Webber is a fount of information, a parent to all. She can tell you the most accurate weather forecast for the next three days. She holds your bus for you if she sees you running down the block, even if you’re a grownup. She always has a smile for you, regardless of the temperature. Sometimes, in the afternoon, she doubles up as art critic, talent judge, or referee as kids rush to show her projects, sing songs, or demonstrate new dance moves. Today, I saw her showing some school kids how to make proper snowballs.
Sometimes, she has to work two corners. “I got 37 kids today!” she’ll say, flustered, as she looks up and down the street in four directions, checking to make sure children aren’t walking into the busy intersections alone. May works with private and public school children, elementary through high school students, in addition to all the adults she guides to work each day. Many of the students May shepherds attend schools that were recently scheduled to close in Fall of 2006. If that happens, “Well, I’ll be out of a job.” According to May, guards who work closer to the closing schools with more seniority will be assigned to the rural corners without traffic lights.
May is kind of low on the seniority list among crossing guards. She retired from her job as a supervisor in the housekeeping department of the nursing home on Stanton. Ten years on the street corner is nothing, a drop in the bucket for the old-timers guarding the intersections for their entire lives.
Today, I was surprised to see her when I left for my bus at 9. I knew the schools were on two-hour delay from the snow and thought maybe she just came in early. "You got to sleep in today, huh May!" I yelled, above the roar of slushy traffic.
"Not me! On snow days we work double!" Many of the parochial schools don't follow the closings and delays. May and the other guards work double shifts in case the kids don't hear the news. She sends them right back inside.
Since the weather is so variable in Pittsburgh, I've seen the full range of crossing guard fashion these past few months. On rainy days, May gets a huge yellow slicker. Her cold weather gear is also yellow. A fur-lined, knee length parka goes over her flat, navy hat. On nice days, she just wears her light blue button down with black pants. There are different gloves for the different weather conditions. Today, snowy and white, necessitated thick, black gloves.
The one thing that never changes is the siler-plated whistle on May's wrist. It hangs from an equally shiny hoop, and she blows it with caution. One day a few weeks ago, in the pouring rain, a screaming fire truck came dashing through a red light in May's interesection. She was glorious, holding back the traffic whistling at the children to stay put, checking behind her to make sure no kids ran through her other corner.
"We're so short handed now! I work double corners every day." She tells me in the afternoon. The kids trudging home through the snow made sure to stop and hug her. As she stands in the middle of the road, blocking the traffic so I can cross into my apartment, I think that I just might want to hug her, too.