Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of
Contents

THE COMMONS ROOM

BOBBIES ON BICYCLES

When they got the call about the car wreck, the bicycle police took off, plunging in against the one-way traffic on Forbes Avenue. Eric Rustad and Richard Troy, members of Pitt's innovative new bicycle police team,pedaled up the left-hand side of the street, steering sharply to avoid potholes and using hand signals to motion drivers out of their way.

They were headed for the Oakland Howard Johnson's, where a stolen car, exiting from the Parkway, had crashed and the driver had run from the scene. City of Pittsburgh police pursuing the suspect had radioed for back-up, and Rustad and Troy knew that with their new, specialized capabilities, they could help. They had been preparing for this kind of call for months.

Flushed with adrenaline, the two crossed Oakland in a matter of minutes and turned down Craft Avenue. Over the radio, the city police gave out the suspect's location: Louise Street, passing Coltart, running toward Semple -- heading back through South Oakland in the direction from which the campus officers had just come. The man was cutting between the houses to evade the police in their cars.

Rustad and Troy had already sped past Coltart, so they turned back, splitting up in the hope of flanking the suspect. Troy wheeled left, passing between houses, bracing himself during a bumpy ride through dirt alleys and over uneven sidewalks. He cut from one street to the next, pointed in the right direction by another officer, who was cruising the neighborhood in his car. Finally, Troy caught sight of the suspect at a distance to the right. The man was darting for a narrow passage between two houses. Meanwhile, Rustad had managed to come up around the other side of the suspect, on nearby Bates Street.

Riding parallel, Troy and Rustad kept pace with the fleeing man, who found himself caught between the two officers. There was nowhere to run but straight ahead, toward Bouquet Street, where a campus police officer with a car lay in wait. Realizing he was trapped, the suspect ran straight at Rustad, hoping to knock the officer from his bike and then keep running. Instead, he hit the bicycle and went sprawling to the ground himself.

Officer Rustad caught the suspect, but since it was their case, he let the city police make the arrest. For Rustad and Troy, the important thing was the chance they had to test their abilities.

Police on bicycles are common in some cities, but the concept is new to Pittsburgh. Pitt's bicycle police-Troy, Rustad, and a third officer, Ann Budzik-know that they must prove themselves. They must convince a potentially skeptical public that the bicycles are not just for show.

The bike officers work hard. Every day, they cover the entire campus, whether in snow or sunshine, record-breaking heat or torrential rain, pedaling up hills and sometimes even down flights of steps. To stave off exhaustion, they eat small meals every few hours (heavy foods like pizza are strictly off limits, and don't even mention donuts). They fill their bicycle bottles with not-exactly-appetizing-sounding "carbohydrate fuel." Policing traffic, answering emergency calls, making occasional arrests, they ride 20 to 30 miles each day. (Rustad recalls pumping at high speed up "Cardiac Hill" to assist a woman who needed medical help: "I thought, 'If I have to give her CPR, who's going to give me CPR?') They hope that their successes will help people to understand that the bicycles are effective community-oriented police tools and not, as some people might think, merely vehicles for publicity.

On a cloudy afternoon, Troy stands astride his bike on the Heinz Chapel side of the Cathedral of Learning. Wearing a black helmet and navy blue shorts, he balances, one foot perched on a pedal and the other planted on the ground. He glances frequently into the distance, keeping an alert watch over nearby Fifth and Bellefield Avenues.

"We fill a gap," he explains, "between the patrol cars and the 'beatmen.'" What he means is that the bicycle police can do certain things that are different from what police in cars or on foot can do. They can cut through the heavy Oakland traffic with unprecedented speed. During rush hour, the bike police are usually the first to arrive at an emergency. They can glide up silently on a scene when necessary. Says Troy, "No one looks for a police officer on a bike."

Troy clearly finds his work not only physically demanding, but personally demanding as well. He discusses the pains that the bicycle police take to maintain good relationships with the Oakland community, a complex neighborhood where workers and students, recent immigrants and long-time residents live in close proximity. Budzik, Rustad, and Troy often stop by the homes of older Oakland residents to discuss neighborhood concerns. Because the bikes make them highly visible, they get to know store owners and local officials. Troy notes, "I'm meeting a lot of people I wouldn't otherwise meet."

The bikes, says Troy, make the officers more approachable: "Sometimes, someone will come up to you and ask you a question about the bike, and you can have a whole conversation about that." As if to illustrate Troy's point about approachability, a man with long hair and a moustache comes out of the Cathedral and lights a cigarette. He wanders up, smiling, to officer Troy, and the two men shake hands.

The man on his cigarette break stands back a step and listens as Troy continues. "Sometimes we'll stop for a minute and catch a football," Troy says. But then he raises a different point: "On the other side of things, I can't get too friendly." He explains that he has to maintain his role as a police officer in case he has to arrest someone in the neighborhood."You wouldn't arrest me, would you?" asks the long-haired man, grinning.

Mildly but without humor, Troy replies, "That depends on what you did."

What Troy is saying, in a way, is that police work -- and especially bicycle police work -- demands total dedication and total absorption. "You reach a point," he insists, "where the bike actually becomes part of you." Ann Budzik and Eric Rustad, Pitt's other bicycle police, match Troy in their absorption with the job. When they're on duty, they take their bikes into stores, into classroom and office buildings -- virtually everywhere they go.

"They gave us locks," Budzik says, "but the locks are heavy, so we don't carry them."

"The time you'd spend locking up the bikes is the time you can use to be at the call," Rustad adds.

Budzik shrugs and glances at her bike. 'In an emergency, I could hand-cuff it," she says.

In fact, it's no wonder that the bicycle police leave their locks at home. They already have plenty to keep track of -- from how to outmaneuver a fleeing crime suspect to how to patch a tire. But Budzik, Rustad, and Troy show an unfailing appetite for thinking carefully about what they do.

"Bicycle policing is a different style of police work," Rustad says. "You have to carry yourself differently. Maybe you're stopped at a traffic light and you're tired, and you're leaning on the handle bars -- but you have to worry about gun retention." Police officers must always be careful not to put themselves in a position where someone could take their guns away, he explains.

Rustad mentions that before they ever hit the street, they went through a week of intense training (as did four Pittsburgh officers and one from Carnegie Mellon University) geared specifically toward the two-wheeled aspects of their work. "We did the training this past winter so it was..."

"...below zero," says Budzik, finishing his sentence for him.

"A couple of guys got frostbite," Rustad says.

"Almost," Budzik corrects.

"Kevin did," persists Rustad, naming one of the city officers.

"He was okay," Budzik counters.

They dispute the point for a few moments more, but they argue without rancor. By disagreeing over a minor issue, they reveal their overall unity -- a unity that arises from shared experiences and shared concerns.

On more serious matters, they tell the same story. During their training the officers saw warning videos about riders losing control of their bicycles. "It wasn't pretty," Rustad says. Of the bicycles, he says, "We can bring them up to speeds where you can literally kill yourself."

Budzik concludes: "Sometimes I'm in traffic, and the thought occurs to me, 'If a car door opens, I'm done.'"

The story of the bike police, then, is a story about three people who are willing to take risks -- carefully calculated risks -- with their lives, of course, but also with their dignity. They have been brave enough to challenge conventional notions about how officers should look and act, and by doing so they have drawn themselves even more deeply into police work. And they have gained a richer understanding of their role in the unique world of Oakland -- this busy, noisy world that they are learning every corner of, this world that they are winning over as their own.

-Laura Shefler

LIFE IN BLOOM

From a distance, all I could see were two crouched figures outside St. Paul's Cathedral on a spring day. As I drove further down Craig Street toward Fifth Avenue, I could make out one of the figures -- a young woman wearing a Pitt sweatshirt. Closer still, I could see her partner: an older woman with dark glasses and a white cane. They studied something on the grounds outside St. Paul's, but their bent figures blocked my view of their subject. Finally, as I was nearly past them, the two straightened up and continued their slow walk, arm-in-arm, both smiling.

And I could see the object of their attention: they had leaned over to take a sniff of a newly bloomed red tulip.

Although I drove past at 35 miles an hour -- and although tulips don't have much of a scent -- it seemed that I, too, could smell something very, very sweet in the air. - Mark Collins

THE SECRET OF THE CORNERSTONE

Are you sure it's really there?"
--"Absolutely, but you'll have to do some serious searching. If you get stuck, let me know, and I'll give you a clue."

This was at the end of my conversation with E. Maxine Bruhns, director of Pitt's Nationality Rooms and astute knower of the Cathedral of Learning -- it's history, lore, and hidden intricacies.

Tracking down a rumor, I had called Maxine (a legendary figure in her own right, she is recognized campus-wide by her first name) to see if she was aware of a cornerstone placed somewhere in the Commons Room of the Cathedral. According to my sources, the cornerstone had been installed by Chancellor John Bowman in 1937. It supposedly contains, among other artifacts, a simple message written on paper guaranteed to last 500 years. The message is this:

"The Cathedral of Learning expresses for Pittsburgh a desire to live honestly in a world where kindness and the happiness of creating are life."

I was taken by the eloquence of these words, the celebration of simple virtues: honesty, kindness, the joy of creativity. But I was equally taken by the fact that I had no idea of the cornerstone's whereabouts, even though I had walked through the Commons Room on hundreds of occasions. I figured if anyone knew, it was Maxine.

I figured right.

Maxine Bruhns delights in the treasures of the Cathedral of Learning. With a mischievous, gnostic twinkle in her eye, she hints that she -- and she alone -- holds the secret of the cornerstone's location. At the same time, she's just dying to tell.

Maxine is the perfect guide to Pitt's gothic tower. For instance, she holds the key to an unmarked wooden door on the first floor, which opens to reveal an astonishing view: a fully restored Greek revival ballroom, lit by a magnificent crystal chandelier.

The ballroom and its adjoining parlor were part of an 1830s mansion owned by a man named William Croghan,Jr. He built the ballroom for his young daughter, Mary. But she eloped at age 15 with a British military officer, Captain Edward Schenley, became estranged from her father, and for many years lived abroad. Mary never danced in her ballroom, though later in life she and her husband returned to live briefly in the house.

The mansion eventually fell into decline, and in the 1940s, the ballroom and parlor were moved and restored inside the Cathedral of Learning. The Croghan-Schenley rooms almost cry out for a secret passage somewhere. And sure enough, a false fireplace can be manipulated to take you into a hidden chamber where, Maxine Bruhns attests, "the ghost of Mary Schenley still resides." I'm not a superstitious man, but I take Maxine's word for it.

Another of Maxine's favorite places is the Cathedral's loft, a wonderful third-floor stone perch. Unobserved, you can contemplate the beauty and activity of the Commons Room below.

Then there's the "seismograph room" hidden in the basement of the Cathedral. Never heard of it? Ask Maxine.

As for the cornerstone, I was not about to ask Maxine. I was determined to make this discovery myself. Before I began my explorations, I did some reading about the history of the Cathedral of Learning. I learned that it was eight years prior to the 1937 installation of the cornerstone -- in fact, October of 1929 -- when steelworkers fitted into place the last beam and raised the American flag to the top. Chancellor Bowman drove the last rivet. Only a handful of people were present to watch.

Curiously, the Cathedral of Learning was never officially dedicated. Even more curious, the tower was never officially named. Bowman always called it "the high building." Rumor has it a Scottish architect came up with the tag, "Cathedral of Learning" -- possibly in jest. The name, obviously stuck.

Later, in 1937, thanks to the generosity of that year's graduating class, the Cathedral belatedly acquired its cornerstone, a cornerstone whose location is seemingly unknown to all but E. Maxine Bruhns.

And so, one rainy spring afternoon, I entered the Commons Room, notebook open, cunning of spirit, in quest of the cornerstone. I began my search with precise logical deduction, immediately turning my attention to the room's four corners. No dice.

I tried the woman at the information desk.

Her reply: "I've never heard of a cornerstone, nor have I ever been asked about it before." After a very long pause: "But then again, I've only been working here two weeks." This wasn't going to be easy.

As casually as I could manage, paying scant heed to the groups of students eyeing with amusement my every move, I began to intently inspect -- stone by stone -- the walls and pillars, the archways and stairs, the fireplaces and mantles of the great room. On a ledge, written in charcoal, I espied the word "Hoot!" -- perhaps idle graffiti, perhaps a taunt to my quest.

I came across false alarms, such as this red-lettered inscription I found upon a wall:

The Trustees of the University of Pittsburgh dedicate this building to John Gabbert Bowman, Chancellor, 1921-1946. May this building stand for centuries, a symbol of his vision, a sign of his faith, that youth will find here, moments of high victory.

Impressive words, but not, for me, a moment of high victory. This was not the cornerstone.

Later that day, down an alcove I came upon a message chiseled on black slate that looked promising. But then I began to read this description of the Cathedral of Learning:

Through the night its shape was darkness lifting from restraining dark -- a spire of stillness in a fixed landscape -- stalactite stark and sleep itself was quiet with this tower to mark meaning which matter, given form, can keep.

The poem continues, a memorial to Pitt Chancellor Stanton Crawford, a stark meditation on death, written in 1966 by a Pitt professor named Lawrence Lee.

This was not the message of the cornerstone, but the appearance, out of the blue, of this intimation of mortality stopped me dead in my tracks. Time, I decided, to close the notebook.

The Commons Room of the Cathedral of Learning can be like that: dim-lit, mysterious, full of echoes from the past, of waltzes never waltzed.

But it is also a place of life and laughter and dreams of high victory. Some students were clowning around -- goodnaturedly -- at one of the tables, and I was drawn by their banter and badinage. As I orbited their table on my way outside, I silently wished for them the words inside the cornerstone: "To live honestly in a world where kindness and happiness of creating are life."

And I did eventually find out where that cornerstone is located.

I did it the only way I knew how.

I asked Maxine.

-Tommy Ehrbar


Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of
Contents