Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood: Traffic Lady

Before I changed my hours at work a few months ago, every morning on my way to the subway I used to see a crossing guard at the corner across 82nd Street from a Catholic school in my neighborhood. She directs streams of children and impatient parents across 35th Avenue, on their way to the school on the site, for a couple of hours every weekday.

She is a perfect example of someone who has tured a job I would consider boring, or at least monotonous, into the pin on which the rest of the world spins. She is so earnest in her duties that I was often slightly annoyed by her — I am not a morning person, and usually I’m in a hurry and cranky on the way to work. Now that I get only rare doses of her, I’ve come to see her as a sort of treat.

She wears her uniform with her black-brimmed white cap and white gloves, her day-glow vest, of course, and always dark glasses, whether the sun is bright or not. If it’s raining, she’ll have a rain coat on and a clear plastic covering for her hat — and still the day-glow vest.

Her pedestrian traffic-directing zeal is such that I can hear her even before I reach the near side of the street. She steps out onto the corner with her palm raised toward the cars stopping for the red light shining above her head. Then she turns to face the people on my corner waiting for the WALK signal and wildly swings her other hand in a wide, neat circle in front of her, like she’s beating the air. It’s precision and directness seem almost violent. I imagine she has a strong arm. She calls across, “OK. Cross now. Come on. Come on across!”

She whips that hand around like it’s so very important. Like our lives depend on that motion alone. She’s showing off how hard she is working for us. Clairee does this in the final scene of the film Steel Magnolias when Annelle goes into labor at the Chinquapin Parish Easter egg hunt. Clairee shoves onlookers aside, sort of side-shuffling across the lawn to clear a path, and using a similar circular forearm motion to direct Annelle to safety, which turns out to be the open passenger side door of Spud’s truck 10 feet away. As if Anelle and the friends propping her up on either side couldn’t have found it alone — or if Spud might have lost control of the vehicle and careered into the pregnant woman. It has always been, in my mind, one of the unforgivable moments of Olympia Dukakis’ performance. (The other big one is her declaration at the Christmas party: “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize” — a great line, delivered beautifully, but which falls flat when the other actors do not respond, leaving Dukakis to smile dumbly and walk off into the house for no reason. Her Oscar-winning turn in Moonstruck more or less makes up for it, though.)

I’m sure the traffic lady saves kids’ lives daily, but I’m not sure how effective she is for the adults. Many people are already crossing before she opens her mouth — or her hands. People cross against the lights all the time. Including myself. I wonder sometimes if she’ll ever try to stop anyone from crossing on a red light — rushing into the street to grab someone by the hood or scarf and drag him back to the corner, or standing in someone’s way with her arms out and shouting “You won’t get past me! I dare ya!”

But I’ve never seen it.

Her voice is a cross between Cyndi Lauper and Elaine Stritch. “Goo’morning!” she cries, as we pass her. “Goo’mornin’, dea-uh. Goo’mornin’. Have a nwice day. Goo’mornin’, dea-uh.” Despite the automatic, thoughtless way she says it, I think she greets each of us individually. It is at once officious and personable.

Sometimes she’ll be talking to a woman with a baby stroller or a small child by the hand and, with the distraction, she is a little less like a toy soldier. Walking by, I catch just a snip of the conversation.

“Yuh kiddin’ me.”

“Oh, I knaow! I couldn’t bullieve it! Huh own dwaughtuh. So, I says to huh, I says…”

I smile and sigh. I love Queens.

Usually I get to that corner after 9 a.m., after she’s left. But if I leave early enough, I see her still. She was a regular feature of my day. She is as much a fixture on that corner as the lamp post. I know that if I ever wanted to I could stop and ask her how her morning is going. I could be the lady with the stroller and spend a few minutes chatting. But I really don’t think she would care. And honestly, who wants to be responsible for distracting her?


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the untallied hours

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