Leftover Lashes

single false eyelash still in its packaging

There hadn’t been a need to dress up for some time and the available options were limited. The couple of fancy dresses pulled from the back of the closet now felt tired, faded, and dated. Skirts too tight about the waist; a formal blouse needing a stiff ironing to flatten its deeply-embedded crinkles.

Still, anticipation of dinner with Marcus was great enough that the exercise of assembling a passable ensemble from the spare parts laid out across Solœil’s bedspread was enjoyable with let’s-put-on-a-show optimistic enthusiasm.

One of her nicer business jackets was selected and a jaunty scarf in a translucent floral print tied just-so could cover the sagging neckline of the only top that matched. A silver brooch with a stylized image of the sun, a gift from her father way back on her 21st birthday, accented nicely. The whole thing came together well enough to instill confidence.

Marcus had selected Le Pommier both because for its impressive reputation and on the false assumption that Solœil came from French ancestry. Solœil’s name was something of an in-joke within her family. A portmanteau of “sole” and the French word for “eye,” the invented name (shortened to “Loy” by friends and family) wrapped the newborn in faux-Gallic exoticism. Her parents felt the name would be both personally meaningful and celebrate her guaranteed-unique status.

That Marcus had asked Solœil for a second date–their first was a casual after-work coffee–was something of a surprise. The whole eye thing made dating a nonstarter for most men. The few who approached Solœil were either jerks wanting a laughable story for their beer buddies or complete weirdos looking for a freak show. Solœil had learned to make any first meeting quick, cheap, and easy to escape from.

Marcus was different in the plainest of ways. He was neither good nor bad looking and came off as boringly normal, sensibly logical, and never once questioned Solœil about the single eye centered right above the bridge of her nose. It hadn’t come up even once in their hour-long chat at the coffee shop. That itself was refreshingly freeing and completely unexpected.

It turned out Marcus had a matter-of-fact way about most things in his life. As their bread, wine, and iced tea arrived–Marcus hadn’t had alcohol since his uncle died of liver failure at 58–conversation turned to where each lived in the city. Solœil learned that only a couple years prior, Marcus had extensive remodeling done to his house on the North Side. A drunk driver had jumped the curb and crashed into the front wall of his two-bedroom bungalow. The ’88 LeBaron only came to rest after colliding with the living room couch. Had he not been retrieving dinner from the microwave, Marcus would have died right there, watching Jeopardy. That night, Marcus explained, he’d finished his Salisbury steak and tiny apple pie before calling the insurance agent.

Over steaming bowls of soupe de poisson, Marcus went on to reveal a shocking litany of other near-death experiences. At six years old, a plastic chess piece was jammed into his throat by sadistic older brother Steven, prompting his first Life Flight. To this day, the brothers still play a protracted match each year at Christmas and Steven will menacingly twiddle his rook when he feels like he’s losing. Marcus had almost drowned after stepping on an out-of-its-reach stingray on a family vacation to Ocean City. An absentminded fall through an open elevator shaft happened just weeks into his first IT job downtown. The medics said he would have died if the server room hadn’t been on the second floor. At 42, the wrong IV injected by a sleep-deprived first-year at Presby forced Marcus into a five-day coma.

Marcus turned out to be an excellent listener–engaged without being too personal, curious, and asking thoughtful follow-up questions. He showed real interest in Solœil’s work in graphic design, the deep connection to her parents, her love of gardening and cinema. Like a skilled therapist, Marcus had connected dots between Solœil’s family history, being an only-child, and the importance of helping disadvantaged people in her volunteer work. Some of his theories were a little out-there, but Solœil couldn’t shake the depth of thought that went into them.

By the time Solœil put her dessert spoon to rest–Marcus was still scraping the plate for every last microcurd of creme brulee–she’d decided she legitimately liked this quirky, frugal man. She also found herself realizing Marcus’ veneer or normality hid a much more complex person than the one she met for coffee a week earlier.

As they left the restaurant, Marcus extended his hand and said how much he’d enjoyed the evening. He announced it was past his bedtime and needed to dash off to catch the bus home. Solœil was surprised by the abruptness, but with everything else it was something of a piece. She got out her keys and headed home.

The next morning Solœil received an email from Marcus. It was an invitation for another date–this one to attend a fancy garden party at a private home in tony Sewickley. The pricey admission went to support a charity supplying textbooks and medical supplies to schoolchildren in Ghana. Marcus offered to pay for two tickets if Solœil would drive them.

When she arrived at Marcus’ home the following Saturday, Solœil was immediately struck by the obvious reconstruction of the house. Carpenters had grafted an incongruous modern paneled exterior on one half of the street-facing side of the building to its original wide wood siding everywhere else. The work was well done, but for a designer it was a chalk-and-cheese Frankenstein job. At the restaurant, Marcus had admitted he had no eye for architecture and bought the house purely for its proximity to town and affordable price.

On either side of the front steps were a single row of newly-planted marigolds–each perfectly in bloom and spaced an exact six inches from one another.

“Do you like those?” a voice asked, seemingly from nowhere, “I just planted them on Thursday.” Marcus emerged from behind the screen door. “You said you like gardening, so I figured I should take the cue to finally put in some flowers.”

Marcus was dressed nicely in a casual jacket and tie. The colors didn’t really compliment each other, but Solœil didn’t yet feel comfortable enough in the nascent relationship to offer wardrobe advice.

Solœil had taken the opportunity to purchase a new sun dress for herself. She’d also decided to force the eye discussion by adding a single false eyelash–jet black with lashes perfectly fanned-out like rays of a new rising sun. A thick stroke of eyeliner made the single window to her soul impossible to miss.

“Why don’t you drive?” Solœil asked as they cruised out-of-town, “Is it because of the accident at your house?”

“Oh no,” Marcus replied, “I’ve never been able to drive. I have an impairment that would make it dangerous to do so.”

Marcus went on to describe, in great technical detail, the way dysocunesia had affected his life. The rare condition caused the brain to process visual stimuli in hyper-spectral, multi-dimensional, extra-reality. “Essentially, I can’t trust anything I see with my own two eyes,” Marcus said, “I have an accommodation for screens–television and computer–which is how I’m able to work and do most of the things I need to get by.”

Solœil learned that most of Marcus’ interaction with the real world involved some version of trial-and-error. He would probe his plate with a fork to sense where each item actually rested. Doing his laundry, dishes, or cutting the grass was more by sense of touch, or rote memory. Stairwells, with their hypnotic pattern, were especially troublesome; Marcus would close his eyes entirely and use the handrail rather than trust the swirling angles his brain was delivering. The new flowers at the house had been spaced by using a special ruler with notches set every inch so he could feel distance measurements.

At the party, Solœil now noticed the careful way Marcus navigated the world–especially these new surroundings. He could clearly see well enough to know when to reach for the stone handrail leading down six steps into the sunken garden or how the hors d’oeuvres were arranged across their wide table. But he approached each new challenge with a delicate restraint that belied a lifetime of experience processing confusing incoming stimuli. Solœil sensed an ability to parse reality from kaleidoscope vision and then carefully select the safest route forward.

Solœil found herself assisting Marcus in the gentlest of ways. She took his hand as they walked across the grass and made sure to clearly introduce them in conversation, audibly identifying each new person they met. Marcus seemed completely unaware of the weird stares, jerking double-takes, and whispered innuendo from other attendees on seeing this strange woman with a single eye above her nose.

When they got back to his house, Marcus thanked Solœil for the wonderful day and clumsily expressed a desire to kiss her. Several inches taller than Marcus and the only one who could see straight, Solœil needed to lean in and guide the maneuver before the whole thing got even more awkward than it already was.

“Marcus,” Solœil started, still not sure how she was feeling about any of this, “You never once asked me about my eye. Aren’t you curious?”

“Which one?” Marcus replied. “Sorry–that’s a dysocunesia joke we don’t get to use too often. I thought I’d let you bring it up, in your time.”

“I’ve spent my life trying to adjust to a world I can’t always participate in,” Marcus said, “Trying to join a society that doesn’t always have time for a person who can’t move at their speed is really difficult. From what I can tell, your one eye works a whole lot better than both of mine put together.”

The couple moved to an old steel glider on the front porch. Marcus leaned his head back to rest his exhausted eyes and relaxed into quiet humming–a beautiful and haunting Gaelic melody he’d learned as a kid, he explained. Solœil peeled the single false eyelash from its lid, kicked off her uncomfortable heels, and gently pushed the glider into a slow rocking sway.

The Sound of No Hands Clapping: A Flyer that Won’t Go Away for the Show that Never Happened

photo inside former Quiet Storm coffee shop, Pittsburgh
Interior of the old Quiet Storm, after the stage had been removed, c. 2011 [photo: The Chubby Vegan]

We’ve all pondered the sound of one hand clapping, but what is the sound of no hands clapping?

In the late 1990s, a former “nuisance bar” on Penn Avenue called The Quiet Storm was shut down after the nuisance of having a man knifed to death on premises. In its place, a coffee shop/vegetarian restaurant/leftie command center opened. The new owners painted the walls a patchwork of bright colors, refloored the space with a random splattering of leftover acrylic tiles, added fresh flowers to the tables, displayed them in thrift shop vases–but they kept the old name.

By the early-aughts, The Quiet Storm had added a small stage, a minimal PA system, and quickly became an ideal performance venue for Pittsburgh’s local musicians. The back half of the big room could comfortably host a hundred audience members and with no liquor license, the venue’s BYOB policy made for easy, fun, cheap nights out.

So it was with some pleasant surprise that my band at the time, The Hope-Harveys, were offered a prime Friday night spot, just a couple weeks away. We (and The Cuff, the other band on the bill) did our due diligence at getting the word out, flyering throughout the city, inviting friends. This was going to be a good night.

Rock video for “Antarctica, I’m Yours” by The Hope-Harveys, c. 2004. Video produced by David Craig, starring The Failed Mime and band.

The anecdotal responses started to follow a pattern: “Oh, man, I’d be there, but I’m going to that Johnsons show.” The Johnsons Big Band were something of a local phenomenon at the time and their record release show–with its scene-de facto mandatory attendance policy and near guarantee for onstage anarchic drama–was booked for the same evening in a small theater across town. [Your author was a big fan and likely would have been there himself, but for.]

We arrived, we set up, we kibbutzed with The Cuff. But that was it. No one. No friends, no local music gadabouts, no spouses and no girl/boyfriends of band members. Not a single audience member–paying or otherwise. The Cuff had a pregnant bass player at the time who wasn’t feeling great and had decided to see if anyone rolled in late before committing to performance. Our band had no such prerequisite.

Moments before taking the stage, the sound woman had just one request. “You guys know how to run this stuff, right?” she said, gesturing to the sound board behind the coffee bar, “I’m going to try to catch that Johnsons show.”

Postscript: Johnsons Big Band, The Cuff, Hope-Harveys, and the much-beloved, but not sustainable venue are all gone. But fifteen years later, if you’re on Morewood Ave., on the block between Centre and Baum, you can still see a flyer–sun-bleached and half torn off though it is–advertising The Hope-Ha… and Cu…

torn and sun-bleached flyer for rock-and-roll show on steel pole
The flyer that won’t die for the gig that didn’t happen, Morewood Ave. Advertisement for The Hope-Harveys and The Cuff at The Quiet Storm, c. 2004, still partially visible in 2021.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally submitted to a literary magazine seeking first-person stories from musicians about memorable experiences occurring while on stage. Never having even heard back from the journal, I’m using it here, dammit. Rock on.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: Wigged-Out On Tumbleweave, Part 2

large mass of false hair on road surface
The Jellyfish, Hill District. One of the many species of tumbleweave we routinely see throughout metro Pittsburgh.

It is the fine excesses of life that make it worth living.

Richard Le Gallienne

Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realize that nothing really belongs to them.

Paulo Coelho

There’s more to hair than real hair.

George Willard
sandy blond colored wig on road surface
The Mop Head. Lawrenceville
full head of hair including ponytail covered with road grit
The Baccala: head to tail and covered in salt. McKees Rocks

When last we considered Tumbleweave–the unique phenomenon of loose hair running buck wild throughout the city–it was to ponder the begged question What causes a person lose a full head of hair, all at once, right out in the street? Sadly, we’re no closer to achieving enlightenment on this (or any other) subject.

Still, the weave, wigs, braids, plugs, and other faux follicles keep a-tumblin’ and we’ll be the ones putting kickstands to pavement and taking the photographic evidence. Rest assured: as long as people are dropping hairdos on sidewalks, you’ve got a reliable proxy in the fourth estate to keep everyone honest.

braided ponytail on cracked cement
The Slithering Snake. Etna
section of black hair on black asphault
Black top on blacktop. The Knot. East Liberty

So this time around The Orbit is taking a more academic approach. The discarded, lost, stolen, or torn-from-their-roots heads of hair we find may have lived a dozen lives by the time they end up here–or maybe they’re freshly arrived from last night’s revelry–we just don’t know. Like stargazers of yore, we have the rare opportunity to look deep into their mesmerizingly-random shapes and placement, isolation and juxtaposition and speculate on how they got here and what their inkblot forms spark in the subconscious.

Science is built on the backs of its predecessors. Legions of well-intended scientists before us have attempted to categorize and classify nature; when that involves human behavior and the cut-loose coiffures within it, we’re dancing with the devil. Remember: it is only through spectacular failure that we may ultimately achieve sublime success. Let’s assume we’re in the early days of this particular journey.

Finally, if you’re out-and-about and spot a particularly nice ‘do drop or mop top at the street stop, tag us–we’d love to see what our readers are finding and what they see in them. Until then, we hope everyone is wigging-out in the best of ways.

single false eyelash still in its packaging
Leftover Lash of the One-Eyed Lady, Hill District
dyed red hair braid on road surface
Don’t fear the red reaper: The Crimson Scythe. Strip District
section of fake hair on road surface
Aloha! The Hula Skirt. Lawrenceville
section of false hair on leaf-strewn ground
Surf’s up! The Crashing Wave. Lawrenceville
mass of hair on muddy sidewalk
Mudbound: The Fossil. Beltzhoover
small tuft of false hair on road surface
Fall fuzz: The Puffball. Oakland
section of false hair on leaf-strewn ground
Calling home: The Head with Antennae. Oakland
large mass of false hair among large roadside weeds
Tumbleweave in the weeds *or* knotweave: The Dead Poodle. Hill District
large mass of false hair in bicycle lane on city street
Bike Lane Roadkill. East Liberty [note the Orbitmobile sneaking in for a mise en scène cameo!]
small tuft of false hair on road surface
Like Bruce Willis, even tumbleweave takes Bigelow. The Gutter Other. North Oakland
false hair mixed with cigarette butts and other trash on weed-covered sidewalk
All butts, no ifs: The Garbage Collector. West Homestead
blue belt and clump of false hair on sidewalk
Still life in black and blue: The Tied-up-in-a-Bow. Strip District
long braid of false hair on street surface
Product placement: The Swoosh. Hill District
full head of hair covered with dry leaves on street
Who’s Sylvester? The Unmade Bed. Marshall-Shadeland
small tuft of false hair on road surface
It’s cicada season somewhere! The Cocoon. Bloomfield Bridge
small tuft of fuzzy false hair on sidewalk surface
Late night fuzz: The UFO. Strip District
plastic doll's hairdo with attached hair found on roadside
It’s come to this! Even dolls wig out. North Side
sandy blond colored wig on road surface
Under Pressure (Chemical): The Mop Head (again, in context). Lawrenceville

Hello Kitty, Goodbye Innocence: Sad Toys, Vehicular Edition

pink Hello Kitty toy car left out for trash pickup
Hello Kitty, goodbye innocence. Ain’t no sad toy like the one parked under an illegally-dumped mattress. Hill District

It is hard to overstate the raw pathos wrought by the scene confronting your author. A tiny automobile–its proportions only fit for a youth of perhaps five or six–electric pink and decked-out in the familiar white-cat-with-bow-in-her-hair emblem of the Hello Kitty brand. The vehicle is parked in a vacant lot in the upper Hill District aside and underneath an illegally-dumped sofa and guts-spilling-out mattress. The waterworks are already flowing and it’s only just seven a.m.!

Mercedes ends. Spring Garden

While it might surprise some that such a fine motor vehicle–and hopefully a once-beloved child’s plaything–would end up in this sorry state, the pink Hello Kitty two-seater is no anomaly. It turns out big little cars are outgrown, lost interest in, and not making the cut on moving day for much of America’s youth. That, or these not-meant-to-last distractions just plain break down. No one knows how to repair the engine in a plastic toy car.

Regardless, if we see a tiny Mercedes, mud-soaked and windshield smashed, now resting curbside with full garbage bags as roof cargo, we’re going to squeeze the brakes and take a picture every time. Welcome back to the City of Sad Toys: Vehicular Edition!

large pink toy car parked vertically in front of brick house
Unclear whether this is a sad toy or a creatively-parked roadster, but we’re counting it. Hazelwood
Garbage/truck. Bloomfield
child's toy truck left in overgrown backyard
Out back, break house. Sharpsburg
child's all-terrain vehicle left on roadside
Rusty Razor [no, it’s not that rusty…yet]. Woods Run
Mini-monster trucks, empty storefront. Jeannette

Sad bicycles are where it really gets personal. As a daily rider and cycling advocate who thinks everyone (physically-capable) would be happier on two wheels, seeing kids’ bikes crushed, tossed in the weeds, and abandoned on lonely roadsides hurts. Unlike the battery-operated cars above, bicycles are infinitely repairable–up to a point–so they really needn’t be dismissed so easily.

Imagine the childhood trauma at having one’s first taste of freedom ripped from her or his hands, left behind, or destroyed by negligence. It’s like we’re already training the next generation of road-rage-infused drivers for whom bicycles represent deep psychological wounds. To the youth of America [yes, I’m sure they’re reading Pittsburgh Orbit]: don’t let a lost or stolen Spider Man bike color your tomorrows! The future’s on two wheels!

Oh! The humanity! California-Kirkbride
child's Spiderman bicycle dumped in weed-filled lot
Spidey nonsense. Beltzhoover
pink tricycle abandoned in grassy lot
Crawling from the wreckage. California-Kirkbride
child's bicycle dumped in overgrown alley
Barbie’s dream cycle, this ain’t. Marshall-Shadeland

Finally, some other things-with-wheels/things-people-ride-on. Not much to say here except I’m still kicking myself for not bringing the rocking horse home and painting it silver. That would have looked great attached the fence at Chez Orbit. We’ll not get that chance again. Sigh.

rocking horse toy left out for trash
Rocking horse loser. Lawrenceville
riding/rolling toy abandoned at former quick mart
Train in vain. Lawrenceville
toy lawnmower left in alley
Enough practicing. Someone’s ready for the real thing. Lawrenceville
skateboard missing two wheels left in rainy grass
Two wheels bad. Millvale
plastic front wheel from a Big Wheel toy left on leafy ground
Big Wheel, little else. Mt. Washington
plastic toy boat crushed in gravel
It’s Shark Week somewhere! Polish Hill

Hail, Mary! The Marys of South Oakland and Oakland Square

ornate shrine to Mary including large brick and masonry grotto, statue of Mary on a stone pedestal, urns with flowers, candles, and angel statues
The (blessed) mother of all South Oakland Marys. Shrine of the Blessed Mother aka “Our Lady of the Parkway.”

Welcome to South Oakland: childhood home of Dan Marino, Andy Warhol, and Bruno Sammartino. At least, that’s what the welcome sign on Frazier Street, at Dan Marino Field, tells us.

Those were the days, huh? One’s mind wanders to a time before Oakland’s tight, pre-war homes had mostly been converted into student housing. When it was still a neighborhood with a large Italian-American community full of workers who’d commute not to the current nearby ginormous eds and meds employers but instead south, down the hill, to the massive Jones & Laughlin steel mill occupying both banks of the Mon.

Setting aside the pesky reality of belching smoke stacks that blackened the sky and rained soot on everyone and everything, it must have been a pretty great place to grow up. The Carnegie museums, library, and concert hall an easy half-mile walk; Schenley Park, even closer; downtown Pittsburgh a mere trolley ride away. Football at Pitt Stadium (R.I.P.), boxing and hockey at The Gardens (ditto). Backyards overgrown with grape vines and fig trees; the intoxicating aroma of stewing marinara wafting from kitchen windows.

statue of Mary in grotto enclosure on pedestal in special attachment to front porch
On a porch of her own Mary

… and Mary. Oh! The mind reels at the thought of all those good Catholics sacrificing a half-week’s pay for a quality statue of Her Blessedship–blue-cloaked, head down, and palms out. Maybe she’s posed in a bathtub-shaped grotto or up on a pedestal–or both! In our gauzy rose-colored nostalgia-by-proxy, a saunter down Dawson, Ward, or Juliet was so rife with statuary that the stray houses without a holy figure stand out … but that’s probably just the imagination running wild, like usual.

statue of Mary in grotto with additional ivy grotto in front of house
Ivy grotto Mary

South Oakland and adjacent Oakland Square are an entirely different scene now. Great neighborhoods still, mind you, with all the same location advantages. Heck, around Chez Orbit, the area has crucial pins on the step-trek and cycling maps as entry point to the great Romeo & Frazier steps and gateway to the Panther Hollow trail. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine either neighborhood as childhood home to many kids today.

With the ever-gobbling-up of greater Oakland by the twin goliaths of Pitt and UPMC, Oakland’s demographic has shifted decidedly from working families to student transients. A stroll anywhere and you’ll see all the tell-tale signs of off-campus living: ratty porch couches, Tibetan prayer flags, Pitt banners, card tables laden with last night’s party debris. Religious iconography? Not so much.

Mary statuette in front yard flower garden, Pittsburgh, PA
Urnin’ a living Mary

But if you spend a little time, look around a bit, you’ll still find Mary doing her thing. She’s flanked by urn-styled flower pots and nestled between hedges. Mary peeks out from behind blooming flowers and serves her country under a patriotic flag-filled fantasia.

The (blessed) mother of all South Oakland Marys is, of course, The Shrine of the Blessed Mother (aka “Our Lady of the Parkway”) (photo at top). Installed on a beautiful hillside nook where one can both relax in the solace of the space, take in its terrific view across the river, and pretend the unrelenting Parkway traffic below is just rushing water on a boisterous river … with random bursts of road rage. Yes, we’re obliged to do a whole story on the Shrine at some point.

statue of Mary in front of gas meter
Lovely Mary, meter maid

Until then, steps-seekers, park wanderers, and the Mary-obsessed alike can bask in the glow of The Blessed One’s dimmed, but still radiant aura emanating from the dozen-or-so figures and still-potent empty grottoes visible from Oakland’s sidewalks. If only we could peer into all those backyards! Untold riches almost certainly hide in these private spaces. For that, we’ll have to look to the heavens, say a little prayer, make the sign of the cross, and thank the Lord we can party with Mary whenever she’ll have us.

statue of Mary behind small hosta plant with solar light
Hosta mañana, baby! Mary is (solar) lit!
Mary statuette in front flower garden, Pittsburgh, PA
Peepin’ through the flowers Mary
Mary statue in front of brick porch with many American flags, Pittsburgh, PA
Patriotic Mary in coffin grotto
statue of Mary in front of brick house with hanging flower baskets
Mary of the Hanging Baskets
Mary statuette encased in brick and glass on front porch of house, Pittsburgh, PA
Still in the closet Mary
large empty brick enclosure meant for statue of Mary
Maybe Mary fell out? Leaning/empty grotto
empty masonry grotto built into brick front porch of house in Pittsburgh, PA
You grotto be kidding! Empty grotto
homemade brick Mary grotto with Jesus figurine and toys, Pittsburgh, PA
Former Mary grotto, re-inhabited by squatters

A Visit to the Fountain of Youth

stone spring house embedded in wooded hillside
Fountain of Youth, North Park, Summer 2021

From the road, it is impossible to see much detail in the odd structure lurking in the woods. Built directly into the hillside with an impressive array of flora stretching up as far as the eye can see, there is a proscenium-like opening in the tree canopy such that it’s visible right from Kummer Road.

It’s obvious this is neither one of North Park’s many party shelters nor anything too utilitarian, so you’ll know you’re onto something out of the ordinary. Get closer and the etched stone ornament above the doorway clearly, cryptically, tantalizingly reads Fountain of Youth.

detail of capstone on spring house engraved as "Fountain of Youth"
Capstone, Fountain of Youth

Two visits to the fountain, separated by fifteen months and one global pandemic. The first–literally days before the world shut down in March, 2020–was brisk, way before leaves had returned to the trees, but lit up in glorious early afternoon sunshine under a pure blue sky. The second, mere weeks ago, on a hot and humid June afternoon, following the inevitably-introspective event of a friend’s gone-way-too-soon memorial service and a really rough few months in Nogginland.

If you, your friends, and loved-ones survived the pandemic with your (physical) health intact, be thankful. It was a really difficult year-and-change even if everyone in your world is still breathing. At best, we all probably feel like a year of our lives just evaporated into the aether.

interior view of the spring at the Fountain of Youth
An offering for the fountain sprites

Under these circumstances, who wouldn’t want to dip a ladle into a cool spring and drink crystalline mountain water–spiked with faerie dust, magick-infused, and blessed by the cosmos–to regain a measure of our collective lost year?

Spoiler alert: Don’t get your hopes up. First of all, no one (including your author) is recommending you drink the water from The Fountain of Youth. A 2019 Pittsburgh Magazine story informs us that by the 1950s, “tests revealed the fountain’s waters were no longer fit for human consumption due to ‘coliform organisms.'” Rumors have it that leaks within the nearby golf course watering system led to the spring’s demise. One can imagine graduating seniors from nearby North Allegheny and/or Pine Richland contaminating the water the old-fashioned way.

view through stone doorway to sunny wooded area
View from inside of the Fountain of Youth

The basic facts on The Fountain of Youth are both easy to find [Atlas Obscura, Roadside America, and WESA’s “Good Question!” series all got there before we did] and yet don’t tell us much at all. These sources agree the New Deal-created Works Progress Administration (WPA) constructed the spring house in 1938 and modeled the design to look like a Roman cavern. The short life (~15 years) of the spring as a water source, the pump-don’t-work-’cause-the-county-took-the-handle, and that stuff about water contamination are in common as well.

That’s about it, though. No one has an explanation for how a government works program decided to declare this place Fountain of Youth and not, you know, something more predictable like “Roosevelt Spring” or “Liberty Fountain.”

entrance to spring house grotto built into wooded hillside
Entrance to the Fountain of Youth spring house, winter 2020

It is a cruel irony–or, perhaps, the most clever of cosmic jokes–that as a functional entity the “Fountain of Youth” had a lifetime shorter than that of your average house cat. But the ornate built-into-the-hillside structure is still with us, sheltering in the rain, cool and tranquil in the heat of summer, and enticing the inner, curious child in all of us (ahem) no-longer-children out into the woods for an eye-opening explore.

Does simply breathing in the clean air of the Fountain of Youth give us a regenerative contact high? Does a proximity to natural spring water cleanse the soul even if we don’t ingest it? Does it matter? The Fountain of Youth got us up and out, into the woods, poking, pondering, and bathed in sunlight. So yes, it seems like the Fountain of Youth is still working its magic just fine.

spring house grotto built into wooded hillside
Fountain of Youth, seen from Kummer Road, late winter 2020

Getting there: The Fountain of Youth is maybe 100 feet off of Kummer Road, in North Park. It’s 0.7 miles north of the intersection with Ingomar Road and has a marker on Google Maps–you won’t have any problem finding it if you look.

Note: While the distance from the roadside is short, getting to the spring house from the road requires shinnying down a little hill, crossing a small stream, and then up again on the other side. The site is neither wheelchair-accessible nor recommended for those with any level of mobility problems or difficulty negotiating awkward terrain.

Red and White, but Mainly Blue: Flag Post, 2021

retired flag box in small cemetery
The flag’s not dead! … but it probably had a rough year like the rest of us. Retired flag box, St. Nicholas Cemetery, Reserve Twp.

“The guy who painted that died before he could finish her face.”

The speaker, an older gentleman, I didn’t get his name, is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 556, in Vandergrift. That is a sidewalk bench in front of the post on 11th Street; her is the Statue of Liberty. The familiar figure is striking her iconic torch-raised-skyward pose and has been sketched-out and blocked-in with a background gray.

It’s nearly complete, but the little detail painting is indeed missing all features of Lady Liberty’s face, leaving her head in ghostly negative space. The folds of Liberty’s flowing robe also seem only half there and we can imagine the finished work detailed in a patriotic blue to contrast the backrest’s red and white stripes. But … we’ll never know if that was the artist’s original intent.

detail of wooden bench painted with red and white stripes, Statue of Liberty, and "USA"
“The guy who painted that died before he could finish the face.” Faceless Statue of Liberty flag bench (detail), Vandergrift

All American Transmission, inhabiting a cinderblock garage just off Millvale’s main drag, has been on our list for as long as we’ve been collecting stars and bars. The giant flapping American flag painted across the shop’s north-facing side wall is what this Independence Day series is all about–created by hand, patriotic, but maybe a little bit … off.

As many times as we tried, the big mural was never available for a proper photo shoot. Inevitably, either the surrounding chain link fence would be locked tight or vehicles were parked in the lot such that we could never get a clean angle on the wall.

After years of loitering on North Ave., we finally got the opportunity last fall and … the light was all wrong. Backlit and hazy under a half-cloudy sky, the effect was to throw a shadowy blue cast across the whole scene. Under The Orbit‘s typical hard-assed standards this photo would never make the cut–but this isn’t a typical year.

mural for All American Transmission Company with company name in giant waving American flag
Red and white and blue all over. All American Transmission Co. flag, Millvale

When we started to review this year’s collection of flags, though, Blue turns out to be something of both a visual and emotional theme. The set of American flags spotted on long, early morning “blue hour” mental health hikes and various walk- and ride-abouts taken over the last 12 months took the melancholy hue more often than not.

A row house in Polish Hill with pale blue aluminum siding covered in viny overgrowth with American flags as window curtain and mailbox ornament. Sunshine spotlighting Old Glory suspended from a makeshift carboard-covered windowpane against a blue-gray staircase. A fishing boat, its nose pointed skyward, decorated like an American flag (but missing the stars) photographed so early on an overcast morning the entire frame is in a still-dreaming blue pallor.

row house window overgrown with vines showing American flag used as a curtain inside
Flag curtain, Polish Hill
small window covered in cardboard with American flag sticking out
Cardboard window screen/stairway flag, Sharpsburg
small boat painted like the American flag
Flag boat, Reserve Twp.

They’re sad flags on a sad year. Six hundred thousand Americans dead of coronavirus–almost all of those since the previous Fourth of July. A population still unsure what the new world is going to look like; whether we’re all going to be sent back in the hole by the Delta strain; if we even know how to communicate with other human beings after 15 months in the bunker.

Rest assured, not every new flag in the Orbit‘s cross-county travels involved a deceased artist’s unfinished masterpiece or the shroud of mental fog. We came across plenty of well-lit, full sun, American flag-like things decorating private clubs and garden walks, identifying street addresses and hung from picture windows. But on a year when blue is the prevailing mood, red-and-white just doesn’t feel quite right.

brick wall with inlaid tile to look like American flag
Missing a few stars. Tiled flag wall, Cave Club, Wheeling, WV
decorative fence painted red, white, and blue
Flag fence, Wellsville, O.
spray-painted American flag with the text "The system is broken"
“The system is broken.” Graffiti flag, Color Park, South Side
mailbox painted red, white, and blue
Flag mailbox, Reserve Twp.
row house window decorated with multiple American flags
Flag window, Lawrenceville
window decoration of red, white, and blue wreath and American flag
Flag wreath/tribute, Lawrenceville
window decoration made from clothes pins painted like the American flag
Clothes pin flag, Polish Hill
address marker with large eagle and American flag
Home address placard eagle/flag, Reserve Twp.
bench painted like the American flag
Flag bench, Wellsville, O.
cement garden tiles painted like the American flag
Garden tile flag, Donora
hand painted American flag taped to glass door
Window flag, Lawrenceville
metal protective plates on alley utility pole painted red, white, and blue
Flag utility pole guards, Sharpsburg
handmade American flag made from recycled wood attached to brick house
Ragged flag, Stanton Heights
row house with wooden window cover painted like the American flag
Cellar window cover flag, Etna

Finally, there are plenty of those evergreens of patriotic DIY home decor: flags made from discarded wooden shipping pallets. From suburban front yards to row house back alleys, pallet flags are so common that it almost feels silly to keep the collection going. Ah, who are we kidding? In a pinch we’ll still take the pictures and serve them up like coleslaw and potato salad alongside the more prestigious Fourth of July party offerings.

These got blue, too. Often taken in those same getting-the-head-together pre-dawn hikes, but maybe just existing in year where everybody lost something, even if we didn’t lose everything, makes things turn out this way.

Happy Independence Day, ya’ll. May we all warm up on the figurative color wheel from here on out.

shipping pallet painted like the American flag, hung on alley fence
Pallet flag, Lawrenceville
shipping pallet painted to look like the American flag
Pallet flag, Troy Hill
shipping pallet painted like the American flag in front of brick house
Pallet flag, Stanton Heights
shipping pallet painted like American flag leaning against brick wall
Pallet flag, Strip District
shipping pallet painted like the American flag in front of brick house
Pallet flag, Stanton Heights

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