Valentino and reader Linda Smith both turned in some terrific found hearts for our Valentine’s Day challenge. Graffiti, murals, street art, nature, and even that plague of public works crews: the “love lock”–they’re all there. To the rest of you slackers: show a little love next time!
It’s heart season–pink and red, gooey and sugary, frilly and fragrant. Yes, Valentine’s Day is upon us again. Dropped strategically at the apex of winter blahs and spaced weeks–months even–from the next closest chocolate-and-champagne retail opportunity, we know it’s here because it’d be a gray ghost town without it.
Even as cynical as this “holiday” can feel, love–in all its many forms–is a wonderful thing to be celebrated. Whether or not Cupid is out to get you or you’re just hanging with the philias at the Love Moose, The Orbit has collected a season’s worth of found-on-the-street hearts. Consider them our Valentine to you.
Keep on truckin’. The ’60s-era catch phrase of hippie can-do optimism was popularized by R. Crumb’s iconic cartoon of an easy-striding, big-shoed dude. Here, a sticker that’s appropriated both the slogan and image decorates the side panel of a model 18-wheeler. The little big rig has been put on display in a street-level front window of an Upper Lawrenceville row house.
Though it doesn’t explicitly say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, with a backdrop of picturesque snow-covered small town buildings, circled by carolers and snow people, colored lights and a tiny train, it’s impossible not to read the truck’s red cab as a modern update to Santa’s sleigh–those 400 horses a well-deserved upgrade to yesteryear’s eight tiny reindeer. Forget that other Snowman, if anyone’s got a long way to go and a short time to get there, it’s Ol’ Saint Nick on his yearly delivery run.
Christmas. For some, as the song goes, it’s the “most wonderful time of the year” full of decadent–if generally wholesome–holiday parties, comforting tradition, and good cheer. To others, Christmas is a loathsome six weeks of commercialized sentimentality, forced mirth, obligation, and disappointment.
Here at The Orbit, we fall somewhere in the middle. I’ll admit it: I like the smell of a real spruce tree and the warm glow of colored lights; time off to do jigsaw puzzles, visit with friends, and sleep late; the collective goofiness of stuffed antlers added to minivan rooftops, white elephant gift exchanges, and a full movie house crowd gleefully roaring at Hans Gruber’s entrance in Die Hard.
But then there’s the dark side. The first time those jing-jing-jingling tunes preempt Casey Kasem on oldies radio–absurdly starting before Thanksgiving–it invokes such crushing, foreboding dread that it makes the whole holiday almost not worth it. Almost.
Love it or hate it, Christmas 2018 is over. But you wouldn’t know that from the residential streets in Lawrenceville. Say what you want about the neighborhood’s gentrification, but the Christmas display scene was (and still is) earnest and ample. Walk down any block and it can feel like every other house has got something up for the holiday: garlands on stoop railings, Santas on the front steps, and–most of all–decorations in the big front street-facing windows.
When you live in a row house–and I’m speaking from a couple decades of experience here–you get used to people looking directly into your life. It’s not weird or creepy or nebby–pedestrians and neighbors just can’t help but look in when the sidewalk is mere feet–often inches–from the front of the house.
That so many people end up using their street-facing windows as makeshift display cases for curated collections of figurines and little artworks, sports fandom and tchotchkes is perhaps something we could expect. But when our friends and neighbors orient their collections outward–specifically for the enjoyment of the world passing by on the sidewalk–well, that’s a beautiful thing and one that should not be taken idly. [Side note: Kirsten Ervin wrote a whole piece on this subject for Pittsburgh Orbit back in 2015.]
One of the great pleasures of a daily constitutional around the neighborhood is getting to watch these window displays grow and evolve, get put away for the year and replaced in anticipation of the next turn of the calendar. Soon enough, the cotton-laden carolers and dangling snowflakes will be packed away to make room for Valentine’s Day hearts, St. Patrick’s clovers, Easter eggs and bunnies.
If it’s not obvious, we went a little nutso with the Christmas window shopping this year–and, believe me, there are plenty more where these came from. This weekend is likely your last decent chance to catch any of these until the next Christmas season begins. Get out and walk around, take in what you can.
Anyway, Merry Christmas! (again)
It’s official. On the figurative eve of the Thanksgiving holiday, Amazon made known what seemed inevitable all along. Despite Pittsburgh reaching the second round of the tech giant’s really real real estate reality show–even seeming a legit top contender by making the first cut/Top 20–we didn’t get it. The company announced last week that “HQ2” would in fact be HQs 2 and 3, occurring in slightly less name brand sections of New York City and Washington, D.C.
Good for them, I suppose. Even better, though, that it didn’t turn out to be us. While the flood of jobs and money and tax-paying citizens were clearly irresistible for the legion of mayors and civic leaders out there who swung wildly for the fences, Pittsburgh–like Anchorage, Alaska, Hickory, North Carolina, and Woonsocket, Rhode Island–ultimately fell short on … whatever Amazon was looking for. Location? Population? Hip factor?
Hell if we know. But for the last half year, when Amazon’s dangling proposition was the talk of the town, it was a terrifying concept to consider. On the one hand, we’d probably get some nice stuff out of it–a major boost to public transit or a bunch more direct airline flights, say–but on the other, it just felt like Pittsburgh’s heart would inevitably have been ripped out, tossed in the dumpster, and replaced with a featureless approximation.
Here then, for the Thanksgiving holiday, are ten reasons to be grateful Amazon dissed and dismissed Pittsburgh in its selection for company expansion.
Affordable Housing. Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the closet and into my car. Forever, it seemed Pittsburgh real estate would just stay stuck in the post-steel crash where you could buy a home pretty much anywhere for the price of a new car.
That’s not so true anymore–especially if you’re looking in much of the gentrified East End. But with a median home price of $125,000, Pittsburgh still ranks as one of the cheapest markets in the country for home ownership.
The rest of this post is pure speculation, but any economist would tell you that dropping another hundred thousand people in the area–basically increasing the size of the city by 25% overnight–would jack rents and home prices like we’ve never seen. If you can afford living in Pittsburgh today [and no, not everyone can] be thankful that should still be true next year.
Ex-Mills. You don’t miss your water ’til it’s gone. If Amazon came to town, all those people would have needed places to lay their heads and rehabbing hundred-year-old row houses in Hazelwood, West Homestead, and the Hill District would likely not be on the table. You can totally imagine the monster brick and corrugated steel sheds that still lurk on the riverbanks in Lawrenceville and the South Side, McKees Rocks and Millvale razed and the land redeveloped into Lego-style anonymous luxury condominiums.
Weiner World. (And Frankie’s, Primanti’s, Ritter’s, O’Leary’s, etc.) Have you seen Bakery Square? Techies like their food overpriced, in sterile environments, delivered by national chains, wrapped in cultural narrative, and totally devoid of character. Had Amazon landed in the newly-rebranded “Hazelwood Green,” we can totally envision gradually saying goodbye to every old-school, greasy lunch spot in favor of slick restaurants with heart-healthy menus, online ordering apps, and prominent ampersands in their logos.
The Italian Elvis. Sure, Randy Galioto isn’t going anywhere, but try booking a gig when tastes have shifted to catstep, solipsynthm, and electro-Qawwali [look them up!]. This blogger likes weirdo music just about as much as anyone, but still wants a place where The Italian Elvis can bring down the house with his “It’s Now or Never”/”O Sole Mio” medley. For Frankie Capri, Bloomfields’s “Boss,” and Dick Tady & D.T.O., you’re still right at home.
Petty Crime. That’s right: bring in a bajillion new tech types and criminal activity would be forever altered. Say goodbye to “broken window” vandalism, street-level dealing, and building code violations. Instead, we’d be stuck with land grabs and insider trading, trademark infringement and mass evictions. The first time a case of wholesale government graft broke, you’d be begging for some miscreants to urinate on your petunias or spray paint a wang on the back fence.
Parking Chairs. If you think a product manager making six-and-a-half figures is going to accept your old dinette seat holding a parking place, you need to, you know, delete your account. The software engineer moving to town from San Francisco or Boston is going to jump straight on the horn to Johnny Law and call your ass in for illegally blocking a public space faster than you can say hypertext transfer protocol. If you love great D.I.Y. parking reservations, be glad Amazon will be taking up space elsewhere.
Lenten Fish Fries. Sure, this is a stretch, but hear me out. All the kooky Catholic stuff–from priests gambling bottom shelf liquor at church-sponsored fairs to polka mass and cinema races–is on the chopping block already. Most of us just don’t go to church like people once did. But the collision of a godless technozenti with carb-conscious foo foo tastes spells the end of deep-fried breaded cod with sides of haluski and cole slaw. You’re laughing now, but we’d be all be crying next March.
Anthrocon. Teenagers making minimum wage at their jobs as fast food cooks and retail clerks would never be able to afford the inevitably jacked-up rates the convention center would be charging. No, with all those computer geeks holding court, the giant downtown space would be in constant use between Ruby programmers and flash memory engineers, systems administrators and web marketers. The fursuited wolves, cheetahs, and were-bears flying and bussing in from Smalltown, U.S.A. would be forced to move on to some cheaper market. We love you, furries, and we hope you keep bringing Anthrocon back to Pittsburgh for many years to come. Woof.
Football/Hockey Fandom. If the teams could survive the economic crash of the steel industry in the 1970s/80s, surely they would be embraced by a larger hometown fan base, right? Don’t be so sure! You can totally imagine Jeff Bezos importing alternative professional sports–think lacrosse or soccer, competitive snowboarding or–I don’t know–“e-sports.” That alone wouldn’t necessarily be a death knell for the other squads, but what happens when a routine mid-season Steelers-Bengals game gets preempted for the Super Bowl of Ultimate Frisbee? It’s a slippery slope!
 Source: https://qz.com/1119945/a-nearly-complete-list-of-the-238-places-that-bid-for-amazons-next-headquarters/.
 Source: https://www.kiplinger.com/tool/real-estate/T010-S003-home-prices-in-100-top-u-s-metro-areas/index.php
 That’s the promised 50,000 jobs at Amazon plus the estimated equal size of additional family, ancillary workforce, etc.
[Cue: creepy pipe organ soundtrack, thunder clap, and dramatic lightning strike.]
Ghosts–with their eyes closed, tongues derisively throwing a Bronx cheer–lurk in the bushes. Black bats hang from branches and clothes lines. Spiders as big dinner plates creep up beside you. Gravestones fill the vegetable garden and a doghouse-sized haunted mansion rests on the front lawn. Dozens–it feel like hundreds–of jack-o-lanterns decorate walkways and yard passage, shrubs and tree limbs.
Halloween is alive and well at the Thunberg household, just like it’s been for the last forty-five years.
It’s just a fact: Autumn, in all its leaf-crunching, cider-drinking, sweater-wearing, gourd-decorating, hay-riding, apple-bobbing, technicolor fantasia, is the best season.
Summer’s unending parade of tortures–is over. Yes, the infernal heat and sunshine, insects and poison ivy, frolicking youths and unfulfilled expectations, are all safely in the rearview mirror. It is only then, in the melancholy gloom of turning leaves, crisp air, frequent drizzle, and solid cloud cover–that the world feels at one again.
Elongated to four or five weeks, Halloween is no mere one-evening oddity, but rather autumn’s peak and a legitimate season of the witch. By late September, tombstones and skeletons are popping up in suburban front yards. Little row house porchlets are decked-out in cobwebs and purple light. Preposterously fake stray body parts dangle from windows; creepy mannequins glower in side yards. In Allegheny Cemetery, family members are lovingly decorating real graves.
Gary Thunberg is truly a man for all seasons. When last we visited Beaver’s house of holidays, it was on the eve of Independence Day, 2017. Gary and his mother Doris could not have been more excited about showing off the red, white, and blue handmade eagles, stars, and fireworks blasts around the house, along with the volumes of guest books signed by visitors from around the world. After that encounter, we vowed to return and experience more Thunberg holiday displays in future.
It will take a bunch of trips out Rt. 65 to see them all. The Thunberg home, on Third Street in Beaver, is in a perpetual state of rolling seasonal displays. The year’s lawn decoration starts with Valentine’s Day, which bleeds into St. Patrick’s, Easter, spring awakening, etc.
By late September, Gary Thunberg is all-in on Halloween season. The orange and black has taken over all surfaces of lawn, porch, bushes, and trees. Glowing orange lights are strung through the pumpkins in the shrubs and the handful of big, store-bought inflatables are plugged-in and stumble to life.
Alas, Gary Thunberg’s work schedule doesn’t always line up with The Orbit‘s reporting availability, so we missed him on this trip out. But we got to see the house and grounds fully decked-out, the spirit of Halloween vividly present anywhere you look.
We learned from Doris that Gary is getting close to retirement which means our chances of getting a personal tour again will go way up. It also means Gary will finally have the opportunity to take this part-time hobby and put it into high gear. We can only hope.
Happy Halloween, y’all!
Independence Day, the most American of holidays. From its origin in the founding of the country to the relentless red, white, and blue seen everywhere on porch rail bunting, matching jogging suits, and strawberry-blueberry desserts. Baseball, mom, apple pie, and yeah, bombs bursting in air–they’re all there–as are the only slightly less-mythologized backyard cookouts and blowout sales at big box retailers.
The flag itself–all fifty stars and thirteen bars of it [or some other random numbers, if you remember last year’s flag roundup] is all over the place and it’s as divisive as ever. These three colors are a glaring mess when you get too much of them in one place and this becomes its own kind of visual metaphor for the confusion and oppression many of us feel when there is just too darn much flag-waving going on.
Feel free to revolt! Break out the purple, orange, and green ensemble! Turn up the Fela Kuti, Shoukichi Kina, and Sergio Mendes! Put kimchi on that hot dog and dip those French fries in mayonnaise! What is, after all, more American than dissent?
A Prosecco toast may feel revelatory, but there are definitely more productive ways to embrace one’s Americanness. Voting, of course, is also as American as things get. [Sadly, so is not voting.] Do your good deed for the day: get an unregistered voter signed up and on the right track to participating in his or her democracy! SwingLeft offers a really great, clear voter registration guide and Rock the Vote has been a force in registering young voters for decades.
And, sweet Jesus, if you’re reading this and are not already registered to vote, do it for yourself right now. You can register online (at least, if you’re a Pennsylvania resident); it only takes a couple minutes.
All that blathering aside and all those misgivings noted, creating representations of the American flag fits right in the pocket of one of The Orbit’s bread-and-butter staples. When (otherwise) non-artists are motivated to pick up brush and paint to get their outer patriot on, the results are almost always interesting. Plus, Independence Day is the most obvious opportunity to run the flag pictures we collect all year.
That’s all we’ve got. Happy Fourth of July, ya’ll.
A simple cross. Each spar a length of white PVC pipe a couple feet long with the ends capped and sealed. There is one heavily-sun-bleached Christmas wreath attached to the piece and another lays in the grass just in front. Also at the scene is a small, hand-painted, ceramic angel. Peel-and-stick letters on three ends of the pipe describe only the most basic details: Mark, 66-02.Years ago, the makeshift memorial was hammered into the grass of a wide berm along Route 837 in West Elizabeth. We pass the cross on every trip down to Donora and Monessen, so it’s become a kind of mile marker in this industrial stretch that includes a number of small factory buildings along with large operations for Eastman Chemical Resins and Marathon Petroleum. The enormous, stories-tall gas reservoirs of the latter form an imposing backdrop to the very human-scaled and personally-tended roadside cross put up for the departed.
Memorial Day means a lot of things to a lot of different people. It was created to honor those men and women who’ve died in military service for the country and has morphed into the great long weekend of igniting propane under chicken thighs after deeply-discounted blowout sales at department stores and car dealerships.
While those interpretations of the holiday are all valid, The Orbit finds a profound depth in the very personal and extremely individual work of making and tending these unique tributes that seem to pop up just about anywhere.
There’s a lot we don’t know…and will never know just by randomly passing a roadside cross with someone’s first name. Somewhere out there–for any accident that’s resulted in fatality–there must exist the blunt facts of a police record or newspaper obituary. But even with the clues provided–a firefighter’s helmet, a stone painted with the Harley-Davidson logo, an unexpected location along the bicycle trail–the memorials generate more questions than they answer.
Whatever happened to Mark, Ryan, Jordan, or any of the others remembered in these roadside crosses, it probably wasn’t a happy ending. Their ages–from late teens to mid-thirties–and placement of the crosses (mainly) along busy roadways suggest unexpected, unnatural deaths. These seem likely to be car crash-related, but of course those details are part of what remain a mystery.
The most important unknown, for the vast majority of us, is the character of these people whose lives were cut short on the two-lane blacktop. They were clearly loved and are missed with a reverence we should all be so lucky to have. The Orbit spends a lot of time in the graveyard; very few marble headstones get the loving upkeep of some of these lashed-to-a-guardrail wooden crosses.
Back to that anonymous roadside in West Elizabeth–graveled and dusty, noisy with truck traffic, and surrounded by the petrochemical industry. It has none of the solemn peace, flowering dogwoods, frolicking deer, or generations-old sculpted beauty of Allegheny or Union Dale Cemeteries. It offers neither the great cross-river views of St. John’s and Loretto nor the rock star lineup at Homewood.
But…this is where it happened. And for the people who loved Mark and Vincent, Ryan and Jordan, these lonely stretches of ex-urban highway seem to have become hallowed ground in a way that may never seem completely appropriate for more pristine, formal burial grounds.
* * *
Roadside crosses, though not obviously memorials, showed up in a couple other places on our travels. These anonymous acts of faith–a metal cross on steel girder (above) and old world painted wood cross on utility pole (below) come with even less to go on.
Do they remember a specific traffic fatality like the more personalized examples above? Or do these crosses have nothing to do with an individual or specific intersection and just represent a quiet-but-public expression of religious belief?
There’s a couple more here, too. This loving, heart-shaped and patio-sized tribute to “mom / grandma / friend” on Route 51 is hard to suss out. Did grandma pass away at this stretch of highway [it’s as likely as anywhere] or did the family just decide to landscape their elaborate memorial in a naked roadside where the greater Coraopolis/Moon Township commuter community could pay their respects? Who knows!
Finally, the one that really hits home. We wrote a while back about the ghost bicycle for Susan Hicks in central Oakland and went into a whole spiel about putting our faith in robots. We’ve been fortunate enough that there haven’t been too many other cycling fatalities in the city since then.
One painful exception is Dennis Flanagan, a cyclist who was killed riding on a fast-moving stretch of West Carson Street in 2016. For the ghost bicycle left to mark the spot of Flanagan’s fatal accident, the teddy bears have faded, plastic flowers droop, gears and chain are rusty. But the painted-white bicycle remains, locked to a street sign faithfully reminding passers-by that Dennis Flanagan was here and we all need to look out for each other. That’s what Memorial Day means to me.