BIOGRAPHY

Ross Schaub brought sense of joy and humor to East End cafes


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Ross Schaub, who many East Enders would recognize as the tall, cap-wearing, funny inhabitant of local coffee shops -- Tazza D'Oro in Highland Park, where he reigned supreme for years, and Jitters in Shadyside, where his last years were spent among another set of friends -- was 58.

He'd attended Sacred Heart, Central Catholic, Pitt undergrad and Pitt law school. This fall, he fought a long, valiant battle in the cardiac ICU at UPMC Mercy. He finally made it out of the hospital and into a rehab.

Last time I saw him, lying in bed, he seemed to be back in form. "Oil, need oil," he said, imitating the Tin Man. He asked for "wonton soup sans wontons." But then, after a few days in the rehab, he did the unthinkable, and died.

At the viewing last week, I learned that "The Jitterati" had been in earlier. I'd not heard the term Jitterati before, but I'd bet Ross coined it. Tazza D'Orans had a mock disdain for Jitters people, jealous that they'd stolen our anchor.

He'd fallen for Marianne and moved to her place in Shadyside. The geography of convenience took hold. He still visited our North Highland Avenue cafe, but things were never the same as when he'd been a daily communicant.

Jitters was more international and great company for his brilliant mind -- not that we weren't. With Ross around, Tazza D'Oro was like a sitcom that put "Cheers" to shame. Everyone seemed to be recovering from divorces or cases of misfit-ism, and we needed Ross' humor. Postmen, Buddhists, plumbers, therapists, sidekick "Sassy P," ex-gangsters, poets, morticians, seminarians, window installers and people considered to be "disabled" came together in the Ross days.

Ross was a great historian. Ask about the Peloponnesian War, and he could give an hourlong lecture complete with dates. In Tazza D'Oro, Ross once talked so much about Oliver Cromwell, the Cromwell Ban was issued. On each table a sign was placed: "No Cromwell After Nine AM."

History was alive for Ross, but the present moment was his passion. The reason so many mourn his passing has to do with his relationship to time. You never saw Ross checking his watch. You never had the sense that he was too busy for you.

As his friend Dr. Ben said, "He knew how to be in a place." How rare. Our public sphere's a stage where people greet each other on the way to other places, rushing, saying it would be great to get together someday. Busy-ness is the pervasive story of our time, but Ross never bought it.

He made enough money to get by. He didn't like being a lawyer, so he tried real estate. One year he opened a shop in Shadyside called Stuff and broke even. Money wasn't the point. The point was to enjoy people who wandered in to talk. In his last years he was working with a team of scientists. I heard they'd hired him to "be Ross."

Ross had a great talent for connecting people. He could have called himself a consultant. People say he might have been a great politician, but his wit was untamable. He skewered even his closest friends. (When he heard I'd volunteered in a Mexican orphanage for a week, he asked our mutual friends if I'd enjoyed "Mother Teresa Fantasy Camp.")

To sit with Ross was like sitting with a hilarious talk show host. In fact he had the idea of hosting a morning talk show in Pittsburgh, outside of Tazza D'Oro, and calling it "Good Morning, Tampa."

Some of his best times, Ross told me, were at Kennywood riding coasters with a Tazza D'Oran in his 60s who lived in a halfway house. For years, Ross and James sat together every morning in the coffee shop. James had a disability that rendered his speech incomprehensible. Ross understood every word. James would say something, and Ross would translate for us. How did he do that?

Ross always told stories about his childhood friends and his family. I've never been able to walk down Sheridan Avenue without thinking of him as a 10-year-old who liked nothing better than to sit on the front porch with his mother, drinking iced tea on summer evenings after reading "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" columns in her Ladies' Home Journal.

What kid does that? He must have come into the world ready to be amazed at the mystery of people in relationship to one another.

Here's hoping there's a coffee shop in heaven where we'll gather together again with Ross, taking our time.

Jane McCafferty of Highland Park, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, can be reached at janem@andrew.cmu.edu.


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