, down, and around-the-bend; when we need to start looking and what’s coming up ahead.

old masonry wall with blue arrow with the word "Entrance"
Enter here, below the water line, Wheeling, WV

Four or five years ago, we started collecting great, hand-made arrows painted on walls and plywood boards to direct vehicles toward parking and loading zones, help people locate back entrances, and keep everyone moving the right way. In the resulting story [This Way Out: Arrow Collecting (Aug. 20, 2017)] we waxed on and on about our love for the humble arrow. That description was so complete that we’ll keep the narrative on this sequel short and get you where you’re going.

masonry wall with old painted arrow
J. D’Antonio, that way. Brownsville
exterior of steel mill with directional arrow
Steel mill arrow, Weirton, WV
wide arrow painted on wooden board
Dog-legged/up and over, Homestead
steel door painted with "no parking" and arrow
No parking … but only to right there. Millvale
directional arrow on asphalt layered with a second arrow on top
Double arrow! Monaca
yellow arrow with word "Entrance" painted on it on cinderblock wall
Swooping in for a big entrance, Wheeling, WV
black arrow painted on white cinderblock wall
Down and out in Larimer
long yellow arrow painted on masonry wall
Loooooooong arrow, Burgettstown
red and purple arrow painted on white brick wall
This way to TNT Monster Mechanic, Beaver Falls
multicolor arrow painted on cinderblock wall
Up! Garfield
white arrow painted on masonry wall, overgrown with climbing vines
Overgrown arrow, Squirrel Hill
store entranceway with complex arrow design
Down and around, New Kensington
blue arrow painted on peeling cinderblock wall
Blue arrow, New Kensington
arrow painted on masonry bricks
This way for auto parts, Hill District
arrow with two heads pointed opposite directions and shop hours listed
Take your pick … as long it’s during shop hours, Larimer
black arrow on cracked retail storefront
Arrow simple, East Liberty

The Pizza Chase: Mon Valley Red Top at Armando’s, Charleroi

whole Mon Valley red top pizza on pizza pan
It’s Christmas any day you’re lucky enough to dine on Mon Valley red top pizza

We haven’t even gotten to Halloween, but the yuletide season is in full swing … if you’re in the right place.

A giant red bauble, sparkling in a gleaming silver halo, is cast against a field of deep kelly green. With the holiday season’s most repulsive color scheme thrust upon us–even on this warm, glorious, early autumn afternoon–one can almost hear bells a-jinglin’, cash registers a-beepin’, and maids a-milkin’. You’d expect a lunch this special to be hand-delivered only to The Nice by ol’ Saint Nick himself, rewarding a full year’s-worth of good deeds. The Naughty get a lump of coal … or maybe Papa John’s.

exterior of Armando's Pizza in Charleroi, PA
Armando’s Pizza, Charleroi

But! Nerves need not be a-tanglin’ nor moods a-swingin’, uncles a-drinkin’, or temperatures a-sinkin’ because Christmas exists this time of year only in the mind of the lucky diner who finds him-, her-, or they-self in that Valhalla of American regional pizza, the mid-Mon Valley.

Why, it is here that Santa’s elves train year round in flour-dusted workshops on knife-scarred cutting boards. Classic rock will have to substitute for caroling and mountains of grated mozzarella are as close as we’ll get to the ice floes of the North Pole–but that’s all just window dressing to the main event.

image of cartoon pizza maker on box top for Armando's Pizza
Armando’s Pizza box

Mon Valley red top pizza is it’s own thing. We went on and on about the greatness of the double-decker red top at Anthony’s Italiano, so we’ll not bore faithful “red heads” with another recitation of this unique style’s it’s-a-pizza and it’s-a-way-of-life transformative powers. No, we’re here today in Charleroi, at Armando’s Pizza, to once again chase the dragon, fly through the eye of the needle, and capture a moonbeam right in the palm of our collective hand. That’s what you get with a red top.

The pizza is all we could ever want: sustenance and gathering point, sure, but also good friend, consoling advisor, and life of the party. There’s a crusty dough on the edges where it’s been exposed to direct heat and a gloppy center as the red sauce ceiling has inevitably caved-in on the cheese and “toppings” innards.

serving of pizza being lifted from pizza pan
We hope you do that goo do that they do so well.

Red top purists will tell you there are no additions to this pie. It’s pizza simple, they say: dough, cheese, and the eponymous red sauce. Yeah, that’s great if you’re a monk, but when Armando’s is giving away four toppings for an extra dollar-fifty, we’ll take that deal all day long. [Note: Armando’s online menu shows the price difference between the Original Red Top and Red Top Supreme at an absurd 50 CENTS!?!]

Like Anthony’s, the Armando’s in Charleroi isn’t fancy. (The pizzeria also has a sister location across the river in Monessen.) You order from a counter up front and grab a drink from one of many mostly-empty coolers. The dining room appears to have last been updated in the ferns-and-stained-glass 1970s and feels like it’s lived a number of lives since then. At this point, with its dark wood and pendant lighting, one might call the style P.J. O’Pootertoot-retro.

two men holding slices of pizza in front of a stained-glass window
Whatever you order on (or in) your pizza, it comes with a double order of ham when you travel with these two. The Pizza Twins.

But you’re not at Armando’s to impress a boss, or parents, or your budding Internet romance. No, the hot date here is with a sublime style of pizza pie that one can only find in the towns along the banks of the Monongahela, where Santa decided to center all of his pizza-making divinity … OK, maybe God did that, not Santa–but you get the idea.

We’ll be back again … and again. There are other red tops to try and more of the gospel to spread. Just don’t tell Anthony we cheated on him.


Getting there: Armando’s is located at 583 Fallowfield Ave. in Charleroi and 201 Tyrol Blvd. in Monessen. It takes most of an hour to drive there from Pittsburgh.