Writer’s Block: A Poetry Walk on Woodwell Street

handmade letters attached to residential house reading "certain"
One thing is certain: Woodwell Street continues to impress with block-long public art projects

When last we left Woodwell Street—a single long residential block at the north end Squirrel Hill—it was full of bright color. Thin streamers from every point in the rainbow decorated lamp posts and trees like electric shafts of light. House after house, the community art project was a wonderful, safe, deep pandemic way to get out and experience little bursts of joy.

Woodwell Street is at it again, read the email from dedicated streetwalker Lisa Valentino, and she wasn’t kidding. (The block mounted a yarn bombing project between then and now, we’re told, but we missed that one.) Woodwell Street is currently host to an excerpt of Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” displayed (mostly) one word at a time, house-by-house, in block letters attached to front porches and dug into flower beds.

The poem, written for and first delivered at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, is a call to action. To merge mercy with might and might with right are fabulous words with terrific intention. Walking down Woodwell Street on a blessedly beautiful day like the one we happened to catch is a wonderful experience of community effort, but putting those heady words into action isn’t so easy. Let’s all see what we can do.

handmade letters attached to residential houses reading "but one thing"
But one thing
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "is"
is
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "certain"
certain:
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "if we"
if we
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "merge"
merge
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "mercy"
mercy
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "with might"
with might,
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "and"
and
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "might"
might
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "with"
with
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "right"
right,
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "then love"
then love
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "becomes"
becomes
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "our"
our
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "legacy"
legacy,
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "and"
and
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "change"
change,
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "our"
our
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "children's"
children’s
handmade letters attached to residential house reading "birthright"
birthright.

Are You Shakespearienced? To Ellwood City for a Loves Labour’s Lunch

fountain with decorative cherubs under overcast sky
“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I:i) Cherubs in Olde Stonewall’s large garden fountain looking out towards the golf course and stone wall.

Cowards die many times before their deaths, Julius Caesar famously opines in William Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name, the valiant never taste of death but once. (Julius Caesar, II:ii)

Your author a taste of death has yet to sample—but wander perilously closer to the kitchen each annum does he. Shakespeare, roundabout way as he might, enticed the same to a fine loves labour’s lunch.

With this simple invitation, to Ellwood City a voyage planned; the ensemble boisterous and profound. A prediction bold, for sure, but this meal does the great All-U-Can-Eat buffet in the sky maintain superior.

castle battlements behind stone wall
“This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses.”

Battlements the first thing the eyes divine. Rising from Lawrence County’s gently rolling hillsides, the imposing gray structure unmistakably a castle keep. Here in the highland just above Ellwood City, it’s a remarkable sight—even if faded the illusion has by the time one pulls into the giant parking lot out front.

Imposing against this winter of our … very predictable discontent’s bleak weather, Olde Stonewall, the name for both the ersatz castle and its accompanying golf course, may or may not be “olde”—opened in 1999, it did—but the stone be jest it is not. Seven hundred and fifty thousand tons of stone, true to Olde Stonewall’s history, make up lengthy walls that around the property run. Continue it does up along the hillside above the adjacent golf course.

suit of armor with directional sign to golf shop and rest rooms
This way to Ye Olde Golf Shoppe … and the king and queen’s thrones

Forsooth and forthwith did our merry band of hungry travelers at the entrance to Olde Stonewall arrive. Enormous be the 800-pound wooden doors outfitted each with dragon-shaped handle and details, born of fire at the castle’s construction. The building’s entrance is a stunner true betwixt fine carpentry and bronze work, its elegant adaptation of rescued Catholic church light fixtures, and the replica suits of armor, shields, and weapons that decorate the dark wood paneling that runs throughout.

ornate bronze door handle in shape of dragon
Stop dragon my heart around. Custom bronze door pulls at the entrance to Olde Stonewall
ornate chandelier under ceiling painted like blue sky with clouds
An ornate antique chandelier at the entrance to Olde Stonewall

If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die. (Twelfth Night, I:i)

Indeed, play on the group did and to Shakespeare’s Pub & Restaurant we were shown for the food of … lunch. ‘Twas for midday repast the foursome sought from afternoon’s grey light a pause. And O! what bountiful offerings were presented to even these knaves from Pittsburgh came.

The better part of valor is discretion, true, but how can an appetite’s natural yearnings be denied when Shakespeare’s “Castle Teasers” tempt the very limits of mortal tastebuds’ capacity for carnal pleasure? Would beer cheese are twin pretzel logs be requested? Perhaps the party would opt for the wings of hen, flavoured of garlic-Parmesan or dry ranch served. Cruel witches be the only explanation for the devilish debate that ensues pitting cocktail of Gulf shrimp against fried cheese with marinara aligned.

restaurant diners holding up plates with sandwiches and fried potatoes
“Praise us as we are tasted, allow us as we prove.” Heidi and Paul with meals fit for the queen and king they are.

A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. (Much Ado About Nothing, II:iii)

We’ll excuse The Bard’s gender-exclusive language as but peril of his age. For man is not alone when the offerings of Shakespeare’s Restaurant “From the Pantry” selection present themselves for delighted perusal and consumption be. To wit, Queen Heidi made not her enjoyment of the kitchen’s Castle Burger unknown. The lady doth not protest at all, if in meaning thou doth comprehend. Good Sire Paul—himself, a learned scholar of the form—accepted a chicken club, traditional not in the least, but a thrill nonetheless. On Mancini’s egg Kaiser rolls both sandwiches arrived adorned and with pickle spear paired.

What more can be said of the humble potato? Its starch as plain as air; its color that of the earth from which it is born. And yet for our company did surprise it make! Elevated at the hands of Executive Chef Andrew Davin, the pomme de terre is formed into corkscrews thick, to golden brown fried, and delivered as hot and steaming as a planet erupting. No less impressed by such a celestial visage were our diners at these sides of fries.

plate with large fish sandwich and broccoli salad
“Fishes live in the sea, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones.” Your author is but a court jester in real life; on this day he dined like a prince.

Fishes live in the sea, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones. (Pericles, Prince Of Tyre, II:i)

Ms. Orbit, herself favoring a harvest sought deep from the briny, engaged in Chef Davin’s shrimp Barsac and was no less pleased. The meal, a melange of the color tan, did not a charitable photograph make. In its accompaniment, however, Shakespeare’s French onion crock did surpass any expectation—it’s flavours rich and satisfying, piping hot and belly warming on this frosty day.

Your author cannot a generous fish sandwich dissuade. On Saturday last he was no more able to deny its temptation than in Lent’s siren season, a mere six salivating weeks hence. O! Why must Lent come but once a year? While I hope we shall drink down all unkindness every day, ’twas but he that sampled of Shakespeare’s ales. The gustatory ensemble it did complete in suitable fashion. No customer at this table was made to feel unsatisfied.

window with ornate ironwork looking out on golf course
“What light through yonder window breaks?” ‘Tis the East, and the shrimp Barsac comes with your choice of potato or soup du jour.

Praise us as we are tasted, allow us as we prove. (Troilus and Cressida, III:ii)

Razor thin be the line betwixt class and kitsch as it stretches across the fair acres of Olde Stonewall. Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge and perhaps an extra dose of the former would have enhanced the experience of the latter. The property’s fine millwork and legitimately delicious fare do not disappoint, but hard it is to overlook be truth of the situation, goofy by an standard.

Brevity is the soul of wit and the better part of valor is discretion, true. Your author claims neither attribute in his praise for a visit to Olde Stonewall—be it the final destination or side trip when travels take Orbit faithful north. Haveth a good tyme—and a fine meal at an expense faire—thou willst, but dodging duffers in warmer seasons may prove a task more treacherous than sublime.

Godspeed you travelers and curiosity-seekers alike! To Shakespeare’s Restaurant & Pub you go! Forget not to order the fries. They be the true sustenance of gods.

exterior of large building made to look like medieval castle
Olde Stonewall: where the tymes may be medieval, but the ample parking is handicap-accessible

Getting there: Olde Stonewall/Shakespeare’s Restaurant & Pub is at 1495 Mercer Rd. in Ellwood City. It takes ~45 minutes to get there from metro Pittsburgh. Check their web site for opening days and times.

The Party’s Over: Sad Balloons

deflated balloon on leaf-strewn sidewalk
“L” is for Lying face down in the gutter under a bridge on the South Side. A sad balloon in its natural habitat.

Is it lying or laying? I’ve read and re-read the grammar definition a dozen times—my dear, sainted mother was an English professor, for goodness sake—and I still can’t figure out whether there’s a direct object there or not.

Fooey. A large gold letter L, turned upside-down so it looks more like a lazy J, lies (lays?) in the thick sidewalk mud that has collected late autumn’s last fallen leaves upon its gooey surface. On this chilly Sunday morning one can’t help but feel the sadness as the air has quite literally gone out of what we hope was a joyous moment, now gone by.

pink number balloons left by grave marker
Pretty (sad) in pink. Allegheny Cemetery

Someone (Lori? Linda? Lenny?) was celebrated in the near past—a birthday, maybe? perhaps an engagement, job promotion, or baby shower—and her or his friends ordered up a golden capital L balloon to commemorate the occasion. The party may have been terrific—drinks all around, goofy stories from the past, novelty gifts from friends that embarrassed family members—but that’s all over now. The big helium-filled letter balloon floated out of a car window or the venue’s service entrance, had some dying adventures in the low atmosphere, and landed here, in the muck under a bridge on the South Side.

deflated red balloons caught in tree limbs
Lofty ambitions, caught in the treetop. Grandview Park, Mt. Washington

This day—of all days—New Year’s happens to fall on a Sunday and like Kris Kristofferson, we’re all comin’ down, one way or another. Maybe you reveled last night; maybe you stayed in with a book or a movie; maybe you were working or taking a care of a sick kid. Either way—any way—New Year’s Day resets the table, tells us that last year, whether it was a party or not, is definitively over and we’re on to new things.

Your author is not one for resolutions, but he did make a plan to learn Vladimir Cosma’s “Sentimental Walk” on the piano. It’s simple enough that these amateur-level hands should be able to grasp it and heartbreakingly beautiful in a way that will reward the time commitment.

Whatever your plans for the new year—inspired by a resolution or not—hopefully they’ll include new adventures, plans realized, and the wonderful happenstance that leads you up into the treetops and down in the muck. Life exists on both planes and we’re fools to fantasize that it can occur in only the more lofty of them.

Happy New Year, y’all!

"1" and "4"-shaped balloons outside of a small dumpster in a garage
14 or 41, what’s the difference at this point? Hill District
deflated balloon hanging from tree limb
Hang in there! Hill District
deflated balloons in dead leaves
Game over. Allegheny Cemetery
deflated balloon hanging from tree limb
World’s worst Warhol tribute. Allegheny Cemetery
celebratory balloons left in tall grass
Not so sad … yet. Hazelwood
deflated balloons hanging from an electrical line
Sad bundle. Lawrenceville
deflated balloons hanging from utility wires
Wire mess, Lawrenceville

City Chicken: Requiem For an Almost Rooster

image of red rooster wheat pasted to mailbox
Li’l Red, rockin’ the flock. One of a slew of city chickens that roosted in Polish Hill throughout 2022.

Something was brooding this year. Perhaps we were all scratching and clawing for a chance to get back to the real world. There was a fox in our collective hen house, but when we tried to fly we couldn’t get off the ground. Cocksure at our place in the pecking order, we waddled out of the frying pan straight into the fryer. In a plot most fowl, feathers were ruffled and eggs were cracked in the great omelet that is a year in the life of America. Yes, in 2022 the chickens came home to roost.

image of red rooster wheat pasted to mailbox
Big Red, mailbox rooster
image of red rooster wheat pasted to masonry wall
Around-the-corner rooster

Seemingly overnight—quite possibly literally overnight—an entire flock of bright red roosters appeared in Polish Hill. The big birds’ super-saturated color glowed from the drab surfaces they played against. The roosters’ look was both comical and earnest—wholesome, even—but with a keen, knowing wisdom beyond their years.

At first—especially when wandering around Polish Hill, randomly finding the fowl on different morning constitutionals—one assumed the roosters are all of a common breed—identical in size, scope, and marking. Each has the same brilliant crimson, the same general shape, and their images have certainly been applied to United States Post Office equipment and city infrastructure with the same wheat-pasted method.

image of red rooster wheat pasted to large recycling bin
Recycled rooster
image of red rooster wheat pasted to plywood garage window covering
Garage rooster

But given this opportunity to see each member of the flock right up against the others, we have the advantage of understanding they’re no mere cookie-cutout duplicates. Some of the roosters face left; most face right. There are clear differences in beak shape and hind feather arrangement.

The widest variance, though, is in each bird’s detailing. Some include a fully-formed leg and claw, but others remain gestural—or nearly free of definition altogether. Chickens may have cartoonish humanoid eyes or concentric circular rings like those of a hypnotist, mid-induction process.

image of red rooster wheat pasted to mailbox
Mailbox rooster
negative image of rooster removed from wheat paste street art
Ghost mailbox rooster

Full disclosure: your author is a rooster booster who loves chicken-pickin’, so the arrival of these fine creatures last April was a welcome surprise as winter’s gloom ceded to glorious spring rebirth. They’ve lived a lifetime since then with many of these specimens no longer present or left in wounded, half-torn-off states of decay. Perhaps many of us—certainly those blunted by seasonal affective disorder or the holiday blues—feel in their own states of decay this time of year.

How the non-denominational bunny rabbit and egg came to be so closely associated with Christianity’s highest, holiest holiday is a matter for historians and/or Wikipedia. We’ll not trouble ourselves with all that, but the roosters of Polish Hill walked out of our dreams and into our lives right around Easter. The timing may be coincidental, but it couldn’t have been more perfect.

Maybe that’s what the chickens were trying to tell us all along … if we’d only listened.

image of red rooster wheat pasted to mailbox
Ripped rooster

Address Your Best: Numbers Running, House Hunting, and Looking for the Right Address

hand-drawn address marker on brick wall
Have you seen the back? “Apt 2 in back”! (in the back). One of many terrific handmade or otherwise extraordinary address markers. Bloomfield

December, here we are. We can now see our breath on every pre-dawn constitutional as November’s mild, sunny weather has finally given way to real winter temperatures. Snow has been minimal, so far, but shovels and salt stand at the ready for the inevitable. Trees are fully divested of their leaves. Figs have gone to ground.

All around us The Twinkling has begun—lights in Christmas green and red, but also “electric icicle” white. Plastic figurines are set up to either celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ or make offerings to the candy cane gods—take your pick. Draped on bare trees and outlining front porches, all those tiny LED bulbs act as sentinels to the night. It’s coming, they sing in quiet unison to an audience with no option, whether you want it or not.

In short, we are officially in what retail workers, mail carriers, and delivery drivers call the most wonderful time of the year.

hand-painted sign directing to apartment access
439 Apts 1 & 2, Oakland

It’s likely The Orbit‘s convivial readership will have plenty of visitors to their homes over the next few weeks. Hopefully some of those will bring glad-tidings, along with the requisite maids a-milking and geese a-laying. If you’re lucky maybe Uncle Joe will break out the myrrh—it’s just not the holiday season without myrrh.

Others will climb your front steps on business. Envelopes stuffed with year-end brag letters and pictures of golden children will come for many. Thousands—millions!—will receive packages ordered from enormous operations full of plasticware produced far, far away. Amazon doesn’t offer real live swans a-swimming for sale—yet—but that feels like merely a matter of time. If you’re lucky, a friend will send you something truly special by U.S. Mail.

This isn’t the start of the holiday season—that kicked-off right after Valentine’s Day—so let’s call the first week of December the beginning of peak Christmas. For that, we’re sending this photo collection out to all the folks visiting all the addresses with all the things while many of us get to sit cozy, work a puzzle, and fall asleep on a couch as the television spools out one myth after another.

Hand-Delivered

former barber shop with address painted on front door
4825, Garfield (since demolished)
home address marker created from stickers and stenciled spray paint
348, Lawrenceville
residential mailbox hand-painted with address
5428, Lawrenceville
House front door with address repeated in many ways
179 ½ 179 ½ 179 ½ 179 ½, Lawrenceville
hand-painted mailbox with Pittsburgh Steelers emblem
2nd flr, Sharpsburg
handmade sign on front door window directing mail delivery to mail slot
2133, Perry Hilltop
house with address markers crudely painted on basement masonry walls
469 FL 2 / 469 FL 1/Apt 1, Polish Hill
hand-painted residential mailbox
4703, Bloomfield
exterior door with handwritten address above mail slot
six twenty five, Bloomfield
three mailboxes with hand-painted sign for the addresses
215 Ella Street, Apt. 3-5, Bloomfield
hand-painted address sign outside brick house
247 Albert, Mt. Washington
hand-painted residential address painted on ceramic tiles
2828, Strip District
hand-painted address marker for rear appartment
4632 Rear, Bloomfield
hand-painted address sign next to mailbox
Apt B, Monongahela
hand-painted address marker on mailbox
316, West Homestead

Paint on Brick

hand-painted address on masonry wall
4209, Bloomfield
hand-painted home address on masonry
752, Hill District
hand-painted address marker on brick wall
701, Homewood
residential address number painted on masonry
5312, Lawrenceville
address marker with different house numbers carved into masonry and painted on
326 / 382, Lawrenceville

The Art of the Address

stylized address painted on front door of house
3210, Polish Hill
hand-painted address sign feature Polish eagle emblem
3059 Pulawski Way, Polish Hill
hand-painted address sign feature Polish eagle emblem
3060 Wiggins St., Polish Hill
Home address created with mosaic
1212, Spring Hill
home address sign in "boomerage modern" style
3432, Polish Hill
address for Italian Restaurant with image of chef carrying a large bown of pasta
424, West End

Corporate House Numbers Still Suck!

home address written on cardboard and taped to house
312 ½, Bloomfield
home address hand-written on paper, inside Ziploc bag, taped to front door
161 43rd Apt 1, Lawrenceville
home address written on cardboard, stuck inside Ziploc bag, and stuffed behind mailbox
161, Lawrenceville
address sign written on disposable plate
Apt 2, Carrick
home address written on wall shingle
3908, Lawrenceville
house number written on cardboard attached to front door of home
498 First St use back door, West Elizabeth
home address drawn on blue painter's tape attached to front door
5231, Lawrenceville
steel door with handwritten address above mail slot
4913 1/2, Lawrenceville
wooden gate with handmade address sign
5417 Rear, Lawrenceville

Old School Cool

older door with custom address marker set into window
330, Polish Hill
hand-painted address marker on brick wall
810 Concord, East Deutschtown
fading address marker painted on wood
4845, Lawrenceville
house front door window with address numbers in glass
4610, Bloomfield

BET / HAN / KFUL: Thanksgiving Gratitude 2022

painting on wall reading "Be Thankful"
Be Thankful or BET HAN KFUL, your choice. Wall art, The Run

Be Thankful. Those two words—or possibly three when rendered as BET / HAN / KFUL—are something we can all (hopefully) act on. Your author has plenty to be thankful for—a wonderful wife, terrific friends, neighbors, and creative partners, most of his health, some of his hair—and I don’t take any of it for granted.

So often—especially in today’s hashtag self-obsessed culture—expressing gratitude comes in the form of “humble brag” gloating. We’ll not do that here. Instead, we thought for this Thanksgiving we’d nominate some very Pittsburgh-centric things our readership can relate to and share in group gratitude for this little collective virtual Thanksgiving.

Here then are some things The Orbit is thankful for every day we get to spend in our hometown. Maybe you’ll relate and maybe not. Either way, we thank you for reading.

single chair from dinette set on street, acting as a "parking chair", Pittsburgh, PA
Parking chair, Garfield

Yes, we’re grateful for the humble parking chair. For the record, Chez Orbit, located in cheek-to-jowl Lawrenceville, does not deploy a chair—even after digging out from snow. Regardless, the absurdity of seeing random old dinette seats literally taking up space three feet off the curb never gets old and never stops being amusingly funny. With more and more parking placeholders moving to generic white molded plastic lawn chairs and Home Depot job buckets, we get a special thrill to come across a classic like this one.

Rising Main city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Rising Main city steps, North Side

City Steps are ho-hum to some and what are those? to others. Like a child’s fantasy of magical pathways through mysterious overgrown woods, Pittsburgh’s collection of seven hundred-and-a-bunch sets of city steps are an elaborate intra-city adventure portal masquerading as public transit infrastructure. With this large a collection, pretty much everyone in the 412 has steps not too far away, right at your fingertips … err, foot steps. Be thankful you do.

old brick wall with layers of paint, cinderblock, and plywood
One of the world’s most beautiful walls, Arlington/Mt. Oliver

We’re thankful for walls. Not any ol’ jive-ass boring walls, mind you, but walls that read like archeological expeditions, art moderne collage, and site-specific evidence of histories we’ll never know. Take that wall off of that wall and dudes in New York will pay top dollar for it. You can have it for free, right here.

house under construction with artwork attached to plywood door covering
Outside art, Millvale

Our friends over at The Portland Orbit coined the term “Outside Art” for the unique phenomena of exactly that. Neither public art nor graffiti/street art, outside art is installed either by the (private) property owner or with their consent for the express purpose of delighting and amusing the rest of us. We’ve been working a couple angles on this we’ll get to in the new year, but suffice to say the volume of outside art available just about everywhere is awe-inspiring when you start cataloging it. Putting one’s art into the world anonymously, with all the potential hazards of weather, mockery, and vandalism, is as altruistic an action as there is. We’re glad people keep doing it.

foggy scene with rusted iron fence and houses
Fog, Polish Hill

Generally, being a morning person works out pretty well—that is, until you stay up late and can’t ever make up the sleep. It’s never more true than when one is on a pre-breakfast constitutional through thick fog. You name it and it’s going to look better draped in the gauzy blur of cool humid air that makes everything appear mysterious, a little dangerous, and right out of a dream. When you take that fog walk through the cemetery? Fuggetaboutit.

hilltop view of two neighborhoods in Pittsburgh
View of Troy Hill (foreground) and Strip District (background) from Reserve Township

Weird views are something everyone in Pittsburgh gets accustomed-to—but don’t take it for granted! Sure, you can go with a corporate view like Mt. Washington or the West End Overlook—and those are great—but give yourself a chance to check out the view of town looking straight across the Liberty Bridge from the trail in Emerald View Park or the roofs of Bloomfield’s row houses lit by the morning sun from Sugar Top/Upper Hill District or the 360-degree view from St. John’s Cemetery in Spring Hill or this one looking down at the top of Troy Hill and all the way across the river to the Strip District from Reserve Township.

metal can lid painted with devil holding anarchy flag nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA
Tin can pole art anarchy devil, Friendship

Pole Art is the evergreen Where’s Waldo? of bike/pedestrian travel. On any day any given utility pole may be enhanced by the anonymous addition of just about anything. Sure, we’re nuts for tin can pole art, but it doesn’t stop there. Weird signs, full art installations, recycled toys, and improvised memorials. You gotta look! The very nature of these ephemeral pieces means that each has a ticking clock counting down its limited lifetime before it disappears. Not knowing how long we’ve got is a central theme of all of our lives—being thankful for the time we have and the opportunity to interact with these random exclamation points is something we’ll not overlook.

pair of gravestones with last names Will and End
Will/End. Gallows humor, St. John Vianney Cemetery, Carrick

Cruel humor from beyond the grave may be a strange thing to find comfort in, but it reminds us we’re thankful to be alive. Even with all of life’s pain—and there’s no small amount of it—I’d rather be breathing than the alternative. Hopefully that’s the same for anyone reading this. If you’re in doubt, please get yourself the help you deserve, and then think about the things you have to be thankful for. Those things are all around us every day.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: The Marys of McKees Rocks, Part 2

statue of Mary in front of house, next to gas meter
Lovely Mary, meter maid. One of many “bathtub Marys” in greater McKees Rocks/Stowe Township

To bathe, or not to bathe. That is the question.

OK, maybe it’s not much of a quandary for The Orbit‘s corner on both obsessive-compulsive and dirty-minded readers, but let’s accept that many of us (ahem) changed our hygienic standards with the onset of the pandemic. Mary—mother of all mothers, blessed virgin, you know, that Mary—seems to have recalibrated her priorities as well. If the Marys of greater McKees Rocks/Stowe Township are any indication, Mary is already comfortable with her proximity to godliness and content with an almost exact day-on/day-off schedule.

statue of Mary on retaining wall with No Parking signs
No Parking/no bathing Mary

In this electronic publication’s early days—before really digging into the subject—we naively thought Bloomfield held the title as the Mary capitol of Pittsburgh. In addition, South Oakland, Stanton Heights, and Lawrenceville all have sizable Mary populations that have earned their own surveys.

That said, McKees Rocks and Stowe Township—the distinction between the two is completely arbitrary to any outsider—may well lay claim to the greatest house-for-house percentage of Marys in metro Pittsburgh. Little Presston, a Rocks neighborhood of just two streets, had enough Marys to fill a whole story. Greater Sto-Rox has so many Marys—just about 50/50 with and without bathtubs—that we’ll not kid ourselves into thinking we won’t have a third or fourth edition on the topic.

So we’ll leave you to it. Enjoy your Marys with the clean aroma of Mr. Bubble or not and please let us know if you’ve got a Mary of your own or Mary story we should hear.

statue of Mary in front of older house
Mary with sleek modern design bathtub
statue of Mary in front of older house
Classic Mary with weeds
statue of Mary in front of older house
Blue bathtub Mary
statue of Mary in front of older house
Home repair and improvement Mary
statue of Mary in front of older house
Bathtub Mary with gas meter and water can
statue of Mary in front of older house
Mary simple/pedestal Mary
statue of Mary in front of house
Classic bathtub Mary I
statue of Mary in front of older house
Hard day’s night Mary
statue of Mary in front of house
Bas-relief Mary
statue of Mary in front of house with fake flowers
Fall foliage Mary
statue of Mary in front of house
Classic bathtub Mary II
statue of Mary in front of house with pumpkins
Decorative gourd Mary
statue of Mary in front of house
Divine light Mary
statue of Mary in front of house with Halloween decorations
Trick-or-Treat/got-the-munchies Mary
statue of Mary in front of house
Dappled sunlight Mary
statue of Mary in front of older house
Backed-into-a-corner Mary
statue of St. Barbara in front yard of house
NOT Mary! St. Barbara, “patron saint of armorers, artillerymen, military engineers, miners, and others who work with explosives” (Wikipedia). [Thanks to Orbit reader Joan for identifying this one!]
brick structure used to house statue of Mary with statue removed
Empty Mary grotto

Coker’s Gold: Art Sheds of the Wizard of Perry South

large metal shed painted in elaborate abstract panels
One of two sheet metal work sheds painted by the artist Coker, The Wizard of Perry South

A blast of color. Soft pinks, big reds, cool blues and purples on one face; rusty reds, browns, and blacks another. Everything is accented in gold.

That gold! It’s a gold of ancient secrets and the gold of a new dawn. The warm glow has an extra glossy shine that elevates already-textured steel surfaces to a fourth dimension—something beyond space and time. What the amateur sees as mere spray paint is actually a fuzzy overlay on reality from another world.

Cast against the very literal rust of a pair of weathered steel sheds, the gold feels like flashes of light glinting and gleaming through stony creek water. Precious metal to some, fool’s gold to others, but with an experiential value beyond anything we can measure. That is, if you can climb out of 3-D and into this transformative plane.

colorful abstract designs painted on metal shed panels
J-E-S-U-S, gold. Detail, Shed 1
colorful abstract designs painted on metal shed panels
Stars and bars. Detail, Shed 2

In glorious full sunshine, surrounded by high summer’s lush greenery, the two old metal work sheds pop from the earth like temporary housing created by interstellar travelers. We may not speak their tongue, but these pictorial representations of stars and symbols, geometric patterns and light rays communicate enough otherworldly visions that we can get along.

Getting along is exactly what we want to do—very much so. The work is striking and soothing, both chaotic and patterned, with obvious iconography and wild abstraction. Like waves crashing on the beach or mountaintops viewed from a neighboring peak, one may stare into the wide murals, let the eyes go into a glazed soft-focus, and drift off to a blissed-out zen state where nothing looks the same way twice.

colorful abstract designs painted on metal shed doors
Notation for an impossible score. Detail, Shed 1
colorful abstract designs painted on metal shed doors
C-O-K-E-R. Detail, Shed 1

The artist who painted the sheet metal sheds has signed the work only as Coker, his last name—this much we know. We’d love to do a full-on Orbit artist profile on the man—there are so many questions! Does he also make smaller works? paintings? sculptures? what’s inside the sheds? It feels like there simply must be an amazing story there.

But … the volume of No Trespassing and Stay Out signs posted around the property suggest Coker is, at minimum, wary of uninvited guests and this we respect. I’ve visited the buildings a half dozen times over the course of a year-and-a-half, on various early mornings, mid-days, and weekends and left notes for Mr. Coker. Alas, I’ve never heard back and never managed to catch him in person. So … we’re left to muse about The Wizard of Perry South from his (street-visible) painted walls alone.

colorful abstract designs painted on metal shed panels
Gold stars. Detail, Shed 2
large metal shed painted in elaborate abstract panels
Shed 1, south profile

Coker’s most profound work—to these highly-opinionated eyeballs—remains the large abstract wall sections. “They’re like (Marc) Chagall!” Ms. Orbit exclaimed when your author produced his first photographs of the remarkable structures. That said, the artist’s paint work extends to more representational fare as well.

A corner wall section of the first shed includes tributes to Barrack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marvin Gaye, George Benson, and Snoop Dogg (in the form of gin & juice, illustrated with musical notes). Another celebrates the music of ’70s soul group Maze and includes the band’s bizarre seven-fingered hand logo. Elsewhere King Kong tramples New York while a bloated “fake news scum-bag”—not sure who that could be—tramples democracy.

metal shed painted with tributes to Barrack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marvin Gaye, George Benson, and the text "gin & juice"
Tributes to Barrack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marvin Gaye, George Benson, and gin & juice
Tribute to Frankie Beverly & Maze on metal shed doors
“Man Swamp”: Tribute to Frankie Beverly & Maze
painting of King Kong on metal shed
King Kong
painting of Donald Trump on metal shed with sign reading "Fake news scum-bag"
“Fake news scum-bag”
painting of downtown Pittsburgh skyline on wood panel on front porch of small house
Outside art / Pittsburgh skyline

Just down the block sits the third unmistakable Coker property. It’s a classic Pittsburgh two-up/two-down brick row house—now having outlived all former neighbors on a half-block-long dead end. The front of the home is painted in Coker’s tell-tale gold, daringly paired with splotchy silver—a color combination that makes even pink & brown stand up and take notice. Around the side, Coker has continued the blocky, abstract themes begun on the pair of sheds, but this time executed in gold, black, and white.

brick row house painted gold and silver
House Coker
abstract mural painted on masonry wall
Mural, House Coker (detail)

We could all use more magic in our lives—of this I’m sure. Luckily, we live in a time and place where one may stumble upon just that, right out in the open, on a simple summer bicycle ride or autumnal constitutional through a city neighborhood.

If you’re lucky enough to live in The Perrys, you know where Compound Coker is already. For anyone who doesn’t, we’ll not spoil the surprise with a precise address or instructions for travel. There’s enough information right here to locate Pittsburgh’s buried treasure of gold (art), it’s up to you to go out and find it.

large metal shed painted with elaborate abstract designs and text "Coker"
An arrow to the aether. Shed 2 profile

The Pizza Chase: An Abundance of Flavor at Shelly Pie

an irregularly-topped pizza on a tabletop with glass of ice tea
“If the abundance of toppings is too much, ask for light toppings.” A pepperoni, sausage, and (half) green pepper pizza from Shelly Pie, Turtle Creek

No one. Not a single person. It hasn’t happened. Throughout the long history of humans applying sauce and cheese to fresh baked bread, there has never been an instance where the diner wished for there to be less toppings on her or his pizza. We refuse to accept this premise.

However, hypothetically speaking of course, if ever there was such a place—a pizzeria that lives only in the imagination of those who dream big, one whose pies are so over-laden with toppings as to prevent human hands from delivering mere pizza slices to mouths unassisted—that place is Shelly Pie. We were warned.

exterior of Shelly Pie pizzeria in former VFW hall, Turtle Creek, PA
Talk about cloudy with a chance of … pepperoni and sausage. Shelly Pie, in the former VFW Post 207, Turtle Creek

We’re Americans. We don’t like rules. Shelly Pie’s menu doesn’t exactly have strict rules, per se—the Page 1 instructions are more like disclaimers or warnings about what you’re getting into—but how much training and expectation-setting does a person need to order a pizza?

It’s no small amount, it turns out.

A Shelly Pie is a knife and fork pizza. It’s right there at the top of the quite literal list. Don’t try to pick this thing up, it will only break your heart. The overload of smouldering cheese and full arsenal of toppings just won’t hold up to being lifted off the plate in toto. While any one of Shelly’s eponymous pies will blow your mind, the laws of gravity still apply here.

man with large slice of pizza collapsing onto his plate
Epic pizza fail! Some people just won’t play by the rules. Paul learns the hard way that “A Shelly Pie is a knife and fork pizza”
man eating a large forkful of pizza
The student becomes the master. Paul finally learns his lesson.

The cold hard facts of a hot cheesy life don’t end with the use of silverware.

We use fresh vegetables. Know that a vegetable pizza will produce a lot of liquid. Fair enough—this from another of Shelly Pie’s FAQs. Neither our tomato & spinach pizza (below) nor the half green pepper (at top)—which must have contained an entire large pepper—had any noticeable storm runoff, but it must be true on a really heavy veggie pie or the notes wouldn’t have made it to the menu.

pizza box for Shelly Pie with catch phrase "Yinz gotta try ... Shelly Pie"
The box doesn’t lie! Yinz gotta try Shelly Pie

Our pizzas are unique in that no two pizzas look alike. A statement we confirmed with just our minimal sample size. Our cheeses are high in fat. When you add fatty meats to a pizza, it creates a lot of grease. Another bon mot from Shelly that really sets up There are times when the top crust will look dark. It’s not burnt. It’s charred.

an irregularly-topped pizza on a tabletop with glass of beer
“Our pizzas are unique in that no two pizzas look alike.” A tomato & spinach pizza from Shelly Pie

The big one—that inconceivable scenario—hits you in the menu’s fourth bullet point: If the abundance of toppings is too much, ask for light toppings. Needless to say we neither requested light toppings nor were we disappointed in the abundance thereof for either entree.

A custom-ordered Shelly Pie isn’t so much flavored by its toppings as it hosts a convention attracting every free slice of pepperoni and unbooked green pepper east of metro Pittsburgh. They get down to business during the daytime and are ready to party all night long. Like the plumbers union meeting at David L. Lawrence Convention Center, participants in this Bacchanal won’t head home until they’ve done something they regret.

woman eating pizza with fork
Take it from a librarian: *read the instructions*! Heidi: speed limit adherent, pizza rule follower.

The toppings are extraordinarily generous—and delicious—but they in no way act as a smoke screen or distraction for inferior dough. Far from it. Shelly Pie’s admittedly irregular and “charred” crust bubbles and bulges but it’s as perfect a bed for pizza pie as this eater has ever had the pleasure to consume.

It’s been three weeks since our team ventured out to Turtle Creek on this reporting trip and, like an addictive drug, your author has fantasized about the next time he can inject Shelly Pie directly into his bloodstream, let his eyes roll back into his skull, and drift off into the abundance of another exquisite dream meal.

utility pole banner in Turtle Creek, PA announcing home of Shelly Pie Pizza & Restaurant
Welcome to Turtle Creek, home of Shelly Pie

Getting there: Shelly Pie is located at 912 Penn Avenue in Turtle Creek and they’re open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, so all you have to figure out is breakfast.

Undead Mall: A Visit to The Living Dead Museum

original production prop severed arm and leg from the film "Dawn of the Dead"
The Living Dead Museum: a cultural attraction that won’t cost you an arm and a leg

Monroeville Mall is largely populated—if suffering the same economic woes as many of its peers—and sits right there on a couple hundred acres of the eponymous suburb’s most automobile-oriented real estate. The shopping center hosts more than a hundred retail establishments, a separate adjunct strip mall, and has its own encircling beltway, just like the small city it is.

Macy’s department store anchors one end of the mall; Dick’s Sporting Goods the other. In between, you’ll find LaButiq Lash Studio, Xtreme Teeth Whitening, Banter by Piercing Pagoda, Auntie Anne’s Hand-Rolled Soft Pretzel, four recruiting offices for the United States Armed Forces—one for each branch of the military—plus Up$cale Beauty, Up$cale Juice Bar, and Up$cale Kids.

exterior of The Living Dead Museum in Monroeville Mall
The Living Dead Museum exterior, Monroeville Mall

Wander to the far west end of Monroeville Mall’s upper level, right next to Hot Stone Massage, and there’s another storefront with the same extended wood and glass treatment you’ll see at Klexo’s Tattoo Studio or Smoke Wizard and Vape. From the mall’s wide walkway, it looks like yet another apparel and gift shop with its prominently-displayed t-shirts, hoodies, books, and novelties.

This one’s different, though. For eight dollars, a cashier will grant the curious entry to an unexpected collection of movie memorabilia and replica models, disfigured mannequins and The Maul of Fame, a singular wall of hand prints and signatures from various horror film demi-celebrities, each one blood red. This is The Living Dead Museum.

wall with many red handprints of actors from zombie movies
The Maul of Fame

You’ve heard the term dead mall—heck, you heard it right here—but ain’t no dead mall like an undead mall and this one’s stocked with ghouls, zombies, and The Evil Dead.

George Romero—the Orson Welles of gore—came to Monroeville Mall late in 1977. He wasn’t there to do his Christmas shopping. That winter, he started filming Dawn of the Dead, the zombie apocalypse masterpiece and lineal descendant of his Night of the Living Dead, the mother-of-all undead movies.

plastic zombie figures in front of model of mall shops
Monroeville Mall walkers, c. 1978

From this history, Monroeville Mall holds a special place for horror film fans long before The Living Dead Museum. Its starring role in Dawn of the Dead makes the mall hallowed ground for gore buffs and the entire structure a kind of living museum all on its own. There’s even a brass bust of George Romero on the mall’s lower level, in front of Pittsburgh Locker Room by Lids, to celebrate it.

brass bust and plaque honoring film director George Romero
Bust of George Romero, Monroeville Mall

So The Living Dead Museum ended up at Monroeville Mall by no accident and it celebrates Dawn of the Dead every way it can. There are props from the original film and movie posters from both its American version and Zombi, producer Dario Argento’s separate cut of the same movie for the European market.

Your author is ashamed to admit he hasn’t seen most of the films celebrated in the displays at The Living Dead Museum. Why, I don’t even know The Evil Dead from The Evil Dead 2! So the giant rustic woodshed from the former was indistinguishable from the various window sashes, shutters, door jambs, and fake boulders of the latter. The significance of “prop-alike” tape recorders and calligraphy from The Necronomicon was lost on me—but I’m sure The Orbit’s gore-enthused readership would enjoy them all.

crude wooden shed created for the movie "The Evil Dead"
The “original woodshed from the movie ‘The Evil Dead'”

Monroeville Mall even gets its own snake-eating-its-tail tribute at The Living Dead Museum. There is a defunct/replaced elevator car and a section of escalator from the period when the movie was made. The gift shop sells tote bags and t-shirts with the mall’s original uber-mod MM logo, c. 1969—with and without blood spatter.

zombie mannequin in fake elevator
Pro tip: take the escalator to the mall’s upper level

It’s entirely subjective of course, but The Living Dead Museum’s most exciting display is a large, hand-made model of sections of Monroeville Mall as it existed in the late 1970s. Presumably built in pre-production for the movie—there is sadly no documentation on who created the model or how it was used—the piece reads like an incredible work of folk art.

Created from poster board, balsa wood, repurposed bamboo placemats, and advertising photos, the model provides an exciting window into both what Monroeville Mall looked like in 1977—originally there was an ice rink, later replaced by the food court; Carlton’s Mens Shop included the faux street lamps of mall shops of that era—and how low-budget movie-making worked at the time. It’s hard to imagine the production designers for Jaws or Star Wars cutting pictures from a Sears catalog to propose set ideas … but, maybe?

hand-made model of mall interior with added zombie figures
Model Monroeville Mall, complete with the old ice rink, Carlton’s Mens Shop … and zombies

Calling itself a museum is a little bit of a stretch. The Living Dead Museum has a number of really great artifacts, but I could imagine hardcore fans being disappointed by the limits of the collection. As with the mall model, the collection is extremely light on description of either the items presented or the films they came from.

The Night of the Living Dead room, for example, has plenty of promo stills, posters, and news clippings, but for actual objects from the movie, visitors get to see Sheriff McClelland’s ammo belt and some production lights used for scenes inside the farmhouse.

display of memorabilia items from the movie "Night of the Living Dead"
Part of the Night of the Living Dead display

Many of the other displays include “prop-alikes.” I couldn’t find an official definition for this term, but I assume it means an object not used in a film, but one that looks just like the prop. There are quite a number of replica/recreation/tribute figures which are cool, but feel a little like the house that went all-in on Halloween.

reel-to-reel tape recorder and hand-drawn pages from fictional Necronomicon book
Prop-alikes from The Evil Dead 2
zombie figure modeled on character from the movie "Creepshow"
Model of a zombie from the movie “Creepshow”

All that said, for this horror noob, fair-weather fan, and general curiosity-seeker, The Living Dead Museum was a legit hoot. There is plenty to goo-ga over, even if you haven’t seen the movies the displays reference. It’s also a nice bite-sized experience that won’t wear you out, take up your whole afternoon, or break the bank.

The creators of The Living Dead Museum clearly put their blood and guts—and the blood of plenty others too—into an experience custom made for zombies, and those who love them. This Halloween season—or any season—we highly recommend a visit.

red handprints from John Kirch, actor in "Night of the Living Dead"
Hand prints and signature from “teenage zombie” John Kirch (R.I.P.) on the Maul of Fame

See also: “Neighbor of the Living Dead [or] I Was a Teenage Zombie,” The Orbit’s 2017 story on Night of the Living Dead actor and “teenage zombie” John Kirch who sadly passed away late last year.