Pain’t That America: The Front Yard Patriotism of Gary Thumberg

brick house with many handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Little America: Thumberg house, 3rd Street, Beaver, PA

It’s a cliché, sure, but you can’t miss it.

No, the sweet, pre-war two-story brick home would look a lot like many others found in Pittsburgh’s down-river boroughs but for the wealth–some might say overload–of red, white, and blue homemade patriotic holiday displays that fill every inch of its front, side, and rear yard space. Together, they lift this house from small town charmer to an explosion of full-on Yankee Doodle Dandydom.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

Beaver, PA. A picture-perfect embodiment of quaint. The town’s wide streets, stately manors, well-groomed lawns, and fancy boutiques look more country posh than the (ex-)industry brownfields and empty storefronts of almost all its Ohio Valley neighbors[1]. But it’s a pleasant, accessible, middle-class midwestern posh, rather than its harder-to-take New England old money cousin.

There was long bit about taking a bike from Monaca to Rochester and then here to Beaver, but our editor told us to cut the crap. Suffice to say, there are a bunch of interesting things in town and River Road is both aptly-named and bicycle-perfect. If you take it almost all the way around and then back to the main drag, your ride-around will conclude up on 3rd Street with the great homemade holiday decorations of Gary Thumberg.

Gary Thumberg with his handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Gary Thumberg by his alley cannon and flags

Some of the displays may be what you’re expecting. There are dozens of eagles, their wings spread in majestic mid-flight glory and bodies brightly marked like sports jerseys. A couple of them have been framed in lumpy ovals to appear as if in an official seal. Uncle Sam is here–the red, white, and blue literally oozing out of him–as are many, many American flags in different sizes and variants.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including flags, eagles, and star flowers, Beaver, PA

side of Thumberg’s house with flags, eagles, and star flowers

In The Orbit‘s annual Independence Day post, we mused about why it’s so difficult for homemade flag-painters to get the 50-star count right. On this matter, we need to eat some Corvus brachyrhynchos (that’s all-American crow).

With so many homemade flags created by the same two hands, it’s exciting to see the umpteen different expressions that Gary Thumberg has come up with. For sure: flags that are near the exact design you’ll see flying above the courthouse are featured in the yard. But so are seven-striped models of minimalism, gestural two-star tree-hangers, and reverse-color mind-benders.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

In addition to these familiar forms, the lawn display also includes some other interesting takes on America’s favorite color scheme.

Thumberg attacks the most effervescent of holiday imagery in his captured-in-time fireworks explosions. These wooden cut-outs–complete with smoke trails and star blasts–are repeated several times with different paint jobs. The image is perhaps Thumberg’s most impressionistic form–a daring move to represent so much motion and light, sound and fury in two dimensions, staked in grass.

handmade wood cut fireworks lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

fireworks

The most unique of Thumberg’s choices has to be a large teddy bear form that appears multiple times around the property[2]. How these relate to the declaration of independence, we don’t know–and didn’t think to ask at the time–but we’ll go with it. The bears are standing up for America with no identifiable facial markings and just the vertical red/white/blue stripes of the season. A human-sized teddy bear is out front riding a (real, decommissioned) bicycle.

handmade wood cut teddy bear lawn decoration on bicycle, Beaver, PA

show me what democracy looks like: patriotic teddy bear on bicycle

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including teddy bear, fireworks, and Uncle Sam, Beaver, PA

patriotic teddy bear, fireworks, Uncle Sam

You’d think the 4th would be enough, but Gary Thumberg is holiday crazy. Independence Day is just one of four annual occasions that prompt the sixty-something year-old Thumberg to shuffle the contents of his storage shed/workshop/garage–taking in the previous event’s decor and prepping for the next.

With a holiday every season [Halloween, Christmas, and Easter are the others] and the weeks of work it takes him to remove the old, bring out the new, patch, paint, and repair any trouble spots, and finally lay out and line up everything for display, the decorations are a (nearly) full-time side occupation.

handmade wood cut eagles lawn decorations in back yard, Beaver, PA

back yard eagles and flags

The family came to this house on 3rd Street over 40 years ago, and Gary’s passion for holiday decoration goes back almost as long. The painted plywood decorations are all cut out by Thumberg with a jigsaw using various paper patterns or templates. From here, they’re sanded, painted, and hammered into the ground. The majority of the display is saved, stored, and brought back out again each year, but Gary tries to add one or two new pieces each season. Neighbors have gotten into the act by donating lights, wood, paint, and brushes.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decoration of red, white, and blue Snoopy, Beaver, PA

Snoopy

The Thumbergs–Gary lives with his lovely 87-year-old mother Doris–want you to stop by and see Gary’s work. A guest book out front encourages visitors to sign in and leave their thoughts. Doris has volumes of past years’ entries with signees coming from every state in the country and all over the world.

Catching this blogger photographing the side of his house, Gary came out to say hello and led me around, acting as tour guide to the full display, which extends into the back yard and out to the alley. Then I got invited into the house, phone numbers were exchanged, and we were invited back.

We will be back–for sure. We’ll see you guys at Halloween, if not sooner.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag


[1] Yes, Sewickley is the other obvious exception.
[2] We weren’t sure what these shapes actually are, but Gary Thumberg confirmed them as teddy bears.

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2017

garage door painted like American flag, Millvale, PA

garage flag (53 stars), Millvale

If congress ever grants Puerto Rico the right to become America’s fifty-first state, it will likely be a very good thing for the island–at least, its electorate are optimistic. The most recent referendum was just last month with a whopping 97% of voters opting for the change[1].

That said, Puerto Rico’s inclusion in the union will inevitably end up as a nightmare for the graphic designers tasked with figuring out how to artfully arrange the awkward number of 51 stars into coherent symmetry for the to-be-updated American flag. Fifty-one is not a prime number–you could do three rows of 17–but come on, it’s going to be a star-spangled mess.

plywood storefront painted like 48-star American flag, West Newton, PA

empty storefront cover flag (48 stars), West Newton

homemade American flag made from fence wood, Apollo, PA

fence flag (28 stars/7 stripes), Apollo

Anyone born here in the last half century has grown up with a 50-state America and its flag with a matching star count. That can make a lot of us feel like it’s always been that way, and always will be. However, we know what happens when we forget our history. Like that 51-star flag, it isn’t pretty.

The United States started as the thirteen original British colonies, each individually converted to statehood/commonweathdom. Over the next two centuries another thirty-seven expansion teams were gradually added to the league. Vermont and Kentucky formed the very first class in 1795; the most recent was Hawaii in 1960.

homemade American flag made from fence material, Carroll Township, PA

fence flag (39 stars), Carroll Twp.

garage door painted like the 13-star colonial American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

13-star colonial/”Betsy Ross” design garage flag, Stanton Heights

The flag–or, at least, the number and arrangement of white stars on its blue field–was redesigned many times in this span. These were often periods of just one or two years with a particular design until another new state was added. While the general stars-and-(thirteen) bars composition never varied, the arrangement of the constantly-in-flux star count sure did.

When that number added up to something nice and easily divisible–like, say, 20, 24, 30, 35, or 48–there’s an obvious grid to lay out. But on the years where you’re starting with a prime number, it doesn’t work out so nicely. Take, for example, the 31-star flag used in the 1850s or the 43-star flag of 1890-91–these are just plain raunchy. I’m sure Henry Clay was working overtime to convert western territories just to get out of using some of these ugly-ass banners.

concrete bridge support painted like American flag with slogan "Make the Channel Great Again", Pittsburgh, PA

“Make the Channel Great Again” (no stars attempted), 31st Street Bridge

American flag mural on V.F.W., Sharpsburg, PA

V.F.W. flag (50 stars!), Sharpsburg

It is so interesting that a person–heck, it’s Independence Day–a patriot–would dedicate this much time, effort, and public-facing garage-front property to hand-constructing and commemorating Old Glory, but not bother to paint the right number of stars.

The pattern is just not that difficult to match. There are exactly 50 stars on America’s flag, one for each state. These are arranged in nine rows that space to interleaved sets alternating between six and five stars. There are lots of models to look at.

Regardless, citizens taking up paint bucket and brush to turn an old section of fence, shipping pallet, or garage door into a crude rendition of the star-spangled banner is about as American as it gets. Not getting the math right on the star count only makes it more so.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!


Some of the other interesting flags and flag-like things we’ve come across in the last year:

American flag hanging in second-floor doorway of brick house, Pittsburgh, PA

doorway flag, Lawrenceville

Mary statue in front of brick porch with many American flags, Pittsburgh, PA

front yard Mary with flags, Oakland

We’re working on a whole piece around the front yard Marys of Oakland, in which this photo will inevitably be cross-listed. Until then, this combo of Mary, papa flag, mama flag and her eight sisters, plus a whole lot of baby flags stuck into a red, white, and blue base will have to get you through the holiday.

patriotic mural including soldiers, military cemetery, and American flag, Leechburg, PA

mural, Leechburg

male mannequin dressed as a woman standing in front of American flag, Hawley, PA

mannequin/flag, Hawley, PA

Little Hawley, PA–way across the state on Lake Wallenpaupack in the Poconos–is definitely not in the Pittsburgh “orbit”, but we loved this thrift shop’s repurposing of an obviously-male mannequin into a women’s clothes model with patriotic backdrop so much we had to include it.

metal rolling window cover painted with crossed American and Polish flags, Pittsburgh, PA

American and Polish flags, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Bloomfield

Sigh. Later this year, when the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern finally serves up its last Polish Platter and Dingus Day goes looking for a new home, this classic old world/new world unity image will (likely) be painted over in favor of the future new owner’s redesign. When that day comes, you can count on the mother of all Orbit obits. Until then, we can only hope it remains “Pittsburgh’s original Polish party house,” but don’t hold your breath.

American flag on pole split into two, Pittsburgh, PA

flag torn asunder, Esplen

While it’s tempting to think of the torn-right-down-the-middle flag we found flying in Esplen as a subtle political commentary, I have a feeling the real explanation is simple neglect along with the wear-and-tear on any fabric left out for a few too many Pittsburgh winters.

For the record, Section 8 (e) of the U.S. “Flag Code” states: “The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.” Further, under Destruction of Worn Flags, the code continues, “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

The Orbit is in no position to tell anyone what to do about anything, but I think it’s safe to say this Esplen flag is still very much a “fitting emblem” of the deeply-divided America of today.

red metal flag drop box at Rochester, PA, Veterans of Foreign Wars

V.F.W. flag drop box, Rochester, PA

plastic light-up flag in window, Pittsburgh, PA

window flag, Bloomfield

yard sign reading "Kathleen's Beaver Supports our Troops", Beaver, PA

No snickering! Kathleen’s Beaver Supports our Troops, Beaver

homemade poster reading "America is Great", Pittsburgh, PA

America is Great, Lawrenceville

A pre-election 2016 homemade banner hanging from a Lawrenceville front porch wasn’t enough to convince Pennsylvania voters they were already living in a great country, sigh.


[1] Although only a paltry 23% of the population voted. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puerto_Rican_status_referendum,_2017.

Easter Special: You Can’t Make an Omelet Without Finding Some Eggs

baby doll painted gold and hanging from telephone wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby, Lawrenceville

Matched ceramic salt and pepper shakers, ruby glass, bobbleheads, Hummel figurines, cookie jars–people collect all kinds of goofy stuff. Bakelite AM radios, Santas, and state plates, World’s Fair trinkets and glass insulators from telegraph lines. David from our West Coast rival Portland Orbit has some unique collections: cans of knock-off Dr. Pepper, eyeglass stems found on the street, other peoples’ grocery lists.

Easter may come only once a year, but every day can be the Orbiteer’s figurative egg hunt–which is really just the primordial collecting impulse–and it doesn’t cost a penny or take up any room on your shelves. Spotting is a lifelong and year-round habit: take the alley, poke behind the bushes, look down at the pavement and up in the telephone wires. [Oh, Golden Babies, how we pray we haven’t seen the last of you!]

Today, whether you’re a committed church-going, brunch-eating Easter reveler or full-on dance-naked-by-the-bonfire pagan, we celebrate some of the Orbit‘s favorite any-time/all-year-long city egg hunt targets.

protractor glued to metal driving barrier, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh protractor, Allegheny River Trail, Millvale

Pittsburgh Protractors are the easy money, chump change, fish-in-a-barrel of local urban collecting. In that way, though, they’re a great entry point–the gateway drug–to hardcore egg hunting. Either way, you have to respect the work of the protractor perpetrator(s) and we couldn’t not include the protractors in the list. There are just so damn many of the little plastic doo-dads glued all over the place that if you’re in bicycle-accessible city limits and keep your blinkers open, you’ll probably spot a few even if you’re not really trying.

ghost sign for "Arsenal Brand Meat Products" painted on side of brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign: Arsenal Brand Meat Products, Hill District

Sal’s MeatsHipCo BatteriesMother’s Best FlourOwl Cigar. Who are these vendors and what is the business arrangement that traded a (presumably) single payment into a long-after-life of marketing products that may no longer be purchased?

The hand-painted, brick wall advertising of yesteryear was all put out of business (we assume) by the arrival of big, purpose-built billboards with their larger display areas, darkness-defying flood lights, targeted sight lines, and monthly rates. That’s part of what makes so-called ghost signs so enjoyable for the egg hunter: it’s pretty obvious that there won’t be any more of them[1], and what’s left is often fading fast.

brass marker showing the 46.0 high water mark for the March 18, 1936 flood of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

1936 flood marker, Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown

Waaaay back when, the very first story committed to these virtual pages concerned a cryptic message painted around two faces of an old brick building in Manchester. That [SPOILER ALERT!] turned to be a marker for the most famous rising of the waters in Pittsburgh’s history–the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood.

We’ve found a handful more of them around downtown and on the North Side, but surprisingly few considering the immensity of the event and the age of our building stock. That just makes the hunt all that much sweeter when we zero in on previously unseen prey.

Mary statuette in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Front yard Mary and grotto, Arlington

The blessed mother, hands spread with her palms open in a welcoming embrace or–far less often–the pietà image of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus or holding the once-and-future as a baby [see above]. Whichever way we encounter the statuary, this is Front Yard Mary [even if she’s in the side or back yard] and we’ll take her any way we can get her.

There are so many Marys out there that we’ve got separate future features planned for South Oakland, Homestead, and the South Side Slopes (at least), which hardly makes Mary the most difficult egg to hunt. That said, this is ostensibly an Easter feature…

painting of woman with three eyes by Clohn Art, wheatpasted to wood, Pittsburgh, PA

Clohn Art, Downtown

Clohn Art is the nom de plume–or perhaps nom de paintbrush–of one John Lee, whose crude extra-eyed men, women, and animal paintings are executed on the placemats of Chinese restaurants and unfurled brown paper bags. They’re found wheatpasted at construction sites, alley walls, and, in at least one case, a rusty bus shelter in Homestead.

Wherever we happen to see the artist’s distinctive little paintings, they always pop off the wall surface and bring a twisted smile to our merely two-eyed faces. Mr. Lee declined The Orbit‘s request for a feature interview [John: we’re still interested!] so we’re left to troll the back streets, hoping to grab another of those rarest of eggs: a fresh, new Clohn to nestle in the wicker basket.

teddy bear and plastic flowers left on curbside, Pittsburgh, PA

Reasonably happy-looking sad toy, Fairywood

Like some mangy old teddy bear, dropped casually from a toddler’s stroller and forced to spend purgatory face-down in the weedy berm, Al Hoff brought the concept of “sad toys” into this blogger’s life and then cruelly left us by the side of the road to fend for ourselves.

Stuffed animals with their fur matted, flattened, and filthy; a basketball, punctured and concave in an oily culvert; doll parts dismembered and jettisoned like the work of a Lilliputian serial killer. So much pathos in such tiny candy-colored doses! It’s almost too much to bear…almost. But when we find them–and these are truly both the most random and the most reliable, renewable resource of today’s eggs–we can’t help but bag them.

outline of previously-existing "ghost house" against larger brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house, North Side

Ghost houses–the imprint of one, now-extinct building upon its still-extant neighbor–is hardly a concept unique to Pittsburgh, but we’ve got the perfect environmental conditions to produce them here. Older building stock constructed right up against each other in a previous era when the density supported a pedestrian-based workforce, coupled with decades of “benign neglect” that demolished many–some falling all on their own–and landlords caring little about fixing-up the weird negative spaces on their vacant lot-facing windowless walls.

Like many of the other ova that occupy our oculi, ghost houses are special because–like a petrified forest, or the career of Steve Guttenberg–they’re the result of such a peculiar series of historic events, circumstances, and (non-)actions over a great period of time that we’ll likely not encounter the same perfect storm here again.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Clarence the Bird pole art, Bloomfield

With Clarence the Bird, the egg hunt changes parameters. Like picking up pawpaws, where there’s one of his handmade, ink-on-cardboard Make the World Beautiful instances, there tend to be a lot. Find a Clarence and you can safely spread out–looking up and down at the adjacent-blocks’ neighboring telephone poles and bulletin boards–and you’ll likely spot more.

So far [to our knowledge], Clarence has stuck to the greater Lawrenceville-Bloomfield-Garfield-Friendship portion of the East End, but that may just be where we’ve crossed paths with his big wings and pointy beak. I’m sure if we do see his trail elsewhere, we’ll see it everywhere.

poems of The Dirty Poet taped to a lamp post, Pittsburgh, PA

Poems of The Dirty Poet, Oakland

To call locating the telephone pole and street lamp verse of The Dirty Poet “egg hunt” material is a little bit of a stretch. His Dirtiness (yes: the writer is a he) wants the short, dittoed poems he authors to be read, after all. They’ve been taped and stapled at eye level on prominent foot traffic corners for just that purpose.

Regardless, it’s still neat to run across the prickly prose and lurid lines of the Bard of the Backstreets, knowing that one is literally standing in the creator’s footprints, inhaling his boozy breath, and shimmering in what’s left of his groovy vibes. To you, Whitman of the walkways, Dickinson of the downtown, Angelou of the who are you? may we always encounter your offspring sunny side up.

Toynbee Tile reading "Toynbee Idea in movie '2001' resurrect dead on planet Jupiter"

Toynbee Tile (no longer present), Downtown

It almost feels like cheating to include the so-called Toynbee Tiles in the list–we ran a feature on the House of Hades tiles just last week. But when you get lucky enough to spot one of the remaining, legit, first-generation street pieces, well, it’s a good day indeed.

As we reported, it is The Orbit‘s conclusion that none of these still exist in metro Pittsburgh and we’re left with a pair of ersatz Hell-bound tributes. But you never know! What does Easter–and, by association, spring–offer but the arrival of new hope, possibility, and opportunity. It is a new season: the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and flowers are popping with their tiny blasts of color across late winter’s gray-brown backdrop. Go out there and get you some eggs!


[1] There are, however, several efforts out there to restore/repaint old ghost signs as new mural projects. There’s a big one on Penn Avenue in Garfield and several in Braddock that we know of.

Fish On My List: Holy Angels vs. St. Maximilian Kolbe

fish sandwich with three breaded fillets of fish from church fish fry

The holy grail: Holy Angels Parish panko-crusted triple-decker fish sandwich

Editor’s note: When Orbit cub reporter Lee Floyd pitched the idea of a one-lunch back-to-back fish vs. fish showdown comparing two of the area’s finest, we thought he was crazy…crazy like a fox! Here’s Lee’s take on the day.

Pittsburgh may not be known for seafood, but we can deep fry a frozen filet as well as any city with a coastline. I’ve ordered fish in several states that couldn’t hold a candle to the piping-hot deliciousness served up by volunteers at churches and firehalls around the Steel City. The solemnness of the Lenten season is completely lost on The Orbit as we seek out Friday lunch like wide-eyed, salivating animals.

table covered with homemade desserts for sale at church fish fry dinner

Dessert table, Holy Angels

The fourth day of Spring, sunny with a high in the mid-60s, was perfect weather for a bicycle-based culinary tour. I pedaled against the wind to meet today’s dining partner (and Orbit editor) for a double dose of our most-beloved sandwich. I was determined to impartially judge two of my local favorites because, while every local news outlet and their mother has a fish fry guide or a basketball-style bracket for the best fish, it is really just a popularity contest. I even take my own opinion with a dash of hot sauce unless I can compare two things back-to-back. So that’s exactly what we set out to do.

Catholic priest laughing with take-out from church fish fry

Jesus on the mainline: this priest is on a (take-out) mission

Our first stop was right in the middle of the lunch hour so we found Holy Angels Parish packed to the gills. We were greeted at the door, handed menus, and bid good luck in finding a seat. Once we were situated, we simply flashed a pink card and a server arrived to take our order. There was very little hassle or delay despite the size of the crowd, although you might disagree if you were looking for parking in Holy Angels side lot.

two men eat fish sandwiches in church basement fish fry

Bon appétit! Satisfied Holy Angels customers digging-in.

Let me tell you about that fried fish sandwich! Holy Angels dropped three generous panko-crusted Pollack filets into a standard hoagie bun and nothing was ever the same again. It was obvious these were express shipped to the table straight out of the fryer–I even burnt my finger after the photo-op.

Holy Angels also offers baked fish options, the standard sides (we tried the mac and cheese–gooey and good, but nothing special), two seafood-based soups, cheese pizza, and a tantalizing, largely homemade-by-parishioners dessert table.

stacks of boxed frozen pollack fillets on shipping pallets

2000 pounds of frozen pollack just delivered for next Friday’s fry, Holy Angels Parish

To protect the integrity of this story I scolded my editor: “Are you really going to put the hot sauce on your half before you taste it!?!” Our fellow fish-fiends/tablemates overheard and immediately began to relate their Lenten exploits (we added West Mifflin’s Holy Trinity to our to-eat list) and gloated that they know the best restaurant that serves fried fish year round–Rene’s (pronounced “REN-ees” or maybe “REE-knees“) in McKeesport. The conversation lasted longer than our meal and so I forgot about the (terrible but empirical) plan to pocket part of a sandwich so I could compare alternate bites at our second stop.

exterior of St. Maximillian-Kolbe Catholic church, Homestead, PA

St. Maximillian-Kolbe (aka “St. Max”), Homestead

After a combined three mile ride via river trail and Homestead side streets, a palate-cleansing flight of craft beer at Blue Dust, and one calf-straining climb up the hill to 13th Ave., we found ourselves locking up our bicycles next to the 24-foot-tall likeness of St. Joseph the Worker just outside St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Homestead.

At St. Max, you order and pay just inside the door before entering the hall. My editor-of-little-faith’s jaw hit the floor when he found out the good saint serves beer alongside scripture. By the time we finally got done picking it up, our food was ready.

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

Fish sandwich with sides of (traditional noodle) haluski and potato haluski served on a McDonald’s tray, St. Max’s

As Rick Sebak put it, “The bun is just a handle”, and never was he more on-point than at St. Max. The parish serves one absurdly long, flaky filet on an oversized–but still way too small–bun. It is not only substantial but also cooked and seasoned with a hand that we can only assume is heaven-sent. Loose, thin breading ensures the fish remains the star of the show.

At this stop, we chose to sample both types of haluski on the menu–egg noodle and the more traditional potato dumpling–which were part of the largest church menu I’ve ever seen. The extended offerings also include baked and fried fish, crab cakes, shrimp, pierogies, haluski, linguini, pizza, stewed tomatoes, deli salad sandwiches, and more–in addition to the standard sides and dessert table.

piece of puff pastry in plastic wrap on disposable plate

Puff pastry, wrapped in plastic, St. Max’s

So…who wins? In my opinion, the breading and service really makes Holy Angels’ fish stand out from all the other places we’ve visited. On the other hand, the generous, quality filet at St. Max hasn’t been rivaled either (it may be enough for two meals, but I’ll devour it all at once, thanks). If you like fish, you’ll not be disappointed with either choice! Since the fish was so difficult to call, we’ve got to contrast other factors:

  • If you plan to arrive by bicycle along the Great Allegheny Passage trail, then Holy Angels is much more accessible–it’s just a short, easy ride up from the break under the Glenwood Bridge.
  • If your sweet tooth is what gets you to leave the house, Holy Angels wins the dessert table by a nose for its homemade bringings-in. That said, St. Max’s had some of parishioner Shirley’s cream puffs that blew our mind.
  • If you enjoy the chance to share a table with strangers, either location will probably do, but Holy Angels is known for being packed to capacity. The crew at our table were a particularly lively bunch that couldn’t wait to share and compare info on other fish fries.
  • The cheese pizza at either location should keep the children quiet, but if you need to order for diverse tastes, then perhaps the larger more-ethnic menu at St. Max will make you the hero of the office.
  • If you like to get canned-up on domestic brews at dive bar prices with the option to confess it all in one convenient location, then St. Max’s “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere” bar is your spot.
  • If you’re ordering to go and have a fear of soggy breading, then St. Max is my recommendation.
small bar in church basement decorated with flag and banners

The “It’s 5:00 Somewhere” bar, St. Max

Winner winner, fried fish dinner.

It’s said that difficult decisions are so because there simply is no right answer. What’s clear from this attempt to pit parish vs. parish, panko vs. batter, Lucy’s cheesecake vs. Shirley’s cream puffs is that when it comes to the fish on The Orbit‘s list, we’re all winners…except maybe the fish. The fish are probably not the winners here, but the rest of us are winners. Eat well.

author Lee Floyd posing on "Fish Fry Today" sign outside church

The author, Holy Angels Parish, Hays


Getting there:
Holy Angels Parish: 408 Baldwin Road, Hays.
St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish: 363 W 11th Ave, Homestead.
Both serve fish Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent, 11 AM – 7 PM…or until the fish runs out.

Hold the Cheese: A Pi Day Salute to Ghost Pizza

neon sign reading "IZZA" (the letter "P" is burnt out), Natrona Heights, PA

unknown, Natrona Heights

What’s not to like? Fresh-baked bread–right out of the oven–some kind of sauce, a lake of molten cheese. There are umpteen different things you can throw on top for more flavor–and each one has its defenders and cynics–but these are almost superfluous. Pizza–Hot, Fresh, & Delicious, as if the standard-issue paperboard box needed to remind us of it–is (unofficially) America’s national dish[1].

Pizzerias are a classic formula that’s never needed to be updated–order a single cut for a quick lunch or a whole pie for a group dinner. They get dressed-up in fancy toppings and elaborate food narratives one day, but it still tastes great as greasy street food the next. Pizza places are future-proof: utilitarian as gas stations and lusty as saloons. No one wants Internet pizza.

All that said, not every pizza joint is going to have the long-term endurance of Beto’s or P&M. So on this Pi Day, we celebrate some of the fallen soldiers on pizza’s long campaign to win the hearts, minds, waistlines, and cholesterol counts of America. Buon appetito!

hand-painted sign for Venice Pizza on cinderblock wall, covered in vines, Pittsburgh, PA

Venice Pizza I, Lawrenceville

cinderblock wall with mural for former Venice Pizza & Pasta, Pittsburgh, PA

Venice Pizza II, Lawrenceville[2]

Brick commercial building with green, white, and red storefront, Clairton, PA

unknown[3], Clairton

glass storefront windows painted with the name of DeSalla's Pizza and running pizza delivery man, Pittsburgh, PA

DeSalla’s, Allentown[4]

rear of commercial building with hand-painted sign reading "Astro Pizza", Pittsburgh, PA

Astro Pizza, East Liberty

freestanding brick restaurant with Italian red, green, and white awning and "For Sale" sign, Monongahela, PA

unknown[3], Monongahela

empty glass storefront with the word "Pizza" on glass, Pittsburgh, PA

Potenza Pizza & Pasta, North Oakland

glass storefront window with hand painted image of a bear eating pizza, Pittsburgh, PA

Pizza Bear, DeSalla’s, Allentown


[1] The United States has no official “national dish”. The obvious rivals for this title–hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie, and the like–could make strong counter-arguments, but this blogger thinks you’re fooling yourself if you buy them.
[2] That’s Amore pizza now occupies this building, but the obvious paint-over of the Venice name still qualifies the original tenant as ghost pizza.
[3] We can’t be sure the storefronts in Clairton and Monongahela were pizzerias, but the tell-tale green/white/red color scheme suggests they were either that or more full-on Italian restaurants.
[4] An Orbit reader from Allentown informs us that “DeSalla’s is not closed!” That may be true, but it sure looked like it the day we were there and they’ve got a prominent For Sale sign in the window, which suggests it won’t be long either way.

Mondo Menorah! Menorahmobile Models Measured

Grand Menorah Parade lineup, Rodef Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA

Grand Menorah Parade lineup, Rodef Shalom, Oakland

“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”

The speaker [I’m afraid I was moving too fast to get any names] is a genial, middle-aged man leaning up against a plain white passenger van that sports a glorious gold-painted menorah on its roof. Across the middle of the piece is a placard with stenciled letters: Happy Chanukah. The ornament is clearly custom-crafted and has sibling menorahs of the same exact design on dozens of other vehicles across the lot.

man posing in front of white van with rooftop menorah, Pittsburgh, PA

“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”

When you start ogling menorahmobiles–vehicles decorated with oversize ornamental electric menorahs for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah–you’ll find there are four basic models, distributed in roughly equal proportions.

There’s the plastic, light-up magnetic roof-topper made by Magnet Menorah. It basically looks like a similar-sized adjunct to the delivery car for a corporate pizza chain, only it’s got the image of nine candles, a phalanx of dreidels, a pile of gelt (gold coins), and the scrolled text Happy Chanukah in place of the Domino’s or Pizza Hut logo. This one may satisfy obligations–and is certainly convenient with minimums of both muss and fuss–but it’s got no soul. I was told “Those don’t count” by one, and even as both novice and outsider, I have to agree.

car with plastic rooftop menorah, Pittsburgh, PA

“Those don’t count.” magnet menorah by Magnet Menorah

Also commercially available is the competing, stainless steel model from CarMenorah.com. It features the eight daily Chanukah candles (each a separate, switchable LED light), four angled outward in one direction and four in the other, plus the tall center shamash. This design doesn’t have the convenient magnets, but it’s mounted to a roof-spanning bar that lashes discreetly for a nice tight side-to-side presentation. CarMenorahs come with one of a few optional professionally-printed wrapper-bases with messages like Happy Chanukah and Chabad wishes you a Happy Chanukah.

Simply by virtue of its choice in materials, CarMenorah’s design looks a lot nicer than the light-up plastic taxi topper offered by Magnet Menorah, but it still lacks any real individuality.

car with rooftop menorah reading "Chabad wishes you a happy Chanukah", Pittsburgh, PA

Stainless steel and LED CarMenorah.com design

Once you get past these mail-order, pre-fab car menorahs, we get to the good stuff.

Many vehicles feature menorahs with the same overall design as the CarMenorah piece, but built of wood on a 2×4 base rather than pre-assembled stainless steel. The more up-to-date of these include switchable LED lights; others had old-school tiny incandescent bulbs. Each set seems to have included a good-sized blank white board with room enough for the family to create their own custom messages across each side. Many simply pulled out the stencils and colored-in Happy Chanukah, but we also saw the additions of floral artwork, 8 Great Nights, and one pan of frying latkes.

Two cars with rooftop menorahs and home made "Happy Chanukah" signs, Pittsburgh, PA

Wooden menorahs make for 8 great nights!

lit rooftop menorah with homemade "Happy Chanukah" sign featuring frying latkes, Pittsburgh, PA

Thanks a latke, menorahmobile!

Finally, there is a particularly unique-to-Pittsburgh design that stands (literally) above all other car menorahs. Constructed of stout PVC pipe, spaced and jointed at 45-degree angles, and connected to a base spanning the width of the roof of a car, these menorahs extend probably 30 inches off the vehicle’s roof. A switch array connects the nine candle lights to the vehicle’s cigarette lighter. These menorahs become glorious headdresses to the otherwise plain Maximas and Odysseys they adorn.

Aside from the clever ingenuity of these materials, the PVC menorah wins on both simple elegance and sheer grandeur of its design. The menorah alone, spray-painted silver with no other adornment, is a striking and beautiful sight–the automobile underneath becomes but a humble pedestal for such interesting rolling modern sculpture.

mini van with rooftop menorah and "Happy Chanukah" banner, Pittsburgh, PA

PVC car menorah, electrical pole not included

If the spectator wants to see the full panoply of menorahmobiles, ground zero is Chabad of Pittsburgh’s Grand Menorah Parade. This year, it was held on Dec. 28, the fifth day of Chanukah. Detail-focused Orbit readers will note many photos included here have five bulbs lit and three dark.

The parade group assembles in the big back parking lot of Rodef Shalom Temple in Oakland and let this blogger tell you: it’s menorahmobiles as far and wide as the eye can see. Any lapse in reporting on this story can be blamed on the simple overwhelming number of subjects to try to catch, photograph, and say hello to in the midst of rapidly-diminishing daylight and the parade group’s imminent takeoff.

sedan with menorah and "Happy Chanukah" sign on roof, Pittsburgh, PA

Street menorahmobile, Squirrel Hill

white car with home made menorah on roof, Pittsburgh, PA

One on the street and one in the driveway. Squirrel Hill.

While fans can bag a virtually unlimited number of menorahmobiles in the setup for the parade, it’s also great to spot them “in the wild”. For the eight days of Chanukah, jaunts down the residential streets of Squirrel Hill will yield cockscombed Corollas and mohawked minivans casually parked on curbsides and driveways throughout.

* * *

One final thought: While this exercise was enlightening and fun, ultimately we found ourselves wishing the vehicle owners put more emphasis on creativity and individuality than simply selecting one of four off-the-shelf models. Menorahs come in infinite fantastic and original designs and have been a common subject for Jewish artists forever. Of course the roof of an automobile imposes some practical limitations to what the car’s owner can do, but I bet the community would come up with some really incredible creations if just given a little bit more of a prompt.

lineup for Grand Menorah Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Lineup for the Grand Menorah Parade at sundown, Rodef Shalom, Oakland

New Year’s Resolution: The 90 Neighborhoods Project

stylized map of the city of Pittsburgh by neighborhood

Pittsburgh is famously a “city of neighborhoods”–ninety of them, to be precise. Going through the full list, it was both enlightening and exciting to think of how much of The ‘Burgh hasn’t yet been Orbit covered–let alone the parts of town we’ve never even been to or couldn’t place on the map. How could we have never even been to Esplen or New Homestead or Summer Hill?

For this speculative journal’s New Year’s resolution 2017, we’re beginning a brand new project to visit and cover each and every one of the city’s defined neighborhoods*, Orbit style.

Two sycamore trees trained and grafted together to form an archway over an entrance sidewalk

The twin sycamores of Sheraden

To qualify for the series, the story must be fully of and about that place. If we include a single photo from somewhere in one of our collections on a theme, that doesn’t count. Similarly, an interview with someone who happens to live in a neighborhood would only register if that person’s particular work specifically related to the place.

Many parts of town have already been visited–Oakland, Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, The Hill District, Woods Run, and Downtown each have a bunch of stories to their names. For these, we’re grandfathering them into the series retroactively.

We even started a little early. Our trips to the amazing former Broadhead Manor project in Fairywood and Loretto Cemetery in Arlington Heights late in 2016 were prompted simply because we’d just never been to those parts of town and they seemed interesting. [SPOILER ALERT: they are.] We’ll be doing a lot more of that in 2017.

fire hydrant in field of tall weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Broadhead Manor public housing project, Fairywood

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man protected by purple plastic cover, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

One of the late Victorian photo headstones of Loretto Cemetery, Arlington Heights

Here’s where we could use your help: If you know of anything particularly Orbit-worthy happening anywhere–but especially in these un-covered territories–please let us know (via the Contact page) and we’d love to check it out.


* We’re counting the neighborhoods in a slightly more practical way for reporting purposes, so the total target number isn’t quite a full 90. This is all explained on the 90 Neighborhoods project page.