A Four-Point Program for Snow-Shoveling Scofflaws

large Queen Anne-style house with snow-covered sidewalks, Pittsburgh, PA

Such a pretty house! It’s a shame the owners can’t afford a show shovel. Harriet Street at Fairmount/Roup, Friendship.

Winter. Whether it’s a pox for the seasonally-depressed, a brief, rosy-cheeked window into Yankee fortitude, or a no-questions-asked excuse to stay inside, drink hot chocolate, and watch British detective shows is up to the individual. Regardless–and despite the last two years’ near complete absence of winter–you’re going to have to deal with it sometime.

For the record, The Orbit has no problem with the season. Sure: it’s cold and it’s dreary, but there’s a lot to recommend it too. In any case, the worst thing about winter is undoubtably its potential for calamity. When trodden-on sidewalk snow turns to ice, a simple walk to the bus stop or coffee shop becomes a death-defying task. This no-so-balanced pedestrian has personally twisted ankles, thrown out hips, and landed plenty of (quite literal) pains in the ass on uncleared ice. There’s basically been at least one of these painful falls every year of my life.

Twisters Ice Cream shop with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

This ice is neither gourmet nor Italian. Twisters: you don’t get to take the season off–clean up your act! Bloomfield.

But it need not be this way! If just one person from every household simply pulled out the snow shovel and put in ten or twenty minutes at the appropriate times, the city’s sidewalks would exist in a perpetual walk-friendly state–it’s not that hard. We live in a climate that gets snow–we all know it’s coming. Shovel it once just after the snow stops falling, maybe throw on some rock salt, and nature will take care of the rest…until the next snowfall.

Plenty of people do a great, diligent job, but it is remarkable how many households refuse to make any effort in cleaning their walks. This is far from a mere nuisance, irritant, or old-guy “get off my yard” rant–it’s an extremely dangerous public health situation. Every year, people die from falls on ice and they sure as heck break a lot of bones and twist a lot of joints. Older neighbors and people with disabilities are especially at risk.

large brick Victorian house with snow-covered sidewalks, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship, maybe. Caring about fellow human beings, not so much. Evaline Street at Harriet, Friendship.

This year, The Orbit is fighting back–and we hope you do too. Here is the Four-Point Program for Snow-Shoveling Scofflaws we’ll be implementing this season:

1. We’re watching you.

This blogger doesn’t stop walking when it gets cold, nor does he let a little snow get in his way. But, as mentioned above, it does become a huge hassle when the walks aren’t cleared and sidewalks turn to ice.

I’ll have my little notebook and an adequate pen that writes in sub-freezing temperatures. Addresses, dates, and a record of failure to clean walkways will be recorded. If you try: you’re off the hook. No shoveling: you’re in the book.

“I was out of town,” and “I had the flu,” and “I don’t own a snow shovel” are not acceptable excuses. This is why God invented teenagers. If you physically cannot do the work (or just don’t want to), there are always plenty of neighborhood snow-day youths roaming the streets, shovels and salt in hand, looking to make a buck. Flag one down and you’ll have semi-reliable snow service until he or she heads off to college. Likewise, if you have elderly or infirm neighbors, make the effort to help them clear their walks. The city’s “Snow Angels” program helps pair volunteers with homeowners for exactly this purpose.

large brick house with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

House on the hill, snow on the sidewalk. Winebiddle Street, Friendship.

2. You’ve been served.

Lest anyone think snow shoveling is merely the neighborly thing to do, rest assured it is absolutely the law of the land (err…the city). As officially stated in the City of Pittsburgh Snow Removal Ordinance:


Every tenant, occupant or owner having the care or charge of any land or building fronting on any street in the city, where there is a sidewalk paved with concrete, brick, stone or other material shall, within twenty-four (24) hours after the fall of any snow or sleet, or the accumulation of ice caused by freezing rainfall, cause the same to be removed from the sidewalk.

To this end, I have prepared a handbill that contains the pertinent citation details and will be carrying a stack of these wherever I go. The guilty will receive a letter of justice they’ll not soon forget!

large brick house with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

Winebiddle, whine-a-lot. Friendship.

3. I’m calling your ass in.

The city’s 311 Response Center exists “to help with any non-emergency City of Pittsburgh concerns.” Believe you me, they’ll be getting an earful–or perhaps an In Box full–from this tax-payer! Like Ol’ Saint Nick, we’ll be recording who’s been naughty. Unlike Santa, however, we don’t deal in coal–we’ll just go straight to the po-po. I’m going to be that pest that lets 311 know every snow-dodging ne’er-do-well and feet-dragging layabout on my beat. We’ll see if you can’t clean your walk after that first citation comes in, Jack.

snow-covered sidewalk in front of brick house in Pittsburgh, PA

“No sidewalk parking.” Apparently no sidewalk walking, either. This serial offender on Main Street has not shoveled snow from his or her sidewalks in the last 17 years. Lawrenceville

4. Public shaming.

Just in case the response to that 311 call is either slow, unheeded, or ineffectual, the “nuclear option” is to do what the Internet does best: public shame! Now, normally I’m against this brand of hot-headed anonymous vengeance, but desperate times call for desperate measures–we’re dealing with people’s lives, here! It’s time to get on the neighborhood NextDoor group and flyer the telephone poles. Heck, maybe we’ll get a big billboard on Bigelow Boulevard like Billie Nardozzi! Let’s all hope it doesn’t come to that.

large brick house with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

Shady/side, snowy/walk. Bayard Street, Shadyside

A note on the photographs: These pictures were all taken the same day, Friday, Dec. 15, roughly 48 hours after our first real snow the previous Wednesday. It wasn’t a big one and was followed-up by a warming up melt-away over the weekend, so everybody’s getting off clean…this time. The weather may not be so cooperative with our next snow, so consider this a warning.

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.

Thoughts on a Coffee Mug

coffee mug with image of a duck

A well-used coffee mug

As of today, this part-time blogger has worked at his full-time job for eight years.  That’s a long time.  And, as it turns out, that’s a lot of coffee.

I showed a colleague from California how to use our non-intuitive single-serve coffee machines last week (the LA office uses much more efficient/less wasteful giant urns–my campaign to get ours replaced is a whole other topic).  After we got the mud flowing, I made a dumb joke that “after four thousand cups, you get pretty used to it.”

Not terribly funny, but it got me thinking: How many cups of coffee have I actually drunk here? Do I really want to know?

As it turns out, I’m way over that meager 4000-cup guess.  By my estimation, I have consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,600 cups of coffee, just on this job, here at the office–and that’s a conservative estimate.

My math: three cups a day (it’s often four) x five days a week x 47 weeks a year (?) x eight years = ~5,640 cups.  That’s a lot of coffee!  I may treat my lungs like the Queen of Sheeba, but my entrails get the rented mule shuffle.

That made me think about the mug that has made the down-the-hall, around the bend, to the machine walk and refill journey with me right since the beginning.  It was a present from my former ESL student Tony back before I started this job–part of a wrapped gift package that also included a similar-but-different mug (birds maybe? I can’t remember–it’s long since gone) and a bag of coffee and some nuts (or something like that).  I think he got it at Big Lots.

The mug features two identical images of the same duck with a score of duck varieties named in different typefaces around the outside: King-Necked, Red-Crested, Gadwall, Mallard, Mottled, Pekin, Hookbill, etc.  Eight years of looking at that image and I still haven’t bothered to identify the type of duck pictured on the mug!

How many things get used 5,600 times without any kind of breakdown?  The only maintenance this mug has ever needed is its daily (minimal, I’m afraid) scrub before cup #1; the only wear and tear some thinning of the silk-screen (?) print job on the top lip-meets-brim edge; and (no surprise here) some staining on the inside.

I don’t know if I’ll still be pushing digits and influencing pixels in eight years, and I don’t know if my body will let me keep drinking black gold like it was holy water.  But to you, faithful duck mug, may we have another eight great years together!

Blogger with coffee mug and sad clown painting

The author on the job: you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps to have a coffee mug.