Is it lying or laying? I’ve read and re-read the grammar definition a dozen times—my dear, sainted mother was an English professor, for goodness sake—and I still can’t figure out whether there’s a direct object there or not.
Fooey. A large gold letter L, turned upside-down so it looks more like a lazy J, lies (lays?) in the thick sidewalk mud that has collected late autumn’s last fallen leaves upon its gooey surface. On this chilly Sunday morning one can’t help but feel the sadness as the air has quite literally gone out of what we hope was a joyous moment, now gone by.
Someone (Lori? Linda? Lenny?) was celebrated in the near past—a birthday, maybe? perhaps an engagement, job promotion, or baby shower—and her or his friends ordered up a golden capital L balloon to commemorate the occasion. The party may have been terrific—drinks all around, goofy stories from the past, novelty gifts from friends that embarrassed family members—but that’s all over now. The big helium-filled letter balloon floated out of a car window or the venue’s service entrance, had some dying adventures in the low atmosphere, and landed here, in the muck under a bridge on the South Side.
This day—of all days—New Year’s happens to fall on a Sunday and like Kris Kristofferson, we’re all comin’ down, one way or another. Maybe you reveled last night; maybe you stayed in with a book or a movie; maybe you were working or taking a care of a sick kid. Either way—any way—New Year’s Day resets the table, tells us that last year, whether it was a party or not, is definitively over and we’re on to new things.
Your author is not one for resolutions, but he did make a plan to learn Vladimir Cosma’s “Sentimental Walk” on the piano. It’s simple enough that these amateur-level hands should be able to grasp it and heartbreakingly beautiful in a way that will reward the time commitment.
Whatever your plans for the new year—inspired by a resolution or not—hopefully they’ll include new adventures, plans realized, and the wonderful happenstance that leads you up into the treetops and down in the muck. Life exists on both planes and we’re fools to fantasize that it can occur in only the more lofty of them.
Something was brooding this year. Perhaps we were all scratching and clawing for a chance to get back to the real world. There was a fox in our collective hen house, but when we tried to fly we couldn’t get off the ground. Cocksure at our place in the pecking order, we waddled out of the frying pan straight into the fryer. In a plot most fowl, feathers were ruffled and eggs were cracked in the great omelet that is a year in the life of America. Yes, in 2022 the chickens came home to roost.
Seemingly overnight—quite possibly literally overnight—an entire flock of bright red roosters appeared in Polish Hill. The big birds’ super-saturated color glowed from the drab surfaces they played against. The roosters’ look was both comical and earnest—wholesome, even—but with a keen, knowing wisdom beyond their years.
At first—especially when wandering around Polish Hill, randomly finding the fowl on different morning constitutionals—one assumed the roosters are all of a common breed—identical in size, scope, and marking. Each has the same brilliant crimson, the same general shape, and their images have certainly been applied to United States Post Office equipment and city infrastructure with the same wheat-pasted method.
But given this opportunity to see each member of the flock right up against the others, we have the advantage of understanding they’re no mere cookie-cutout duplicates. Some of the roosters face left; most face right. There are clear differences in beak shape and hind feather arrangement.
The widest variance, though, is in each bird’s detailing. Some include a fully-formed leg and claw, but others remain gestural—or nearly free of definition altogether. Chickens may have cartoonish humanoid eyes or concentric circular rings like those of a hypnotist, mid-induction process.
Full disclosure: your author is a rooster booster who loves chicken-pickin’, so the arrival of these fine creatures last April was a welcome surprise as winter’s gloom ceded to glorious spring rebirth. They’ve lived a lifetime since then with many of these specimens no longer present or left in wounded, half-torn-off states of decay. Perhaps many of us—certainly those blunted by seasonal affective disorder or the holiday blues—feel in their own states of decay this time of year.
How the non-denominational bunny rabbit and egg came to be so closely associated with Christianity’s highest, holiest holiday is a matter for historians and/or Wikipedia. We’ll not trouble ourselves with all that, but the roosters of Polish Hill walked out of our dreams and into our lives right around Easter. The timing may be coincidental, but it couldn’t have been more perfect.
Maybe that’s what the chickens were trying to tell us all along … if we’d only listened.
Aging, your author’s bluntly-honest, not-entirely-tactful, and dearly-missed father-in-law used to say, ain’t for sissies. As someone with more yesterdays than tomorrows, I can attest to this firsthand. The body starts breaking down in all sorts of unexpected ways; the mind wanders off to Lulu land more frequently than we’d like to admit; young whippersnappers run rings around us in all ways that whippersnappers may run.
… but I’m a dude—and that means it’s just easier for me. Older men are granted a kind of societal clout simply by virtue of their gender that women don’t enjoy. Graying men are often described as wise, established, and “silver fox” handsome. (Still crossing my fingers for that last one.) Women of the same age share no such common, stereotypical positives.
Far from it. American society is youth-obsessed, for sure, but it’s mainly obsessed with young women. Ms. Orbit—she of my same vintage—often describes the experience as one of “becoming invisible” and feeling “no longer relevant” to the outside world.
Just about one year ago, we spotted a small hand-written sticker attached to a residential parking sign post in Lawrenceville. The text was a simple double-entendre: Menopause is HOT. That got a snort-laugh out of yours truly and I bagged it for the road.
That little teaser was quickly followed by an array of more elaborate, hand-colored stickers spread on lamp posts and electrical boxes. They all contained simple messages proudly addressing the very uncommon subject—either in wider culture or here at the street level—of middle-aged women as real, present beings: Aging is Sexy; Crone; Menopause.
We don’t know who created these subtle, gently-subversive little works. None of the pieces we’ve found have any attribution and the Orbit hive mind was unable (or unwilling) to name names. We’re also left to interpret the artists’ message.
We do know the statements are attention-grabbing and hilariously out-of-context—seeing the word menopause bedazzled and glorified in the leftover spaces where taggers dwell is objectively funny.
Ms. Orbit and I have discussed the matter much in the course of our relationship, crossing into deep middle-age, and specifically with her experiences as a woman and an artist. For these reasons, I wanted to turn the rest of the story over to her:
Middle-aged women become invisible to a degree. But, rather than lamenting that fact, I’m enjoying the hell out of the invisibility, because it means a certain kind of freedom. It means the freedom of not having to matter to men, not worrying about being pretty, sexy, feminine enough, thin enough, demure enough, not too loud, not too opinionated. Men no longer care what I look like, sound like, say, etc. When I was younger, I often stepped outside the lines by being too loud, too bold, too feisty and was admonished by men and sometimes by other women. Now, those folks no longer care what I have to say or how I look and I feel the freedom to be fully myself, on my own terms.
There are a lot of younger women now who are proudly and publicly themselves in a “give no fucks” way and I love it, admire it fully—Lizzo comes to mind. Of course, I have had my moments of feeling the negative side of aging and have grappled with thoughts that “I’m no longer relevant,” but the flip side is you can choose to matter to yourself and the important folks in your life. It’s beautiful to live without needing external validation. I wholeheartedly praise the artist or artists behind these stickers because it’s a way of shouting “We’re here! We exist! We matter!” and being proud of that. Ageism is real—just like racism and homophobia and sexism—but you counter that ugliness by fully owning and celebrating who you are.
When Suzanne Werder and I did the Drawn Together: A Coming of Middle Age Story in 62 Portraits show this past April, the reaction from women over 50 who came to see the show was intensely positive, almost incredulous—they felt seen. “You showed your wrinkles, and bags under your eyes!” Now, we didn’t set out to make a point of our flaws, but in just drawing each other everyday, we can’t escape our truth: that we are getting older and we are not supermodels, and we’re okay with that.
That show did a lot to make me more comfortable in my own skin. There’s a lot of push back culturally against the notion that people are supposed to look or act a certain way, that our world is supposed to mirror the narrow scope of idealized bodies in traditional advertising. Now, it’s more common to see images of people of all sizes, colors, ages, abilities, and sexualities represented, and the power of that is huge. It makes us realize that we are all relevant and beautiful and always were.
So many questions! One chunk of wood nailed to another is attached to the outside of a residential garage. Next to the wood hangs a length of braided twine with a sharp nail at the end. The wood is painted with a cryptic message: Its for my bac but by a man’s hand.
Bac may or may not have been cut off—or misspelled. Is it for the back? What is it—the nail on the string? Does this serve a real purpose—that’s hard to imagine—or is it entirely symbolic? Assuming the latter, the message is lost on me. Maybe it’s a Biblical or cultural reference your heathen author just doesn’t get?
It’s the very definition of a mystery sign—a public notice set out for the world to consume but not entirely clear what the message is or who it’s meant for.
With some signs the mystery may not be that great but they’re still worth review and inclusion. We may assume the No quid pro quo sign [photo above]—photographed in Duquesne during some of the former guy’s obvious quid pro quo activity—is the work of one of the ex-president’s supporters expressing an opinion … but it still looks way goofy absent any other context.
Anyone who travels Babcock Blvd. in the summer knows the corn guys by Hastings Hardware, but still, seeing a lone day-glow CORN SOON sign [below] just feels like a cruel taunt. Found glasses [below] suggests someone did exactly that … but not any way to return the lost item to its rightful owner.
Others aren’t so obvious. Who is John Galt? [above] has an easily Googleable explanation, but it doesn’t explain why a Stanton Heights homeowner feels the need to decorate their front yard with this message.
A chain link fence in a Bloomfield alley hosts an odd specimen. No violins, the sign declares, along with a fine folksy painting of the instrument, no crying, no crying [below]. We like to think violins are purely metaphor here—that crying is the only real objection—but where’s that coming from? Not a creature was stirring when the picture was snapped, but perhaps it rains with teardrops of a thousand tortured toddlers at other times of day.
Every one of these gems has a story and it’s likely we won’t find out the explanations to any of them—and that’s OK. With the number of messages we humans push out to the world every single day, I’ll take mystery over hate, exploitation, cruelty, or narcissism any time. Wondering ain’t such a bad thing. Plus, like the sign says, … And that’s life… right?
Attend me, hold me in your muscular flowering arms, protect me from throwing any part of myself away.
These words, from self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde, are printed and duplicated—silk-screened, most likely—in an ornate, curlicue typeface and accented by fronds of unknown origin.
The cut-out text is layered atop a riot of dozens, hundreds maybe, of other screen-printed elements. Torn paper with the same couplet printed over and over again; images of skulls and boxers, eyeballs and ghostly figures; photographs cut from magazines bedazzled with after-market patterns and paint jobs.
They’re all part of a new(ish) installation on the North Side that, by its very nature, won’t be around for too long. Just like Ms. Lorde, attend it while you can.
The 400 block of East Ohio Street has seen its fair share of change, even in just the last few years. Google Streetview reminds us the retail storefront at 404 E. Ohio was Ike’s Barber Shop and then Mosley’s Barber Shop until going vacant in 2015. The larger building at the corner was the old Peanutz Bar & Grill, which closed by 2016. In between the two, Alex’s Ice Cream held on longer, but seems to have become a victim of the pandemic lockdown just two years ago.
The most recent time Google documented the street, in August, 2021, it included another interesting detail. 408-410 E. Ohio hosted a large, double-door-sized collage piece on the temporary plywood covering the entrance. This is unmistakably the work of the same artist(s).
As observers, curiosity-seekers, speculators, we naturally look for meaning and theme when a piece this elaborate is exhibited—and there is plenty to work with here, if that’s your bag. Black icons Jack Johnson and Audre Lorde are an obvious entry point as are reverent photos of everyday folks and revolutionaries, updated with kente cloth, polka dots, and leopard skin patterns.
There’s also plenty of grim, foreboding imagery here. The repeated use of skulls, a menacing monster-like figure with its giant jaw agape, what may or may not be a nuclear blast, and the Virgin Mary in a hostage-taker’s ski mask.
We’ll not make the mistake of assigning any specific message to the collection. The artist (or artists)—there is no attribution on any of the pieces that I could find—kept themselves anonymous (although, we have our suspicions). So there’s no one to go to for clarification, which is fine.
Update (March 19, 2022): Following initial publication of this story, Pittsburgh Orbit was informed that the artists involved are Quaishawn Whitlock, Bekezela Mguni, and Darrell Kinsel. The three have a current show called Alchemical, created as part of their residency at AIR: Artists Image Resource on nearby Foreland Street.
Whether we’re supposed to think anything at all about a stirring work, heavy on the iconography, or just enjoy the blast of layered color from a voracious screen-printer cleaning out his or her workspace is missing the point.
Someone created this, and it’s beautiful. It’s also unexpected, fun, head-scratching and gets us out of our heads and into the world. It’ll also be gone before you know it. The wheatpasted paper is already peeling at the corners and between unpredictable Pittsburgh weather and a property manager trying to rent the spaces, the whole thing will disappear before you know it.
Protect me from throwing any part of myself away feels like it might be a way of life for whoever did this. Embrace the piece by holding its visage in your muscular flowering arms, err … thoughts, dreams, and travels.
Love, noted relationship counselor Patricia Benatar once informed us, is a battlefield. It’s a powerful metaphor whose cuts-to-the-bone directness is no doubt part of her 1983 chart-topping song’s lasting appeal. Other pop music pseudo-therapists have broken the news that Love Hurts and Love Scars, Love Bites and yes, Love Stinks.
These sentiments may or may not reflect each of our individual experiences but we know it can get wilder than even this. Sometimes love is pure anarchy.
The red heart spans three concrete treads of the Downing Street steps in Polish Hill. Its black outline is pretzel-curved into the verticals of a capital letter A. Sure, this may be a vigilante Valentine left for (or from?) an Anna or André, Alex or Audrey, but it sure resembles the circle-A symbol would-be anarchists leave all over the place. Perhaps not coincidentally, that call-to-arms also often shows up spray-painted on public infrastructure.
The anarchy heart image is not alone. Looking through this year’s street Valentines, a certain theme emerges—not of the joy and perhaps unrealistic Hallmark special expectations of love—but rather, as a certain Bunnyman called it, The Back of Love.
Big red hearts aglow against caution tape; hearts chaotically strewn across back alley walls; crumpled hearts in derelict windows. These—and plenty more where they came from—all seem to say, Yeah, love is out there, but be careful, buddy. Here, that advice is gifted to us from Pittsburgh’s Krylon Cupids, available wherever people take out the trash and tack tin cans to telephone poles. This year it’s more true than ever.
That said, even without the pressures of a global coronavirus pandemic it’s always that kind of year when it comes to affaires d’amour. (That’s French for the love thing.)
So whether you’re in love, all out of love, or you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, whether love is like oxygen or love is the drug—heck, even if you give love a bad name—this Valentine’s Day, know that you’re not alone. There are lots of folks out there who are experiencing the same exact thing and it cut them deep enough to spray paint that feeling on some city steps.
Stuck to the aluminum siding of a little house up the hill in Millvale, a set of peel-and-stick letters spells out a curious message: No dogs wasted here.
Is this a rehab clinic for hooched pooches? An embetterment program for down-on-their luck pups? A recycling center for man’s-best-friends at their wits-last-ends?
Of course not! Don’t be ridiculous! Diligent Orbit staff know when The Dog Police are on patrol, keeping the streets, alleys, and—especially—residential trash receptacles safe from the terror of incoming canine caca. Foreign or domestic, but always unwanted, Fido’s doo-doo and Scout’s dishonor are a deeply divisive feature of the pedestrian experience.
Having neither a mutt to strut nor publicly-available trash can, your author—excuse the expression—doesn’t have a dog in this fight, so we’re but mere spectators from the cheap seats as the daily doggo drama plays itself out just about everywhere.
What’s the right thing to do?
The responsible pet-owner takes their furry friends out for daily constitutionals, lets them sniff all the fire hydrants and boxwood hedges they care to, and picks up the droppings inevitably jettisoned from their mutts’ butts right there on the sidewalks and grassy patches along the way. Do we expect the human companions to carry the scat sachet all the way home? Or are public/city trash cans an acceptable end point for the excrement?
Alternately, the home owner doesn’t want to deal with that (quite literal) crap—either on the sidewalk or in their street-facing waste bins. It doesn’t make a lot of sense—it’s just trash, right?—but people feel a sense of violation when anyone uses their bins, and when that trash is dog shit—that’s where it gets ugly—and smelly.
Like certain other ages-old, inconsolable rifts, it’s unlikely the poop-scoop-and-scoot crowd will ever reach a peaceful accord with the all-volunteer dog police, but we can dream.
Until then, please curb your dog, no peeing on the plants, use the trash can across the street, and make sure none of your possessives or contractions include apostrophes.
There is a lot going on here. Three bleached-blonde bikini babes take center stage in the strange artwork, but each has her face plastered-over with a large sticker or morphed into freakish skeleton-like distortion. On either side, big colored cartoon-like images have been pulled from a big book, or maybe a glossy calendar, or poster–who knows? Surrounding all this is a riot of other, smaller imagery: faces, sections of classic paintings, pop culture icons, and recycled Hello, my name is identification tags.
The whole thing is probably six feet wide, mounted on cardboard backing, and has been zip-tied to the chain link enclosure on one of Bigleow Blvd.’s two pedestrian overpasses. It is not alone.
They appeared all at once, in one glorious technicolor explosion. At least, that seems like what happened.
One day–it was late June, 2018–these protected walkways were surprise-decorated (aka bombed) with more than a dozen giant collages, all in a singular style. Taken as a whole, the jumble of assembled images added up to a distended fever dream of dark cartoons, chopped-up advertisements, random photographs, and belongs-on-a-skateboard sticker art.
Attempting to discern meaning from any particular collage–let alone the installation writ large–is a fool’s errand. Sure, there’s plenty to work with if you really want to impose a theme on a collection of random Manga frames, postal slaps, and Obey stickers–but you’re not doing yourself any favors by wading into that particular murky sea.
One after another, attached to both faces of the chain link fence with zip-ties, the eye-popping pieces felt like the magnum opus of an artist (or artists?) who we’re calling The Midnight Montagier. (You know, from the French.)
Weeks, months, maybe years worth of work must have gone into hoarding visual imagery and curating the contents, the cutting-out and gluing-down. All this quiet energy was blasted out to the world–or, at least, the handful of pedestrians who regularly walk the overpass–in one giant salvo, three summers ago.
The pieces felt less like an organized statement of purpose and more like a compulsive saver finally admitting I’ve got to do something with all this stuff. There are worse motivations for artistic expression and many lesser attempts at beauty and/or messaging on city infrastructure.
The gift of these carefully created pieces to the few of us who experienced them before either nature or the Department of Public Works decided their time was up was fascinating and much appreciated.
With this much creative energy and such obvious dedication to the medium, the person or persons behind the Bigelow installation would have to strike again. Once they got their first taste of anonymous glory and release to the world, there’s no way they wouldn’t want to go back for more … right?
Well, we waited, we watched, and over the last three annums, we’ve trundled down every side street, back alley, bicycle lane, and flight of city steps the city has to offer, always looking, always searching. Days turned to weeks and months turned to years. But alas, that was it. The Midnight Montagier seemed to have saved it all up for a single epic go-down-swingin’ exorcism of every creative demon and each loose bit of visual ephemera to wash up on their desktop.
… until just last month.
Three years later the Montagier finally struck again! Why we didn’t run a piece on the collages at Bigelow back in 2018 still seems goofy, but perhaps the blogging gods knew there would be more to the story–we just needed to wait through a global coronavirus pandemic (Phase I, sigh) to get there.
Regardless, our old collage buddy returned–and in such dramatic fashion! In a similar kind of overnight secret art drop, new pieces arrived en masse across Lawrenceville’s utility poles, free publication boxes, and at least one mailbox early this August.
It took your author about two seconds to recognize the tell-tale blocky hodge-podge of colorful visual jetsam, this time glued to a utility pole on Butler Street. Other pieces were spotted in quick order–mostly along Butler Street, but also up the hill on Penn.
Several very rainy weeks on, the pieces are still holding up, if sun-faded and with some edge peeling. The style of collage is exactly the same, but the delivery mechanism has shifted ever so slightly. Gone are the big cardboard backings and loose zip-ties. These pieces are smaller, maybe 11×14–sized to curl around roughly a quarter of the big steel traffic signal poles–and glued or wheat-pasted directly to bare metal.
To The Midnight Montagier, Thank you for distributing your collections in such an exciting, egg-hunting, head-scratching way. For keeping the spirit of the street alive and coloring the world. For making the morning constitutional a mental exercise as well as physical. If you’d ever like to tell your side of the story, we’d love to connect. Until then, we’ll be looking out for you, at Midnight.
It is the fine excesses of life that make it worth living.
Richard Le Gallienne
Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realize that nothing really belongs to them.
There’s more to hair than real hair.
When last we considered Tumbleweave–the unique phenomenon of loose hair running buck wild throughout the city–it was to ponder the begged question What causes a person lose a full head of hair, all at once, right out in the street? Sadly, we’re no closer to achieving enlightenment on this (or any other) subject.
Still, the weave, wigs, braids, plugs, and other faux follicles keep a-tumblin’ and we’ll be the ones putting kickstands to pavement and taking the photographic evidence. Rest assured: as long as people are dropping hairdos on sidewalks, you’ve got a reliable proxy in the fourth estate to keep everyone honest.
So this time around The Orbit is taking a more academic approach. The discarded, lost, stolen, or torn-from-their-roots heads of hair we find may have lived a dozen lives by the time they end up here–or maybe they’re freshly arrived from last night’s revelry–we just don’t know. Like stargazers of yore, we have the rare opportunity to look deep into their mesmerizingly-random shapes and placement, isolation and juxtaposition and speculate on how they got here and what their inkblot forms spark in the subconscious.
Science is built on the backs of its predecessors. Legions of well-intended scientists before us have attempted to categorize and classify nature; when that involves human behavior and the cut-loose coiffures within it, we’re dancing with the devil. Remember: it is only through spectacular failure that we may ultimately achieve sublime success. Let’s assume we’re in the early days of this particular journey.
Finally, if you’re out-and-about and spot a particularly nice ‘do drop or mop top at the street stop, tag us–we’d love to see what our readers are finding and what they see in them. Until then, we hope everyone is wigging-out in the best of ways.
It is one of the more iconic images we see every day on nearly every corner in the built landscape. Bold, red, and shaped into a perfect octagon, outlined with a white border, the sign has the simple, impossible-to-misconstrue message: STOP.
But, as these things go, they don’t always carry only that text. Pranksters and jokesters, the graffiti-addled and social justice-minded have taken the (traffic) law into their own hands hither and yon. Their doctored stop signs take the familiar to the absurd and hopefully give us a laugh or a ponderable notion while we apply the brakes and look both ways.
Stop sign alterations are so common that mass-produced white-on-red stickers are available for just this purpose. We included a couple examples of these (see STOP the Trump Kleptocracy and STOP elder neglect, below), but The Orbit generally considers these “corporate sign-jacking” that isn’t nearly as interesting as the bespoke variety.
There’s really not much more to say on this topic, so now we’re just going to …