Going Postal: Cap Man Fever, Part 2 OR Whither, Cap Man?

postal slap on light pole with portrait of young man in baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #12, Forbes Ave.

Cap Man has left the building.

More accurately, he’s likely left Pittsburgh entirely*. The possibility also exists that the young “postal slap” artist who decorated the lamp posts and traffic signage of central Oakland over the past year has just moved on to another less public hobby. But we doubt it.

postal slap with portrait of young man in baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #10, Neville St.

Let’s back up. Over the summer, we reported on the serial application of hand-created Sharpie-on-postal label artworks throughout the greater Craig Street and Forbes Ave. area of Oakland. A lot of folks use this medium, but few work in portraiture. [See “Going Postal: Cap Man Fever”, Pittsburgh Orbit, June 11, 2017.] These little sticker pieces were committed by an unknown, anonymous artist who appeared to be (perhaps overly) obsessed with literally plastering his face all over town.

No sooner had we published our second, tangentially-related story [“Going Postal: Rogues Gallery”Pittsburgh Orbit, July 30, 2017] than a new salvo of Cap Man (self-)portraits began appearing, including a nice run down mostly-residential Neville Street in Oakland.

postal slap with portrait of young man in baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #9, Neville St.

The image was unmistakably our guy–the same upturned, tagged, and jauntily off-center ball cap; the same flat expression and deep-seated eyes on a familiar young white guy face–so we bagged them. [Observant Orbit readers will note our photographs are from a point after some heavy mid-summer rains soaked the stickers thoroughly, leaving the dried artifacts crinkled, but still color-rich.] Then we waited for more…and waited…and waited.

But, as we learned from the years counting the seconds for Chinese Democracy to drop, there’s a point where it’s healthiest to just let go. This then may be a final goodbye as well as a thankful tribute to Cap Man. For whatever brief period, he made the sidewalks of Oakland a little more interesting and the art of the postal slap a little more creative.

postal slap with portrait of young man in baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #11, Neville Street

So what’s become of Cap Man? Our original hypothesis–a Pitt student who slapped his way across Oakland in the daily commute from a bus stop on Fifth and/or Craig Street to his campus classrooms–still holds water. Perhaps even more so, considering the termination of the ink portraits roughly coincides with the end of the university’s summer term.

That said, it’s safe to say there’s a fair chance we’ll just never know what was up with this dude. Cap Man may well have taken his business or computer science degree back to Philadelphia,  New York, or Washington, D.C. and is now safely installed running the numbers or pushing digits far from the telephone poles of central Oakland and the bus shelters of Bloomfield. Hopefully he’s still got his collection of Sharpies and they’re not just used for addressing large packages and system diagraming on large conference room brainstorming tablets.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re up to, godspeed, Cap Man.

postal slap with portrait of young man in baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #12, Forbes Ave.


* A little gender assumption here, yes, but as explained in the earlier post, Pittsburgh Orbit believes these are self-portraits of a young man.

James P. Leaf Mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery

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

James P. Leaf mausoleum, 1949. Beaver Cemetery.

This blogger has spent a lot of time in the boneyard. So much time, we dare say, that we’ve hung out more than some cemeteries’ (newer) full-time residents. To visit one is a whole enchilada experience: you get to be outside in the introvert’s version of Kennywood–usually alone, in near silence, on beautifully-cared-for grounds that feel like a wild city park. Often there are the deer and crows and opossums to back it up. But it’s a park alive (ironically) with stories and history, carved images and statuary. Any cemetery has way too much to take in for just a single visit.

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

Have you seen the back? Large boulders embedded in the Leaf mausoleum.

What these hallowed grounds don’t tend to feature so often is the touch of the human hand. Typically, gravestones are professionally-cut, perfectly-engraved, production line affairs. They’re marvels of precision stone-cutting and restrained grace, symmetry and classical iconography.

Rarely, however, does one encounter a grave marker that was hand made by the grieving family. [An obvious exception to this is the “DIY gravestones of Highwood Cemetery” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Oct. 30 and Nov. 1, 2015).] It is especially rare to see a stone or tomb that looks like his or her bats-in-the-belfry aunt or brown bottle flu uncle would have built it.

large stone blocking entry to mausoleum entry, Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Leaf mausoleum, entry (detail)

That, however, is exactly what Beaver Cemetery’s James P. Leaf mausoleum looks like. At approximately the size of a one-car alley garage, it’s definitely the right scale for your typical double-crypt couple’s tomb–but it sure doesn’t look like one. There are none of the straight lines, white stone, or classical features we normally see. Mr. Leaf didn’t even receive the customary stained glass rear windows like we peeked in on in Allegheny Cemetery.

Instead, the monument has clearly been constructed by hand, from an oddball collection of irregular stones. These range from the size of a cantaloupe to huge boulders that would crush a house in their falling path. One of these massive rocks has been set to entirely block the front entrance to the tomb, leaving only an oxidized copper Leaf nameplate visible awkwardly above. Water-smoothed river pebbles have been used to create decorative features within the mortar walls and vertically-places stones sit on top to resemble crude castle battlements.

There is a maybe too-good-to-be-true story that the mausoleum was built with stones pulled from each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties that appears in several sources, all unsubstantiated.

mosaic detail made from pebbles, James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Detail: pebble mosaic

James Pinney Leaf (1866-1949) seems an unlikely soul to spend eternity in such a ramshackle final resting place. The son of an engineer, Leaf followed in his father’s footsteps, earning a degree in engineering, serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War I, and working on projects and surveys in Rochester, PA, the Ohio canals, Pymatuning Reservoir, on Lake Erie, and along the Ohio River.[1]

So how did a lifelong builder and engineer end up in a cattywumpus backyard barbeque of a crypt like this one? There’s got to be a great explanation here.

view into crypt interior, James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

View into crypt interior

Spoiler Alert: We don’t know! The Orbit sat on this story for an entire year, dug into the books with the crew at the Carnegie Library’s Pennsylvania Room, consulted professional archivists, talked to Beaver Cemetery staff, and … Zilch. Goose egg. Bubkes. “Nothing burger”.

Who James P. Leaf was is well documented–Hillman Library has a huge collection of family papers–but it’s a total mystery how such an esteemed veteran, builder, and prominent community member ended up with this pile-of-rocks mausoleum.

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

One of these memorials is not like the rest. Leaf mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery.

It was a rough week–emotionally and physically. Nobody wants to hear about all that, but you’ll no doubt respect the need to just move on and let a mystery be its own mysterious self. Maybe by having this story out there someone who actually knows what’s up with the Leaf tomb can enlighten us and we can finally set the record straight.

Currently, we’re in the apex of leaf-changing glory. If you’re looking for a destination to get your fall colors on, you could do a lot worse than the fun drive out Route 65, past Punks Ice Cream and the murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy, to lovely little Beaver Cemetery. See what you can find out for ol’ Orbit, will you?


[1] University of Pittsburgh Library System, Leaf family papers.

An Orbit Obit: The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern

mural for Frankowski family with people holding giant pierogie, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

It takes a village to raise a pierogi. Frankowski family coat-of-arms.

This one’s personal.

Over at Orbit headquarters, we wailed into the night over the loss of Chiodo’s–it with its dusty, historic underwear hanging from the ceiling and the Mystery Sandwich haunting our dreams. We took it easy with the Casio beats and flared collars of The Casual Approach (R.I.P.) who defied gravity every weekend at Dormont’s Suburban Lounge (also R.I.P.). Letter-writing campaigns begged our congressmen to turn The Chart Room into a national monument and there should have been so many more piano sing-a-longs at Moré. The days of dollar pints and four-bit “lady drafts” at bygone Lawrenceville watering holes like Michalski’s, A.J.’s, and Salak’s feel like ancient history–but it wasn’t actually that long ago.

The loss of these iconic, convivial, rowdy barrelhouses are all just eyewash to the earthquake that music-making/beer-drinking/pierogi-eating/squirt-gun-shooting Pittsburgh felt last week. The “Polish party house in the heart of Little Italy,” has bled the grease from its deep friers, removed the ceramic stein collection, carved wooden stage bear, and pictures of the pope. They’ve powered down the spotty PA system and shooed out the last late-night booze hounds. The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has closed forever.

gated front door for the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Closed forever, sigh.

[Cue: shimmering soft focus and a one-two polka beat.]

The year was 1996–some time in November. Arriving from The South with its still-turning mid-fall leaves and pleasant, temperate climate, Pittsburgh was soaking in several inches of days-old dirty street slush as a steady freezing rain dripped from the unrelenting overcast gray-black sky. Needless to say, this blogger-to-be had found a new home.

By pure chance–we’re talking pre-Internet tourism here–The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern was the very first place he spent a nickel. It was on a Polish Platter, and I’m pretty sure it still cost just $5.95 at the time. Carbs are pretty cheap in The South–but they don’t come with names like golabki and kluski. Although my middle-aged metabolism can’t demolish a plate like it used to, the food was as delicious just a few weeks ago as it was all the way back in the ’90s.

plate of Polish food including pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Oh, how I will miss you. The Polish Platter (“Red”): pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski

For the next, gulp, twenty-one years the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has been the most long-running, consistent presence in this transplant’s Pittsburgh experience. The doctor only prescribes Polish Platters a couple times a year [yes, I know: find a new doctor!] but it’s been rare to go more than a couple months without receiving an audio-visual screening from BBT’s musical stage.

Typically, these are administered by local bands. [Full disclosure: the author is sometimes playing in one of them.] But despite BBT’s tiny size, cramped quarters, and DIY show-running [bands were responsible for collecting at the door, setting up the PA system, and running their own sound], the bar has played host to amazing run of touring players too numerous to list here.

Weird Paul Rock Band performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Weird Paul Rock Band at BBT, August, 2017

You think that’d be it, right? It’s a tavern: there’s beer, bar food, and weekend rock-and-roll–what else do you need? Well, you may not need much more, but the BBT plays into a legacy of Pittsburgh culture so deep we may take years–decades, even–to dig out from the loss.

Back in the day, then-city councilman Jim Ferlo held an annual Pittsburgh Marathon party in BBT’s side parking lot, complete with polka bands, a hot dog buffet, and cold beer. A highlight of the event was seeing exhausted runners, just hitting “the wall” at the marathon’s 23-mile point, veer straight off Liberty Avenue and plunge into the soft welcoming foam of a free Iron City Beer. Every local politician made it a point to stop by the BBT’s temporary parking lot stage to dole out cash “prizes” for things like “best dancer” and “cutest puppy”. Across the street, Foodland’s electronic weekly specials sign would be programmed to read the jingoist message Go runners. Beat Kenyans.

mural of Polish towns coats of arms painted on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish towns coats of arms, BBT parking lot

And then there are those murals. Dozens–maybe a hundred–different coats-of-arms of Polish towns you’ve probably never heard of. Crests with identifying names like Głowno, Szczecin, Gryfów Ślaski, and Żywiec ring the inside of BBT’s short concrete parking lot wall and come decorated in all manner of old world imagery–castles, bulls, red stags, and green griffins; kings, knights, mermaids, the sun & plow.

It’s gone now, but an earlier generation will forever associate the exterior of the bar with both the wonderful potted-flower Bloomfield mural/sign and [BBT founder/patriarch] Stan Frankowski’s wall-sized polemics attacking local politicians, anti-union foes, and corporate corruption. After Stan’s passing in 2005, his sons Steve and Karl took over the business. They kept up all the other traditions–including the annual day-after-Easter Dyngus Day party–but toned-down the see-it-from-the-suburbs politics. The updated red-and-white paint job, side screened porch/smoker’s lounge, and Polish falcons still look great.

coats of arms for Rodom and Radlin painted as murals on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Coats-of-arms from Rodom and Radlin

I didn’t make it out to the final night at the BBT–the body just wouldn’t let me. Luckily, Mike Shanley gave us all a pretty good scene report plus a slew of his own reminiscences in this week’s City Paper.

That said, news began to circulate about the (then-future) closing of the bar back in the late winter, so 2017 became a kind-of year-long living goodbye to venue. I played a last show there, saw a (different) last show there, and yes, ate a last Polish Platter. For the piece on his recent book of poetry, we interviewed Scott Silsbe over Strawb ambers in BBT’s breezy side porch on a lovely day in May.

mirrored wall behind the bar and patrons at Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

BBT near the end: bevelled mirror bar, blood red ceiling, and big cats on TV.

As much as I’ll personally miss the place, I don’t fault the Frankowski brothers one bit for the decision to move on. Running a bar has got to be really tough work full of long, late hours dealing with no small amount of jerks, deadbeats, drunkards, and bodily fluids. Hats off to anyone who can put up with all that and still keep smiles on their faces the way Stan, Steve, Karl, and Sheila always did.

The Orbit certainly hopes the Frankowskis find a good new owner for the building and business so they can finally relax on the weekends without the sound of electric guitars ringing in their ears. Hopefully, the next tenants at 4412 Liberty Ave. will understand the legacy and history they’re dealing with–maybe they’ll even keep up the outside murals.

exterior of Bloomfield Bridge Tavern with Polish red and white flag and logo, Pittsburgh, PA

Hallowed ground. Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

A final note. “New” Pittsburgh: if you’re out there listening and planning the next local, organic, hop-infused culinary venture, please–sweet Jesus–consider adding a Polish Platter to the menu. I’m sure I won’t be the only one pining for the taste and willing to pony up every chance I get–at least as much as the doctor allows.

metal window cover painted with message "The worst form of failure is the failure to try.", Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

An Urban Hike: William Street, Mount Washington

downtown Pittsburgh seen through silhouetted trees

Ghost City. Downtown Pittsburgh as seen through trees on William Street, Mt. Washington.

If Rod Stewart is to be believed, every picture tells a story. This one’s a doozy.

In the photograph, the camera lens is roughly eye level with the tallest buildings in downtown Pittsburgh. They’re not “skyscraper” material, but we’ve got a collection of 40-, 50-, and 60-story towers that can legitimately feel “big city” if you pick just the right block to look up in. But here, it’s hard to actually see them–the distant office buildings of Grant and Smithfield Streets are heavily obscured by a foreground scrim of silhouetted trees clustered awkwardly, bent by nature, and leaning with no perceptible pattern.

The city scene is so background, washed-out, and featureless behind the crisp black tree line that it’s nearly unrecognizable if you don’t know what to look for. The storyline writes itself–Pittsburgh: the illusion of a big city within the reality of Appalachia.

single-lane road surrounded by trees in Pittsburgh, PA

big city living: William Street, about half way up

The bummer in taking a hike–if there is one–can be just getting there. As a person who’d rather not be in a car, the irony that one must drive to take a walk is befuddling and frustrating. It’s like purchasing new trash bags to just put them straight in the waste bin. Sure, you could live in a mountain cabin and hike right out the front door, but then you’d have to get in the car to buy your provisions–what a mess!

Not so in Pittsburgh. There are, of course, terrific woodsy trails in the city parks (especially Riverview and Frick), but one needn’t stop there. Between the up-and-down topography and relative sparseness of the hilltop communities, there are ample urban hikes just a bicycle ride or bus transfer away.

hand-painted road sign with multiple curves, Pittsburgh, PA

they ain’t kidding: curves ahead on William Street

Like the old joke, “I went a to a fight and a hockey game broke out,” we arrived at William Street  last week on journalistic assignment and a hike happened. We were up on Mount Washington to track down and photograph the childhood home of [bygone football hero] Johnny Unitas. [For more on that, see last week’s story “A Football Team That Wanted Him: Johnny Unitas and the Bloomfield Rams” by David Craig.] Oh, we located the house–but we found so much more too.

sun coming through trees in Grandview Park, Pittsburgh, PA

uphill to Grandview Park

There would have been a lot more homes up here in young Johnny U’s day–frankly, it’s a bit of a surprise the Unitas house is still standing. William Street, which descends as a snake-slithering one-lane/one-way from Boggs Ave. down to Arlington Ave., has few remaining buildings today. A 1901 map, however, shows us how many homes once stood along the road. Whether that’s because the residential plots were requisitioned to create the surrounding park land or if it just got too difficult and expensive to maintain houses in a holler on the side of a mountain is unknown. Maybe one was a convenient excuse for the other.

In any case, the signs of life are still here. Like any self-respecting city steps hike, the amateur archeologist is rewarded with nature-without-man trees growing through basements, layered stone foundations, felled chimneys, and still extant front steps edging right up to the roadside–all this as the sun’s halo casts a rich, dappled light through the lush greenery of Grandview Park.

stone steps and house foundation on hillside in Pittsburgh, PA

forgotten foundation and entry steps, lower William Street

detail of William Street from a 1901 map showing many former houses on the south and east sides of the street

detail: lower William Street c. 1901 showing many former houses on the south and east sides of the street (G.M. Hopkins & Co. map collection)

There’s a line that every Pittsburgher has a favorite view of the city–the West End Overlook, Grandview Avenue, or St. John’s Cemetery in Spring Hill, for example. The richness of options on this one little path make a fair case for William Street as two or three different best views.

Near the top, there’s a unique look north-northwest to the side of Mount Washington proper–the big broadcast tower at the end of Grandview is an easy beacon. You also get the oddball collection of both traditional and uber-modern houses on little Cola Street in the foreground, plus a glancing shot at downtown and The Point. In the same general area, one can bag a nice sight line across the Smithfield Street bridge to the whole of downtown.

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, north view: downtown, Smithfield Street Bridge, Cola Street

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, view north-northwest: Grandview Ave. (with broadcast tower), houses on Cola Street, downtown

Further down, as William bends to more of an east-west layout, there are vantage points looking directly down the Liberty Bridge and off-angles from either side. Here, you’ll get eyes on the jail, Uptown, Duquesne University, and all the way across two rivers to Troy Hill and Spring Hill on the north side of the Allegheny.

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, view north-northeast: Liberty Bridge, jail, and Uptown

William Street is not without its perils. One big section of the road has begun to crumble off the hillside. Other parts are so narrow there’s not a lot of margin for error. These are mainly concerns for the motorists rolling the dice as they travel downhill, but you’ll want to keep your wits about you.

Citizen-hikers should take note: William is an active city street and cars will slowly edge by you while pumping their brakes. That said, it’s just not that busy–in the full climb up and back on a Saturday morning, we probably encountered less than ten vehicles.

wooden steps descending to wooded trail, Pittsburgh, PA

entrance to Emerald View Trail from William Street

The street even provides for the folks who don’t consider a walk on pavement to be a “real” hike. Climbers have the option to sneak off the asphalt and into the woods near the top of the hill. There, the terrific Emerald View Trail runs right across the street on its route from Bigbee Field/Grandview Park above to the woods around McArdle Roadway below.

These are Pittsburgh’s salad days. Crisp, jacket-weather mornings followed by lush, unrelenting blue sky afternoons full of turning leaves, pumpkin-spiced and decorative gourd fall fantasias, plus a seeming mass conviviality we never quite achieve the rest of the year. Get out there and enjoy it.

A Football Team That Wanted Him: Johnny Unitas and the Bloomfield Rams

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field, Pittsburgh, PA

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field (neé Dean’s Field), Bloomfield. Johnny Unitas’ Bloomfield Rams practiced here in the 1950s.

Editor’s note: Back in April, we wrote a piece for our cross-continental sister blog The Portland Orbit[1]. In exchange, Orbit poobah David Craig offered to file a story for us during football season. Here you go.

by David Craig

When I think about Johnny Unitas, I think Colts football, his battle against Namath, and the Super Bowl victory that cemented his reputation. The Colts’ overtime victory in the ‘58 league championship is known as “the greatest game ever played” and helped pro football gain its immense popularity. I didn’t know he was born in Pittsburgh and was surprised to find out that he initially broke into the league when he was drafted–and then cut–by the Steelers.

book cover for "Pro Football Heroes" by Steve Gelman

Cover star Johnny Unitas perfects the hand off. “Pro Football Heroes” by Steve Gelman.

It was a 99 cent purchase made at a Goodwill Store that led to another Unitas discovery. How I came to own the book Pro Football Heroes by Steve Gelman escapes me, but the book opens with a chapter on Unitas describing the detour on his road to football glory after the Steelers released him in 1955:

“Convinced now that he couldn’t get into pro football until the next year, Johnny took a job as a pile driver on a construction gang. Meanwhile, to stay in shape for his next pro football tryout, he began playing with a semi-pro team, the Bloomfield Rams.”

From my knowledge of Pittsburgh I recognized this as a city neighborhood. Reading more confirmed this:

“The Rams played every Thursday night at the Arsenal Street School playground in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh.”[2]

Arsenal Middle School in Pittsburgh PA with a large green playing in front.

Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville. The Bloomfield Rams played their home games on this field. Now more grass than glass.

It intrigued me that Unitas began his storied career in Bloomfield before becoming “pro football’s last hero,” as Lou Sahadi called him in his book Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback. From an early age, Johnny lived for football. In Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas by Tom Callahan, Unitas’ mother talked about returning from the funeral home after his father died to find her then five-year old son throwing a football with friends. It seemed especially poignant that he sought comfort in the game after the loss of his father.

childhood home of Johnny Unitas, Pittsburgh, PA

Unitas family home, Mt. Washington

Unitas confided in a substitute teacher at school that he wanted to be a professional football player when he grew up. His sights were set on an athletic career but after failing the entrance exam to the University of Pittsburgh and being turned away from his hometown school, Unitas knew his professional chances would be nonexistent if he didn’t play in college. Another failed entrance exam found him starting his college career at the University of Louisville on academic probation. He did what he had to do to keep his dream alive.

Getting sacked by the Steelers was tough but he had been in a no-win situation. There were three other quarterbacks in camp that year, the most notable being Ted Marchibroda, who had better job prospects as a coach than a quarterback. Unitas was never able to show what he could do in preseason. Cut too late to join another team, he was forced to sit out a season and remained in Pittsburgh working construction to pay the bills.

At Steeler training camp, Unitas conducted a lesson in the “Hail Mary.”

When his old friend Fred Zangaro asked Johnny to join him on the Bloomfield Rams, Unitas had concerns about getting hurt. The team needed a quarterback but he didn’t want anything to get in the way of playing professionally. Unitas conceded, and played what he described as “sand-lot ball.” Explaining in a 1959 Look magazine article, “it was football and I was able to keep in practice.”

In the books by Callahan and Sahadi, the authors emphasized subpar playing conditions. The field was more dirt, rock and glass than grass and had to be sprayed with oil and water to keep the dust down. The equipment was ratty. Unitas had to search through piles of old gear to suit up. Players wore army boots instead of cleats. Unitas faced derision for being a college boy, a Steeler’s draftee and someone who dared dream of playing in the NFL. In his ebook The Best There Ever Was, Roland Lazenby describes a team, like Def Leppard, playing without a full set of limbs:

“…a roster loaded with steel-mill workers, many of them disabled. The offensive line alone featured just seven arms.”

Unitas in a rare Bloomfield Rams photo when he played both offense and defense. Courtesy Chuck “Bear” Rogers.

Later in the Look article, Unitas described an improvisational game plan that sounded like plays were diagrammed in the dirt as the team huddled.  “You had to take punishment,” was his simple description of the challenge of receiving pass protection from 140 pound linemen. Unitas led the Rams on an eight game winning streak and a conference championship. He experienced the satisfaction of winning–something that hadn’t happened much in his college years. The Bloomfield Rams offered him a sense of championship football he brought to his NFL career.

The Rams played in the Steel Bowl Conference against teams like the Pittsburgh Cubs, Arnold A.C., and the Nanty-Glo Blackhawks, along with teams from Shaler and McKeesport. The financial aspects of the league were small by today’s standards[3]. Unitas was paid $6 a game–money he was happy to turn over to his wife for groceries. By the end of the season, his winning ways earned him a pay bump of $15 a game. Opposing teams liked playing the Rams at Arsenal Field because the games there attracted crowds of anywhere from a few hundred to 1,000 people, each paying a $3 admission which meant a $500 pay out. After expenses, Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers had a budget of about $350 to pay Ram’s players. His policy of fining players $3 for missing practice meant some guys had to play for free.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

In considering Unitas as the father of great Western Pennsylvania quarterbacks, I wondered if the others had idolized him. An obiturary/tribute to Unitas written by Chuck Finder for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed the always quotable (Beaver Falls native) Joe Namath had considered Unitas “my football inspiration, my hero.” I imagine that the other western Pennsylvania quarterbacks knew enough about Unitas to think that if he could make it, they also had a shot. Lou Sahadi made a case for the western Pennsylvania quarterbacks describing the mentality that fueled them:

“John was first of those lunch-bucket quarterbacks to come out of western Pennsylvania. Later on came Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath and Dan Marino. They were all the same. Guys who didn’t have anything. Guys who knew it was back to the steel mills or coal mines if they didn’t get the job done.”

historical plaque honoring Johnny Unitas that reads "(1933-2002) Pittsburgh native & Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, 1979. Here Unitas quarterbacked semi-pro Bloomfield Rams to a Steel Bowl Football Conference championship, 1955. Signed with Baltimore Colts, 1956, leading them to an NFL championship, 1958.

historical plaque in front of Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville

At this point this post should have the feel of a very late night AM radio sports talk broadcast. Imagine bursts of static and a distant echoing theremin whine as I sermonize about the early playing days of the great Johnny Unitas. I focused so much on his brief time in Bloomfield that I never got around to exploring the rest of his playing career. My sense is, if only on a subconscious level, his brief foray in semi-pro football offered a foundation that made him the player he became. No matter the pressure, weather, or game situations he faced, he could always draw on the challenges of his primitive Bloomfield days.

The experience must have given him an appreciation for quality teammates, decent equipment and reasonable practice facilities but it’s important to remember the Bloomfield Rams were there when Unitas needed them. He expressed this in Lou Sahadi’s book explaining that what had mattered most about playing for the Rams had been the feeling that there was a football team that wanted him.

I’ll leave it up to the Pittsburgh Orbit‘s head honcho Will Simmons to track down the Bloomfield Rams old 1955 Steel Bowl Conference trophy. I’m imagining his relentless pursuit in knocking on doors as he looks up players from the ’55 Ram’s roster, guys like Jim Deglau, Jacko Cray, Red Celender, Fred Zangaro, or even Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers, if he’s still around, to get the full story of what it was like to play football with Johnny Unitas in Pittsburgh. That will have to wait until next season.


[1] “The Louie Files: The Greatest Moment in Rock-and-Roll,” Portland Orbit, April 6, 2017.
[2] Of course, this was actually down the hill in Lawrenceville at what is today Arsenal Middle School on Butler Street. There’s a historical plaque there to prove it.
[3] Editor’s note: This pay rate may actually not be that different from present-day. If any members of the [currently-active semi-pro teams] Passion, Rangers, Colts, or Wildcatz would like to comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Bibliography:

Tom Callahan, Johnny U The Life & Times of John Unitas, Crown Publishers
Lou Sahadi, Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback, Triumph Books
Roland Lazenby, Johnny Unitas: The Best There Ever Was, Triumph ebooks
Steve Gelman, Pro Football Heroes, Scholastic Book Services

Vex Ed: Designs for a New Pittsburgh Flag

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob" with abstracted design based on Pittsburgh's three rivers

“Three Rivers”, Goob

In a word, rivers. That’s what people–at least, the people who took up The Orbit‘s flag redesign challenge–thought most represented the City of Pittsburgh. Map-perfect renderings of the Mon, the Allegheny, and the Ohio are colored a fantasy blue we’ll never actually see in the murky waters around here. Rivers represented by the most simple wavy-lined icon-style rippling wave forms got there too.

Last month, we introduced a contest to see if readers could come up with a new Pittsburgh flag that would avoid some of the design woes and visual no-nos in our current banner while having a bit of fun thinking about what other options might be on the table. The deadline has passed, those submissions are in, and we’ve got the results for you–right here and right now.

All the flag designs we received are good, but we really love Goob’s[1] “Three Rivers” (above)–a perfect abstracted layout of Pittsburgh’s waterways in broad gold strokes on a solid black field. It’s not city hall official, but the design is so simple and powerful that we could totally imagine this as a sort-of alternate “people’s flag” sold in street stalls in the Strip next to Cleveland Still Sucks and Heath Miller Time: The Champagne of Tight Ends t-shirts.[2] At least, we’d happily fly a version of this from the front porch of Chez Orbit.

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Ian Finch with gold triangle and black river waves imitating the Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" album cover

“Dark Side of the Mon”, Ian Finch

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Erik Schauer with blue river river design on existing black/gold/black tri-color background

current flag, enhanced by rivers, Erik Schauer

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with blue wavy river lines

“Argent, a pall wavy issuing from sinister azure, within a bordure checky or and sable”, Ray Strobel

Several of our entrants also mind-melded on the idea of abstracting the general path and arrangement of the rivers as well as the division of the North Side/South Side/East End land masses as angular trapezoidal geometry.

Of these, River Dolfi’s submission is particularly effective as a simple, highly graphic three-color affair with an interesting symbolic narrative. Dolfi explains:

“A flag incorporating the traditional Pittsburgh black and gold. The area of the flag is split into three sections, reflecting the way the three rivers split the real city. These divisions also represent the past/our steelmaking heritage (black), the present golden triangle (the golden triangle), and our blank-canvas future (white).”

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by River Dolfi featuring gold triangle with black and white other sections

Pittsburgh past/present/future, River Dolfi

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with black lines to represent the three rivers and three black hypcycloids on a gold field

“Or, between a pall issuant from sinister, three hypocycloids sable”, Ray Strobel

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with blue lines representing the rivers

“Argent, a pall issuing from sinister azure, within a bordure checky or and sable”, Ray Strobel

Ian Finch, a graphic designer by day and apparent Pittsburgh ex-patriot, has turned in three cheeky numbers that are all fun. “Dark Side of the Mon” (above) falls into the river category by parodying Pink Floyd’s similarly-titled 1973 stoner/headphone classic. In Finch’s hands, the original album’s prism and light rays cover art becomes a golden triangle separating two bodies of water–one placid; the other gentle rippling waves.

“Mount Worshington” manages to jag on Pittsburgh pronunciation, one of the city’s iconic hilltop neighborhoods, and an old-school patterned tea towel to dry your hands off after all that worshing up.

While Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker have put 1993’s Striking Distance long in their rearview mirrors, Pittsburghers conjure it every time they “take Bigelow” or lead the police on a high-speed chase that ends up taking out a truckload of Iron City beer barrels. Finch’s tribute is a little harder to parse–and probably not what we as a city want to hang our hat on–but still gets marks for its clever use of the golden triangle blended with police/military stripe imagery.

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Ian Finch with black and gold triangle mountain and cloth-woven border in blue, red, and gold

“Mount Worshington”, Ian Finch

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Ian Finch of military-looking gold triangle and angled black stripes

“Striking Distance”, Ian Finch

“We all know that Pittsburgh is about many things, but little separates us from other towns like our abundance of bridges and pierogies,” says Paul Schifino about his pierogie-bridge flag. “Is it a bridge? Is it a pierogie? The answer is yes. My goal was to create something graphic with a simple message: We Are Pittsburgh.”

Also in this other category is another entry from Goob–this one taunting us with Pittsburgh’s history of great streetcar lines, mercilessly ripped-out in the 1960s and ’70s to everyone’s continued dismay. Sigh. Oh yeah, maybe it’s also a Mr. Rogers thing.

Ray “Ain’t Gonna Happen” Strobel thinks Pittsburgers would rather look at a big-ass insect than the current city flag. But, like Ian Finch, he’s really just riffing on the Pittsburghese n’at / gnat … we think.

proposal for Pittsburgh city flag by Paul Schifino with image of pierogie shape and bridge elements

“Is it a bridge? Is it a pierogie? The answer is yes.”, Paul Schifino

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob", with silhouetted trolley car against existing black/gold/black tri-colored background

“Trolley”, Goob

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with a drawing of a gnat on a gold field

“Or, a gnat proper. (Say it. C’mon… say it. Get it? Get it??)”, Ray Strobel

The over-achieving Goob turned in two additional entries, both working from Pittsburgh’s 1925 city ordinance that brought us the current design.[3] “Three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted Or,” reads the passage which describes this general arrangement of antique golden coins on a black, triangular background.

These two of Goob’s entries are probably the most legit as far as satisfying the original flag definition and something you could actually imagine hanging in the courthouse. That said, we still don’t have either the “fess chequay Argent et Azure” or the “triple-towered castle masoned Argent” that got us into this mess in the first place. So the powers that be would probably throw these entries out on a technicality, but we like them.

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob", with gold eagle-fronted coins on black triangle on gold field

“Triangle Coins I”, Goob

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob", with gold eagle-fronted coins on black triangle on existing black/gold/black tri-colored background

“Triangle Coins II”, Goob

One thing about getting into vexillology: you’re going to learn some new vocabulary. We’ve already tripped across bezant (an old Roman/Byzantine coin), sableargent, and or (the heraldic colors black, white, and gold, respectively).

Ray Strobel, who in the high-stakes poker game of Vexillology Stud saw Goob’s four designs and raised that another two, drops this kind of lingua flaga with wild flag-bearing abandon. While it would take a whole glossary to get through descriptions like “Sable, in fess on a hypocycloid or a penguin proper, two leg bones in saltire argent,” the world-wise Orbit reader will get the idea with just a good look at the pictures.

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with combined logos of Pittsburgh sports teams

“Sable, in fess on a hypocycloid or a penguin proper, two leg bones in saltire argent”, Ray Strobel

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with seven gold hypocycloids in rows of four/one/two on a black field

“Sable, seven hypocycloids or, four, one, and two”, Ray Strobel

Finally, Brett Yasko turns in a design that reads like a Zen koan and breaks every rule of flag design. [Brett: don’t you know not to put words on a flag? how’s that thing going to read when it’s 50 feet in the air and there’s no breeze to stretch it out??] That said, what red-blooded cat owner doesn’t like animated gifs?

This one probably stands zero chance of reaching a city council floor vote, but that doesn’t mean we don’t agree with the sentiment. It’s the ones we love that can make us uniquely insane. For anyone–perhaps everyone–who’s grown up in, spent time around, or committed-to Pittsburgh, you’ll probably share some level of understanding how the city drives you crazy because you care about it so much.

The Orbit is doing its thing–and you may well be reading about it–because we love the city that much. Whatever flag you may be flying for the city of Pittsburgh–literally or figuratively–let’s raise it high.

flag that just includes the text ""Sometimes I really hate Pittsburgh because I love it so much" by Brett Yasko

“Sometimes I really hate Pittsburgh because I love it so much”, Brett Yasko

Many thanks to all who participated in the flag redesign challenge–this was really fun. Maybe we’ll do another one along these lines in future.


[1] Presumably not his or her real name, but the anonymity has been preserved at the request of the entrant.
[2] Goob: you and me are going to make so much money! [But we’ll need a real name to make the checks out to.] [Maybe we could do one of things where I drop a manilla folder full of cash into a trash can in the park and you send an innocent rube to pick up the “drop”.] [Ahh, I don’t know if that will really work, but don’t worry–we can figure out the details.]
[3] Flag of Pittsburgh, Coat of Arms and Seal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Pittsburgh#Coat_of_arms_and_seal

The Orbit’s Summer Vacation, Part 2: Coming Home

hillside covered with green vines, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh in the summertime: one big green blanket. Oakland house and hillside (from Panther Hollow).

The grass, it turns out, was a lot greener back home.

Summers out West are well-known to be sunny, beautiful seasons. Even still, Portland was going on fifty-nine straight days without rain by the time this blogger touched down last month. In his eight days in Oregon, there was just one light sprinkle to break the streak. Like a Zen koan, it happened over night when there was no one even awake to witness it. The rare grass patch that wasn’t bone dry and scorched pale yellow had to be getting daily attention from a hose-wielding lawn-obsessed gardener.

You won’t get that in Pittsburgh where a walk in the summer can often feel like swimming standing up. But the off-the-charts humidity here sure does make the grass–and tomatoes, raspberries, trumpet vine, knotweed, sunflowers, and everything else with a leaf and a root–grow like it’s been fertilized by nuclear worms. That lush, unbroken carpet of green was the first thing we noticed from the tiny cabin window during the decent to Pittsburgh airport.

statue of mythical man of steel Joe Magarac in front of US Steel Edgar Thompson Works, Braddock, PA

Myth-maker: Joe Magarac, Man of Steel, Braddock

Pittsburgh and Portland share a lot more than they differ. Both are mid-sized, post-industrial, suddenly-on-the-national-radar cities. Given that, we can’t help but compare them–plus, it’s a good excuse for an Orbit story.

Last week, we looked back on this recent trip with both respect and envy for some of Portland’s nuts-and-bolts urban accomplishments and comfortable living [at least, if you don’t have to come up with the rent check].

This week: the corollary. It’s easy to get caught up in the newness and romance of a vacation spot, but what did we appreciate all over again coming back home?

onion domes of St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church, Homestead, PA

There is power in an onion. St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church, Homestead

Recently, we rode the Orbitmobile from the mingling hoards of off-their-nut Steelers fans down at the stadium up to the Polish Hill home of Simeon Larivonovoff, the last in a line of Russian icon painters going back 659 years. In between and en route, we purchased one of Sunseri Brothers’ enormous “atomic” pepperoni rolls–an $8 expense that supplied three ample, mindbendingly-delicious meals (and one minor case of heartburn).

One of these endpoints was indeed a reporting trip [more about this, later]. Regardless, it only occurred after-the-fact how typically Pittsburgh the whole experience was. Our compact little city, where nearly everything can be navigated by bicycle in 15- or 20-minute jaunts, is filled with and over-abundance of strange histories, brilliant views, criss-crossing cultures, bargain thrills, and intense civic boosters–yes, especially when it comes to sports. There they were, all wrapped up in one little happenstance mile-and-a-half ride.

city steps nearly overgrown with knotweed, Pittsburgh, PA

Public transit, Pittsburgh-style. 57th Street city steps and overgrown hillside, Lawrenceville

The thing is, it could have been any day, heading in any direction. Pittsburgh’s infrastructure–designed by billy goat, operating under the Department of Cattywumpus–ensures we all get to negotiate the jumble of weird streets, steep topography, and the dead-ends of benign neglect almost anywhere within the city. Without even trying, pretty much any detour, reroute, or casual exploration is going to get strange.

Pittsburgh is both geographically and culturally at the exact midpoint between East Coast, Midwest, and Appalachia–and yet it’s none of these, really. But for the people who live here, that’s probably a fair cross-description of personality stereotypes. Generally, Pittsburgh people are warm, funny, goofy, nebby, fired-up, and attitude-free. Yes, we are also legendarily cheap and–to the chagrin of some–football-obsessed.

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

Terrible kilts, great people. Steelers fans, Heinz Field.

And what about that city-to-city comparison? Portland is a really fine town whose biggest problem seems to be self-inflicted–it’s a victim of its own success. So what did we miss about Pittsburgh? What have we got going for us?

In a phrase, it’s a sense of place. Pittsburgh has it in such many and deep ways that we’ve dedicated this entire web site to celebrating and documenting our unique city. This turned into a terribly difficult piece to write, just because the subject is too near and dear, too much to discuss, too hard to boil down.

I’m going to drown you with pronouns now. Somewhere along the way in that trip out West, I found myself feeling like there just wasn’t the kind of there there that we have here.

map of America depicting use of "you guys", "y'all", and "yinz"

[graphic: The Internet]

Portlanders speak with no discernible accent–except possibly a vague California LiteTM upspeak. Pittsburgh is home to a unique American dialect that is so hyper-local it really only extends to the Allegheny County line. There’s a whole lexicon (famously, “yinz,” “redd up,” “sweeper,” “gumband,” “jumbo,” etc.), unique accent, inflection, and the dropping of that pesky verb to be.

Portland is a foodie town where everything is “locally sourced” and comes with a narrative that would sooth the Brontës. Yet no one could name a weirdo regional food equivalent to the steak salad, city chicken, Primanti’s sandwich, Lenten fish, or The Devonshire. Brestensky Meats will sell you a seven-pound kielbasa in the shape and size of a regulation football–complete with laces. Heck, we’ve got a whole series going on weird pizza.

fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski from church fish fry

Both sides now: Lenten fish sandwich with haluski and potato haluski, St. Maximillian Parish, Homestead

Like Pittsburgh, Portland has plenty of defined neighborhoods, but frankly, they’re really indistinguishable. Everything east of the Willamette River is basically flat and adheres to the same approximate giant street grid. Nearly every lot has a single detached house with its own yard. The locals don’t even seem to bother–everything is just referred to by its off-bias quadrant: “Northeast”, “Southwest”. Apparently one quarter of the city’s educated white liberals are more snobby and another’s are more laid back, but man, I’m telling you–it’s a stretch.

sign reading "Witamy do Polish Hill", Pittsburgh, PA

Witamy do (Welcome to) Polish Hill

In Pittsburgh, when you go between neighborhoods, you know it. There’s a new street system (if there’s any pattern at all), the block sizes and architecture all change, the names and faces go from Italian to Polish, Jewish to African-American, students to old-timers. You probably crossed a bridge or climbed a steep hill to get there. A couple areas are fancy-fancy; others have more vacant lots than standing buildings.

Outside the city, it’s a whole other layer of distinct. The old industry towns carry the same fascinating boom-and-bust history, but are now so hauntingly beautiful and heartbreakingly tragic that we feel honored and lucky to be witness to what often feels like the last gasps of their painful denouements.

entertainer Frankie Capri in Elvis-style dress with electric guitar, keyboard, and conga drum

High culture. Frankie Capri, performing at the Original Oyster House, 2016.

In a word, Pittsburgh is just kooky. I’m really happy to live in a place where stair steps disappear into vacant hillsides so overgrown they’re impassible. A place so comfortably out-of-touch that stirrup pants and Zubaz will always be in fashion. I want to live where there are five ways to get anywhere, and they’re all wrong. Where names like Zatwernicki, Freyvogel, Scoglio, Kusmircak, Blosl, Czegan, Fabijanec, and Walkowiak seem normal–the Smiths, Jones, and Williams are the weirdos.

I hope this is always a place you can buy kluski and pretzel salad from older ladies with blue hair and babushkas in Catholic church basements, where children win national marbles championships year-after-year, where strangers hug, high-five, share beers, and tell tall tales because they’re all wearing black-and-gold. Pittsburgh, I’m glad to be home.

exterior of Bestwick Auto & Truck Service company with graffiti "I [heart] Pittsburgh"

Yeah, me too. I [pretzel heart] Pittsburgh.