I am hesitant to bring this up, because it is nostalgic, and that's a guaranteed route to ending up as the old guy who writes a column for a neighborhood newspaper called "Remember When? I Do, Barely."

"Say, anyone remember taking the streetcar to Johnson's Drug Store to get those salted peanuts? We called them 'salties.' If Old Man Johnson caught you swiping some 'salties' he'd take a piece out of your behind with that brine-soaked bullwhip he always carried, lash you down to the bone. I think he did 10 to 15 for selling laudanum."

No, that's not a good use of valuable newspaper space. But when I read the news that the Feds are going to give the transit authority a cool billion for light rail, I suddenly thought of something I saw on the Nicollet Mall the other day. It was like a vision of the past, the sort of thing you never see anymore.

A shopper? An office worker? Good answers, both, but not correct in this case. It was a red bus.

Sort of, anyway. It was a regular bus encased in one of those shrink-wrap ads, and the ad was red. But it was close enough to make me go, "Say, anyone remember when the buses were red?"

Perhaps not. But they were, and they looked sharp. Then they dropped the crimson livery for white, which makes a lot of sense in a winter city. First year 150 people got hit while crossing the street because they thought they were stepping in front of a snowbank.

No, I made that up. But a red bus in the winter stood out. The red bus made the Twin Cities different. And they were so distinctive that when I asked a random sample of people my age if they remembered, they got a faraway smile you associate with, "Ah, yes, of course," or perhaps, "How can I gently extricate myself from this conversation?"

The other reason I hesitate to bring up red buses: triggering the bus nerds. Researching when the red buses went away, I found a web account of some bus fans visiting a bus museum in 1999, where they were delighted to see not only a GMC TDH-5105, but a GMC TDH-5303.

Hearts were pounding that day, let me tell you.

The GMC TDH-5105 was made in the '50s, and the MTC version was red on the body, cream on the top, with a blue stripe in between; they weren't always all red. In fact, if you look at old footage of Minneapolis in the '60s, you'll see a bus that's green and white, and ...

"Actually," the bus nerd interrupts, "that was the GMC TDH-6666, TDH standing for Transit/Diesel/Hydraulic, although some of the drivers said it meant That Damn Hog because it tended to wallow on the turns a bit. A little bus driver humor there! Anyhoo, that green and white bus was a private charter company, Krashemup Bus Lines, which operated between June and September of 1963, when the whole fleet was sold to Mexico, which was a surprise to those riders who were still on board hoping to get to Duluth. So they modified the TDH ... "

Shh. Anyway, the 1999 bus museum visit website showed a picture of a sad old GMC TDH-5303 in "boxcar red," which was the color some of us remember, and the color of the ad that wrapped around the bus I saw on the Nicollet Mall.

Unless I was imagining things. I also saw Old Man Johnson laying into Mary Tyler Moore with a bullwhip, so it could have been that dodgy shrimp I had for lunch. It looked weird. It was red.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks