The Protractor Files: One Last Big Score

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

Oh, their demon powers! The perfect arc, the cosine-solving magic, the eternal urban egg hunt! Wherever we go, that’s where we are–and so are they! Attached to the low wall of a concrete pedestrian walkway, stuck to the base of a lamp pole, glued to a park bench, painted red and white on a Polish Hill mailbox. Like the protagonist of any decent jewel heist flick, just when this blogger thought he was out, the Pittsburgh protractors held a dear family member hostage, blackmailing him back to the game for one last score.

protractor glued to base of light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Squirrel Hill

protractor glued to electrical box, Pittsburgh, PA

#32, Strip District

When Pittsburgh Orbit first wrote about them last year, we suggested right in the post’s title that the protractors are “disappearing”. The existing stock seemed to be in the process of removal by authorities, stripped by trophy-seekers, weather-eroded, and/or painted-over with no replacements arriving to replenish the supply.

Given a little time and perspective, though, reports of the protractors’ demise seem to be somewhat–if not greatly–exaggerated. Many of the specimens spotted in this spree–certainly the solid purple and yellow ones photographed here–appear to be new, unnumbered additions to the landscape since last we looked.

If so, why the change of M.O.? Did the protractor perpetrator just get lazy? Lose count? Or do we have a copycat on our hands? One Office Max dumpster dive plus a tube of Shoe Goo[1] and anyone could add to the city’s long-running street art mystery.

protractor attached to mail box, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

And what a mystery it is! How does anyone keep their big yap shut for this long without spilling the beans?

Is there a message to the protractors we’re all just too blind to see? Do they actually mean something or is this just someone’s goofy prank? Like the Trump voter coming to the realization the pathological liar he elected was telling the truth in just enough horrifying ways, are we in on the joke, or the butt of it?

Ah, hell. Maybe that’s something that could–and should–be said of all art[2]. If these little plastic doohickeys glued to nondescript bridge joints and light pole bases get people off their keisters, stretching their gams, asking questions, and looking at the world a little closer, you know, I.R.L. we’ll be happy to take a few lumps for Team Humanity.

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to I-beam in city park, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

protractor glued to pedestrian overpass, Pittsburgh, PA

Pedestrian overpass, Bigelow Blvd.

purple protractor attached to "Receiving Entrance" sign on stone building, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

purple protractor attached to metal expansion joint on bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

40th Street Bridge

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to park bench, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

See also:
A Paean to the Disappearing Pittsburgh Protractors Pittsburgh Orbit, June 5, 2016.
A Protractor Bender Pittsburgh Orbit, June 30, 2016.


[1] “Sources say” this is the origin story and application method for the protractors, but that is not confirmed.
[2] That the protractors may be “art” versus, say, “prank” or “graffiti” is worthy of its own debate.

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

On the Trail of the Wild Pawpaw, Part 2: Pickin’ Up Pawpaws

eight smaller pawpaw fruits in a white hat on wooden table

Hatful of holler. The first score.

First: a warning. One should not purchase tickets on the pawpaw express without knowing what she or he is getting into. When you opt to “ride the lightning”, you’re hopping on the front seat of an emotional and physical roller-coaster that won’t be slowing down until it’s thrown–nay, broken–all who boarded with anything less than total commitment.

Be prepared to give it all up. Relationship? Over. Career? Gone. That itchy skin? It’s not going away. Don’t bother paying the rent–you’ll be sleeping in your car most nights, anyway. Friends, family, loved-ones? Kiss them all goodbye–they’ll not be seeing you any time soon. When, or if, you reconnect, the vacant look in your eyes will tell them you’re never really coming back.

pawpaw fruit hanging in tree, Pittsburgh, PA

All that glitters. Nearly-ripe fruit sing their siren song, Squirrel Hill.

Andrew Moore is one hard dude to get an interview with…at least, this time of year. You can’t fault him, though–the author’s late summer schedule is solidly packed. Readings and signings at bookstores in Charleston and Brooklyn; judging the Best Pawpaw Contest and presenting at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival; fruit sampling with customers at the Erie Whole Foods; a talk at the nature club in Sewickley…and that’s just a couple weeks worth.

All that, and Moore still made time for Pittsburgh Orbit, right at the mid-September peak of pawpaw season. We knew we may never have this chance again, so we hit him with the big guns right away: Have you ever been bonked in the head by a falling pawpaw? (It could happen!)

As luck would have it, in the last six years of researching, writing, and extensively traveling the pawpaw belt–Ohio to Louisiana, Virginia to Kansas–a fruit-to-cranium collision has never occurred. Moore took this in stride, as did questions about his wife’s tolerance for that demon pawpaw and the amount of refrigerator space devoted to gestating seeds. [Answers: very much, he loves her a lot; and about the size and volume of a shoe box, respectively.]

Author Andrew Moore holding three huge pawpaw fruits in a pawpaw orchard

Andrew Moore with the enormous pawpaws of Deep Run Orchard, Maryland [photo courtesy of Moore]

The Orbit consumed Moore’s 2015 book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit (Chelsea Green Publishing) with a gastro-bibliological gusto that invoked what we can only call Pawpaw Fever. It is the definitive work on the subject and as such, Moore has created an elegantly-constructed and fascinating journey through a (literal) landscape both seemingly prosaic (pawpaws grow wild over most of the eastern half of the U.S.–they’re not rare) and at the same time otherworldly (an ancient fruit, re-arriving out of nowhere, with a narrative gift-wrapped for locavores and foodies alike).

Pawpaw contains a couple broad theses that ring long and loud after the last page is turned: the pawpaw as neglected super food that rightfully deserves to be back in markets, lunch bags, and restaurant menus, and the mystery of how this once-ubiquitous early autumn staple that colors so much American history managed to disappear almost entirely from the nation’s collective consciousness. It’s a great read and, needless to say, the book is Orbit-recommended.

pawpaw tree with sign for free use

The giving pawpaw tree of Squirrel Hill

When last we left our blogger, he was deep in the heart of the Schenley Park pawpaw patch, considering an uncertain fruiture (that’s a future in fruit). The pawpaws dangled tantalizingly in all directions, but like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, there was nary an “Indiana banana”–not to mention pawpaw, paw paw, paw-paw, or papaw*–to eat.

Why? Well, one of the pawpaw’s challenges is that it may only be gathered (either shaken from the tree or collected from the forest floor) when ripe. Unlike, say, a tomato or a banana, the hard pawpaw prematurely selected from the tree will never ripen. That’s no big deal out in the wild, but in the very limited supply and unmet demand within metro Pittsburgh, it’s a real crime to prematurely pick the fruit or overzealously shake the tree.

The hunt was on. We got to the, uh, low-hanging fruit (sorry) first–Schenley Park’s pawpaw patch and the magical pawpaw trees of Squirrel Hill. Moore praises the latter: “God bless [the homeowner/planter] for introducing so many of us to our first pawpaw.” This blogger is no expert, but he’s been around the pawpaw patch enough to realize that while a great entry point, these are chump change, amateur hour, gateway drugs. Both sets of trees are well-known and well-traveled destinations at this point, and as such they’ve been over-shaken, abused, ravaged, and the fruit is rarely given the chance to ripen sufficiently.

A large pawpaw cut in half with spoons and a knife

Giant pawpaw, halved.

So…blah blah blah, but what do they actually taste like? Well, I’ll tell you: they’re freakin’ delicious! The blanket description of “tropical” is safe, and banana is clearly the closest common fruit flavor profile. Some of the fruit we found was darker in color (more orange than yellow inside) and absolutely tasted and felt like caramel custard.

One other detail we never saw mentioned is that the pawpaw is really fun to eat. You slice it in half, eat it with a spoon, sorting tasty pulp from the large seeds in your mouth. They’re really unique–like a small dessert right there in every fruit.

So, our early goal of uncovering free public pawpaws right in the city gets mixed marks. We did indeed taste the fruit of several different trees, but weren’t able to uncover any real surprises. The chase is still on, though. As Moore tells it, the trees give themselves up in October, flashing a bright yellow where others go all dropping leaves and fall colors. The dedicated hunter marks her prey and bides his time for the oncoming season. Until then, The Orbit will be out there, cruising the trails…watching.

potted pawpaw tree, Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA

Future fruit. Potted pawpaw at Frick Environmental Center, likely destined for their “From Slavery to Freedom” garden project.

Conclusions:

The bad news: According to Moore, there just aren’t that many publicly-available patches in city limits to get your paws on pawpaws…right now. It’s not a case of us not looking close enough–they just aren’t there. Between the amount of city build-up we’ve had, 150 years of heavy industry, and that damned knotweed, whatever wild pawpaw may have hugged the rivers pre-industrialization likely didn’t survive the steel industry, et al. What is here now was almost surely planted very consciously.

The good news: There is no lack of American pawpaw, even very close to Pittsburgh. As Moore says, “This is not an endangered species…you see it everywhere, especially starting right around the Mason-Dixon line** (and south)”. The Orbit finally got its first big score from a set of trees in the North Hills and realized very quickly how fast you can fill a big bag and why one probably shouldn’t eat eight pawpaws in twelve hours.

Further, Moore paints a portrait of an exciting future for Pittsburgh pawpaw. The fruit is either “having its moment” or “coming back”, depending on how you look at it. [Moore’s book is clearly a not-insignificant factor in this.] Pawpaw is on the cultural radar now like it hasn’t been for several generations and the number of city projects in parks, schools, and community gardens–not to mention all the private growers adding a couple trees to their yards–is huge. According to Moore, in five or ten years there will be more city pawpaw trees than you can shake a stick at…or, you know, just shake the fruit out of.

Man seated at table with a large pile of pawpaws.

Driven to madness. The author, with pawpaws.


Pittsburgh Orbit has accepted Moore’s spelling pawpaw (one word), but paw paw (two) seems to appear even more often “in the wild”.
** Basically, the Pennsylvania-Maryland/West Virginia border.

Jerry’s Records and the $30 Instant Record Collection*

used record bins at Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh, PA

Jerry’s Records is a local institution and a national treasure. If it were up to The Orbit, a giant likeness of Jerry Weber’s head would be carved out of the steep Mount Washington hillside so he could keep his eyes on all of us. Believe this blogger: he’s spent [those “with lives” would say wasted] an inordinately large amount of his adult life and disposable income in and around the nation’s recorded music purveyors. A visit to Jerry’s, coupled with the obligatory post-hunt beer and pizza at Mineo’s and/or Aiello’s, is also a great way to deal with ugly February bluster.

If you’re a red-blooded music-loving (or, heck, just music-casually-enjoying) Pittsburgher, you owe it to yourself to pick up a turntable** and get thee down to Jerry’s. If you don’t, you’re really missing out on one of the great joys of living here–cheap records, as far as the eye can see, Jerry holding court from his junk-filled checkout perch, and the constant stream of Pittsburgh’s weirdo record fiends drifting in and around***. Oh, and you can walk out the door with some great music too.

Jerry's Records storefront, Pittsburgh, PA

The combined Jerry’s Records/Galaxie Electronics/Whistlin’ Willie’s 78 Shop storefront, 2136 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill

This blogger loves records, but he’s also a career cheapskate and Jerry prices his merchandise to move. These are not marked-up collector’s-only stuff by a long shot (Jerry gets plenty of those items, but sells them in separate auctions). So we thought it would be a fun exercise to imagine the vinyl neophyte climbing up Jerry’s long entrance stairway with a $30 bill burning a hole in the pocket and the goal of walking out with an instant (if starter-sized) record collection. There are a ton of records that line Jerry’s sea of bins for three or four bucks each and are reliably available for your purchase any time you choose to stop in.

Here then is The Orbit‘s rough guide to making the most of previous generations’ recorded jetsam and a prescription for walking out Jerry’s door with what may not actually be a great “score” in record-hunting circles, but is at least a fine nuts-and-bolts starter kit.

Diva (motion picture soundtrack)

Vladimir Cosma’s soundtrack to Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 French neon-lit art/cult thriller plays like an old-school mixtape put together by a new wave sorcerer. No two tracks sound at all alike (except the one that gets two versions), but they all play great together. There’s an aria from an opera, a robotic dance jam, some eerie mood pieces, something that sounds like modern harpsichord, etc. Those are all really good, but if you’ve seen the film, it’s the heartbreaking Satie-esque “Sentimental Walk” piano solo that sells this record. Diva must have had a good run at Filmmakers back in the day because Jerry ended up with a bunch of copies.

Duke Ellington The Uncollected, Vols. 1-5 (1946-1947)

Jerry has so many Duke Ellington records they’ve been separately binned by record label, taking up linear feet of browsing space. Ellington’s material between the earliest (pre-album era) stuff in the 1920s through at least the late ’40s is untouchable and was repackaged countless times later on–so there are a lot of options. Smithsonian’s complete year 2-LP sets for the late ’30s and ’40s are great (and also turn up frequently), as are these five “uncollected” volumes from Hindsight that seem to show up all the time. On this day, we picked up Vol. 5 from 1947 with “Swamp Fire,” “Jumpin’ Punkins,” and “Frustration.”

The Romantics The Romantics or In Heat

Used vinyl records by The Romantics at Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh, PA

“In Heat”: in stock

I know, I know, but hear me out! If The Romantics are known at all, it’s as one-hit-wonders for the sports-rock/dude comedy staple “What I Like About You.” Those of a certain age may be able to conjure up their couple other minor MTV-ready power-pop hits, preposterous top-heavy pompadours, and matching tight leather outfits. But these two albums (at least) are both exemplars of hopped-up three-chord songs with themes that run the gamut from chicks, to girls, to sexy ladies. Yes: The Romantics pretty much cover the full range of the human experience. Whatever. Either record is well worth the three clams.

Fleetwood Mac Bare Trees

Rumours and the self-titled/white album are not as common as you’d think given the bajillion copies they sold back in the day, but Jerry’s got the hell out of Mystery to MePenguinHeroes Are Hard To Find, and Bare Trees. All of these are from the pre-Buckingham/Nicks “classic lineup.” The latter comes from the transitional Danny Kirwan/Bob Welch regime where the ecstatic heavy psychedelic blues of Then Play On and Future Games [you’ll have to cross your fingers and go to the New Arrivals for these] gives way to grooving pop rock. Bare Trees is not The Mac’s best album [that distinction is an evergreen music geek bar room debate topic], but it’s totally solid with no clunkers and well worth picking-up.

Fats Waller

Fats Waller at piano

Fats Waller

No particular title here–whatever you get will be some kind of collection–but ideally any of the Bluebird Records Complete 2-LP sets (I think there were three volumes total). Recorded eighty years ago at this point and they still sound absolutely great. In our household, these records are always in heavy rotation and have achieved “desert island disc” status for Waller’s any-occasion/always-great combination of show-tune song-smithy and barrelhouse wink-and-nod boogie-woogie.

Blood, Sweat & Tears S/T

Yeah, it took some arm-twisting from Mike Shanley, but he finally sold me on B,S&T–and I’m glad he did. “Spinning Wheel” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” have deservedly made their place in the radio canon, but the whole record is solid. With everything old becoming new again, it’s a little bit of a surprise that “horn rock” never got the full-on retro treatment…or maybe it isn’t. Either way, there’s a whole new generation yet to develop a gag reflex at the sound of David Clayton Thomas’ voice.

Buck Owens I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail/I Don’t Care/Roll Out the Red Carpet/etc.

Buck Owens "Roll out the red carpet for" LP cover

Pretty much anything from Buck Owens’ mid-60s Capitol Records peak period with gunslinger Don Rich on lead guitar is terrific. Jerry reliably has a wide cross-section of them in stock, in great shape, and ready to twang. If you see Buck’s grinning mug and slick Brill Creamed hair, it’s a safe bet. There was a time I picked one of these up with every trip to Jerry’s. That time is here for you right now, whenever you’re ready.

Popeye (motion picture soundtrack)

The soundtrack from Robert Altman’s legendary 1980 cocaine-fueled, Malta-filmed comic strip adaptation is as weird, wild, and wonderful as the film itself (amazingly) turned out to be. The thirteen Harry Nilsson-penned/Van Dyke Parks-arranged songs totally hold up to their great melodic pedigree and surprisingly lose nothing from Robin Williams’ and Shelley Duvall’s in-character performances. Worth it alone for the two great Olive Oyl (Duvall) numbers “He Needs Me” and “He’s Large”.

The Bee Gees (the pre-disco records)

The Bee Gees had at least three acts before the Rayon, jive-talkin’, and eights on the high-hat. There were the early Beatles-like pop harmony records (1st, Horizontal, and Idea), the pair of loose concept albums (Odessa and Trafalgar, about the Crimean War and the death of Lord Nelson, respectively), and the early ’70s breakup and transition period (Cucumber Castle, 2 Years On, To Whom it May Concern, Life in a Tin Can). Each era succeeds in some measure of rich pop production, warbling squabbling-brother harmonies, and hardcore creep rock. This junkie has them all, and so does Jerry. Take your pick: they’re all recommended.

checkout counter loaded with records, shot glasses, and junk, Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh, PA

All business: the checkout counter at Jerry’s


* Some of these records may run more like $4 or $5, so if you take The Orbit up on this challenge, it may actually cost you $35-$40. Relax: it’s still a bargain and a good time.

** Galaxie Electronics (same building/same entrance) will happily sell you a (reconditioned) turntable and/or service the one you’ve got.

*** Footnote: On our most recent visit, a regular named “Shoeless Bob” popped in to drop off some homemade mix CDs for Jerry. [Apparently even Jerry needs more music!] True to his sobriquet, Bob arrived in what was near zero-degree snow and ice outside with just some very wet, pallid bare feet projecting from his bluejeans.

An Orbit Obit: Squirrel Hill’s Double Ghost

Ghost building with a ghost sign for Approved Lubrication, Pittsburgh, PA

Before: the Approved Lubrication ghost building/ghost sign where Poli used to be, Squirrel Hill (October, 2015)

What a bummer! Whatabummer, (and even) WHAT. A. BUMMER. Squirrel Hill: you really let this one get away–and don’t tell us The Orbit wasn’t there to warn you! In less time than Cop Rock was on the air, we managed to both take flight and burn our wings on the heat of the sun.

As detailed in an Orbit story from October, the tragic fire that destroyed the former Poli restaurant, as well as the building next door, had the miraculous silver lining of exposing not one, but two pretty terrific visual artifacts of previous times, one right on top of the other.

First, there was as crisp and clean an outline of a one-story ghost house (possibly ghost kitchen or ghost retail?) as we’ve ever seen. Then, under that, was a faint, but still appreciable ghost sign that some sleuthing revealed as an advertisement for Approved Lubrication, likely from the 1930s or ’40s.

blank wall painted over to cover former ghost house and ghost sign at the site of the former Poli Restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA

After: well done, guys (January, 2016)

Sigh. It was, of course, too good to last. By December, whoever owns this lot–or maybe the owner of the big former factory building behind it–decided to send the painting squad out to make sure the entire surface would be devoid of any soul and this cultural history banished from the earth. Mission accomplished.

The genius that picked the Home Depot mens room taupe for the paint color should be given some kind of award. Not only did you rip all the character and history off the wall with a couple cans of exterior enamel, you erased the whole thing with the visual shorthand for bland. Maybe you can get Dockers or Applebee’s to build a franchise on the lot. Well done.

former Poli Restaurant parking sign, Pittsburgh, PA

The (other) last sign of Poli

Now, this blogger has never advocated illegal activity–certainly not vandalism or destruction of private property. But if ever there was a blank surface that was calling–nay, crying–out for some spray paint-wielding bomb squad to enrich the local cultural landscape, this is it. There are forty or fifty feet of clean, unobstructed wall, the prime Murray-meets-Forward five-way intersection, where captive audiences have nothing better to do than check out your work, and an aesthetic and history-erasing wrong to right. The Orbit is, in the parlance of the times, “just sayin'”.

Lot where Poli Restaurant used to be, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: the former Poli lot, all cleaned-up, Squirrel Hill

Poli-Science: A Double Ghost Exposed in Squirrel Hill!

Ghost building with a ghost sign for Approved Lubrication, Pittsburgh, PA

The recently-uncovered rare “double ghost” in Squirrel Hill

Everyone said that great treasures would inevitably appear. When we were in the process of buying an old house, friends told stories of finding wavy glass apothecary bottles lost behind walls, secret messages under wallpaper, amateur paintings behind basement pegboard, pornography stowed and forgotten in loosened ceiling tiles.

A house built in the 1880s should have had ample time to accrue all this and more, but fifteen years later, the sum total this home-renovating blogger unearthed was one skeleton key and a set of Pittsburgh Press pages from the 1950s, laid below the linoleum on the third floor as, it seems, everybody used to do. I kept those papers for half-dozen years and then sent them out with the recycling one day. Sigh.

Poli restaurant in Pittsburgh, PA before the fire that destroyed it

Before the fall: Poli, pre-fire/demolition [photo: SquirellHill.com]

The news that the former Poli restaurant and its neighbor building had burned was big local news–and not without its share of suspicion and intrigue. The whole block at the corner of Murray and Forward (including the former Squirrel Hill Theater) had basically been shuttered and was slated for a massive redevelopment project that seems to have been postponed.

Whatever the reason, this sad event has a curious and surprising double twist for the ghost hunters of Pittsburgh Orbit. Now exposed, behind Poli’s former rear wall, we can see both a very clear building outline against the dense retaining wall behind (this seems to be the ghost of an addition to the original Poli) and a ghost sign that must have predated that section of the structure.

The building outline is nothing special–a straight rectangular box with one angled extension that looks like a slanted entrance to cellar stairs. The sign, on the other hand, begged for some looking into.

detail of faded ghost sign for Approved Lubrication, Pittsburgh, PA

Approved Lubrication ghost sign (detail)

The paint is almost completely worn away at this point. But with a little imagination and a little investigation, it turns out the sign was a large-form rendition of Amoco’s corporate identity and its Permalube Service used in the 1930s and ’40s. The tag line  Approved Lubrication is the most recognizable part of what remains. Knowing the original building dates to 1921, it’s probably safe to assume this painted advertisement was added before Poli’s misguided facelift and expansion onto the right/south side of the old building.

Amoco sign, 1930s-40s

Amoco sign, 1930s-40s [image: the Internet]

Poli would probably have made a great Orbit obit, but we just weren’t the right people to do it. [anyone? anyone?] The restaurant had existed at the same Murray Ave. location since 1921 and this blogger had at least fifteen years of ample opportunity to give it a try. What can I say? I was busy that night! No: it just didn’t happen.

I’m glad I made it to The Suburban Lounge and Moré and Chiodo’s Tavern before each of those storied haunts ended their respective run, but I’m afraid Poli is one that got away. Let it serve as a lesson that these places that seem like they’ll exist forever will not. [Note to self: get to Minutello’s ASAP!]

Ghost building/sign at the location of the former Poli restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: the double ghost at the former Poli site, Squirrel Hill

All that remains now is a re-seeded empty lot, an incongruous out-of-work smokestack, the nested pair of ghosts, and, across Murray Ave. from the site, the (literal) sign of Poli’s mid-life crisis. This c. 1970s triangular sign sits high up on its tall pedestal and shares a pie-shaped section of the five-points corner with a sidewalk no one will ever use, a parking lot with no apparent sponsor, and a set of out-of-place fruiting apple trees. In generally healthy, pedestrian-friendly Squirrel Hill, this is one dead space.

What will become of the sign? Who owns it now? It would be great if it could gradually morph into a legitimate “Thomasson” or be repurposed into a Welcome to Squirrel Hill beacon–its placement right at one entrance to the neighborhood would be perfect for that. Or, maybe, it will just become another ghost.

Sign reading "Poli Since 1921", Pittsburgh, PA

All that remains: Poli’s triangular sign across Murray Ave.