On an otherwise unremarkable side street, a single roadside tree stands out from the rest. Attached to it is a bouquet of pink and white flowers, a solar-powered light, and enlarged color photograph of a young man. The subject is both movie star handsome and ruggedly everyman in his plain white t-shirt and stretchy track suit pants. Aside from the man’s face, every square inch of exposed skin has been tattoo’d in an array of text, glyphs, and images.
Of course we can’t know for sure—there is no annotation for the beribboned photo on this back-alley tree—but by now, we’re accustomed to think of these informal tributes as memorials for lost friends, loved-ones, or community members who’ve passed onto the infinite entirely too soon for those who mourn them here on earth.
Memorial Day. Let’s do this. In what has become an Orbit tradition, we take a hyper-local turn on today’s holiday. No, it’s not strictly about honoring our fallen members our armed services, but it’s also not about discount mattresses and blow-out doorbuster deals at the mall.
These impromptu tributes—painted on walls and staked into roadside berms, placed in windows and stuck into tree trunks—are the people’s memorials. They’re what we’ll be thinking about this day—yes, along with slaw dogs, Clancy’s chips, and beer from a can—as we memorialize the memorials that are inevitably not long for this world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If there is a best flag to represent America in 2022, it may well be this one. Fifteen or twenty feet tall, the big metal version of the stars & bars fills a huge section of exterior wall on the Dura-Bond Pipe facility in McKeesport.
The image is all there, but it’s seen better days. The blue field behind the flag’s fifty stars is faded and streaked; red stripes are all but gone entirely. In their void, scratchy, rusty striations seem to be eating Old Glory from the inside out.
If that’s not a perfect analog for the current state of our American union, I don’t know what is. America is still here, we see its shape and form, still recognize its power and pretense, but it seems to be disappearing—or is actively being destroyed—right in front of our eyes, in ways we never imagined.
We’ll not do any great opining here—you’ve got blow-out mattress sales and sun-soaked cookouts to get to. Maybe, though, in between all those hot dogs and foul balls, consider what you can actively do—and not just on the Internet—to preserve American democracy between now and next Independence Day.
Enjoy the flags (and flag-like things). Happy Independence Day, y’all!
If that ain’t enough flags for you, our sister blog The Portland Orbit has their own flag post out today. Let’s go, America!
In so many cases, we have next-to-nothing to go on—an overflowing bundle of plastic flowers, maybe, or a tumble of teddy bears. There are memorials with rain-streaked and sun-bleached photographs. Utility poles are strung with flags, photographs, and the personal effects of the departed. Crosses left by the side of the road decorate every highway and bouquets adorn all too many neighborhood telephone poles.
Sometimes we get a name, or names, but that’s it. Who were Tony, Bette & Sisters? (photo above) And how did they come to be memorialized with flowers and a placard on the concrete support of the Homestead High-Level Bridge? Did this fairly anonymous spot have a special significance to their lives? Their passing?
Chance Borgese who lost control of his car and crashed into a guardrail on Rt. 88 near Monongahela in 2020. Borgese has a large wooden cross adorned with a wreath of flowers, a photograph, and decorative pots left for him on the site. He’s not the only one with a roadside cross.
When we see similar scenes on residential side streets, it’s had not to worry something more sinister was afoot.
That’s definitely true for Dai’Shawn Grace, whose memorial on a Munhall utility pole includes a photo-adorned cross, flowers, and protective ring of stuffed animals. In 2019, Mr. Grace was murdered, shot multiple times, walking home from the bus stop after working a shift as a prep cook.
This Memorial Day2022 there’s no shortage of human losses to mourn. A million American lives to Covid—an enormous number of which could’ve been prevented if people simply believed science. Unimaginable—and likely difficult to even estimate—deaths in Ukraine. Horrific mass murders in Buffalo and Uvalde. No small number of shooting deaths right here in Pittsburgh. The list goes on and on.
So while many of us get to enjoy this sunny, summery day off from work—quite possibly with friends, beers, and the smell of charcoal in the air—let’s not forget that Memorial Day need not be reserved for our fallen soldiers. When any 18-year-old can legally buy an assault rifle, no questions asked, and turn it on a classroom full of fifth-graders—when the freedom to purchase that weapon is considered more important than the freedom for those children to reach their eleventh birthdays—the war is very much right here at home.
Love, noted relationship counselor Patricia Benatar once informed us, is a battlefield. It’s a powerful metaphor whose cuts-to-the-bone directness is no doubt part of her 1983 chart-topping song’s lasting appeal. Other pop music pseudo-therapists have broken the news that Love Hurts and Love Scars, Love Bites and yes, Love Stinks.
These sentiments may or may not reflect each of our individual experiences but we know it can get wilder than even this. Sometimes love is pure anarchy.
The red heart spans three concrete treads of the Downing Street steps in Polish Hill. Its black outline is pretzel-curved into the verticals of a capital letter A. Sure, this may be a vigilante Valentine left for (or from?) an Anna or André, Alex or Audrey, but it sure resembles the circle-A symbol would-be anarchists leave all over the place. Perhaps not coincidentally, that call-to-arms also often shows up spray-painted on public infrastructure.
The anarchy heart image is not alone. Looking through this year’s street Valentines, a certain theme emerges—not of the joy and perhaps unrealistic Hallmark special expectations of love—but rather, as a certain Bunnyman called it, The Back of Love.
Big red hearts aglow against caution tape; hearts chaotically strewn across back alley walls; crumpled hearts in derelict windows. These—and plenty more where they came from—all seem to say, Yeah, love is out there, but be careful, buddy. Here, that advice is gifted to us from Pittsburgh’s Krylon Cupids, available wherever people take out the trash and tack tin cans to telephone poles. This year it’s more true than ever.
That said, even without the pressures of a global coronavirus pandemic it’s always that kind of year when it comes to affaires d’amour. (That’s French for the love thing.)
So whether you’re in love, all out of love, or you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, whether love is like oxygen or love is the drug—heck, even if you give love a bad name—this Valentine’s Day, know that you’re not alone. There are lots of folks out there who are experiencing the same exact thing and it cut them deep enough to spray paint that feeling on some city steps.
It’s about time Santa Claus turned the tables on us. We only have to remember one of him, but His Redness has to keep track of the names, addresses, personal wishes, naughty/nice status, and illegal home invasion strategies for every child on the planet.
A visit to one particular Lawrenceville row house reveals us mere humans as once again way over-simplifying the wide world of Santadom. Why, there’s not just one Jolly St. Nick! No, here you’ll find Robot Santa and Motor Scooter Santa, Glowing Cologne Santa and Tootsie Santa. They share mantle space with Santa-Wan Kenobi, Light-up Cookie Jar Santa, Wind-Up Articulated Santa, a two-dimensional Pepsi-Pimping Santa, and Santaralli—the nickname a portmanteau of Ol’ Bowl-Full-of-Jelly and the Italian holiday cookie affixed to his tin foil-wrapped belly.
In between, there are kindly Santas, smiling Santas, mischieviously-winking Santas, and slightly-menacing Santas. Tin spinning top Santas rub red-robed elbows with home ec project Santas, crafts-gone-wrong Santas, ceramic Santas, and various sleighs laden not with presents for good boys and girls, but perversely with even more tiny Santas as cargo.
“It’s because I love Christmas,” Paul Schifino tells The Orbit in one of the year’s most explosive revelations. That love started early. “When I was kid, there was this man in our neighborhood, Mr. Mayo, who would dress up like Santa Claus, visit all the houses with children, and every one of us got a toy.”
The artifice of Mr. Mayo attempting to fool the youth of 1960s Carnegie with his dime store red suit and add-on white whiskers mattered not. “I didn’t even care that I was lied to,” Schifino says, “I’m just such a fan of Christmas.”
The collecting bug began some forty years ago with a particular figure found at a long-gone Carson Street antique shop. That wind-up Santa, made of molded tin in 1960s Japan, moved in elaborate head-turning, arm-oscillating ways. Paul gave the original to his sister when he recently acquired a superior edition that included the original Merry Xmas sign. [See photo at top.]
Since then, the collection has grown, and grown, and grown. While this season’s display occupies both surfaces of a big, double-decker mantlepiece and nearby cradenza—let’s say hundreds of Santas—a less-restrained decorator could have taken over the entire house with what remains in the basement archives.
“I have enough Santas to do all of that,” Schifino says, motioning past a pair of big antique curio cabinets and additional shelving, “But I like that these get put away after Christmas and then I bring them out once a year for the holiday.”
It seems every Santa in Schifino’s collection includes an origin story. This little ceramic Santa was handed down from his grandparents, its legs glued back on after after a tragic fall; that one a gift from a neighbor. Some were mini craft projects recycling Santa-themed candy packaging; others were bedazzled by friends who know just who to gift a tiny Santa, wrapped in tin foil, with an ancient cookie strapped to his chest like a suicide bomber with a sweet tooth.
By far, though, the majority of the collection originates in the region’s flea markets, antique shops, and thrift stores. “Most of these cost two or three dollars,” Schifino told us. “Of course I could buy them on the Internet, but that takes all the fun out of it.”
“I buy Santas all year—especially during the off-season,” says Schifino, “The actor Don Brockett—he was Chef Brockett on Mr. Rogers—also collected Santas and when I’d see him at flea markets I’d always try to stay ahead of him so I could get to the Santas first.”
Christmas—and the holiday season, writ large—means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it is indeed “the most wonderful time of the year”—but we know that’s not a universal truth. For the rest of us, the emotions that kick in as soon as the days grow dark, the colored lights turn on, and Christmas music takes over the oldies station are much more nuanced.
The sentimentality of the season may be the toughest nut for many to swallow. But even for your Bah, Humbug-curious author, seeing this mass of glowing, grinning Santas, lovingly brought out for their once-yearly starring role, is enough to warm the soul.
Each little Santa bears not physical gifts, but memories and imaginations—of who owned these figures before they came into Paul’s collection and how they arrived here, now. They’re souvenirs of Sunday trips to the flea market and mementos of friends and family past and present. That may be Santa’s greatest gift of all.
The Collectors is an Orbit series focused on interesting personal collections and the people who assemble them. If you know of someone with a great collection, please let us know.
“The guy who painted that died before he could finish her face.”
The speaker, an older gentleman, I didn’t get his name, is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 556, in Vandergrift. That is a sidewalk bench in front of the post on 11th Street; her is the Statue of Liberty. The familiar figure is striking her iconic torch-raised-skyward pose and has been sketched-out and blocked-in with a background gray.
It’s nearly complete, but the little detail painting is indeed missing all features of Lady Liberty’s face, leaving her head in ghostly negative space. The folds of Liberty’s flowing robe also seem only half there and we can imagine the finished work detailed in a patriotic blue to contrast the backrest’s red and white stripes. But … we’ll never know if that was the artist’s original intent.
All American Transmission, inhabiting a cinderblock garage just off Millvale’s main drag, has been on our list for as long as we’ve been collecting stars and bars. The giant flapping American flag painted across the shop’s north-facing side wall is what this Independence Day series is all about–created by hand, patriotic, but maybe a little bit … off.
As many times as we tried, the big mural was never available for a proper photo shoot. Inevitably, either the surrounding chain link fence would be locked tight or vehicles were parked in the lot such that we could never get a clean angle on the wall.
After years of loitering on North Ave., we finally got the opportunity last fall and … the light was all wrong. Backlit and hazy under a half-cloudy sky, the effect was to throw a shadowy blue cast across the whole scene. Under The Orbit‘s typical hard-assed standards this photo would never make the cut–but this isn’t a typical year.
When we started to review this year’s collection of flags, though, Blue turns out to be something of both a visual and emotional theme. The set of American flags spotted on long, early morning “blue hour” mental health hikes and various walk- and ride-abouts taken over the last 12 months took the melancholy hue more often than not.
A row house in Polish Hill with pale blue aluminum siding covered in viny overgrowth with American flags as window curtain and mailbox ornament. Sunshine spotlighting Old Glory suspended from a makeshift carboard-covered windowpane against a blue-gray staircase. A fishing boat, its nose pointed skyward, decorated like an American flag (but missing the stars) photographed so early on an overcast morning the entire frame is in a still-dreaming blue pallor.
They’re sad flags on a sad year. Six hundred thousand Americans dead of coronavirus–almost all of those since the previous Fourth of July. A population still unsure what the new world is going to look like; whether we’re all going to be sent back in the hole by the Delta strain; if we even know how to communicate with other human beings after 15 months in the bunker.
Rest assured, not every new flag in the Orbit‘s cross-county travels involved a deceased artist’s unfinished masterpiece or the shroud of mental fog. We came across plenty of well-lit, full sun, American flag-like things decorating private clubs and garden walks, identifying street addresses and hung from picture windows. But on a year when blue is the prevailing mood, red-and-white just doesn’t feel quite right.
Finally, there are plenty of those evergreens of patriotic DIY home decor: flags made from discarded wooden shipping pallets. From suburban front yards to row house back alleys, pallet flags are so common that it almost feels silly to keep the collection going. Ah, who are we kidding? In a pinch we’ll still take the pictures and serve them up like coleslaw and potato salad alongside the more prestigious Fourth of July party offerings.
These got blue, too. Often taken in those same getting-the-head-together pre-dawn hikes, but maybe just existing in year where everybody lost something, even if we didn’t lose everything, makes things turn out this way.
Happy Independence Day, ya’ll. May we all warm up on the figurative color wheel from here on out.
The big mural is painted across multiple sheets of protective plywood covering the back entrance to an old brick building. On it, there’s a stark two-tone portrait of a young woman in glasses and shaggy hair with an indeterminate facial expression. Is that a subtle Mona Lisa smile or just let’s-get-this-over-with ambivalence at being photographed? We’ll probably never know. The woman is identified as Melissa “Missy” Kira (1993-2020).
At the base of the portrait is a small table decked out with those most reliable hallmarks of any active memorial site: saint-sporting veladoras (Mexican prayer candles) and bundles of flowers arranged in vases and laid out across the ground. There are also garlands and tchotchkes, glassware and bottles of mysterious origin.
Kira’s memorial isn’t alone. The redbrick courtyard hosts three different wall-sized tributes to young activists, musicians, and community members. The murals are rough, charged with emotion, and resemble the iconography of the Rest in Punk message that appears on a couple of them. Any one of the paintings would blend seamlessly into the design language of Xeroxed flyers for a church basement all-ages show, patches on the back of a denim jacket, the cover art for a Crass record.
It’s also a scene straight out of old Pittsburgh–and one that’s increasingly rare to find today. What with seemingly every vacant lot and empty building in the East End actively getting converted into Legoland “luxury loft” apartments, it’s harder and harder to locate these kinds of off-the-books public/private spaces for a small community to gather, mourn, celebrate, and remember.
While these three punk rock memorials are the most elaborate we stumbled across in the last twelve months, they’re far from the only D.I.Y. remembrances out there. Americans have taken their mourning of the deceased out of the formality of pristine cemetery plots and into the streets everywhere. It’s a really beautiful kind of mass emotional release–the intensely personal act of grieving in the very public sphere of sidewalks, roadsides, fences, and utility poles.
Memorial Day is the holiday we’re supposed to honor the Americans who’ve given their lives in the service of their country. However one feels about the nature of war and American foreign policy, we should absolutely respect those who really did pay the ultimate price.
At the same time, the holiday is also an ideal opportunity for us to reflect on those we’ve lost who didn’t die in battle–or, perhaps, died fighting very different types of battles. Often, like the three punk rock memorials, these were young people who passed way before their time. Even if you’ll never have a commemorative portrait of you painted on a brick wall, we all know we’d be lucky to be loved enough for friends and family to construct a wooden angel and climb a craggy hillside to install it–or even just to lash some stuffed animals to a telephone pole.
So on this Memorial Day we celebrate all of the fallen that we never got to meet and all the people who loved them so much they took their grief into their own hands, D.I.Y. style. May they rest in punk.
Most people will blow right by without ever giving the place a second thought. The little post-war brick and cinderblock house sits a comfortable distance off Stanton Avenue, tucked behind a curve in the road, and probably won’t even catch your eye when you’re barreling up the hill. It’s not the house itself that’s so exciting here, but rather the miracle of the multiplying Marys that is taking place out front.
Five years ago, your favorite hyper-local electronic publication ran a story that attempted to round up some of our favorite Marys from all over the place. [See: Hail Mary! Front Yard Mary Roundup (Nov. 27, 2016)] Yes, it was naive to bundle so many Marys from so many places together when seeking them out and collating them into location-based sets is so satisfying. Lesson learned.
Anyway, in that story, most of the way down, there’s a photo of this same Stanton Ave. address, but with merely three Marys against the aqua-blue foundation wall. If anyone is equipped for a miracle, it’s a woman who can conceive pregnancy with a holy ghost–so we shouldn’t put human cloning past The Blessed Mother. But this jump in the population begs so many questions: Can Mary immaculately replicate herself? Where do they all come from? Will there be more? Look, I’ve seen Multiplicity and things didn’t work out so well for Michael Keaton, so let’s all keep our fingers crossed.
Stanton Heights won’t bowl you over with its Marys. Between the neighborhood’s detached homes, large yards, big hedges, and fenced-in backsides, just locating a Mary here and there can feel like no small achievement. Rest assured, though–they’re around.
It takes a patient blogger who no longer sleeps to rise at the crack of dawn, trundle up the big hill, and criss-cross every block, each dead-end alley, and explore all the places, courts, and ways to get a thorough accounting of Stanton Heights’ Mary scene. [Side note: if you’re a Heights resident whose Mary was not found or you just think she deserves a better photo, please get in touch.]
That’s about all there is to say here. On this Mother’s Day 2021, we salute all the mommas out there from the O.G. Mother of All Mothers–you’re all immaculate in The Orbit‘s book!