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?

Pittsburgh’s Next Hottest Neighborhoods

older frame houses with clear blue sky and bare trees, Pittsburgh, PA

Allentown rooftops, just around the corner from NoCarSoSoSlo

Pittsburgh is famously a city of neighborhoods–ninety of them, to be exact. Most are incredibly distinct. There’s no questioning the transition from Bloomfield to Oakland or Larimer to Lincoln or Polish Hill to Lawrenceville–you have to cross a bridge to get there. Spring Hill and Troy Hill are way up on the top of steep hills; Spring Garden is down in the valley between. More subtley, Bloomfield and Friendship are on the same plane, but as Friendship Ave. dog-legs around, the street grid changes bias, the blocks change dimension, and Friendship’s stately detached homes yield to tight Bloomfield aluminum-clad row houses. It’s clear you’re somewhere else.

But not all of the city is as well-defined, nor is it all prospering at the same rate. What to do? Enter the acroname–the citizen and/or developer-based rebranding of urban spaces to upsell low-rent sections of town into yuppie havens and “whitopias”. New York has famously come up with SoHoTriBeCaNoLita, Dumbo, etc. to address this; others have followed suit. Pittsburgh has been blessedly free of this trend*, but at the rate we’re gentrifying–and our collective me too obsession–it seems like it’s only a matter of time.

Here then is an Orbit modest prediction/proposal for the rebranding of some parts of town that are maybe a little harder to define just how and where they fit in.

NoSOak (“No Soak”)

row homes in Pittsburgh, PA

Empty beer bottles, an American flag in the window: that looks like NoSOak to me

The residential section of central Oakland, with Bates as its main through street, was traditionally an Italian-American neighborhood, but that legacy has largely ceded to college ghetto. Ratty old couches fill front porches , flags and beer signage decorate dirty windows. By rebranding itself NoSOak (North of South Oakland), the neighborhood’s landlords and property developers may be able to usher in an entirely new clientele of tech yuppies and hospital workers, eager to rehab those turn-of-the-century row houses on pedestrian-friendly blocks, the lovely aroma of street tacos perpetually wafting in the breeze.

NoCarSoSoSlo (“No Car–So, So Slow”)

Detail from the hand-painted storefront of the Mount Oliver Mens Shop, Pittsburgh, PA

The Mens Shop, a NoCarSoSoSlo icon for generations

The southern borough of Mount Oliver is a politically-independent island entirely surrounded by the city of Pittsburgh, but hasn’t benefitted from (or gotten ruined-by–take your pick) the rapid gentrification that so much of the city is experiencing. Heck, even hilltop neighbor Allentown has a heavy metal coffee shop now! With the rebranding NoCarSoSoSlo (North of Carrick/South of the Southside Slopes) the borough can reference two city neighborhoods without ever mentioning you have to pay goofy Mount Oliver taxes.

VoBeShaBlo (“VO-bee-shay-blow”)

older frame houses, train tracks, and busway, Pittsburgh, PA

View of VoBeShaBlo through the chain link fence of the Aiken Ave. Bridge

The two-to-three-block-wide strip that runs between the train tracks/east busway and Baum Boulevard are technically Shadyside, but it’s physically cut off from the heart of that neighborhood and it doesn’t share its hoity-toity feel. To mix our metaphors like we’re real urban planners, VoBeShaBlo (The Void Between Shadyside and Bloomfield) is a line in the sand that its resident “Shay-Blowers” will wear with pride, finally attaining an identity that’s been missing for a long, long time.

The hoodlet has some appealing (potential) amenities that can make this work. There are nice, if not fancy, older frame houses (although not that many of them). Between Centre and Baum they’ve got a bigger business district than a lot of city neighborhoods. And it’s well-connected/located if you’re either a cyclist or bus rider. VoBeShaBlo’s Giant Eagle even sells beer!

PaHolE / WheBiJIs (“PAY-hole / we-BIJ-iss”)

Tile sign for Big Jim's in The Run, Pittsburgh, PA

Big Jim’s, a PaHolE / WheBiJIs institution since 1977

Four Mile Run, or just “The Run”, is the tiny sub-neighborhood under both The Parkway and Swinburne bridges. Its technically a part of Greenfield, but doesn’t really feel like it. Like Rodney Dangerfield, a lot of people go back to school via its walk/bicycle path directly to central Oakland and cyclists know it as the connection point to the jail trail. But with literally just one-way-in/one-way-out, motorists typically ignore it and most of Pittsburgh has probably never even been to the neighborhood.

Luckily for PaHolE / WheBiJIs (Panther Hollow East / Where Big Jim’s Is) there are a couple of great local places of note including the great St. John Byzantine Church, access to the Schenley Park ball fields, city steps up to Greenfield proper, and Big Jim’s terrific eponymous tavern. Let’s quit fooling around and put it on the map.

HiDiBuNoQuOak (“HI-dee-boo-no-quoke”)

View down Dunsieth Street, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking down Dunsieth Street toward Carlow University in HiDiBuNoQuOak

The area around Pitt’s upper campus doesn’t really feel like it fits in anywhere. It’s the university, so that’s Oakland, right? But it’s also way up the hill–at the southeastern edge of The Hill District–physically separated from the hospitals and school buildings below. By embracing their new identity as HiDiBuNoQuOak (Hill District, But Not Quite Oakland) residents tell the world they’re doing their own thing in their own time, man. No quoke.


LoLa (Lower Lawrenceville) and Eastside (East Liberty adjoining Shadyside) are the two painfully obvious exceptions, although The Orbit doesn’t know anyone that actually uses these terms.

A Thomasson!

Man relaxing on unused, but well-maintained entry steps to apartment building in Pittsburgh, PA

At least one guy uses this thing. The Thomasson, after a full rehab, March, 2016

We got really interested in Thomassons from a story of the same name on the great 99% Invisible podcast. A Thomasson, as defined by the Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei who first identified and named them, is an architectural leftover or vestige that no longer has any use and is actively maintained. The name is a reference to one Gary Thomasson, a baseball player who, through twist of fate and contractual obligations was paid to ride the bench–ineffective, but maintained. [The podcast has that whole backstory.] Pittsburgh Orbit became obsessed with finding a local Thomasson.

Pittsburgh is littered with evidence of architectural decay. The giant extant former stone supports of the old Point and Manchester bridges downtown or the countless foundations of long-gone hillside houses come to mind–but there are plenty of examples. The tricky part in identifying a Thomasson is in finding one that people are still actively taking care of.

Bellefield Tower and Bellefield Clinic, Pittsburgh, PA

Bellefield Tower, Oakland. The mother of all Thomassons or still in use?

Bellefield Tower, at the corner of Fifth and Bellefield streets in Oakland, is a potentially glorious Thomasson–we could go as far as saying the mother of all Thomassons. But does it count? Bellefield is a freestanding bell tower that appears to have outlived the church (we assume?) it was once attached to. It’s now mere feet from the curved puce and mauve shopping mall chic exterior of Bellefield Clinic, making for possibly the most painfully awkward architectural juxtaposition in the city.

But does the tower really have no current use? It’s hard to say–this blogger has never heard its bell ringing, and it seems too small and awkwardly-shaped for much else. But possibly the clinic stores scrubs and hypodermic needles there. Maybe a couple of lucky administrative employees get solo offices, each with a tiny staircase. The point is, it could be in use. An investigation is in order*, but we’re not ready to call this a Thomasson…yet.

Apartment building on Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: Webster Hall’s Thomasson (pre-rebuild), Summer, 2015

Luckily, though, almost right next door, on the corner of Dithridge and Fifth Avenue, sits Webster Hall and what is an undeniable Thomasson. The eleven-story apartment building clearly used to hold something like lunch counters, or maybe retail spaces, on each ground floor corner–you can tell by the decorative masonry work and big window openings. There’s also a strange pair of steps that lead up to a now-bricked-in and glassed-over former entry point. It’s dressed-up with a pair of inviting potted boxwood shrubs, but they’re not fooling this blogger: in nine years of working a block away, I’ve never seen anyone (except The Orbit‘s hired stooge/model) use this as a resting spot. And why would you? As steps, they’re an uncomfortable, awkward seat–there’s no back and not enough leg room–and who wants to relax on busy/noisy Fifth Avenue when you could walk two blocks and be in Schenley Plaza?

Work truck and crew repairing unused steps on apartment building, Pittsburgh, PA

The Thomasson during reconstruction, Feb. 2016

The steps are also undeniably under active maintenance. By last fall, they had lost some of their mortar, causing stones to shift and structure to break apart. The coming of winter only made it worse. When Team Orbit spotted a work crew out front in January it led to some great group rubber-necking and speculation, trying to get a glimpse at what was happening under the mysterious plastic tent. Would they tear up the downtrodden, useless steps-to-nowhere, dashing our hopes that this was our first legit Thomasson? Or was the crew there to make things right–to enpower Oakland’s pedestrians to once again bypass this funny stoop on their way to more pleasant places of repose?

Well, by this point in the story it’s no surprise that the workers came armed with mortar and trowels (not a jackhammer) and we can happily report that the Thomasson is alive and looking as good as new. To Pittsburgh’s other Thomassons, hang in there: we’re coming for you!


* Yes: finding out what’s up with Bellefield Tower is on The Orbit‘s big list!

 

Pop des Fleurs

Dippy the Dinosaur with a Pop des Fleurs necktie, Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, PA

Dippy le Dinosaur with a Popped des Fleured necktie, Oakland

A blast of lovely spring color in the darkest, coldest days of winter. At least, that’s the idea. This winter has basically been a no-show but rest assured that the eye-popping collision of vibrant fantasy flora still made a bold entrance and looks magnificent against the electric blue skies we’ve been seeing. Yes, we are officially neck deep into Pop des Fleurs* season.

Pop des Fleurs art project, Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh, PA

Pot d’Pop des Fleurs, Carnegie Library, Oakland

If you’ve been to the library in the last couple weeks–any library in the Carnegie system–you’ve seen the flowers. You can’t miss them. They’re planted in huge pots; they cover giant wall panels and adorn railings; they decorate nearby structures. Each installation site has a different arrangement, media, and theme so it’s rewarding to make your way around to as many as you can. There’s a Google map pin-pointing a couple dozen locations in the county.

Pop des Fleurs art project, Pittsburgh, PA

Carnegie Library, Central North Side

Pop des Fleurs is a project of the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh and anyone who’s seen one of their shows or is familiar with their work knows that the “fiberarts” extend to cover a pretty wide range of materials, styles, and techniques–it ain’t just knitting and quilting. You get a pretty great cross-section look at those in the various installations: knit and crocheted yarn, recycled shopping bags and product containers, plastic stretched over wire forms.

Pop des Fleurs art project, Pittsburgh, PA

Carnegie Library, Lawrenceville

Around this time last year, The Orbit ran a story on Pop des Fleurs trial run for the project in Arsenal Park. The experience, in winter 2015’s unrelenting snow and brutal cold, was a revelation. If we have one regret, one minor quibble with the terrific Pop des Fleurs project, it is that by attaching the arrangements to institutions (sometimes literally) they lose some of their terrific namesake “pop” we experienced at the test installation last winter. Brilliant flowers against white snow and gray skies just look terrific.

I’m sure there are very practical reasons for this approach–legal, financial, grant-obligated, etc.–and the association with the Carnegie Library system is great–but these flowers would bring so much desperately-needed life to barren parks and desolate public spaces that it feels like a missed opportunity.

Close-up of Pop des Fleurs art project, Pittsburgh, PA

This is, to be clear, the most minor of criticisms. The Orbit is officially on its feet, clapping earnestly, and yelling Bravo between wolf-whistles. To the visionaries and craftspeople of the Fiberarts Guild and Pop des Fleurs project, we thank you for bringing Pittsburgh such a fantastic piece of technicolor fantasy into the cruelest of month of the year. Hat’s off.

Detail of giant purple and yellow knitted flower as part of Pop des Fleurs, Pittsburgh, PA


* That’s French for “Pop the Fleurs” [Note to self: look up “fleurs”]

 

Reflections On A Hundred

St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh reflected in mirrored glass

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oakland

A hundred! One whole century! What a very round integer!

Yes, today Pittsburgh Orbit trips the old blogometer into three digit land. It all happened in just under one calendar year. We promise to not make a big deal about that date too, but in lieu of any real story today, we’ll take this rare opportunity to reflect on a year in the blogosphere and The Orbit‘s one hundred tiny episodes so far.

reflection of small shops on Craig Street in large glass windows, Pittsburgh, PA

Craig Street, Oakland

Why blog? Frankly, it’s not something this majority introvert ever really considered. The “me me me“-ness of so much blogging is nauseating at best and just plain pathetic (much of) the rest of the time. And what hasn’t already been covered? The answer, it turns out, is a lot. But, you know, a suggestion here, an idea there–next thing we know, we’re up and blogging.

Plus, it’s fun! Roll together a bunch of things we already loved to do (bicycle, hike, explore, take photographs, drink beer, find out about other people, write) and wrap those experiences up in little easy-to-chew bite-sized chunks. It’s a tremendous regular creative prompt and get-out-the-door keister-kicker. We recommend it!

Reflection of the former Mellon National Bank, Downtown Pittsburgh in mirrored glass windows

Former Mellon National Bank, Downtown

Who reads this stuff? A good question! The stats tell us there are site visitors from all around the world, but mainly from the U.S. and Canada (and we imagine most of those are current or former Pittsburghers). Apparently they get here from umpteen different means–social media, Reddit discussions, search engines, email lists, etc.

We’ve gotten a lot of really nice feedback from friends and site visitors, but it’s been most rewarding to connect with the various outside groups, each scratching their own funny itches. Pittsburgh’s bike and pedestrian community seems to check in on the city steps stories, there’s a devoted crew of ghost sign hunters over in the U.K., the street art folks are kept in ready supply, everybody likes to read about their friends, and just about anyone who came across them seems to love the Antignanis. Oh, and every single day someone comes in looking for Jaws.

Reflection of Market Square, Downtown Pittsburgh in glass windows

Market Square, Downtown

Regrets? Yeah, this blogger has a few! For a fellow as music-obsessed as this one, we’ve barely touched the category. We’re also starving for some more food and drink stories (the weird pizza series, notwithstanding). We’ve barely touched the South Hills, the hilltops, and still haven’t made it to Duck Hollow or Fairywood. And gosh darnit, if we’re left without being able to interview Bill Bored about the Cardboards, then this whole thing has been a waste of everybody’s time. (I suppose it won’t have been a waste of Bill Bored’s time.)

University of Pittsburgh building reflected in glass windows

University of Pittsburgh, Oakland

There are also a ton of things that would have made great Orbit obits but either disappeared before we started writing, or we were in the wrong place at the right time, or just couldn’t have done them justice: the old Nickel Bingo Parlor, Chiodo’s–its decades of dangling undergarments and its “mystery sandwich”–(former) White Towers, The Suburban Lounge and their house band The Casual Approach, St. Nicholas Church grotto–ah, hell, the list goes on and on. In any case: forgive us–we’re doing our best. Sigh.

Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh reflected in glass windows

Mellon Institute, Oakland

What’s next? Honestly, the eternal tap of great ideas has run from a gushing main to more of a babbling brook–but it’s still flowing! Maybe this blogger just needs to get up off the thinkin’ chair and put his nose to the grindstone. That said, we’ve got some fun stuff planned around Lent, springtime, weird sports, fried fish, wacky artists, a hunt for the elusive paw-paw, and of course, Cemetober. Keep that Internet web browser dialed-in right here, folks.

reflection-oliver-way

Oliver Ave., Downtown

Un-Graffiti: No Parking! (Part 1)

white brick wall with "NO PARKING" painted in red, Pittsburgh, PA

NO PARKING, Oakland

Parking, man. People get so damn worked-up about it.

When first The Orbit introduced the notion of “un-graffiti” some most-of-a-year-ago, it wasn’t clear there’d be much more to that particular story. How wrong we were! As it turned out, over and over again we were seeing not just more examples of the form, but the very particular one of business owners taking the law into their own hands with D.I.Y. graffiti-style No Parking signs. We have so many of these that our hard drive overfloweth with this particular bounty. Here we bring you just the cream of this particular crop…so far.

brick wall with message "Theatre. Quiet please. No parking." painted, Downtown Pittsburgh

THEATRE QUIET PLEASE *NO PARKING*, Downtown

In our digital-age interpretation of ALL CAPS as text-based shouting, the QUIET PLEASE portion of this particular message comes as a humorous incongruity. I believe the “theatre” location is actually still valid (either Harris or Arcade Comedy? It’s somewhere near the back/alley side of those two) though I imagine this sign predates the modern use of the space. The different color paint, elongated verticals, and general sloppiness of the NO PARKING half of the message suggest it was appended at some point after the initial job.

corrugated metal doors with hand-painted no parking message

DOORWAY DON’T BLOCK! No parking, Strip District

This blogger is sitting on a ton of pictures taken around the set of corrugated metal warehouses in the 3100 block of Penn and Liberty in The Strip. They just always look great and get such terrific weird light sneaking in over The Hill and down through the canyon between the tight buildings on either side of the Spring Way alley. What we’ll do with those, who knows? But there happens to be one qualifying no parking entry here, this with the re-phrase DOORWAY DON’T BLOCK–the no parking a mere afterthought.

no-parking-arrow

NO PARKING, Lawrenceville

Why is the NO only one brick high, but PARKING gets two? The directness (literally) of the arrow is so great…and specific. “Is it just right here? Is it OK if I park over there?” Whatever the explanation, it’s clear the owner of this property on Cabinet Way in Lawrenceville (a church school, rather than a home, if memory serves) doesn’t want to ask too much. Give the lord this one spot; do what you want anywhere else.

garage door spray painted with "Please. No parking in front of garage. Thank you."

Please. No parking in front of garage. Thank you. Lawrenceville

The most courteous no parking sign you’ll likely find. The message is written in a friendly cursive, includes an abstracted flower (?) decoration, and is bookended with both “Please” and “Thank you.” It makes this blogger almost want to abandon a car here, just to meet these nice folks.

brick walk with no parking message painted

NO PARKING ON SIDEWALK, North Side

Found on an alley in central North Side, this example is so perfect it looks like a film set. The worn red brick wall, the steel bars on the blocked-out windows, and the perfectly-painted (stenciled?) NO PARKING ON SIDEWALK that’s likely fifty or sixty years old (?) are all…just so. You could line up the Sharks and Jets or Pink Ladies and greasers in front of this backdrop and have a right proper switchblade-slinging bubblegum-popping sing-and-dance off. Cue: Vinnie Barbarino–this time we’re racing for pinks. Wop-de-wop, shoo-bop de-doobie-do.

faded painting on brick wall reading "No Parking at any time", Glassport, PA

*NO* PARKING at any time, Glassport

Another old sign so quaintly precious it’s hard to believe. This one has the bonus keystone-shaped Official [unreadable] ghost sign above it (probably a former Pennsylvania state inspection station?). The no-nonsense *NO PARKING* followed by the sweet lower-case at any time have a nice good cop/bad cop duality that seems to come from another time–don’t park here, but we still like you. Come back for an inspection and maybe an oil change…at any time.

Painting on brick wall of pizza restaurant reading "NO Parking Pizza Only ... -- or Towed at your own risk!", Homestead, PA

NO PARKING PIZZA ONLY … — OR TOWED at your own risk! Homestead

An embarrassment of riches…or at least messages. Is it “no parking” or “parking pizza only”? Why is there both an ellipsis and an m-dash? How can you be “towed at your own risk!”?Regardless of any lapses in pre-paint proof-reading (err…proof-thinking-through), it’s pretty obvious Di Sallas Pizza in Homestead would like you to pick up your pie and get the hell out–you can leave the motor running. The glowing online testimonials suggest the Di Sallas spent more time in the kitchen than either art or English class and we should come back to cover this place for The Pizza Chase–we’ll just watch where we park.

hand-painted sign on cement wall reading "Parking only Dollar Store and More"

PARKING ONLY DOLLAR STORE AND MORE, Forest Hills

Osteo-Mysterioso: Carnegie’s Giant Mystery Bone

close-up of one end of the mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, as close as we could get

Two immediate questions strike the nebby passer-by: What is it? and Why is it out here?

Around the back of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland, between the entrance to the lecture hall and the pedestrian bridge-ramp to the parking deck behind the art museum, is a small, gated outdoor space that is clearly not meant for public inspection. The volume of people traffic on this walkway is light to begin with, and likely very few of them stop and check out the lifeless little negative space within. But that’s a shame, as it contains one very large, bone-shaped mystery object.

external gated area of the Carnegie Natural History Museum with mystery bone on shipping pallets, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: the Carnegie Museum’s mystery bone outdoors, around back.

What is it?

It is enormous–at least twenty feet long and a foot-and-a-half thick. It has the gentle curve of a rib, or a boat’s hull. I can only imagine how much it must weigh–certainly hundreds, possibly thousands of pounds. The big bone rests on four separate wooden shipping pallets (with space in-between) and vertical bookend-shaped supports.

The bone’s far end splays out as if it once joined to some greater structure, or guided supporting tissue. The near end tapers to a gentle point, again resembling an enormous mammalian chest bone. But if this is indeed a rib, the creature it came from would be the size of King Kong.

image of King Kong terrorizing actress Fay Wray in the 1933 movie still

One possible source of the Carnegie mystery bone

So, we set out to answer this mystery. Using only the most rigorous of modern identification techniques, we put together our years of hard journalistic acumen, consultation with the most brilliant minds in marine mammal science*, and, yes, “our gut.” Through this, we’re pretty sure we came up with a winner. The mystery bone appears to be one of a pair of lower jaw bones from a whale–likely a blue whale, the largest animal ever known to have lived on Earth. [Take that, Dippy!]

blue whale skeleton

That looks like a match to me! Blue whale skeleton [photo: Canadian Museum of Nature]

Why is it here?

Now, this blogger doesn’t have a lot of room to talk. His small back yard is a de facto dumping ground for household detritus he should be dealing with instead of reporting on stories of somebody else’s mystery bones. That said, Pittsburgh Orbit is not a 120-year-old giant regional cultural institution with a large number of paid staff (at least, not yet). Hell, we’d be ordering our interns to stow the mystery bone in the hall closet or sell it cheap on Craig’s List. Put that on your resume! [Note to self: get some Orbit interns and have them clean up the back yard.]

side view of mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, side view [note second mystery bone peeking out from around the corner]

The most plausible answer is simply that there just isn’t any place to put the giant bone. It’s too damn big and heavy to move, and as a weird standalone–without the rest of its blue whale parts–it may not make a lot of sense to exhibit.

But this leads to a follow-up question: if The Carnegie values this asset enough to keep it around, why not protect it a little bit more? It seems like an easy enough task to at least send one of those interns out to wrap it in plastic [Laura Palmer got better treatment!] or throw a tarp over the whole thing–and maybe get some Fantastik® and clean that green algae off while you’re at it. I realize bones are pretty tough, but put one through enough Pittsburgh snow, ice, and rain**–not to mention radical temperature and humidity shifts–and it’s hard to imagine it preserving that well–it’s already splitting! Ah, hell–that’s why we’re bloggers and not mystery bone scientists.

top view of mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, top view


* Google.com
** Not that it looks like we’ll get any this year

Post No Bills

brick wall painted with "Post No Bills" message plus print-outs of famous Bills taped to the wall, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a cheap visual joke. The self-consciously retro POST NO BILLS painted in big white block letters on the black brick wall of the former Joe Mama’s Italian restaurant in Oakland. Right next to it, jokesters have taped–nay, “posted”–a slew of pictures of famous people named Bill. There’s Bill Murray and Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Bill Maher, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and the wall’s most arcane inclusion, Buffalo Bill Cody. Bill Cosby makes a de rigueur appearance begging the question: is it bad taste or mockery to include a disgraced Bill in one’s (relatively benign) act of prankdom?

It’s a sad state of affairs when one gets a nice chuckle out of some college kids’ first nights back jape and then we jump immediately to skepticism. This is probably a thing–maybe it counts as a “meme,” I think to myself, something somebody thought of and now folks do as a cliche, like adding love locks to the nearest bridge, or “this gum tastes like rubber,” or flossing.

So off to the Internet I went, and sure enough, Google Images was stocked with variants on this joke. Color copies clipped to a chain link fence; Xeroxes stapled to plywood; Clinton, Gates, and Murray as Run-DMC; and nice, spray-painted stencils on plywood of the same group (plus Cosby) at various urban construction sites. A template clearly exists and the canon established.

So, what would it take to make this bit more interesting? If this prank-loving blogger was going to have at it (and he’s not) he would at minimum throw out all the obvious candidates. Pittsburgh young people: make it your own! Here then, for anyone considering a future rendition, are a handful of Orbit suggestions for great Pittsburgh “Bill”s that you could use, without getting into the Post No Bills rut. Make us proud.

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham

William “Bill” Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham

William Pitt: A guy who liked Pittsburgh so much he named himself after the city. Hold it. No, it was the other way around. And maybe the city didn’t get any choice in the matter. Whatever. “Ol’ Bill” is the namesake of both Pittsburgh and Chatham College/Chatham Village and a host of other places all over the country. Tell me the image of William Pitt’s ridiculous powdered white wig wouldn’t look great wheat-pasted to the side of Joe Mama’s.

Two photos of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto: one in a suit, one in disguise for the television show "Undercover Boss"

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in both mayoral and “Undercover Boss” guises

Mayor Bill Peduto: This one is pretty obvious. Even if you’re a student here in your first semester, you should be aware of your mayor. You’ll likely even have the opportunity to vote in the next mayoral election, so you should pay attention. Though Mayor Peduto probably would not condone vandalism (even if it’s only committed with photocopies and packing tape), I’ll bet even he would get a little kick out of being in the Order of the Bills.

Bill Mazeroski's 1960 World Series-winning home run over the New York Yankees

Bill Mazeroski, 1960 World Series

Bill Mazeroski: “Maz” gets credit for one of the most dramatic moments in Pittsburgh sports history: a walk-off home run to win the 1960 World Series over the New York Yankees. You might not be able to pick his face out of a Post No Bills line-up, but this iconic photo of the ecstatic game-winning stride around the bases will resonate with even the casual Pirates fan–there’s even a bronze statue of it at PNC Park. Oh yeah: and this all happened at Forbes Field, which is now Schenley Plaza/Pitt campus.

Pittsburgh television/radio personality "Chilly" Bill Cardille, from his time hosting "Chiller Theatre"

Chilly Billy Cardille in the “Chiller Theatre” days

Bill Cardille: This blogger didn’t move to Pittsburgh until the 1990s, so I missed out on Chiller Theatre, Pittsburgh’s entry in the bygone era of local hosts introducing late-night B-movie features on broadcast television. But I still know of it, so you should too. Cardille is equally famous both for his role as a TV news reporter in Night of the Living Dead and as a longtime radio host on (former) “music of your life” station WJAS (R.I.P.). I don’t know how many dozens of times I heard him spin “Theme From a Summer Place” or “Close to You” while I patched plaster and sanded floors. Those tunes, just like Cardille’s bedroom baritone, never got old. The patching and sanding, on the other hand…

A poem titled "Lynn Cullen" from the newspaper classified ads by Billie Nardozzi

One of Billie Nardozzi’s weekly classified ad poems

Billie Nardozzi: As Pittsburgh’s (unofficial) poet-laureate, Nardozzi published his verse weekly in the Post-Gazette classified ads for at least a decade. Every Tuesday, you’d get the same photo of himself with some rhyming, quoted “words” of “wisdom” on subjects like kindness, true love, loneliness, home cooking, etc. You make yourself a spray paint stencil of that mug with that mullet and the people of Pittsburgh will “lose” their “minds.” Guaranteed.


Honorable Mentions. Other great Pittsburgh Bills:

  • Billy Conn: Professional boxer, mostly known for the oxymoronic title of World’s Light-Heavyweight Champion (1939-1941) and for taking on (and, yes, losing to) Joe Louis, who was a weight class above him. There’s a Billy Conn Boulevard in Oakland (actually just a ceremonial section of Craig Street) and a line of photos up at Hambone’s, some of them with googly eyes stuck on the glass. Make it happen.
  • Billy Strayhorn: Jazz composer, arranger, lyricist and Duke Ellington’s right-hand man. Just try taking an ‘A’ train or living a lush life in some small dive without him.
  • Bill Bored: Drummer for the late great new wave weirdos The Cardboards and star of Stephanie Beros’ Debt Begins at 20. That movie contains a ton of great shots in Oakland and Bloomfield of places that don’t exist anymore. I’m dying for an Orbit interview with Mr. Bored!
  • Bill Cowher: He of the most-noteworthy mustache, beard, and flying saliva–oh, and he coached a football team, too. Another person with features so strong they scream out to be abstracted into two-tone.
  • Billy Buck Hill: Obscure sub-neighborhood of the South Side Slopes. Yes, this counts as a “Bill.”

brick wall painted with "Post No Bills" message and retro Coca-Cola advertisement, plus print-outs of famous Bills taped to the wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Step Beat: Romeo & Frazier

Street signs for Romeo and Frazier Street intersection, Pittsburgh, Pa.

In our automobile-oriented culture, we tend to think of streets as a means for car travel. In cities and towns, hopefully you’ll also get a sidewalk; in the suburbs or out in the country, not so much. If you’re lucky, the road might be striped for bicycles.

Pittsburgh has its own definition. A street is simply a public thoroughfare that may be any and all of these things, but it could also just be a pedestrian walkway, usually on a hillside. These are city steps, and we have a ton of them.

The intersection of Romeo and Frazier Streets, South Oakland, Pittsburgh, Pa.

The intersection of Romeo and Frazier Streets, South Oakland

Nowhere is that notion of walkways as public streets more perfect than the intersection of Romeo and Frazier Streets in South Oakland.  There, on a steep hillside, in a fen of trees, climbing vines, wildflowers, and thick weeds meet two terrific sets of well-maintained concrete city steps. Like any other crossroads worth its rock salt, this one comes complete with street signs and a streetlight.

The steps go way back. Back to a time before the automobile, the bus, or the trolley. They’re sometimes considered Pittsburgh’s first public transportation system as they were used extensively by workers to commute from residential neighborhoods up the hills to the factories and business districts below.

Frazier Street city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Looking up Frazier Street from Bates

The steps don’t get anywhere near the traffic they once did. For one thing, most of those industrial areas and many of the business districts just don’t exist anymore (witness the steps leading from Troy Hill down to Route 28 or from Fineview down to 279–there’s nothing to walk down to). And then, of course, there are just a whole lot more ways to get around, and most people prefer them over the shoe leather express.

All that said, the city steps are an amazing resource. This blogger routinely drags his out-of-town visitors up to Fineview or the South Side Slopes or maybe the West End to get a full dose of up-and-down, nature-in-the-city, and a reliably terrific views from whichever ones we opt for. Some first-timers are agasp; others are just gasping for breath. Either way, you do enough of them and they’ll get you in shape right quick. Hopefully The Orbit will get back to all these spots at some point.

Romeo Street house accessible only by city steps

Romeo Street house accessible only by city steps

One great egg hunt of city step hikes is finding houses (or just the foundations) that are/were only accessible by the steps. On Romeo, there’s just one of these, right at the top of the steps. The house is a good 50 yards or so from the nearest paved road (also Romeo Street).

It must be a pain to move into a place like this or haul your groceries in the snow, but it sure is pretty and peaceful out there. From the Tibetan prayer flags and half-inflated balloon decoration to the snare drum and Oriental carpet on the porch, I’ll admit I was making some unsubstantiated judgements about these renters skipping a little rope. But hey, man, it’s all good. They’s just on the step beat.

Frazier Street city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Looking down Frazier Street

Why is purple the color of Lent?

cross with Lenten purple cloth

Why is purple the color of Lent? St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oakland

St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oakland, its giant cross with purple fluttering cloth and large entry door wreaths pops with brilliant purple, especially on the earliest bleak days of the season, when the trees are still bare and the sky is inevitably gray and drizzling.

It looks terrific, but this heathen-turned-blogger decided to seek out a different type of higher power to answer a question that likely all you Catholics already have figured-out: why is purple the color of Lent?  I did the Googling, so you don’t have to.  Here’s what I found out:

Tyrian purple was associated with royalty.  It is also appropriately known as “royal purple.”  The color was largely a status symbol as purple dye was the most painstaking and expensive to produce and therefore purple-dyed fabric was prohibitively expensive for anyone else. From a 2013 New York Times Science article:

To make Tyrian purple, marine snails were collected by the thousands. They were then boiled for days in giant lead vats, producing a terrible odor. The snails, though, aren’t purple to begin with. The craftsmen were harvesting chemical precursors from the snails that, through heat and light, were transformed into the valuable dye. The compounds that turn purple in this process serve a defensive role in the snail — they protect the egg masses from bacterial infection.

Fair enough, but how does this get us to the Bible?  Don’t worry, they’re related.  The explanation is that the regal color is a mockery of the “King of the Jews,” deployed by Pontius Pilate and his soldiers at a crucial spot in that greatest story ever told.  From Mark 15:17-20:

And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.

Ouch!  In third grade Mrs. Yuchmow taught us to never start a sentence with “And.”  Small style quibbles aside, I guess we have an explanation.  In perhaps the original example of a group turning an epithet on its head to take back ownership, the Catholic church now recognizes Tyrian purple as the symbolic color of the season.  And they look great doing it.

St. Paul's Cathedral front doors with Lenten purple wreaths

St. Paul’s Cathedral with Lenten purple wreaths