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

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

It is one of the more iconic images we see every day on nearly every corner in the built landscape. Bold, red, and shaped into a perfect octagon, outlined with a white border, the sign has the simple, impossible-to-misconstrue message: STOP.

But, as these things go, they don’t always carry only that text. Pranksters and jokesters, the graffiti-addled and social justice-minded have taken the (traffic) law into their own hands hither and yon. Their doctored stop signs take the familiar to the absurd and hopefully give us a laugh or a ponderable notion while we apply the brakes and look both ways.

Stop sign alterations are so common that mass-produced white-on-red stickers are available for just this purpose. We included a couple examples of these (see STOP the Trump Kleptocracy and STOP elder neglect, below), but The Orbit generally considers these “corporate sign-jacking” that isn’t nearly as interesting as the bespoke variety.

There’s really not much more to say on this topic, so now we’re just going to …

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

The Magic Garden: A Visit to Pittsburgh’s Central Park

sculpture with many bowling balls on long rods
A galaxy of wonders awaits you in Pittsburgh’s Central Park, West Oakland

In what was once an overgrown hillside, there is now an inviting oasis of beauty, love, creativity, and wonder. A lovely tree canopy shades maybe a half-acre of lush green grass, glowing groundcover, sculpted walking paths, and picture-perfect spots for repose.

The park is centered around a fantastic constellation-like sculpture created from repurposed bowling balls suspended on metal rods. The space offers educational placards, an outdoor cooking and dining spot, and the most impressive little free library you’ve yet seen. It’s also right in the heart of the city and almost no one knows about it.

entrance to Pittsburgh's Central Park with ornamental gate and flower garden
Central Park entrance gate and flower garden

Even the most hardcore of Pittsburgh’s many ramblers, nature freaks, and urban explorers can be excused for never having visited Central Park. The tiny off-the-books greenspace has no directional signage from nearby Fifth Avenue and exists at the back of a one-way-in/one-way-out single block of row houses.

The neighborhood is technically West Oakland (at least, that’s what a D.I.Y. welcome sign tells us), but it’s really in the void. The area does have the claim to fame that Andy Warhol was born here–the house has since been demolished–but it’s still not on anyone’s way to anywhere. Just past the tail end of Uptown, downhill from The Hill, and around the bend from (West) Oakland proper, little Moultrie Street exists in a world of its own.

sign for West Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh reading "This ain't Uptown! Welcome to West Oakland: birthplace of pop artist Andy Warhol"
This ain’t Uptown! West Oakland neighborhood welcome sign on Fifth Ave. near Moultrie Street
little free library modeled on Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library
Central Park’s little free library, modeled on the Oakland/main branch of the Carnegie Library

“This is an illegal art exhibit,” says Joseph Szabo about the vision-turned-reality he’s worked on for the last eight or ten years. The ambitious project converted overgrown vacant land across the street from his home into the magical pocket park it has become. “Central Park in New York City is my favorite place in the world. I created this as an homage to it.”

Indeed, those familiar with that more famous Central Park can have a bit of fun matching some of its well-known features to Szabo’s landscaping work. As Szabo explains it, the plot of grass along the street, as well as an adjoining lot freshly planted with fruit trees, is The Great Lawn. Twisty pathways make up The Ramble. A D.I.Y. brick oven/grill and its nearby picnic table allow the visitor to simulate Tavern on the Green‘s al fresco dining and cooking experiences. Likewise, a mosaic garden feature with the word Imagine references a similar element of New York’s Strawberry Fields and Belvedere Castle is recreated through a cobblestone stairway leading up to an elevated veranda overlooking the full expanse.

handmade brick over/grill in Pittsburgh's Central Park
The brick oven/grill at Tavern on the Green
large ceramic piece reading "Imagine" surrounded by lush green groundcover
Strawberry Fields

As to the “illegal” nature of Central Park’s creation, it’s certainly true that Szabo began hacking away at the undergrowth without formal permitting or any of those pesky property ownership concerns. By now, though, it’s drifted into a much safer legal gray area.

Community group Uptown Partners provided huge assistance connecting the project with the city and grant funding. Szabo specifically cites U.P. former director Jeane McNutt as instrumental to the process. “Without her help and enthusiasm, Central Park would not be what it is.”

The city, in turn, removed the original jersey barriers that bordered the space and installed large stones used as seating around the central sculpture. City works crews also donated 1500 retired Belgian block paving stones that went into the creation of Belvedere Castle (and elsewhere).  

tiled outdoor veranda spelling the word "RENT"
Tribute to the musical RENT in Belvedere Castle

“This is the best thing I’ve done in my life,” says Linda Lewis, Szabo’s longtime next-door neighbor and partner in the project. The informal team of two doesn’t use titles, but Lewis describes herself as “A concerned neighbor of Moultrie Street who worked to develop and maintain the area for children to play; for families to have their annual Easter egg hunt; and for mothers to bring children to get a book or game from the free library. And, I love hearing the birds and seeing the deer.”

Beyond the zillion hours of hard work–after their full-time day jobs–Lewis says, “Joe and I developed this area and spent thousands over the years.” We can also verify that Lewis acts as the unofficial archivist tracking progress on the park. Linda produced way more photos than we can include here, but they show the development of Central Park from an out-of-control/nature-without-man thicket to its gradual clearing, sculpting, and building-out. It’s even become a venue for community events.

Central Park Pittsburgh creator Joseph Szabo
“The whole thing is an homage to New York’s Central Park,” Joseph Szabo in Belvedere Castle
Central Park Pittsburgh gardener/caretaker Linda Lewis
“This is the best thing I’ve done in my life,” Linda Lewis

“The Central Park project is never done, I’ll keep working at it for as long as I live, God willing,” says Szabo on whether the park is ever complete, “I would like to replace the main entrance with something more substantial. I’m thinking about the arch in Washington Square Park. The Romans built arches just for the hell of it–works for me.”

“I’ll hopefully connect the park to the hillside on Orr Street as Central Park East,” Szabo says of future plans, “This is where Andy Warhol was born. My idea is for a sitting area in a outdoor homage to his studio in SoHo, The Factory. I’m thinking a picnic table by the wall under Kirkpatrick Street, painted silver, and of course many of his silk screens hung on this wall. Andy Warhol’s family lived at 72 Orr Street for his first three years.”

pages from wild animal field guide mounted in Pittsburgh's Central Park
“We wanted to park to be educational too.” Szabo says they’ve never seen an American bison in Central Park, but visitors will be prepared to identify one if and when the time comes. One of several field guides in The Ramble.

To see Linda Lewis’ before pictures of the space after having experienced it in person is a shocking and awe-inspiring revelation. How could a person look at that untamable mass of bushes and trees, poison ivy and knotweed and think I could turn that into a mini-replica of Central Park?

Ms. Orbit, just as enthusiastic about Szabo’s grand vision, says of this thought process, “That’s the creative spirit in all of us–in order to create magic, sometimes you have to have preposterous instincts. It helps to let go of common sense and reminds us of what any of us can do: we can create magic.”

thick stand of small trees and brush with jersey barriers separating it from a residential street
Pre-magic. Before Joseph Szabo started work in 2013, Central Park was a hillside thicket bordered by jersey barriers [photo: Linda Lewis]
early work on Pittsburgh's Central Park including beginnings of footpath
The beginnings of The Ramble, 2015 [photo: Linda Lewis]
young girl cutting ribbon to open Central Park, Pittsburgh
Ribbon cutting, 2017 [photo: Linda Lewis]

The term hero gets thrown around a lot–probably way too much; visionary, slightly less so. But to this blogger, no one deserves those descriptors more than folks like Joseph Szabo and Linda Lewis. They’ve spent their precious free time, not to mention money, on a hard, physical, labor-of-love open for all of us to experience. That action converted a neglected hillside into a free-to-all public space virtually from thin air … er, from thick jaggers and stinging nettles. That creation is one full of nature, art, relaxation, and yes, magic.

Szabo’s use-what-you’ve-got aesthetic turned discarded bricks, leftover bathroom tile, and post-renovation kitchen cabinets into a Willie Wonka-goes-back-to-the-land-style fantasy world. If this isn’t the work of real American heroes, you show me what is.

small model ducks in pool of river stones
Ducks!

Getting there: Central Park is at the end of Moultrie Street in West Oakland/Uptown. Moultrie can only be accessed from Fifth Avenue. It’s very close to the north end of the Birmingham Bridge and even has a marker on Google Maps.

Rest in Punk: Memorial D.I.Y. 2021

memorial portrait painted on brick wall with candles and flowers below
Rest in punk. Memorial to activist Melissa “Missy” Kira (1993-2020), Polish Hill

The big mural is painted across multiple sheets of protective plywood covering the back entrance to an old brick building. On it, there’s a stark two-tone portrait of a young woman in glasses and shaggy hair with an indeterminate facial expression. Is that a subtle Mona Lisa smile or just let’s-get-this-over-with ambivalence at being photographed? We’ll probably never know. The woman is identified as Melissa “Missy” Kira (1993-2020).

At the base of the portrait is a small table decked out with those most reliable hallmarks of any active memorial site: saint-sporting veladoras (Mexican prayer candles) and bundles of flowers arranged in vases and laid out across the ground. There are also garlands and tchotchkes, glassware and bottles of mysterious origin.

memorial portrait painted on brick wall with candles and flowers below
Francesca Araya (1988-2018), Polish Hill

Kira’s memorial isn’t alone. The redbrick courtyard hosts three different wall-sized tributes to young activists, musicians, and community members. The murals are rough, charged with emotion, and resemble the iconography of the Rest in Punk message that appears on a couple of them. Any one of the paintings would blend seamlessly into the design language of Xeroxed flyers for a church basement all-ages show, patches on the back of a denim jacket, the cover art for a Crass record.

It’s also a scene straight out of old Pittsburgh–and one that’s increasingly rare to find today. What with seemingly every vacant lot and empty building in the East End actively getting converted into Legoland “luxury loft” apartments, it’s harder and harder to locate these kinds of off-the-books public/private spaces for a small community to gather, mourn, celebrate, and remember.

memorial portrait painted on brick wall with candles and flowers below
Corinne (1988-2021), Polish Hill

While these three punk rock memorials are the most elaborate we stumbled across in the last twelve months, they’re far from the only D.I.Y. remembrances out there. Americans have taken their mourning of the deceased out of the formality of pristine cemetery plots and into the streets everywhere. It’s a really beautiful kind of mass emotional release–the intensely personal act of grieving in the very public sphere of sidewalks, roadsides, fences, and utility poles.

wooden cutout of angel placed on hillside
Angel in the hillside. W.A.B., Chester, WV

Memorial Day is the holiday we’re supposed to honor the Americans who’ve given their lives in the service of their country. However one feels about the nature of war and American foreign policy, we should absolutely respect those who really did pay the ultimate price.

At the same time, the holiday is also an ideal opportunity for us to reflect on those we’ve lost who didn’t die in battle–or, perhaps, died fighting very different types of battles. Often, like the three punk rock memorials, these were young people who passed way before their time. Even if you’ll never have a commemorative portrait of you painted on a brick wall, we all know we’d be lucky to be loved enough for friends and family to construct a wooden angel and climb a craggy hillside to install it–or even just to lash some stuffed animals to a telephone pole.

So on this Memorial Day we celebrate all of the fallen that we never got to meet and all the people who loved them so much they took their grief into their own hands, D.I.Y. style. May they rest in punk.

sidewalk memorial with photos, flowers, candles, and stuffed animals
unknown, Strip District
memorial including candles and nativity scene
unknown, Troy Hill
impromptu sidewalk memorial including candles, flowers, and squirt guns
unknown (Kung Fu? Kuhn’s Food?), South Side
memorial including flowering plants, candles, and cartoon figure with halo
unknown, Millvale
memorial placed by iron fence with flowers and candles
Donny (1968-2020) (Pronounced Dawn-EE), Polish Hill
memorial on utility pole including stuffed animals and flowers
Tiffanie Anne Nelson, Erie
roadside memorial including stuffed animals, candles, and plastic flowers
unknown, Hill District
memorial featuring photograph and Easter bunny on utility pole
unknown, Troy Hill
memorial graffiti painting of the name "Tony" on cement wall
Why does the memorial for Franny Connelly read “TONY”? We don’t know. Millvale
memorial featuring photograph of small family and sparkley wreath on cement wall
unknown, Chateau
memorial for young man featuring large photograph, cross, figurines, and cans of Bud Light beer
unknown, Rt. 30/Raccoon Creek State Park
memorial on hillside featuring pink cross and professional sign
Amanda Desarro, East Liverpool, O.
memorial featuring photograph, pink cross, and flowers on utility pole
unknown, Wilmerding
memorial cross placed at base of tree
Bruce (6/9/66-?), New Brighton
memorial plaque nailed to utility pole
Daniel Smith (1983-2018), Garfield
memorial flowers in chain link fence
unknown, Millvale Street Bridge
memorial flowers in chain link fence
unknown, Millvale Street Bridge
memorial display with flowers, stuffed animal, and letter on bridge railing
Aunt Barb, Millvale Street Bridge
short wall painted white with names of many victims of police killings
Memorial to victims of police killings, Garfield

Skyline Fine Time: Eight Probably Isn’t Enough

rough painted metal with Pittsburgh skyline and text "City of Champions"
Worlds collide! Sheet metal pole art skyline, Hill District

In the wild hillside that runs between Bigelow Blvd. and The Middle Hill, there is an oasis of street art (err … steps art? tree art?) clustered in the forgotten land around one particular set of city steps. There are sculptures and collages, weird art photos and paintings on wood. Our favorite tin can pole artist has a whole trove of terrific pieces here.

Maybe we’ll do a story on the whole thing at some point, but it was one particular piece, nailed to a utility pole, that caught the attention on this day. In it, the artist has taken a discarded piece of sheet metal and painted a rough but unmistakable black silhouette of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline. There are the spiky towers of PPG and the peaked triangles of The Gulf Tower and Koppers Building. The artwork is inscribed with the simple throwback message City of Champions.

store window display of artist painted iconic buildings of Pittsburgh with light bulbs
Bright lights, big city. AlphaGraphics, Downtown

Mere minutes–OK, it was probably a couple hours–after posting our last trip down skyline way, there it was again. The artist who hand-painted the storefront for the old Yinzers in the Burgh didn’t have a lot of vertical room to work with, but made the most of what s/he did have. In city official black-and-gold–but squashed as if in the footpath on one of Godzilla’s benders–the downtown Pittsburgh skyline is still undeniable.

So, here you go, Pittsburgh: another couple dozen+ graphic renderings of the downtown skyline coming from storefronts and retail signage, community groups and folk art. Like that famous body part/Van Patten, eight of these collections should be more than enough, but this is a gift that just keeps on giving. I’m sure we’ll be back with #9 in the series soon enough.

closed storefront of Yinzers in the Burgh with hand-painted Pittsburgh skyline
Squashed city. Yinzers in the Burgh, Strip District
Turner's Tea van with graphics of the Pittsburgh skyline parked in front of ornate church
Debatable number of “T”s/teas city. Turner’s Iced Tea truck, Bloomfield
box truck with painted with mural including the Pittsburgh skyline and the word "Reggae"
Iriesburgh. The Reggae supply truck, Hill District
mural detail of downtown Pittsburgh buildings with eyes
The city has eyes. Spirit, Lawrenceville
signage for My Dogz on the Run food truck including silhouette of Pittsburgh skyline
Big mouth city. My Dogz on the Run food truck
logo for Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters including skyline of downtown Pittsburgh against red/black/green colors
Red, black, and green city. PURR: Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters logo (electronic)
mural on brick wall featuring cartoon-like painting of downtown Pittsburgh
Birds and bee city. LaScola’s Italian Ice and Custard, Highland Park
simple line painting on brick of downtown Pittsburgh buildings and bridge
Simple city. Rolling Pepperoni, Lawrenceville
mural on restaurant's exterior wall showing bridge and downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Bridge city. Rumi Grill, North Oakland
stone hand painted with logo for Ketchup City Creative including silhouette of the Pittsburgh skyline
Condiment city. Ketchup City Creative, Sharpsburg
pickup truck with graphic of downtown Pittsburgh buildings
Clean city. Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership Clean Team
panel truck advertising Rivertown Brewing with silhouette of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline
River city. Rivertowne Brewing truck
logo for Pittsburgh Window Film including downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Sunrise city I. Pittsburgh Window Film
real estate for sale sign including logo with Pittsburgh skyline
Sunrise city II. Aishel Real Estate
logo for Pittsburgh Kids Foundation featuring stylized downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Jagged city. Pittsburgh Kids Foundation, Downtown
window sign for Pulse including abstracted downtown Pittsburgh skyline
8-bit city. Pulse, Garfield
logo for City Collision featuring outline of the Pittsburgh skyline
Outline city. City Collision, Strip District
sign for Pittsburgh Truck & Tow including silhouette of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Tow city. Pittsburgh Truck & Tow, Sharpsburg
car with wrap advertising for Pittsburgh Property Remodelers
Gray city. Pittsburgh Property Remodelers car wrap, Stanton Heights
yard sign for Bill Peduto as Pittsburgh city mayor including the downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Shades of a blue city. Peduto for mayor yard sign [Note: not a posthumous endorsement, just reporting here]
window sign for City Grows featuring downtown Pittsburgh buildings as growing grass
Green infrastructure. City Grows, Lawrenceville
sticker with silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh skyline and text "Paris of Appalachia"
Paris of Appalachia sticker (Commonwealth Press)
outline of downtown Pittsburgh skyline spray painted on cement walkway
Graffiti city. Ft. Duquesne Bridge
pro-vote sign taped to street sign
Black-and-gold city. VOTE, Hill District
sticker for "Dabsburgh" including stylized downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Dabsburgh sticker, Bloomfield
vinyl sign for Tessaro's restaurant including stylized downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Flame-grilled city. Tessaro’s, Bloomfield

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

Whole Grotto Love: The Marys of Stanton Heights

cinderblock and brick residential wall with five different statues of Mary
Multiplying Marys. The (now) quintet of Marys (and friend) that greet visitors to Stanton Heights.

Most people will blow right by without ever giving the place a second thought. The little post-war brick and cinderblock house sits a comfortable distance off Stanton Avenue, tucked behind a curve in the road, and probably won’t even catch your eye when you’re barreling up the hill. It’s not the house itself that’s so exciting here, but rather the miracle of the multiplying Marys that is taking place out front.

Five years ago, your favorite hyper-local electronic publication ran a story that attempted to round up some of our favorite Marys from all over the place. [See: Hail Mary! Front Yard Mary Roundup (Nov. 27, 2016)] Yes, it was naive to bundle so many Marys from so many places together when seeking them out and collating them into location-based sets is so satisfying. Lesson learned.

Anyway, in that story, most of the way down, there’s a photo of this same Stanton Ave. address, but with merely three Marys against the aqua-blue foundation wall. If anyone is equipped for a miracle, it’s a woman who can conceive pregnancy with a holy ghost–so we shouldn’t put human cloning past The Blessed Mother. But this jump in the population begs so many questions: Can Mary immaculately replicate herself? Where do they all come from? Will there be more? Look, I’ve seen Multiplicity and things didn’t work out so well for Michael Keaton, so let’s all keep our fingers crossed.

statue of Mary in front yard of house
Whole grotto love Mary

Stanton Heights won’t bowl you over with its Marys. Between the neighborhood’s detached homes, large yards, big hedges, and fenced-in backsides, just locating a Mary here and there can feel like no small achievement. Rest assured, though–they’re around.

It takes a patient blogger who no longer sleeps to rise at the crack of dawn, trundle up the big hill, and criss-cross every block, each dead-end alley, and explore all the places, courts, and ways to get a thorough accounting of Stanton Heights’ Mary scene. [Side note: if you’re a Heights resident whose Mary was not found or you just think she deserves a better photo, please get in touch.]

That’s about all there is to say here. On this Mother’s Day 2021, we salute all the mommas out there from the O.G. Mother of All Mothers–you’re all immaculate in The Orbit‘s book!

statue of Mary among leafy groundcover
Our Lady of the rising groundcover
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Sunshine Mary and babies
statue of Mary in front of large hedges in residential front yard
Bustle in your hedge row Mary
statue of Mary on brick porch wall
Don’t jump! Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house
Oohooh Mary Blue, livin’ her life in a free-form style
statue of nun in front yard of house
Yeah, this looks more like a nun, but we’re going to count it
statue of Mary in back yard of house
Back patio Mary (looming, far right)
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Flower box Mary
statue of Mary under a tree in residential garden
Shade garden Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house with big yard
Perfect green blanket Mary
statue of Mary between flower garden and front porch
Mary Flowers-a-Poppin’
statue of Mary in front of house
Excited about the new city-issued recycling bin Mary
statues of Mary and Jesus by large bush
Big Mary and half-pint Jesus
statue of Mary against a cinderblock wall
Eyes on the door, back-against-the-wall Mary [yes, we need a longer lens]
small brick house with statue of Mary in front and no other decoration
No friends Mary

Beyond the Valley of the Doldrums: The Skunk Hollow Art Walk

paintings made from flattened tin cans nailed to a utility pole
“I’ll tell you what magic is … Love” / “The Hollow.” Unofficial tin can pole art welcome signage for the Skunk Hollow Art Walk.

There is a melancholy to the exhibition: themes of darkness, loneliness, one very literal cry for help. Among the images, you’ll find birds soaring in flight and stretched-out cats, abstractions and twinkling stars–but these are the exception.

If Orbit staff were laying out a catalog for the collection, our cover would feature the image of a single small piece installed on a utility pole. In it, a figure has been cut from a tin can lid and painted a rich spring green. The devil’s horns are bent and rusted and his eyes are cut out to make us believe we can stare right through the back of his cranium. In hand-lettered paint marker is a simple descriptor alluding to exactly that: A Lost Soul.

painting of devil made from cut steel can nailed to utility pole
A lost soul.

Elsewhere, there are instructions to Give yourself to the nite (sic.), a pair of unoccupied dinette seats, our favorite tin can pole artist’s tell-tale devils, martini glasses, hearts, and arrows. The artwork is made from recycled metal bits and bobs, a discarded cutting board, even the door from a standard-issue mailbox.

It is artwork from the trash bin, placed deeply out-of-sight–as if thrown into the void–and likely only ever experienced by fellow lost souls who hear the cryptic pieces whispering from cracks in the wood … or maybe that’s just the way it seems.

rusted painting on tin can nailed to utility pole
“Help me.” Ex-mailbox pole art.
painting on tin can nailed to utility pole
“All here (?) into the night.”

Skunk Hollow, the deep valley that separates Bloomfield from Polish Hill and North Oakland, won’t appear on any regional cultural guides; you’ll not find it featured in glossy magazines or listed among Pittsburgh’s next hottest neighborhoods. In fact, “The Hollow” doesn’t even show up on maps of the city (at least, not by that name). Its derisive title is merely a people’s collective dismissal of the out-of-sight/out-of-mind not-quite-a-real-neighborhood.

There are some good reasons for all this. Skunk Hollow hosts one of the more convenient spots in the city to illegally dump a La-Z-Boy recliner or an old television–plenty of people have chosen to do just that. The handful of businesses located along Neville Street are not what you’d call boutiques–they’re more of the rock-moving, general contracting, and looking-for-new-occupants varieties. Japanese knotweed has completely consumed the steep hillside and makes an effective trap for all of the blown-around street trash as it washes over Bloomfield’s banks.

rusted paintings on tin can nailed to utility pole
“And that nite, we raided the devils. Private stash needless to say.” / “We had a good ole time.”
collage of round-formatted street art attached to utility poles
Pole art in the round

So if the Convention and Visitors Bureau wants to pitch Skunk Hollow as a special place for out-of-towners to explore on their limited time in the ‘Burgh, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

But for those of us waking up ridiculously early, obsessively walking many mental health miles at daybreak, the Hollow is a welcome open air experimental art detour. Its randomly-curated works speak to the solitude of the early hour and themes of escaping into the night, tiny devils playing hell with our synapses, and you are not alone messaging make for a kind of communal balm for the disconnected.

paintings made from flattened tin cans nailed to a utility pole
“Life is good right now … thanks, Mom.”
small painting of camper trailer on wood screwed to utility pole
Camper trailer painting

The Skunk Hollow Art Walk is not what you’d call accessible. There is one big hill, one Y-shaped flight of city steps (we’ll get to those), and a road surface with no accommodation for pedestrians. Worry not, though, it’s unlikely you’ll see any other human beings–with or without vehicles–during the length of your visit. Walking in the street tends to work out just fine when you’re the only one there.

Viewing the environment on foot is an absolute requirement as all the little objets d’art are scaled for up-close examination and located in the kinds of niche spaces one must poke around thoroughly to see at all. One of the photos here (I loved kissing her in the rain, below) was achieved only by climbing up the hillside, bearhugging a utility pole with one arm, and then using the dumb selfie camera so I could get a photo of a tin can painting that I couldn’t actually see from my precarious position.

painting made from flattened tin cans nailed to a utility pole
“I loved kissing her in the rain.”
rusted painting on tin can nailed to utility pole
“Give yourself to the nite.”

For the directionally-challenged, don’t worry about getting lost in Skunk Hollow. There is only one road that traverses the short distance between Bloomfield’s backside and the old Iron City brewery. In typical Pittsburgh fashion, it goes by three different names–Lorigan, Neville, and Sassafras–in its approx. 3/4 mile run.

Most of the art is found along sloping Lorigan Street, from the Ella Street steps down to the bottom of the hill, so a greatest hits visitor could drop in for some tin can pole art and still make it to Tessaro’s for an early dinner. But really, why not go “full Hollow” and walk the length of it. It’s a little more spartan at the bottom, but by the end you’ll be rewarded with some great wheatpaste pieces on the old brewery.

City Steps with graffiti reading "Try" on every riser, Pittsburgh, PA
Ella Street (aka the “Try Try Try”) city steps
metal toy truck screwed into concrete steps
The “Try Try Try” steps metal truck

The last time The Orbit reported from Skunk Hollow we were on the step beat, there to check out the great Ella Street (aka the “Try Try Try”) city steps. We’ll not go over all that here, but this bit of you can do it self-affirmation infrastructure is totally of a piece with the collection of street art that surrounds it.

What’s been added to the steps (since that 2015 story) is its own terrific set of oddball ephemera. The bolted-on scrap parts truck (photo above) is thankfully still there, right at the lowest landing. It’s been joined by a tiny sculpture of simple chairs, placards, handrail ramblings, one repurposed wooden puppet-like thing, and a mystery mailbox.

sculpture of two chairs anchored into public steps
Tiny furniture, big steps
metal piece with text "Dream 1: You had a whole lot of fun with a comedian ..." attached to public steps
“Dream 1: You had a whole lot of fun with a comedian …” Steps koan
graffiti painted support on public steps of waving figure
Art on the “Try Try Try” steps

A fancy art museum, this ain’t–but then again, no one visiting The Carnegie gets to experience the thrill of risking both poison ivy and tetanus in their bloodthirsty pursuit of new tin can pole art. As combined art happening/aerobic workout, Skunk Hollow is hard to beat. Plus, the hours are great and the price is right.

Yes, attendees of the Skunk Hollow Art Walk will have to negotiate some broken glass and a few salty words committed in spray paint on the jersey barriers along the roadside–oh, there’s also that mystery odor. But, like poking through a thrift shop or digging through used records, a visit rewards the patience of the art lover willing to do a little work for a commensurate dose of oddball magic.

handmade masonry gates to Iron Eden, Pittsburgh
The Seussian gates of Iron Eden, Lorigan Street
wooden painted board that used to read "LOVE" with most of the middle section removed
Ouch! There is no middle ground in love. Vestigial cutting board art.
collage of protractors glued to various walls and signs
Yes, there are Pittsburgh protractors in The Hollow
graffiti on pink wall reading "Stuck in the rain for 20 minutes on a 1 year tour of the USA"
If JYK could make Skunk Hollow a part of his American tour, you can walk down the hill from Bloomfield.
metal piece with words "Rusty love" cut out nailed to utility pole
Rusty (and muddy) love

The Over-the-Wall Club: Searching for Wall Quarters

exposed formerly interior wall showing three paint colors in perfect quarters
One of humankind’s most glorious examples of wall quarters. Inside-outside wall, Wellsville, O.

The giant wall holds a lot of history–and likely not a few secrets. Two tall stories high and spanning the full depth of the lot–from the sidewalk on Wellsville’s Main Street all the way back to the service alley–this space did a lot of living. Demolition on the building that used to be here exposed a (former) interior wall that is an archeological treasure our shallow American memory will have to substitute for “real” finds like Sutton Hoo or Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The plaster walls still cling to a rich palette of battered colors. Each room had been painted in an entirely different scheme and what remains are beautiful antique reds, pale yellow-greens, and deep melancholy blues. There are channels on the surface where we see clear outlines of the old building’s load-bearing interior walls, a staircase, plumbing lines, slotted holes in the brickwork for tall floor joists.

With all this, it is one particular section of the wall surface that intrigues more than the rest. In it, we see the intersection of three colors, each scarred, smeared, and pockmarked with age but still brimming with verve. A strong yellow line runs due north-south and gives the whole thing the composition of a modernist painting. Everything exists in perfect right angles.

cinderblock and plaster wall with loose bricks
The wall that started it all. Forest Hills

The obsession with wall quarters began way back in 2015 with a reporting trip to Forest Hills. We were there to commune with the ex-atom smasher and later found ourselves by another, similar, inside-outside lot. Amongst the rubble of felled bricks and illegally-dumped housewares were four squares within a larger square: the right side faded green-blue, the left a dirty white; plaster above, cinderblock below. The section lines could not have been more precise.

It was perfect: balanced and meditative, color, material, and texture arrayed in transcendent harmony. It’s the kind of lightening bolt that may only land once in a generation–heck, once in a lifetime if you’re lucky.

brick and masonry wall sectioned into four colors, Pittsburgh, PA
Strip District

But, wall-watching naifs that we were back then, the hard truth wasn’t fully understood. It seemed obvious that we’d run into more big, glorious, quad-sectioned walls just as soon as the mind was opened to them. Why, once you set the controls for Marys or Steelermobiles or The Dog Police you see them everywhere–wall quarters must be just as easy … right?

brick wall with loose bricks
Bloomfield

Well, you know where this is going. No, it is not easy to locate a perfect wall square–and this poke-down-every-alley and look-inside-any-abandoned-property keister is here as a material witness. Six years later–six years of looking for these things!–and we’ve come up with merely a handful of specimens. A lot of them aren’t even that good!

But if you take the collection we did manage to cobble together and throw in a (good-sized) set of bonus/pseudo-wall squares, we end up with a pretty nice haul. Hopefully they’re as pleasing to Orbit readers’ eyes as they are for staff to deep focus on when we’re destressing in Chez Orbit’s salt cave. Breathe in, breathe out, close our eyes and say it until we believe it: everything is going to be all right.

cinderblock wall sectioned into rough quarters by paint, Pittsburgh, PA
South Side
section of plaster and marble wall divided into four distinct quarters
Millvale
detail of brick wall where different paint layers have made distinct geometric sections
Bloomfield

Row House Rejoinders

I’m not going to lie, The Over-the-Wall Club has some purists who frown on the relatively easy wall quarter pickins found in row house blocks. While it took us half a decade of constant scouring to come up with just the few “real” quarters (above), any Sunday stroll through the South Side Flats or the Mexican War Streets will reward with a bounty of these interfaces between next-door row houses.

With brickwork and foundations in a continuous plane, it just takes neighboring homeowners with different color preferences and a little bit of luck (steps, stoops, porches, and downspouts all get in the way; sloping hillsides break a lot of linear connections) to get really nice, perfectly squared-off intersections.

detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
closeup of bricks meeting foundation of two rowhouses, forming equal square quandrants
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville

No Room for Squares

As with life, things on a wall don’t always line up perfectly. One shouldn’t let that diminish the shear ecstasy of a beautiful mixed-media surface, though. An extra drain pipe here, foundations that don’t line up there–we’re all better off to roll with these as … not imperfections, but rather elements that broaden the depth of the final composition. Ain’t nobody perfect, but a wall with a whole lot of problems sure might come close.

detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of retail storefront where colored glass joints have made distinct geometric shapes
Vandergrift
brick exterior wall of row house painted in multiple sections
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
wall surface with geometric shapes formed by paint colors, siding, drain pipe
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make geometric pattern
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of brick retail storefronts where paint choices have made distinct geometric shapes
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville

Row House Romance: The Monochrome Set

Bob Ross would be proud: lots and lots of red! Bloomfield

Behind a six-foot brick wall sit two side-by-side row houses facing a thin alley in Bloomfield. On the left is a typical Pittsburgh wooden worker house: two up/two down, three windows wide, no decorative flourishes. Immediately abutting it is either a small house with an unexpected garage door or a small garage/workshop with an apartment upstairs–it’s not really clear. Everything is painted red.

This is a prime specimen for the row house fancier who wants a single, coordinated palette: lots and lots of red with just enough white trim to outline features of the two houses and make design snobs’ blood pressure rise. On a sunny day, with a big blue sky and just one wispy cloud dancing above it, don’t that look like America, man.

Spring green and clean. Bloomfield

After the mental and physical exhaustion of last week’s sob session, it’s time for some spring cleaning. We’re sitting on sixty-eight stories in draft mode–so it’s well past time to clear out the cupboards, beat the rugs, and maybe throw some things away. Yeah, we may never get to Andy Warhol’s weight set or great Men’s Room signs, but if the brain will cooperate, expect a return to the weekly format for a while.

For the latest installment of our Row House Romance series, we’re digging into that elusive sub-genre of row house watchers–the side-by-side bestest buddies that decided to dress up in identical outfits. (Or, at least, came pretty close.) Enjoy.

pair of wood frame row houses, both painted white, in Pittsburgh, PA
White on white, Bloomfield
Gray parade: gray house, gray house, gray sky. Bloomfield
large row house painted bright green
A green dream, Lawrenceville
pair of matching row houses, one painted white, the other black
Back to basics, Lawrenceville
pair of row houses with matching yellow siding
Mellow yellow, Marshall-Shadeland
pair of row houses, both painted gray
Gray parade redux, Lawrenceville
pair of row houses, both painted gray
Light/gray, Lawrenceville
Yellow(ish) fever! Bloomfield
pair of row houses, both painted in shades of red
Three shades of red, Sharpsburg
pair of row houses, each with gray shingled siding
Blue sky/gray fish scale, Perry Hilltop

A Hardship Post: The Lowdown on Getting Low, and Down

ornate building in dilapidated condition with the word HEALTH over one storefront
Not all health is good health. Former Monessen Savings and Trust Building, et al., Monessen

Preface: In the six+ years I’ve been doing Pittsburgh Orbit, I’ve made every effort to make it not about me. There are no bylines to my writing and the photographs are uncredited. I don’t include a bio and most stories are written in third person (or with a “royal we“). I’m not one that wants personal attention but I do want readers to focus on these (hopefully) interesting things all around us and appreciate them while we can.

That said, I’ve been going through some heavy personal stuff and–much to my chagrin–that’s the only thing my fancy brain can focus on right now. The subject is perhaps an odd choice to include in the Orbit–or even to make this kind of private info public at all–but the shame and stigma of mental illness is one of its most dangerous native features. If you can’t hang with that–or it’s just, uh, too depressing–I get it; you’re completely excused. Hopefully we’ll be back to our regular diet of upbeat stories on disappearing towns, sad toys, and partying alone in the cemetery soon enough.


large wall mural, only partially completed
Not right in the head/an incomplete picture. In-process mural, South Side.

Something isn’t right, all of the time. This is the water in which my brain swims and it’s how I’ve always been. No matter how good the occasion or how temporarily high the mood, there is a gnawing caution to not get too excited, to not enjoy it too much. This won’t last, the killjoy noggin chimes in to remind me, good things never do.

Dysthymia (aka persistent depressive disorder) is chronic, low-grade depression. It’s not among the more cinematic I wanna kill myself or I hear voices flavors of mental health affliction; it’s what used to be called “depressive personality.” That charming descriptor was deadnamed some time in the ’70s or ’80s for its less offensive and more clinical-sounding current title. Most of the time, it is entirely manageable with some low-octane pharmaceuticals and reasonable lifestyle choices.

mural of characters from Winnie the Pooh painted on wooden fence
Not quite right. Mural, McKeesport

Just like where I come from and who raised me (and who didn’t), dysthymia has affected everything about me. A half-finished painting is almost always more interesting than when it’s “done.” Forty-five degrees and drizzling is never bad weather–it actually feels pretty natural. Summer, with its relentless sunshine and unrealistic expectations for carefree fun, is the very worst of seasons. It’s why the minor third and flatted seventh sound so much better than their sprightly major cousins; Nick Drake, the Elvis of Sadness, gets a lot more spins than, you know, the Elvis of Elvises. I like my humor dry and dark.

painting of violin with with words "No Violins" and "No Crying"
Violins welcome. Outside art, Bloomfield

It’s also been a driving force in the Orbit aesthetic. Many people–some of whom are married to me–find spending a Saturday in, say, the Mon Valley to be “depressing.” The idea that I would return–over and over again, by choice, in my precious free time–to towns many view only as models of vacancy and despair, depopulation and collapse, where “they should bulldoze the whole place,” just doesn’t make a lot of sense to them.

stained glass window of figure in garden with many glass panes missing
Only half there. Mausoleum stained glass, Allegheny Cemetery

I don’t see it that way. Las Vegas is depressing. Suburban sprawl is depressing. Grown-ass adults scoring the likes on their selfies is depressing. Places with lovely bones, rich histories, big personalities, and flowers growing through the cracks in the sidewalk are fascinating, warts and all.

They’re also a convenient parallel for those of us who suffer from mental illness. We can’t throw these places–and, more importantly, the people who live there–away, just because the industries that built them abandoned the people who built the community. Likewise, there are those that would discard people who get brain sick as defective, broken, lazy, weak.

artwork of a man wrestling a bear
Man vs. bear (artist unknown)

Winston Churchill famously called his depression The Black Dog. I liken my experience to a different animal.

I’m in the woods and there is a bear chasing me, every day, all the time. He’s not one of those friendly bears. No, if the bear catches up with me, I will be mauled to death. I can outrun the bear, but only if I never slow down, never look back, never trip on a rock or pause to take in the view. If the bear gets me, gone are the relatively benign “blues” and “sads” we all experience and in comes the full battery of clinical symptoms: sleepless nights and loss of appetite, racing thoughts, guilt, shame, uncontrollable emotion. It becomes impossible to access joy.

It’s a good lifestyle for getting things done. When something wants to kill you, you don’t waste a lot of time on dumb TV, sleeping late, or doomscrolling. But being hyper-productive because the alternative is a hospital stay is no way to live.

deflated basketball in empty lot
Deflated, people say, they’ve got the blues or had better days. This ain’t that. Sad basketball, Lawrenceville

Anyway, I’ve been running for a long time–it’s been seven years since the last big one–but just recently that ol’ bear caught up to me again with a sneak attack I could never have prepared for. In the parlance of my psychiatrist, this is a “double depression” (I prefer “Double Bummer“)–a debilitating clinical depression on top of the everyday low-grade stuff. In the on-brand attempt to make lemonade from guilt-ridden lemons–and no capacity to write about anything else–I thought I’d take the opportunity to share one person’s perspective on dealing with the noonday demon.

If you’ve been there, this may be all too familiar; if you’re one of the lucky ones that never experiences major depression, maybe this will help you empathize the next time a friend is afflicted–and they will be, even if they’re too ashamed to tell you the truth about it. Regardless, I hope it can help someone.

large public statue, wrapped in plastic
He’s (almost) dead, wrapped in plastic. Christopher Columbus statue, wrapped, stacked, and packed for relocation, Schenley Park

Wrapped in plastic is maybe not as common a metaphor as greatest hits like The Thick Fog, Wearing a Lead Suit, or Stuck in the Depths of the Ocean, but it’ll do–and the Orbit archives contained a good photo to illustrate. The world is still going on out there, but at best we can only see it through a gauzy film; arms and legs too restricted to be of any real use.

This experience of having one’s eyes wide open–knowing exactly what we’re missing (or, at least, what the brain’s unreliable narrator tells us we’re missing)–is endemic of the experience. It’s watching our lives fast-forward to the near end when we can only dodder about while the world blissfully continues without a second thought about us.

two 1970s Lincoln Continental front ends joined together to make a single art car
We don’t know which way we’re going, either. “Two Face,” Schaefer’s Auto Art, Erie

There’s no right way to go. It’s a conundrum: when The Brain Fog takes over, every decision is the wrong one and every action taken is disaster. Doing nothing puts you into self-imposed solitary confinement; doing anything guarantees failure. Yes, this also describes the intersection where West Carson, Steuben, South Main, Sawmill Run, and The West End Bridge roll the dice to see which piece of infrastructure will claim a human life today.

brick wall with word "No" painted on it
NO, South Side

No, just no. Republicans have famously become The party of ‘No’. No, you can’t bring that bill to the floor; no, there will be no discussion on the topic; no, we don’t have any ideas of our own. But if a person really wants to get down to the no-no sound, he or she just needs to take the D train, downtown. That’s the fastest way to get to hurtin’.

It’s here in this underground club of mind control experimentation that the brain’s wondrous capacity for life-threatening distortion will override any inconvenient, fact-based truths. In a kind of scorched-earth one-upsmanship, the body follows the noodle’s lead and raises the stakes by impairing the ability to move. Want to do the things you love? No, you can’t. How about some simple relaxation? No–the body may be at rest, but the mind is on a wild crime spree in Crazy Town. Want to laugh, sleep, communicate like a human being? Ain’t gonna happen.

downtown Pittsburgh viewed from distace, at night
Nighttime is the wrong time. Downtown Pittsburgh after dark.

Nights are the worst. The daily experience of lying in bed, unable to sleep, night after night, is a living hell. To spend an evening–heck, every evening for the duration of the depression–alone with one’s devastating thoughts is like being on a long drive with someone that hates you. Unlike Bon Scott’s view of hell, this is a bad place to be.

As I write this (section), it is 2:38 am. Two melatonin tabs, deep breathing exercises, a sleep meditation recording, and one prescription-grade horse tranquilizer only bought me one hour of shuteye. I’m averaging around three hours sleep a day; if I get five I feel like I won the lottery. Like clairvoyants or time travelers, we know the day ahead is already ruined well before sunrise.

plastic skeleton on front porch with arm raised to wave hello
Hello neighbor, we’ll be over…sometime. Skeleton friend, Lawrenceville

Making friends with Death is one of the oft-overlooked bright sides to a clinical depression. Yes, there are others. Don’t discount the No Appetite Diet‘s ability to burn off some of the lockdown 35 in a most ruthless fashion or all the extra time one gets when you can’t sleep past 4:30. Every morning is a like three “fall back” time changes right on top of each other. Just imagine all the things you have no energy to do with those extra hours.

But as a lifelong wake-up-screaming-in-the-night worrier about the unknown hereafter, when one’s twenty delirious waking hours every day exist on a cold cocktail of dread, exhaustion, guilt, despair, and self-loathing, death is still a haunting specter–but it’s no longer the terror it once was.

[Side note: personally, I have never been suicidal and don’t intend to start now. But if you are anywhere near that mindset, sweet Jesus, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.]

metal folding chair with hand-written sign reading "Please do not move chair. Therapist coming."
Help is on the way…as long as there’s a place to park. Therapist parking chair, Lawrenceville

Something hopeful. I’ve been through this enough times to know these things end–they always do. It doesn’t feel that way when you’re in it–the brain is making some very convincing arguments that we’re in a hopeless situation with no possible resolution and no means of escape.

But that’s not true. We can beat this, it’s just really really hard. For me, I have to go into a holistic mind/body regimen like Rocky prepping for Drago: long, heartbeat-elevating daily walks/bike rides; being open, honest, and talking with anyone who’ll lend an ear; professional help; cut out drinking and mainline fruits and vegetables; do everything you can to ensure a decent night’s rest. (This last one is a particularly tough nut to crack, see above.)

The very best thing, for me at least, is what I’m doing here: writing about it–heck, writing about anything. Even when I’m unable to pick up the guitar or focus on a movie, I can get my head deep inside a piece of writing and feel like I’ve learned something in the process. It’s why this little blog post, authored gradually over a couple weeks of ups and downs, turned into an epic saga–I just kept having more to say, and it felt good to get it down. Getting thoughts out and organizing them, reading them back and clarifying ideas, the old gadget of writing a “letter never sent”–these things really work.

public art sculpture of UFO in Mars, PA
We’ll get out of here, one way or another. The Mars UFO.

Lastly, when Mrs. Orbit read an earlier draft of this piece her reaction was, “It’s good, it’s heavy, and people are really going to worry about you.” Please don’t. I will be fine and I do know that I’ll get through this … eventually. This past week was way better than the week before (when most of the above text was written) and I’m legitimately feeling like I’m emerging from the fog.

But it’s a good reminder that people are suffering all around us, all the time. The isolation and anxiety of the pandemic has sent previously-epic mental illness rates through the roof. Please check on any friend you haven’t connected with recently; make sure your neighbors are OK; call your mother. Nothing gives a person in depression hope like a friend just reaching out to ask, “How are you? Are you doing OK?” … and then letting them say whatever they need to let go of.