On the Trail of the Wild Pawpaw, Part 2: Pickin’ Up Pawpaws

eight smaller pawpaw fruits in a white hat on wooden table

Hatful of holler. The first score.

First: a warning. One should not purchase tickets on the pawpaw express without knowing what she or he is getting into. When you opt to “ride the lightning”, you’re hopping on the front seat of an emotional and physical roller-coaster that won’t be slowing down until it’s thrown–nay, broken–all who boarded with anything less than total commitment.

Be prepared to give it all up. Relationship? Over. Career? Gone. That itchy skin? It’s not going away. Don’t bother paying the rent–you’ll be sleeping in your car most nights, anyway. Friends, family, loved-ones? Kiss them all goodbye–they’ll not be seeing you any time soon. When, or if, you reconnect, the vacant look in your eyes will tell them you’re never really coming back.

pawpaw fruit hanging in tree, Pittsburgh, PA

All that glitters. Nearly-ripe fruit sing their siren song, Squirrel Hill.

Andrew Moore is one hard dude to get an interview with…at least, this time of year. You can’t fault him, though–the author’s late summer schedule is solidly packed. Readings and signings at bookstores in Charleston and Brooklyn; judging the Best Pawpaw Contest and presenting at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival; fruit sampling with customers at the Erie Whole Foods; a talk at the nature club in Sewickley…and that’s just a couple weeks worth.

All that, and Moore still made time for Pittsburgh Orbit, right at the mid-September peak of pawpaw season. We knew we may never have this chance again, so we hit him with the big guns right away: Have you ever been bonked in the head by a falling pawpaw? (It could happen!)

As luck would have it, in the last six years of researching, writing, and extensively traveling the pawpaw belt–Ohio to Louisiana, Virginia to Kansas–a fruit-to-cranium collision has never occurred. Moore took this in stride, as did questions about his wife’s tolerance for that demon pawpaw and the amount of refrigerator space devoted to gestating seeds. [Answers: very much, he loves her a lot; and about the size and volume of a shoe box, respectively.]

Author Andrew Moore holding three huge pawpaw fruits in a pawpaw orchard

Andrew Moore with the enormous pawpaws of Deep Run Orchard, Maryland [photo courtesy of Moore]

The Orbit consumed Moore’s 2015 book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit (Chelsea Green Publishing) with a gastro-bibliological gusto that invoked what we can only call Pawpaw Fever. It is the definitive work on the subject and as such, Moore has created an elegantly-constructed and fascinating journey through a (literal) landscape both seemingly prosaic (pawpaws grow wild over most of the eastern half of the U.S.–they’re not rare) and at the same time otherworldly (an ancient fruit, re-arriving out of nowhere, with a narrative gift-wrapped for locavores and foodies alike).

Pawpaw contains a couple broad theses that ring long and loud after the last page is turned: the pawpaw as neglected super food that rightfully deserves to be back in markets, lunch bags, and restaurant menus, and the mystery of how this once-ubiquitous early autumn staple that colors so much American history managed to disappear almost entirely from the nation’s collective consciousness. It’s a great read and, needless to say, the book is Orbit-recommended.

pawpaw tree with sign for free use

The giving pawpaw tree of Squirrel Hill

When last we left our blogger, he was deep in the heart of the Schenley Park pawpaw patch, considering an uncertain fruiture (that’s a future in fruit). The pawpaws dangled tantalizingly in all directions, but like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, there was nary an “Indiana banana”–not to mention pawpaw, paw paw, paw-paw, or papaw*–to eat.

Why? Well, one of the pawpaw’s challenges is that it may only be gathered (either shaken from the tree or collected from the forest floor) when ripe. Unlike, say, a tomato or a banana, the hard pawpaw prematurely selected from the tree will never ripen. That’s no big deal out in the wild, but in the very limited supply and unmet demand within metro Pittsburgh, it’s a real crime to prematurely pick the fruit or overzealously shake the tree.

The hunt was on. We got to the, uh, low-hanging fruit (sorry) first–Schenley Park’s pawpaw patch and the magical pawpaw trees of Squirrel Hill. Moore praises the latter: “God bless [the homeowner/planter] for introducing so many of us to our first pawpaw.” This blogger is no expert, but he’s been around the pawpaw patch enough to realize that while a great entry point, these are chump change, amateur hour, gateway drugs. Both sets of trees are well-known and well-traveled destinations at this point, and as such they’ve been over-shaken, abused, ravaged, and the fruit is rarely given the chance to ripen sufficiently.

A large pawpaw cut in half with spoons and a knife

Giant pawpaw, halved.

So…blah blah blah, but what do they actually taste like? Well, I’ll tell you: they’re freakin’ delicious! The blanket description of “tropical” is safe, and banana is clearly the closest common fruit flavor profile. Some of the fruit we found was darker in color (more orange than yellow inside) and absolutely tasted and felt like caramel custard.

One other detail we never saw mentioned is that the pawpaw is really fun to eat. You slice it in half, eat it with a spoon, sorting tasty pulp from the large seeds in your mouth. They’re really unique–like a small dessert right there in every fruit.

So, our early goal of uncovering free public pawpaws right in the city gets mixed marks. We did indeed taste the fruit of several different trees, but weren’t able to uncover any real surprises. The chase is still on, though. As Moore tells it, the trees give themselves up in October, flashing a bright yellow where others go all dropping leaves and fall colors. The dedicated hunter marks her prey and bides his time for the oncoming season. Until then, The Orbit will be out there, cruising the trails…watching.

potted pawpaw tree, Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA

Future fruit. Potted pawpaw at Frick Environmental Center, likely destined for their “From Slavery to Freedom” garden project.

Conclusions:

The bad news: According to Moore, there just aren’t that many publicly-available patches in city limits to get your paws on pawpaws…right now. It’s not a case of us not looking close enough–they just aren’t there. Between the amount of city build-up we’ve had, 150 years of heavy industry, and that damned knotweed, whatever wild pawpaw may have hugged the rivers pre-industrialization likely didn’t survive the steel industry, et al. What is here now was almost surely planted very consciously.

The good news: There is no lack of American pawpaw, even very close to Pittsburgh. As Moore says, “This is not an endangered species…you see it everywhere, especially starting right around the Mason-Dixon line** (and south)”. The Orbit finally got its first big score from a set of trees in the North Hills and realized very quickly how fast you can fill a big bag and why one probably shouldn’t eat eight pawpaws in twelve hours.

Further, Moore paints a portrait of an exciting future for Pittsburgh pawpaw. The fruit is either “having its moment” or “coming back”, depending on how you look at it. [Moore’s book is clearly a not-insignificant factor in this.] Pawpaw is on the cultural radar now like it hasn’t been for several generations and the number of city projects in parks, schools, and community gardens–not to mention all the private growers adding a couple trees to their yards–is huge. According to Moore, in five or ten years there will be more city pawpaw trees than you can shake a stick at…or, you know, just shake the fruit out of.

Man seated at table with a large pile of pawpaws.

Driven to madness. The author, with pawpaws.


Pittsburgh Orbit has accepted Moore’s spelling pawpaw (one word), but paw paw (two) seems to appear even more often “in the wild”.
** Basically, the Pennsylvania-Maryland/West Virginia border.

Behold the Hands of Holtz

Artist JR Holtz holding a painting of four women in bikinis

Artist J.R. Holtz with some of his sexy ladies

You may have run into J.R. Holtz just like we did (or do, quite often), out on the street. He sets up on Penn Avenue for the monthly Unblurred art crawls and every Saturday at the Artisan Market in the Strip District. At either location, you’ll find him camped out with an eight-foot folding table covered with dozens of his small- and medium-sized paintings. Each one comes in a repurposed picture frame–or even an entire wooden window–and they’re all for sale at extremely reasonable prices.

several small, framed paintings by artist JR Holtz

Holtz’ recent artwork for sale in the Strip District

J.R., who creates under the moniker Hands of Holtz, tells us he paints every day and he’s been at it since the mid-1980s. His subjects are all across the board: cartoon characters, superheroes, pop culture figures, nature images, family scenes, science fiction, and Pittsburgh sports. On our most recent visit, there were portraits of Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and Muhammed Ali; likenesses of Mighty Mouse, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. Several scenes from Star Wars made their way to Holtz’ glass panes, as had fad-du-jour Pokemon creatures.

painting of Prince in front of an open window with a purple sky and lightning by JR Holtz

Prince/purple lightning

2-color painting of Star Wars characters by JR Holtz

Star Wars

But let’s cut the crap: you’re going to notice the sexy ladies first. It’s hard to focus on Spider Man when there’s this much bare skin going around. Not since the glory days of Cinemax or those weird shaving cream ads they used to run during hockey games has there been semi-public soft-core erotica on display like this.

J.R. is the first to admit “I like the ladies!” and it’s safe to say he isn’t lying. There are strong warrior-princesses, tattooed big-boobed sports fans, tawdry hoochie-mamas, yoga posers with naughty underwear, and lots and lots of smiling, bikini babes–often with added glitter details and bonus Steeler emblems, just for good measure.

painting of woman wearing pink hat, gloves, boots, and skin-tight pants (but no shirt) bending over by JR Holtz

Pink Lady

Many of the images are taken from existing photographs, but Holtz says some of the ladies are friends who pose for pictures knowing they’ll be turned into future paintings. Individual requests and interests of the models are incorporated into the artwork, as are other extra bedazzled features including color-changing paints, glitterized jewelry, and inset photos.

I asked Holtz what the reaction is when unexpecting Saturday shoppers accidentally browse across the decidedly PG-13 content. “Some of them start walking real fast,” he chuckles.

Painting of man in 1970s clothes with caption "Back in the Day"

Back in the Day

J.R. describes his own artwork as novelty, and it’s tempting to overlook it as such. He paints directly on glass which gives the final images a glossy, finished look–almost like when you see framed “cels” from animation. The subject matter is as populist as it comes–you could imagine some of these pieces on sale in a turnpike gift shop. Matthew Barney or Damien Hirst, this ain’t.

But with the flat perspective, heavy black outlines, and single-color schemes, the end result reminds us of a different art superstar on the very other end of the spectrum, Howard Finster. Like Finster, Holtz’s style appears untrained or “naive”, but there’s a beautiful honesty to it–even when the subject is Jedi Master Yarael Poof*.

JR Holtz standing in front of his paintings for sale, Pittsburgh, PA

JR Holtz with more of his recent paintings, Strip District

Holtz is also one of the kindest and nicest artists you’ll meet. He wouldn’t ape for the camera, but don’t believe it–every time we’ve talked with him, J.R. is all smiles, high energy, positive vibes, and can’t wait to tell you about his work.

This blogger doesn’t know what he likes, but he knows art. We probably wouldn’t chose to decorate Chez Orbit with any of the beach babes–at least, we haven’t picked any of those up yet–but we especially love many of his portraits and simpler two-color work. When J.R. hits, it’s as serious as a heart attack and as true as an arrow.


* Not pictured, but among The Orbit‘s small collection of Holtzs.

An Orbit Obit: Clemente Street Art

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium (detail), 2013

Today it begins. The period from now until the early dark eves of October is, for many sports fans, a restoration of when things feel right. It is a time of chin music and LOOGies, where men scratch their groins and spit sunflower seeds in concrete dugouts awash in discarded Gatorade cups. It is the season where contests are interrupted at the discretion of “managers” who summon pitchers and catchers at the mound for tense mid-game summits, runners in scoring position the imminent threat. Phrases like “O-and-two, the count,” “low and outside,” “check swing,” and “foul ball” will be repeated ad infinitum. Rivers of yellow mustard, sweet relish, and, yes, ketchup (heathens!) will adorn a non-stop parade of frankfurters. It is a time when spring’s inevitable showers send both players and spectators alike to huddle under whatever protection the park offers while radio announcers ramble on in aimless filibusters to occupy the dead air. It is baseball season.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2014

Wheel Emporium, a retail outlet and installation garage for what they used to call mag wheels, existed at the corner of Penn Avenue and 34th Street in Lawrenceville for years. The small shop was shuttered some time around 2012 (?) and plywood installed to protect the giant panes of glass in its showroom windows.

Though this blogger would sooner, uh, put ketchup on his hot dog than pay money for fancy auto parts, we always enjoyed passing the little shop with its big windows and array of shiny chrome. But what we liked even more was what came after Wheel Emporium closed: the terrific pair of elaborate street art tributes to Pittsburgh Pirate great Roberto Clemente.

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2013

A note to bloggers: always get an establishing shot! We sadly just took close-up photos of the artwork–and of course they’re now long gone*–so there’s not really a sense of how the pieces relate. For sure, though, we can say there were two nearly life-sized black-and-white enlargements of old photos wheat-pasted to Wheel Emporium’s protective plywood. In the first, Clemente is in his batting stance, left leg starting its lift in anticipation of the incoming pitch. The other–perhaps just seconds later–shows the batter watching the rocket he’s just launched sail from the park, his body twisted in the follow-through of the heavy swing. In both, the artist(s) applied shards of cut painted wood to the plywood which suggest waves of energy coming directly from Clemente.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2014

The tale of the Clemente art took a strange turn a year later. At some point in 2014, the colored wood pieces were all removed and the rest of the exterior plywood painted over in a deep blue color. Amazingly, though, whoever did this chose to preserve the wheat pasted photos, leaving an equally-effective alternate version of the previous year’s art. In these, we see Clemente’s two-tone image really “pop” against the monochrome blue background. It would have been fantastic to re-install the wooden additions on top of the blue, which would have looked far superior to the noisy graffiti’d wood grain, but we can’t always get what we want.

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium (full), 2013

Roberto Clemente is debatably the most beloved Pittsburgh Pirate for his prowess both in the batter’s box and out in right field (which helped the team win two World Series over his eighteen year tenure) and also for his charitable efforts off the field. His life ended tragically in a plane crash Clemente was on for a humanitarian relief mission to Nicaragua in 1972. For all of these reasons, he’s certainly a fitting subject for not just his bronze statue at PNC Park, but also the street art tributes that appeared in Lawrenceville. We’d love to see more of them.

That said, The Orbit would be equally enthusiastic about seeing similar street-level honors bestowed on other Pirate greats. Imagine a stenciled and spray-painted Honus Wagner or a 3-D “Pops” Stargell constructed from recycled materials. If you don’t see the opportunities in “Big Poison” and “Little Poison” (brothers/teammates Paul and Lloyd Waner), then you’re not trying very hard. Hell, why not create a new set of Greenberg Gardens in the city’s many vacant lots? I guess we need to quit yapping about it and start…planting about it.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District (current)

Addendum: We were so glad to see the tradition of Clemente wheat-pasting continue on a recent ride through the Strip District. This photo was taken just last week and shows what appears to be a relatively new photo of Clemente pasted to a vacant storefront on the 2700 block of Penn Avenue. In it, Clemente’s bat is pointed directly at the camera and he displays a look that’s both steely and also posed, perhaps stifling his characteristic smile to crack serious for the photographer.

bicycle lane marker of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Bicycle lane marker, Clemente Bridge

One final addition: over at The Portland Orbit, they recently ran a story called “The Beautiful People of the Bike Lane” about the terrific work of that city’s Board of Transportation to make customized, humorous bicycle lane markers. This cyclist was totally jealous and wished Pittsburgh would do something as fun and interesting. Well, it turns out that we do have at least a few these customized “bike guys.” You guessed it: they’re honoring the very same Roberto Clemente on the downtown bridge that now bears his name. It’s definitely Clemente art on the street, even if it’s not, you know, street art.


* The former Wheel Emporium was razed in 2015 and at present there’s a much larger building under construction that appears to be another combined retail/residential mixed-use space.

Street Beat: Who is the Dirty Poet?

Three of The Dirty Poet's poems taped to a light post, Pittsburgh, PA

In the wild: The Dirty Poet’s work where most people experience it

You’ve seen his work. At least, you have if you’ve loitered around any less-than-respectable tavern, coffee shop, or music venue in Pittsburgh’s East End over the last decade.

Xeroxed in small batches–usually two or three bite-sized poems at at time–cut down to vertical half pages, and taped to light poles, left on bulletin boards, and passed hand-to-hand (if you know who to talk to), The Dirty Poet is an old-school bard of the boroughs, a tale-teller of the tarmac. Like the clergyman preaching to drunkards on Skid Row, The Dirty Poet takes the mountain to Mohammed with that very deliberate pre-Internet mass communication, the flyer and handbill.

The Dirty Poet sits on a set of Pittsburgh city steps with his face hidden behind an open copy of his book

The Dirty Poet: his head is always in a book

The Dirty Poet, who spoke with Pittsburgh Orbit on condition of anonymity, claims he is the best read poet in Pittsburgh. Admittedly, this is probably not a high bar, but it would be difficult to name any competition for this title*. “People read these poems that would never read any other poetry,” says The Dirty Poet, and he’s right.

The work is taken out of the English department, out of the bookstores and coffee shop readings, hell, you don’t even have to enter a building–it’s right there on the sidewalk. One needn’t have a college degree or even a library card. [Spoiler alert: you do need to be able to read.] By taking the poems directly to the streets, taped up on light poles, it’s as populist and mass accessible as it could be. Whether he’s reaching people hungry for an unslaked thirst for verse or just bored and waiting for the bus, they’re all [OK, some of them] joining the revival in this tent.

Photocopy of "It's Always Sunny in New Brunswick" by The Dirty Poet, taped to a light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

The Dirty Poet has also been at this a long time. Writing his whole life, he began the practice of pairing his Xeroxed literature with the other gig flyers, ads for weight loss studies, and rock band stickers that litter the street some fifteen years ago. That’s more time than most poets have cumulatively spent in grad school, getting rejected by literary journals, and giving up writing entirely.

In our conversation, El Dirtero spoke with obvious pride about the many chance meetings he’s had with readers as he’s plied his trade on the pavement. “Guys in their twenties come up to me and tell me they’ve been reading me since they were teenagers,” the Dirty One says, “I think I speak to a universal feeling of alienation.”

The Dirty Poet sits on a jersey barrier with the graffiti "Your vulgarity is a virtue"

The Dirty Poet: vulgar, virtuous

But what of the poetry itself? It’s loose, personal, true, vulgar, cynical, sly, smart-alecky, profane, and, yes, possibly (but not usually) dirty. It also doesn’t rhyme and it’s definitely not for everyone. “I write poetry to process my experience,” the Soapless Shakespeare tells us. Subject matter ranges from the topical (politics, gun violence, race relations) to observational (hypocrites of all faiths and isms, technology dependence, media and mass culture) to many personal anecdotes of characters and experiences throughout his life. The Great Unwashed assures us these are all true.

Three poems by The Dirty Poet taped to a light pole on Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh, PA

One final note: Pittsburgh Orbit was planning to reprint a couple of The Dirty Poet’s pieces here, but in the spirit of his work, we thought it only made sense to urge our readers to take the time, step outside, and check out the poetry where it lives, right on the streets of Pittsburgh. If you don’t see it, you’re not trying very hard. And if you don’t live around here, well, this is just one more reason to come pay us a visit**. The Dirty Poet will still be at it when you do.


* Billy Nardozzi, the “Chaucer of the Classifieds,” seems like the only legitimate competition for this title, but when you get into pay-to-play territory, the water gets muddied pretty quick.

** Those looking for a more substantial collection of The Dirty Poet’s work can find the collection Emergency Room Wrestling on Words Like Kudzu Press.

Hey, Porter: Daria Sandburg and Pittsburgh’s Baggage Claim

Hands holding scrap of paper with the writing "Regret drug life that made me loose a child" (sic.)

“Regret drug life that made me loose a child” (sic.) Just one small piece of Pittsburgh’s baggage.

It’s a strange weight to carry–both metaphorically and very literally. The worn, shiny metal case (it was built to carry roller skates) is painted with a series of intriguing messages. A quote from Kate Tempest: “That thing you weep for, leave it,” and one from Carl Sandburg: “What is this load I carry out of yesterday?” The ends of the case have the instructions Got baggage? Leave it here.

The Orbit encountered this unique piece of luggage attached to the arm of one Daria Sandburg who has been toting it through our fair city streets, to events and happenings for a couple years now. Sandburg honors every one of the case’s painted instructions with an invitation for whoever accepts to leave their messages (“Pittsburgh’s baggage”) in the form of short hand-written notes on scraps of multicolored paper. A separate, smaller inset box contains “possibilities,” which people are equally encouraged to submit. Ask nice and Sandburg will convert your hand-written note into cut, stamped metal. Over the last year, hundreds have taken Sandburg up on the offer.

torn paper scrap with the writing "She was abused, now he's dead. No guilt."

Heavy baggage: one of the hundreds of hand-written claims

The baggage claim tickets cover the full gamut of guilt, regret, fear, and much much more. Markers of love and love lost, admissions of poor choices, addiction, and anxieties of every shade are stowed in the case. And while there’s a level of repetition and predictability to many of the entries, the format of one real human having submitted her or his expression in their own hand, in person, directly to Sandburg’s protective case makes each one unique, special, and often tragic.

Even the most prosaic of messages–Being forgotten or My ex or Uncertainty–somehow carry a greater weight when you know the author was right there, among us. Logically, we know everyone has these feelings, but somehow it’s hard to accept, or to believe. The volume of tickets expressing some level self doubt is staggering.

When the claims get deeper, more personal, they can be outright devastating. Take my lies, one reads, or My father’s suicide, or Letting where I missed be the measure of my life, or She was abused, now he’s dead. No guilt. It’s good the slips are so small or these could turn into major therapy sessions on both ends of the paper.

Daria Sandburg and her open case of Pittsburgh's baggage.

Daria Sandburg and her open case of Pittsburgh’s baggage.

All told, it’s a heavy load to carry around. I asked Sandburg if she feels the project, open-ended and unresolved by design, could, ironically, become her own personal baggage. Could she be trapped under the weight of needing to collect and store ever more of the limitless pool of strangers’ personal issues?

The response was remarkably upbeat, positive, and forward-looking. She doesn’t feel married to either the suitcase or the project, especially after the completion of a recent show combining the baggage claims with Sandburg’s original art (inspired by the submitted claims) at Boxheart. [The project required a greater-than-normal commitment to baggage collection.] But at the same time, there are no immediate plans to suspend her regular forays out with the box.

hand stamped metal with the text "I wish I wasn't afraid of doing literally everything"

One of Sandburg’s by-request hammered metal claim tickets.

Sandburg is leaving soon to take the case out for a week-long working/collecting trip to the greater Art Basel Miami (and its associated shows/events) for that annual art/schmooze megalopolis as part of Boxheart Gallery‘s travel team. [Boxheart is participating in the alternative Fridge Art Fair.] There, she’ll be collecting South Florida’s baggage, and yes, mixing it with our own. This blogger predicts more regrets around taking on extra calories or the perils of imperfect abs and less decades-old nightmares around the Mark Malone and Bubby Brister regimes. But maybe we’ll find out that everyone really has the same baggage, even if Miami’s comes well-tanned and wrapped in vintage alligator.

Daria Sandburg holding metal case with painted words "Got baggage? Check it here."

Follow Daria Sandburg and the Baggage Claim project on Twitter and/or Instagram for regular updates on incoming claim tickets–or just look out for the lady with the cool hand-painted metal case. She encourages meeting interested strangers: “Happenstance is what really makes the project wonderful.” If you do spot her, say hello, and maybe consider leaving that thing you weep for.

Graceland North: The Antignani Estate Sale

mirrored headboard against a very complex wallpaper pattern

It might get loud: mirror in the bedroom

If it could be covered in psychedelic shag carpeting, they did it: doors, bathroom walls, spiral staircase treads. If the mood called for fake leopard skin, or zebra, or gold lamé, you can bet that call was answered too. The master bedroom holds a half dozen legitimate feathered pimp hats. The living room features a six-foot-tall clear plastic aquarium in the shape of a bent palm tree. The kitchens (there are two) have tile work with images of sport fish and day-glo flowered wallpaper. You can believe if there was a wall surface, shelving, headboard, or light fixture that could possibly be mirrored, spangled, or bedazzled, that need was not taken lightly.

No, the Antignanis had a decidedly more-is-more, leave no stone un-decorated design sense that has unprepared eyeballs begging for mercy, mouths gasping for Dramamine, and visitors vowing to finally get serious about their own basements. Even just what’s left of the estate, which occupies an entire serene hilltop in Pittsburgh’s distant northern suburbs, makes Graceland look minimalist.

large plastic gorilla in the Antignani estate yard

(larger-than?) life-size gorilla: make offer

You know it’s going to be a good estate sale when the first thing you see is a life-size plastic lawn gorilla: make offer. The front-of-house alone contains a bevy of oddball riches we’re not used to seeing at suburban sales: a six-foot plaster saxophone ornament for a matching fountain suspended on giant golden musical notes; replicas of Italian statuary; a slide and ladders from a since-removed pool; a ’70s-era Dodge Ram pickup. Oh, and there’s a caged female mannequin, chained at the ankle, barely clothed in a headband, Mardi Gras beads, and torn hippie vest.

Lawn mower, chained, caged, naked, go-go mannequin, hose reel.

A sale for all your yard care needs: lawn mower, naked go-go mannequin-in-cage, garden hose with reel.

Any assumptions or prejudices about the lifestyles of older generations are quickly overturned with one step inside the Antignani estate. Their tastes were eccentric, loud, gaudy, and corny, but very clearly theirs. We know that Arthur lived into his 80s and it doesn’t appear that any accommodations were made for the couple’s advancing age. It’s wonderfully amusing to think of anyone traipsing around this crazy environment for forty years (?) let alone a couple my grandparents’ (R.I.P.) age.

framed black and white photograph of Arthur Antignani as a young man

Arthur Antignani

Of the many mysteries surrounding this sale, the most intriguing is the Antignanis themselves. Described as a “millionaire musician,” Arthur Antignani has left almost zero Internet trail. There’s no obituary from either of the Pittsburgh papers, one nearly-empty entry on the site Tributes.com, and some vague hits on various genealogical sites. That’s it.

Of Arthur’s wife Alfreda we know even less. The friendly estate sale agents told us she had been a cosmetologist and that the couple saved their voluminous love letters from Arthur’s time on the road. And that’s all we’ve got.

wall-mounted sound system including reel-to-reel tape deck, 8-track player, intercom, CD player, speaker toggle switches

Hi-fi command central

Arthur’s musical career is just as in need of clarification. The same agent had heard he was a frequent performer in Las Vegas who regularly entertained the “Rat Pack” in the early days of The Strip. We can assume he played the saxophone by the number of sax icons scattered throughout house, including the lapel pin on the above photograph. But again, it’s difficult to substantiate any of this.

poured concrete patio in the shape of a guitar, with additional paint to represent sound hole, saddle, and strings

The guitar-shaped patio

One thing we do know is that the Antignanis were crazy about music–or, at least, they liked the look of it. The imagery of musical instruments (especially saxophones) and musical staff notes aggressively played into the design and decoration of the house. Notes decorate the front entrance gate, the shag carpeting on the bedroom door, and metalwork throughout. A back patio was poured in the shape of a giant guitar, complete with the awkwardly long sidewalk-to-nowhere of the instrument’s to-scale long neck. Paint was added to supply details for the sound hole and hardware. There’s a bust of Elvis lamp.

Hundreds of tchotchkes render every variety of creature–mammal, amphibian, you name it–multi-instrumentalists in some nutty symphony. These figures, along with gilt candlesticks, shimmering pendant lamps, a mixed-species chest-of-drawers, and a pair of over-the-top rotary telephones, are now stacked so densely in the former great room that it’s difficult to imagine how they could have been displayed when the house was still in use.

[The photo gallery for this sale has many more detail shots than we’ve chosen to include here. Check it out while it’s still available.]

spiral staircase with psychedelic shag carpeting and gold-painted railings

Looking down the psychedelic psprial pstaircase

Although we have no concrete evidence, I think the other safe assumption here is that the Antignanis could party. The whole house is laid out such that no guest’s Greek-themed highball glass will ever go dry and its extensive sound system had speaker options that reached every room, patio, and even the “Zen garden.” There are only three bedrooms, but guests could pass out on their choice of several giant sectional sofas. The kitchen equipment is pretty standard stuff, but the barware is stocked with enough tumblers, martini, wine, and shot glasses to outfit several all-nighters without ever needing to do the dishes.

mural with naked male and female figures, tree with snake wrapped around its trunk, and a stag

“While you’re down there, my giant snake could use some attention.” Mural in the Antignani dining room.

The word from the sales agents was that one of their team had purchased the entire lot, house, and contents, and was emptying it for an inevitable demolition and redevelopment. On the one hand, that makes a lot of sense–it’s pretty incredible to have a property that covers an entire hilltop with 360-degree views (at least, when the tree cover isn’t too thick) and also has perfect privacy. The house itself is no great architectural marvel, so it’s likely any buyer in this market would want something different.

But at the same time, those of us who never knew the couple can feel the Antignanis’ spirits within the home’s eye-popping walls. The couple’s mausoleum (yes, a photograph proves it’s adorned with more musical notes and giant saxophones) may last much longer, but it’s in the soft-porn dining room mural and plastic fruit-shaped piña colada cups, the silver Queen of Hearts wallpaper and shiny clothes that they actually lived. And oh–if it’s not too trite to say–how they lived.

antignani-gold-statue

If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it. Statuary in the Antignani home entranceway.

lawn ornament of Mary with $40 hand-written price tag

Mary, cheap


Special note: We’d love to know more about the Antignanis. If you knew them, know more of the story, or if we got any of our facts wrong, we’d love to hear it. Please get in touch.


Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Alfreda as Arthur’s given name and Mrs. Antignani as first name unknown. Several readers have corroborated that Mrs. Antignani was Alfreda (see comments). We apologize for the error and thank you commenters!

 

Jennie Benford: Concierge to the Dead

Jennie Benford, Homewood Cemetery archivist, in front of Brown mausoleum

Jennie Benford at the Brown mausoleum, Homewood Cemetery

If you got rich in Pittsburgh’s first great golden age, chances are you wound up here. Walking through Homewood Cemetery‘s beautiful large-plot section 14, the names pop right out at you: Frick, Mellon, Heinz, Straub, Baum, Benedum, et cetera, et cetera. These may not be household names to the rest of the world, but in Pittsburgh they’ve all got streets and buildings and foundations and corporations named after them. And they all ended up in the same big section of the same cemetery*.

Mausoleum for Benedum family, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

From black gold to pink granite: the art deco Benedum mausoleum

Jennie Benford has been leading visitors through Homewood Cemetery for nearly twenty years, and let this amateur crypt fancier tell you: she gives good tour. As an archivist, historian, and major league taphophile (she was also married at Homewood Cemetery), Benford landed her dream job as Director of Programming for The Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund not too long ago.

Benford currently offers three different tours of Homewood: Taking It With You, the one we took concentrating on Section 14’s robber baron excesses; Angels and Obelisks, highlighting particular grave styles and details; and the newest tour, In The Beginning, which focuses on the first three sections of the cemetery that were open for business in 1878.

Bronze angel statuary at Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Aura the explorer: bronze statuary

Benford’s deep knowledge and communication of not just Homewood’s long-term residents, but American (cemetery) history is incredible. To this blogging layman, our older bone yards tend to look a lot alike. But we started with a great overview of American cemetery history and a terrific comparison between the tenor of the “rural cemetery” movement (ala Allegheny Cemetery, opened 1844) and how it compared to Homewood’s “lawn-park” model (1878).

Cenotaph for E.K. Bennett, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Dressed and recessed for success: the E.K. Bennett plot

Benford’s greatest gifts, though, are an encyclopedic knowledge of her subject and the deft craft of relating historical detail with the skill of a great storyteller. Architectural nuance, names and dates, period styles, and a rich volume of tales (some of them with appropriate verbal grain-of-salt asterisks) put the context with the casket, the undertone with the eulogy, and the diary on top of the dirt.

Theo F. Straub mausoleum, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

There stands the ‘taph: Theodore Straub, King of Beers

Benford’s tours of Homewood Cemetery are available by appointment and may be scheduled for “just about any day or time.” Those interested can call 412-260-6305 or message Benford through the Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund FaceBook page to set up a tour.


* They didn’t all end up in Homewood. Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville (for instance) also contains many prominent Pittsburgh figures, but Homewood definitely has the most marquee names, and they’re all clustered in one defined section.

Unread: The Record Label Next Door

Chris Fischer, Unread Records & Tapes

Chris Fischer at Unread Records headquarters, Lawrenceville

This isn’t Richard Branson.

No, when Chris Fischer jets to London, it’s on the shoe leather express.  And it’s probably just over to Long John Silver’s.  That certified gold Nathaniel Hoier cassette?  Dubbed by hand, artisanally, they way they did it in olden times (er…the 1990s).  Your order will arrive with a personal letter, in block letters, with fancy spellings.

Last year Fischer’s record/cassette/art/zine enterprise Unread Records & Tapes celebrated twenty years of pressing the Record and Play buttons with a two-day all-hands-on-deck (ahem, most hands) label festival and art show in Omaha, Nebraska. For the lion’s share of the label’s twenty years, Fischer lived in Omaha, which is why the fete was back there. Some majority of the Unread’s enormous (170+ releases, and counting) output comes from that part of the world, including household names like The Debts, Lonnie Eugene Methe, The Dad, David Kenneth Nance, Places We Slept, and Noah Sterba.

Noah Sterba "The 12 Bar Blues" cassette cover

Noah Sterba “The 12 Bar Blues” cassette (Unread #170)

The Unread diaspora extends much further, though, with folks like South Carolina madman Charlie McAlister, Milwaukee’s Ramon Speed, Furniture Huschle/Furniture Three, John Thill, and Dennis Callaci from California, Portlanders A John Henry Memorial, George Willard, and Mean Spirt’d Robots, etc. all calling the label (part-time) home.

So why is this profile appearing in the Pittsburgh Orbit and not in, you know, the Omaha Orbit? Well, I’m glad you asked! Fischer, a Pennsylvania native (though, from the other side of the state), relocated to our fair city a couple years ago and is steadily making this place home. Here in Pittsburgh, Unread has invested in our own Swampwalk, C. Frank, and some other cats.

[Full disclosure: This music-loving and -making blogger also sings and strums, blurts and bleeps on the side. Some of those sounds have been captured and capitalized by Unread Records.]

Chris Fischer, Unread Records & Tapes

In the kitchen, cooking up beats

We started this piece way back in the late winter, hence Fischer’s very un-Summer attire in these photos. But it never felt right. What they told us in our journalism correspondence course (D is still passing, right?) is that like a winter coat–or a mackerel–every great article needs a hook to hang on, and we just didn’t have one. So we put this post on the shelf and went off looking for weird pizza and Jimmy “The Greek’s” graveAnd while Chris hasn’t exactly been sitting on his keister (the label has issued at least a half dozen new cassettes and one l.p. in the last few months) we found our hook–or at least our exclamation point–with Public Coffin.

Unread Records "Public Coffin" 8 cassette single + book box set

Unread’s “Public Coffin” 8 cassingle box set + book as, they say, “unboxed”

This Coffin is as pure a representation of the Unread aesthetic as anything you’ll find: hopelessly, uncompromisingly in love with that most outdated and maligned of media: the audio cassette, (cassette singles, no less!) and filled with whole-heart no-fi stuffing. The package features eight of the label’s standard-bearers, including collection co-conspirator and plains troubadour Simon Joyner, each turning in e.p.-length mini-albums that range from damaged and noisy to weird “pop” to pure, lonely desolation.

The mustard yellow cassettes arrive in a hand-silk-screened package that includes a 32-page book that serves as liner notes, fanzine, artists’ excrement, and head-scratching objet d’art. Fischer is also a printmaker, artist, and zine creationist whose scratchings and silk-screenery decorate much of the Unread catalog.

Razors "Besides" cassette cover

Razors “Besides” cassette (Unread #162)

Unread’s twenty-first anniversary is coming up this fall. This time, the annual “Junkfest” event will take place in Pittsburgh (date and location still to-be-decided, but we’ll report back). That’s plenty of time to find yourself a boombox, clear off a little counter space, and get your old Fast Forward and Rewind chops all worked-out. You’ll need them.

Chris Fischer, Unread Records & Tapes

Chris Fischer: on the ball and havin’ fun

Recording Existence: Life Logging with Weird Paul

Weird Paul with his personal archive

Weird Paul at home with his personal archive

Today, Pittsburgh Orbit celebrates a small milestone: this is the blog’s fiftieth post. That half century occurred in almost exactly six months, making The Orbit on an optimistic hundred post-a-year trajectory. I don’t know if that’s a believable or sustainable or even desirable pace, [likely not, we’ve got vacation coming up] but it’s still fun, and it’s still motivating, and there is no lack of things to (un)cover. Dial up another fifty!

Why make this big spiel about digits? Well, today’s story is all about numbers, as well as lists, and collections, and memories, and personal archives. We’re going to get into all of that with a guy who was prescient (or obsessive) enough to start recording and collecting the minutia of his life at a very early age and has kept it up for thirty-some years with no signs of slowing down.

Journal entry reading "stayed home 'cause of cruddy diarheaa not much happened"

Journal entry from 1985

Weird Paul Petroskey is a prolific Pittsburgh musician, raconteur, video-maker, and now television variety show entertainer. But before he got into any of these things, he was documenting himself and the very immediate world around him.

Paul’s habit began with cassette tapes and his father’s tape recorder, graduated to recycled day planners-turned-diaries, and eventually found him filming hours upon hours of videotape and filling entire notebooks with aspirational accomplishments and neurotic achievements. This old schooler has gone full Web 2.0 with his own YouTube channel, Vine, etc.

The Orbit sat down, stood up, took pictures of, and ate Fiore’s Pizza with Weird Paul wherein we got to dig through all the primary sources and see exactly where the magic continues to happen.

video still of teenage Weird Paul from the 1980s

The “Original Vlogger”, a teenage Weird Paul on video, sometime in the 1980s [photo: Weird Paul]

It all started with movies. As a young teenager in the 1980s Paul’s first love was film–especially the weird stuff. With the acquisition of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film–a guide to all things horror/exploitation/sci-fi/B (before the Internet democratized such knowledge)–he began creating separate lists of all the movies he wanted to see, along with encapsulations and ratings of the ones he managed to get to. This list is maintained to this day.

As Sir Weird-a-Lot tells us, he’s “seen 8,460 movies; 2,318 of them are listed in the Psychotronic Encyclopedia. 813 of the movies were either produced in Italy or directed by an Italian. The actor who appears the most is Christopher Lee (98). The most watched actress is Marianne Stone (68).” Paul keeps the films watched list in a special large spiral-bound notebook with his own star-based rating system.

His Weirdness estimates that he owns over 4,000 movies, most of them on around 1,000 VHS tapes. (Sorry, no exact figures here–he stopped keeping this particular stat twelve years ago.)

Hand-written entry page from Weird Paul's movies watched/rated journal

Entry page from Weird Paul’s movies watched/rated journal

The Weird One got into music in short order and there are a ton of videos where Paul assembled his younger siblings into what would become known as “fan videos” lip-syncing and/or acting out current top 40 hits of the day. The likes of Falco, Rod Stewart, RUN DMC, and Lindsey Buckingham all get their due. Then Paul discovered metal.

A great recent video titled “Heavy Metal Memories” recalls The Weirdmaster General’s obsession with Pittsburgh’s first all heavy metal radio, K-Rock 107, its quick rise and fall, back in the day. The fan videos continue, but now include black leather, eye makeup, head-banging, and the occasional thrown goat. Between these two eras, you’ll not find a better encapsulation of white suburban America in the 1980s.

Weird Paul outside with an acoustic guitar

Wading in the weeds with Weird Paul

The avalanche of Weird Paul songwriting, recording, and self-released cassettes begins somewhere in here too. They’re all there: non-stop party rock classic cassettes like In Case of Fire, Throw This InI Need a Pencil Sharpener, and Now I Blow My A-B-Cs. Thanks to Paul, no one can ever again get a piece of meat in their Tang without firing up the earworm machine.

Dr. Weirdenkranz tells us: “I’ve written or co-written over 750 songs – including parodies. I don’t have an exact number, because I was up to 750 but I haven’t added in a few from the new album Ben [Blanchard] and I released [PP2BB].” These amount to literally dozens of album-length cassettes, LPs, seven-inch singles, and compact discs. He’s performed live exactly 527 times.

Stacks of journals/lists

Stacks of handwritten journals/lists

Weird Paul’s musical oeuvre is an enormous subject unto itself, so we’re not going to attempt to cover that here (at least, not right now). Suffice to say he’s the consummate showman and promoter with many avenues of access.

The Weird Paul Variety Show is a whole lot of fun and thoroughly Orbit-approved. It airs Thursdays at 7:30pm on Cozi TV Pittsburgh (59.1 through the rabbit ears) and on Verizon Fios channel 463. [No: you can’t just watch it on the Internet machine.] Check out the Variety Show for a steaming hot serving of Weird Paul and the gang.

Weird Paul in front of the videotape archive

Weird Paul with the videotape archive

A Visit with Jimmy The Greek

New Chapel, where Jimmy "The Greek" is entombed, Union Cemetery, Steubenville, Ohio

New Chapel, where Jimmy “The Greek” is entombed, Union Cemetery, Steubenville, Ohio

SPOILER ALERT:  There is no head stone to visit, no special directional signage like the “1812 Veteran” or the “Fighting McCooks” or the “Grandparents of Woodrow Wilson” get, and there’s not even a place to leave a tributary poker chip or tip sheet from the nearby Wheeling dog track. No, when you actually arrive at the final resting place for Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, it’s on the very top row, well above even this tall blogger’s head height, inside a sterile mausoleum called the New Chapel, marked with a simple brass nameplate that’s barely legible standing on the floor in full daylight. The photo I took inside was so uninteresting I decided we’d just go with the exterior shot.

The Greek died of some combination of diabetes and coronary failure in 1996, the year after New Chapel was built at Union Cemetery in Steubenville, Ohio–Jimmy’s home town and an easy jaunt from Pittsburgh.  Jimmy’s loved ones may have thought that having the latest and greatest in resting places for the family was practical (his sister Marika Berris died in 2009 and is entombed right next to Jimmy), but I’d guess that he was secluded high out of sight, out of mind, and–perhaps, most advantageously–out of reach from any malice that may have been directed his way in the afterlife.

Signed headshot of Jimmy The Greek

Jimmy The Greek in livelier times

Jimmy The Greek’s rise and (epic) fall is legend to a generation that was paying attention to such things in the 1980s.  He was a career sports bettor, television prognosticator, and outsize personality that injected street smart grit and spilled cigar ash on the sterile CBS studio where most of us first encountered him.  Jimmy brought sports betting out of the bar and into post-church middle class living rooms by way of his weekly picks on The NFL Today.

Snyder was fired by CBS in 1988 for “racially insensitive comments” he made on camera at a banquet dinner.  Whether Jimmy was actually a racist or just put his foot in his mouth on a topic he really didn’t have any business speaking on seems up for debate. Both his longtime NFL Today co-host Irv Cross (who is black) and Jessie Jackson defended Snyder and Jimmy famously spent the rest of his life apologizing for the incident, humbled and disgraced.  The world largely turned its back on him, which is perhaps how he ended up nearly un-locatable in Steubenville.

entrance gate, Union Cemetery, Steubenville, Ohio

Union Cemetery entrance gate

The Greek’s surroundings in the New Chapel are particularly sad considering the phenomenal beauty of the rest of the park.  He’s going to spend eternity in a mausoleum that looks like a Denny’s while the rest of the of his neighbors are ensconced in the tree-filled, lush rolling hills of this gorgeous circa-1845 cemetery.

Union Cemetery has the characteristic design of others from this era: non-linear paths that work around the topography and ancient trees that grow between–and sometimes up and over–the graves.  The markers are notably more humble than those in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny or Homewood cemeteries, and have suffered a greater natural decay (cheaper material? harsher climate? less maintenance?).  But taken as a whole, it has a similar level of natural beauty, solace, history, and nature-without-man chaos.

statuary, Union Cemetery, Steubenville, Ohio

Statuary, Union Cemetery

Union Cemetery takes extra pride in their veterans.  The (many) Civil War graves each have a special iron shield, many still painted red, white, and blue, marking them as “Union Soldier”. Veterans from Cuba, World Wars I and II, and Korea each got similar, if less ornate, treatment. Vietnam veterans have an entire section to themselves, sharing space with large mortar cannons.

I don’t know that I can recommend a trip to Steubenville just to visit Jimmy The Greek, but we found some other interesting things while we were there (more about that in some future dispatch). However, if you’re in the area, and it’s as beautiful a day as we got, The Orbit has its own tip for you: do yourself a favor and stop by to say hello to The Greek.

Union soldier grave marker, Union Cemetery, Steubenville, Ohio

Union soldier grave marker, Union Cemetery, Steubenville, Ohio

Union army grave markers, Union Cemetery