Last year, in the fog of the morning hustle to get my son to school, I saw something that bolted the day clear: a seven-year-old girl lying on the side of the road, right on the corner of school property, a handful of adults clutched over her. Just before 8 AM, a drunk driver had struck her and her sister on their way to school. Thankfully, they would both recover, but the justified outrage prompted a number of questions about how to address the problem: Erect a streetlight? Add a stop sign? Bring the road down to a single lane? But in the end, the most mighty of all measures was imposed: a crossing guard.
That’s no joke. I’m a nebbish who flunked out of the Chicago school of writers who wax permanently about the toughness of the city and its shoulders. But Chicago crossing guards fit the bill. On my way to drop my son off every morning, I encounter three of them, each exhibiting a lethal combination of an openhearted kindness to children and a freeze-ray death stare reserved for me-first motorists.
The first of the guards is an elderly gentleman who rides an enormous tricycle to his corner every morning. It’s not easy for him to outpace the kids into the crosswalk to hold up his stop sign, but I’ve seen him verbally strip the paint off a truck as he dressed down a driver for trying to sneak through. In the winter, the rear basket of his trike totes a pickax from his home to his corner, so he can chip away at the ice that gathers along the curb.
The second is a guy I’m certain would do the job even if he were not paid to do so. He never leaves the middle of the street, greets every family as they approach the school, and talks to you, the driver, the entire time you’re in your car with the windows up. If he wants you to stop, he stands you down like Spartacus. If he wants traffic to progress, he flaps his arms like one of those hype men with T-shirt cannons at Bulls games.
The third is a woman who now stands at the intersection where those young girls were hit. She would have to google the word “nonsense,” so far removed is she from the notion. Every morning I smile. Nothing. I give her a wave. Stoicism. I chuckle and nod my head at the kids running through the intersection, like, “Look what these animals put us adults through, am I right?” Silent fury.
We’re lucky to have her on that corner now, but it took an accident to make it happen. If Chicago is truly the poetically tough city we like to think it is, then we need to support those guards, which City Hall of course hasn’t done. I’d be first in line to back a movement to better fund the crossing guards. And I’ve been learning the death stare from the masters. v