Barbie’s Dream Cult

collection of Barbie dolls displayed on chain link fence in the sunshine

Fun in the sun. A handful of the hundreds of dolls in Barbie’s Dream Cult, Polish Hill.

If you were a kid that played with dolls and ever wondered whatever happened to them, now we know. They ended up here, on an overgrown former basketball court in Polish Hill.

Barbie dolls are everywhere[1]. Placed into tree branches and tied to fencing, dangling from a basketball hoop and performing headless yoga in the buff. They appear in clustered groups large enough to field a sports team and as loners cast off into the mud. Some look joyful–in relaxed repose, absorbing the morning sunshine–others have been abused and contorted, stripped bare and dismembered.

And then, rising from the twisted, haphazardly-tossed little bodies at the rear of the space, is the motherlode. At least a hundred dolls–probably more–forming the shape of a giant Valentine’s heart across a wide section of chain link fence.

large number of Barbie dolls hung on a chain link fence in the shape of a heart

Big love. The heart at the center of Barbie’s dream cult.

“Part Marwen, part Jonestown Massacre,” was artist Lisa Valentino‘s brief description after coming across the collection of Barbies on one of her WATSOP (Walk All the Streets of Pittsburgh) hikes. That enticing teaser, plus a handful of photos, was all it took to send the Orbit on a mad dash to see for ourselves.

You could accurately call this little out-of-control diorama a Pink Plastic Crime Scene or maybe Return to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s both the oxymoronic street art in the woods and an exploded American fantasy. Ultimately, between the Druidic imagery of The Wicker Man and the visions of The Peoples Temple, Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate lingering in the cranium, we settled on Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Welcome-to-the-Cult Hostess Barbie

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence with wooden hex symbol

High Druid Priestess Barbie

Barbie has done a lot of things in her 60+ year history. Why, the Mattel Corporation is not so tone deaf here in the 21st century as to ignore expanding their flagship brand into all manner of dress-up outfits. One can now purchase Barbie the trial judge, astronaut, entomologist, astrophysicist, and robotics engineer. On her time off from drilling cavities and performing root canals at the dentist’s office, Barbie, D.D.S., enjoys beekeeping, pet-grooming, baseball, art, and tending chickens in the backyard. The list goes on and on.

That’s all great … but none of these focused, career-minded young ladies ended up here. No, among the hundreds of dolls scattered about, we spotted exactly one roller-skater, one Jazzerciser, and one apparent employee of Pizza Hut wearing a cropped t-shirt and miniskirt combo that almost certainly fails to meet the restaurant chain’s dress code.

Despite the wide array of careers and avocations Barbie is now free to pursue, the cult clearly appeals most to a more conservative–or, at least, traditional–young lady, almost entirely white and blonde, whose sartorial preferences lean toward pink party dresses and formal evening gowns[2].

dolls dressed in Pizza Hut shirt and roller skater gear

Sent-Home-With-a-Warning Barbie / Roller Skater Barbie

collage of Barbie dolls in fancy dresses

Formal dress Barbies

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that these are just plastic dolls that happened to end up the way most of their fellow children’s toys do: played-with, dropped in the dirt, broken-apart, and left behind. We find them in the street all the time.

That said, it has to be noted that today, in the #MeToo era, the image of so many post-adolescent/not-quite-fully-adult young women, lifeless, often stripped bare, and dramatically discarded in the woods, is somewhere between disconcerting and hardcore creepy. Hopefully you’ve never come across anything like this in real life, but watch any episode of Law & Order or Broadchurch–let alone the evening news–and it will often feature a similar-looking tragic young victim as Plot Point 1.

collage of blond Barbie doll heads on pavement

Heads-a-poppin’ Barbies

Barbie dolls dressed in bathrobe and exercise outfit

Rough Morning Barbie / Jazzercise Barbie

If Jan and/or Dean are still fantasizing over the mythical Surf City’s two-to-one gender ratio, they’ll completely flip their noggins when they arrive at Barbie’s Dream Cult. Kens do make  appearances here–both in the big Barbie art heart and tossed around the premises–but they’re easily outnumbered ten- or twenty-to-one.

If you’re a Ken, that’s the good news. (I guess?) The bad news is the Kens have been brutalized as much as any of the Barbies. Missing limbs, heads, and all/most of their clothes, Kens are found covered in dirt, with their pants around their ankles, buck naked, and frozen into ice. Maybe Surf City was a better plan after all.

collage of Ken dolls resting on dirt

Hey, ladies! Pants-Around-the-Ankles Ken / Which-Way-to-the-Phish-Concert Ken

collage of Ken dolls frozen in an icy creek

What a way to go. Two versions of You-Messed-with-the-Wrong-Barbie Ken

The obvious question: what are all these Barbie dolls doing here? For this we need to declare an official Spoiler Alert. We received some insider information, but if you’d rather not know and just let it remain a mystery, feel free to skip ahead.

We were lucky enough to get this short history from a Polish Hill resident, intimately involved with Barbie’s Dream Cult:

The Barbie heart story started originally with a guy in the neighborhood who bought all the Barbies to make an art car. Other people in the neighborhood felt the car was creepy and people started to say things on the Internet insinuating he was some kind of pervert and that they wished him harm. So, the gentleman took the Barbies off his car and well, what else do you do with that many Barbies? He graciously donated them to the abandoned courts.

In the beginning they were all in bags and rubber tubs and they sat there for a while. I took em out to write my name in Barbies and photograph it. Since then, they’ve been getting thrown all over the place. The heart was made by another human who wanted to remain mysterious about its origins and meanings.

collage of broken dolls found in the woods

Headless Yoga Barbie / Arm-Where-It-Shouldn’t-Be Ken / Whole-Lotta-Pink-Hair Barbie / Half-a-Horse

Barbie dolls placed in thick vine wood

Run for your life! Escape-While-You-Still-Can Barbies

Now, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone in the neighborhood considers leaving bags of Barbie dolls outside for public dismemberment is a “gracious donation.” From our vantage point, though, it’s an intriguing opportunity.

We can think of a lot worse things than this little abandoned corner of Polish Hill becoming a kind of ever-changing Barbie art park, outdoor creative space, or just another weird Pittsburgh thing to discover. It could also be a one-of-a-kind, no-questions-asked Barbie lending library: Need a Barbie? Take a Barbie. Have a Barbie? Leave a Barbie.

Barbie doll placed in a tree branch

Footloose, fancy-free, and hanging in a tree Barbie

Barbie takes a lot of well-deserved heat–for her does-not-exist-in-nature body proportions, reliably Aryan features, and dress-up-and-look-pretty career goals. This is a chance to counter that–to take a tiny amount of the world’s Barbies and do something new and innovative with them.

The last thing Marine Biologist Barbie or Wildlife Conservationist Barbie want is for the mountain of molded pink plastic the Mattel Corporation has brought into the world to end up casually thrown out, minced up, and washed out to sea for an even larger Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the real doctrine of Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Naked and not ashamed. Nudist Colony Barbie


[1] We’re using the names Barbie and Ken generically here. The dolls likely come from many different sources and are not necessarily all Barbie® brand toys.
[2] In fairness, many of the dolls have been stripped of all clothing, so it’s impossible to establish if these may have originally worn different outfits.

Dang-là Vu: The Return of the East End Dangler!

plastic apples dangling from tree limbs

ripe (looking) apples hanging from bare tree limbs–The East End Dangler has returned!

I. The Return of the East End Dangler

Things had gone quiet on Centre Avenue. Spring turned to summer, and then summer rolled over to autumn with nary a bustle in our hedgerow. It was enough to make the few who experienced it believe the whole thing had been a strange dream.

Cue: soft focus and shimmering harp glissando. A line of fish, each one tied to the next by a length of twine knotted around their tail fins. The little garlands, suspended from branches of mid-sized street trees, gently swaying in the breeze like decorations for a strange holiday. Did that really happen?

Oh yes, it was for real–and serious as a heart attack. Even more, after an apparent six- to ten-month dormancy, this dang-là vu is happening all over again. The East End Dangler is back–and this time, he or she isn’t fooling around*.

plastic fruit dangling from tree limbs

apple, grapes, East Liberty

We know these things about The East End Dangler:

  1. The Dangler has a ready supply of small children’s toys and decorative plastic fruit.
  2. The Dangler regularly traffics on upper Centre Avenue in East Liberty (nearish Whole Foods).
  3. The Dangler loves all-you-can-eat Asian seafood buffets.

That’s about it.

plastic grapes hanging from tree limb

bunch of grapes, Hokkaido, Browns Hill Road

To catch you up: starting in 2017, Orbit staff began to notice strands of toys hanging from the limbs of street trees in East Liberty. What first felt like a one-off goofy prank soon revealed itself as full-on, serial hanging-around. We’ll not rehash the whole series of events here, but that initial story unwound in “Something Fishy: Angling for the East End Dangler” [Pittsburgh Orbit, May 13, 2018].

As mentioned in the intro, a quiet period followed this initial rush of dangling–too quiet, as the cliché goes. Indeed, after some period of months Orbit beat reporters spotted brand new dangles in the same approximate locations starting up in the late fall.

toys dangling from tree limbs

shark, cargo chopper, Hokkaido, Browns Hill Road

In an attempt to smoke out the assailant, the crew settled in for that most grueling part of detective work: the stake out. Between the salt-and-pepper squid and wood ear mushrooms, “crazy roll” sushi and cheese wontons, kielbasa and garlic bread, all eyes were trained on the handful of trees just above Hokkaido Seafood Buffet’s parking lot on Browns Hill Road. Why, assuming we weren’t up re-loading another platter of pork shumai and seaweed salad, cotton candy ice cream and banana pudding, the focus was unrelenting. But–unlike the case of heartburn that hit a little later that afternoon–The Dangler didn’t show.

We do see some new media this time around–The Dangler has moved on from a strict palette of Happy Meal toys and rubber fish to now including decorative plastic fruit. All other signatures are entirely consistent.

toy airplane hanging by wire in bare tree limb

plane wreck, Hokkaido, Browns Hill Road

II. The Hunt for The Dangler

Not content to just sit on our collective keister while a mad prankster was stringing up their next trophies, we decided to send The Dangler a little message.

Borrowing from our own arsenal of cast-off Hot Wheels and sandbox-encrusted earth movers, co-assistant to the mailroom intern Lee baited the hook by assembling his own strings of pearls. These were taken to the same general batch of street trees along high Centre Ave. and placed for maximum effect to catch The Dangler’s attention.

And then we waited.

toy cars hanging by string from tree limbs

Dangler bait #1: Hot Wheels high up

Now, we know correlation is not causation, but let’s just say we set a trap…and The Dangler stepped in it. Sure enough, the ol’ tree stringer came a-runnin’ as if mom or dad had served up supper in the sycamores of Danglerville. Or, at least, the R.S.V.P. we mailed out on a whim was answered with a bouquet of plastic grapes hung high in the branches at Centre & South Euclid.

The Dangler also went on to bomb several more trees in the same pair of previous locations. Our serve was returned with a volley that could only be read as a challenge. Well played, Dangler.

yellow toy trucks hanging by string in tree

Dangler bait #2: yellow trucks in low tree limbs

III. A New Clue?

Just as it’s naive to assume our solar system is the only one in the universe sustaining life, we should sooner hand over our quasi-journalistic credentials than think we’ve cornered every possible dangle. No, Pittsburgh is a big city–at least, in terms of square miles and tree coverage–the idea that unassisted Orbit staff would have just randomly tripped across the only two locations of serial dangling would be foolish. The Dangler must have struck elsewhere, right?

That seems not only plausible, but a sure thing. However, if true, the dangles remain in tree limbs so far un-spotted.

statue of William Shakespeare with plastic apple added

Carnegie Music Hall’s Shakespeare statue with appended apple–the work of The Dangler?

That may have changed with one additional clue at the beginning of this month. The statue of William Shakespeare in front of the combined Carnegie Music Hall/Library in Oakland was updated to include a single red plastic apple, hanging from The Bard’s neck.

It is absolutely not The Dangler’s style to suspend single objects from public statuary. And yet, there are enough obvious similarities here to send us into a certified tizzy. Is this the work of a brazen copycat? Coincidental pranksterism? Or has The Dangler decided to taunt his victims in an obvious act to goad us into making an impulsive mistake?

Pittsburgh Orbit cannot answer these questions…yet. But Dangler, if you’re reading this, know that we’re onto you like a strand of fish in a street gingko. We’re putting the pieces together and we’ll not rest until your dangling ways are understood.

If you have any additional information on The East End Dangler or other dangled targets, please contact our anonymous tip line. We need all the help we can get on this important case.


* Actually, he or she probably is fooling around.

Photo Grab Bag: Sad Toy Edition

baby doll laying face down on street, Pittsburgh, PA

face down in the gutter, Shadeland

How much pathos in such a tiny scene! There, at the mud- and gravel-encrusted edge of a North Side residential street, among the weeds, cigarette butts, and one tire-flattened Coca-Cola can, lies the smallest infant–literally face down in the gutter.

Lucky for us, this particular baby is of the plastic toy shop variety–no human beings suffered any more than the loss of a plaything, however beloved it may have been. Still, stripped to its sewn-on undergarments, dirtied by rain and road debris, and abandoned at the curb, it looks like this little fellow has done a lot of living in his or her short lifetime.

large stuffed animal made to look like a sock monkey laying in business doorway, Pittsburgh, PA

sock monkey / Slush Puppy, Bloomfield

stuffed teddy bear in front of demolished house, Clairton, PA

the last living bear on Lincoln Way, Clairton

Any dropped picture book or punctured basketball, lost action figure or tree-snared kite may legitimately count as a sad toy, but let’s get serious. Sifting through the driftwood washed up on the great beaches of urban life, what we really want to see comes down to just two things: baby dolls and stuffed animals.

Nothing else comes close to pure sadness invoked by these iconic ambassadors of cute. Loosed from their human companions, fallen Teddy bears and jettisoned sock monkeys all too often assume the body positions and street corner verisimilitude of so many cop show victims and nightly news drug overdose casualties. It’s almost too much to take.

two stuffed animal dogs laying on cement street, Pittsburgh, PA

double dog down, Oakland

stuffed animal dog wedged in between tree limbs, Pittsburgh, PA

dog in tree, Lawrenceville

… almost.

The contrast between the high-drama of actual children losing some of the few precious possessions of their young lives and the undeniably absurd way it plays out in real world makes for a chaotic set of emotions. We know someone’s youth is crying uncontrollably in a rear car seat right now, his or her woobie never to return. And still, stumbling across a yin-yang pair of dirty doggie Beanie Babies on an Oakland street corner is just plain weird…and wonderful…and kind of funny.

I know, I know. Some little tyke lost her or his pink monkey! Whose son or daughter will never see their doe-eyed fluffy puppy again? You’re laughing about it?!? It’s quandary of epic proportions, but that old Borscht Belt equation has yet to be unproven: tragedy + time = comedy.

stuffed animal bear laying on brick street, Millvale, PA

cuddle bear clip job, Millvale

stuffed animal dog laying in grass, Pittsburgh, PA

dog in grass

torso from a plastic doll on a window ledge, Pittsburgh, PA

doll torso, Lawrenceville

pink stuffed animal monkey on street pavement, Pittsburgh, PA

pink monkey, Oakland

A note on the final couple photographs included here:

It’s true. Mere paragraphs above, this blogger made the bold statement that all sad toy hunters really care about are lost dolls and dirty fur. We stand by that. However, we’ve included a couple of outliers just because they’re filled with their own unique forms of misery–and we believe that should be rewarded and documented.

paddle ball laying in grass with fall leaves, Millvale, PA

paddle ball, Millvale

The dime-store paddle ball set is surely the saddest of all solitary play activities. It’s what uncles give as presents to the nieces and nephews they have no real relationship with–and they only have to spend a couple bucks to do it.

The very image of the cheap, decorated paddle, its little red rubber ball, and thin elastic that connects them (above) immediately sent this only child/latch key kid swirling back into a pre-adolescence of lonely games, played by himself, ultimately satisfying to no one. I couldn’t ever get the damn ball to bounce back more than once or twice before the elastic would inevitably break free from the flimsy staple that held it to the wooden paddle.

This particular find, in Millvale’s tiny downtown parklet, doesn’t feel like it was accidentally lost by its owner, but rather the kid likely just dumped it out of boredom and/or frustration. Aside from the act of littering, I don’t blame him or her one bit.

Pittsburgh Penguins hockey toy on street

Penguins hockey…thing, Oakland

Finally, the weird little scrunchy Pittsburgh Penguins hockey…thing (above) only counts as a “toy” in the most liberal of applications. We don’t know what this thing is or why anyone would want it in the first place, so leaving it in the gutter doesn’t actually seem like that bad a choice of actions.

Who knows, though? It may still have been the next future Sidney Crosby’s favorite squishy friend–prompting the youth into a dedicated ritual of dump-and-chase finish-your-checks discipline. Instead, like all of its sad colleagues above, the loss may have caused irreparable damage. Whether it was enough for this young’un to give up all future thoughts of greatness on the ice we’ll never know. Sigh.


See also:

The Sad Toys of Homewood’s “Killing Fields”

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

The sad toys of “The Killing Fields”, Homewood South

Against deep blue sky and thick green long-overgrown grass, the fuzzy little bodies pop from the chain link fence they cling to. Tigers, monkeys, floppy-eared dogs and bunny rabbits fill the ranks, as do a lion, zebra, and giant duck. We didn’t know dinosaurs could be cuddly and furry, but there’s one of those too.

Overwhelmingly, though, the majority in this population is the teddy bear. Dozens of bears hang from the fence and nearby telephone pole: in a bow tie and with a Valentine’s heart, dressed in a Scotsman’s plaid and with matching Christmas hat and scarf, still buoyantly wide-eyed awake and drooping limply with the weight of the world.

telephone pole decorated with stuffed animals and Christmas garland, Pittsburgh, PA

The long, east-west alleys of Homewood are, like many sets of children born to the 1970s, group-named with a common initial letter: Ferdinand, Fletcher, Fuchsia, Fielding, Forest, Felicia, Fleury. Heading south, the very last of these–before you cross Hamilton Avenue and both street grid and naming scheme change–is Formosa Way.

The little alleyway is typical of many old Pittsburgh backstreets–a single lane, weedy, cracked, and stained with decades of practical use and a typically low seat on the Department of Public Works priority list for maintenance. Formosa Way runs parallel between Kelly Street and Hamilton Ave. and (at least at one time) was the main entrance for many row houses that fronted the alley for blocks in either direction.

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

All things considered, the 7300 block of Formosa Way looks a whole lot better than many Pittsburgh alleys. There’s next-to-no litter, nor signs of illegal dumping. The backyards of the row houses facing the adjoining streets may be untamed, but are now lush, tall-grassed expanses that bring welcome deep green open space to what at one time must have been dense blocks of brick worker housing.

What’s not so expected is the stretch of thirty-some feet of chain link fence, now bordering an overgrown vacant lot, plus one service pole across the alley. Attached to the intertwined steel strands and lashed to the wooden pole are scores–a hundred or more–soft children’s playthings along with assorted pinwheels, holiday decorations, and Christmas garland. These tributes have clearly been here for some time: their synthetic fur is matted, gnarled, and bleached white in years’ worth of sun, rain, frost, and thaw.

boarded-up row houses and chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a strange realization that the small patch of earth one has bicycled-through mere hours before is known locally as The Killing Fields…or, at least, it was at one time*. That particular name arrived during the crack-fueled gang violence of the 1990s, but persisted (we understand) until quite recently. Right here at Formosa and Collier, several blocks of derelict housing were razed in 2012*. A short set of five boarded-up row houses immediately adjoining the fence appear headed for the same fate.

That said, on this fine, bright sunny Sunday early afternoon, the blocks around Formosa Way feel much more like the Sunday-go-to-meetin’ fields or the wash-the-car-with-the-radio-on fields. Those activities, along with stoking up big barrel charcoal grills and neighbors swapping gossip on front porches are the most obvious occupations to the peddle-by blogger.

telephone pole decorated with stuffed animals and Christmas garland, Pittsburgh, PA

No label is attached to the fence of sad toys, there is no description for the installation, and attribution for the collection is not given. But what’s here seems obvious enough for even the densest of outsiders to put two and two together. This pair of diametrically-opposed and inseparably-linked events–decades of street violence and the impromptu memorial to lost innocence–say so much about the deep loss generations of Homewood families must have felt.

If each stuffed animal on the Formosa Way fence represents just one casualty in the neighborhood’s struggle, it is a weight no single community should have to bear. It’s more likely that not every victim received a tribute here–that a suitable memorial may need to be twice, three or more times greater to accurately represent the actual loss. For now, we can only hope the collection of playthings stops right where it is.

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

Final note: While most Pittsburgh Orbit stories sit just fine in the quasi-legitimate world of “speculative journalism”, this one does not. It’s crying out for more information from the Homewood community, the creators of the fence, residents of Formosa Way, etc.–we know this. Time and schedule wouldn’t allow that kind of “real journalism” for this week’s post, but we absolutely plan on continuing the story.

If you live in Homewood or have information on the Formosa Way fence, we would love to hear from you.


“Demolition gives Homewood residents hope”, Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 5, 2012 and “The ‘killing fields’ demolished in Homewood”New Pittsburgh Courier, 2012.

Golden Babies: Strange Things Afoot!

golden baby and baby foot hanging from wires in front of row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Dismembered foot of Penn Baby with Penn Baby 2, Lawrenceville

Regrettably, The Orbit had accepted the mystery around the Golden Babies–like the Kennedy assassination, or where real babies come from–would likely never be solved.

But then a tip of the reddest and hottest variety came in: “MAJOR new development in the golden babies,” it began. What followed was a pair of plot twists to this ongoing street art narrative that both flipped our collective wig and, like Michael Phelps waking from his doobie-smoking Subway bender, re-lit a fire underneath this blogger that fans had thought long extinguished in the purple haze of five dollar foot-longs.

golden baby and baby foot hanging from wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby has a leg up on other street art

Faster than you can say quasi-respectable news source we hoofed it up to Constellation Coffee. The café sits right where our first-sighted golden baby (“Penn Baby”) appeared. Here, we could confirm the tip–and also enjoy a delicious cup of coffee*.

The story, right from the baristas at Constellation, goes like this: one Sunday morning, a concerned citizen phoned in a complaint to the city. Apparently the golden baby, dangling by his ankle from the wires on the 4000 block of Penn Ave., was just too much. The substance of the concern is not known, but we’ll take a wild guess that the baby was deemed “offensive,” “creepy,” and/or “weird.” Fair enough, I suppose**.

Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA with golden baby hanging from wires

View down Penn Ave. with golden baby and loose foot.

With nothing more substantive ablaze, the fire department was dispatched to remove the offending infant from the airspace over Penn Avenue. For whatever reason, they were unable to either undo the baby’s hanging wire or just cut it off, so the crew made the bizarre decision to instead saw through its tiny plastic leg. This allowed the removal of most of the kid, but left one stray golden foot, ankle, and calf dangling from the telephone wires.

Side note: This action begs a number of questions. Among them: Is leaving a disembodied leg really less offensive than the whole baby? and How is it that a street artist/prankster has a longer ladder than the fire department? and If I’m in the third floor of a burning building should I just accept fate and kiss my feet goodbye?

golden baby and baby leg dangling from wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby: foot loose and fancy free

Strange? Sure is! But what happened next will blow your mind! [That is, unless you’ve already looked at the pictures.]

In less than 48 hours, a brand new golden baby went up on the same stretch of wires–within mere feet of the foot. “Penn Baby 2” generally looks the same as the other golden babies, but with the key differences that s/he’s clothed in a red onesie (the others are white) and that garment appears to be stamped or silk-screened with some mystery insignia (the others are plain/unadorned).

close-up of golden baby in red onesie, Pittsburgh, PA

Penn Baby 2. Note the red onesie with cryptic insignia.

If blogging teaches us anything, it’s to not rest on one’s assumptions. The strange circumstances of Penn Babies 1 and 2 only prove that black is white, up is down, child is father to the man, and therefore, baby is, uh…older sibling to the child? Ah, hell.

This story is not over yet–no, not by a long shot. There’s one very important piece of evidence still in dispute–the whereabouts of the footless and foot-loose Penn Baby. Sources say it’s in the possession of Constellation Coffee–secured in a drawer right on the premises. But when the subject came up during The Orbit’s interrogation of the staff, the aforementioned “friendly” baristas clammed up tighter than a set of quad toms at a Sun Devils half-time show. Believe you me: their guilty eyes have got no rhythm.

What are they hiding? O.K., we think we know what they’re hiding, but why are they hiding it? You can bet we’ll get to the bottom of this…or at least to another cup of that delicious coffee.


* Constellation makes a damn good cup of coffee.
** If only a phone call could have the much more offensive Crocs stripped from the feet of our citizenry so easily.

More Golden Babies! [or] A Golden Baby Boom!

Golden baby hanging from power lines, Pittsburgh, PA

Off-kilter: Golden Baby #3 (aka “Butler Baby”)

It started innocently enough. That is, if a baby doll, its flesh painted gold and wearing a white onesie, suspended by a wire on its ankle and dangling upside down from a set of power lines counts as “innocent.” A couple weeks ago The Orbit spotted golden baby #1 near the corner of Penn and Main Streets, roughly in front of Constellation Coffee in Lawrenceville. We wrote about our amused and bemused impressions of it in these very annals. It was a fun little piece of street art (?) or possibly a goofy prank (??)–maybe a little bit of both–but that seemed like the last we’d hear from the golden dangling baby.

Then the tips started rolling in. First, reader Meredith reported a second golden baby, strung in the same manner, farther up Penn Avenue, at the corner of Winebiddle Street–she even included a photo. Another golden baby? we thought–we hoped–we fantasized. Where there’s two, there’s got to be more! Everyone knows that golden babies don’t arrive in pairs!

Golden baby hanging from power line, Pittsburgh, PA

Look out below: Golden Baby #2 (aka “Winebiddle Baby”)

As a gloomy daylight broke over that first post-tip Saturday, this blogger took the bicycle on a chilly mission to cruise Penn Avenue in search of other babies–golden or otherwise. From 40th Street all the way to East Liberty we went–slowly, block-by-block, eyes in the wires–scanning for lofty abandoned newborns. Stop honking you jagoffs! I’m reporting here! We found the little lost soul Meredith had tipped us to and snapped some pictures, but that was it. Otherwise: bupkis.

This one had a marked difference from Constellation Baby, though. Not in appearance–the size, shape, gold paint, white onesie–heck, even the unclipped tag–were identical. No, Winebiddle Baby just looked a lot easier to install. First of all, he’s mere feet from the second-floor fire escape of the brick building on Penn. Anyone with access could easily hang this baby right off the landing. Second, the power line is much closer to the ground than Constellation Baby’s. The perpetrator didn’t even have to get up on the fire escape–he or she could have just stood on the roof of a car–or set up a stepladder–to reach the low wire.

Golden baby hanging from power line near brick building with fire escape, Pittsburgh, PA

Winebiddle Baby [note the easy access from the fire escape]

Two golden babies found, but the trail had gone cold. That is, until we happened to run into reader John one cold morning on the 93A heading to Oakland. Imagine this blogger’s eyeballs ka-boinging out of their sockets as John casually dropped the news “you know there’s another one of those golden babies down on Butler Street, right?”

No, John, we didn’t! And it’s lucky it snowed or my ass would have been on the shoe leather express frustrated that only two golden babies have been found instead of riding this bus talking to you! This is why tip lines exist!

Golden baby hanging from power lines, Pittsburgh, PA

Hang in there, Butler Baby!

John’s willingness to come forward with evidence may be suspect, but his information is spot-on. Right there, in the wires above the 5300 block of Butler, dangles golden baby #3–and what a beauty she is! Glistening in an impossibly perfect deep blue January sky, gracefully spinning in the softest of breezes, Butler Baby is at peace with the world. Content to let the afternoon sunlight illuminate her golden skin, impervious to the cold weather, she’s lifted, weightless, and totally blissed-out. If only she’d let us know if–and where–she has more golden siblings similarly drifting through the ether.

Golden Dangling Baby!

dangling baby silhouette w wires

The vigilant blogger must learn to look for inspiration anywhere and everywhere. These stories don’t grow on trees! [Well, actually they might grow on trees.] Maybe Mayor Peduto has enough clout to order the D.P.W. into creating brilliant street art, but The Orbit has yet to wield that kind of influence. Until then, we’re at the mercy of fate, jonesing for goofballs, and always on the lookout for the next score.

And indeed it was fate–an extra cold morning (too cold for the bicycle), a missed bus, a re-routed walk to work–that led this blogger to receive what we’re considering a kind of divine inspiration. Yes, at the moment when we needed it most–mere hours (err…a couple days) before deadline–today’s story literally fell out of the sky at us in the form of one suspended baby doll, dangling by his right foot from the telephone wires along Penn Avenue.

We’ve seen a lot of things hanging from wires in our day–banners and debris, vines and living creatures, and of course the ubiquitous pairs of sneakers–laced, eulogized, and interred in the sky as a final loving tribute. But until now, Pittsburgh Orbit has never encountered a dangling (falling? flying?) baby doll high in the utility infrastructure. This one is new to us.

dangling baby vertical

Though not parents ourselves*, hanging the next generation from telephone wires may be understandable–hell, there might still be time to string up the Millennials! In any case, it’s a questionable form of child care for a newborn and likely not recommended by “real” parents.

How the baby doll got up on those wires is a mystery. Getting a laced pair of sneakers up there seems like a simple enough task–you stand on the sidewalk and keep throwing them over head until they catch. But this baby doesn’t have any counter-balance, no obvious hook to snare the electric line on the trip up. That, and these wires are a good twenty feet in the air and not terribly near any windows on the Penn Ave. buildings. How did it get here?

There is one more interesting tidbit. Though it is not at all apparent in these backlit morning light photographs, the baby has had its flesh painted gold (you’ll have to take The Orbit‘s word for this–or better yet, go see for yourself). This should allay any possible suspicions that the baby reached the overhead wires of natural causes. Uh-uh. Not buying it. This card-carrying amateur detective wanna-be knows the work of someone on the prankster-street art continuum when he’s standing under it…and he likes what he sees.

To you, Golden Baby Dangler (whoever you are), thank you for making one blogger’s day.

dangling baby w Penn Ave facades

* That we know of

Sad Toys: Graveyard Edition

pink teddy bear leaning against gravestone

Pink bear, Highwood Cemetery. [Yes: for a sad toy, this guy looks pretty happy–but don’t let that grin fool you!]

The grass-is-greener daydreamers that loaf around Pittsburgh Orbit’s office imagine there’s a point in any blog’s creative arc when the pieces begin to fall together without even trying; when the self-referential tropes loop in on themselves. Like a well-primed compost heap, or a nuclear meltdown, heat is generated all on its own and the stories pop out as fully-formed posts, and then barrel their way through the earth’s core.

“Imagine”? Hell: we’re counting on it! By one reasonable calculation, mere months separate the Orbit from magically appearing on your computer screen without any legwork or finger-clicking on our part. There’s Yoo-hoo in the fridge, call me if you need anything–just don’t interrupt my Rockford Files.

four plastic action figures in weeds in front of gravestone with date and epitaph

“Our Beloved Son”. Superheroes in the weeds, Highwood Cemetery

Whatever the reality of “publishing” “new media,” we don’t think we’re abusing too many metaphors to say there was some kind of magic that happened when this little piece of manna dropped from the sky and rolled across the Orbit editorial desk. There it was: a story with all the ingredients for the most satisfying of autumn blogging stews: a heaping helping of cemetery tales, a motherlode of sad toys, a dash of pathos, some human expression, and nature-without-man chaos. Bitter, sweet, and yes, umami. Oh, and it was all timed for Halloween season–when the graveyard toys rise up to take back what is rightfully theirs.

2 teddy bears in thick grass

Twin teddy bears, Allegheny Cemetery

To label stuffed animals left at grave sites as “sad toys” is certainly a judgement call. These creatures are not flotsam dropped from strollers or ejected from the open windows of minivans. No, the figures were left very intentionally as tribute or companion to the departed. In that way, they’re exactly where their owners expect them to be, doing just what they intend them to do. Is that so bad? We should all be so fortunate.

grave with teddy bears, solar lights, and deflated champagne bottle balloon

Sad teddy bear, sad cool bear, sad inflatable Cristal bottle, Allegheny Cemetery

stuffed animal dog on bed of plastic flowers, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Game over, Rover, Allegheny Cemetery

But to not call them sad would be an even greater oversight. These playthings are, after all, left out in the rain, ice, and snow; their once-soft fur a gnarled, sun-bleached mat. Often alone, these fierce friends watch over the graves of the deceased with no company but the occasional stray deer, opossum, or wild turkey. A drive-by from this flash bulb-popping blogger paparazzi makes the highlight reel of their short lives.

If this wasn’t pathetic enough, these toys’ inevitable fate is to be corralled in every cemetery’s seasonal cleanup where Build-a-Bears and Steeler monkeys join the plastic flowers, laminated photographs, sports balls, Hennessy bottles, and deflated Mylar balloons in grotesque heaps that, as one Orbit pundit put it, “look like a florist threw up.”

stuffed bear and stuffed dog with flowers

Bear and dog, Highwood Cemetery

two plastic action figures with living flowers

Wrestler (?), stunt man (?), last-legs flowers, Highwood Cemetery

To you, faithful servants, doomed sentries of the cemetery, mud-soaked minions of Mordor: know that at least one of us is here looking out for you. You may be in a trash compactor in McKees Rocks by the time we go to press, but you’ll live on for eternity–or at least a couple months–in cyberspace blogosphere Purgatory. Godspeed.

monkey in Pittsburgh Steelers colors with sad bear

Steeler Monkey and friend, Highwood Cemetery

A Salute to The City of Sad Toys

Stuffed polar bear toy in alley

Bloomfield clip job

I only became aware of Al Hoff’s City of Sad Toys right at the end. So late in the game, in fact, that by the time I started submitting photos, the blog had already ceased to publish any new content. [Note to self: consider Rejected by Sad Toys as potential memoir title.] That was four years ago.

“Sad toys” are pretty much what they sound like: lost, discarded, maimed, or otherwise on-the-loose playthings, often photographed in the comically incongruous settings of other urban flotsam. City of Sad Toys still exists in whatever perpetuity Blogspot grants its lapsed authors, so we encourage our readers to check it out while you still can. Al generously offered to hand the keys over to this Johnny-blog-lately fan, but as we’re more Rupert Pupkin than Rupert Murdoch, we’ll stick to just one global media enterprise.

In Al’s hands, the definition of “toys” was extremely liberal–the blog accepted sports equipment, cake toppers, board games, and party decorations among its sad clientele. This is of course all fine, but The Orbit considers these outliers as merely middle-of-the-mall sad toys; the only real anchor tenants being stuffed animals and downtrodden dolls.

Despite the official blog’s inevitable denouement, our digital shutters never stopped virtually clicking and blogs exist largely for us citizen-journalists to, in Al’s words, “do whatever [we] want!”–including important work like publishing photos of filthy fake fur. Here then, we’ve collected a nice little set of Pittsburgh-area additions to share in this Orbit tribute to a great photo genre: the sad toy.

stuffed red toy in street

Red…thing, Oakland

stuffed monster toy on street

Green monster, Oakland

stuffed bunny toy on roadside

Roadside bunny, Rogers, Ohio

Barbie doll laying face down in street

Barbie hit-and-run, Lawrenceville