Easter Special: You Can’t Make an Omelet Without Finding Some Eggs

baby doll painted gold and hanging from telephone wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby, Lawrenceville

Matched ceramic salt and pepper shakers, ruby glass, bobbleheads, Hummel figurines, cookie jars–people collect all kinds of goofy stuff. Bakelite AM radios, Santas, and state plates, World’s Fair trinkets and glass insulators from telegraph lines. David from our West Coast rival Portland Orbit has some unique collections: cans of knock-off Dr. Pepper, eyeglass stems found on the street, other peoples’ grocery lists.

Easter may come only once a year, but every day can be the Orbiteer’s figurative egg hunt–which is really just the primordial collecting impulse–and it doesn’t cost a penny or take up any room on your shelves. Spotting is a lifelong and year-round habit: take the alley, poke behind the bushes, look down at the pavement and up in the telephone wires. [Oh, Golden Babies, how we pray we haven’t seen the last of you!]

Today, whether you’re a committed church-going, brunch-eating Easter reveler or full-on dance-naked-by-the-bonfire pagan, we celebrate some of the Orbit‘s favorite any-time/all-year-long city egg hunt targets.

protractor glued to metal driving barrier, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh protractor, Allegheny River Trail, Millvale

Pittsburgh Protractors are the easy money, chump change, fish-in-a-barrel of local urban collecting. In that way, though, they’re a great entry point–the gateway drug–to hardcore egg hunting. Either way, you have to respect the work of the protractor perpetrator(s) and we couldn’t not include the protractors in the list. There are just so damn many of the little plastic doo-dads glued all over the place that if you’re in bicycle-accessible city limits and keep your blinkers open, you’ll probably spot a few even if you’re not really trying.

ghost sign for "Arsenal Brand Meat Products" painted on side of brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign: Arsenal Brand Meat Products, Hill District

Sal’s MeatsHipCo BatteriesMother’s Best FlourOwl Cigar. Who are these vendors and what is the business arrangement that traded a (presumably) single payment into a long-after-life of marketing products that may no longer be purchased?

The hand-painted, brick wall advertising of yesteryear was all put out of business (we assume) by the arrival of big, purpose-built billboards with their larger display areas, darkness-defying flood lights, targeted sight lines, and monthly rates. That’s part of what makes so-called ghost signs so enjoyable for the egg hunter: it’s pretty obvious that there won’t be any more of them[1], and what’s left is often fading fast.

brass marker showing the 46.0 high water mark for the March 18, 1936 flood of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

1936 flood marker, Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown

Waaaay back when, the very first story committed to these virtual pages concerned a cryptic message painted around two faces of an old brick building in Manchester. That [SPOILER ALERT!] turned to be a marker for the most famous rising of the waters in Pittsburgh’s history–the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood.

We’ve found a handful more of them around downtown and on the North Side, but surprisingly few considering the immensity of the event and the age of our building stock. That just makes the hunt all that much sweeter when we zero in on previously unseen prey.

Mary statuette in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Front yard Mary and grotto, Arlington

The blessed mother, hands spread with her palms open in a welcoming embrace or–far less often–the pietà image of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus or holding the once-and-future as a baby [see above]. Whichever way we encounter the statuary, this is Front Yard Mary [even if she’s in the side or back yard] and we’ll take her any way we can get her.

There are so many Marys out there that we’ve got separate future features planned for South Oakland, Homestead, and the South Side Slopes (at least), which hardly makes Mary the most difficult egg to hunt. That said, this is ostensibly an Easter feature…

painting of woman with three eyes by Clohn Art, wheatpasted to wood, Pittsburgh, PA

Clohn Art, Downtown

Clohn Art is the nom de plume–or perhaps nom de paintbrush–of one John Lee, whose crude extra-eyed men, women, and animal paintings are executed on the placemats of Chinese restaurants and unfurled brown paper bags. They’re found wheatpasted at construction sites, alley walls, and, in at least one case, a rusty bus shelter in Homestead.

Wherever we happen to see the artist’s distinctive little paintings, they always pop off the wall surface and bring a twisted smile to our merely two-eyed faces. Mr. Lee declined The Orbit‘s request for a feature interview [John: we’re still interested!] so we’re left to troll the back streets, hoping to grab another of those rarest of eggs: a fresh, new Clohn to nestle in the wicker basket.

teddy bear and plastic flowers left on curbside, Pittsburgh, PA

Reasonably happy-looking sad toy, Fairywood

Like some mangy old teddy bear, dropped casually from a toddler’s stroller and forced to spend purgatory face-down in the weedy berm, Al Hoff brought the concept of “sad toys” into this blogger’s life and then cruelly left us by the side of the road to fend for ourselves.

Stuffed animals with their fur matted, flattened, and filthy; a basketball, punctured and concave in an oily culvert; doll parts dismembered and jettisoned like the work of a Lilliputian serial killer. So much pathos in such tiny candy-colored doses! It’s almost too much to bear…almost. But when we find them–and these are truly both the most random and the most reliable, renewable resource of today’s eggs–we can’t help but bag them.

outline of previously-existing "ghost house" against larger brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house, North Side

Ghost houses–the imprint of one, now-extinct building upon its still-extant neighbor–is hardly a concept unique to Pittsburgh, but we’ve got the perfect environmental conditions to produce them here. Older building stock constructed right up against each other in a previous era when the density supported a pedestrian-based workforce, coupled with decades of “benign neglect” that demolished many–some falling all on their own–and landlords caring little about fixing-up the weird negative spaces on their vacant lot-facing windowless walls.

Like many of the other ova that occupy our oculi, ghost houses are special because–like a petrified forest, or the career of Steve Guttenberg–they’re the result of such a peculiar series of historic events, circumstances, and (non-)actions over a great period of time that we’ll likely not encounter the same perfect storm here again.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Clarence the Bird pole art, Bloomfield

With Clarence the Bird, the egg hunt changes parameters. Like picking up pawpaws, where there’s one of his handmade, ink-on-cardboard Make the World Beautiful instances, there tend to be a lot. Find a Clarence and you can safely spread out–looking up and down at the adjacent-blocks’ neighboring telephone poles and bulletin boards–and you’ll likely spot more.

So far [to our knowledge], Clarence has stuck to the greater Lawrenceville-Bloomfield-Garfield-Friendship portion of the East End, but that may just be where we’ve crossed paths with his big wings and pointy beak. I’m sure if we do see his trail elsewhere, we’ll see it everywhere.

poems of The Dirty Poet taped to a lamp post, Pittsburgh, PA

Poems of The Dirty Poet, Oakland

To call locating the telephone pole and street lamp verse of The Dirty Poet “egg hunt” material is a little bit of a stretch. His Dirtiness (yes: the writer is a he) wants the short, dittoed poems he authors to be read, after all. They’ve been taped and stapled at eye level on prominent foot traffic corners for just that purpose.

Regardless, it’s still neat to run across the prickly prose and lurid lines of the Bard of the Backstreets, knowing that one is literally standing in the creator’s footprints, inhaling his boozy breath, and shimmering in what’s left of his groovy vibes. To you, Whitman of the walkways, Dickinson of the downtown, Angelou of the who are you? may we always encounter your offspring sunny side up.

Toynbee Tile reading "Toynbee Idea in movie '2001' resurrect dead on planet Jupiter"

Toynbee Tile (no longer present), Downtown

It almost feels like cheating to include the so-called Toynbee Tiles in the list–we ran a feature on the House of Hades tiles just last week. But when you get lucky enough to spot one of the remaining, legit, first-generation street pieces, well, it’s a good day indeed.

As we reported, it is The Orbit‘s conclusion that none of these still exist in metro Pittsburgh and we’re left with a pair of ersatz Hell-bound tributes. But you never know! What does Easter–and, by association, spring–offer but the arrival of new hope, possibility, and opportunity. It is a new season: the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and flowers are popping with their tiny blasts of color across late winter’s gray-brown backdrop. Go out there and get you some eggs!


[1] There are, however, several efforts out there to restore/repaint old ghost signs as new mural projects. There’s a big one on Penn Avenue in Garfield and several in Braddock that we know of.

Downtown Flood Markers

Close-up of a marker for the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 on the former Joseph Horne department store, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Waaaaaaay back (O.K., it was just at the beginning of the year) this only notional blog kicked itself off with a story on one set of cryptic runes reading H.W. 46 ft. 3-18-1936. That (Spoiler alert!) ended up being about the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 and a couple extant markers we had located in the industrial section of Manchester/Chateau on the North Side.

This blogger wondered aloud (in print) that there must be more where this came from, but that we weren’t actually aware of any. Informed readers responded (thanks Pauline!) to tip us off and we finally followed-up over Labor Day weekend with a cruise downtown to spot a couple more flood markers.

The first of these sits high on a wall (maybe twelve or so feet above street level) at the corner of Penn Ave. and Stanwix Street, on the old Horne’s department store. [The current tenant is the appropriately-named Highmark Insurance company.] It’s a simple brass marker, and like the others, it’s got the date of the flood (actually the day after St. Patrick’s Day, when the water crested) and height (46 ft.).

Marker for the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 on the former Joseph Horne department store, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

In context: flood marker on the former Horne’s, Penn & Stanwix, Downtown

We let our fingers do the walking and came up with a tip for one more downtown marker. This one on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building on The Boulevard of the Allies. Then, of course, we let our legs do the bicycling, our pours do the sweating (it was really hot that day!), and our fingers do the shutter-clicking to snap this pic.

I realized that I’d never actually walked right up to the Post-Gazette building before, although I’d ridden/driven by plenty of times. I was first impressed by their nice row of thriving potted plants, but then even more so by the big windows that let you look right into the giant rows of printing equipment that fill the first floor. Those huge, old machines are now idle as the paper has recently moved all its printing operations to a brand new facility somewhere outside of town. Sigh. I cursed myself for never stopping to see them all spinning and cranking when they were still in use. That must have been quite a sight. Just like the flood.

Marker for the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building, Downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Flood marker on the Post-Gazette building, Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown

Any more flood marker tips for The Orbit? Please let us know.

H.W. 46 ft. 3-18-1936

St. Patrick's Day Flood marker, Manchester

This intriguing painted marker lives on the corner of a big brick warehouse building at Island and Preble Aves. in Manchester.  I came across it bicycle-riding through the neighborhood last summer.  It read like some weird code: H.W. 46 ft.  It wasn’t until thinking about it days later that I put the pieces together: a date (March 18, 1936) and a measurement in feet.  This had to be a high water marker for the Great St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936.

Floods happen in Pittsburgh somewhat regularly–especially right at the end of winter when all the collected ice upriver starts melting en masse–but the flood of 1936 was The Big One, the most devastating in the city’s history and the one that provoked massive flood control efforts in and around the city.

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington during flood of 1936

View of downtown Pittsburgh during the flood of 1936 from Mt. Washington

I had a heard about the flood a few times, first and most memorably from a much older co-worker at a place I was temping in the late 1990s who had personally experienced it as a child.  He had this vivid memory of looking down on the city from Mt. Washington and seeing giant rolls of newsprint from the Pittsburgh Post printing facility downtown inflated by the water and floating down the river like giant marshmallows.

I’ve come across very few other physical artifacts of the flood (although one would think there are many others), so this was a really neat discovery.  It wasn’t long, though, until I came across this second marker for the flood on a different ride, but also in the same general area of Manchester (exact address unknown).

St. Patrick's Day Flood marker, Manchester

St. Patrick’s Day Flood marker, Manchester