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: brettyasko.com/self-initiated/celebrations.

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:

Tin Can Pole Art

tin can lid painted with heart and text "I love you Pittsburgh. Goodbye." nailed to telephone pole. Pittsburgh, PA

“I love you Pittsburgh. Goodbye.” Lawrenceville

Such a lovely farewell kiss. The severed lid from a steel can–it looks like it was from one of the big 28-ouncers like you get tomatoes in–tacked into the rough wood of a Lawrenceville telephone pole. Painted onto the flat surface is a decorative white heart with the simple, touching message I love you Pittsburgh, Goodbye.

Less romantic, hypochondriac Orbit readers may get hung up on the totem as a sharp-edged breeding ground for tetanus–but don’t fall for it. The anonymous artist has left this Easter egg high enough off the street and applied it securely to the pole in a way that no one will be injured, unless they’re really trying. On the contrary, this little rusting love letter may just save a life.

abstract painting on unrolled steel can with message "We gave this place our best shot and no matter what happens now ... it was worth it & we made this work.", Pittsburgh, PA

“We gave this place our best shot and no matter what happens now … it was worth it & we made this work.” Shadyside

rusted tin can with painting of a skull, nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

skull can, Oakland

Someone’s out there, taking those most lethal occupants of the recycling bin and having a fine time dismantling the component parts, flattening them into two-dimensional work surfaces, and turning the little pieces into cryptic pictograms and coded messages, hidden-in-plain-sight curios and tiny objects d’art.

You may have walked by some of these a hundred times and never noticed. At just a couple inches wide, the little artworks are especially well-camouflaged against the deep brown tarred wood of the telephone poles they’re displayed upon, quite often out of eye level at the peak of arms’ reach.

tin can flattened and painted, nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

A Friday night “to-do” list: love, anarchy, the devil, and a martini, Bloomfield

Cut tin can painted with text and nailed to telephone pole. Text reads "Back then, if it exploded, we laughed", Pittsburgh, PA

“Back then, if it exploded, we laughed”, Shadyside

Whether we’re talking about one lone assailant or a whole gang of tin candidates is anyone’s guess. Besides a few name-like tags [J.A.K.; KYT; Nick (damn); Leroy…are these real people?] there is no attribution here to work from.

That said, many of these specimens have common elements. First, let’s just start with the genre. It’s a niche market, for sure–ex-food container nailed to telephone pole. Second, there’s proximity–all the ones we’ve encountered are in the same one or two square miles between East End neighborhoods Shadyside, Bloomfield, Garfield, and Lawrenceville.

Most importantly, though, the apparent paint pens, handwriting, style of dotted lines, arrows, and indecipherable messages is even more precise. Several of the tiny artworks contain the same iconography of a glowing martini glass, heart, anarchy circle-A, and devil figure.

small painting on steel can of devil with the text "I choose...", Pittsburgh, PA

“I choose…”, Shadyside

small painting on steel can with text "to follow my heart...up the mountain, or...", Pittsburgh, PA

“to follow my heart…up the mountain, or…”, Shadyside

There are some definite outliers in the field. Another large can lid spotted in Shadyside is painted with a night scene featuring a blue river valley between green fields and trees (below). The original pastoral feel has now been accidentally transformed into a scarier, menacing landscape as seasons of rust creep through to the surface. It’s also worth noting that this lid was attached with a pair of Phillips-head screws rather than the full-perimeter flat tacks we found on the other pieces.

painting on steel can lid of night landscape, Pittsburgh, PA

night scene with river, trees, and green grass, Shadyside

tin can lid painted with text "Me vs. Time, KYT, '02" nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“Me vs. Time”, Garfield

Lastly, there’s even a sub-genre to this already arch form. In a couple places, we came across the big steel can lids with their flared attachment edges and gaping mouth holes that make them look like absurd anthropomorphized flowers. We imagine these come from five- or ten-gallon bulk-size containers of asphalt sealant or roofing tar–but haven’t actually ID’d them yet.

It’s a considerably larger canvas to work from. The wider-than-the-pole size likewise shouts out at the passer-by, where a soup can is more of a whisper. I’m not sure these two examples (below) tell us much about the form, other than we like the possibilities and we’d love to see more of them in action, out in the wild.

round metal lid painted with long string of text nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“You spin me right round…”, Duck Hollow

cardboard "Clarence the Bird ... Make the World Beautiful" artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

big lid painting [plus Clarence], Friendship

Out on the Tiles: Bill Miller, Lord of Linoleum

linoleum collage artwork depicting a steel mill with city in the distance by Bill Miller

“Steal Mill”*

The image is burned into the DNA of America. Even if you were too young to experience it as it happened, you’ll recognize the figure kneeling on a wide campus footpath. The young woman’s arms are extended to either side and her mouth is agape in what may either be a cry for help, scream of rage, or wail of mourning–perhaps all three. Around her, dazed college students seem to have lost all mooring on reality. Laying face-down on the hard concrete is one of the four slain victims of the 1970 Kent State massacre.

linoleum assemblage artwork representing Kent State massacre, 1970 by artist Bill Miller

“Eager Children Cry”, 2010*

This version, however, is different. The black-and-white photo you’re familiar with now appears in a vibrant array of colors–green fields and bright scarlet classroom buildings, blue jeans and red blood. Also, the layers don’t stand still. Rich, swirling grass seems to be in turbulent sea motion under each of the participants; clothing is alive with texture; every detail–hair, shadows, sidewalk–has an optical illusion-like quality that manages to be both flat and with an inverted depth that places any figure on just about any plane, if you look at it the right way.

artwork of woman's face made from cut linoleum by artist Bill Miller

PABCO woman

When we bought the house, the two rooms of Chez Orbit‘s top floor were covered in a pair of space-age “boomerang modern” mid-century designs completely out-of-place in a 19th century brick row house. The linoleum–a pattern with colorful geometric curved squares intersecting and overlapping all manner of sci-fi cubes, circles, and squiggles–had been installed way back in 1955. Yellowed back pages of The Pittsburgh Press from that year formed a thin barrier between the pine floor boards and the unrolled, wall-to-wall tile and served to precisely date the installation. The linoleum had some scuffs and tears for sure, but the material held up.

When we finally decided to work on the third-floor space, this can’t-throw-anything-away blogger dutifully held onto both the Jetsons-style floor covering and the innocuous news of the day for way longer than he had any reason to. Why? Well, the linoleum just seemed really cool and somebody should do something interesting with it.

artist Bill Miller holding his linoleum portrait of George Harrison in his Pittsburgh art studio

Bill Miller (with linoleum portrait of George Harrison) in his North Point Breeze studio

That somebody, we found out way too late, is Bill Miller and for the last twenty-some years he’s been slicing and peeling, tearing and rearranging the nation’s discarded high-performance floor covering into a terrific body of artwork.

Both pastoral and industrial, historic and fantastic, Miller’s (re-)use of the material manages to look both backward and forward, to be sentimental and transcendental, to be both calming and unnerving. It’s sprung from the artist’s imagination and–like the take on Kent State–totally reverent to a real, shared history of America in the 20th Century.

collection of small artworks on Bill Miller's studio wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Studio wall with Donald Trump portrait

“I count on the material to be exciting,” Miller says, “for the linoleum to feed the work.”

The linoleum is exciting. Surrounded by heaped cardboard box-loads, piles stacked from the floor, and work tables full of sliced bits and bobs, Bill Miller’s North Point Breeze studio has a hundred attics’ worth of somebody-else’s memories just waiting to move from the floor and up onto the wall.

There are geometric mid-century designs like the ones we used to have upstairs, along with wood grains, ersatz Oriental carpets, floral arrangements, psychedelic swirls, and designs for children’s playrooms. The particulate from a century’s worth of disintegrating linoleum peppers the air as a dozen different simultaneously-in-process artworks lay on work tables waiting for their next addition on the road to doneness.

in-process linoleum collage artwork by Bill Miller

untitled / in-process studio piece

Don’t worry, though–it’s all natural, non-toxic stuff. Linoleum is made from linseed oil applied to a burlap or canvas backing. The flooring had its run from the late 1800s through the mid-20th century when cheaper, more durable vinyl took over the market. Miller doesn’t mess around with PVC. “Only the old stuff–pre-World War 2,” he says.

Given the age, you’d think there would be a dwindling supply of (re-)usable material out there, but that hasn’t been the case. Just like our top floor, Pittsburgh–and the rest of America–is chock full of old houses with stores of linoleum still in use and gradually getting removed as young whippersnappers move into those old houses and fix them up. “Getting the material out of people’s homes is really powerful,” Miller says, “people have a real connection to the linoleum.”

linoleum artwork depicting the sinking of the Titanic by Bill Miller

“Titanic”, 2014

As one might expect, there are certain colors, shapes, and patterns that either don’t exist or just don’t show up that often in the recycled linoleum supply. True black is particularly rare, Miller says, and he almost never comes across purple.

Other patterns speak to Miller immediately. “The material is part of the composition,” he says. A speckled red and blue on an off-white background was so obviously birch tree bark that it had only one purpose. Looking at it now, laid out on on a work table and (nearly) fully-composed, it’s hard to imagine what the raw piece looked like before it got trimmed down to tree trunks–it’s just so perfect in its final composition.

artwork of forest scene featuring birch trees made from cut linoleum by artist Bill Miller

untitled/in-process (birch trees)

… and then there’s the rock-and-roll. This interview got majorly side-tracked when both parties started geeking out on record shopping, music fandom, Bob Dylan’s radio show, The dBs, and Sonic Youth.

This is only really relevant because Miller is very obviously a huge music fan who fulfilled a personal dream in hooking-up with the Frank Zappa estate to produce album cover artwork for two of the musician’s posthumous releases. The live compilation LP Finer Moments (Zappa, 2012) and spoken-word/congressional testimony CD Congress Shall Make No Law… (Zappa, 2010) both feature Miller’s renderings of Frank Zappa created specifically for each of the records: one, early ’70s Zappa, long-haired and smoking; the other, mid-’80s suit-and-tied, talking with the press.

Miller has converted linoleum into numerous tributes to music icons including The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, David Bowie, Maybelle Carter, Hank Williams, and Brian Eno. Among the collectors of his work are musicians Neko Case, Dave Matthews, and The Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit.

Album cover for Frank Zappa "Finer Moments" LP, artwork by Bill Miller

Frank Zappa, “Finer Moments” LP, album cover artwork by Bill Miller*

Frank Zappa, "Congress Shall Make No Law..." CD with album cover artwork by Bill Miller

Frank Zappa, “Congress Shall Make No Law…” CD, album cover artwork by Bill Miller*

Oh, there’s a lot more that could be said. There are Miller’s depictions of American history in the form of Abraham Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, landing on the moon, and the Kennedy assassination, along with more conceptual/impressionist pieces around urban/industrial life and personal reminiscences of his childhood and family life growing up in Cleveland…but that’s something for another story.

It would be great to end this piece with an invitation to view Miller’s work at an upcoming show, but…he’s got nothing scheduled for Pittsburgh in 2018 (sigh). For now, we’ll just say that Bill Miller’s inclusions in the 2016 Re:NEW Festival/DRAP Art show were a major revelation. We’re so glad we were able to track him down and that he took the time to welcome us up to his studio and into the linosphere.

To see more of Bill Miller’s linoleum artwork, check out his web site billmillerart.com, or follow him on Instagram at @billmillerart.


* Photos courtesy of Bill Miller / billmillerart.com. All other photos by Pittsburgh Orbit.

The Orbit 2017 Year in Review

Handmade wooden sign with arrow reading "Neighbor is a Thief" with choir member lawn ornaments missing heads, Ross Township, PA

“Neighbor is a Thief” sign, the headless choir, and a whole lot more in Bill Ansell’s Ross Township Christmas display

Stodgy Orbit editors still prefer the old-school train wreck. It’s clear, though, that with the change in political administration America has officially moved-on from this tired railroad-age metaphor to the more immediate (if ultimately less tragic) dumpster fire. Maybe this was this was year our fears moved from the cataclysmically abstract and right into the alley behind the house.

Yeah, 2017 was a mess. The “hyper-local” Orbit focus didn’t really cross paths with either presidential politics* or #metoo, but it’s interesting that our most-read stories of 2017 trade in their own form of controversy, despair, and isolation. Of course, these themes are always current.

Anyway, as is our year-end tradition, below are lists of the most-read Orbit stories of 2017 along with some “editor’s favorites” from the bottom of the list.

 

The Hits

1. Ansell Regrettal: A Ross Township Donnybrook (March 6, 2016)

Santa Claus lawn ornament with protest signs against Ross Township leadership

Merry Christmas from Ross Township

That’s right. The Orbit‘s #1 story for 2017 was published in 2016–early 2016, at that. Maybe it’s because we’ve had not one, but two Christmas seasons since this one first ran, or maybe it’s just that people can’t get enough of the heartbreaking and terrifying tale of Ross Township’s Bill Ansell–a man who just wanted to spread his love of Christmas until his neighbors and the township shut him down. Then his thoughts turned from giving to killing.

2. Into the Forgotten: Clairton’s Ghost Neighborhood (Feb. 22, 2017)

abandoned house with spray-painted graffiti "Into the forgotten", Clairton, PA

A house on Lincoln Way, Clairton

Lincoln Way was a quiet dead-end street of pre-war single-family homes until the groundwork for an expansion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway sacrificed the little hollow neighborhood to connect the highway to Rt. 837. What’s left is a sad, vacant, and fascinating stretch of former homes now in various purgatory states between dilapidation and demolition.

3. A Graveyard for Gravestones (May 9, 2017)

dismantled mausoleum in unruly pile, Pittsburgh, PA

The graveyard for grave stones

Where do grave stones go to die? One tends to think that the carved granite and marble markers for cemetery plots will be there forever–but that’s not always the case. Headstones are removed and replaced for all sorts of reasons and they end up here, in the cemetery’s work yard for ultimate processing and disposal.

We got into a lot of trouble over this one with neighbors coming up with some wild theories about what’s going on in there. Ultimately, though, it became a great teachable moment for some of the behind-the-scenes, nuts-and-bolts business of cemeteries.

4. The Front (and Back) Yard Marys of Bloomfield, Part 2 (May 19, 2017)

statuette of Mary in grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary, Ella Street, Bloomfield

A post-long mea culpa on the false assumption that we’d located every (street-visible) Front Yard Mary in Bloomfield with our first go-around. This one includes another sizable handful of Her Blessedness peering back at us through chainlink fence and alley walls. What can we say? The Orbit loves Mary!

5. Water’s Gone Cold: An Elegy for Tea Bag’s (Feb. 12, 2017)

brick wall painted with logo for Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

(Former) side wall of Tea Bags with logo/mural, Lawrenceville

Tea Bags grinning, sunglasses-wearing logo, painted on the visible side of its brick building in Lawrenceville/Bloomfield has been a constant neighborhood presence for the last several decades. That all ended at the beginning of the year when the dive bar went the way of Michalski’s and A.J.’s, Salak’s and Ed’s.

By all reports, Tina’s (which just opened in the same space after a lengthy renovation) looks like a pretty nice place with an old-school record-playing jukebox and windows that  actually let customers see daylight from inside the bar. We hope to get there soon. They’ve also amazingly left the old Tea Bags logo/mural on the outside–repainting everything else–so hats off to Tina’s!

6. “Wild Animal” on the Loose in Bloomfield! (Feb. 28, 2017)

"Wild Animal" art piece made from construction cones and panoramic photographs

Anonymous “Wild Animal” artwork, Edmund Street, Bloomfield

A brilliant, surprise piece of elaborate street art arrived on little Edmund Street in the middle of winter. Despite being right up against the Bloomfield PNC Bank branch, no one disturbed the tableau of a road cone-formed wild cat emerging from a photographed forest for nearly a week. We still don’t know who created Wild Animal (no attribution was left), but we’d love to find out.

 

The Sleepers

If there can be six hits this year, there can be six sleepers too…right? Sure. Like past years-in-review, here are some stories from the last twelve months that didn’t get the level of attention  like the ones above. Our editors thought these stories deserved a second shot at getting a first look.

Mondo Menorah! Menorahmobile Models Measured (Jan. 10)

mini van with rooftop menorah and "Happy Chanukah" banner, Pittsburgh, PA

Our attempt to cover the bicycle menorah parade this year fell victim to an untimely arctic blast and a (likely-related) participation dropout from the riders. We’ll get them next year (hopefully)!

In lieu, we can throw in this plug for The Orbit‘s coverage of Chabad’s 2016 Grand Menorah Parade in which our writers got acquainted with the array of options available for those who wish to sport a car top, light-up menorah for the family minivan. They come both commercially-available and also in a uniquely-Pittsburgh painted PVC pipe design.

Hold the Cheese: A Pi Day Salute to Ghost Pizza (March 14)

neon sign reading "IZZA" (the letter "P" is burnt out), Natrona Heights, PA

unknown pizzeria, Natrona Heights

It was a novel way to recognize “Pi Day.” Everyone loves pizza and Pittsburghers really love pizza. But even with that favorable business climate, not every pizza shop manages to survive. The unique landscape of many former pizzerias plus general vacancy leads to an ideal climate for what we call ghost pizza–the leftover signage, iconography, and architecture of independent pizza shops that are now shuttered.

Pain’t That America: The Front Yard Patriotism of Gary Thumberg (July 16)

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

One of Gary Thumberg’s many homemade American flags

Gary Thumberg is holiday crazy. Four times a year, he pulls out elaborate sets of homemade lawn decorations that cover the front, side, and rear yards of the Beaver Township home he lives in with his mother. We happened to run into him right around Independence Day, so we were treated to red, white, and blue American flags, eagles, crests, and bombs bursting in air. We sadly missed the Halloween display and we’ll have to hustle to catch Christmas. Learn from our mistakes and catch up with the Fourth of July.

The Orbit’s Summer Vacation Part 1: Considering Portland and Part 2: Coming Home (Sept. 24/Oct. 1)

two men wearing black-and-gold kilts and Steelers jerseys at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

Steelers fans at a pre-game, Heinz Field

Eight days vacation in lauded, lampooned, and local/organic Portland, Oregon was the prompt for a pair of posts on a bunch of nuts-and-bolts city things they’re doing right out there and a follow-up coming-home love letter to what we love about Pittsburgh.

An Urban Hike: William Street, Mount Washington (Oct. 22)

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

View downtown and the Smithfield Street Bridge from William Street, Mount Washington

We didn’t cover as many nature stories/tales of the city steps this year, but this was a good one. Little William Street snakes down the side of Mount Washington in a way that both rewards the hiker with several terrific views of downtown and a heady dose of that uniquely Pittsburgh sensation of being way out in the woods when you’re still right in the middle of the city.

James P. Leaf Mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery (Nov. 5)

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Colonel James P. Leaf mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery

There’s an old saw that if you haven’t had a “Geraldo moment,” then you’re not blogging. The Leaf Mausoleum was ours. There’s just got to be a great story behind the nutty collection of  rocks assembled to entomb Beaver County civil engineer James P.  Leaf, but after a year of searching, we couldn’t figure anything out.

Regardless, it was still a fascinating construction to go dig around for, observe in a couple different seasons, and ponder on the hows and whys–plus, you’re right across the street from Gary Thumberg’s house! Let us know if you figure something out.


* A notable exception would be our post-inauguration piece “On Making America Great … Again” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Feb. 19, 2017).