The Pizza Chase: Mon Valley Red Top at Armando’s, Charleroi

whole Mon Valley red top pizza on pizza pan
It’s Christmas any day you’re lucky enough to dine on Mon Valley red top pizza

We haven’t even gotten to Halloween, but the yuletide season is in full swing … if you’re in the right place.

A giant red bauble, sparkling in a gleaming silver halo, is cast against a field of deep kelly green. With the holiday season’s most repulsive color scheme thrust upon us–even on this warm, glorious, early autumn afternoon–one can almost hear bells a-jinglin’, cash registers a-beepin’, and maids a-milkin’. You’d expect a lunch this special to be hand-delivered only to The Nice by ol’ Saint Nick himself, rewarding a full year’s-worth of good deeds. The Naughty get a lump of coal … or maybe Papa John’s.

exterior of Armando's Pizza in Charleroi, PA
Armando’s Pizza, Charleroi

But! Nerves need not be a-tanglin’ nor moods a-swingin’, uncles a-drinkin’, or temperatures a-sinkin’ because Christmas exists this time of year only in the mind of the lucky diner who finds him-, her-, or they-self in that Valhalla of American regional pizza, the mid-Mon Valley.

Why, it is here that Santa’s elves train year round in flour-dusted workshops on knife-scarred cutting boards. Classic rock will have to substitute for caroling and mountains of grated mozzarella are as close as we’ll get to the ice floes of the North Pole–but that’s all just window dressing to the main event.

image of cartoon pizza maker on box top for Armando's Pizza
Armando’s Pizza box

Mon Valley red top pizza is it’s own thing. We went on and on about the greatness of the double-decker red top at Anthony’s Italiano, so we’ll not bore faithful “red heads” with another recitation of this unique style’s it’s-a-pizza and it’s-a-way-of-life transformative powers. No, we’re here today in Charleroi, at Armando’s Pizza, to once again chase the dragon, fly through the eye of the needle, and capture a moonbeam right in the palm of our collective hand. That’s what you get with a red top.

The pizza is all we could ever want: sustenance and gathering point, sure, but also good friend, consoling advisor, and life of the party. There’s a crusty dough on the edges where it’s been exposed to direct heat and a gloppy center as the red sauce ceiling has inevitably caved-in on the cheese and “toppings” innards.

serving of pizza being lifted from pizza pan
We hope you do that goo do that they do so well.

Red top purists will tell you there are no additions to this pie. It’s pizza simple, they say: dough, cheese, and the eponymous red sauce. Yeah, that’s great if you’re a monk, but when Armando’s is giving away four toppings for an extra dollar-fifty, we’ll take that deal all day long. [Note: Armando’s online menu shows the price difference between the Original Red Top and Red Top Supreme at an absurd 50 CENTS!?!]

Like Anthony’s, the Armando’s in Charleroi isn’t fancy. (The pizzeria also has a sister location across the river in Monessen.) You order from a counter up front and grab a drink from one of many mostly-empty coolers. The dining room appears to have last been updated in the ferns-and-stained-glass 1970s and feels like it’s lived a number of lives since then. At this point, with its dark wood and pendant lighting, one might call the style P.J. O’Pootertoot-retro.

two men holding slices of pizza in front of a stained-glass window
Whatever you order on (or in) your pizza, it comes with a double order of ham when you travel with these two. The Pizza Twins.

But you’re not at Armando’s to impress a boss, or parents, or your budding Internet romance. No, the hot date here is with a sublime style of pizza pie that one can only find in the towns along the banks of the Monongahela, where Santa decided to center all of his pizza-making divinity … OK, maybe God did that, not Santa–but you get the idea.

We’ll be back again … and again. There are other red tops to try and more of the gospel to spread. Just don’t tell Anthony we cheated on him.

Getting there: Armando’s is located at 583 Fallowfield Ave. in Charleroi and 201 Tyrol Blvd. in Monessen. It takes most of an hour to drive there from Pittsburgh.

WOW! In Dravosburg, Searching for the Woodmen of the World

grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Thos. Henry Vallance (1884-1916), one of many Woodmen of the World grave markers at Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg

The image is both bold and secretive, seal and sigil, blunt of message and artful in its old-world, hand-crafted execution. At its center is the stump of a tree, big roots extended like a three-legged beast; on either side are crossed boughs, each leaf in perfect alignment. Ringed around the image in a practical, modern typeface are the words WOODMEN OF THE WORLD MEMORIAL.

Beneath the tree’s roots is a small scroll. More often than not–at least in our harsh climate–the words have been worn away. But if you’re lucky, you’ll find one that still has its Latin inscription clear enough to read: dum tacet clamat, “though silent, he speaks.”

grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Matthew J. and Florence C. Webster

Woodmen of the World grave markers were a new thing to this taphophile until just recently. Sure, any tombstone tourist has tripped over plenty of big granite monuments carved to look like tree trunks, piles of cut wood, or stumps carved with a common surname, sometimes with each limb separately marked for a departed family member. As gravestone fads go, these were a big thing in the 19th Century and the fever lasted well into the 20th. Pretty much any larger cemetery dating from this era will have its share.

But The Woodmen! Not every stump-like grave marker is for a Woodman. In fact, here in the city of Pittsburgh, they seem to be extremely rare. To find one, you’ve got to kiss a lot of lumber-looking frogs. Woodmen markers will have that impressive insignia bearing the organization’s name or the dum tacet clamat phrase. Each will almost certainly date within the 30-ish year period from the 1890s to the 1920s.

grave marker with brass plaque of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Woodmen of the World brass plaque

Annette Stott, professor of art history at The University of Denver, seems to be the authority on Woodmen gravestones. Her article “The Woodmen of the World Monument Program,”(Markers XX: Annual Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies, 2003) is a great introduction to the relatively short history of Woodmen of the World’s (WOW) membership/insurance policy-gets-you-a-free-gravestone program.

Stott was writing from Colorado, which is perhaps not coincidentally where the Woodmen–a secretive, fraternal order in the mold of Freemasons and Odd Fellows–were founded in 1883. (WOW headquarters moved to Omaha, known as the “Sovereign Camp,” in 1890. The insurance side of the business–rebranded as “Woodmen Life“–persists to this day.) She describes a very particular couple of styles for the monuments the Woodmen initially offered to supply their beneficiary members in good standing upon death.

grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Jacob and Sophia Elicker

When and how the Woodmen spread east is unclear, but they sure found a lot of takers in the Mon Valley. I’ve had a devil of a time locating any WOW stones in all of my hundreds of walks through giant Allegheny Cemetery; exactly one found (so far) in equally huge Homewood Cemetery. (Though I haven’t put in the same amount of time there.)

But Dravosburg–WOWza yowza! Richland Cemetery, just uphill from the bridge to McKeesport, has dozens of Woodmen monuments. There are so many in this medium-sized memorial park that at a certain point, your author just stopped looking. You can’t bag them all and I had a cookout to get to.


grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Wm. G.E. Ward

Stott describes the two original designs offered by the Woodmen program as “a six-and-a-half-foot monument consisting of a shaft surmounted by a draped urn … or a seven-and-a-half-foot tree trunk with the Woodmen of the World emblems carved in high relief.”

There is nothing resembling “a draped urn” on any of the WOW monuments at Richland, but tall tree trunks with the Woodmen emblem are in no short supply there. There is a strong similarity in all of these, but they’re not cookie-cutter copies, either. The placement of severed limbs, design of the deceased’s name plaque, and the monument’s base all vary from model to model.

One of these (Peter Wersderfer, below) is decidedly more ornate than all the rest, but whoever decided to face the monument north–so it would be perpetually backlit–never considered the trouble that would cause photographers in the blogosphere a century later. Sigh.

Woodmen of the World grave monument carved to look like a tree trunk on a base of cut logs
Peter Wersderfer
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Theo. S. Wolf
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
James H. Edwards
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
grave marker branded with Woodmen of the World insignia, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Walter H. Smith
grave marker branded with Woodmen of the World insignia, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Alfred A. Trecanowan

Not Stumped

grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Alonzo L. Sutton

Even though one being a “member in good standing” was the initial qualification to be in the Woodmen of the World’s monument program, one has to assume the big seven- or eight-foot tree trunks had to cost a lot more than a simple flat slab. Money came into the system somewhere and it wasn’t going to pay out evenly across-the-board.

So there are many Woodmen grave markers out there with no resemblance to trees or stumps or woodland anything. One can see by the examples below that there were a couple more common, much simpler designs and then a number of outliers that look like the monument carvers added the WOW emblem to other off-the-shelf models in their catalog.

grave marker branded with Woodmen of the World insignia, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Samuel G. Gilbert
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Edward W. Hobbs
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Robert Jackson
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Wm. A. Downing
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Albert N. Evans
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Henry Williams
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
No snickering! Yes, John O. Cock was a Woodman of the World
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Isaac Miller Shick
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Louis J. Myers
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Charles C. Seitz

Woodwomen of the World?

grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Grave marker for Martha Ann Tharp (1862-1915), a member of the adjunct “Woodmen Circle.”

While there were undoubtedly many many ladies of the frontier who could accurately be described as “woodwomen,” it will come as a surprise to no one that a hundred years ago, a person required a Y chromosome to be eligible for the Woodmen of the World.

That doesn’t mean women were entirely excluded from memorials. Rather, as is so often the case, they arrived on WOW-branded markers partnered with their husbands or in their own separate, adjunct status.

Stott describes a particular version of this the Western U.S. “Women of Woodcraft, the female auxiliary of the Pacific Jurisdiction Woodmen of the World since 1898, also maintained a monument program.”

In Dravosburg, at least, there don’t appear to be any Women of Woodcraft, but rather a number of stones bearing typically female names and the seal-like imprint of the alternate Woodmen Circle. That title is objectively less cool than Women of Woodcraft, but we imagine the route to get there was pretty similar.

detail of seal of the Woodmen Circle, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Insignia of the Woodmen Circle
grave markers with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Lizzy (Woodmen Circle) and Thomas N. Fletcher
grave marker with seal of the Woodmen Circle, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
Matilda Neel (Woodmen Circle)

Woodmen of the Afterworld

grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
A rare post-1920s Woodmen of the World grave marker.

Woodmen of the World grave markers exist for a relatively slim segment of history–approximately, the 1890s through the 1920s. This tracks with what we found in Dravosburg, although the earliest ones spotted are from 1907. The insurance program likely took some extra time to spread this far east.

Stott describes the end of things as a basic case of an unsustainable business model:

After 1928, no insurance certificates were issued with a monument benefit, and in 1932, with no new money going into the monument fund, it was decided to distribute to each member still holding a monument agreement the exact amount that they had paid in, plus interest. That ended the program.

Richland Cemetery has at least two markers that include the WOW insignia and fall outside this timeline. Clinton Shallenberger (d. 1935, photo above) and William Neel (d. 1945, below) both ended up with WOW-branded grave markers, but it seems unlikely they were paid for by the organization.

grave marker with seal of the Woodmen of the World, Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA
William M. Neel, another post-1920s WOW marker

Were these “members in good standing” who’d paid enough into the program back in the day to find a grandfathered-in loophole? Or were they loyal Woodmen to the end who specified the organization’s seal on their gravestones–even if the family had to pay for it–as a dying wish?

We’ll likely never know–there may be as many reasons as there are after-market Woodmen of the World grave markers. Like their fellow crypto-brotherhoods The Freemasons and The Odd Fellows, The Knights of Pythias, The Frogs, and The Owls, there’s what’s known, what’s imagined, and what we’d rather leave untold to keep some mystery alive in this age of over-exposure, instant reward, and gluttonous narcissism. We can be grateful that maybe that’s something that might still be taken to the grave.

All photographs taken in Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA., Sept. 2021.

Ketchup City Confidential: The Marys of Sharpsburg

statue of Mary in front garden of brick house
Backlit like an angel Mary. A fine ambassador of Sharpsburg’s fertile Mary scene.


One thing about not sleeping: it leaves a blogger lot of time to hit the bricks–maybe too much time. Your wayward author spent most of the big light months stumbling through pre-dawn fog. Aimless, wandering, wondering, and trying to shake not few demons. Up hillsides with more wild turkeys than people; down roads where ravens and groundhogs ghosted the train to Lonelyville. Out looking for a reason when no one else had yet cracked the lids or boiled the bean.

Ketchup City at six in the morning is a funny place to meet a woman out on her own. This one wasn’t what you’d expect–all flowing robes, white gown, palms out like Fido’s about to jump in her lap. She had the face of an angel–glowing, porcelain, radiant–but this lady wasn’t giving anything away. She held her secrets tighter than a vice grip on a lug nut. Mary made you think decency may still linger on this scorched earth.

statues of Mary and Jesus in glass storefront window
Patriotic Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house
Composed Mary

Around another corner and there she is again … and again! Mary kept busier than a vampire at a blood bank. This lady didn’t know when to give up or how to relax. At every corner in this small hamlet, there’s another mother of a holy other watching out, keeping us honest.

There she is: standing guard in a big flower pot, her blue and pink gown ready for anything the world would throw at her. Again on a front stoop, commanding in the supra-orbital power of a protective grotto. Down the alley she’s relaxing under the dappled sunlight of backyard roses. Yeah, Mary looked better than a cold beer after a mowed lawn and all that walking makes a blogger mighty thirsty.

statue of Mary and rose bush in backyard garden
Shy Mary/Mary of the roses
ceramic statue of Mary on front steps of house
Classic grotto Mary

We put the tacks on Mary, but she gave us the slip more times than we’ll tell the big guy. A secret smile echoed from curtained window seats; knowing chortles from behind a screened-in façade. Sure, she was happier than a butcher’s dog, but Mary was hiding something. Like the best secrets, though, we knew the suspense is always worth the wait.

small statue of Mary in window overlooking flower box with many colorful flowers
Window box view Mary
statue of Mary in screen window
From a window to a screen Mary

Ketchup City–OK, Sharpsburg, if you’re pushing paper for the governor–you’ve got a lot to be proud of. Not the least of which is the battalion of Blessed Mothers peepin’, creepin’, and brow-beatin’. From St. Mary’s to The Madonna of Jerusalem, The Lafayette to CC’s, The Internet Court of Lies to Drop ur Load Washery (R.I.P.), you’ve got a friend in Sharpsylvania–just don’t forget the french fries.

ceramic statue of Mary in front of brick house
Brown brick Mary
statue of Mary in front of house with weeds
In the weeds Mary
house with statue of Mary
Mary with some of her less-famous offspring
statue of Mary with feet buried in garden mulch
Quicksand Mary
statue of Mary along alley
No Parking Mary

Hyde and Chic: Talking Trash with Glendon Hyde

three assemblage artworks by Glendon Hyde made inside boxes with Barbie dolls and recycled toys
Garbage, this ain’t. “The Price is White,” an assemblage triptych made from recycled, discarded, and donated objects in artist Glendon Hyde’s current show at Spinning Plate, “This is Garbage.”

The large swan has its wings spread a full four- or five-feet wide as it rests atop a glass table. Unlike waterfowl one might find in the most idealistic of parks or if you’re just randomly lucky out in nature, this bird is both skeletal and glasslike, brutally jagged, and delicately bedazzled.

The graceful neck of the beautiful creature is an ornamented fantasy of deconstructed costume jewelry, burnt-out micro-bulbs, and little pearly leaves. The bird’s wings are aloft in waves of smoky sunglass lenses as eggs populate the eye sockets of an animal’s skull. Around the body swirls a tumble of shiny red Christmas ornaments.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde made with recycled animal skull, plastic beads, sunglasses, and Christmas ornaments
“Emerge” (detail)

“The show is a love letter to Greta Thunberg,” says artist Glendon Hyde, “At fifteen, she had this myopic determination to do something about the state of the world. I wish we could all manage to find the bravery in ourselves to do something important.”

Hyde is discussing This is Garbage, the first large-scale solo exhibit of his artwork in thirty years. It’s up now through the end of the month at Spinning Plate Gallery. The title is ironic, self-deprecating, but also sadly true. Most people would look at these raw materials–and perhaps even the odd but lovely artworks to emerge from them–as detritus. Don’t make that mistake.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of small baby in fantasy bedding
“Lohan and Child: How to Export White Jesus” (detail)
assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of strange creature in desert-like setting
“Baboon Assed Bush Pig” (detail)

Garbage, this ain’t. But there’s no denying the obvious environmentally-conscious connection here. One hundred percent of the materials making up Hyde’s large freestanding, ceiling-dangling, and wall-hanging sculptures have lived previous lives.

The component parts have been supplied by friends, donated by fans, and left on his doorstep by the in-the-know. They’ve also come mailed-in from far away and picked right out of curbside garbage bins ahead of city collection crews. Nothing in the show, aside from glue, Hyde tells us, was purchased at an arts supply store–or anywhere else for that matter.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde including baby doll, beaded wreath, false flowers, and image of woman behind glass
“Restorations Needed” (detail)
assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of ant on an apple
“Picnic Dilemma” (detail)

While claiming the show was for Ms. Thunberg, another theme keeps spilling out. Emerge is the action word Glendon Hyde uses most in our conversation. That concept comes up early and often throughout the show.

The aforementioned swan is a piece literally titled Emerging and its companion Ugly Duckling rests just across the space. The two creatures appear to be looking back at one another with a knowing hang in there, it gets better silent communication.

Elsewhere, an enormous sequined frog morphs from its tadpole state; a cicada, or Sir Cada, outfitted in something between bondage and biker gear, has sprung from the earth for its once-ever-seventeen-year bender. Babies emerge from the womb; an ant is poised atop a glass apple; jellyfish bob and weave in the boundless surf of a tinfoil sea.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of duck made from string, wire, and plastic bits
“Ugly Duckling” (detail)

In a world–especially one still well within a global pandemic–where everything feels like it’s moved to the Internet, there is an even more subtle touchstone for the exhibit.

“I’ve emerged to be a more stalwart person,” Hyde says of the ugliness around so much of world’s discourse right now. “Current culture is so abrasive I found myself wanting to get away from the arguing. The best thing I can do is play and share that experience with friends.”

Indeed, the show is blessedly free of any video screens; there is nary a #hashtag, @handle, or URL address to be found. Instead, the show is a grand expression of human-hands touching each and every piece, working the materials, wrapping, gluing, and stitching disparate elements into their final reconstructed forms.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of a flying insect made from false flower petals, beads, and jingle bells
“The Buddha Moth” (detail)

Part of the fun of This is Garbage is that each piece warrants a multi-level examination. There’s an establishing first-impression from a few steps back. The viewer sees the overall form and message–often in perilously-precarious balance–its visual language and suggestive humor.

But then you’ve got to get in close–real close–to see the intense level of detail, clever reuse of random materials, and each creative choice in miniature that grows, blossoms, and yes, emerges from its rooted center. This is where your author spent most of his time–looking at all the little beads, the curling folds of movie film, how plastic Internet cables wrap and blend with soft, frayed acrylic yarn.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of head, arms, and torso of a figure
“Don Quixote”
assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde with costume jewelry, glass rabbits, and a model airstream trailer
“Florida Garden” (detail)

Two years of Glendon Hyde’s life went into creating This is Garbage. It took him and a friend four days just to set everything up in the gallery space. (And he lives right upstairs!) That might seem like a long time for a gallery show … until you see this one. It is as dense and eye-popping, stuffed-to-the-rafters and meticulously placed as anything you’ll encounter anytime soon.

Whether the lofty concepts behind Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Hipster Tea Trolley or Thoreau’s Temple translate to gallery visitors is questionable. What’s not is that This is Garbage is a fantastic vision statement from an artist who is singularly endowed with the ability to spin gold from tinfoil, bring life from street debris, and coax spectacular joy from these desperate times.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of horned animal made from plastic beads
“Hoodoo Guru”

This is Garbage is up at Spinning Plate Gallery, 5821 Baum Blvd. in East Liberty, now through Sept. 30. Gallery hours are Thursday and Friday, 12-6; Saturday 12-7; Sunday 12-3. Hyde is holding a special second opening–let’s call it a re-emergence–this Saturday, Sept. 11, from 6-10.

A final note on the photographs:

It’s safe to say visual art is pretty much always best experienced up-close and in-person. To see the scale, true color, and individual brushstrokes of a painter; how different strands cross, meld, and blur in fiber art; the way sculpture demands to be seen from multiple angles; up close and from a distance. Photographs are excellent long-term documentation for the work, but they just don’t match up to seeing the real thing.

Glendon Hyde’s pieces really need to be seen in person. There’s just no way to photograph most of the work (especially in this particular gallery setting) and have it look like anything–that’s why we chose mostly detail shots. A bunch of really great pieces didn’t make it to this story for that reason alone. Do yourself a favor and get down to Spinning Plate while you can to see this fantastic show the way it needs–nay, deserves–to be seen.

* Special thanks to Paul Schifino for an assist on this story’s title.

Collage Dropout: The Return of The Midnight Montagier

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
A lot to take in on one’s morning commute. One of the Midnight Montagier’s large collages, Bigelow Blvd. pedestrian overpass, 2018

There is a lot going on here. Three bleached-blonde bikini babes take center stage in the strange artwork, but each has her face plastered-over with a large sticker or morphed into freakish skeleton-like distortion. On either side, big colored cartoon-like images have been pulled from a big book, or maybe a glossy calendar, or poster–who knows? Surrounding all this is a riot of other, smaller imagery: faces, sections of classic paintings, pop culture icons, and recycled Hello, my name is identification tags.

The whole thing is probably six feet wide, mounted on cardboard backing, and has been zip-tied to the chain link enclosure on one of Bigleow Blvd.’s two pedestrian overpasses. It is not alone.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018

They appeared all at once, in one glorious technicolor explosion. At least, that seems like what happened.

One day–it was late June, 2018–these protected walkways were surprise-decorated (aka bombed) with more than a dozen giant collages, all in a singular style. Taken as a whole, the jumble of assembled images added up to a distended fever dream of dark cartoons, chopped-up advertisements, random photographs, and belongs-on-a-skateboard sticker art.

Attempting to discern meaning from any particular collage–let alone the installation writ large–is a fool’s errand. Sure, there’s plenty to work with if you really want to impose a theme on a collection of random Manga frames, postal slaps, and Obey stickers–but you’re not doing yourself any favors by wading into that particular murky sea.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018

One after another, attached to both faces of the chain link fence with zip-ties, the eye-popping pieces felt like the magnum opus of an artist (or artists?) who we’re calling The Midnight Montagier. (You know, from the French.)

Weeks, months, maybe years worth of work must have gone into hoarding visual imagery and curating the contents, the cutting-out and gluing-down. All this quiet energy was blasted out to the world–or, at least, the handful of pedestrians who regularly walk the overpass–in one giant salvo, three summers ago.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018

The pieces felt less like an organized statement of purpose and more like a compulsive saver finally admitting I’ve got to do something with all this stuff. There are worse motivations for artistic expression and many lesser attempts at beauty and/or messaging on city infrastructure.

The gift of these carefully created pieces to the few of us who experienced them before either nature or the Department of Public Works decided their time was up was fascinating and much appreciated.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018

With this much creative energy and such obvious dedication to the medium, the person or persons behind the Bigelow installation would have to strike again. Once they got their first taste of anonymous glory and release to the world, there’s no way they wouldn’t want to go back for more … right?

Well, we waited, we watched, and over the last three annums, we’ve trundled down every side street, back alley, bicycle lane, and flight of city steps the city has to offer, always looking, always searching. Days turned to weeks and months turned to years. But alas, that was it. The Midnight Montagier seemed to have saved it all up for a single epic go-down-swingin’ exorcism of every creative demon and each loose bit of visual ephemera to wash up on their desktop.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments hung on chain link fence
Bigelow Blvd. overpass, 2018

… until just last month.

Three years later the Montagier finally struck again! Why we didn’t run a piece on the collages at Bigelow back in 2018 still seems goofy, but perhaps the blogging gods knew there would be more to the story–we just needed to wait through a global coronavirus pandemic (Phase I, sigh) to get there.

Regardless, our old collage buddy returned–and in such dramatic fashion! In a similar kind of overnight secret art drop, new pieces arrived en masse across Lawrenceville’s utility poles, free publication boxes, and at least one mailbox early this August.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to mailbox
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021

It took your author about two seconds to recognize the tell-tale blocky hodge-podge of colorful visual jetsam, this time glued to a utility pole on Butler Street. Other pieces were spotted in quick order–mostly along Butler Street, but also up the hill on Penn.

Several very rainy weeks on, the pieces are still holding up, if sun-faded and with some edge peeling. The style of collage is exactly the same, but the delivery mechanism has shifted ever so slightly. Gone are the big cardboard backings and loose zip-ties. These pieces are smaller, maybe 11×14–sized to curl around roughly a quarter of the big steel traffic signal poles–and glued or wheat-pasted directly to bare metal.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021

To The Midnight Montagier, Thank you for distributing your collections in such an exciting, egg-hunting, head-scratching way. For keeping the spirit of the street alive and coloring the world. For making the morning constitutional a mental exercise as well as physical. If you’d ever like to tell your side of the story, we’d love to connect. Until then, we’ll be looking out for you, at Midnight.

colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021
colorful collage of cartoon images, stickers, advertiments attached to utility pole
Lawrenceville, 2021

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