The Bad Old Days: Two Doctors Describe the ‘Illegal’ Years

by Kirsten Ervin

illustration of doctor entering room with woman on examination table
[illustration: Rick Bach for In Pittsburgh, 1992]

I was lucky to be fertile during the time of Roe v. Wade, to have the protection of a law that ensured that I had the right to control my own body. Roe v. Wade meant I could decide if and when I wanted to be a parent, or if I wanted to be a parent at all. If the Supreme Court overturns this ruling, it will have existed for just under 50 years; I am currently 54 years old. The thought that people younger than me—women and non-binary folks—will not have this same right, the same control of their bodies is chilling. As Senator Patty Murray stated this week, if Roe v. Wade is overturned “this will be the first generation of women with fewer rights than their mothers.”

Thirty years ago, when I was just 24, I interviewed two doctors who regularly witnessed what illegal abortions did to women for In Pittsburgh. They regularly saw hospital wards full of people sick with sepsis, bleeding profusely, often with permanently damaged reproductive systems—all due to illegal abortion. Over 5,000 women died this way every year. Both doctors fought to create access to reproductive freedom, and ensure women maintained control over their bodies and lives. May we be inspired by their fight, by their resolve and commitment to freedom of choice in our current struggle. Please vote on Tuesday’s Primary Election and know how your candidates stand on the issue of choice. Our lives depend on it.

Kirsten Ervin, 2022


The Bad Old Days: Two Doctors Describe the ‘Illegal’ Years

Originally published by In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, 1992

Like Mary Litman [see last week’s story The Bad Old Days: One Woman Remembers How It Was] thousands of women were hospitalized due to botched illegal abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade. According to the 1970 Kinsey Report, one out of five pregnancies ended in abortion at that time, with the resulting deaths of about 5,000 women each year. Pittsburgh obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Robert Kisner, who was an intern at Magee Women’s Hospital from 1969 to 1973, recalls the many women who came to Magee after illegal abortions: “The typical ones I saw and remember were people who were really sick. They had a temperature of 104, 105; they looked like the devil and were really septic. If they had done this in an era where we didn’t have powerful antibiotics, a lot of these women would have died.”

Dr. Tom Allen, now the medical director of Women’s Health Services, was a resident intern at Magee from 1944 to 1945. He remembers that usually about half of the 12 or so beds in the Septic Ward were occupied by victims of illegal abortions. Since World War II was on, “all the penicillin, which was the only antibiotic we really had at that time, was reserved for the military,” Allen says. Quite a few women died, and “if they did get better, they were probably gynecological cripples.”

Kisner says patients often developed sepsis, a poisoning caused by absorption of bacteria into the blood; or peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal lining. Both were brought about by the unsterile instruments and harsh chemicals of back-alley abortionists. If aggravated, these infections could result in sterility or the later need for a hysterectomy.

Yet “these women almost always waited until they were sick to come in, because they didn’t want to share with us and they knew we would probably be able to figure out what happened,” Kisner says. “It was so painful to me to ask these poor women, ‘Who did this to you?”, or ‘What did they do to you?’ … You could see the shame on their faces.” Many had remained silent because they feared prosecution: “It was almost as if they were educated by the person who performed this to ‘deny everything, because you don’t know me’,” says Kisner.

A number of factors united to change conditions in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Standards set forth by the Obstetrican-Gynecologist Hospital Services in 1969 broadened the scope of medically necessary, or therapeutic, abortions permitted in hospitals. Around this time Magee established the Therapeutic Abortion and Sterilization Committee, which acted on patients’ requests for abortions and/or tubal ligations.

Allen concedes that the meaning of therapeutic abortion was stretched a little bit. Therapeutic abortions in the ’40s and ’50s were for very severe heart or kidney disease that complicated continuation of the pregnancy because of the extra stress on the organs. But there was a conscious movement on the part of [Magee’s] staff to challenge the abortion law. The chairman required that two psychiatrists say, “The continuation of this woman’s pregnancy will endanger her life.” They got it down so they could say, “damage her mental health.”

Also, two direct court challenges were made to Pennsylvania’s restrictive 1939 abortion law. In 1970, motorcycle mechanic Barry Graham Page—a convicted abortionist from Centre County—attacked the law as being too broad and ambiguous, and won. For a time, Centre County was the only place in Pennsylvania where abortion was permissible.

That same year, Allegheny County District Attorney Robert Duggan subpoenaed the hospital records at Magee for all of 1970. He had filed a criminal complaint charging three Magee physicians with conspiracy to commit illegal abortion. Outraged, three therapeutic abortion patients at Magee filed an equity class action for an injuction against the release of such records, claiming this would violate their privacy. Common Pleas Court Judge Anne Alpern granted the injunction, concurring that the state’s 1939 law was ambiguous and therefore unconstitutional. 

Now technically without any abortion law, Allegheny County officials allowed a more permissive atmosphere. As Allen remembers, “We could interpret it so that we could go ahead with an abortion until we were challenged … It was our hope that we could change the legislation. and get a law similar to New York but that didn’t happen.”

What did happen was that Allen, along with the late Leah Sayles, co founded Women’s Health Services in the fall of 1972 as Pittsburgh’s first free-standing, nonprofit clinic providing abortion services. The U.S. Supreme Court made its landmark Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973, three months before WHS actually opened its doors. But Allen says, “We didn’t really care. We were going to open [WHS] anyway.” 

As the Supreme Court prepares to rule on Pennsylvania’s new Abortion Control Act this July, Allen says “Women should never relinquish a right that is theirs,” and warns that protecting choice “is going to take some hard work politically. The only way is … to elect a pro-choice Congress and a President who will not veto choice legislation.” Kisner agrees on the need for activism, adding that “if [choice] ever came down to a single vote, men should not even participate in the vote. We don’t get pregnant.”

Twofer Two, Two Two, Two Tuesday: Daily Doubles for 2/22/22

two large round dormatories
Twin towers / double dormatories. Two times the fun on 2/22/22. Oakland

On the day the photo was taken—the burning sun high in a cloudless sky, light shimmering in the sweltering heat—twin pointed peaks glimmer on a horizon of mysterious black obelisks. In the haze of midsummer’s full, drenching humidity, it seems we must have been transported thousands of miles away and centuries back in time.

Of course, what’s really going here is far more prosaic. The vision of Egypt’s great pyramids is but a wishful hallucination in the blur of summer sun and the deceitful dual sheet metal roofline of General Tire Service’s big building on Smallman Street.

Double diamonds. The great pyramids of General Tire Service, Strip District

On this of all days, however—February twenty-two, twenty twenty-two (2/22/22)—the photograph takes on new life as a daily double. It’s not alone, this twofer, this double from another rubble: a couple memorialized in a ceramic grave photograph, two stencils of a cartoonish astronaut flashing us the OK sign, a pair of broken plastic Christmas candles left out as a matching set for someone … who doesn’t know it yet, but they’ve arrived at their daily double.

two lawn ornament geese dressed in Christmas costumes
The double gooses of 46th Street. Lawrenceville

The double gooses (not “geese”) of 46th Street have long donned their gay apparel—for Christmas, yes, but other prominent holidays too. On this day, however, what great fortune—as if God herself was dealing Jacks or better on a blanket by the stairs—to locate a second double goose up on Penn Avenue just as we’re headed to press. These (plastic) feathered fellows have already gone green in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day (we assume?), but the camo Army fatigues suggest they may be doing double-duty (ha!) serving up through Memorial Day, too.

pair of goose lawn ornaments decorated green St. Patrick's Day attire and Army fatigues
Entirely different double gooses of Penn Ave. (Yes, that’s *double* double gooses.) Lawrenceville

However you celebrate this very literal once in a lifetime occurrence of numerological planets in alignment, know that while a couple may give you trouble and twins may do you in, there’s still time to double down on a second chance. Don’t think twice, it’s alright.

ceramic photo inset from grave marker
Double portrait. The Riccitellos, Beaver Cemetery
repeated stencil of astronaut making "OK" hand sign
Double OK astronaut. Strip District
Russian orthodox church with two green onion domes
Double onion dome. Charleroi
sign on utility pole with arrows pointing to "Dirty Slag" and "Dirty Limestone"
Double dirty. Skunk Hollow
Two 2-car garages built together
Double two-car garage. Arlington
two ventriloquist dummies, both with sad facial expressions
Double sadness
pair of windows, each with a large Santa head
Double Santa. Lawrenceville
Christmas window decoration of two silver reindeer with red and green ornaments
Double reindeer. Lawrenceville
pair of broken plastic decorative Christmas candles
Double Christmas candle. Lawrenceville
window decorated with two Krampus ornaments
Double Krampus. Lawrenceville
pair of window flower boxes, each with a decorative grave marker
Double flower box burial. Lawrenceville
window decorated with two pictures of Frankenstein and message "Remeber to Love"
Double Frankenstein. Lawrenceville
large house with two front doors
In Pittsburgh, it’s a double-house (not duplex!) Hazelwood
directional arrow on asphalt layered with a second arrow on top
Double arrow. Monaca
street art of traffic cones with Campbell's Soup background and floating eyeballs
Double Warhol eye cones. Strip District
storefront with two mannequins wearing full-body hazard suits
Double danger. Arnold
pair of footprints embedded in concrete sidewalk
Double footprints. Monessen
glass block bar window with painted image of two beer glasses
Double convivial. Coraopolis
hand-written sign on door reading "Turn both knobs at the same time!!!"
No snickering! Double doorknobs. Carrick
pair of anti-Trump posters
Double dunce. Wilkinsburg
Chromos Eyewear sign of a large pair of glasses, with the Pittsburgh skyline in each lens
Double vision / double Downtown. Chromos Eyewear, Lawrenceville

P.S. Not enough doubles for you? Well, you’re in luck. Over at the Portland Orbit they’ve got their own take on this mother of all Twofer Tuesdays. Yes: that’s double the double-takes!

Vestibuler’s Day Off: Package Delivery Post-Its with the Most-Its

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
The ghost of Christmas past. Please leave all boxes etc. in screen door. Package delivery instructions, Bloomfield

In the back. That’s where Pittsburgh wants its packages delivered; not out front, right on the street. That is, unless the request is to place items Over the gate, Through the gate, Behind the gate, or Inside the gate, under the awning.

Some want their deliveries In the vestibule, Inside the door, or In the screen door. Others are more specific: On side of house on table, one; Up the side steps in front of the door, another; a third: Please bring floor 2 packages to side door up stairs down walkway.

hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of house
Leave packages inside the door. Garfield

We’re redirecting deliveries Next to the large wooden planter box, Under the mailbox (behind the flower pot), Next door, At the Cricket store, and Across the street at People’s Grocery.

We also set conditions on our parcels: Please place light packages over the fence; heavy packages go here [who decides what the light/heavy threshold is?] and Please, if package fits, place between doors OR deliver to side door thru gate at right.

Some of us believe our carriers have special secret knowledge. Mail Courier: Please deliver the letter in my mailbox to the correct address … this is not it.

messages for package delivery written on wooden front door of house
PLEASE place light packages over the fence / heavy packages go here. Lawrenceville

Being a delivery driver cannot be easy work—especially right now, mid-pandemic, as the Christmas season officially gets into high gear, and when just about everyone is ordering from the Internet—at least, some of the time.

We’ll add the obvious aside here, that this is all one more reason to shop locally and independently as much as one can. The money you spend close to home supports local businesses, stays in the community, and creates the kinds of Main Streets populated with life that pretty much everyone wants to see.

hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of house
Please open door + put packages in vestibule. Garfield

There are many many stories of Amazon drivers who are unable to take bathroom breaks, monitored by cameras their entire workday, and docked points for taking a drink of water or changing the radio station.

Amazon’s drivers are reportedly given 30 seconds to make each home delivery. That’s not a lot of time for anything, let alone to stop the vehicle, locate and scan the package, haul it to the customer’s front door, and get back to the van. Now, imagine if the delivery address includes a note requesting packages not be left at the front door, but instead be taken “to the back,” or “up the steps,” or “to the side door through the gate.”

mailbox with hand-written instructions for package delivery
PLEASE place big packages inside door. Bloomfield

It’s a lot to ask—even when the instructions pretty much always include please and thank you—but the reasons homeowners make these requests is obvious, too.

If you live in a row house—as your author does and where almost all of today’s photos were taken—there is often no separation between the sidewalk and one’s front door. A package delivered to the front steps is as exposed as something left right on the street. It is effortlessly easy for the most part-time of thieves or teenage pranksters to pick up that intriguing brown cardboard box, pop the corn, and make an evening of the random possibilities that await within.

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
ATTENTION!! Do Not Leave Packages on Steps. Please put all packages to your right next to the large wooden planter box. Lawrenceville

It’s a conundrum—one the home builders of the late 19th century could never have anticipated. So called “porch pirates” are their own well-known menace, even when they’re not targeting row houses. Today—just spitballin’ here—architects are probably integrating some kind of hidden/protected package receiving area right into the fronts of new housing the way the automobile was welcomed into the home in the 1950s and ’60s.

hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door
Please put all packages inside door. Bloomfield

So with Black Friday behind us and Santa’s elves already packing for non-stop December deliveries, let’s all consider the overwhelmed and under-valued “last milers” who bear the brunt of all that Amazon Prime “free” shipping. They may not be able to “put all packages inside the gate under the awning,” and that’s O.K.

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
To: postal persons and UPS persons. The door is opened. You can put the packages in the door… Johnstown
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of house
Please leave packages inside the purple door. Garfield
handwritten sign reading "Mail Slot" taped above mail slot in front door
So that’s what that’s for! Mail Slot. Lawrenceville

Package/Gate or Packagegate

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please put all packages inside the gate under the awning! Polish Hill
message for package delivery written on paper attached to glass front door of house
Please—if package fits—place between doors OR Deliver to side door thru gate at right. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please drop packages behind gate. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Act I: The request. Please place packages over gate. Lawrenceville
note attached to gate reading "Thank you"
Act II: The gate. Thank you. Lawrenceville

Take a walk on the porch side

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Mail slot is on side of house by gate. Troy Hill
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please put packages on side of house on table. Millvale
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please deliver packages to the side porch. Lawrenceville
handwritten message for package delivery taped to front door of house
Please bring floor 2 packages to side door up stairs, down hallway. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Place packages up the side steps in front of the (?) door. You can reach me … Polish Hill
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to glass door
Please place packages on side porch. Bloomfield

Have you seen the back?

instructions for package delivery painted on wood scrap
Please deliver packages to back door through gate on Cedarville. Bloomfield
instructions for package delivery taped to front door
Deliveries around back please. Bloomfield
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to brick wall
Please leave packages in Back. Lawrenceville
mailbox with hand-written instructions for package delivery
Please deliver packages to back door. Bloomfield
hand-written message with package-delivery instructions taped to front door of house
Please deliver all packages in the back. Bloomfield
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of business
Please leave packages in the back. Garfield
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of house
Please leave all packages at the back garage. Garfield

Not here, not now

instructions for mail carrier written on paper taped to mailbox
Mail Courier: Please deliver the letter in my mailbox to the correct address … this is not it. Lawrenceville
hand-written message with package-delivery instructions taped to front door of house
Please leave packages for 4207 Main St. on porch of 4211 Main St. Bloomfield
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please use Willow Street entrance for all deliveries: mail—food—packages. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery written on front door of residence
Please use side door Apt 1A. Do not leave pkgs here. Monongahela
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to glass door
Please leave packages at Cricket Store if no one is home. Bloomfield
hand-written instructions for package delivery taped to front door of house
If you have a package and there’s no response on the Ring, please send to our neighbor across the street @ People’s Grocery. Garfield
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please use other door and mailbox. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
FedEx, UPS please leave packages next door. Strip District
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Do not leave packages here! Lawrenceville

Someone is home: find them!

instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
“Delivery person” Ring bell to the right for 15-30 seconds. I am alway at home during the day. (sic.) Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Ring doorbell and knock loud. Repeat both. Repeat both. Bloomfield
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Giant Eagle delivery: ring bell or call on phone. Millvale
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Please ring door bell. Please don’t leave packages on steps or in the back. Come back if need to. Lawrenceville
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Delivery person please knock hard on back door!!! Homestead
instuctions for mail and package delivery taped to front door of residence
Someone IS home for signatures … please find adult … Troy Hill

Special thanks to Orbit faithful Paul and Mark who came up with “Vestibulers Day Off” and “Post-Its with the Most-Its,” respectively, when your author was unable to think of anything nearly as clever. It’s always Snark Week with those two.

Lawn Order: Turn on Your Love Lighthouse

homemade decorative lighthouse made from painted flower pots, Donora, PA
Flower pot lighthouse, Donora

To call metro Pittsburgh landlocked is a little unfair. There’s water everywhere–just try to leave the house and avoid it. Big rivers, little rivers, creeks, and “runs”; more rain, fog, mist, snow, and ice than we know what to do with. Come July, just walking through the outside air will feel like slamming headlong into a vertical wall of steam. That said, it’s certainly true that the closest ocean is a day’s drive away; heck, we don’t even have a lake, great or otherwise.

So it’s a little weird that so many homeowners living so far from a body of water vast enough to actually need a lighthouse have chosen to erect them–incongruously, oxymoronically–as decoration for their yards.

We’re not talking just one or two here, either. Lawn lighthouses are a legitimate phenomenon of American detached housing. It’s hard to travel a suburban block and not spot an example of the tell-tale tapered tower and its elaborate paint job poking from someone’s hedge row. The nation’s front yards, mulched garden beds, porches, and water features have got a ton of decorative lighthouses and Allegheny County is no exception.

lighthouse lawn ornament with leopard model in front yard of house
Snarling leopard lighthouse, East Vandergrift
decorative red and white lighthouse lawn ornament in front of red brick house
Color-coordinated lighthouse, Lawrenceville

It’s not 100% true, but the lighthouse seems to most often be the cherry on top of an already perfectly immaculate yardscape. They’re like bonus trophies awarded to the homeowners who’ve already won greenest grass and most weed-free expanse titles. The mulch around them is almost always perfectly raked, the flowering shrubs, just so. Lighthouses are often the sole decoration to outside space equivalents of fancy architect houses: clean, organized, and without distraction … but it’s hard to imagine anyone actually lives there or walks on the emerald green.

Anyway, we like them enough to whip out the camera most of the time we spot their glassine window cupolas hiding a water meter or standing tall over an on-the-nose lawn island of big stones.

So here you go, America: turn on your love lighthouse and let it shine on.

front yard decoration including potted flowers, lighthouse ornament and old sailor decoration
Lighthouse with old sea salt, Vandergrift
large decorative lawn lighthouse in front yard of home in Bridgewater, PA
BIG lighthouse on island rock feature, Bridgewater
small wooden lighthouse decoration in front of brick house
Tiny lighthouse, Lawrenceville
handmade wooden decorative lighthouse painted in Pittsburgh Steelers black-and-gold
Steelers lighthouse, ex-putt putt golf course, Millvale
decorative lawn lighthouse against chain link fence, Donora, PA
Chain link lighthouse, Donora
decorative lighthouse ornament in front garden of house in Whitaker, PA
All-American lighthouse, Whitaker
decorative lawn lighthouse painted red, white, and blue, Ambridge, PA
All-American lighthouse, Ambridge
decorative lighthouse in front of entrance to boat club building
OK: this one is semi-legit. Boat club lighthouse, Chateau
decorative yard lighthouse made from painted flower pots
Flower pot lighthouse, Reserve Twp.

Lighthouses and Friends

Like meatballs, sometimes lighthouses don’t want to be alone. Whether paired with front yard Marys, a matching lawn windmill [you know we’ve got a collection of those going too!], dress-up gooses, or all-of-the-above, lighthouses that aren’t in the pristine environments described above often end up in some fun company.

decorative model lighthouses painted black-and-gold in front yard of house in Whitaker, PA
Steelers lighthouse/Steelers windmill, Whitaker
front yard decorated with many small statuettes, Pittsburgh, PA
Lots-of-traffic lighthouse, Morningside [note: bonus Mary!]
front yard covered with decorative figurines, lighthouse, and Mary statuette, Donora, PA
Leaning lighthouse [note: more bonus Mary!], Donora
small yard and porch decorated with statue of Mary, goose, Disney lighthouse, Steelers flag
A little bit of everything: Minnie & Mickey lighthouse, dress up goose, Steelers flag, big Mary, American flag/map, Millvale
small planter with model lighthouse and boat, Pittsburgh, PA
Lighthouse and run-aground boat, Morningside
pair of ornamental lawn lighthouses by water garden feature
Double art lighthouses! Lawrenceville
frame house with decorative lighthouse in front garden
In-the-weeds lighthouse, Hazelwood

The Lighthouses of Neville Island

Perhaps it should be no surprise that Neville Island would be particularly invested in lighthouses. They still don’t have a real one the island, but at least the place is surrounded by water which gives it bragging rights in these parts.

Anyway, there were almost enough Neville Island lawn lighthouses to make a whole collection of just those. However, knowing we’re already pushing it with a subject likely of little interest to anyone with a real life, we decided to bundle them here so we can get on with all the even less meaningful topics on the to-do list.

large wooden duplex house with lighthouse lawn ornament in front, Neville Island, PA
Accessorizing lighthouse, Neville Island
wooden bungalow house with large lighthouse lawn ornament in front, Neville Island, PA
All-American lighthouse, Neville Island
decorative lawn lighthouse in front of wooden house, Neville Island, PA
Island-on-an-island lighthouse, Neville Island
decorative lawn lighthouse, Neville Island, PA
Between-the-trees lighthouse, Neville Island
decorative lawn lighthouse against front porch, Neville Island, PA
Classic spiral stripe lighthouse, Neville Island

Enough Crude to Keep Us in Business: Five Years in Orbit

photo collage of numeral 5 found in address signs

Five years in Orbit, man!

Five years. That ain’t that long in geologic or astronomical time, but it’s an eternity in the blogosphere. Why, a child born on the eve of The Orbit‘s maiden voyage, in late January, 2015, is old enough to have jettisoned countless sad toys from perambulators and open minivan doors by now. If you were following the physical evidence of The East End Dangler or the mystery of the golden babies, well, it’s all gone up, come down, and the trails have gone cold.

Golden baby hanging from power lines, Pittsburgh, PA

One of the golden babies in Lawrenceville, 2016: still a mystery, but no longer hanging around.

In the world of petroleum exploration, there is a known paradox. On the one hand, crude oil is a limited resource that takes millions (billions?) of years to be naturally brewed and we human beings are (quite literally) burning through massive amounts of it every day. Even setting aside all of the wake-in-the-night-screaming affects of global warming, this is simply an unsustainable pace that can’t last forever. We’re going to run out, sooner rather than later, right?

Well, you’d think so, but the history of oil exploitation tells a different story. It’s one where repeated technological advancements continue to open up entirely new, untapped resources and have, amazingly, kept gas prices incredibly low. Stand back and think about how a limited supply natural resource can get extracted from the earth, shipped over oceans, run through the refining process, distributed across America, and still be cheaper per ounce than bottled water. It is mind boggling.

diorama of oil drilling on Oil Creek, Pennsylvania

Oil drilling on Oil Creek. Part of the large diorama of Petroleum Center in Oil Creek State Park, Venango County.

A similar conundrum faces the speculative journalist engaged in hyper-local niche blogging. As long as there are children, their teddy bears and baby dolls will inevitably end up left behind on playgrounds and sidewalks, sure, and we’ll (hopefully) always have artists finding new ways to express themselves on dumpsters, street signs, and the backsides of buildings. In this pained analogy, these are the Orbit‘s evergreen renewable resources.

But it’s unlikely the region will see any new Russian Orthodox churches, epic sets of city steps, or ghost signs for Owl Cigars and Mother’s Best Flour. We can get exactly one story each from oddball cultural attractions like the Donora Smog Museum, Randyland, or DeBence Antique Music World–and then that ship has sailed, likely forever.

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

Limited resource: we’ve got a bunch of them, but there are still only so many onion-domed churches to go around. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora.

There is a long list of potential story ideas that’s been kicking around this last half-decade. It’s got a bunch of new prospects and lots of things have gotten crossed-off as they’ve been reported-on, but many just haven’t had any movement. Will we ever get to tell the story of The Cardboards or Hans Brinker & The Dykes? Did the documentation on Andy Warhol’s weight set die with John Riegert? When will we ever make it to Latrobe for a Jioio’s pizza?

Three cuts of pizza from Beto's, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Not your average pie. Beto’s Pizza, Beechview.

SO, reflecting on this fifth anniversary–three hundred and some articles into the deep exploration of greater Pittsburgh’s nether regions–the desire to keep doing the poking, the picture-taking, the ink-spilling is as strong as ever, but … we want you do us a favor, though.

If you’re a regular reader [and if you’ve made it this far, we’re guessing that’s you] then you know the kinds of things we’re after. If you’ve got a tip on a unique pizza joint, a super-fan’s crazy antics, the keys to a long-locked ex-tavern, a street art phenomenon, connections to the polka underground, or anything else too far off-the-radar for, you know, “lame stream media” (other media sources: just jaggin’!) then we would love to hear about it.

You can reach the Orbit hot tip line either through our Contact page or email pittsburghorbit [at] gmail.com.

hand-painted sign reading "Mail Box Side Porch", Pittsburgh, PA

You don’t actually have to go to the side porch to contact us.

Lastly, a big thank you to everyone who’s ever taken the time to read a story, pass it on to a friend, participate in one of our goofy contests, contribute a tip, or leave a thoughtful comment. This is largely a solo endeavor whose main purpose is a kick-in-the-pants to get out the door, go do things, and exercise the fantasy journalist within. So we’d probably still be doing this even if no one was paying attention, but we won’t deny that it’s nice when people do.

Just like those wildcatters drilling for black gold in the blown caliche of West Texas, we’ll keep poking holes in the ground and hopefully we’ll find enough crude to keep us in business.

number 5 found on building's address

Heavy Petting: The Anthrocon Fursuit Parade 2017

parade marchers in fursuits including large rabbit, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Tongues out, ears up, that’s the way we like to strut. Big bunny and other Fursuit Parade marchers.

Let’s get something straight: there is a lot of fake fur. Short pile like a hiker’s Thermafleece® and the deep shag of a drug lord’s living room carpet; zebra-striped, tiger-blazed, and leopard-spotted; black, white, and every color in-between.

Anthrocon’s annual Fursuit Parade features more plush, fuzzy softness than you’re likely to encounter in a lifetime…or until next year’s convention, whichever comes first. Like the allies storming Omaha Beach, wave after wave of fluffy fixed-faced cartoon cats and permanent growl ear-tagged wolves assaulted the senses and delighted spectators in their relentless pursuit of high-paws parade-route salutations and head patting approval. And we gave it to them–oh yes, we gave it to them.

group of fursuit-wearing parade marchers, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

A handful of the 1,890 different fursuited parade marchers

fursuit costume of cat with glasses in baseball uniform for team Piecats, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Baseball cat: Piecats manager.

fursuits various color dogs, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy? Orange fox* and friends.

Anthrocon, the “world’s largest convention for those fascinated with anthropomorphics” was back in Pittsburgh last weekend for its twelfth consecutive summer meetup and twentieth year overall. For the festival’s annual four-day run, both full-on suited-up furries and the dreaming-of-the-big-time ears-and-tail crowd carouse and kibitz throughout downtown streets. Whether you’re participant or gawker, it’s a lot of fun.

But if you really want to see the fur fly by–as well as witness the hyperbole of furry fandom–ground zero is down by the convention center on Saturday afternoon. There, the annual fursuit parade makes its short route out one door, around a horseshoe-shaped path nearly up to Penn Ave., and the back inside the other wing of the convention center. It draws thousands of local onlookers for their best, closest look at the full technicolor menagerie.

indeterminate fursuit costumes with shirts "#KRUMP" and "#VOGUE", Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Let’s party! Two-thirds of the #TWERK / #KRUMP / #VOGUE crew.

fursuit costume of bear with long rabbit ears, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Grrrrrr. A “crux”*.

fursuits of green and pink bear, blue and white bear, and evening attire fox in wheelchair, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Evening wear fox, blue-and-white tiger hybrid, and psychedelic friend*.

It’s a short route–certainly less than a quarter mile–but getting mummified in the nearly-universal head-to-toe blanket of fuzz and shuffling through stifling July heat and humidity takes the dedication of a marine. Up close right at the mid-point, we could hear participants breaking character to wheeze sotto voce support for each other, “keep going, we’re half-way there.”

Anthrocon’s FaceBook page puts the number at 1,890 participants for this year’s parade and I can tell you, it felt like even more than that. Forty-five straight minutes of uninterrupted disco mice and barbed-wire baseball bat-brandishing bears, seductive lady foxes and goofy tongues-out psychedelic mutts[1].

fursuit costume of bear with baseball bat covered in barbed-wire Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Someone needs to switch to decaf! Barbed-wire baseball bat bear.

fursuit costume of scary rooster with arms extended over head, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Drop nuggets! Atomic rooster FTW.

fursuit costume of white dog with purple features, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Move over, Spuds McKenzie–these dogs came to party.

There is a point, however, when it’s just too much fur. While each and every anthropomorphic costume is its own unique creation, there are a lot more similarities than there are differences. Sure, somebody went crazy with the color palette here and there’s a wacky prop, in-joke, or movie reference there, but it’s remarkable how much of the same each of these animal riffs ends up being.

Not knowing what’s in these (largely much younger) folks minds, the obvious touchstones seem to be the kind of grinning goofiness and high saturation of “classic” Saturday morning cartoons–think Scooby Doo, Deputy Dawg, Mighty Mouse, and Kung Fooey. Parade marchers would not be out-of-place in the worlds of Hanna-Barbera or Sid & Marty Kroft–although the frequent additions of ’90s style rave attire, wink-wink naughtiness, and anime sheen are deployed liberally.

fursuit blue bear costume, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

blue tiger*

group of fursuit-wearing parade marchers, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

parade marchers

fursuit costome of leopard wearing cheerleader outfit, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Go team! Cheerleader cheetah, rollin’ cougar*.

It seems strange that this subculture–as vulnerable and ripe for ridicule as any set of outsiders–would be as internally uniform as it is. (At least, to non-participant.) While the suits are all unique–don’t go looking for one at Target–they’re rarely handmade. Companies like Made Fur You and Kilcodo Costumes charge upwards of several thousand dollars for a full head-to-toe custom outfit that fits within a very narrow cartoon aesthetic. The inspiration may be animals, but this isn’t the world of Marlin Perkins’ Wild Kingdom; other than these few, rare outliers, it’s strictly the prolonged colorful, safe adolescence of Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

So it is a pleasant detour–a relief even–to see the off-script giant shark, an obviously homemade sad dragon, the couple birds with fully-articulated wingspans, and an alien lizard creature in clinking in metallic silver scales. It’s not The Orbit‘s place to tell furries what to do, but just like Chabad’s menorahmobiles, we’d love to see more fans take the costume-making (literally) into their own hands and create something truly original in the process.

homemade fursuit of green dragon head, tail, and gloves, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

A rare homemade (partial) fursuit. Green dragon.

costume with silver metal scales and wings, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Colonel Clink. Silver metal-scaled dragon*.

fursuit costume of dragon in police uniform, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Those don’t look like regulation footwear. Police dragon.

young woman in blood-spattered skirt and blouse, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Oops…wrong convention! Blood-splattered spoilt Victorian child.

If you’ve seen Fursonas, Dominic Rodriguez’ locally-made 2016 documentary on the furry community, you’ll not soon forget its most controversial figure. “Uncle Kage” (pronounced kah-GAY) comes off as a perpetually deep-pour rosé-swilling megalomaniac who lectures rapt convention-goers on a level of deceitful media manipulation that would make Steve Bannon blush.

In Kage’s mind, the world is out to get the fursuited few, and it is only through a strictly-committed loose lips sink ships effort of Trumpian loyalty and intensely mannered public relations that the community’s lifestyle is able to survive the forces hell-bent on destroying it.

man with lab coat and bullhorn in Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Uncle Kage (with bullhorn) and entourage

So the sight of Uncle Kage closing out the parade in his trademark lab coat, barking an abbreviated version of his patented stream-of-consciousness ranting through a bullhorn–a top hat-wearing lackey in tow–really did give this blogger chills on a hot day.

If Kage’s ultimate goal is acceptance, he’s got it. While the convention is in town, downtown’s burger joints and pizza parlors roll out the red carpet for Anthrocon’s tail-wagging attendees to walk their paws in for supper. Nice, suburban families drive in to take selfies with permanent grin pooch-people. Every local news outlet sends their perky human interest beat reporter to smarm and eyeroll through a two-minute feel good piece.

KDKA News photographer and reporter covering Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

The Orbit wasn’t the only media outlet covering the Fursuit Parade, but at least we weren’t invited. KDKA News.

Whatever goes on behind closed convention-rate Westin Hotel doors is those humanoid badgers’, muskrats’, and flying squirrels’ business. Maybe at one time the fears of freaky, deviant sex got people up in arms, but frankly, I don’t think anybody cares that much–at least, not anymore. There’s just a lot bigger problems in the world than worrying about whether some twenty-somethings are turned-on by polymeric fibers.

We certainly have them–bigger problems, that is–but every year that Anthrocon comes to town and puts on the dog (sorry) for us locals is not one of them. It’s an annual highlight, for sure, as well as a wonderful evolving get-to-know-you mystery in the way all long-term relationships are. Let’s hope it keeps growing.

two children posing for photograph with person in fursuit costume of sabretooth tiger at Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Good old-fashion family fun. Sabre-toothed tiger and fans.


* Many thanks to Reddit /r/furry community member Shetani (username acinonyxjubatusrex) with help identifying the species represented in these fursuits. Our original post was updated based on Cheetah’s personal knowledge. We appreciate the help.

[1] Having a blown a trombone for well over an hour during last year’s event, this blogger can tell you 2016’s parade was even longer.

Chet’s Tiny Backyard Dream World

garden with waterfalls and model pirate ship and dock

The Orbit hit pay dirt right away at the great annual Highland Park neighborhood yard sale. The very first stop yielded copies of The Floaters cheese-soul astrology by way of the classified ads slow jam Float On” (the full 12-minute album version). Sadly, thirty-eight years later, Larry is still looking for a woman that loves everything and everybody.

We also found one from that other Larry–Larry Norman and his bluesy Jesus-rock concept album Something New Under the Son (recorded the same year as “Float On”!). So this off-duty blogger slash on-duty record fiend was sated almost before he’d begun.

Of course we soldiered on, following some enticing signs off Highland towards a side street. There, we came to one particular sale that didn’t have any merchandise worth perusal, but the most amazing back yard world opened up behind the sale tables set up along the street.

The house’s owner Chet (we only got a first name) told us that he’s been gradually building this tiny fantasy world for the last thirty years. On the one hand, it’s an outdoor two-or-three-season model train set, but it’s also so much more.

Chet individually hand built huts, log cabins (one includes an outhouse–in use), a church, farmhouse, stable, greenhouse, bungalow with garage, pirate ship, floating river dock, a bridge, surf shack, windmill, and fire tower. He told us he rearranges the train set and building layout every year when the world re-emerges each Spring. And that’s all on top of the permanently-landscaped pair of waterfalls and flowing river that run through and around this part of the yard.

The full eco-system lives outside for the duration of the season with only the thick cover of the giant elm tree over head as protection. It’s miraculous that these tiny wooden houses survive so well. But then again, they’re protected by magic.

model cabin with man in outhouse

backyard train set with model buildings

model house, garage, and old pickup truck

model hut and church

model church and surf shack

model log cabins with waterfall in background

model river scene with bridge and dock