Send In The Crones

street art sticker in shape of heart with word "Crone"
Love is for us old people, too. A “Crone” heart, Lawrenceville

Aging, your author’s bluntly-honest, not-entirely-tactful, and dearly-missed father-in-law used to say, ain’t for sissies. As someone with more yesterdays than tomorrows, I can attest to this firsthand. The body starts breaking down in all sorts of unexpected ways; the mind wanders off to Lulu land more frequently than we’d like to admit; young whippersnappers run rings around us in all ways that whippersnappers may run.

large hand-created sticker with words "Aging is Sexy"
Read the news: aging is sexy. Lawrenceville

… but I’m a dude—and that means it’s just easier for me. Older men are granted a kind of societal clout simply by virtue of their gender that women don’t enjoy. Graying men are often described as wise, established, and “silver fox” handsome. (Still crossing my fingers for that last one.) Women of the same age share no such common, stereotypical positives.

Far from it. American society is youth-obsessed, for sure, but it’s mainly obsessed with young women. Ms. Orbit—she of my same vintage—often describes the experience as one of “becoming invisible” and feeling “no longer relevant” to the outside world.

large hand-created sticker with word "Crone"
Crone crystal, Oakland

Just about one year ago, we spotted a small hand-written sticker attached to a residential parking sign post in Lawrenceville. The text was a simple double-entendre: Menopause is HOT. That got a snort-laugh out of yours truly and I bagged it for the road.

That little teaser was quickly followed by an array of more elaborate, hand-colored stickers spread on lamp posts and electrical boxes. They all contained simple messages proudly addressing the very uncommon subject—either in wider culture or here at the street level—of middle-aged women as real, present beings: Aging is Sexy; Crone; Menopause.

sticker on post reading "Menopause is hot"
Menopause is HOT, Lawrenceville

We don’t know who created these subtle, gently-subversive little works. None of the pieces we’ve found have any attribution and the Orbit hive mind was unable (or unwilling) to name names. We’re also left to interpret the artists’ message.

We do know the statements are attention-grabbing and hilariously out-of-context—seeing the word menopause bedazzled and glorified in the leftover spaces where taggers dwell is objectively funny.

large hand-created sticker with word "Crone"
Crimson crone crystal, Lawrenceville

Ms. Orbit and I have discussed the matter much in the course of our relationship, crossing into deep middle-age, and specifically with her experiences as a woman and an artist. For these reasons, I wanted to turn the rest of the story over to her:

large hand-created sticker with words "Aging is Sexy"
A(g)ing is Sexy, Bloomfield

Middle-aged women become invisible to a degree. But, rather than lamenting that fact, I’m enjoying the hell out of the invisibility, because it means a certain kind of freedom. It means the freedom of not having to matter to men, not worrying about being pretty, sexy, feminine enough, thin enough, demure enough, not too loud, not too opinionated. Men no longer care what I look like, sound like, say, etc. When I was younger, I often stepped outside the lines by being too loud, too bold, too feisty and was admonished by men and sometimes by other women. Now, those folks no longer care what I have to say or how I look and I feel the freedom to be fully myself, on my own terms.

large heart-shaped hand-created sticker with word "Crone"
Crone, Bloomfield

There are a lot of younger women now who are proudly and publicly themselves in a “give no fucks” way and I love it, admire it fully—Lizzo comes to mind. Of course, I have had my moments of feeling the negative side of aging and have grappled with thoughts that “I’m no longer relevant,” but the flip side is you can choose to matter to yourself and the important folks in your life. It’s beautiful to live without needing external validation. I wholeheartedly praise the artist or artists behind these stickers because it’s a way of shouting “We’re here! We exist! We matter!” and being proud of that. Ageism is real—just like racism and homophobia and sexism—but you counter that ugliness by fully owning and celebrating who you are.

large hand-created sticker with word "Menopause"
Menopause, Bloomfield

When Suzanne Werder and I did the Drawn Together: A Coming of Middle Age Story in 62 Portraits show this past April, the reaction from women over 50 who came to see the show was intensely positive, almost incredulous—they felt seen. “You showed your wrinkles, and bags under your eyes!” Now, we didn’t set out to make a point of our flaws, but in just drawing each other everyday, we can’t escape our truth: that we are getting older and we are not supermodels, and we’re okay with that.

large hand-created sticker with word "Menopause"
Menopause, Deutschtown

That show did a lot to make me more comfortable in my own skin. There’s a lot of push back culturally against the notion that people are supposed to look or act a certain way, that our world is supposed to mirror the narrow scope of idealized bodies in traditional advertising. Now, it’s more common to see images of people of all sizes, colors, ages, abilities, and sexualities represented, and the power of that is huge. It makes us realize that we are all relevant and beautiful and always were.

large hand-created sticker with word "Menopause"
Menopause, Bloomfield

Double Vision: An Orbit Day Trip to the Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum

stereoscope view card of zeppelin in flight
Zeppelin, baby! In stereo!! “The Maiden Flight of the ‘U.S.S. Akron.’ Sept. 23, 1931.” A stereoscopic view card with its characteristic double image and concave bend produced by the Keystone View Company of Meadville, PA

Meadville, Pa., New York, N.Y., Chicago, Ill., London, England. A hundred years ago, these four city names were printed on hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of photographic view cards enjoyed the world over.

With apologies to the fine people of Crawford County, one of these cities is not like the rest. That said, Meadville—little Meadville, a town of 13,000 people an hour-and-a-half due north of Pittsburgh—was actually the ring leader in this particular group in one important context.

Home to the Keystone View Company from the 1890s to the 1960s, Meadville found itself as one of, if not the, largest manufacturers of stereoscopes and stereoscopic “views” during the medium’s heyday in the first half of the twentieth century. New York, Chicago, and London were but vassals selling and distributing the wares created and produced in Meadville.

hand-tinted stereoscope view card of woman in canoe in river
Canoe dig it? “Far from Gay Cities and the Ways of Men.” A hand-tinted color view card
stereoscope view cards of nature scenes
Egrets, I’ve had a few. “A Close View of American Egrets.” / spider’s web

If you’ve never had the pleasure—or just didn’t know what they were called—a stereoscope is a handheld device with two lenses that a person looks through. Stiff paper cards with specially-printed images are placed into a slider aligned with the viewer’s eye holes.

The two photos—they’re usually photos, but come in other media too—were taken with special cameras equipped with a pair of lenses spaced at roughly the distance between a person’s eyeballs. With each of the viewer’s eyes focused on a slightly different perspective of the same scene an illusion of three-dimensionality is created.

doll figure in easy chair holding a stereoscope
A tiny man with a tiny stereoscope in a tiny comfy chair

The history of both this unique, pre-television entertainment/educational/optical technology and, more specifically the Keystone View Company, is documented at the Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum in Meadville.

The museum houses thousands of view cards produced by Keystone in their seven-decade run. Travel photos, news and current events, teaching aids, children’s stories, optical illusions, and visual gags are all collected in banks of cards available for the visitor’s perusal. One could spend an entire visit riding the old-school 3-D wave from Lake Conneaut to distant Asia and everywhere in between.

humorous stereoscope view card of mother rabbit with babies holding tiny plates
Humor was simpler back then. “The Bunnies’ Breakfast Hour.”
stereoscope view card of cartoon characters climbing a telephone pole
… and so was physical fitness. “The Human Body is Strengthened by Proper Exercise—The Eyes are no Exception.”

Hard to capture in photos is the care the Johnson/Shaw has taken to showing the way Keystone created its products. Factory workers ground the lenses, hand-carved the wooden stereoscopes, assembled the parts, glued pictures to cards, and hand-tinted black-and-white photos into gloriously over-saturated color scenes that one imagines were the pride of any stereophile’s collection.

The museum includes examples of the desks and workstations, tinting tables and shipping molds for the full process, each step attended-to by a period-dressed mannequin.

hand-tinted stereoscope view card of oranges in tree
“Orange Blossoms and Fruit, Los Angeles, California.” A hand-tinted color view card
stereoscope view cards of humorous cartoon scenes
collection of humorous color view cards
mannequin with framed photographs
Mannequin fever, Meadville-style! One of several displays showing how view cards were created.

It will come as a surprise to no one—especially those who’ve never heard of stereoscopes—that the medium didn’t last. In a pre-Internet, pre-television era, stereo views were a solid way to armchair travel to places and events far from home. They could be borrowed, traded, and housed at libraries and museums for use by larger audiences, even if viewing a particular scene was a decidedly personal experience.

But—you know where this is going—by the time America got past the depression and World War II there were just a lot more options out there: a television right in the living room, movies in vibrant technicolor, glossy magazines full of frivolity, and bebop jazz and rock-and-roll’s daring thrill. Putting a view card in the slot of a stereoscope so you could see a still image have a little extra dimension must have felt hopelessly quaint by the mid-1950s.

woman with red/blue 3-D glasses
The world looks better through rose—and blue—colored glasses. A satisfied 3-D museum-goer at Johnson/Shaw

The concept didn’t die there, though, and all of us who grew up with View-Masters and their rotating slides and stories are living proof. [Side note: apparently these are still available brand new, but it’s hard to imagine today’s youths getting that excited about them.] Old school blue/red 3-D glasses used a different optical technology but were a similar attempt to bring the third dimension to photography and film. These updates to the world of stereoscopic entertainment are also covered by Johnson/Shaw’s collection.

stereoscope view card of snare drum and drummer's hands and sticks
unlabeled view (snare drummer optical illusion)
stereoscope view card of childrens story
“The Three Bears”

That’s a lot, huh? … but there’s more!

The Johnson/Shaw also contains a unique array of glass milk bottles, each with seemingly a different size, shape, and/or graphic treatment. If you’re into the history of Western Pennsylvania dairies, The James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection is the place to be. This museum-within-a-museum has giant display cases full of silk-screened glassware memorializing extinct dairies from Erie to Uniontown. Each bears the beautiful simplicity of mid-century typography on crystalline, reusable glass and is well worth your time … if you can stop digging through the stereoscope views.

detail of milk bottle graphic
Art Deco meets oil extraction on Titusville Dairy’s milk bottle
old milk bottles from different Pennsylvania dairies in display case
A small portion of the James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection

Getting there: The Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum and James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection is located at 423 Chestnut St. in Meadville. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from Pittsburgh and is real near Conneaut and Pymatuning lakes, if you’re up that way. The museum’s only scheduled open hours are on Saturdays (10am – 4pm) but is also open by appointment on other dates (call 814-720-4306 to schedule).

exterior of brick The Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum in Meadville, PA
The Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum and James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection, Meadville

The Blight Stuff: Nathan Van Patter’s “Bound by Blight”

Artist Nathan Van Patter with a sculpture of moving truck holding an entire deconstructed house
Artist Nathan Van Patter with his sculpture Moving Day 15104

We know it when we see it. And if you live in Pittsburgh, you see it all the time.

Sure, a drive through the East End can feel like there’s a new Legoland condo going up on every block and us old-timers will prattle on about the travesty of cranky old dive bars and red sauce Italian joints turning over into foo foo artisanal dining experiences with curated wine programs—but it’s really not that way everywhere. Huge swaths of Pittsburgh aren’t seeing any new investment; real estate values have barely budged; vacant lots and condemned properties way outnumber lived-in homes.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of dilapidated house
North Braddock House 6

That reality gets a whole lot more obvious as soon as you head up or down any of the rivers. To most outsiders, (ex-)industry towns like Monessen and Clairton, New Kensington and Ambridge are the very picture of Rust Belt devastation. These are places where the mill shut down 40 years ago and took most of the people who lived there with it. Nature reclaims whatever is left untended and ultimately the wrecking ball will finish the job.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of dilapidated house
North Braddock House 2

“I don’t know if there’s a perfect word to describe it,” says artist Nathan Van Patter, whose current show Bound by Blight is an honest, loving, powerful meditation on life in another post-industrial borough, North Braddock.

“I chose the word bound because it has two meanings,” Van Patter says, “It means to be stuck—which is how a lot people in places like North Braddock find themselves. But it also has this other meaning of being bound together—people working to solve these kinds of problems as a community.”

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter featuring clock, sunshine over house, housing tower, police car, and ambulance
The Nights Are Too Big

Those dual themes—the weight of life in a crumbling physical landscape and the joy of that same life in a community where neighbors, bound together, truly look out for each other—inhabit every artwork in Van Patter’s terrific collection, even the ones in outer space.

Seeing the show, we experience enough of the hard stuff to get it. But Van Patter, who moved to North Braddock with his wife and kids four years ago, isn’t interested in “ruin porn.” The show is also full of the many many good things he’s experienced as a resident—a wall of portraits for various neighbors and community members, the metal shop and barber, sunflowers and urban farms, the big North Braddock sky.

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of blue sky with clouds painted on cracked wooden boards
North Braddock Sky #2 (Cracked Sky)
portrait painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of woman with houses running around his head
Lisa
portrait painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of man with houses running around his head
Sean

Van Patter works in a medium we might call pictorial painted sculpture. You could also turn that around and say they’re paintings on wood constructions with sculptural elements. Van Patter just calls them paintings.

The pieces are literally rough—built on irregularly sized wooden boards with chips of rough cedar glued into place to approximate wood siding and stone, crumpled metal and bushy trees. The Orbit‘s photographs included here—or any photographs of Van Patter’s work—won’t do the 3-D elements justice, so we encourage the reader to see them IRL. (More about that below.)

The awkward chunkiness of the medium gives every artwork depth and texture, sure, but more importantly the fantastic quality that while we’re looking at real life subject matter—abandoned houses, police cars, utility poles—the scenes are distorted, dream-like, impressionistic.

sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of police car with fences and street signs growing out of it
Community/Police

That fantasy/reality divide runs through the full breadth of the show. Trees, fencing, and street signs jut out from a distorted North Braddock police car in Community/Police (above). Black-winged angels fly in the night sky above a fast food restaurant in the appropriately-named Angels Over Taco Bell (below).

Van Patter imagines an entire deconstructed home, including utility poles and power lines, packed-up and driven away in Moving Day 15104 (top). With The Nights are Too Big (above) an elaborate clock is made atop a grand day/night scene that contrasts the bucolic sunshine and flowers of the former with the symphony of sirens that score the dark night.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of angels flying over Taco Bell restaurant
Angels Over Taco Bell (with self-portrait at bottom)

Blight is a heavy word. It’s a shorthand for the kind of urban decay that exists pretty much everywhere, but especially in depopulated, neglected areas where all those socioeconomic factors have very real world, visible effects. It’s also an outsider’s term—no one wants to describe where they live as blight.

“Blight, to me, is the combination of physical decay and intentional disinvestment in communities,” Van Patter says, “People know there’s a problem, whether they’d use that term or not … and it’s a word that gets used in community development a lot.”

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of small metal shop
Studebaker Metals
sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of medieval knight on horseback in grocery store
Grocery Knight

Nathan Van Patter is a humble guy who thankfully doesn’t talk about his work with any level of art school mumbo-jumbo. He didn’t have to go looking for overgrown houses; they’re all real buildings right there in his neighborhood. The portraits are people he sees at borough meetings and his children’s day care. “Every time something bad has happened [in the neighborhood], something really good happens too,” Van Patter says, “I wanted to paint the portraits of people who’ve helped me and my family and are doing positive things for the community.”

Why insert medieval knights in armor on horseback into into several of the pieces? “I just thought it was cool.”

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of medieval knight on horseback
Deer Dragon (detail)

I think it’s cool, too—the whole thing. Nathan Van Patter, working a full-time job and raising a family, has invented his own very personal approach to creating a unique artistic vision. The artwork is both about the world immediately around him and stretches way beyond the Mon Valley—to knights in armor and sailing ships, angels in the night sky and the “Rust Belt futurism” of science-fiction space stations made from buildings right there in Braddock.

Whether those leaky old windows can hold oxygen is debatable, but that I’d like to visit this vision of the future is not. Beam me up, have one of those jousting knights bring the Aldi’s crudité, and let me at that long view coming out of the Ohringer building floating a couple thousand miles off the edge of the Mon River.

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of science fiction-like space station made from old buildings
Rust Belt futurism: Space Station 15104
sculptures and paintings in large gallery space
Hope on the Mon River and other pieces from Nathan Van Patter’s Bound by Blight show

Bound by Blight is up now at UnSmoke Systems in Braddock. There will be a final opportunity to see the full collection at a closing reception this Saturday, August 20, 6:00-8:00 PM.

UnSmoke is located at 1137 Braddock Ave. in Braddock.

More on Nathan Van Patter at his web site nathanvanpatter.com and/or Instagram @nathanvp_art.

The Pizza Chase: Picking Up a Spare at Ricky Dee’s

black-and-white photo of bowling banquet in the 1970s
Every meal is a bowling banquet—with or without the 40s of Colt—when you dine on Ohio Valley pizza. Photo from the men’s room at Ricky Dee’s, Aliquippa.

It is, to be sure, an unusual recommendation for a restaurant: you have to see the men’s room.

The bathroom is immaculately clean and well-stocked with soap and paper products—these are not givens for the men’s room in a bowling alley—but the real draw here is how the space is decorated. There is a wall-to-wall, chair rail-to-ceiling collage of photographs that document the last 65 years of bowling in Aliquippa.

Bowling teams—collections of five or six reliably pudgy white dudes—clutching black bowling balls in matching uniforms; color snapshots of parties, gatherings, and banquets; rough cut-outs of single rollers approaching the lanes with the tucked-in shirts and pressed slacks of another era. Across them all, the names of the alley’s regulars, friends, and family members are recorded in hand-written ballpoint and fading-away felt tip: Larry Turkovich, Art Delisio, Angel Rama, Yogi Brachetti, the Ambroses.

photo collection of bowlers taped to bathroom wall
For dollars … maybe, maybe not—but there other reasons to bowl

Ohio Valley Pizza is its own glorious thing. Par-baked ahead of time in large, rectangular sheet pans and cut in squares to be sold by the slice, the dough is oxymoronically thick but light, crispy—not chewy—and comes adorned with cheese and toppings that may or may not have been through the baking cycle. With the exception of Beto’s—perhaps Ohio Valley pizza’s easternmost outpost—The Orbit has been negligent of reporting this important regional style. That ends today.

man with excited expression looking at large pizza
Paul experiences his first Ricky Dee’s pizza

Ricky Dee’s, the pizzeria/restaurant/bar inside Aliquippa’s Sheffield Lanes bowling alley, has been serving up Ohio Valley pizza for the last four decades. First, from a longstanding shop in Glenwillard and then moving into its present location within the bowling alley sometime later.

exterior of Sheffield Lanes bowling alley
Sheffield Lanes, Aliquippa, home of Ricky Dee’s Pizza

A bowling alley’s restaurant need only make serviceable hamburgers and french fries to accompany the bowling—and beer—that pay the rent. Ricky Dee’s ain’t that.

The pizza is the real thing: dough made fresh daily by people who care, risen high and cooked hot to crispen the edges and keep the inside lifted, dreamy, and airy. Sold by the six-cut block—one quarter tray—you’ll end up with one corner, three edge pieces, and two middle slices per order. The six pack ($8.40 plain, $12-$13 bucks with a couple toppings) was plenty for the two of us.

It is a perfect pizza experience all on its own … but that’s only half of the reason for a trip to Ricky Dee’s.

six square cuts of pizza on pizza pan
A Ricky Dee’s standard quarter-sheet/6-cut order

The restaurant is so much more than merely an exquisite pizza shop. Inside its windowless walls, there exists a kind of historical archive—and love letter—to Aliquippa, its people, and bowling. The reverence paid to the many, many patrons of Sheffield Lanes over the last five or six decades is felt immediately. The big photo collage in the men’s room is incredible, but the tribute neither begins nor ends there.

Cafe tables—made from recycled bowling lanes—are decorated with bowling pins painted as tiny statuettes and include wax-dripped bowling balls as chunky candleholders. Every chair in Ricky Dee’s is upholstered with a bowler’s retired league shirt, covered in thick clear plastic—so sitting on them doesn’t feel as weird as it sounds. The walls include dozens of additional photographs of local bowlers, tournaments, and curios of a unique world just gone by.

diner chair upholstered with former bowling shirt
Bowling shirt upholstery
man in cafe chair next to chair upholstered with his shirt
Long-time Sheffield bowler George with the chair upholstered with his retired league shirt

The alley’s patriarch, Joe D’Agostino—Ricky’s father and the original “Dee”—is memorialized in a fascinating collection of club membership cards that is worth the drive alone. Between the late-1940s and mid-1960s, the man was a member of The Ukrainian National Association, Chiefs of Police, Wolves Club of Aliquippa, American Rubberband Duckpin Bowling Congress, and dozens of other social, fraternal, and sport organizations. The light and glare inside Ricky Dee’s is not always conducive to photography, so you’re going to have to see this amazing collection for yourself, in person.

1962 PSWBA tournament bowlers

And you should—see it in person, that is—as well as eat it in person—the pizza, that is.

Sure, when you’re looking for a dinner pie, you could order from some (literal!) cheesy chain or pay thirty bucks to a foo-foo pizza artisan with a colorful spiel. That’s all fine—I guess—but places like Ricky Dee’s that continue to craft extraordinary pizza with a no-nonsense simple approach are not ones to ignore or take for granted. When a pizzeria comes with this much extra history, eye-popping detail, and love for their city and its people, that’s really something special.

photographs of bowling teams in the 1970s
Taped-up, sure, by bound by a brotherhood of the lanes

Lastly, I’ll add that the pizza was great hot out of the oven on the day we visited Sheffield Lanes, but Ricky Dee’s also offers a take-and-bake option that was equally delicious back home, prepared as directed the following day. So if you take the trip out to Aliquippa, make sure to do like any good cleanup bowler and pick up a spare. Whether you need it or not is debatable; that it is fantastic is not.

exterior of Ricky Dee's restaurant with no windows
Ricky Dee’s: come for the pizza, not the view

Getting there: Ricky Dee’s is located inside the Sheffield Lanes bowling alley, 818 Raccoon Street, Aliquippa. Ricky Dee’s is not open all the time, so check their web site for current hours.

Both Sidings Now: Mixed-Media Houses

house with fake brick siding patched with many different types of shingles
The Sistine Chapel of mixed-media DIY home repair. Etna

With apologies to Joni Mitchell,

I’ve looked at life with both sidings now
Fake stone, fake brick, anyhow
Clapboard slats and fish scale tile
Colored vinyl—go on for miles

Call it what you like—brick collage bricolage or asphalt aspirations, vinyl verité or aluminum assemblage. We’re going the refer to the unique phenomena of homes improved in multiple phases with multiple different exterior building materials as mixed-media houses.

side-view of row house exterior made up of many different building materials
Slanted and enchanted. Mixed-media with ghost house. Lawrenceville

However it worked out, there are a lot of Pittsburgh homes—specifically row housesthat ended up with an upstairs/downstairs division in after-market siding. Sometimes, the twofer becomes a fourfer or fivefer when we go around the corner, under the porch, or up to the mansard roof.

The choice of material sometimes seems like a very conscious design decision—let’s do the first floor in blue stucco, she might say, yeah, and we’ll have white aluminum on the second floor, he joins in—but that doesn’t explain everything.

detail of residential wall showing fake brick siding underneath tiled siding
Bustin’ loose / drink the Kool-Aid. Elliott

Way too many of these examples seem like accidents of time, as if one set of homeowners made an initial decision and a subsequent owner came along and flipped the script twenty years later. Some just feel like people went with bargain lots on leftovers that couldn’t cover the entire house. We’ll likely never know why things ended up the way the did.

The photos—hopefully—speak for themselves and we don’t have enough puns on exterior cladding or Joni Mitchell in-jokes to warrant too much jibber-jabber. Enjoy.

back sides of several joined row houses
Once, twice, nine times a lady. Lawrenceville
row house with collection of different types of siding
The grand buffet! Bloomfield
house with many different styles of siding
An even grander buffet! Allentown
older brick house with modern facade additions in many styles
Ain’t that America: brick, wood, steel, and glass. Mt. Washington
house wall showing multiple siding materials
Rocks Bottoms mixer-upper. McKees Rocks
garage wall showing multiple siding materials
Triple layer cake. Bloomfield
set of three row houses in mid-renovation showing many layers of different siding types
Mid-renovation mixed-media. Bloomfield
three-story house with different styles of siding at each level
Three stories for three storeys. Millvale
pair of row houses with different types of siding on first and second floors
Bloofer-Twofer. Bloomfield
house with multiple patterns of siding
Business in the front … a different type of business around the side. West Homestead
small building with multiple siding materials in Donora, PA
Off off-white and stone below. Donora
pair of row houses where wall siding of one matches porch siding of the other
Your porch, my wall. Neighbors sharing siding. Bloomfield
wood fence constructed with many different pieces of scrap wood
“That used to be a crack house,” the neighbor told me. Mixed-media fencing, Beltzhoover
older apartment house with wood siding on the first floor and fish scale shingling on the second and third
Upstairs/downstairs. Polish Hill
newly-constructed row houses with "ghost house" cutting through the aluminum siding
The ghost in you. Mixed-media ghost house. Duryea, PA
large older row house with multiple types of siding
Mansard multi-layer. Bloomfield
small building with multiple siding materials in Pittsburgh, PA
Old school/new school. Hazelwood
large older building using multiple types of siding
Multi-sided multi-sidings. Bloomfield

Maybe It’s a Sign? Considering Mystery Signs

sign nailed to tree reading "Barber School?"
Pretty sure that’s not a barber school, but now we have to question everything. A mystery sign in Kilbuck Township

So many questions! One chunk of wood nailed to another is attached to the outside of a residential garage. Next to the wood hangs a length of braided twine with a sharp nail at the end. The wood is painted with a cryptic message: Its for my bac but by a man’s hand.

Bac may or may not have been cut off—or misspelled. Is it for the back? What is it—the nail on the string? Does this serve a real purpose—that’s hard to imagine—or is it entirely symbolic? Assuming the latter, the message is lost on me. Maybe it’s a Biblical or cultural reference your heathen author just doesn’t get?

It’s the very definition of a mystery sign—a public notice set out for the world to consume but not entirely clear what the message is or who it’s meant for.

small sign on cinderblock wall reading "It's for my bac... but by a man's hand."
“Its for my bac… but by a man’s hand.” The Run
large roadside sign saying "No quid pro quo"
“No quid pro quo.” Duquesne

With some signs the mystery may not be that great but they’re still worth review and inclusion. We may assume the No quid pro quo sign [photo above]—photographed in Duquesne during some of the former guy’s obvious quid pro quo activity—is the work of one of the ex-president’s supporters expressing an opinion … but it still looks way goofy absent any other context.

Anyone who travels Babcock Blvd. in the summer knows the corn guys by Hastings Hardware, but still, seeing a lone day-glow CORN SOON sign [below] just feels like a cruel taunt. Found glasses [below] suggests someone did exactly that … but not any way to return the lost item to its rightful owner.

Handmade sign on utility pole reading "Corn Soon"
But when will there be corn NOW? “CORN SOON.” North Hills
hand-written sign with drawing of eyeglasses and text "Found glasses"
“Found glasses.” Lawrenceville
sign in front yard with spray-painted message "Who is John Galt?"
I don’t know—you tell me! “Who is John Galt?” Stanton Heights

Others aren’t so obvious. Who is John Galt? [above] has an easily Googleable explanation, but it doesn’t explain why a Stanton Heights homeowner feels the need to decorate their front yard with this message.

A chain link fence in a Bloomfield alley hosts an odd specimen. No violins, the sign declares, along with a fine folksy painting of the instrument, no crying, no crying [below]. We like to think violins are purely metaphor here—that crying is the only real objection—but where’s that coming from? Not a creature was stirring when the picture was snapped, but perhaps it rains with teardrops of a thousand tortured toddlers at other times of day.

hand-painted sign with violin and text "No violins, no crying"
Cellos only. “No violins. No crying. No crying.” Bloomfield
hand-written sign in barber shop window reading "See you Tuesday Guess Why""
You don’t want me guessing why. “See you Tuesday Guess ? Why.” Millvale

Every one of these gems has a story and it’s likely we won’t find out the explanations to any of them—and that’s OK. With the number of messages we humans push out to the world every single day, I’ll take mystery over hate, exploitation, cruelty, or narcissism any time. Wondering ain’t such a bad thing. Plus, like the sign says, … And that’s life right?

Sign on utility pole reading "Street continues around corner."
Perhaps the most Pittsburgh sign ever. “Street continues around corner.” Troy Hill
hand-painted sign on utility pole reading "Slow kid playin"
“Slow kid playin.” Millvale
wooden board with cryptic symbols painted on it nailed to utility poles
Runes, Oakland
wooden sign nailed to utility pole with hand-painted message "CJ's Spot"
“CJ’s Spot.” Hill District
cardboard sign in window of home reading "Someone else removed the stop work order."
Sure they did. “Someone else removed the stop work order.” Spring Garden
hand-written sign in Zip-Loc bad stapled to utility pole
“Psalm 91 over this neighborhood.” North Side
mirror in front yard of home with message "Please do turn around here."
Vampires, you’re on your own. “Please do turn around here.” The Run
hand-written sign in barber shop window reading "Closed until Tuesday for court stuff"
“Closed until Tuesday for court stuff.” Millvale
handwritten sign in hot dog shop window reading "We are completely out of chili ... sorry."
If only every restaurant was as up front about their chili status. “We are completely out of chili … sorry.” Frankie’s, Lawrenceville
empty aluminum serving trays in deli display case with Post-It note reading "Not for consumption. Only for religion purpose."
“Not for consumption. Only for religion purpose.” Scranton
Handmade sign reading "JACK"
You don’t know Jack. “JACK.” Lawrenceville
color printout of cat stapled to utility pole
Cat, just a cat. Spring Garden
pair of doors in brick building, one of which has handmade sign reading "ACES"
“ACES.” Vandergrift
hand-painted sign on utility pole reading "NO OUTLET"
“NO OUT LET.” Millvale
white paper taped to cinderblock wall with no text remaining
A mystery [blank/sunbleached] sign among mystery signs! Lawrenceville
hand-written sign left by highway
“Sun Ra / Alice Coltrane. I miss my friends …” Millvale
handmade wooden sign with section missing attached to utility pole
What was here before the middle went missing? Polish Hill/Strip District
plastic butterfly and small sign reading "... and that's life" on cinderblock wall
It sure is. “… and that’s life.” The Run

Rust, White, and Blue: Flag Post 2022

older camper trailer painted in red, white, and blue
Red, white, and blue camper, Dravosburg

If there is a best flag to represent America in 2022, it may well be this one. Fifteen or twenty feet tall, the big metal version of the stars & bars fills a huge section of exterior wall on the Dura-Bond Pipe facility in McKeesport.

The image is all there, but it’s seen better days. The blue field behind the flag’s fifty stars is faded and streaked; red stripes are all but gone entirely. In their void, scratchy, rusty striations seem to be eating Old Glory from the inside out.

large American flag on warehouse wall with red stripes faded
Rust, white, and blue. Warehouse flag, Dura-Bond Pipe, McKeesport

If that’s not a perfect analog for the current state of our American union, I don’t know what is. America is still here, we see its shape and form, still recognize its power and pretense, but it seems to be disappearing—or is actively being destroyed—right in front of our eyes, in ways we never imagined.

We’ll not do any great opining here—you’ve got blow-out mattress sales and sun-soaked cookouts to get to. Maybe, though, in between all those hot dogs and foul balls, consider what you can actively do—and not just on the Internet—to preserve American democracy between now and next Independence Day.

Enjoy the flags (and flag-like things). Happy Independence Day, y’all!

cement stair steps painted red, white, and blue
Flag steps, Hazelwood
brick wall painted with mural of American flag
This is YOUR FLAG. VFW, Tyrone, PA
storefront painted like American flag
Flag building. Kaps & Taps, Duryea, PA
grave marker with large engraved American flag
The flag’s not dead! Flag grave, Richand Cemetery, Dravosburg
building siding painted like the American flag, but with no stars in the blue field
No stars/blank slate. Hancock, MD
decorative garden gnomes painted like the American flag
The land of the free and the home of the gnomes. Flag gnomes, Highland Park
bird house painted red, white, and blue
Free bird(s)! Flag bird house, Polish Hill
box truck painted like American flag
The jokes write themselves. Shred America, the “Paper Shredding Patriots,” Strip District
homemade wooden American flag on front porch of house
Barbed wire stars. Porch flag, Perry Hilltop
front gate with eagle ornament painted like American flag
American eagle. Ambridge
wooden painted cutout of Uncle Sam in front of house
Uncle Sam with bird, butterfly, and electric meter. Glassport
front porch with handmade wooden flag
Porch flag, Stanton Heights
crushed beer can with American flag design
Ain’t that America. Beer can flag, trampled underfoot, South Side

If that ain’t enough flags for you, our sister blog The Portland Orbit has their own flag post out today. Let’s go, America!

Don’t Need No Doctor: A Prescription for Mannequin Fever

mannequins with colorful tuxedo vests in storefront window, DuBois, PA
Dressed to impress. Mannequins all set for prom, heads optional.

If you’re like most, you can’t even remember when or where the fever set in. A trip to the department store with Mom, perhaps—that’s where I caught it—or glanced from the corner of the eye while hustling down a busy sidewalk past downtown shop windows.

Figures, stiff and lifeless with contorted expressions and abstracted features frozen mid-pose, draped in seasonal attire or modeling hats and jewelry. Not people, but also not not people, mannequins are no simple clothes hangers in 3-D. Mannequins lead strange existences like harmless exhibitionist vampires—caught in an eternal state somewhere between alive and dead, real and imagined, naked and clothed, a waking dream and a living nightmare.

purple mannequin torso in green overgrowth
A raspberry mannequin in her natural habitat
mannequin dressed as Statue of Liberty
Lady Liberty, mannequin style

One can be excused for thinking mannequin fever only expresses itself within the world of retail apparel. I’m not going to lie, when your author is jonesing and it’s been a while he’ll take a stroll into a Marshall’s, Gabe’s, or Target’s just to take the edge off. It’s a good idea to have one’s local vintage shops in poking distance during a fallow period.

Sure, that’ll get you through, but the real fever kicks in when you’re well out-of-range of sterile department store fluorescent lights and the ringing of cash registers. We’re talking about the not-quite-beating heart of Mannequin Nation.

wig store window with many mannquin heads and painting of Santa Claus
Forget eight tiny reindeer, Santa’s got dozens of mannequins ready to party!
female mannequin of front deck of wooden house
Nothing creepy here. On the lookout with a vacant stare at Lobo’s Lair.

Dozens of mannequin heads stacked cheek-to-jowl in the front window of a wig store. Headless mannequins dressed in patriotic red, white, and blue finery. Like something out of a cable TV crime drama, a lone female model, dressed for summer sun, on the front deck of a house literally down by the river with a sign reading Lobo’s Lair.

You don’t need a head—or a brain—to love America!
male mannequin wearing black and gold leather underwear
Let’s go Steelers!

Mannequins cheer on the Pittsburgh Steelers—in their own way—and advertise political candidates on crime scene cleanup coveralls. (“Shut up and do your job!”) Mannequins hawk vape store offerings—like we need another reason to try Juul strawberry lemondade e-cigs, am I right? Along with the rest of us, mannequins have their own pandemic concerns to worry about and get left out on the curb for big garbage day.

storefront with two mannequins wearing full-body hazard suits
Send in the clones
sculpture made from mannequin torso with large white wig
Mannequin art!

Bored fashion mannequins—hey, you’d be bored too if you had to sit still for months at a time!—wait to catch the eyes of sidewalk strollers. Arty mannequins with paint-cracked skin, ridiculous wigs, and detached hands look for a whole different type of attention. Mannequins are relegated to the side porch with the cat box and dumped in construction sites like stool pigeons who’ve squawked for the last time.

painted mannequin boy left on curbside
Been there! Mannequin left out for the trash
mannequin dressed in banana costume holding sign for vape shop
Vape shop banana mannequin, a “bananaquin”

One more note for the heads (ha!): no discussion of Pittsburgh-area mannequin fever should leave out Randyland—the city’s grand buffet of mutant mannequins. The central North Side artvironment has a little bit of everything and whole lot of over-the-top. That includes mannequins—available any time you need them—hand painted, accessorized, and ready to party. A must, when you’ve got the fever.

man posing behind painted mannequin heads
Mannequins as far as the eye can see. Randyland, Pittsburgh’s mannequin central.
six mannequin midriffs on shelving
Mannequin midriffs, on sale
mannequin heads with protective face shields in storefront window
That’s not six feet apart! Mannequins get Covid-safe.
pair of mannequin heads with wigs and white lipstick
White lips passing in the night
five mannequin heads, each with a long wig, in storefront window
Bored mannequins with long haircuts floating in space
mannequin torso and cat box on porch of house
Still life with mannequin and cat box
mannequins dressed in vintage formal wear in storefront window
Mannequins all set for their dreamy music video
storefront mannequin dressed with bikini top and carnival mask

mannequin lower torso with golden bikini bottom and yellow sashes
Hey, it’s carnival time!

Lastly, a big shout-out to our sister blog The Portland Orbit whose recent story Whatever Happened to Mannequin Fever? got us up off the thinkin’ chair and digging through the archives for a suitable answer post, many years in the making.

mannequin left in muddy water of construction site
Mannequin hit job

Bin There, Done That: Art, Down in the Dumpster

dumpster painted with television test pattern
Kill Your Television! … or, at least, watch it like it was a dumpster. Test pattern dumpster art, Clement Way, Bloomfield

With apologies to writer/poet Eleanor Farjeon:

Art is anywhere, any street, any stair.
Under tires, hung from wires, in a valley, down the alley.
On lonely walls and made from dolls, cleaning teeth and up in trees.
With the car, in the yard, cut from books, with focused looks.
Anywhere! It doesn’t care! Art is anywhere.

O.R. Bête
painting of man's face on dumpster, Pittsburgh, PA
Portrait of man with mustache and monocle, East Liberty

Consider the dumpster. It’s just a big trash can, hauled in when a house is getting gutted, rented out to construction sites, left out back in semi-permanent residence to contain ongoing retail and restaurant waste.

Like garbage bins of any size, dumpsters live brutally utilitarian lives, out of sight and out of mind. I’m guessing the majority of us rarely engage with industrial-grade waste receptacles. Sometimes—like Boyd Roll-Off Services’ breast cancer awareness dumpsters—the big steel bins get a tiny moment to shine. That’s the exception; not the rule.

dumpster with wheatpaste mask-like face
Mask up! Garfield

But, as we’ve already alluded-to in verse, if an object or environment can hold paint, be glued-upon or used to hang things from, performed in or danced-around someone will find a way to turn it into a venue for artistic expression. Big steel dumpsters are no exception … even if the audience for exhibition thereon is almost certainly random, and limited.

dumpster with irregular lettering spelling Waste / Residual / Municipal
Waste / Residual / Municipal (sic.), Poconos

Let’s call the patrons of these al fresco galleries of chance the real deal, seekers, culture vultures. Not content with a curated-by-the-man experience of a trip to The Carnegie or The Warhol, feeling confined by the lower-expectations, but still-commercial ambitions of a first Friday in Garfield, the connoisseur de carnage digs deep behind buildings and circles sidewalk skips looking for that one elusive scribble, one perfect stencil, one perfectly-dripped spray-paint doodle.

Whether you, dear reader, fall into this exclusive, sneakin’ Sally down the alley, pungently-fragrant coterie, know that The Orbit will be there—poking retail backsides, circling the big bins, and capturing this momentary, transitory artwork … before it all gets thrown away.

commercial dumpster painted with orange dinosaur
Trashasaurus Rex, Downtown
rat sticker on dumpster, Pittsburgh, PA
Dumpster rat, Strip District
graffiti stencil of person's face on pink dumpster, Pittsburgh, PA
Stencil face, Shadyside
detail of blue garbage dumpster with partial ad for spaghetti sauce, Pittsburgh, PA
Rizzo’s Spaghetti Sauce, Strip District
Big Wayne/Public Enemy, Lawrenceville
All hands, Glassport
painted graffiti eye on dumpster in alley
Keep an eye out for this dumpster, Bloomfield
large dumpster painted with colorful text reading "RANKIN"
Triton RANKIN dumpster, Garfield
dumpster with graffiti painting of man's head
Our old friend “The Dude,” Deutschtown
dumpster with graffiti drawing of mustached man's head, Pittsburgh, PA
Our old friend “The Dude,” Lawrenceville
graffiti drawing of human skull on exterior of trash dumpster
Big’Skull, Polish Hill
crude graffiti drawing of a skull on the outside of a dumpster
Skull, Sharpsburg
spray-painted smiling bear head on small dumpster
Happy bear, Strip District
commercial dumpster with sticker of Andre the Giant
This dumpster has a posse. Lawrenceville
graffiti alarmed face on commercial dumpster
Oh no! Bloomfield
commercial dumpster with graffiti "We need more black love"
“We need more black love,” Waterworks Mall
pink elephant wheatpaste on commercial dumpster
Pink elephant, Deutschtown
small dumpster with graffiti drawing of man's head
Rope skippin’ dude, Strip District
graffiti drawing of a raccoon in a trash can on commercial dumpster
Justa Trash Panda I, Strip District
graffiti drawing of a raccoon in a trash can on commercial dumpster
Jussa Big Ole Trash Panda II, Lawrenceville
commercial dumpster with graffiti of raccoon in trash can
Justa (trashed) Trash Panda III, Downtown
graffiti drawing of person with coat-hanger hat on commercial dumpster
Coat-hanger hat, Polish Hill
wheatpaste street art on dumpster of heart-shaped face with Xs over eyes
Sometimes love can get you down in the dumpster. Garfield
dumpster with graffiti of man's head and text "I see $ as the root of all people"
“I see $ as the root of all people,” Deutschtown
dumpster with sticker art and graffiti, Pittsburgh, PA
“[Love]? not [love] feelings or confusion about feelings,” Sticker Face I, Strip District
homemade sticker with simple drawing of face on dumpster, Pittsburgh, PA
Sticker Face II, Strip District

A Bundle of Plastic Flowers, A Tumble of Teddy Bears: Memorial Day, 2022

memorial left on bridge support
Impromptu memorial for Tony, Bette & Sisters, down under the high-level bridge, Homestead

In so many cases, we have next-to-nothing to go on—an overflowing bundle of plastic flowers, maybe, or a tumble of teddy bears. There are memorials with rain-streaked and sun-bleached photographs. Utility poles are strung with flags, photographs, and the personal effects of the departed. Crosses left by the side of the road decorate every highway and bouquets adorn all too many neighborhood telephone poles.

Sometimes we get a name, or names, but that’s it. Who were Tony, Bette & Sisters? (photo above) And how did they come to be memorialized with flowers and a placard on the concrete support of the Homestead High-Level Bridge? Did this fairly anonymous spot have a special significance to their lives? Their passing?

roadside memorial cross attached to utility pole
Chance Borgese, Monongahela

When we see a memorial cross installed in the grass by a highway or lashed to a metal guardrail, it’s a pretty safe guess the person’s death was related to an automobile. The NHTSA estimates nearly 43,000 auto-related deaths in the United States in 2021. The evidence of those kinds of numbers is all around us.

Chance Borgese who lost control of his car and crashed into a guardrail on Rt. 88 near Monongahela in 2020. Borgese has a large wooden cross adorned with a wreath of flowers, a photograph, and decorative pots left for him on the site. He’s not the only one with a roadside cross.

memorial on utility pole with stuffed animals and flowers
unknown, Homewood

When we see similar scenes on residential side streets, it’s had not to worry something more sinister was afoot.

That’s definitely true for Dai’Shawn Grace, whose memorial on a Munhall utility pole includes a photo-adorned cross, flowers, and protective ring of stuffed animals. In 2019, Mr. Grace was murdered, shot multiple times, walking home from the bus stop after working a shift as a prep cook.

memorial for murder victim on utility pole
Dai’Shawn Grace, Munhall
roadside memorial featuring teddy bears taped to utility pole
Dai’Shawn Grace, Munhall

This Memorial Day 2022 there’s no shortage of human losses to mourn. A million American lives to Covid—an enormous number of which could’ve been prevented if people simply believed science. Unimaginable—and likely difficult to even estimate—deaths in Ukraine. Horrific mass murders in Buffalo and Uvalde. No small number of shooting deaths right here in Pittsburgh. The list goes on and on.

So while many of us get to enjoy this sunny, summery day off from work—quite possibly with friends, beers, and the smell of charcoal in the air—let’s not forget that Memorial Day need not be reserved for our fallen soldiers. When any 18-year-old can legally buy an assault rifle, no questions asked, and turn it on a classroom full of fifth-graders—when the freedom to purchase that weapon is considered more important than the freedom for those children to reach their eleventh birthdays—the war is very much right here at home.

large window display memorial heart
Anthony Emil Mueller, Jr., “great brother, devoted and loving husband, and warrior for Christ,” Perry Hilltop
elaborate memorial left by train tracks in snow
unknown, Tarentum
roadside memorial cross planted in grassy hillside
John Thomas, Monongahela
memorial cross left by utility pole
Emily, Penn Hills
memorial cross left by roadside
unknown, Paw Paw, WV
memorial cross left by alley fence
unknown, Bloomfield
memorial cross and flower box in public park
Kent Geyer, North Park
roadside memorial cross in long grass
Terry Duane, Rt. 88
memorial cross left on fence
Angela Martin, Homestead
memorial jug filled with dead flowers
Angela Martin, “killed by train,” Homestead
memorial mural on cement walkway wall
Miss Max, Polish Hill
memorial left by public bench
unknown, Spring Hill
grafitti memorial on brick wall
Daniel Montano, Homewood
graffiti heart with name Paul painted on cinderblock wall
Paul, Lawrenceville
memorial circle of stones in grassy vacant lot
unknown, Larimer
bouquet of plastic flowers taped to utility pole
unknown, Lawrenceville
large mural for deceased street artist on brick wall
Danny Devine, “local artist, graffiti writer, and friend,” Bloomfield
large mural for deceased street artist on brick wall
Danny Devine, Bloomfield
memorial left on utilty pole
unknown, Dravosburg
spray-painted memorial painted on concrete wall
Garret Foster, Jail Trail
memorial left on sidewalk
unknown, Homewood
memorial flowers and marker by public park
unknown, Bloomfield
improvised cross memorial for crushed turtle
Turtle memorial! South Side
memorial with religious message left on chain link fence
“Intrust God we do. He is a just god. Prevaling is on the way.” (sic.) unknown, Larimer