Step Beat: Talking Missed Connections and Mis.Steps with Ms. Steps

bent street sign for the intersection of Lappe Lane and Shirls Street with downtown Pittsburgh in the distance

Only the street sign remains: where Lappe Lane used to end at Shirls Street, Spring Hill

Lappe Lane is one of the more fascinating throughways you’re likely to travel. Roughly equal parts city steps, paved road, and (non-existent) “paper street,” Lappe begins down in Spring Garden and then runs straight up and over the hill, back down the other side, through a cemetery (though you wouldn’t know it), and just keeps going.

If you like hiking the steps, there’s a decent chance you’ve already climbed Lappe Lane’s lower flights where the stairs intersect Spring Garden Ave. or Goehring Street and continue up to Yetta and St. John’s Cemetery at the top of the hill. These early sections offer great options to what entry-level step trekkers are after–steep vertical ascents, great city views, kooky between-house catwalks, and lots of nice here-to-theres with alternate options to get back down the hill.

Even so, you’ve probably never made it up here, where we are, at the very end. And that’s because–like some twisted Zen koan–even where Lappe Lane finally ends, it doesn’t actually go there.

hillside with staircase overgrown with weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Lappe Lane, from South Side Ave. to Fabyan Street, Spring Hill

Laura Zurowski has an ambitious goal: visit and document every one of Pittsburgh’s seven hundred and thirty-nine (known) sets of public steps. As if all the navigating, stair-climbing, and list-checking-off weren’t enough, Zurowski’s Mis.Steps project gets even more complicated. No mere exercise/sight-seeing venture, each and every steps visit is followed by an additional mixed media exploration via old-school/pre-digital instant photography, short prose, colored sidewalk chalk, print-making, and final distribution via the computer Internet.

We’ll get to all this. Today, though, we’re just trying to locate the very last two flights of Lappe Lane, at the far north end of Spring Hill.

woman taking photograph of weed-covered set of public stairs in Pittsburgh, PA

In the weeds: Laura Zurowski with her Polaroid Spectra 2 camera

“Pittsburgh chose me,” Zurowski says of her relocation from Providence, by-way-of upstate New York. The decision came six years ago alongside the desire to own a home in a place she could pursue more creative projects. “I asked myself, ‘What do I want life to be?’ and the answer was that I wanted to be open to ideas; to have a more robust, creative existence.”

The interest in the city steps only came some time after the move. Seeing the volume of empty houses in Pittsburgh was new, startling, and inspirational–but also melancholy. “Every one of those (abandoned) homes contained people’s lives, so seeing them empty is really sad,” Zurowski says, “With the steps–even if they’re in bad condition–I never feel sad like I do with empty houses.”

That, coupled with Bob Regan’s Orbit essential The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City (The Local History Company, 2004) was enough to send Zurowski on her mission.

woman marking public steps with sidewalk chalk

Chalk it up: Zurowski tags another completed set of steps with a Polaroid-sized chalk square.

We see one small boarded-up home, but for the most part, the houses on this block all appear both lived-in and loved. Lappe Lane’s thirty-or-so steps starting from South Side Ave. [Mis.Steps Trip #109] are easy enough to spot. There is no street sign at this intersection, but a familiar pair of red-brown handrails reaches out of the hillside and right down to the edge of the quiet residential road.

But try walking up these stairs and you’re quickly ensnared in wild jumble of weedy overgrowth, thorny bramble, and whatever those plants are that leave prickly stickers on your socks and pant legs. Even half-way up the short flight, it’s obvious you’ll not be going far. One of the uphill homeowners has–perhaps, illegally–built an elaborate A-frame treehouse directly blocking the public right-of-way. Even if someone wanted to, no one’s going anywhere on these steps.

Polaroid photo of overgrown city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Trip #109: Lappe Lane – S. Side Ave. Polaroid [photo: Laura Zurowski]

Zurowski fights her way through the thicket of tall grass, up past the first plateau, and on until nearly swallowed by the plant kingdom. There’s a shrugged acceptance this is far as these particular steps will allow, an untangling from the jaggers, careful descent back to the landing, and then hands dart into the backpack for the Polaroid camera. The single picture–there is only one per set of steps–is taken in an instant.

“My friend who’s a photographer said, ‘You’re going to have a really hard time coming up with 739 ways to take pictures of stairs’,” Zurowski says, “And it would be hard if they were all the same–but I haven’t come across two sets that look alike.”

“I look at the Polaroid [photos] like they’re portraits of people,” Zurowski continues, “If I were going to give human-like qualities to the steps, what would they be like? Hopefully the Polaroid captures the essence of what each flight of steps is all about.”

Polaroid photo of public staircase with trees and house behind

Late summer scene: Polaroid from Trip #61 – Harpster Street, Oct. 2017, Troy Hill [photo: Laura Zurowski]

The instant photograph is ejected from the camera, rested on a stair tread, and then the journals come out. There are two of them: one for “field notes”; the other, narrative impressions. With each visit, Zurowski includes a short meditation on the scene, which will be used later on.

Zurowski scratches a rough square, just about the size of a Polaroid picture, with sidewalk chalk on one of the stair risers. Mis.Steps super fans are undoubtedly taking selfies with chalk squares around town right now. Finally, the iPhone is used to snap one last picture summing up the whole scene.

With that, we’re on to Trip #110–the very end of Lappe Lane, just up the hill from where we are now. Here, Zurowski will do it all over again, but, just like every other one of those 739 sets of steps, this one is completely different from the one we just saw. For one, there aren’t any steps here (anymore).

autumn leaves on long set of public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

A blast of autumn past: Mis.Steps summary photo (including Polaroid and chalk square) from Trip #68 – Basin Street, Troy Hill/Spring Garden, Oct. 2017 [photo: Laura Zurowski]

That’s a lot of process–but it ain’t over yet! Back home, Zurowski completes the cycle with the publishing of each Mis.Steps adventure every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The narrative is honed, the Polaroid digitized, and the pairing of image + words goes out to the world via the Mis.Steps’ blog, Instagram, and Craig’s List “Missed Connections” page. That’s right: between “Kinky Dom Roleplay – m4m (Canonsburg)” and “Thanks for the hot time – m4m (McKeesport)” there’s a little story and photo about listening to birdsongs on the Morningside Avenue steps.

Risograph print of a Polaroid photo showing public stairs with a woman leaning on handrail

#20 Diulius Way, Central Oakland. Risograph print by Jimmy Riordan.

I know what you’re thinking: All this sounds great, but there’s nothing to hang on my wall or swap with friends! That’s where you’re sorely mistaken. Conveniently, Mis.Steps has taken the whole project out of the aether and fed it through a 1980s-era technology at the hands of Braddock printer Jimmy Riordan.

The result is a hard copy series of “trading cards” that further abstract the original murky Polaroid into ghostly, high-contrast 3-color art prints. In addition to the photographic image, the cards contain the Mis.Steps index number, street and neighborhood names, location, step count, and the city’s construction date (if known) on the front and the narrative text on the back. Card collections are available from the Mis.Steps website and Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill.

collage of nine Risograph prints made from Laura Zukowski's steps photos

No two alike: various Mis.Steps Polaroid-sized Risograph trading cards printed by Jimmy Riordan

If it’s not obvious yet, Laura Zurowski really loves Pittsburgh’s city steps–Orbit readers know we share an opinion on this matter. “If there’s an underlying goal,” Zurowski says of the Mis.Steps project, “It’s to get people to visit the stairs. I’d like to encourage people to look around, to check out other parts of the city, and to become connected with their neighborhoods.” We couldn’t agree more.

woman at top of long set of public stairs looking at a view of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Route with a view: Zurowski at the top of the Vinial Street steps, part of the “Spring Garden Stair Stepping” event, Troy Hill

Still not enough Mis.Steps for you? Well, you’re in luck. Zurowski has teamed up with Threadbare Cider for a series of combined guided city step hikes and cider house tours/tastings dubbed Spring Garden Stair Stepping (and Cider Sipping). You’re probably too late for today’s kick off hike–and it sold out way ahead of time anyway–but there will be a couple more chances with repeat events April 15 and May 20.

Born Again: The Babyland Totems

sculpture of black plaster head with fake white hair and flowers attached to utility pole

street totem by twilight

Those eyes! Wide open, wild as the wind, staring straight back at–no, through–you. The steely glare cuts right into the cold, dark, February night. Evocatively–as if arranged by set designers on a commercial shoot–the ice blue of those peepers echoes the color of rain-slicked Negley Avenue reflecting the deep indigo sky above. It’s only just six o’clock, but it may as well be midnight.

sculpture of black plaster head with flowers attached to wood

bean baggie baby on board

The Babyland Totems don’t always look quite so startling. But even in broad daylight they’re an exciting and unnerving collection of figures to come across purely by accident. Most of the little objets d’art feature plaster cloth-formed humanoid faces, painted either black or brown, and decorated with curly hair, red lips, and, of course, those pale blue eyes.

Each of the softball-sized heads projects from a bundle of colorful fake flowers within a decorative cloth wrap that serves as the little icon’s body. Random accessories–a beanbag, plastic barrettes, a toy army tank–make their appearances, too.

sculpture of black plaster head with fake flowers

verbena tiara

The effect is very much that of the youngest babies, released from the womb, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and surrounded by the magic and love of a new life. It’s hard to tell how content these little fellows are–some appear to be smiling, for sure, but others are mid-scream. We’ve all seen real-life infants taking the same wide range of emotions.

plaster head with fake flowers resting on brick window ledge

window ledge widow’s walk

At the same time, one cannot help but think of these as memorials. Close one eye, tilt your head, and almost every one of the totems takes the form of a simple cross. That familiar shape, the reverent individual attention, and those pink, white, and purple flowers remind us of fresh decorations on grave markers or the all-too-common roadside crosses that appear seemingly out-of-nowhere on the berms of highways and grassy undergrowth along busy through-streets.

The Orbit has spent enough time in and around graveyards to know that grounds crews routinely flush these kinds of plastic flowers–along with the accumulated teddy bears, deflated balloons, and past-date holiday decorations–a couple times a year. If some of Allegheny Cemetery’s fall cleanup ended up here–instead of the landfill–well, we can’t think of a better (re-)use of the material.

skull and bell attached to utility pole

skull’s out for summer

Babyland, the all-things-newborn supply shop, served Pittsburgh’s East End for over sixty years[1]. For anyone who was in the area before, say, the late oughts, you’ll not soon forget the circular cartoonish images of babies pulling their own diapers down that used to decorate the outside brickwork. Those were replaced by actual photos of super cute tykes not too long before the business closed in 2012. The squat retail space at the corner of Penn and Negley has been sitting vacant ever since.

Unlike some places in town, this will inevitably change fast–in fact, it’s amazing the little building at this prominent intersection hasn’t been razed for the next set of Legoland condos or a fluorescent-lit fast casual chain restaurant already. Development has come loud and hard to East Liberty and the Penn Avenue corridor and we all know there’s plenty to memorialize even where it hasn’t actually happened…yet.

sculpture of black plaster head with golden hair and flowers attached to utility pole


The other obvious–and most important–side to all this is the continuing story of displacement and eviction of East Liberty’s population. From the old Babyland location, one merely has to look east, across Negley Ave., to see a completely denuded landscape where the big Penn Plaza apartment complex stood for the last 50 years. The fallow ground is now an otherworldly red-brown as crushed brick mixes roughly 50/50 with barren soil.

Had the Babyland artist wished to eulogize Penn Plaza instead, he or she couldn’t (at least, not in the same way)–there’s nothing left to even hang a piece of artwork on. [In fairness, there is one set of steps, their handrails, and a full perimeter of chain link fence–but you get the idea.]

stairway leading down to large empty lot

former Penn Plaza apartments lot, East Liberty

In the last two years, Penn Plaza has gone from a large, lived-in pubic housing complex to a mountain of upturned brown brick to the big muddy field it is today. For those of us who didn’t live there, the transformation may have been startling, but we see this kind of ruthless, scorched-earth demolition and redevelopment happening all over.

But for the S’Libertarians whose friends and loved-ones moved away, who saw their community disintegrate, or worst of all–personally suffered the loss of a family home–the upscaling/gentrification/whitewashing (take your pick) of East Liberty has got to pack the same savage punch as a hurricane or tornado blowing through other parts of the world, dismembering the lives in its path.

sculpture of black plaster head with plastic toy tank attached to wood

Babyland: tanks for the memories

Without any better information to work from[2], all we can do is speculate and enjoy the Babyland totems while they’re still around–and they probably won’t be here for long. Like the former retail building they’re installed around or the old Penn Plaza apartments, something will take them sooner or later. Whether that’s a designated city clean-up crew, street art souvenir hunters[3], or just a heavy blast of rain, we can’t predict. But it’s another of life’s constant reminders that everything–even a big multistory brick and steel apartment complex–is really just here for a snap of the fingers or a blink of one of those haunting baby blue eyes.

playing cards wrapped in twine hanging from cowbell

the old Babyland, hanging by a thread

A note on the photos: These pictures were all taken on Feb. 13 (daytime) and Feb. 14 (evening), 2018. We have it on good authority that at least one more totem was part of the original installation, but it had disappeared by the time we got on the scene. Within a few days of the 14th, the two pieces from the plywood over Babyland’s Penn Ave. entrance [“bean baggie baby on board” and “tanks for the memories” (our labels), above] were also removed.

sculpture of black plaster head laying on wet sidewalk concrete

head down to Babyland! [4]

[1] “Longtime East Liberty business Babyland to close and move”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 8, 2012.
[2] In the course of reporting this piece, we located the artist who created the Babyland totems and made several offers to discuss the work. The artist declined to be interviewed for this story and since there’s no attribution on the individual pieces, we’ve decided to preserve that anonymity.
[3] The Orbit adheres to a strict code of preservation of street art so we do not condone taking pieces such as these for personal consumption.
[4] After finding this lost noggin on the sidewalk, we did our best to reattach it to the rest of the piece using a twig to join the two. How long that lasted is unknown.

The Donora Smog Museum

miniature models of blacksmith shop tools in the Donora Smog Museum

miniature blacksmith tools by Joseph Hostenske, Donora Smog Museum

The big display case has a plate glass front, top, and interior shelf like you might see showcasing diamond necklaces or gold earrings in a jewelry shop. In fact, it may well have done just that in a previous life. Inside, though, is a different type of treasure.

Tiny replicas of an entire blacksmith shop–work benches, heavy tongs, hammers, wrenches, pick axes, and pliers; wheelbarrow, anvil, shovel, and coal bin–have been rendered in perfect miniature by hands that could only have known the real thing. An ink-calligraphed placard on a repurposed photo stand informs us the collection of pieces was created by Joseph Hostenske, “the first blacksmith to learn his trade in Donora, Pa.”

model of blacksmith tools, Donora Smog Museum

miniature blacksmith set made by Joseph Hostenske, the “first blacksmith to learn his trade in Donora”

The Hostenske collection exists somewhere within the realms of folk art, personal history, and–for anyone who’s ever wanted to see Barbie and Ken really get down to hard labor–the world’s most grueling set of doll house accessories. How fascinating would it be if we all reduced the most memorable of life’s possessions to 1:12 scale?

The little blacksmith set is also among the most interesting array of items in a room full of very stiff competition. That space is The Donora Smog Museum.

mannequin with majorette uniform, Donora Smog Museum

majorette mannequin in Donora Dragons black-and-orange

Any way you slice it, little Donora has had a tough run. Like its fellow Mon Valley (ex-)steel towns–Clairton and Duquesne, Monessen and McKeesport–Donora experienced the familiar boom and bust of big industry setting up shop right at the turn of the 20th century, building a massive economic engine that provided thousands of good-paying local jobs, a thriving community and business district, and then ultimate collapse under the weight of newer, more-efficient technology and changing global economics.

And then there’s the killer smog. Like Johnstown and Love Canal, Centralia and Hopewell, Donora is primarily known to outsiders as the site of a deadly environmental disaster. In October, 1948, a rare weather event called a temperature inversion caused an exceptionally low cloud ceiling over the Mon Valley that remained unmoved for five days. The deadly smoke produced by the Donora Zinc Works had nowhere to go and ended up poisoning thousands of locals, ultimately causing the deaths of twenty-six.

painting of historic sign reading "Donora: next to yours, the best town in the USA", Donora Smog Museum

“Donora: next to yours, the best town in the USA”

At one point, Donora had a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored welcome sign declaring it Next to yours, the best town in the USA. That deferential boast may be hard for an outsider to understand–even put in context that it was erected at the town’s economic peak, while the mill was still running and the streets and storefronts were full of people.

The original sign hasn’t survived–or, at least, no one knows where it is–but it’s made its way into Society for Better Living, a wall-sized painting of Donora history by Cal. U. associate professor Todd Pinkham. The big work hangs on the museum’s north wall and forms a kind of overture to all the museum will have to offer as well as hazy nostalgia for many small town things any Donoran would have internalized. There’s a parade float sponsored by the Zinc Works, steelworkers in wool caps, famous local residents, and, of course, the mighty blast furnaces of U.S. Steel’s Donora Works.

painting of images from Donora history overlapping, Donora Smog Museum

detail from “Society for Better Living,” Todd Pinkham’s Donora history painting

All those elements come alive in the Donora Historical Society’s museum. The Orbit was lucky enough to get a personal walk-through with museum curator/archivist/educator Brian Charlton and volunteer Mark Pawelec. To call what these guys do a “labor of love” would be underselling both labor and love.

Pawalec is a lifelong Donora resident who commutes way past Pittsburgh just because he can’t imagine leaving his home in the valley. Charlton clearly battles outsider status having grown up five miles away in Monongahela. There aren’t a lot of quantitative rewards to spending your Saturdays preserving the history of a town that frankly many of us down river couldn’t place on the map. But luckily there are more ways to measure success than with a calculator. The quick repartee this pair exchanges when they share names and dates, facts and figures is great to witness and the service they’re doing for the whole Mon Valley is immeasurable.

very old black-and-white panoramic photographs of Donora, PA

historic panoramic photos of Donora

On what is obviously the most threadbare of shoestrings, Charlton and his crew of volunteers have dug deep to illustrate the full scope of 20th century life in Donora. There are its claims to fame, for sure–U.S. Steel’s vertically-integrated operation, responsible for everything from the steel cables of the Golden Gate Bridge to your (grand)mother’s kitchen tongs; famous local athletes Stan “The Man” Musial and the Ken Griffeys (Junior and Senior); and, of course, that deadly smog.

But the museum–and the town of Donora–goes much deeper than these handful of historical bullet points. Donora was an immigrant landing spot that brought newcomers from all over the world. Those new residents founded dozens of local churches and a comparable number of ethnic social clubs–some of both survive today. While America was (and is) still very much racially divided, the museum includes photos of integrated company picnics, school sports teams, and local musical groups that existed before the civil rights movement took hold nationwide.

student display with smokestacks and dates around air quality legislation, Donora Smog Museum

air quality history display (detail)

For such a tiny entity–in a town of less than 5000 residents–The Donora Historical Society has made some impressive connections. The museum has joined The Heinz History Center’s History Center Affiliate Program and partners with California University of Pennsylvania for a series of student-led research projects and videos in their “Digital Storytelling” program, led by Christina Fisanick, associate professor of English.

The text- and photo-based displays that fill the center of the Smog Museum have originated from a combination of these sources. The Donora Historical Society’s web site hosts a terrific set of short documentaries from the same collection of sources.

display with news stories and photographs of the Donora smog of October, 1948

history of the Donora smog displays

The services offered by the DHS extend beyond the Smog Museum’s walls. The group offers regular tours of both Eldora Park and Cement City–an early housing development based on Thomas Edison’s design for efficient, fireproof, poured-in-place concrete construction. Donora claims one of the largest collection of Edison concrete homes in the country.

The museum features a collection of documents including the original blueprints for Cement City in their extensive archive of local history. The big, back room is filled with bookcases and file cabinets full of detailed town maps, photos, and glass negatives.

We’re booked for the April 22 Cement City tour so maybe you’ll see a follow-up story then.

blueprints for cement house, Donora Smog Museum

Cement City blueprints

The Smithsonian, this ain’t. The Donora Smog Museum doesn’t have the corporate endowments, government sponsorship, or turnstile receipts to have virtual reality experiences or interactive phone apps. Heck–other cultural institutions have gift shops larger than the entire Smog Museum.

But in this one turn-of-the-century former bank building–still retaining design elements from a past life as a Chinese restaurant–there is so much heart, love, and dedication to the history of its town that it does everything we can hope from such a place. The experience is eye-opening, educational, a little bit melancholy, a little bit wacky, and very thoroughly Orbit-approved.

safe from Donora Slovak club or beneficial society and other historical items, Donora Smog Museum

items from the museum including a safe from the former Donora Slovak club or beneficial society

Getting there: The Donora Smog Museum is located on McKean Avenue at the corner of Sixth Street. It takes around 45 minutes to an hour drive from the city of Pittsburgh. The museum is open every Saturday from 10 AM to 3 PM. For more information, see:

Bonus tip: The pizza at Anthony’s (just down the block at 557 McKean) is among the very best this blogger has ever had. The dough (the dough!) was like the best ciabatta bread–a little toughness to the outside and an unbelievably delicious, chewy, airy middle. Do yourself a favor and get a couple cuts after you visit the museum.

exterior of the Donora Smog Museum

The Donora Smog Museum, 595 McKean Ave., Donora, PA

Groundhog Gonzo! Fur and Clothing on the Punxsutawney Groundhog Trail

homemade hat with stuffed groundhogs

The world’s coolest…er…coldest fashion show: Groundhog Day at Gobbler’s Knob

Everything you think you know about Groundhog Day is wrong. It’s not about predicting the weather or keeping up some quaint old world tradition–though both of those definitely do happen. It’s not even really about the namesake woodland creature, but you can be excused for thinking so. If most of your information comes from the eponymous Bill Murray/Andie MacDowell movie, I’m afraid you’ve been even further deceived.

man with groundhog mask and Bill Murray hand sign

Who knew Punxsutawney Phil was a “Stripes” fan?

O.K. Maybe “everything you know is wrong” is an exaggeration. I’ll speak for the rest of the world in saying the basic facts outsiders understand are that on February 2 each year, a committee of local citizens pulls a groundhog (always named “Phil”[1]) from a stump in Punxsutawney, Pa. in an attempt to predict–in the vaguest possible terms–the end of winter and coming of spring. Inexplicably, the season’s future hinges on whether or not the little guy “sees his shadow.”

The Groundhog Day tradition goes back well over a hundred years–even longer if you consider its German roots–and is regular fodder for end-of-broadcast feel-good chuckles between hosts on the evening news. This much is all true.

Man with custom-made Groundhog Day hat

“This is my 11th year!” Super fan from Youngstown, Ohio.

Of the many things Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis’ 1993 feel-good fantasy/comedy, gets wrong[2] is that Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman Phil Connors can’t just roll out of bed at 6:00 AM, chit-chat with Ned Ryerson, and amble across the town square to file his report.

No no no. First of all, you can bet the local network affiliate isn’t ponying up for surge-priced B&B rates on the single day when every lodging in greater Punxsutawney has been sold out for a year. When our crew arrived at 2:00 AM, there was an imposing fleet of satellite-equipped TV trucks already camped-out in the parking lot. All the major networks were there, along with a handful of cable new outlets, plus The Weather Channel and AccuWeather. Big engines were humming and news crews had clearly napped–as best they could–right there in their bucket seats and were already mainlining black coffee to get through the long morning.

news reporter and cameraman filming segment at Groundhog Day, 2018

Phil Connors never got up this early. News crew “doing it live” around 4 AM.

More importantly, though, the movie–filmed not in Western Pennsylvania, but in Woodstock, Ill.–makes it out as if the event takes place in the center of town, on a square surrounded by local businesses. There, a couple hundred people gather to watch Phil do his thing in the broad daylight.

The real Gobbler’s Knob is around a mile–as the crow flies–from Punxsutawney’s equally-charming, but differently-shaped downtown. It sits in the basin of a wooded area–sort of a natural amphitheater–with a large stage and some unobstructive railing to keep the crowds from pushing in too close when things get crazy.

There is not nearly enough parking to accommodate the mass of Phil faithful, so participants arrive through the night and into the early morning on one of a non-stop series of school buses literally moonlighting as town-to-Knob shuttles. The hardier and/or more impatient hoof it up a curling back road from the east side of Punxsy.

Groundhog Day has become a massive draw for little Punxsutawney. The town of around 6,000 attracts way more visitors than that number to the event. Varying estimates put recent crowd sizes between twelve and thirty thousand people[3].

large crowd assembled at Gobbler's Knob for Groundhog Day, 2018

View from the stage, around 6:45 AM. Umpteen-thousand “hog heads” at Groundhog Day, 2018

Groundhog Day may be the world’s coldest, darkest D.I.Y. fashion event. This first-time visitor had no idea that so much of the audience would arrive in various degrees of groundhog attire and tribute. There were groundhog masks and groundhog puppets, groundhog t-shirts and super-fan signage, stuffed groundhogs, and full-body groundhog suits.

woman holding groundhog cutout labeled "Erika"

Who’s Erika? Lady groundhogs with colorful skirts.

But it is the hats that really mark this festival. Custom-made toppers of all designs–stacked hog heads like faces on a totem pole and dainty scenes of Phil frolicking in a bed of feathers, pearls, and wispy notions. There are countless renditions of The Punxsutawney Prognosticator either emerging-from or sitting atop his stump and all manner of knit caps featuring cartoonish eyeballs, buck teeth, and little ears.

How many of these are fan-created vs. purchased in downtown Punxsutawney’s groundhog gift shops we do not know (yet!) but any way you slice it, the sheer breadth of Phil-themed headwear was incredible. Orbit staff did its best to get around and document what we could[4], but please realize the photos included here are but a tiny proportion of the actual outfits.

two women with custom-made Groundhog Day hats

“We go everywhere in costume.” Friends and first-time attendees from Virginia with made-for-the-occasion hats.

two men wearing novelty top hats with light-up "PHIL" letters for Groundhog Day

Phil Heads

woman with groundhog hat

Ain’t that America. Patriotic Phil and stump hat.

two women with groundhog hats holding homemade signs for Groundhog Day

Fans from Ft. Lauderdale and Chicago.

five young people with homemade signs for Groundhog Day.

Signs o’ the times. Young fans.

two women holding a sign reading "Smitten with Phil from the Michigan mitten" at Groundhog Day

Sister-fans from Michigan in front of the Groundhog Club’s Philmobile.

Women dressed in colorful Hawaiian shirts, skirts, and leis for Groundhog Day party

The Phil-ettes Dancers before their 5 AM hula routine.

… and then there’s daybreak. My goodness, you’ve never experienced the glory of a sunrise until you’ve spent an entire evening in 12-degree blackness. It was as if natural light did not exist. The feeling of the first rays of a new dawn filtering through spindly tree trunks of a snowy, Jefferson County wood are to be born again, to be showered in light, to feel the absolute glory of being alive.

It is at this precise moment–the event is tightly coordinated to apex at daybreak–that The Inner Circle makes its solemn approach. Twelve (fifteen, maybe?) men [yes: they are all (white) men] in black top hats, long coats, pants, and dress shoes take the stage and perform a variation on the same Groundhog Day ritual that goes all the way back to 1887.

Five men dressed in black pants, long coats, and top hats walk through winter woods

Members of The Inner Circle make their approach at daybreak.

That makes the whole thing sound overly serious–it’s not. There’s a little razzle-dazzle, some corny jokes, and a bunch of good-natured playing-to-the-crowd shenanigans. Phil proceeds to tell us all our future–at least the next six weeks’ worth–relayed through an Inner Circle member who “speaks Groundhogese” with the aid of a weathered walking cane allegedly passed-down from generations of previous Inner Circle insiders.

This is important: it is completely unclear where the whole “sees his shadow” bit comes from. Phil was presented not with options toward and away-from the low-angle morning sunlight, but instead with two tiny scrolls, unfurled, read aloud for the audience, and laid out before his discriminating paws. It turns out the groundhog is not some freaked-out wimp, scared of his own shadow, but instead one who appreciates the winter as a good time to catch up on his reading and make a thoughtful decision.

Punxsutawney Phil raised aloft in Groundhog Day ceremony

Phil’s moment in the sun [photo: Greg Lagrosa]

The uninitiated cynic–especially one from a warmer, more sun rich environ–might imagine Groundhog Day as a group of shivering bumpkins, inanely praying for a rodent’s divination to the end of their long, cold suffering. Move to Florida! they smugly think to themselves, resting their sunglasses to tend the hibachi. But that shallow reading misses everything.

No, the holiday is not a prayer for sunshine; rather, it’s a defiance of winter. Participants don’t just go out in the cold for fun–as skiers or Christmas shoppers might–but rise in the middle of the night, staying out through the longest, darkest, and coldest hours of the year in total communion with the groundhog. It’s flaunting woodchuck fashion with signs asking for–nay, demandingmore winter!

The roar of applause that greets the news of six more weeks of the cold stuff is a hardy people’s collective nose-thumbing (note: not middle finger–this event is as wholesome as they get!) at the notion that fun is inextricably bound to sun.

It is not. The clean-cut, hopped-up, groundhog-crazy crowd at Punxsutawney proves exactly that. To Ol’ Man Winter–just like Phil, George W. Bush, and that fleet of Hollywood cheerleaders before us, we say, bring it on.

Two men wearing groundhog hats in front of Gobbler's Knob stage on Groundhog Day

A couple Phil Phanatics, post-announcement

woman with groundhog hat

In line for a photo with Phil

Getting there: Punxsutawney is about an hour and a half drive northeast of Pittsburgh. The gates to Gobbler’s Knob open to the public at 3 AM on Groundhog Day, February 2 of each year. In 2019, this will conveniently fall on a weekend–just sayin’.

[1] The legend goes that there is only one Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog imbued with everlasting life–but this is a subject way to broad to cover in this post.
[2] For the record, this blogger still thinks Groundhog Day is a terrific movie–it’s just not factually accurate to the experience in Punxsutawney.
[3] In fairness, the high attendance at Groundhog Day (the event) over the last 25 years is largely attributed to the lasting popularity of the movie. Crowd sizes in 1993 (and earlier) were likely much smaller than today.
[4] No thanks to our cub reporter staff! Thirteen other people in The Orbit‘s posse and not a one turned in a hat photo. Don’t come looking for recommendation letters, you slackers!

The Over-the-Wall Club: A Winter Meeting

weathered brick and sheet metal factory wall, Etna, PA

factory, Etna

Every inch of the wall tells a story. Consider just the thick steel doors, rusted so far that a firey red is bleeding through the darker brown surface as if the earth’s crust was finally giving way to its molten core. Miscreants have scratched their tags and in-jokes into its surface and an off-the-shelf safety placard warns us about what we already know–DANGER lies on the other side.

Surrounding this lone entry point are a patchwork of industrial building materials: brick of a couple shades, cinderblock, concrete, sheet metal, corrugated fiberglass, PVC pipe, blue light bulbs suspended in a strand, and thick, high-voltage electrical wire.

There is but a single design detail committed for its aesthetics. Within one of the red brick surfaces, the mason has crafted an off-bias diamond that interrupts the stacked pattern in the gentlest of ways. Otherwise, this place is all business.

roofline with several commercial buildings, Charleroi, PA

roofline, Charleroi

If you’re tired of writing, the old wisdom goes, then you’re tired of living.

For The Over-the-Wall Club, there’s a similar mantra: if you’re tired of walls, then you’re really just tired of seeing. Put those eyes away–into a box in the bottom drawer, or send them off to the thrift shop so someone else can use them at a cut-rate price.

When last we met, the Over-the-Wall Club was pondering that old stand-by of the Dumpty clan, what’s on the other side? But let’s not ignore the trees for the forest. What’s right here in front of us may actually be the more interesting subject. Just because it’s blocking the view of those other things we think we’d rather be looking at doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

brick wall painted green and aqua with homemade address sign, Pittsburgh, PA

row house apartments, Oakland

Walls. America loves talking about them, and–gosh darn it–Mexico loves building them…at least, that’s what we’re told. But try to convince the federal government to put up a two-tone, aqua-on-lime green splotchy brick wall along the Rio Grande and see how far it gets you. In fairness, it’s a color scheme that maybe even Enrique Peña Nieto might get behind–but we still doubt he’s going to pull out the nation’s wallet any time soon.

alley wall with ghost signs and many materials, Butler, PA

ghost signs, ghost windows, ghost paint job, Butler

Another entry in the wall-as-modern art category. This geometric bricolage of styles and materials in a Butler alleyway competes with Etna’s factory row (above) in sheer density of visual stimuli. Two different mid-century Firestone Tires ads have ghosted themselves almost out of readability against a field of brick and stone, tin and particle board, paint and ash. If you can’t imagine a century’s worth of narratives playing out against this scenery, you’re not trying very hard.

tiled wall with cross and mountain, Pittsburgh, PA

ex-church, West End

If these walls could talk, they say–but some do! How does a former house of worship manage to preserve its midcentury terra cotta Jetsons cross and mount with but a few cracks and crumbles and still shed the loose bricks around it like tears at a funeral? I know, I know–it’s God’s way, or something like that, but there may be an equally fascinating or boringly prosaic reason. No matter how much church we go–or skip–we’ll probably never know.

facade of building with shadows of telephone pole and wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Industri l Engi & S p ly, Homewood

It’s the stories, man–the stories. The letters probably just fell off all on their own, but someone made a very conscious decision to block in those windows and repaint just one section in a warm, sun-baked yellow-orange that makes the whole mundane façade look like a poor man’s Mark Rothko. The criss-crossing shadows of a strong wooden utility pole and warped telephone lines decorate in the most abstract of ways.

interior of cinderblock warehouse with shadows of roof structure, Pittsburgh, PA

roofless warehouse, Strip District

Maybe there’s a set of parallel shadows that dance across the suddenly-exposed wall surfaces and make the whole scene light up like special effects at a discotheque or fancy lighting in a theatrical production. How many precious moments do we have before this old warehouse either gets a new roof or has the cinderblock walls felled to clear the lot? We can only wonder.

mural on outside retaining wall of fish and sunset, Penn Hills, PA

retaining wall mural, Penn Hills

…But that’s what The Over-the-Wall Club does best, wonderWhat’s on the other side? Sure. But also how did we get right where we are? And how can we stay just like this forever? If only it were that easy.

Until next time, we’ll see you over-, under-, roundabout-, and upside-the-wall.

See also:“The Over-the-Wall Club” (Pittsburgh Orbit, April 12, 2015)

The People’s Poet: Billie Nardozzi

9 photos of Billie Nardozzi in a collage

The People’s Poet. Billie Nardozzi at home in Green Tree.

You see poetry is open
For the whole world to see
And you can make it into anything
You want it to be
– Billie Nardozzi, “What Is Poetry”


Call him Bard of the Back-Pages or maybe the Classified Chaucer. Lamar Advertising came up with Pittsburgh’s Premier Poet and that’s hard to argue with. Around The Orbit water cooler he’s “The People’s Poet”–you can use that one too.

If you don’t know Billie Nardozzi, you haven’t been paying attention…or maybe you just don’t get the paper. For the last twelve years, the image of Nardozzi’s familiar schnoz, deadpan stare, and business-in-front, party-in-the-back haircut has appeared weekly in the “Celebrations” section of the Post-Gazette’s classified ads, along with short original poetry and contact information.

“I got the idea from the sports pages,” Nardozzi tells us, “each column would have a picture of the writer along with the name at the top and I thought, ‘Why don’t I do that?'”

In 2006, Billie Nardozzi did exactly that. He began creating new poems-of-the-week that have run consistently–with the occasional couple months hiatus–ever since. Along the way, Billie has earned a devoted following who commission original works for special occasions and invite him to read at events.

“I try to keep it basic,” Billie says of his writing style, “I go through the same things as my readers…so many times someone will tell me ‘I would swear you were writing that poem about me.'”

This past December, Billie’s invitation for Christmas cards drew a whopping ninety-seven different holiday letters from fans. He’s so fond of these that a batch of favorites have been professionally laminated and were close-at-hand during our interview.

three poems by Billie Nardozzi as they appeared in the appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Celebrations" section of classified ads

Recent Nardozzi: “I Love ‘Shop ‘n Save'” / “Godzilla Meets The Lesbian” / “‘The 3 Bees’ (Bell, Ben, Brown)” (2015-2016)*

If you’ve ever put pen to paper and tried to convince anyone to read it, you know what a pain in the ass it is. This literary dilettante has dipped his quill into the worlds of short and micro fiction, comedy, theater, poetry, and songwriting. All of these came with their own unique forms of rejection and heartbreak…and ultimately led to the immediacy and answer-to-no-one world of high stakes blogging.

We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine an academic poetry journal or glossy magazine printing one of Billie’s odes to Olive Garden, the Ellen DeGeneress Show, or his local Hyundai dealership; sentimental reflections on holidays, family, and friends probably wouldn’t fare much better.

So it is with tremendous respect–one writer to another–that we appreciate how Nardozzi found a way to self-publish his own original work and distribute it to the 300,000 or so circulation size of the Post-Gazette. Like the Bolsheviks and punk rockers before him, Billie Nardozzi took the means of production and found a way to do it himself, getting his expressions of positivity, fun, and the human experience out into the world…and kept on doing it for going on twelve years now.

Billie Nardozzi in front of a closet full of colorful women's blazers

Blazer light show. Billie Nardozzi in the world’s most organized closet.

Brett Yasko is a graphic designer and Billie Nardozzi fan who has archived the poet’s contributions to the Post-Gazette almost since the beginning*. He has a similar appreciation for the unorthodox approach to publishing:

I started clipping his poems out of the paper in early 2008. I read the poems but I was more interested in how [Nardozzi] was using the newspaper to put his work out into the world. I know some poets and I know how hard it is to get “published” and then once you do, the audience is often limited. He was sort of gaming the system and I dug that. The photo he used was great and I loved his freewheeling ways with quotation marks. I said to myself, “I don’t know what will ever come of this–if anything–but I’ve got to start saving these things.”

three poems by Billie Nardozzi as they appeared in the appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Celebrations" section of classified ads

“If I Met Jesus” (1/26/2010) / “What Is Poetry” (4/10/2012) / “The Turkey Bandit” (11/23/2015)

The story took an interesting turn this past fall. On a whim, Nardozzi walked into a local Lamar Advertising office and booked a billboard for personal use. If you’ve driven to Bloomfield, the upper Hill District, or Polish Hill recently, you know what I’m talking about. The big sign on Bigelow Blvd.–at the awkward five-way intersection with Herron and Paulowna–is unmissable. It features Nardozzi’s name, home phone number, the premier poet tag line, and one of Billie’s “one-liner” aphorisms (which change month-to-month).

What’s likely to catch your attention first, though, is the photograph of Nardozzi. In it, Billie’s top-heavy rock-and-roll hair has been teased into a curlier feminine incarnation, his nails are painted pink, and he’s wearing a decorative blouse and a pair of big rings. For those of us used to the black-and-white jacket-and-tie Nardozzi from the newspaper or his appearances on The Fetko Zone, this change in style was a bit of a surprise.

billboard with Billie Nardozzi's photo and the text "Put the 'freeze' on hate, and the 'heat' on love," Pittsburgh, PA

“Put the ‘freeze’ on hate, and the ‘heat’ on love,” Bigelow Blvd. billboard, November, 2017

It takes a lot of guts to do anything creative and put it out there in the world–the human race is not always kind to artistic expression. Attaching one’s real name and home telephone number ups the ante considerably. For an old-school Pittsburgher to address a cynical world with messages of love, peace, and good cheer, cross-dressed in ladies clothes, hair, and makeup on a twenty-five foot wide roadside billboard is about as daring a move as we can imagine.

As one might expect, not all the messages left on Billie’s answering machine are kind. He gets plenty of crank calls, along with a recurring lecture from a retired English professor on his use of quotation marks. None of these have ever been a problem, though. Nardozzi tells us the calls are “never threatening,” “I’m laughing along with them,” and “the good outweighs the bad.”

To underscore this last point, while we were talking in the kitchen, a nice-sounding caller named Jennifer left a lovely, heartfelt message of support and appreciation “from one artist to another.” Hearing the message clearly had Nardozzi beaming.

billboard with Billie Nardozzi's picture and the text "I wish you great cheer in the coming new year," Pittsburgh, PA

“I wish you great cheer in the coming new year,” Bigelow Blvd. billboard, January, 2018

Ultimately, Billie Nardozzi would like to publish a book of his work. He already has the pink and black design picked out as well as a to-the-point title, Poems and One-Liners by Billie Nardozzi. When the time comes, I’m pretty sure we can find him a book designer.

“I wouldn’t be mad if I never made any money,” Billie says of his investments in the Post-Gazette and Lamar, “If my words can make someone happy, that’s worth all the money in the world.”

There is absolutely no question that Billie Nardozzi’s words, spirit, and energy have brought joy to many, many people already. You see it in the handwriting on his Christmas cards, hear it the messages left on his answering machine, and feel it in the adoring comments on his FaceBook page.

Keats, Yeats, or any of them guys, Nardozzi ain’t. But then again, Robert Frost never wrote “Godzilla Meets The Lesbian” or “The Turkey Bandit.” Whether it’s more or less traveled, we don’t know, but here at the Orbit we’ll take the Nardozzi Road any time we get the chance.

Bonus video: Billie (neé Billy) Nardozzi performing “Super Bowl Steelers” with T.C. The Peanut Vendor on The Fedko Fone Zone, 2010.

* Reprints of Billie Nardozzi’s poems come from Celebrations, Brett Yasko’s archive of Nardozzi’s poetry as it originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is used with permission of both Nardozzi and Yasko. Yasko also designed and published a printed book of selected Nardozzi poems of the same name. For more information, see:

Photo Grab Bag: Sad Toy Edition

baby doll laying face down on street, Pittsburgh, PA

face down in the gutter, Shadeland

How much pathos in such a tiny scene! There, at the mud- and gravel-encrusted edge of a North Side residential street, among the weeds, cigarette butts, and one tire-flattened Coca-Cola can, lies the smallest infant–literally face down in the gutter.

Lucky for us, this particular baby is of the plastic toy shop variety–no human beings suffered any more than the loss of a plaything, however beloved it may have been. Still, stripped to its sewn-on undergarments, dirtied by rain and road debris, and abandoned at the curb, it looks like this little fellow has done a lot of living in his or her short lifetime.

large stuffed animal made to look like a sock monkey laying in business doorway, Pittsburgh, PA

sock monkey / Slush Puppy, Bloomfield

stuffed teddy bear in front of demolished house, Clairton, PA

the last living bear on Lincoln Way, Clairton

Any dropped picture book or punctured basketball, lost action figure or tree-snared kite may legitimately count as a sad toy, but let’s get serious. Sifting through the driftwood washed up on the great beaches of urban life, what we really want to see comes down to just two things: baby dolls and stuffed animals.

Nothing else comes close to pure sadness invoked by these iconic ambassadors of cute. Loosed from their human companions, fallen Teddy bears and jettisoned sock monkeys all too often assume the body positions and street corner verisimilitude of so many cop show victims and nightly news drug overdose casualties. It’s almost too much to take.

two stuffed animal dogs laying on cement street, Pittsburgh, PA

double dog down, Oakland

stuffed animal dog wedged in between tree limbs, Pittsburgh, PA

dog in tree, Lawrenceville

… almost.

The contrast between the high-drama of actual children losing some of the few precious possessions of their young lives and the undeniably absurd way it plays out in real world makes for a chaotic set of emotions. We know someone’s youth is crying uncontrollably in a rear car seat right now, his or her woobie never to return. And still, stumbling across a yin-yang pair of dirty doggie Beanie Babies on an Oakland street corner is just plain weird…and wonderful…and kind of funny.

I know, I know. Some little tyke lost her or his pink monkey! Whose son or daughter will never see their doe-eyed fluffy puppy again? You’re laughing about it?!? It’s quandary of epic proportions, but that old Borscht Belt equation has yet to be unproven: tragedy + time = comedy.

stuffed animal bear laying on brick street, Millvale, PA

cuddle bear clip job, Millvale

stuffed animal dog laying in grass, Pittsburgh, PA

dog in grass

torso from a plastic doll on a window ledge, Pittsburgh, PA

doll torso, Lawrenceville

pink stuffed animal monkey on street pavement, Pittsburgh, PA

pink monkey, Oakland

A note on the final couple photographs included here:

It’s true. Mere paragraphs above, this blogger made the bold statement that all sad toy hunters really care about are lost dolls and dirty fur. We stand by that. However, we’ve included a couple of outliers just because they’re filled with their own unique forms of misery–and we believe that should be rewarded and documented.

paddle ball laying in grass with fall leaves, Millvale, PA

paddle ball, Millvale

The dime-store paddle ball set is surely the saddest of all solitary play activities. It’s what uncles give as presents to the nieces and nephews they have no real relationship with–and they only have to spend a couple bucks to do it.

The very image of the cheap, decorated paddle, its little red rubber ball, and thin elastic that connects them (above) immediately sent this only child/latch key kid swirling back into a pre-adolescence of lonely games, played by himself, ultimately satisfying to no one. I couldn’t ever get the damn ball to bounce back more than once or twice before the elastic would inevitably break free from the flimsy staple that held it to the wooden paddle.

This particular find, in Millvale’s tiny downtown parklet, doesn’t feel like it was accidentally lost by its owner, but rather the kid likely just dumped it out of boredom and/or frustration. Aside from the act of littering, I don’t blame him or her one bit.

Pittsburgh Penguins hockey toy on street

Penguins hockey…thing, Oakland

Finally, the weird little scrunchy Pittsburgh Penguins hockey…thing (above) only counts as a “toy” in the most liberal of applications. We don’t know what this thing is or why anyone would want it in the first place, so leaving it in the gutter doesn’t actually seem like that bad a choice of actions.

Who knows, though? It may still have been the next future Sidney Crosby’s favorite squishy friend–prompting the youth into a dedicated ritual of dump-and-chase finish-your-checks discipline. Instead, like all of its sad colleagues above, the loss may have caused irreparable damage. Whether it was enough for this young’un to give up all future thoughts of greatness on the ice we’ll never know. Sigh.

See also: