Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Confessions of a Crossing Guard

I was a crossing guard in elementary school, entrusted with life and death "street-crossing" powers over my fellow students. And if some snotty 7 year old got out of line, well, it was my job to show him the error of his ways. My name is nycityman, and I wore the belt and badge.

“We met as soul mates on Staten Island
We left as inmates from an asylum
And we were sharp, as sharp as knives

And we were so gung ho to lay down our lives”

I came from a proud crossing guard tradition. My older brother was a crossing guard, captain of his squad. My father was a crossing guard before him. And my grandfather, he was a horse and buggy guard. For generations, my family has bled white. (No racial overtones implied, white was the color of the safety patrol belts.)

It was the turbulent 1960’s. Across our great land, college campuses erupted in social upheaval. Radicals seized the day. America’s young people were experimenting with illegal mind-altering drugs. The situation was no different on the seemingly tranquil grounds of Staten Island’s PS 55, home to some of the most militant toddlers in the lower 48. It was our sworn duty to keep things under control. We had many names – crossing guards, safety patrol officers, safety monitors – most just called us “sir.”

Ours was a loyal legion, a band of brothers - me, P.J. Clark, Frank Schmidt and Tim Beraud (the names have not been changed to preserve the glory) and it was an honor to serve in their company - each man trustworthy and true (well, each fifth grader trustworthy and true, anyway.) We were a wall of white (once again, not a racial allusion but a reference to the color of our safety belts. However, as this was Staten Island, we were, in actuality, a wall of white as well.) As is the case with all great fighting units we had our motto, our rallying cry – “We Came. We Saw. We Ran Home to Our Mothers.” In retrospect it doesn’t seem particularly inspiring, but then again, we were just rugrats at the time. If you took on one 10 year old, you had to take on all of us; and when we stood on each others shoulders, over-sized overcoat, stogie and ersatz adult raspy voice in place, as in classic, “Our Gang” mode, than it was as if we were two battle-hardened 20 year olds. We were trained, we were tested, and we were combat-ready. One just doesn’t get to be a safety patrol officer. It’s not something that’s handed to you by accident of birth or family affiliation (are your ears ringing, Jim Belushi?) You had to start small and prove yourself. I began as a door monitor, valiantly and oft-times, physically, refusing entrĂ©e to any undesirable and potentially treacherous intruders. And only then, having demonstrated gallantry and courageousness under-fire, was I even considered for the coveted post of crossing guard. Unfortunately, we were the last of a dying breed, the Greatest Generation. Eventually they had to give our jobs to adults - to Moms. They just weren’t making kids like us anymore. The newer youngsters who followed so poorly in our footsteps couldn’t stomach it, couldn’t handle it, they froze like Michele Bachmann taking the American History Regents. At one elementary school after another, all across these United States, terrified students, lives in grave peril, were dodging conveyances like George Bush dodging tossed Arabian footwear.

You may think I speak in exaggerated tones, titillate with tall-tales literally told out of school. But I humbly submit that there are few malevolent miscreants more malicious, mischievous and unmanageable than a 6 year old hopped up on Pixy Stix and Yoo-Hoo (curse you Yogi Berra and your damned chocolate energy drink.) If I had a nickel for every Mary Jane, every box of Good and Plenty, every Razzles I’ve ever confiscated, I’d have more Republicans in my pocket than the Koch Brothers. And very often the impounded plunder went far beyond the relative innocuous nature of such candied comestibles. I’ll always recall Paul, who from 4th grade on was permitted full access to his father’s Playboy collection. On occasion, much to the delight of us all, Paul would sneak an issue or two into the classroom. As any precocious and curious child would, I looked forward to those days and that rare opportunity to sample the taboo, the forbidden, and the inviolable; but as a responsible safety patrol officer answerable for the welfare of the younger children, keeping morality and their emotional and mental health utmost in mind, I had my sworn and solemn duty. Did excessive force ever come into play? Perhaps, but these were difficult times, and ultimately we were respected for what we did and how we kept the peace. Judge me if you will, but do so after you’ve skipped a mile in my PJ Flyers.

Lest I lead you astray, the existence of a 5th grade crossing guard did have its benefits. Of course there was the thrill, the excitement, the daily rush of living on the edge, never knowing what the very next minute may bring. There was the ceaseless gratitude and respect of the entire school populace, as well as the eternal admiration of the faculty. And need I bother mention the attention of the ladies? The ladies, yes, the ladies (well, eventually they’d be ladies.)

If you’re the type who thinks - children, they’re so innocent, so truthful, so open-minded, so honest and trusting – well then, you’ve completely blocked out your own childhood. We were petty, manipulative, selfish, egotistical, evil, miniature monsters, disguised in cute little packages, like Gremlins or Chucky Dolls, always on the ready to annihilate any tot considered even slightly different from what our little un-experienced, under-developed minds perceived as the norm. Every school yard is Darwinism played out in real time, right before our eyes, with the strong devouring the weak. And we, my friends, were charged with keeping all that aberrant behavior somehow in check.

“And we would all go down together
We said we'd all go down together
Yes we would all go down together” – Billy Joel

Although I speak of events that occurred some four decades ago, a crossing guard is always sworn in, on call, on duty, always alert. Wherever there’s an elderly lady struggling to traverse the thoroughfare, wherever there’s a child not looking both ways, wherever there’s a 20 year old, scantily clad coed, un-attentive to the traffic patterns as she gossips on her bedazzled smart phone – we’ll be there. When our country calls, we serve and we go where we’re needed.

The Few. The Proud. The Safety Patrol.

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