Row House Romance: Christmas Window Roundup

window decorated with many winter scene buildings, Pittsburgh, PA

winter scene diorama, Lawrenceville

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.

detail of winter scene including "Keep on Trucking" 18-wheeler, Pittsburgh, PA

Keep on Trucking (sic.): winter scene diorama (detail), Lawrenceville

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.

cat sitting in window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

candles, snowflake, attack cat, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

winking Santa, Lawrenceville

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.

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Santa and Mrs. Claus, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

two Santas, Bloomfield

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.]

Krampus holiday decorations in row house window, Pittsburgh, PA

Gruss vom Krampus! Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

carolers, Troy Hill

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.

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow owl, Bloomfield

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow scene vignette, Bloomfield

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)

windows decorated with Christmas stockings, Pittsburgh, PA

teddy bear stockings, Lawrenceville

window decorated with snow people and Christmas wreath, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people window, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people, wreath, and candles, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

deflated snow person, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

hot pink snow, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

candy canes, snow flakes, wreath, and candles, Lawrenceville

bay window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas’ greatest hits, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

manger scene, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas stickers, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

bells, candles, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Claus family, Lawrenceville

bay window decorated with Christmas dolls, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas automatons, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Santa window, Bloomfield

Ten Reasons to be Thankful Amazon Kicked Us to the Curb

goats eating weeds

Reason #1: Green as far as the eye can see. Goats eating knotweed, South Side Slopes.

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[1]–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.

older wood frame house in McKeesport, PA

House, McKeesport

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[3].

The rest of this post is pure speculation, but any economist would tell you that dropping another hundred thousand people[3] 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.

graffiti manger scene painted on former steel mill, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas scene, ex-mill, Lawrenceville

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.

detail from sign for Weiner World hot dog shop, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Weiner World, Downtown

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.

singer Randy Galioto performering at Bloomfield Little Italy Days, Pittsburgh, PA

Randy Galioto, The Italian Elvis, Bloomfield Little Italy Days

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.

illustration of cartoon burglar

Keeping petty crime legit

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.

metal folding chair on street in front of row house in Pittsburgh, PA

Parking chair, Lawrenceville

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.

large fried fish dinner on plate

Lenten fish supper, Church of the Assumption, Bellevue

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.

fursuit costume of white dog with purple features, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Anthrocon fursuit parade, downtown

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.

Woman with homemade Stanley Cup, Pittsburgh Penguins 2016 victory parade

Penguins fan with D.I.Y. Stanley Cup

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!

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers’ fandom’s not dead! … yet, Steelers grave, Allegheny Cemetery


[1] Source: https://qz.com/1119945/a-nearly-complete-list-of-the-238-places-that-bid-for-amazons-next-headquarters/.
[2] Source: https://www.kiplinger.com/tool/real-estate/T010-S003-home-prices-in-100-top-u-s-metro-areas/index.php
[3] That’s the promised 50,000 jobs at Amazon plus the estimated equal size of additional family, ancillary workforce, etc.

October Surprise! Halloween at Thunberg Acres

large wooden bat hanging from a tree

Hangin’ around for Halloween: one of Gary Thunberg’s wooden bats.

[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.

wooden Halloween decorations of ghosts and jack-o-lanterns

Ghosts! Pumpkin shrubs!

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.

wooden Jack-o-lantern ornaments hanging from bare tree limbs

Tiny jack-o-lantern tree ornaments.

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.

wooden Jack-o-lantern ornaments hanging from tree limbs

Lighted shrub pumpkins.

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.

handmade wooden Halloween decoration in back yard, Beaver, PA

Doris Thunberg and friend.

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.

collage of homemade wooden lawn art for Halloween

Peanuts! Ghost house! Curious George!

two wooden spider ornaments hanging in a tree

Crawled up beside her: tree spiders.

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!

collage of four wooden Jack-o-lanterns

Pumpkin patch: some of the many wooden jack-o-lanterns created by Gary Thunberg.

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2018

rows of small flags marking surface-level military graves in Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Allegheny Cemetery, Lawrenceville

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.

mural of American soldiers raising flag at Iwo Jima painted on red brick wall of house in Johnstown, PA

Iwo Jima mural, Johnstown

concrete roadside wall painted with American flag, McKees Rocks, PA

fading glory: bicentennial flag, McKees Rocks

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.

American flag draped over large object with cat and cat bowls sitting on top, Pittsburgh, PA

coffin/cat feeder flag, Spring Garden

concrete pylon decorated like the American flag, Coraopolis, PA

VFW, Coraopolis

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.

abandoned storefront with American flag painted on glass, Ambridge, PA

storefront, Ambridge

brick wall painted with American flag mural, Verona, PA

Billy Kay’s, Verona

cinderblock wall with painted American flag, McKees Rocks, PA

laundry/dry cleaners, McKees Rocks

grocery store display of soda pop packaging made to look like a bald eagle

pop art: Giant Eagle giant eagle/American flag, Homestead

mural of American flag on retaining wall along bicycle trail

retaining wall, Montour Trail

American flag made from construction paper

Church of the Assumption, Bellevue

wooden shipping pallet painted like an American flag, Ambridge, PA

The Kowalskys pallet flag, Ambridge

shipping pallet painted like American flag hanging on wooden fence

pallet flag, Stanton Heights [photo: Greg Lagrosa]

homemade American flag decoration leaning against house foundation, Neville Island, PA

Neville Island

musician Weird Paul performing in front of an American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

a real American hero: Weird Paul at the Elks Lodge, North Side

Memorial Day: Roadside Crosses

roadside memorial cross with Christmas wreathes, West Elizabeth, PA

Mark, 66-02, West Elizabeth

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.

wooden memorial plaque with flowers for Vincent Lapko, Pittsburgh, PA

Vincent Lapko, Nov-30-1983 – Oct-7-2017, Homestead Grays (neé High Level) Bridge [photo: Lee Floyd]

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.

roadside memorial cross with fireman's helmet and the text "When I am called to duty", Homestead, PA

firefighter’s memorial, Homestead/Munhall

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.

roadside cross and wreath with lettering "Ryan 1998-2017"

Ryan, 1998-2017, Rt. 65

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.

hand-painted roadside memorial cross, state route 837, PA

Jordan Celovsky, 1988-2017, Rt. 837

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.

wooden memorial cross by bicycle trail

Ronald Vahosky, Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail

iron memorial cross with plastic flowers on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Fazio, 12/21/90-11/13/15, Bloomfield/Lawrenceville

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.

* * *

metal cross attached to iron train trestle, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown, West Liberty Ave.

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?

wooden cross attached to utility pole, Pittsburgh

unknown, Lawrenceville

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!

roadside memorial heart with sign

mom / grandma / friend, Rt. 51

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.

ghost bicycle memorial decorated with plastic flowers and stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

ghost bicycle, West End

Groundhog Gonzo! Fur and Clothing on the Punxsutawney Groundhog Trail

homemade hat with stuffed groundhogs

The world’s coolest…er…coldest fashion show: Groundhog Day at Gobbler’s Knob

Everything you think you know about Groundhog Day is wrong. It’s not about predicting the weather or keeping up some quaint old world tradition–though both of those definitely do happen. It’s not even really about the namesake woodland creature, but you can be excused for thinking so. If most of your information comes from the eponymous Bill Murray/Andie MacDowell movie, I’m afraid you’ve been even further deceived.

man with groundhog mask and Bill Murray hand sign

Who knew Punxsutawney Phil was a “Stripes” fan?

O.K. Maybe “everything you know is wrong” is an exaggeration. I’ll speak for the rest of the world in saying the basic facts outsiders understand are that on February 2 each year, a committee of local citizens pulls a groundhog (always named “Phil”[1]) from a stump in Punxsutawney, Pa. in an attempt to predict–in the vaguest possible terms–the end of winter and coming of spring. Inexplicably, the season’s future hinges on whether or not the little guy “sees his shadow.”

The Groundhog Day tradition goes back well over a hundred years–even longer if you consider its German roots–and is regular fodder for end-of-broadcast feel-good chuckles between hosts on the evening news. This much is all true.

Man with custom-made Groundhog Day hat

“This is my 11th year!” Super fan from Youngstown, Ohio.

Of the many things Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis’ 1993 feel-good fantasy/comedy, gets wrong[2] is that Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman Phil Connors can’t just roll out of bed at 6:00 AM, chit-chat with Ned Ryerson, and amble across the town square to file his report.

No no no. First of all, you can bet the local network affiliate isn’t ponying up for surge-priced B&B rates on the single day when every lodging in greater Punxsutawney has been sold out for a year. When our crew arrived at 2:00 AM, there was an imposing fleet of satellite-equipped TV trucks already camped-out in the parking lot. All the major networks were there, along with a handful of cable new outlets, plus The Weather Channel and AccuWeather. Big engines were humming and news crews had clearly napped–as best they could–right there in their bucket seats and were already mainlining black coffee to get through the long morning.

news reporter and cameraman filming segment at Groundhog Day, 2018

Phil Connors never got up this early. News crew “doing it live” around 4 AM.

More importantly, though, the movie–filmed not in Western Pennsylvania, but in Woodstock, Ill.–makes it out as if the event takes place in the center of town, on a square surrounded by local businesses. There, a couple hundred people gather to watch Phil do his thing in the broad daylight.

The real Gobbler’s Knob is around a mile–as the crow flies–from Punxsutawney’s equally-charming, but differently-shaped downtown. It sits in the basin of a wooded area–sort of a natural amphitheater–with a large stage and some unobstructive railing to keep the crowds from pushing in too close when things get crazy.

There is not nearly enough parking to accommodate the mass of Phil faithful, so participants arrive through the night and into the early morning on one of a non-stop series of school buses literally moonlighting as town-to-Knob shuttles. The hardier and/or more impatient hoof it up a curling back road from the east side of Punxsy.

Groundhog Day has become a massive draw for little Punxsutawney. The town of around 6,000 attracts way more visitors than that number to the event. Varying estimates put recent crowd sizes between twelve and thirty thousand people[3].

large crowd assembled at Gobbler's Knob for Groundhog Day, 2018

View from the stage, around 6:45 AM. Umpteen-thousand “hog heads” at Groundhog Day, 2018

Groundhog Day may be the world’s coldest, darkest D.I.Y. fashion event. This first-time visitor had no idea that so much of the audience would arrive in various degrees of groundhog attire and tribute. There were groundhog masks and groundhog puppets, groundhog t-shirts and super-fan signage, stuffed groundhogs, and full-body groundhog suits.

woman holding groundhog cutout labeled "Erika"

Who’s Erika? Lady groundhogs with colorful skirts.

But it is the hats that really mark this festival. Custom-made toppers of all designs–stacked hog heads like faces on a totem pole and dainty scenes of Phil frolicking in a bed of feathers, pearls, and wispy notions. There are countless renditions of The Punxsutawney Prognosticator either emerging-from or sitting atop his stump and all manner of knit caps featuring cartoonish eyeballs, buck teeth, and little ears.

How many of these are fan-created vs. purchased in downtown Punxsutawney’s groundhog gift shops we do not know (yet!) but any way you slice it, the sheer breadth of Phil-themed headwear was incredible. Orbit staff did its best to get around and document what we could[4], but please realize the photos included here are but a tiny proportion of the actual outfits.

two women with custom-made Groundhog Day hats

“We go everywhere in costume.” Friends and first-time attendees from Virginia with made-for-the-occasion hats.

two men wearing novelty top hats with light-up "PHIL" letters for Groundhog Day

Phil Heads

woman with groundhog hat

Ain’t that America. Patriotic Phil and stump hat.

two women with groundhog hats holding homemade signs for Groundhog Day

Fans from Ft. Lauderdale and Chicago.

five young people with homemade signs for Groundhog Day.

Signs o’ the times. Young fans.

two women holding a sign reading "Smitten with Phil from the Michigan mitten" at Groundhog Day

Sister-fans from Michigan in front of the Groundhog Club’s Philmobile.

Women dressed in colorful Hawaiian shirts, skirts, and leis for Groundhog Day party

The Phil-ettes Dancers before their 5 AM hula routine.

… and then there’s daybreak. My goodness, you’ve never experienced the glory of a sunrise until you’ve spent an entire evening in 12-degree blackness. It was as if natural light did not exist. The feeling of the first rays of a new dawn filtering through spindly tree trunks of a snowy, Jefferson County wood are to be born again, to be showered in light, to feel the absolute glory of being alive.

It is at this precise moment–the event is tightly coordinated to apex at daybreak–that The Inner Circle makes its solemn approach. Twelve (fifteen, maybe?) men [yes: they are all (white) men] in black top hats, long coats, pants, and dress shoes take the stage and perform a variation on the same Groundhog Day ritual that goes all the way back to 1887.

Five men dressed in black pants, long coats, and top hats walk through winter woods

Members of The Inner Circle make their approach at daybreak.

That makes the whole thing sound overly serious–it’s not. There’s a little razzle-dazzle, some corny jokes, and a bunch of good-natured playing-to-the-crowd shenanigans. Phil proceeds to tell us all our future–at least the next six weeks’ worth–relayed through an Inner Circle member who “speaks Groundhogese” with the aid of a weathered walking cane allegedly passed-down from generations of previous Inner Circle insiders.

This is important: it is completely unclear where the whole “sees his shadow” bit comes from. Phil was presented not with options toward and away-from the low-angle morning sunlight, but instead with two tiny scrolls, unfurled, read aloud for the audience, and laid out before his discriminating paws. It turns out the groundhog is not some freaked-out wimp, scared of his own shadow, but instead one who appreciates the winter as a good time to catch up on his reading and make a thoughtful decision.

Punxsutawney Phil raised aloft in Groundhog Day ceremony

Phil’s moment in the sun [photo: Greg Lagrosa]

The uninitiated cynic–especially one from a warmer, more sun rich environ–might imagine Groundhog Day as a group of shivering bumpkins, inanely praying for a rodent’s divination to the end of their long, cold suffering. Move to Florida! they smugly think to themselves, resting their sunglasses to tend the hibachi. But that shallow reading misses everything.

No, the holiday is not a prayer for sunshine; rather, it’s a defiance of winter. Participants don’t just go out in the cold for fun–as skiers or Christmas shoppers might–but rise in the middle of the night, staying out through the longest, darkest, and coldest hours of the year in total communion with the groundhog. It’s flaunting woodchuck fashion with signs asking for–nay, demandingmore winter!

The roar of applause that greets the news of six more weeks of the cold stuff is a hardy people’s collective nose-thumbing (note: not middle finger–this event is as wholesome as they get!) at the notion that fun is inextricably bound to sun.

It is not. The clean-cut, hopped-up, groundhog-crazy crowd at Punxsutawney proves exactly that. To Ol’ Man Winter–just like Phil, George W. Bush, and that fleet of Hollywood cheerleaders before us, we say, bring it on.

Two men wearing groundhog hats in front of Gobbler's Knob stage on Groundhog Day

A couple Phil Phanatics, post-announcement

woman with groundhog hat

In line for a photo with Phil

Getting there: Punxsutawney is about an hour and a half drive northeast of Pittsburgh. The gates to Gobbler’s Knob open to the public at 3 AM on Groundhog Day, February 2 of each year. In 2019, this will conveniently fall on a weekend–just sayin’.


[1] The legend goes that there is only one Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog imbued with everlasting life–but this is a subject way to broad to cover in this post.
[2] For the record, this blogger still thinks Groundhog Day is a terrific movie–it’s just not factually accurate to the experience in Punxsutawney.
[3] In fairness, the high attendance at Groundhog Day (the event) over the last 25 years is largely attributed to the lasting popularity of the movie. Crowd sizes in 1993 (and earlier) were likely much smaller than today.
[4] No thanks to our cub reporter staff! Thirteen other people in The Orbit‘s posse and not a one turned in a hat photo. Don’t come looking for recommendation letters, you slackers!

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

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

Little America: Thunberg 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 Thunberg.

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

Gary Thunberg 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 Thunberg’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 Thunberg 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.

Thunberg 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 Thunberg’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 Thunberg’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 Thunberg is holiday crazy. Independence Day is just one of four annual occasions that prompt the sixty-something year-old Thunberg 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 Thunberg 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 Thunbergs–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 Thunberg confirmed them as teddy bears.