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Brainstorming 

Taking the bus can provide lots to think about

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I was traveling from Downtown to CMU, carrying a giant bass guitar with me. I lugged my load, stopping to switch hands every 50 yards, to the bus stop across from Kaufmann's famous clock, adjacent to the McDonald's.

I love riding the bus. Having someone else in the driver's seat while I get lost in thought is my idea of freedom. The bus is also a perfect place to people-watch. I once saw a girl in the back of the bus change out of her work uniform and into party clothes with only a coat as cover.

But with no bus in sight, I bent down into my backpack for my phone. Before I could retrieve it, two cracked and swollen feet appeared in my vision.

"What is that you got there?"

I looked up to see a man — could have been 50, could have been 80— wearing busted-up sliders, no socks, oversized scrubs held up by one hand and a dirty shirt.

"It's a bass guitar," I said.

"Oh, a bass guitar," he said. "That's a big one."

"It's electric," I said

"I played the trumpet," he declared.

He told me about playing the trumpet in high school, and the good time he had doing it. Said he can't play anymore.

"I'm too old and I don't have any teeth left," he said. "Dentures won't do. The pressure's too much for them. You got to have a good mouth to make music with."

He told me about playing with Roy Eldridge, the trumpet virtuoso from Pittsburgh. He also said he played with Doc Severinsen, but didn't like his manner.

"Bad attitude," he bellowed. "I loved his playing, his style, but he was mean, mean, mean. I didn't like him. Everybody has good and bad in them. And you never know what you're going to get. You got to be ready for anything."

"People are strange," I said stupidly.

"I didn't say ‘strange,'" he corrected me. "I said ‘bad.' There's a difference. Strange is OK, but bad is bad. Hitler wasn't strange. He was bad."

He went on about Hitler. Said he couldn't imagine what good he had in him, but he did mention Hitler's best-selling book: Mein Kampt, he called it.

"Hitler killed a lot of people. You have to be an atheist to kill that many people. You can't know God and do all that killing. He didn't like the Jews."

A bus rolled up, the 71A.

"Not my bus," he said.

It wasn't mine either. He told me he was headed to Squirrel Hill, his favorite part of town. Great, we were waiting for the same bus.

"That's where all the Jews live," he declared. "Do you know about them?"

I bristled at the mention of a people as "them."

"The greatest people in the world were Jews," he boasted. "They have all the brains. The best conductor in history: Leonard Bernstein. The greatest songwriter ever: Irvin Berlin, he wrote ‘White Christmas.' He wrote more songs than anybody. Ira Gershwin, Steven Spielberg, Steve Allen, Barbra Streisand."

I asked him if he was Jewish.

"No," he said. "I'm a gentile, but I have some brains too. But the Jews can do anything. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci — were they Jews?"

I was frozen. I didn't know. I couldn't think past the fact that I was holding an actual conversation with this man.

"Why don't you tell me?" I asked.

He furrowed his brow.

"You should know that," he cried. "This is simple stuff. I would have expected you to know this. Don't you have brains?"

"I'm not Jewish," I finally said.

He went quiet. And so did I. Two strangers standing at a bus stop in limbo. Neither of us knew what to do next. I had the urge to reach down into my bag and retreat to my phone, but I didn't want to make him feel bad.

Minutes passed and still no bus. The two of us stood in silence, awkwardly close, but miles apart.

Then:

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry if I said something wrong just now. I'm old and sick and I have to remember that young people don't have as many brains as me."

I didn't expect that. An apology wasn't part of the script I was creating in my head.

"It's OK," I said.

He told me some more about Jews with brains: Bob Dylan, Ben Bernanke, Albert Einstein. Then our bus came and like a flash he raced away, gunning to be the first in the door.

He had brains, no doubt: Standing all the way to Squirrel Hill is no way to ride the bus.

Tami Dixon is the producing artistic director of Bricolage Production Company. Along with Pittsburghers for Public Transit and Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, Bricolage is a sponsor of Transit Tales, an effort to raise awareness of the importance of public transit. Learn more at www.transittalespgh.org.

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