Collage Dropout: The Return of The Midnight Montagier

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
A lot to take in on one’s morning commute. One of the Midnight Montagier’s large collages, Bigelow Blvd. pedestrian overpass, 2018

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.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018

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.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018

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.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018

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.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018

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.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018

… 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.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to mailbox
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021

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.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021

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.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: Wigged-Out On Tumbleweave, Part 2

large mass of false hair on road surface
The Jellyfish, Hill District. One of the many species of tumbleweave we routinely see throughout metro Pittsburgh.

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.

Paulo Coelho

There’s more to hair than real hair.

George Willard
sandy blond colored wig on road surface
The Mop Head. Lawrenceville
full head of hair including ponytail covered with road grit
The Baccala: head to tail and covered in salt. McKees Rocks

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.

braided ponytail on cracked cement
The Slithering Snake. Etna
section of black hair on black asphault
Black top on blacktop. The Knot. East Liberty

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.

single false eyelash still in its packaging
Leftover Lash of the One-Eyed Lady, Hill District
dyed red hair braid on road surface
Don’t fear the red reaper: The Crimson Scythe. Strip District
section of fake hair on road surface
Aloha! The Hula Skirt. Lawrenceville
section of false hair on leaf-strewn ground
Surf’s up! The Crashing Wave. Lawrenceville
mass of hair on muddy sidewalk
Mudbound: The Fossil. Beltzhoover
small tuft of false hair on road surface
Fall fuzz: The Puffball. Oakland
section of false hair on leaf-strewn ground
Calling home: The Head with Antennae. Oakland
large mass of false hair among large roadside weeds
Tumbleweave in the weeds *or* knotweave: The Dead Poodle. Hill District
large mass of false hair in bicycle lane on city street
Bike Lane Roadkill. East Liberty [note the Orbitmobile sneaking in for a mise en scène cameo!]
small tuft of false hair on road surface
Like Bruce Willis, even tumbleweave takes Bigelow. The Gutter Other. North Oakland
false hair mixed with cigarette butts and other trash on weed-covered sidewalk
All butts, no ifs: The Garbage Collector. West Homestead
blue belt and clump of false hair on sidewalk
Still life in black and blue: The Tied-up-in-a-Bow. Strip District
long braid of false hair on street surface
Product placement: The Swoosh. Hill District
full head of hair covered with dry leaves on street
Who’s Sylvester? The Unmade Bed. Marshall-Shadeland
small tuft of false hair on road surface
It’s cicada season somewhere! The Cocoon. Bloomfield Bridge
small tuft of fuzzy false hair on sidewalk surface
Late night fuzz: The UFO. Strip District
plastic doll's hairdo with attached hair found on roadside
It’s come to this! Even dolls wig out. North Side
sandy blond colored wig on road surface
Under Pressure (Chemical): The Mop Head (again, in context). Lawrenceville

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: Stop Signs with Bonus Lines

stop sign with added sign reading "Call your mom," Pittsburgh, PA
STOP! Call your mom … unless you don’t get along with your mom and then maybe you should just keep on going. Altered stop sign, Bloomfield.

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 …

stop sign altered to read "Stop in the name of love"
A supreme alteration. STOP! In the name of love I. Highland Park
stop sign with letters added reading "in the name of love," Pittsburgh, PA
Think it over. STOP! In the name of love II. Bloomfield [note the bonus protractor]
stop sign altered to read "Don't Stop Believing"
Every Journey has to stop somewhere. Don’t STOP Believing. Lawrenceville
stop sign with graffiti addition of "the pig," Pittsburgh, PA
STOP the pig. Just one pig, though. Friendship
stop sign altered to read "Stop Rad City"
Where is Rad City and why do we need to stop it? STOP Rad City. Friendship
stop ahead sign with added extra sign reading "free range children"
STOP (ahead): free range children, Shadyside
stop sign with added sticker to read "Stop elder neglect"
STOP elder neglect. Spring Garden
stop sign altered to read "Please stop Trump"
Done, sort of. Please STOP Trump. Homestead
stop sign with added sticker to read "Stop the Trump kleptocracy"
STOP the Trump kleptocracy. North Side
stop sign altered to read "Stop killing"
Less killing, more living. STOP killing. East Liberty
stop sign with added text "... hatin'"
Less hatin’, more lovin’. STOP hatin’! South Side
stop sign with added text "I love you"
STOP! I love you. We love you, too. Friendship

Let’s Put the X in Six: The Graphics of Coronavirus

stickers and sidewalk stencils marking 6 feet distances during coronavirus
Six feet by two feet: some of the ubiquitous six-foot social distance waiting markers found on sidewalks

One day this will all be over. With vaccines going into arms as we speak and new alternatives arriving from just-approved sources, it’s not that unrealistic to see a day in the near-ish future when we’ll be able to see friends again, to go out to theaters and rock-and-roll shows, to have the freedom to travel, throw a party, or just quaff a beverage at the tavern.

Along with this, it’s easy to predict “after times” celebratory events that ritualistically destroy the physical reminders of the year+ we’ve all lived in some level of coronavirus lockdown. Mass bonfires of face masks seem like the most obvious expression, but outworn sweatpants and pajamas, abandoned first novels and knitting projects are likely targets in the same group exorcism.

sidewalk stencils marking 6 feet distances during coronavirus
animal tracks

The collective scar on the nation’s forehead signifying the half a million (and counting) human lives lost will not be forgotten any time soon–nor should it. The shuttered storefronts of businesses of both the mom & pop and big box varieties will ultimately be rented to new merchants, but unswept sidewalks under For Lease signs will be with us for a while.

One of the most obvious visual elements of the coronavirus pandemic is the stencils applied to sidewalks, stickers on retail floors, and makeshift duct tape delineations to mark pedestrian traffic flow and spaced six-foot waiting points. These ubiquitous graphic additions to the landscape all popped up overnight early in the pandemic and then seemed frozen in time after this single application.

Despite the obvious advertisement for the incredible adhesive tenacity to survive a very snowy Pittsburgh winter, these markers are, by definition, temporary. When bars and restaurants are allowed to open at full capacity and mask orders are finally lifted, shop stewards will peel back the big round decals and scrape off the gaffer’s tape once and for all. [Pro tip: forget GameStop–invest in Goo Gone now!]

collage of six foot markers made from black tape on cement sidewalk
six feet/two tone

It is this moment when historians should be alert to these soon-to-disappear markers of a time we think we’ll never forget. Fear not: we will. Humans have famously lousy memory and we’re hardwired to move onto the next thing. Your author has been laughed-at for still using a five-year-old iPhone–you think this society is going to be thinking about six-foot distance markers in a few years? A new generation of Covid deniers will inevitably force the narrative that the whole thing was a collective fever dream. Heck, in ten years we’ll probably have no one left that can still bake sourdough bread.

collage of tape markings on sidewalk in multicolor duct tape
the colors of coronavirus
collage of Xs made with tape on sidewalks
let’s put the X in six
stickers and sidewalk stencils marking 6 feet distances during coronavirus
six feet [includes photo contributions from Michele Timon]
arrow made of black duct tape on cement sidewalk
this way out

When Orbit readers Alyssa Cammarata Chance and Michele Timon submitted photos of some of the big round floor decals we see all over, we first scoffed at these as “corporate coronavirus.” No, they’re neither as creative or interesting as original stencils, nor as randomly oddball as the tape directives. But with a little reflection and a whole lot more re-examination, they make for their own unique experience worth documenting. We’ve included the best of them here.

collection of coronavirus six feet distance markers on pavement
please stand here [includes photo contribution from Michele Timon]
collection of social distance markers on brick sidewalk
Condado Tacos: winner of corona-variety award [includes photo contribution from Alyssa Cammarata Chance]
collection of coronavirus social distancing decals on sidewalks and retail floors
and even more! [includes photo contributions from Alyssa Cammarata Chance, Lee Floyd, and Michele Timon]
coronavirus decal advertising hand washing
wash up!

Special thanks to The Orbit’s co-executive assistant to the mailroom intern Lee Floyd for suggesting this fascinating topic.

If you’ve got some good photos of six-foot separator markers–or anything that speaks to the last year in lockdown–let us know and maybe we can include it in a follow-up story.

Stamp Collecting: A Tale of Filbert, Falvo, Frank, and Ferrante

brass sidewalk plaque for G.H. Filbert, Pittsburgh, PA

“F” is for stamp collecting. Hundred-year-old(-ish) brass sidewalk plaque for mason G.H. Filbert, Shadyside

You’d think a person pounding greater Pittsburgh’s pavement, eyes glued to the surface in an intense review of its cracks and crevasses, would run out of new sidewalk inscriptions … eventually. But lucky for all of us, there is a lot of cement in the world.

So much so that after years of meticulous street-by-street inspection we can still regularly turn up absolute jewels in the field like that of G.H. Filbert’s big brass F (above) on a Shadyside cross street or the gorgeous compressed-lettering typeface of Falvo & Son’s stamp (below) on the same day, on the same block. That’s what makes this particular egg hunt so eternally rewarding.

sidewalk stamp for Falvo & Son, Pittsburgh, PA

Falvo & Son, Shadyside

What about the Putchs? Frank and Edward (father and son? or possibly brothers?) had their own sidewalk-pouring empire throughout the greater North Side. Sure, we had a pair of different Edward Putch stamps one of the times we did this, but he turns up here with yet a third variety of the stamp design, this time as E.W.

sidewalk stamp for E.W. Putch, Pittsburgh, PA

E.W. Putch (version #3), Marshall-Shadeland

One could cut the excitement around Chez Orbit with a knife when another Putch entered our lives in the form of the first-initial-only F. Now, usually Googling any of the names on these older stamps gets us exactly bupkis, but this time around we hit paydirt. The great online photo and map archive HistoricPittsburgh.org happens to have an August, 1918 photo of Frank Putch Stone & Concrete world headquarters on Brighton Road in Woods Run (see photo, below).

Don’t look for that little shack today–it’s long gone–but the three-story tavern/apartment building across the alley is still there and one imagines the ghosts of Putchs past still hoisting lagers after long days of building walkways in Perry Hilltop and Marshall-Shadeland.

sidewalk stamp for F. Putch, Pittsburgh, PA

F. Putch (#1), Marshall-Shadeland

sidewalk stamp for F. Putch, Pittsburgh, PA

F. Putch (#2), Perry Hilltop

photo of Frank Putch Stone and Concrete company, Pittsburgh, PA

Frank Putch Stone & Concrete, Brighton Road, Woods Run, c. 1918 (photo: HistoricPittsburgh.org)

After that, we’ve got a bunch of one-offs. These all count as rare breeds, deep cuts, and/or white whales. With the exception of the Ferrante brass plaque (we got his more pedestrian stamp in 2018), Luick & Sons (there are a couple variants of this one), Ricci & Ciotola (at least two of these exist in Bloomfield), and John Heubel (Erie isn’t really “in orbit” and therefore hasn’t gotten the full dragnet yet) the rest of these all amount to one and only one spotting anywhere.

brass sidewalk plaque of John Ferrante & Son, Pittsburgh, PA

John Ferrante & Son, Point Breeze

brass sidewalk plaque for John Heubel, Erie, PA

John Heubel, Erie

sidewalk stamp for A.B. Gray, Pittsburgh, PA

A.B. Gray, Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Anthony Frank, Beaver, PA

Anthony Frank, Beaver

sidewalk stamp for Joseph Franceshini, Pittsburgh, PA

Joseph Franceshini, Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Saccacione Cement Contractor, Pittsburgh, PA

Saccacione Cement Contractor, Bloomfield

sidewalk stamp for Riccla Ciotola, Pittsburgh, PA

Ricci & Ciotola, Bloomfield

sidewalk stamp for D. Dalia, Pittsburgh, PA

D. Dalia, Bloomfield

hand-written sidewalk stamp for Joe Palmiera, Pittsburgh

Joe Palmiera, Friendship

sidewalk stamp for Supreme Masonry, Pittsburgh, PA

Supreme Masonry/S. Dunkovich, Uptown

sidewalk stamp for Luick & Sons, Pittsburgh, PA

Luick & Sons, Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Battaglia & Sons, Pittsburgh, PA

Battaglia & Sons, Shadyside

sidewalk stamp for Avelli Construction Crop., Beaver, PA

Avelli Construction Corp., Beaver

sidewalk stamp for R.C. Coccaro, Pittsburgh, PA

R.C. Coccaro, Friendship

heart-shaped sidewalk stamp from Allegheny Concrete Co.

Allegheny Concrete Co., Brighton Heights

Message from Big Pink: Breast Cancer Awareness Dumpsters

dumpster painted bright pink with downtown Pittsburgh skyline in background

One of Boyd Roll-Off Services breast cancer awareness dumpsters, South Side

Admittedly, it’s an unlikely way to be honored in the afterlife.

Aretha Boyd was young, just 46-ish*, when she passed away three years ago. And while she may not have the (local) celebrity-level name recognition of, say, Mr. Rodgers or Franco Harris, you’ll find tributes to Ms. Boyd all over the city in ever-changing locales. In fact, the Boyd name may appear around town more often than those of Carnegie or Clemente, Mellon or Warhol.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of cemetery

Lawrenceville

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in large parking lot

Strip District

It may be a little harder to tell this year, what with that other health affliction getting all the press, but Breast Cancer Awareness Month is here. Just like the arrival of pumpkin spice, crisp mornings, and the first turning leaves, the nation’s pink-out begins right on schedule every October first and stays strong for the next 31 days in a branding and awareness campaign that makes all other diseases drool with envy.

The proliferation of pink ribbons and pink t-shirts will abound, as will coordinated group marches along the river trails, billboard advertisements, and public service announcements on broadcast media. In what is both absurd and lovingly allied, hyper-masculine football players will suit up in eye-popping “mangenta” gloves and cleats when they take the field–the black, gold, and hot pink color scheme is a little daring for most fashion runways, but hopefully gets the attention of Steeler fans.

large dumpster painted bright pink in front of office building

Downtown

dumpster painted bright pink in front of large brick building

South Side

In a move no one saw coming, Boyd Roll-Off Services, a McKees Rocks-based waste disposal business, upped the ante considerably when their fleet of big 30-yard construction dumpsters  started appearing a couple years ago to spread the gospel. Each dumpster, painted in breast cancer awareness electric pink, contains a custom placard featuring the campaign’s trademark pink ribbon and the simple message In Loving Memory of Our Sister ARETHA BOYD, 1970-2017.

large dumpster painted bright pink in front of apartment building

Lawrenceville

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of large stone building

Oakland

While they’re a little goofy, the pink dumpsters may end up being the awareness campaign’s greatest ambassadors … at least, here in metro Pittsburgh where you’re likely to encounter them on the street. The Boyd dumpsters aren’t painted pink just during October. No, they’re out there putting in the work and being visible 365 days a year. They can also be found anywhere and everywhere: at any job site or corporate office building, on downtown street corners and in neighborhood back-alleys.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of under-construction building

Downtown

pink dumpster in front of hospital entrance

Bloomfield

The need for public education around the disease is obvious; statistics for breast cancer in America are grim. According to the site BreastCancer.org, one in eight U.S. women (about 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, hundreds of thousands of new cases are detected every year, and we’ll lose around 40,000 women in the U.S. to breast cancer in 2020. The disease also disproportionally affects Black women.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster behind large building

Downtown

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster by highway overpass

Chateau

The street-side dumpster is a part of urban life we see all time. Its role as a big trash can for construction projects is pure utility with no expectation that it will ever be the object of attention. It will disappear into the night as soon as the job is done.

By painting the normally drab skiff bright pink, Boyd Roll-Off has turned the everyday into activist statement: breast cancer is for real, and it’s as omnipresent as the city’s concrete sidewalks and brick façades. And, of course, let’s remember Aretha Boyd and all the other women we’ve lost to this most heinous disease. That’s the message from Big Pink.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of apartment building

Strip District

dumpster painted bright pink

North Side

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of old stone building

North Side

Additional resources:


* The dumpsters clearly give 1970 as Boyd’s birth year, but Boyd Rolloff Services web site lists it as 1971. We were unable to locate an obituary for Boyd.

Deflated and Kicked to the Curb: Sad Toys, Balls to the Wall Edition

worn medicine balls left in alley

medicine balls, Strip District

It’s unfair to call the big balls lonely because, after all, there are three of them bound in this particular predicament–but they’re definitely sad. A trio of old-school medicine balls, each a different circumference and weight, has been left out in the alley behind a small Strip District gymnasium. The leather (?) bound skin of the two larger objects is ruptured at the seams from an excess of exercise, revealing loose fabric like blood gushing from a knife wound.

street football, Oakland

green play ball on the curb of highway

green ball, kicked to the curb, North Side

In the world of Sad Toys, there are a clear pair of winners in the sweepstakes of human pathos. Nothing can really touch the head-shaking, waterworks-inducing reaction to a beloved teddy bear or perfect princess dress-up doll dropped from a stroller, dismembered and/or face down in roadside mud. Nevertheless, we persist in a pursuit of those lesser, sleeper categories of lost playthings.

In this quest, one should not discount the intangible loss experienced by what could have been. Consider a group of playground kickball teammates, the outcome of their match against cross-school rivals forever in limbo when a dramatic home run is kicked over the fence and down the hillside. Alternately, imagine bragging rights at an annual family reunion volleyball showdown left unresolved for an entire year as cousin spikes against uncle, jettisoning the ball deep into the surrounding woods; the contest abruptly ended before barbeque chicken and potato salad ever makes it to festooned picnic tables. Oh, the humanity!

yellow rubber kickball in storm drain, California-Kirkbride

flat volleyball left in dried leaves

volleyball, Mt. Washington

So, in this time when next-to-no sports are happening, either at a professional or recreational level, and children are forced to limit their playtime to backyards and rigidly-regulated playground trips, we salute these strange vestiges of a pre-Covid-19 world: the sad toy balls of an earlier, more free and open era that existed as recently as just this past winter.

blue toy ball left on curb of brick street

blue ball, McKees Rocks

yellow ball left in dried leaves

yellow ball, Mt. Washington

green ball left in alley

green ball, Lawrenceville

deflated toy ball left on street

discarded and deflated: purple spiky ball, Shadeland

flat basketball on empty macadam

basketball, Lawrenceville

tiny soccer ball and downspout, Lawrenceville

The Alleyway of Magical Delights: Remly Way

long retaining wall decorated with hundreds of organized objects

“Little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of dollars.” Remly Way, Wilmerding

If there is a single image that captures both the dedication to this awkward space and the keeper’s ability to warm up, beautify, and humanize the most lifeless of urban landscapes, it may be found in a tiny row of marigolds. The flowers are planted in a thin channel–there’s maybe five inches of arable soil–between the cement curb and an imposing retaining wall, scarred with decades of cracks, pockmarks, and vestigial stains.

Those tiny flowers, spaced neatly in a freshly-mulched bed, offer just a hint at what the first-time visitor will encounter in the next couple hundred feet, but they sure let you know someone is paying attention back here. What lies ahead is the most magical transformation of a mundane alleyway you’ll encounter anytime soon.

cement retaining wall with thin row of marigold flowers planted along the curb

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” marigolds and cement

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” says Carl Remly of his effort to clean up the little street that runs behind his house. Remly is a self-described workaholic who lives on the block and is “not too good at sitting around.” We believe him.

The combined do-good spirit and boundless energy led Remly from weeding to gardening (“I was never what you’d call a green thumb”) to decorating his tiny front yard with an oddball collection of dinosaur models, tiki figures, and bric-a-brac.

When he turned his sights on the back alley, though, Carl Remly managed to convert what was a typically ignored minor passageway into an incredible outdoor, curated art environment that is both magical and comical, wacky and serene. Don’t look for it on the map, but we’re going to refer to this highly-recommended destination as Remly Way.

brick row house with many lawn decorations

“It started with the dinosaurs in the front yard” Carl Remly’s house on Middle Street, Wilmerding

Miller Street is a three- or four-block-long, one-way alley that runs behind a stretch of century-old row house blocks in north Wilmerding. From gaps between the long buildings, you can look straight out across Turtle Creek (the creek itself, not the town named after the creek) and see several giant old Westinghouse factories. One imagines many of the folks who originally lived in these tight worker homes must have spent their days in the big brick Air Brake Machine Shop.

By chance, Miller Street also appears to be the only section of the borough Google didn’t (or couldn’t) make it down to photograph for their StreetView feature. Perhaps Remly’s work will bring the crew back for another well-deserved drive-through.

Christmas decorations in alley with view of former Westinghouse factory

View of the old Westinghouse factory from Remly Way

Part visionary garden, part art environment, and part open-air museum, Remly Way has at least four distinct stages. Each is approximately a half-block long following the contours of the big retaining wall holding up the Tri-Boro Expressway, above.

Section I: A Curious Entree (our name) is that single row of marigolds (and other flowers) at the far eastern edge where Miller Street meets Short Alley. One needn’t begin the exploration here–and if you’re in a car, you can’t (it’s a one-way, going the other direction)–but The Orbit recommends you walk it from that starting point for maximum dramatic impact.

In Section II: Christmas in June, the space between curb and wall expands just a little to give Remly the room to house larger plants, figurines, statuary, and a recycled artificial Christmas tree about every 10 feet. “A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop,” Remly says of his favorite decoration source.

concrete retaining wall decorated with artificial Christmas trees, flowers, and other items

“A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop.”

row of Christmas decorations against retaining wall in long alley

Christmas in June. Remly Way should ideally be experienced both during the day and all lit up at night.

Up until now, the alley has been a pleasant side trip–a creative way one neighbor is making the most of a thin sliver of neglected space. That all changes when we get to Remly Way’s third stage: The Museum. Here, Carl Remly’s genius for design and composition come into full form and the minds of passers-by are forever blown in the process.

On the PennDOT-sponsored shelving created by heavy steel corrugated wall sections, Remly has converted the negative space into intricate, curated collections of oddball figurines, decorative items, and topiary. There is a section containing nothing but model ducks; another with animals cast in brass and a frog fantasia. Still another groups together bald eagles, their wings reliably spread as if in imminent lift-off.

retaining wall with many model ducks

“I have a little bit of a theme to everything,” the duck display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Brass/frog display

“You read the Sunday paper and somebody in Upper Saint Clair gets the garden of the year because they paid a lot of money,” Remly says, “I just wanted to show that little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of  dollars.”

In addition to being a workaholic, Remly also confesses to being a shopaholic who makes frequent trips to flea markets, junk stores, thrift shops, and Home Depot’s post-seasonal sales.

“I have two garages that are supposed to be for my (commercial door installation) business,” Remly says, “But now they’re the holding area for all my stuff.”

retaining wall with many model bird figures

Bird display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Bunny/cat/rooster display

By the time you reach Remly Way’s final phase, Section IV: Re-entry/The Coming Down, one needs to give the peepers a rest after the eye-popping density of the previous collections. That comes in the form of a tiny parklet at the only space along the alley that will permit it–a small alcove of green grass, shaded by a bank of short trees above.

Here, Remly has included–you guessed it–more Christmas trees, plus big freestanding cartoon character decorations, a seating area in purple wicker, at least one light-up Big Foot cut-out, and a homemade sign that reads Stay Safe and Healthy. The sign is decorated with drawings of airplanes and battleships fighting the coronavirus by Remly’s grandchildren.

small parklet decorated with Christmas trees and lawn decorations

Remly Way parklet, Miller Street

cut-out Big Foot figure wrapped in Christmas lights

Light-up Big Foot, Remly Way parklet

More than a few times in our short conversation Carl Remly mentioned the desire to brighten the spirits of his neighbors and other visitors to the alley. He puts up a Christmas display every year, but with the arrival and uncertainty of everything around the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for a spring/summer pick-me-up was especially strong.

I’m here to tell you, it works. There’s a kind of magic in that little alley–a sense that if someone cares this much about his neighbors and fellow human beings that things just have to work out somehow. The experience is beautiful and surprising, free and accessible. It’s also exactly what we need more of right now.

Like the sign in Remly parklet says, stay safe and healthy, y’all.

back porches of row house with elaborate decorations

Memorial to Carl Remly’s late wife Wannitta and other decorations

porch lit with elaborate light display

The flying unicorns at night


Getting there: Our recommendation is to park somewhere around the 300 or 400 block of Middle Ave., Wilmerding (look for Fan Club Sports Bar), walk to Short Alley (note: there’s no street sign), and then left at the concrete wall (to Miller Street aka Remly Way)–you’ll see the flowers.

Reading the Road: Things Embedded in Paving Tar

white plastic figure embedded in road tar

white plastic figure, Oakland

By any measure, it’s a strange object to encounter in the middle of a crosswalk. Laying on its back, a pure white plastic humanoid figure stares straight up at you–not a care in the world–embedded in the road-paving tar of Fifth Avenue.

The little toy likely came into this world in a very different form. Perhaps the material was originally in full color, complete with hair and facial details painted on–the pure white merely a result of repeated sun-bleachings. A pair of matching holes on the torso suggest an optional attachment set of armor or wings or maybe a backpack. We can hope the little guy once had some clothes.

By now, though, it’s impossible to tell. Someone’s ex-plaything–jettisoned from a bumpy stroller ride or fumbled in a harried attempt to catch the Walk sign at Bellefield–wound up crushed under so many wheels of downtown-headed PAT buses and Oakland through traffic it’s become one with the street surface itself.

wire cap embedded in road tar

wire cap, North Oakland

machine screw embedded in road tar

machine screw, Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]

Now, that little plastic toy is an extraordinary thing to find preserved in the macadam of a city street, but it’s not alone. It turns out that–like much of life–with close inspection there is almost limitless variety of this naturally-occurring phenomena just about anywhere you look.

The objects have a certain continuity, though. They’re the kinds of things that fall out of pockets and off of vehicles; worth little enough to neither require securing in place nor retrieval after they hit the pavement. None is of any value for a passer-by to bother picking up. Each must be so small that it can be subsumed into a thin layer of road tar.

zipper pull embedded in road tar

zipper pull, North Oakland

broken reflector and metal pin embedded in road tar

reflector, metal pin, Oakland

Like those fragments of household pottery or scraps of tanned buckskin preserved in historical collections, the objects we find fused in the road don’t have any intrinsic value. [Although we did find one small unit of U.S. currency (see below).] No, this is the flotsam of a population on the move, building, buying, wearing-out, and discarding the ephemera of modern life.

One needn’t look too far in the past to imagine a time when a penny wouldn’t be dropped absentmindedly and an eighth-inch drill bit would be worth the effort to retrieve from a job site. But today we live in a mechanized, mass-produced, disposable culture–one where the value of a single wire cap, machine screw, or even a kid’s toy is so little that no one would think twice when it is dropped on the pavement.

penny embedded in road tar

penny, Oakland

bottle cap embedded in road tar

bottle cap, Oakland

bottle cap embedded in road tar

bottle cap, North Oakland

These public, open-air excavation sites are a bonanza for the amateur archeologist. When we see the incredible skeletons of dinosaurs on display at the Carnegie Museum it’s obvious they are literally the one-in-a-million chance creatures that managed to collapse into just the right environment to preserve their bones intact for millennia, remain undisturbed for all that time, and managed to be recovered by the fossil-hunters of the early 20th century. Few among us can hope to participate in a real dig for T-Rex.

But anyone can be his or her own Howard Carter or Kathleen Kenyon on the morning walk to work or an afternoon constitutional. Like those pterodactyl-hunters before us, we imagine all of the bottle caps that didn’t happen to get stuck in a hot patch of road tar, the fractured reflector pieces swept down the sewer in the next big rain, the plastic detritus of America washed downriver and out to sea. It’s a lot to take in.

metal bracket embedded in road tar

metal bracket, Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]

drill bit embedded in road tar

drill bit, Oakland

aluminum flashing embedded in road tar

aluminum flashing, Oakland

aluminum flashing embedded in road tar

aluminum flashing, Oakland

tooth flosser and bobby pin embedded in road tar

tooth flosser/bobby pin, Lawrenceville

ketchup packets embedded in road tar

ketchup packets, Bloomfield

One final observation: There is a unique related-but-different subset of the embedded-in-road-tar category of items. These are things that were actually baked into the road material itself at the time of construction. (Rather than appended to the street surface, later.) The fact that we came across two different full-sized red bricks melded with street tarmac does not a pattern make, but it’s an interesting double-occurrence.

How did these bricks get here? What were they doing in a batch of freshly cooked-up street surfacing? Were they laying on the denuded substrate or did they get mixed in with the goop pre-pour?

So many questions. But … that’s why we’re reading the road.

brick embedded in road tar

brick, Marshall-Shadeland

brick embedded in road tar

brick, Bloomfield

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: Wigged-Out on Tumbleweave

No turning (back). Loose tumbleweave on the street in East Liberty.

There’s more to hair
Than real hair

George Willard, “Wig Store”

Over the years, we’ve lost a lot of things–some of them important, others just weirdly memorable. Printed photographs from a pre-digital era; a 10-speed bicycle left on the back porch in 1997; melodies of songs sung, but never recorded. The names and faces of people known, went to school with, drank beer next to, or played music around–all gone.

Once, embarrassingly, thirty-five cents–the exact change required and the only coins available–awkwardly falling from the pocket into a traffic lane at the Nickel Bridge tollbooth in Richmond. Still wondering what happened to my marching band hat. Sigh.

Cubist coiffure collage, Oakland

All that said, it’s safe to say this balding-the-old-fashioned-way/losing-his-mind-like-everyone-else blogger has never misplaced an entire head of hair–real or not–right out in the street. Clearly, not everyone has been so lucky.

So many questions! How does one lose an 18-inch braided pigtail? Are these the result of a hair-grabbing confrontation? Cruel prank? Street-borne fiasco? One imagines the most riveting of dramas, but the real stories may be much more mundane. Sadly, we’ll likely never know.

Regardless, when God tosses a fraying tumble of jet black hair weave loosely across the directional marker of a turn lane or dumps two-tone black/white curl on the sidewalk in front of Subway, we don’t question it. Even this atheist recognizes diving intervention when a curly brown coif is caught in the wind and takes life scurrying across Penn Avenue.

Tumbleweave,* your time on The Orbit is here.

braided ponytail hair lying on street surface

Crack that whip, Oakland

portion of leaf-covered black wig laying in street

Wigged-out, Bloomfield

bundle of hair lying on wet pavement with fallen leaves

Fall color, North Oakland

Dye hard, Larimer

lost hair in pile of fallen leaves against curb

Dead leaves and the hairy ground, Marshall-Shadeland

The post-Halloween special, Shadyside

mass of hair lying in street

The tail wigs the dog, Bloomfield

bundle of fake fur flattened on road surface

Hit-and-run/flat top, Hazelwood

The “Polamalu,” Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]


* The term “tumbleweave” may go back to Orbit Uber, Uber Doober, and Pooper Scooper Paul Schifino. Whoever gets the credit, you’ll not find a more perfect name for the phenomenon than this.