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

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

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

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

roadside memorial cross attached to utility pole
Chance Borgese, Monongahela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Anarchically: Valentine’s Day Hearts, 2022

Halloween jack-o-lantern carved with large heart
Love: you can’t always see your way through it, but sometimes there’s a fire that burns bright. Lawrenceville

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.

graffiti heart with large letter "A" painted on concrete steps
Love isn’t always a battlefield—sometimes it’s anarchy. Polish Hill

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.

Valentine's Day heart decoration on front porch with caution tape
Love: proceed with caution. Etna

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.

wall with much graffiti including large red heart
Sometimes love doesn’t quite know what’s going on. Bloomfield

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.

Keep on, everyone, and happy Valentine’s Day.

homemade heart decoration in front window of house
Love ain’t always perfect, but we keep trying. Lincoln-Lemington
decorative skeleton wrapped in Christmas garland with Valentine's Day hearts
Love: it’s a killer. Etna
painting on abandoned building of woman with afro, green snake, and glowing yellow heart
If you’re falling in love, watch your asp. Garfield
side of house decorated with both Valentine's Day hearts and black bats
It’s great, but love is spooky too. Etna
mural of realistic human heart over stylized mountains
Your heart may float like a balloon, but watch out for those dangerous peaks. Lawrenceville
tin can lid painted with red hearts and figure on bicycle
Tin can pole (he)art. Garfield
large mural of many hands around a multicolored heart
Sometimes love takes a village and a helping hand. Strip District
heart painted on wooden fence slat
Good love can heal pain and peel paint. Uptown
sidewalk chalk drawing of a heart and a snail
Love can be slow … and messy. Sharpsburg
graffiti heart painted blue and red
There are no red hearts and there are no blue hearts—there are only American hearts! … and hearts from other places. Lawrenceville
fence with heart-shaped cutout in wooden slats
Sometimes we’ve got a heart-shaped hole in us. Lawrenceville
wheatpaste street art of heart-shaped face with Xs over eyes
Big heart, dead eyes, can’t lose. Greensburg
street art sticker in shape of heart with word "Crone"
Love is for us old people, too. Lawrenceville
wheatpaste street art of heart-shaped face with Xs over eyes
Love: it’s fine … until it’s not. Friendship
wheatpaste street art on dumpster of heart-shaped face with Xs over eyes
Sometimes love can get you down in the dumpster. Garfield
truck trailer with graffiti heart and word "Luv"
You can’t fabricate luv. Bloomfield
wheatpaste street art of heart-shaped face with Xs over eyes
It’s always decorative gourd season when your heart’s on the fence. Garfield
graffiti heart with name Paul painted on cinderblock wall
Paul may be gone, but he’s still in our heart. Lawrenceville
pair of cardboard hearts attached to utility pole
You can’t break a cardboard heart, but it may just get blown away. Garfield
shiny heart decoration attached to utility pole
Love may look great on the outside, but there’s often duct tape holding it together. Lawrenceville
cinderblock wall painted with many small hearts
Maybe there’s love right around the corner. Strip District
mural of flowers and words "with Love"
Happy Valentine’s Day, with Love, from us to you

The Collectors: Mix and Mingle with Kris Kringle, Paul Schifino’s Secret Santas

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Wind-Me-Up Santa, Robot Santa, and Abnormally-Long-Torso Santa are all part of Paul Schifino’s massive collection

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.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
You Could Even Say He Glows Santa

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.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Sad-faced Santaralli and Big Smilin’ Santa

“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.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Crystal Bowl Full of Jelly Santa

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.]

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Santas upon Santas

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.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
A bouquet of Santas
detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Blow Your Horn Santa and Big Bunny Santa

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.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Old-school bobblehead Santa with a basket full of tiny Santas
detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Whole lotta Santa goin’ on

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.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Santootsie, Scooter Santa, and the gang

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.

Santa collector Paul Schifino in front of a portion of his collection
The Most of Christmas Present. Santa collector Paul Schifino with a portion of his Santa collection.

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.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Glowing church with big little Santas

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.

See also: The Collectors: KISS and Tell with Bruce Gleason (Pittsburgh Orbit, June 23, 2019)

Red and White, but Mainly Blue: Flag Post, 2021

retired flag box in small cemetery
The flag’s not dead! … but it probably had a rough year like the rest of us. Retired flag box, St. Nicholas Cemetery, Reserve Twp.

“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.

detail of wooden bench painted with red and white stripes, Statue of Liberty, and "USA"
“The guy who painted that died before he could finish the face.” Faceless Statue of Liberty flag bench (detail), Vandergrift

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.

mural for All American Transmission Company with company name in giant waving American flag
Red and white and blue all over. All American Transmission Co. flag, Millvale

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.

row house window overgrown with vines showing American flag used as a curtain inside
Flag curtain, Polish Hill
small window covered in cardboard with American flag sticking out
Cardboard window screen/stairway flag, Sharpsburg
small boat painted like the American flag
Flag boat, Reserve Twp.

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.

brick wall with inlaid tile to look like American flag
Missing a few stars. Tiled flag wall, Cave Club, Wheeling, WV
decorative fence painted red, white, and blue
Flag fence, Wellsville, O.
spray-painted American flag with the text "The system is broken"
“The system is broken.” Graffiti flag, Color Park, South Side
mailbox painted red, white, and blue
Flag mailbox, Reserve Twp.
row house window decorated with multiple American flags
Flag window, Lawrenceville
window decoration of red, white, and blue wreath and American flag
Flag wreath/tribute, Lawrenceville
window decoration made from clothes pins painted like the American flag
Clothes pin flag, Polish Hill
address marker with large eagle and American flag
Home address placard eagle/flag, Reserve Twp.
bench painted like the American flag
Flag bench, Wellsville, O.
cement garden tiles painted like the American flag
Garden tile flag, Donora
hand painted American flag taped to glass door
Window flag, Lawrenceville
metal protective plates on alley utility pole painted red, white, and blue
Flag utility pole guards, Sharpsburg
handmade American flag made from recycled wood attached to brick house
Ragged flag, Stanton Heights
row house with wooden window cover painted like the American flag
Cellar window cover flag, Etna

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.

shipping pallet painted like the American flag, hung on alley fence
Pallet flag, Lawrenceville
shipping pallet painted to look like the American flag
Pallet flag, Troy Hill
shipping pallet painted like the American flag in front of brick house
Pallet flag, Stanton Heights
shipping pallet painted like American flag leaning against brick wall
Pallet flag, Strip District
shipping pallet painted like the American flag in front of brick house
Pallet flag, Stanton Heights

Rest in Punk: Memorial D.I.Y. 2021

memorial portrait painted on brick wall with candles and flowers below
Rest in punk. Memorial to activist Melissa “Missy” Kira (1993-2020), Polish Hill

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.

memorial portrait painted on brick wall with candles and flowers below
Francesca Araya (1988-2018), Polish Hill

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.

memorial portrait painted on brick wall with candles and flowers below
Corinne (1988-2021), Polish Hill

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.

wooden cutout of angel placed on hillside
Angel in the hillside. W.A.B., Chester, WV

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.

sidewalk memorial with photos, flowers, candles, and stuffed animals
unknown, Strip District
memorial including candles and nativity scene
unknown, Troy Hill
impromptu sidewalk memorial including candles, flowers, and squirt guns
unknown (Kung Fu? Kuhn’s Food?), South Side
memorial including flowering plants, candles, and cartoon figure with halo
unknown, Millvale
memorial placed by iron fence with flowers and candles
Donny (1968-2020) (Pronounced Dawn-EE), Polish Hill
memorial on utility pole including stuffed animals and flowers
Tiffanie Anne Nelson, Erie
roadside memorial including stuffed animals, candles, and plastic flowers
unknown, Hill District
memorial featuring photograph and Easter bunny on utility pole
unknown, Troy Hill
memorial graffiti painting of the name "Tony" on cement wall
Why does the memorial for Franny Connelly read “TONY”? We don’t know. Millvale
memorial featuring photograph of small family and sparkley wreath on cement wall
unknown, Chateau
memorial for young man featuring large photograph, cross, figurines, and cans of Bud Light beer
unknown, Rt. 30/Raccoon Creek State Park
memorial on hillside featuring pink cross and professional sign
Amanda Desarro, East Liverpool, O.
memorial featuring photograph, pink cross, and flowers on utility pole
unknown, Wilmerding
memorial cross placed at base of tree
Bruce (6/9/66-?), New Brighton
memorial plaque nailed to utility pole
Daniel Smith (1983-2018), Garfield
memorial flowers in chain link fence
unknown, Millvale Street Bridge
memorial flowers in chain link fence
unknown, Millvale Street Bridge
memorial display with flowers, stuffed animal, and letter on bridge railing
Aunt Barb, Millvale Street Bridge
short wall painted white with names of many victims of police killings
Memorial to victims of police killings, Garfield

Whole Grotto Love: The Marys of Stanton Heights

cinderblock and brick residential wall with five different statues of Mary
Multiplying Marys. The (now) quintet of Marys (and friend) that greet visitors to Stanton Heights.

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.

statue of Mary in front yard of house
Whole grotto love Mary

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!

statue of Mary among leafy groundcover
Our Lady of the rising groundcover
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Sunshine Mary and babies
statue of Mary in front of large hedges in residential front yard
Bustle in your hedge row Mary
statue of Mary on brick porch wall
Don’t jump! Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house
Oohooh Mary Blue, livin’ her life in a free-form style
statue of nun in front yard of house
Yeah, this looks more like a nun, but we’re going to count it
statue of Mary in back yard of house
Back patio Mary (looming, far right)
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Flower box Mary
statue of Mary under a tree in residential garden
Shade garden Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house with big yard
Perfect green blanket Mary
statue of Mary between flower garden and front porch
Mary Flowers-a-Poppin’
statue of Mary in front of house
Excited about the new city-issued recycling bin Mary
statues of Mary and Jesus by large bush
Big Mary and half-pint Jesus
statue of Mary against a cinderblock wall
Eyes on the door, back-against-the-wall Mary [yes, we need a longer lens]
small brick house with statue of Mary in front and no other decoration
No friends Mary

Going Nativity: A Crush on the Crèche OR Blown Away by the Manger

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Three wise men AND Three Stooges. Full-on residential nativity scene, Ross Township.

We’re not too proud to admit it: we’ve got a crush on the crèche, make major maneuvers for the manger, and take any opportunity to go nativity when the opportunity arises. That occasion presents itself early, often, and with no remorse on any trip around Bethle…ahem–metro Pittsburgh.

‘Tis the season for plastic lawn decor, strings of dollar store lights, and more baby Jesuses than you’d think a monotheistic society would care to advertise–but that’s what we do. For the atheist, it’s a weird internal conflict–I don’t believe any of this hokum, but man do I love it. If only this country had more wise men, myrrh out the yin-yang, a livestock petting zoo by every newborn and a kneeling camel in every cul-de-sac. Heck, we can dare to dream.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a spine-tingling Krampus to all and may The Orbit‘s diaspora have the good frankincense to stay safe until Santa can hook us up with the vaccine.

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Cinderblock crèche, Polish Hill

Christmas nativity scene missing baby Jesus

Wait…where’s the kid? Millvale *

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Forget the frankincense and myrrh, who brought the 24″ Weber? Monessen

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Major manger, Reserve Township [Note: bonus cracked Mary!]

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Three wise men, two nutcrackers, AND Troy Polamalu (+ “A Christmas Story” sexy leg lamp!), Reserve Township

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

White Christmas, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Christmas behind bars, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene in row house window

Row house crèche, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

That’s not the baby Jesus! Marshall-Shadeland

Christmas nativity scene in retail store window

O Hummel town of Bethlehem, Merante’s Gifts, Bloomfield

Christmas nativity scene in front of small factory

Diamond Wire Spring, Ross Township

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Cement circle crèche, Glassport

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Bloomfield

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Front porch crèche, Lawrenceville


Orbit Instagram user @danko_pgh explains this as “The Baby Jesus figure should never be displayed until very late on Christmas Eve.” That certainly makes sense once’d you think about it, but clearly isn’t followed universally.

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2020

artwork shaped like large claw hammer painted in red, white, and blue

hammer/flag, Mars

A six-foot tall wooden sculpture of a claw hammer is mounted in the arched brickwork of a turn-of-the-century commercial building in Mars, Butler County. It is both uniquely American in its roadside kitsch oversized scale and patriotic red, white, and blue but is also tasteful, fits the unique space, and manages to subtly advertise Pfeifer Hardware without any text at all.

There is plenty of subtext, however, if one chooses to go down that particular rabbit hole. Is America the land of tools, of ingenuity, where anything can be built and anything can get done? Or is it the love it or leave it country where we either worship the stars-and-bars or feel the hammer come down?

Probably the creator of Pfeifer’s big hammer had none of this in mind. He or she may have just wanted to build a big hammer and decided to paint it in an obvious color scheme. While the jingoist use of the American flag always makes us feel a little queasy, the spirit of people taking a paint brush and star stencil to garage doors and retaining walls, porch art and–of course–discarded shipping pallets is something we’ll always get behind.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

wooden doorway painted like an American flag

door flag, Swissvale

One year, we’ll celebrate with a post entirely composed of that evergreen of folk-art patriotism: the pallet flag. Their complete dominance of greater Kittanning/Ford City’s lawn art scene suggests we could even go hyper-local with coverage from Armstrong County alone.

shipping pallet painted like the American flag

pallet flag, Mars

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Kittanning

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Ford City

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Kittanning

shipping pallet painted like American flag

pallet flag, Beaver

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

political pallet flag, Kittanning [note: just reporting here–Pittsburgh Orbit does NOT endorse these candidates!]

brick residential house with prominent American flag decoration

flag house, Kittanning

brick residential house with prominent American flag decoration

flag house, Kittanning

faded mural of bald eagle with American flag

eagle/flag mural, Marshall-Shadeland

section of wall mural including American flag

Allentown neighborhood mural

mural painted on cinderblock wall including American flag stars and stripes

Dougherty Veterans Fields, Etna

Row house window displays are reliably full of red, white, and blue this time of year, but The Plague has us mostly staying at home, tending vegetables in the backyard. Despite the lack of nebbing, we still managed to bag a few of these Old Glory old friends.

window with American flags

flag window, Lawrenceville

window with American flags

flag window, Lawrenceville

large plastic dinosaur lawn ornament with American flag in its mouth

dinosaur flag, Lawrenceville

skeleton decorated with green hat, Christmas garland, and American flag

multi-holiday decoration, Etna

Halloween skeleton decoration wearing long dress and red, white, and blue tie

America’s not dead … yet. Patriotic skeleton, Lawrenceville

Jeep grill made to look like American flag

grill flag, Lawrenceville

handmade sign reading "Honor the American flag"

pallet flag sign, Kittanning

The Mother of All Mothers! A Mother’s Day Mary Super Round-Up

statue of Mary leaning against house

Leaning Mary, Bellevue

And when the morning of the warning’s passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars

And does she want to see the stains, the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking eyes reflect the lies, and make them
Realize their urgent cry for sight no more

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

– Tandyn Almer, “Along Comes Mary”

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Classic “blue robe” Mary, Brighton Heights

Whatever else Tandyn Almer did with the rest of his life[1], he’ll have forever authored one of the greatest bits of twisted sunshine pop and doobie entendre soft rock to harmonize and flute-solo its way onto Top 40 radio and prime time television.

Now, it’s probably safe to say the inspiration for The Association’s 1966 toe-tapper was not the mother of Jesus Christ–and likely not even a woman at all. I think we can all assume that Mary’s middle name is Jane.

But the Mary–the O.G., blessed virgin, greatest-story-ever-told, gettin-it-done-in-a-manger Mary–indeed comes along all over the place, just about any ol’ time. Every front yard is Mary’s potential domain; any porch her possible perch. The city’s backyards are so full of clandestine, hidden Marys that we’ll never have a true accounting of them all. [You don’t know how that keeps a speculative journalist awake at night!] It’s enough to drive a Mary-curious atheist into confession.

So on this Mother’s Day, we return to an old favorite Orbit subject: Mary, the mother of all mothers, in some of her various occasions around town. Links to earlier coverage appear below.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mommas out there. While your kids won’t be able to take you out to lunch, may your empty cups taste as sweet as the punch.

house with small statuette of Mary by front steps

Tiny Mary, Troy Hill

statue of Mary with feet buried in garden mulch

Quicksand Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary along alley

No Parking Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary and flowers in pot

Flower pot Mary, Burgettstown

statue of Mary in front of house with condemned notice

Condemned Mary, Garfield

all-white statue of Mary on front porch

Monochrome Mary, Bloomfield

statue of Mary in large garden bed

Garden Mary, Saltsburg

statue of Mary in grotto with other statuary wrapped in black plastic bags

She’s Mary, wrapped in plastic. Bloomfield

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Solitary Mary, Friendship

statue of Mary in front of wood frame house

Sunbathing Mary, California-Kirkbride

older wooden house with statue of Mary by the front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

The last Mary in Larimer?

rear-view statue of Mary behind chain link fence

Have you seen the back? Mary, Bloomfield

Mary and friends

statue of Mary embedded in concrete in flower pot

Concrete shoes Mary, penguin, flag, Lawrenceville

statue of Mary with other lawn decorations

Gas meter Mary, et al., Millvale

front porch with multiple statues

Porch Marys (and friends), Lawrenceville

front yard decorated with many small statuettes, Pittsburgh, PA

Lighthouse Mary I, Morningside

front yard covered with decorative figurines, lighthouse, and Mary statuette, Donora, PA

Lighthouse Mary II, Donora

house with statue of Mary

Mary and daughters, Sharpsburg

house with statue of Mary among lawn decorations

Wagon wheel Mary, Reserve

Pedestal Marys

statue of Mary on pedestal in residential backyard

Backyard Mary, Mt. Washington

statues of Mary and angels in front yard

Bay window Mary, Lawrenceville

statuette of Mary on pedestal of bricks, Pittsburgh, PA

Brick pedestal Mary, Esplen

statue of Mary on cinderblocks in backyard

Up-on-blocks Mary, Lawrenceville

Christmas Marys

statue of Mary in front of house with Christmas decorations

Christmas Mary, Reserve

statue of Mary and large Christmas tree

Christmas/camouflage Mary, Millvale

Empty Mary Grottos

empty Mary grotto in front of brick house

Empty grotto, Brighton Heights

brick grotto created for statue of Mary

Repopulated grotto, Oakland

More Orbit Mary coverage:

statue of Mary painted silver

Mary of the berries, Chez Orbit


[1] Almer’s Wikipedia entry confirms that “Along Comes Mary” is indeed Almer’s biggest songwriting success, but that he “invented a waterpipe called the Slave-Master, described by Jack S. Margolis and Richard Clorfene in A Child’s Garden of Grass as ‘the perfect bong.'” So, you know, there were definitely some other hits.

Humble Pei: A Pi Day Salute to I.M. Pei’s City View Tower

City View (originally Washington Plaza Apartments) designed by I.M. Pei, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden hour on the lower Hill: City View (neé Washington Plaza) Apartments, Centre Ave.

It must have felt like a dream. At the crest of Centre Avenue, mere blocks above the hubbub of downtown Pittsburgh and the still-smoldering remains of the lower Hill, twenty-four stories of clean, sharp concrete and grid-patterned windows shot from of the earth like a dramatic rock formation or the liftoff armature of a rocket ship, just launched into space.

City View (originally branded Washington Plaza) wasn’t Pittsburgh’s first large-scale, post-war modernist building–there are a handful of big office towers built downtown in the 1950s that meet that description–but its position standing alone, at the top of its hill and with eyes cast out in all directions, had to have felt like something completely different. The future–whether Pittsburgh really wanted it or not–was here right now.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, southeast side

This speculative journalist has driven and/or biked past the City View towers a hundred times and seen its cold concrete form from every direction imaginable–it’s hard to miss if you’re anywhere nearby. But I’ll be honest here, if you’d asked me a year ago, I would have just considered it the anonymous big ugly apartment building uphill from the hockey arena.

signage for City View Apartments featuring simplified graphic version of the building's shape

City View Apartments signage with abstracted/graphically-simplified version of the building’s design

And thenI.M. Pei died.

Pei, if you’re not a design geek or a regular crossword-puzzle-doer, is one of the giants of modern architecture who planned marquee office towers and airline terminals, art museums and corporate headquarters all over the planet. In his long career–he was 102 when he passed last year and worked most of those decades–Pei designed projects from Beijing to Bloomington, Doha to Denver, Paris to … well, you guessed it.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

Old vs. … not quite so old. City View Apartments, seen from Fifth Ave.

The Washington Plaza Apartments arrived in 1964 at the height of Pittsburgh’s urban renewal efforts, the tail end of the razing of the lower Hill District,[1] and just a few years before the real boom in downtown glass-and-steel skyscrapers would hit. With its climate-controlled interiors and uninterrupted 360-degree views, moving from a cramped city row house into a brand new Washington Plaza apartment, mere steps from downtown, must have satisfied many a jet-age urban fantasy.

On this come-for-the-pun, stay-for-the-dessert Pi/Pie Day, we thought we’d add Pei Day to the ramshackle who’s-driving? feel of the occasion. (Just know that the name is actually pronounced PAY.[2]) In this version of the “holiday” we celebrate the master architect’s sole Pittsburgh project and give ourselves the opportunity to really take a good long look at the building, from a bunch of angles across different seasons, and see if its tan concrete and wall-of-windows would whisper its secrets of the modern age to us.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, north face

And … I guess it worked out that way. Perhaps it was because we’re so easily swayed by star power or maybe it was just taking the time to actually look at the place–to set aside a bunch of prejudices and commune with Pei’s big apartment building at street level[3]. Either way, we found that enough time spent walking around the place, looking up, picture-taking, and photo-editing made all that concrete warm up, wave back to us, and glow against several different impossibly-blue skies.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, east face

Look: there are no plans for us to leave our decidedly old-world row house with its boxy quarters and interior windows looking straight out on the neighbor’s brick wall. But there are times–up on the ladder, re-patching cracks in the same 140-year-old horsehair plaster one “fixed” not that long ago–that the mind wanders to an easier, simpler, more modern existence–big on sunlight and small on crumbling sandstone foundation dust. Yesterday’s modernists may have really had something there, and that’s how we ended up here, at Pei Day.


[1] The story of the destruction of the Lower Hill and forced displacement of its (largely black) resident/business community in the name of “urban renewal” is an extremely important one, but not the subject of this piece.
[2] The temptation to call this piece Pei Day Loans or Pei The Man or some such foolishness was strong, but for everyone (like me) who previously thought the name was pronounced PIE, that just wouldn’t make sense.
[3] The Orbit was escorted from City View’s lobby by security before we could either get a good look at the interior or any photographs. We’re not holding a grudge.