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.

On the Trail of the Train-Squashed Penny

Four pennies lying on a train track

In an age where one may receive instant communication on where distant acquaintances are eating lunch and realtime updates on the line at the grocery store, The Orbit thought it might be fun go back and explore a slow burn pastime that’s as old as coal-fueled locomotives and nearly-worthless coinage. That, of course, is the sport of creating train-squashed pennies.

I know, I know–a sport? It’s an activity that makes yogurt-making look like The X Games, but bear with me. Squashing a penny is going to involve some transportation to the track (we recommend a bicycle ride followed by a walk down the ties) and the non-physical cunning of more rugged and/or glamorous pseudo-sports like hunting or sailing or stock car racing.

Both one-cent coinage and interstate rail infrastructure exist all over the place, so this is definitely not a uniquely Pittsburgh thing. That said, our fair city is surrounded by train tracks and there are many easy access points to get to the rails. It literally costs pennies to participate and hopefully by now you’ve got ObamaCare in case you lose an arm. The world is your squashing ground!

Train-squashed penny found against gravel and a rail tie

Found! Squashed penny amongst the gravel along the rail tie off the track

I’d like to train squash a penny. How do I do that?

You put a penny on a train track, you come back later, you pick up the penny. What’s to know? Oh sure: it seems this simple. (It is almost this simple.) But there are a few things to be mindful of:

1. Safety. It goes without saying that if one encounters an oncoming train, get thee away from the track! Squashed pennies are great, but they’re not worth losing a life or limb over. There may be pennies in heaven, but there are no trains to squash them!

2. Choose your location wisely. Not all tracks are actually in use. There is no disappointment in life quite so devastating as returning a day or two later to find out that one’s pennies remain on the track still legal tender. It’s that kind of indignity that will send young penny-squashers screaming to video game consoles, vowing to conduct their transactions solely with charge cards when the they grow up. Don’t let this happen! Know the active tracks! Stake them out, if necessary! Often you can tell just by looking: tracks in use are smooth and shiny; unused ones will quickly develop a thin layer of rust.

3. Pay attention to the weather. Train tracks are not flat–they have a gentle arc, which leaves the coins suspended in unanchored balance. A heavy rain could easily dislodge the pennies before Norfolk-Southern has a chance to flatten them.

4. In for a penny, in for a pound. Pennies are cheap. Heck, they’re practically worthless–that’s why we squash them! Don’t just bring one, grab a handful! They don’t all pay off (see next item) so you should take the gardener’s approach: one for me, one for the bugs*.

5. Locating squashed pennies is no walk in the park. Sometimes you lay coins down just to come back later and find no trace of them. Were they absconded with? Lost in the weeds? Jettisoned from the rails? Who knows! The clever flattener will mark his or her starting point carefully and may still need to don deerstalker and pipe, spindly fingers stretched in concentration to locate the far-flung Abraham.

Close-up of the train-squashed penny

Train-squashed penny #1, day one

Where can I squash a penny?

A fine question! Obviously one needs to locate an active set of rails (see above), but where to do that? Here are some easy-access suggestions:

  • Riverfront Park, Millvale. Right as you enter the park from either 40th Street Bridge exit ramp or the town of Millvale you’re forced to cross two sets of tracks. This is where we squashed our pennies. [Only the set nearer to the river appear in use. The pair we placed on the other tracks were still there the next morning.]
  • Panther Hollow. Taking South Neville Street all the way to the bottom of Panther Hollow, you’ll cross tracks at the base of a bunch of CMU buildings. These still get plenty of daily use. Drop off a couple cents on your way to school or work and they’ll be squashed by the time Jeopardy starts.
  • Riverfront Park, South Side. The bicycle trail runs alongside the train tracks throughout the South Side, so there are ample opportunities to drop some coin, frolic, get a tattoo, binge drink, etc. and return to hunt for your treasure.
Close-up of the train-squashed penny

Train-squashed penny #2, day two


* In our experiment for this story the result was exactly as described: four pennies placed on the track, two flattened pennies found. We never located the other two.

Two Wheels Good: The Orbit Takes Healthy Ride For a Spin

Healthy Ride bicycle share station in the Bloomfield neighborhood, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Healthy Ride station in Bloomfield

Observant readers will no doubt have already absorbed Pittsburgh Orbit‘s favoritism toward all things bicycle. This blogger loves to ride a bike! He loves it so much that when it’s time for the inevitable maintenance on his own road-ravaged chopper, a dread creeps over. The depression of going even one non-pouring down day without some form of ride so dour that wheels wobble, brakes are worn to nubs, and gears slip on an over-stretched chain for months too long–all so we can defer the separation anxiety that comes from a few days in the shop.

So last year’s news that the city would be gaining a bicycle share program this Spring was triply terrific. First: we’re going to get excited about anything that puts more two-wheelers on the street and more keisters on bike seats. Second: I can take my bike to the shop any time I like and use the new temporary rentals in its stead. Third, of course, is that we can opportunistically turn the whole thing into a right proper blog post. Here, then, is The Orbit‘s early take on Pittsburgh’s brand new bike share program.

Map of Healthy Ride bicycle rental stations (Phase I)

Map of Healthy Ride bicycle rental stations (Phase I) [map: Bike Pittsburgh]

The System

The first phase of the Healthy Ride[1] deployment involves fifty self-serve rental stations and five hundred identical bicycles. All users must have an account and register with a credit card, but this can be done right there at any station. There are a variety of ways to check out a bike: using the station computer, using on-board systems on each bicycle, or with the mobile phone apps. The technology comes to us from a German company called NextBike, which has implemented bicycle sharing programs around the world. Pittsburgh is only NextBike’s second U.S. city, but they run a ton of programs throughout Europe.

Bicycles are rented in half-hour increments and the system is designed for A-to-B transit rides (and not all-day/long-term rentals). You can pay for individual rides ($2 per half-hour) or unlimited rides for month-long periods. With a “basic” rate of $12 / month (unlimited 30-minute rides) and a “deluxe” rate of $20 / month[2] (unlimited one-hour rides), the Pittsburgh system is among the cheapest in the country[3].

Phase I of the rollout is for a concentrated area focusing on downtown, The Hill District, The Strip District, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Shadyside, and small sections of the North and South Side. I’m sure if you’ve been waiting for this and live in, say, Squirrel Hill or The West End, you’re going to feel gypped, but the tight grouping of the first batch of stations makes a lot of sense as an alternate public transit system.

Healthy Ride bicycle with vinyl records spilling out of its small cargo basket.

Design flaw: Healthy Ride bicycles are totally unfit for traveling with records.

The Bicycles

All Healthy Ride bicycles are the exact same one-size-fits-all design. They feature heavy “step-through” frames, big tires, front and rear fenders, lights, adjustable seats, a bell, and a small (maybe too small) front basket. The bikes are all seven-speeds, meaning they’ve theoretically got enough gears to climb hills and run at a good clip when you build up speed. Riders must supply their own helmets.

I found a couple challenges with the design. Namely that for this six-foot-five biker, even with the seat raised to its maximum height, I couldn’t get full leg extension. This, along with the heavy weight of the bike, made going up hills a little rough. Also, the anatomically aware will know that men and women have different shaped pelvises (pelvi?), which is why bicycle seats come in two very different basic shapes. The Healthy Ride system opted for women’s seats across-the-board–which makes sense–but presents a certain discomfort to the dudes of the species.

All that said, the bikes were all in fine condition (with one exception), will likely work great for the average rider, and they’re fun. Take one out any time soon and you’ll also get a lot of attention: I was stopped by pedestrians, drivers, cyclists, one 8 a.m. drunk, and one in-transit PAT bus driver–everybody was curious and wanted to either ask about the program or tell me what was wrong with it.

NextBike employee restarting a Healthy Ride station, Pittsburgh, Pa.

NextBike employee Tom rebooting the Children’s Hospital station

The Technology

As a “technologist” by day[4], I am in awe of all the moving parts (literally!) involved in the system–50 stations, 500 bicycles, multiple payment options, onboard computers, the web site, iOS and Android apps, rental maintenance, etc. I experienced a couple of glitches along the way, but given this was only the system’s third week out of the gate, it performed admirably.

A couple times in my maiden voyage I found that bicycles parked at stations and flashing their “available” lights were, in fact, not rentable. No explanation on what was going on, but I can recommend the app feature where you look at an individual station and see which bikes it actually knows are parked there. After that first day, I didn’t see this problem again.

Another time, I arrived at the Children’s Hospital station to find NextBike employee Tom having to repeatedly reboot the system and test whether it was going to process check-outs.  This allowed me to ask a bunch of questions while we waited for the system to restart, eves-drop on his call back to Leipzig, and surreptitiously bag a photo for the blog. [Tom got me back: he filmed our band marching during the Open Streets event last Sunday.]

Another obvious issue they’ll have to work out is the distribution of bikes. I found that the station I was checking-out from (Penn & 42nd Street, by Children’s Hospital) had fewer and fewer bikes each day until on my final Friday there was only one rental and it turned out to be unridable (the rear fender was severely bent into the back wheel and I was unable to fix it; I ended up walking to Bloomfield and checked-out from the station by Crazy Mocha).

By contrast, the station I was usually returning to (Butler & 42nd Street, across from Hambone’s) was nearly always full. This is likely no accident–I have a feeling the system will regularly experience the higher-elevation bikes draining and welling up at the bottom of hills. Those seven gears are just not enough to get a lot of part-time riders up steep grades (especially after they’ve spent the evening at Hambone’s!). Stations in flatter areas (Bloomfield, Oakland) seemed to be more consistently medium-stocked.

rider posed on a Healthy Ride rental bicycle, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Not dorky at all. Some dude with a rented bike. [photo: Lee Floyd]

Final Thoughts

It’s very hard to tell, but anecdotal observation suggests that people are using the system and that its rollout has been smooth enough to claim some level of success. Pittsburgh presents a lot of challenges for experienced cyclists–steep hills, tight streets, rutty roads pockmarked with potholes, few designated bicycle lanes, much unfavorable weather–so loosing a bunch of non-riders on city streets with unfamiliar bicycles seems like it’s not going to end well for everybody. But then, neither does automotive travel.

If allowed to succeed, it seems like the program will inevitably grow interest in cycling and more awareness of bicycle needs in infrastructure planning and design, which are all good things in The Orbit‘s book.

I plan to maintain my “deluxe” subscription partially because I want to support the program (even though I own a bicycle) but also because I can imagine a ton of scenarios where I can legitimately put a short rental to use. Plus, it’s cheap. If you haven’t given it shot, we suggest you do. Happy (and healthy!) riding to you!

Footnotes

  1. “Healthy Ride” is a pretty square name, but I imagine the underwriting from Highmark and Allegheny Health Network played into the branding.
  2. Though monthly, the rates require a minimum three-month signup commitment.
  3. I started looking into comparison pricing against other bike share programs, but with each city having their own rental time windows, subscription terms, etc. this quickly became a fool’s errand. The claim that it’s “among the cheapest in the country” seems legit, though.
  4. Not a good one.

Get to the Point

Man pointing from Ohio River to Pittsburgh's highpoint

Ben points from The Point to Pittsburgh’s highpoint

Whether it’s a sport or a hobby or simply an absurd excuse for the journey is the destination, man, “highpointing” (its practitioners spell it as a single compound noun) is the pursuit of reaching the highest altitude spot in each of the U.S. states, amassing these achieved peaks like collector’s cards.  Ben Blanchard is a Pittsburgh highpointer.

Ben explains that he got into highpointing naively. Years ago, he stumbled across a road sign directing motorists to the highest point in Maine, Mount Katahdin (alt: 5,280 feet). After making his way up and down from the mountain, Ben decided it would be a fun way to let kismet be his travel agent and kept after further highpoints.

It turns out Ben is not alone and highpointing is a real thing.  Web sites like highpointers.org and peakbagger.com provide both statistics and community information. Ben has currently visited thirteen state and two city highpoints.  Next on the list is a New England swing to include New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and a return trip to Maine.

ducks on a log in river

These ducks technically started lower than us, but we didn’t see them make it to the top.

As no two states are the same, no two highpoints are either.  Highest points are as diverse as a Philadelphia suburb (Ebright Azimuth, Delaware) or the upper edge of an inclined plane (“Mount” Sunflower, Kansas) to true mountain peaks like Mt. Whitney (California) or Mt. Elbert (Colorado).  Every American highpointer’s ultimate goal is Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska.

For The Orbit, I proposed scaling the highpoint for the City of Pittsburgh.  Apparently highpointers look down on city/county highpoints in favor of states/countries, but it sounded interesting to me.  I laid out a goal that we would travel from low to high, and make the journey on bicycle.

Western State Penitentiary, Pittsburgh

Along the way: Western State Penitentiary, Woods Run

Historically, Pittsburgh’s low point was Donzi’s in the Strip. But with that floating meat-rounder barge sadly no longer operating, its bass cabinets and Jello shot molds long dormant, we had to settle for river level (alt. 719 feet) as the accepted lowest altitude.  And, just to get real symbolic, we met at “The Point,” the tip of Point State Park, where the three rivers meet.

Our destination was the top of Montana Street (alt. 1345 feet), KDKA’s giant broadcasting tower standing as a (literal) beacon for us head toward.  The route would take us down the Ohio River bicycle trail, past the old Western State Penitentiary, through the neighborhood of Wood’s Run, up along the northern edge of Riverview Park, and finally up to the peak in Perry North.

View of KDKA tower from Mairdale Ave., Observatory Hill

View of KDKA tower in the distance from the steep climb up Mairdale Ave., Observatory Hill

The one block assent of Montana Street proved the most difficult cycling of the trip, it being one of those Pittsburgh hills so steep the rider is forced to lean over the handlebars just to avoid the bike flipping backwards on itself, but we made it.

I had been on one previous (city) highpoint in Washington, D.C. (Ft. Reno Park) and similar to that one, the actual peak is off-limits to the public.  Ours has a high chain-link fence surrounding a large water reservoir and processing facility.

View from Pittsburgh's highpoint showing mainly trees

“View” from the highpoint: Mt. Washington it ain’t

We were able to walk the full circumference of the facility.  There’s no benchmark to get a photo by, nor is there much of a view–you’re surrounded by trees on all sides.  But in the early Spring, we still got some nice glimpses of the observatory in Riverview Park and the top of Downtown Pittsburgh’s skyline, looking like it grew naturally out of the woodlands.

Our stats: we climbed 626 vertical feet over around 6.5 miles, about half of that along the river to get from town to Wood’s Run.  It took us around 45 minutes going up on bicycles; the return trip is very short as it is literally all down hill.  A bar called Rumerz in Wood’s Run [Ben: Have you heard anything about it? Me: Don’t believe everything you hear. Ben: What are you talk…oh.] provided few beer options, but a nice outdoor deck, built Pittsburgh grotto-style, right up against a rock wall.

Man celebrating reaching Pittsburgh's highpoint

Victory: point high for a highpoint!

A note to would-be bike-pointers: this blogger made the trip up just fine, but the rest of our party (ahem) needed to get off and push a couple times.  It’s no big deal, though, if you’re in decent shape and have a full collection of low gears.  The bigger deal (for me) was actually coming down the hill where my (under-performing) brakes were pushed pretty hard and I reached a semi terror state.  If I’d had to actually come to a full stop anywhere, it would have been ugly.

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

P.A.P.A. Was A Rolling Stone

Unique head-to-head pinball action

These guys: The first “A” in PAPA stands for Amateur

Spoiler Alert: competitive pinball is not a great spectator sport.

It’s not that The Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (“PAPA”) didn’t try.  There were cameras trained on each of the Division A tables which simultaneously broadcast to big screen TVs right above the play and live to the Internet on the organization’s streaming site.  A set of low bleacher seats was set up with a view of everything and it was consistently stocked with lounging competitors. Occasionally, one of them would even look up to check out the action. But let’s face it, watching some dude (and it is almost always a dude) play pinball is just not that exciting, no matter how good he is.

PAPA Championship Group A competition

Not the Super Bowl: PAPA Championship Group A competition

PAPA, based in a big warehouse in the industrial section of Carnegie, has put on eighteen World Championships of pinball, the most recent having just wrapped-up last weekend. When we hear the words “world championship pinball” followed by “free” and “pancake breakfast” (O.K. that last one wasn’t an official part of the event), you know we’ll be there.

Golden Chainsaw Split Flipper Trophy

As close as this blogger will ever get to the Golden Chainsaw Split Flipper Trophy

Though it’s exciting to walk into what is essentially the Olympics of pinball, the Orbit staff, much like Bob Costas and Mary Carillo in Sochi, quickly lost focus and wandered off to look at shiny things.

And there were many shiny things to distract even the most hardened get-the-story-right blogger: blinking lights, ringing bells, zapping buzzers, bumping bumpers, crazy mechanical contraptions, perverse teenage fantasies, (outdated) pop culture knock-offs, blast-from-the-past zig-zagging lasers. Some 450+ pinball machines alone (we’re taking the PAPA’s word on this, but that seems totally believable) plus old-school video games, mechanical arcade games, novelties, and one “yarn-bombed” art machine.

Centigrade 37

Centigrade 37: it’s getting hot in here

I love pinball art in all its glowing comic book teenage (male) fantasy over-the-topness. Busty science-fiction vixens, stoned aviator sunglasses-wearing protagonists with unfortunate haircuts and “shaggin’ wagons” (Greg’s term), popcorn movie tie-ins (official), and knock-offs (not so).  No genre or theme seems to have been left unexplored: from the old West to outer space, from secret agents to cartoons, surfing to disco dancing, Guns and Roses to ladies formal wear (yes: the Dress Up pinball game seems to be the one machine 100% targeted to women and/or budding fashion designers).

Bally Embryon pinball machine

Embryon: time to make a baby

Gottlieb Roller Disco pinball machine

Roller Disco: let’s boogie

Bally Wizard! game

Wizard!: such a supple wrist

As great and ridiculous as the actual glowing machine graphics are, I find that what appeals to me most are the simple 3- and 4-color spray-painted cabinet stencils that decorate the sides of the machines.  Their placement makes a lot of them difficult to see (and impossible to photograph) except when the right machine ended up on the end of a row where you could really get a good look at it. This is totally understandable, of course, but still a shame as the simple designs and fuzzy not-quite-registered paint jobs are particularly terrific.

pinball cabinet stencil of woman's face

cabinet stencil

disco-themed pinball cabinet stencil

cabinet stencil

pinball cabinet stencil of surfer

cabinet stencil

The variety of license plates told us that attendees came from all over the country (at least) and the banners that immortalized past champions (and their home towns) hanging from the ceiling had a similar distribution. Keep your eyes peeled for a second big event in August at the convention center where a pay-one-price scheme gets you open play at the full collection of PAPA’s pinball games and supposedly another hundred or so they’re bringing in on top.

Michigan license plate PINWZRD

Michigan PINWZRD spotted in the parking lot

pinball machine bumpers

“Howdy, bumper!”

pinball game artwork

Sometimes a giant vase is just a giant vase, and then other times …