Stamp Collecting: The Quest for More Sidewalk Stamps

pair of sidewalk stamps by Langell & Son, Millvale, PA

Langell & Son, Millvale

All these years wasted! A lifetime, really. Day after day, week after week, month after month rolling around with neither goal nor focus. Eyes dawdling in every direction but down! Into electrical wires, on the backsides of buildings, caught in treetops, telephone poles, and up in the clouds. Regrets: yeah, we’ve had a few.

Sure: we’d seen sidewalk/mason stamps before, but they never really occupied prime territory in this blogger’s dog-eared and ill-folded mental map. Maybe it was just plain not paying attention or the willful ignorance of avoiding their alluring street-level stare. Either way, the city’s concrete masons never made that great of an impression on us [har har]. That was, however, until Orbit reader Larry Kramer came into our life with his post-Easter walk-through on the year-round egg hunt that is stamp collecting.

sidewalk stamp for Didiano Bros. Cement Contr., Pittsburgh, PA

Didiano Bros. Cement Contr., Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Jos. Lucente & Son, Pittsburgh, PA

Jos. Lucente & Son, Gen. Cont., Lawrenceville

Larry’s piece was a great beginner’s guide to the greatest hits–plus a few deep cuts/one-hit-wonders–of Pittsburgh sidewalk-laying history. Di Bucci, Pucciarelli, Baleno, Ciriello–these are the Beatles, Stones, Michael Jackson, and Prince (respectively) of local cement work. You’ll come to recognize their tell-tale signature shapes from any distance–across the street or cruising by in a two-wheel, slow-motion neighborhood drag.

A little tip: don’t get too excited when you bag your first diamond-shaped Santo–it’s about as hard to find as Best of Bread or Whipped Cream and Other Delights at any thrift shop–and worth the same fifty cents. In just a few short months, we’ve developed a whole new outlook on life and a more discerning palate in this most al fresco of dining experiences.

sidewalk stamp reading "WCCP", Pittsburgh, PA

WCCP, Oakland

sidewalk stamp reading "Neno Colucci Cement Contractor", Pittsburgh, PA

Neno Colucci Cement Contractor, Lawrenceville

DidianoLucenteColucciPalmieriCiummoPollice. It’s a stereotype, for sure, but the names–which read like a passenger manifest on a one-way liner from Naples to Ellis Island–don’t lie. Italian-Americans poured a lot of concrete in Pittsburgh over the last century and still seem to dominate the business today. After you bag all the big-name repeat offenders, it’s these other smaller-scale, long-gone operators who may only have a handful of remaining stamps that keep the hunt alive and exciting.

"Palmieri" sidewalk stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Palmieri, Oakland

sidewalk stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Ciummo Bros., Friendship

There seems to be very little documentation on the computer Internet of this particular underfoot history–and most of that comes from some pretty rinky-dink sources. From what we can tell, though, the legacy of sidewalk stamps has some unique cultural differences based on what part of the country was having their pedestrian paths prepped.

sidewalk stamp for D. Pollice & Sons, Pittsburgh, PA

D. Pollice & Sons General Contractor, Oakland

sidewalk stamp for Jos. Crimeni Paving, Pittsburgh, PA

Jos. Crimeni Paving, Oakland

Here in Pittsburgh, the obvious thematic threads between our stamps are that they include the surnames of (mostly Italian) individual contractors, (seven-digit) phone numbers, and (often) extra business info squeezed in, ex: Cement Contr.Gen. Con.Landscaping & Construction. Our stamps are never dated. (Sigh–that would be so interesting!)

Other cities like Vancouver and Milwaukee have made dating the concrete pour the primary stamp. In Corvallis, Oregon the system was to include street name, contractor, and year of installation, but with a standard form and typeface (if it can be called that) containing no individual flourish. In the latter case, every (known) stamp in town seems to have been impressively mapped and labeled. There are other blog entries documenting small collections from Los Angeles, Oakland/Berkeley, Denver, and Chicago–but there’s just not that much interest out there.

sidewalk stamp for Dormont Concrete Co., Pittsburgh, PA

Dormont Concrete Co., Oakland

The new school. Depressingly sterile in their oblong, bloated rectangle shape and factory-set letters, it’s still great to see today’s masons leave their mark–and phone number–in their work…the stamps are just not as attractive or interesting.

Nick Scotti (whose unique diamond-shaped six-sider was included in Larry’s piece) shows up with two different new-fangled stamps. The “Concrete Man” of Verona and Antonio DiFiore are working with similar off-the-shelf models. Vento Landscaping & Construction obviously paid for a nicer, custom design.

sidewalk stamp for Vento Landscaping & Construction, Pittsburgh, PA

Vento Landscaping & Construction, Friendship

sidewalk stamp for Nick Scotti, Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Scotti concrete contr., Bloomfield

sidewalk stamp for Nick Scotti, Cement Contr., Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Scotti, Cement Contr. (hand-written phone number), Oakland

sidewalk stamp for Concrete Man, Pittsburgh, PA

Concrete Man, Friendship

sidewalk stamp for Antonio DiFiore, Pittsburgh, PA

Antonio DiFiore, General Contr., Morningside

Finally…these are pretty neat, but there must be more of the really cool metal plaques that Larry mentioned, right? You bet your big brass there are! We’re working on a follow-up that will include the really old-school inset pieces along with some of the other oddball stamps and things we’ve found. That’ll be up….sometime.


Got a tip on an unrecognized stamp? A suggestion of an impression? We’d love to hear about it.

Going Postal: Cap Man Fever

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #8, Schenley Plaza

The ball cap is cocked high, resting on the back of the head at a jaunty just-off-center angle. Its bill is pure black, minus a small rectangular label on the inside brim. When you can see the man’s eyes, they stare directly back with a cold, dispassionate expression. More often, though, they’re shrouded in the heavy shadows cast by his supraorbital ridge.

Cap Man–our name for this anonymous figure–is the subject of a series of tiny artworks currently on view for a limited time* in the general vicinity of Craig Street and Forbes Avenue in Oakland. You’re going to have to work a little to find them.

portrait of man with eyes closed wearing a baseball cap drawn on US postal service mail label and stuck to blue free paper box, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #1, Forbes Ave.

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #2, Craig Street

Both the medium and presentation for the Cap Man portraits are as DIY and proletariat as they come–thick black felt tip ink drawn on repurposed U.S. Postal Service “228” priority mail labels. The little stickers have been peeled off and applied haphazardly to a free publication bin, an electrical box, street poles, and–clearly the venue of choice–the back sides of metal street signs.

Cap Man’s creator certainly isn’t the first to use this medium. Alternately going by the general term sticker art or the more specific postal slaps, you’ll see similar pieces littering mailboxes and light poles all over the city and (apparently) across the country. Typically, though, they’re filled with either bright big-lettered tags that look like studies for future spray paint work or blunt messages like the series of FUCK TRUMP stickers around town. The Cap Man original ink portraits are something a little more interesting.

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #3, Craig Street

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #4, Bellefield Ave.

We don’t know who this person is–either artist or subject. It’s probably safe to assume, though, that the two are one in the same–self-portraits of a young man on the move. The angle of the image seems to suggest the artist is working from a lap-held mirror, or (more likely) his phone.

A theory: The proximity of where the stickers have been left suggests the possibility the perpetrator is riding the bus to Oakland, getting off at Fifth & Craig (or thereabouts), and then tagging the first bare surface he or she encounters on the ensuing walk down Craig Street and around the corner, heading toward the museum maybe, or Pitt.

In this scenario, the drawings may even be inked right there in the aft seats of the 54C or the 93A, a daily discipline perfect for the 10-minute hands-free commute. The shaky nature of this workspace would also help to explain why a couple of the portraits are clearly off–as if the otherwise competent hand that drew them was jostled mid-stroke…but this may just be a romantic pipe dream from a blogger who reads too many detective stories.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #5, Forbes Ave.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #6, Forbes Ave.

Let’s face it: ball caps look pretty dumb on anyone who’s not either twelve years old or actively playing baseball at that moment. That said, we’re glad Cap Man has given his stark two-tone/big negative space portraits something distinctive to, uh, hang his hat on. As a visual element, it makes his head stand out, provides structure, and frames the top of the drawings. It also provides a nice thematic grouping for the current exhibition in Oakland.

We suspect Cap Man’s old-school selfies aren’t the only street-facing work of this artist. Bloomfield is currently host to another pretty distinct series of postal slaps that look like they may have come from the very same hands. That, however, is a subject for another post on another day. Until then, a tip of the hat to you, Cap Man, it’s been a good time finding your tiny pictures.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #7, Forbes Ave.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #8 (detail), Schenley Plaza


* Limited, but unspecified: sunlight, rain, or graffiti cleanup efforts will eventually claim these pieces.

Hold the Cheese: A Pi Day Salute to Ghost Pizza

neon sign reading "IZZA" (the letter "P" is burnt out), Natrona Heights, PA

unknown, Natrona Heights

What’s not to like? Fresh-baked bread–right out of the oven–some kind of sauce, a lake of molten cheese. There are umpteen different things you can throw on top for more flavor–and each one has its defenders and cynics–but these are almost superfluous. Pizza–Hot, Fresh, & Delicious, as if the standard-issue paperboard box needed to remind us of it–is (unofficially) America’s national dish[1].

Pizzerias are a classic formula that’s never needed to be updated–order a single cut for a quick lunch or a whole pie for a group dinner. They get dressed-up in fancy toppings and elaborate food narratives one day, but it still tastes great as greasy street food the next. Pizza places are future-proof: utilitarian as gas stations and lusty as saloons. No one wants Internet pizza.

All that said, not every pizza joint is going to have the long-term endurance of Beto’s or P&M. So on this Pi Day, we celebrate some of the fallen soldiers on pizza’s long campaign to win the hearts, minds, waistlines, and cholesterol counts of America. Buon appetito!

hand-painted sign for Venice Pizza on cinderblock wall, covered in vines, Pittsburgh, PA

Venice Pizza I, Lawrenceville

cinderblock wall with mural for former Venice Pizza & Pasta, Pittsburgh, PA

Venice Pizza II, Lawrenceville[2]

Brick commercial building with green, white, and red storefront, Clairton, PA

unknown[3], Clairton

glass storefront windows painted with the name of DeSalla's Pizza and running pizza delivery man, Pittsburgh, PA

DeSalla’s, Allentown[4]

rear of commercial building with hand-painted sign reading "Astro Pizza", Pittsburgh, PA

Astro Pizza, East Liberty

freestanding brick restaurant with Italian red, green, and white awning and "For Sale" sign, Monongahela, PA

unknown[3], Monongahela

empty glass storefront with the word "Pizza" on glass, Pittsburgh, PA

Potenza Pizza & Pasta, North Oakland

glass storefront window with hand painted image of a bear eating pizza, Pittsburgh, PA

Pizza Bear, DeSalla’s, Allentown


[1] The United States has no official “national dish”. The obvious rivals for this title–hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie, and the like–could make strong counter-arguments, but this blogger thinks you’re fooling yourself if you buy them.
[2] That’s Amore pizza now occupies this building, but the obvious paint-over of the Venice name still qualifies the original tenant as ghost pizza.
[3] We can’t be sure the storefronts in Clairton and Monongahela were pizzerias, but the tell-tale green/white/red color scheme suggests they were either that or more full-on Italian restaurants.
[4] An Orbit reader from Allentown informs us that “DeSalla’s is not closed!” That may be true, but it sure looked like it the day we were there and they’ve got a prominent For Sale sign in the window, which suggests it won’t be long either way.

Mondo Menorah! Menorahmobile Models Measured

Grand Menorah Parade lineup, Rodef Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA

Grand Menorah Parade lineup, Rodef Shalom, Oakland

“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”

The speaker [I’m afraid I was moving too fast to get any names] is a genial, middle-aged man leaning up against a plain white passenger van that sports a glorious gold-painted menorah on its roof. Across the middle of the piece is a placard with stenciled letters: Happy Chanukah. The ornament is clearly custom-crafted and has sibling menorahs of the same exact design on dozens of other vehicles across the lot.

man posing in front of white van with rooftop menorah, Pittsburgh, PA

“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”

When you start ogling menorahmobiles–vehicles decorated with oversize ornamental electric menorahs for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah–you’ll find there are four basic models, distributed in roughly equal proportions.

There’s the plastic, light-up magnetic roof-topper made by Magnet Menorah. It basically looks like a similar-sized adjunct to the delivery car for a corporate pizza chain, only it’s got the image of nine candles, a phalanx of dreidels, a pile of gelt (gold coins), and the scrolled text Happy Chanukah in place of the Domino’s or Pizza Hut logo. This one may satisfy obligations–and is certainly convenient with minimums of both muss and fuss–but it’s got no soul. I was told “Those don’t count” by one, and even as both novice and outsider, I have to agree.

car with plastic rooftop menorah, Pittsburgh, PA

“Those don’t count.” magnet menorah by Magnet Menorah

Also commercially available is the competing, stainless steel model from CarMenorah.com. It features the eight daily Chanukah candles (each a separate, switchable LED light), four angled outward in one direction and four in the other, plus the tall center shamash. This design doesn’t have the convenient magnets, but it’s mounted to a roof-spanning bar that lashes discreetly for a nice tight side-to-side presentation. CarMenorahs come with one of a few optional professionally-printed wrapper-bases with messages like Happy Chanukah and Chabad wishes you a Happy Chanukah.

Simply by virtue of its choice in materials, CarMenorah’s design looks a lot nicer than the light-up plastic taxi topper offered by Magnet Menorah, but it still lacks any real individuality.

car with rooftop menorah reading "Chabad wishes you a happy Chanukah", Pittsburgh, PA

Stainless steel and LED CarMenorah.com design

Once you get past these mail-order, pre-fab car menorahs, we get to the good stuff.

Many vehicles feature menorahs with the same overall design as the CarMenorah piece, but built of wood on a 2×4 base rather than pre-assembled stainless steel. The more up-to-date of these include switchable LED lights; others had old-school tiny incandescent bulbs. Each set seems to have included a good-sized blank white board with room enough for the family to create their own custom messages across each side. Many simply pulled out the stencils and colored-in Happy Chanukah, but we also saw the additions of floral artwork, 8 Great Nights, and one pan of frying latkes.

Two cars with rooftop menorahs and home made "Happy Chanukah" signs, Pittsburgh, PA

Wooden menorahs make for 8 great nights!

lit rooftop menorah with homemade "Happy Chanukah" sign featuring frying latkes, Pittsburgh, PA

Thanks a latke, menorahmobile!

Finally, there is a particularly unique-to-Pittsburgh design that stands (literally) above all other car menorahs. Constructed of stout PVC pipe, spaced and jointed at 45-degree angles, and connected to a base spanning the width of the roof of a car, these menorahs extend probably 30 inches off the vehicle’s roof. A switch array connects the nine candle lights to the vehicle’s cigarette lighter. These menorahs become glorious headdresses to the otherwise plain Maximas and Odysseys they adorn.

Aside from the clever ingenuity of these materials, the PVC menorah wins on both simple elegance and sheer grandeur of its design. The menorah alone, spray-painted silver with no other adornment, is a striking and beautiful sight–the automobile underneath becomes but a humble pedestal for such interesting rolling modern sculpture.

mini van with rooftop menorah and "Happy Chanukah" banner, Pittsburgh, PA

PVC car menorah, electrical pole not included

If the spectator wants to see the full panoply of menorahmobiles, ground zero is Chabad of Pittsburgh’s Grand Menorah Parade. This year, it was held on Dec. 28, the fifth day of Chanukah. Detail-focused Orbit readers will note many photos included here have five bulbs lit and three dark.

The parade group assembles in the big back parking lot of Rodef Shalom Temple in Oakland and let this blogger tell you: it’s menorahmobiles as far and wide as the eye can see. Any lapse in reporting on this story can be blamed on the simple overwhelming number of subjects to try to catch, photograph, and say hello to in the midst of rapidly-diminishing daylight and the parade group’s imminent takeoff.

sedan with menorah and "Happy Chanukah" sign on roof, Pittsburgh, PA

Street menorahmobile, Squirrel Hill

white car with home made menorah on roof, Pittsburgh, PA

One on the street and one in the driveway. Squirrel Hill.

While fans can bag a virtually unlimited number of menorahmobiles in the setup for the parade, it’s also great to spot them “in the wild”. For the eight days of Chanukah, jaunts down the residential streets of Squirrel Hill will yield cockscombed Corollas and mohawked minivans casually parked on curbsides and driveways throughout.

* * *

One final thought: While this exercise was enlightening and fun, ultimately we found ourselves wishing the vehicle owners put more emphasis on creativity and individuality than simply selecting one of four off-the-shelf models. Menorahs come in infinite fantastic and original designs and have been a common subject for Jewish artists forever. Of course the roof of an automobile imposes some practical limitations to what the car’s owner can do, but I bet the community would come up with some really incredible creations if just given a little bit more of a prompt.

lineup for Grand Menorah Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Lineup for the Grand Menorah Parade at sundown, Rodef Shalom, Oakland

Hail, Mary! Front Yard Mary Roundup

grotto with statue of Mary in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Deluxe grotto Mary, Spring Hill

With apologies to James Rado and Jerome Ragni:

Don’t ask me why, I’m just a Mary guy
I’m Mary noon and night, Mary, she’s a sight
I’m Mary high and low, don’t ask me why, don’t know

Not really expecting Mary to fly in the breeze, get caught in the trees, or provide a hive for the buzzing bees, we’ll end this frivolity right now–there’s big Mary business on the docket!

Mary statuette in front yard grass, Pittsburgh, PA

The Run

More Marys! In super-deluxe retaining wall grottos, bedecked in spinners and lights, obscured by Halloween decorations, enveloped in the deep-fry aromas of Big Jim’s, and standing alone in shame like a misbehaving student at recess.

The Orbit was not at all sated the by The Front Yard Marys of Bloomfield. No, that June, 2016 scene report just whet an appetite that inspired us to climb mountains, ford streams, and canvas for Hillary Clinton to slake this curio-religious thirst. Drink up.

Statuette of Mary in front yard, Homestead, PA

Homestead

Mary statuette in front of brick house, Pittsburgh, PA

Stanton Heights

Mary statuette in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Morningside

statue of Mary in front of older pink frame house, Pittsburgh, PA

Oakland

front yard Mary in grotto with a separate front yard Mary, Pittsburgh, PA

Big Jim’s Marys, The Run

Front yard Mary, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Mary statuette in wooded yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary of the Wood, South Side Slopes

Mary statue in grotto in front of frame house, Pittsburgh, PA

Halloween Mary, Spring Hill

statuette of Mary in front yard of house, Pittsburgh, PA

Allentown

Three statuettes of Mary in front yard of home, Pittsburgh, PA

Trio of Marys, Stanton Heights

statue of Mary in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Back yard Mary, Lawrenceville

Day of the Dead: Susan Hicks, Uber Alles

bicycle painted completely white and decorated with flowers and lights, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost bike memorial for Susan Hicks, Oakland

Last week marked the one year anniversary of Susan Michelle Hicks death. This blogger didn’t know her personally, but Ms. Hicks was “friends of friends” who commuted–and was killed–riding her bicycle on a stretch of Forbes Avenue in Oakland where I ride all the time. Quite literally, it could have been me.

Very near the tragic spot where Ms. Hicks died, just across the street from Dippy the Dinosaur and the Carnegie Music Hall, is a so-called “ghost bike” memorial. Chained to the pole of a stout street lamp, it’s a decommissioned older bicycle, painted completely white, draped in flowers, ribbons, personal messages, and a strand of solar-powered lights. A felt-tipped pen left on the seat invites visitors to ink inscriptions to the fallen–many have done so.

The effect of seeing the Hicks ghost bike–or any other–is incredibly moving. It’s both beautiful and haunting, arresting, sombre, and reverent. It’s also encouraging that this obviously-un-sanctioned memorial has been allowed to remain intact; city works crews choosing to leave it alone–now, for over a year–in this very public, well-travelled spot instead of treating it as an act of litter or vandalism.

detail of ghost bike for Susan Hicks, Pittsburgh, PA

Statistically, Pittsburgh is among the very safest U.S. cities to be a bicycle rider/pedestrian. This is, perhaps, surprising given our severe infrastructure challenges, but according to some numbers collected by Bike PGH, the city’s rate of 1.8 fatalities per 10,000 commuters is way down the list of American cities. As comparison, the bottom of the collection contains Ft. Worth, Detroit, and Jacksonville, all with an average of 40 to 50 fatalities on the same scale.

That said, it’s sadly no surprise this particular tragedy happened in the heart of Oakland. Any Pittsburgh cyclist will tell you what a nightmare it is to navigate the neighborhood on two wheels. It’s nearly impossible to feel safe riding from, say, Neville to Atwood, or CMU to Pitt without either breaking some kind of law or going way out of your way–and this is a part of town with 40-some thousand college students! I get mad at the kids riding on sidewalks, but what alternative do they have?

Handmade sign reading "Are we the last generation who learns to drive?", Pittsburgh, PA

Anti-Uber sign, Oakland

On a recent ride home from work, I came across a batch of wooden signs nailed to telephone poles. On each was a hand-scripted message: Are we the last generation who learns to drive? read one on Craig Street, and Humans crave community, not isolation another. The messages continued in Bloomfield:  Automation smothers natural beauty and awe and Deep in your humanness, your heart longs not to be mechanized.*

If you’ve spent any time in the East End over the last half year, you know where these are coming from. Uber self-driving cars are being tested all over the city–we see them every day**. It’s a technology that’s not without controversy, but surprisingly little considering the potential societal implications. Overall, opinion has felt more like a collective ho-hum.

collage of photos of Uber self-driving cars being tested on Pittsburgh city streets

Uber self-driving cars testing in Pittsburgh [photos, clockwise from top left: P. Worthington, M. Hertzman, A. Hoff, K. Barca]

The full point of these guerrilla signs is not entirely clear, but each contains Uber’s name in a crossed-out circle. We can assume the opposition to the ride-sharing company is the anonymous sign-poster’s major thesis, but there are also messages around community, beauty, and “humanness”.

Is Uber being accused of colossal corporate takeover? Or is the issue that they’re developing self-driving technology? Assuming the latter, how does changing the way a car navigates “smother natural beauty and awe”? [We did a pretty good job of this way before Uber came along.] Plenty of people drive alone every day–why do these vehicles create any more isolation than any other solo car trip?

If we’re worried about the number of Uber (and other) human drivers who may be put out of work by this technology, that’s legit. But let’s not assume that’s the only sociological possibility for self-driving vehicles. There is the very real likelihood that autonomous cars will be much safer on the road than humans. They certainly won’t drive drunk or fall asleep at the wheel. They won’t show off to impress the girls in the back seat and won’t take their eyes off the road when their phones light up. There are a whole lot of people with disabilities who can’t wait for an alternative to Access.

Handmade sign reading "Automation smothers natural beauty and awe", Pittsburgh, PA

Anti-Uber sign, Bloomfield

Bicycle riders are not saints. There are a lot of dangerous people out there, and we come across them every day–treating sidewalks as bicycle lanes, recklessly jack-rabbiting through traffic, ignoring traffic lights, signaling, and stop signs. Cyclists who take off without a helmet or foregoing lights in the dark are just plain foolish.

These are condemnable actions that frankly burn this biker’s breeches–you guys give us all a bad name! That said, it’s nothing compared to the regular behavior we see from drivers toward cyclists. I’ve never been hit by a vehicle driven by a computer; the same can’t be said for humans. In my years (ahem, decades) on two wheels, I’ve been spit on, had trash thrown at me, yelled-at, cat-called, and aggressively hip-greased more times than I can recall. Drivers routinely drift absent-mindedly, park in bicycle lanes, and wildly swing open their parked doors without first consulting their mirrors. While driving, they eat and drink, talk on the phone, apply lipstick in the rearview mirror, and, of course, are constantly texting.

Given all this, I’ll take my chances with the robots. If they’d been deployed to Oakland last year at this time, maybe Susan Hicks would still be with us and on the road today.

bicycle painted completely white and decorated with flowers and lights, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost bike for Susan Hicks, Oakland


* If anyone has seen more of these, we’d love to know about them.
** So far, always with a human in the driver’s seat.

The Sweet’N Lowdown: Three Theories on a Street Art Secret Stash

Tiny wooden picture frame containing a Sweet'n'Low packet

Street sweets

What makes a person frame a single Sweet’N Low packet and then hide the tiny objet d’art inside the metallic drain of an Oakland office building? Strange but true, The Orbit came across exactly one such exhibit earlier this week, on the side street face of one of Pitt’s off-campus buildings. Yes: conspiracy theorists are rampant, their evidence minimal, but the desire for truth is as strong as black coffee.

Theory: The framed packet as tribute to an artificial sweetening classic

This one comes from co-worker Rizzo, present at the discovery. I always say: if you want to know about something that pretends to be sweet, look no further than Rizzo. Sweet’N Low, though not the first artificial sweetener, owned that market for half a century. That’s not so true any more. Splenda, Equal, NutraSweet, Truvia, Sweet Leaf, and probably others, are all out there crowding the field. In Rizzo’s theory, the perpetrator has created a tiny tribute to that most famous saccharin-dextrose concoction whose time has come, wolves hopped-up on Splenda gathered at the door. One would hope for the honor of being memorialized in bronze and on public display, rather than hidden in a dingy side street hidey-hole, but if you’re Sweet’N Low, I guess you take what you can get.

Brick wall with bricks missing and metal opening containing tiny picture frame

A couple missing bricks and one secret hiding place

Theory: Sweet’N Low sachet as cruel “gotcha”

What if the tiny picture frame didn’t always contain a Sweet’N Low packet? How many works of fiction have placed stolen artwork in obscure secret stashes–often hidden in plain sight. Nothing quite gets the heart racing like a great heist film–cat burglars in berets and turtlenecks spiriting stolen canvases on thrilling guy wire runs between rooftops. In the best of these, the original owner of the artwork is always shown aghast the following morning with the discovery of the disappeared oil painting replaced by a cheap, comical substitute–the thief’s ultimate “you’ve been had.” Perhaps the tiny frame once contained a pocket Picasso or a miniature Miro, its present owner having slipped in the pink packet with a wink to let you know there’s no sugar here, but you can have one of these.

Craig Hall, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: Craig Hall, home of the secret stash of tiny street art

Theory: Art scavenger hunt prize gone missing

It’s only a couple weeks past Easter, and we’ve still got egg hunts on the membrane. What if a cabal of clever art-gamers decided to stage a city-wide scavenger hunt for tiny hidden art pieces, each one identified by its common wooden frame? Maybe the Sweet’N Low portrait is just one that got away, left behind unclaimed. Somewhere out there, there’s a participant laying awake at night, replaying the one missed clue: At Craig on Craig, at the base of the leg, lies something pink, and something sweet. That’s the treasure hunt this blogger wishes he’d been invited to. Sigh. Add another one to The Orbit‘s big list.

We may never know lowdown on the Sweet’N Low, but then again, who really wants to know what’s in that pink packet anyway? The taste is good enough…isn’t it?