I drive past his intersection four times a day, five days a week. Twice in the morning, twice in the afternoon. Sometimes I wave first. Most of the time he’s the one, lifting his entire arm, bent just slightly at the elbow, an energetic yet silent greeting accompanied by a genuine, toothy smile. Four times a day.
He’s the crossing guard at the school a few blocks from my home. He’s never had to stop traffic to help me or my little brood cross the street; my kids go to a different school. But because we see each other so often, more than some people see their own spouses, we’ve gotten to know each other.
Well, kind of. Not the real, “let’s meet up at the hip coffeehouse in midtown next week and share our wins and woes” type of buddies, but more like a brick and mortar, old school version of a Facebook friend. The kind where you don’t ever really connect in person or even verbally, no; you communicate purely via an impenetrable machine. In this case, it’s through my car’s window.
One morning, after waving once on the way to school and once on the way back, I decided to take a brisk walk before starting work. Pedestrian traffic had slowed; the school day had started. The crossing guard was retrieving cones, removing his neon vest, prepping for the end of his shift. He paused for a moment as I approached on foot, the way you do when part of your brain recognizes someone, and the other part doesn’t, because the person is operating outside of their normal context, like a figure in a painting that somehow exited the scene. But then he gave me the same effusive, open grin.
Kimberly Lee: How long have you been doing this?
Mr. Lowell: Just a couple of years. I was a mail carrier in my former life, for forty-odd years. I worked the route in my own neighborhood, knew just about everybody. I never needed a lunch on Saturdays. Folks would invite me in for whatever party or get-together they were having—birthday parties, BBQs, you know.
KL: So you became a crossing guard after you retired?
ML: I missed the people, missed the walking. The small talk. Doing something that meant something. I didn’t miss the dogs, though. I mean, I love dogs, I have a dog, but some of the dogs I had to deal with on the route didn’t love me.
KL: What’s your dog’s name?
KL: I love it. Are you gonna get another dog and call him, I don’t know, Crosswalk, Yellow Vest, Slow The F— Down?
KL: What time do you get here and when do you leave? Where do you go during the day? Do you stay at school and perform other functions?
ML: It’s a two-hour shift in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. I leave and do my errands, do the stuff I need to do around the house. Sometimes I bowl a few frames, grab some lunch, meet a friend.
KL: Do you get together with the crossing guards from other schools and compare notes, commiserate over how your morning went?
KL: No? I guess that’s what I imagined you guys did.
ML: No. Well, to be honest, some of us got together last year when the district was going to cut some of the funding for crossing guards. They were going to eliminate some of us, shorten the hours for some of the others. They wanted us to cut back on what we were doing. We testified at a hearing about why they needed to keep a full roster of folks, with all their duties and hours, for all of the schools.
KL: What were you supposed to do? Walk the kids halfway across the street and leave them stranded in the middle?
ML: (Laughs) Maybe.
KL: What’s the best thing about your job?
ML: The families. The smiles I get every day. A hundred smiles.
KL: Like mine?
ML: (Laughs) Like yours.
KL: What’s the worst part of your job? Any pet peeves?
ML: One of my pet peeves is the saying “pet peeves.” I never liked that. It’s silly.
KL: Other than that?
ML: Cars with overwhelming exhaust. I’m wondering how they passed the smog test. It’s ridiculous.
KL: Anything else?
ML: There was a father at the beginning of the year who would walk his kid across the street, and he would never speak. Never responded to anything I said to him. For a couple of days I didn’t greet him either, but that was strange. I wasn’t brought up like that, and it felt rude not to speak. I felt like my mother was up there, somewhere, frowning down at me. So I made it into a game and decided I was going to speak to him every day, no matter what, and see how long it would take him to eventually speak back to me.
KL: Did he?
ML: Yep. School started in August and by December, he was speaking to me every morning. Coulda just been because of the holidays.
KL: No, I think it was probably because of you. What’s the most surprising thing that’s ever happened to you on the job?
ML: A car drove up to the stop sign and didn’t want to wait, but a group of parents and kids had built up to cross the street. I started across with my sign, and the person just laid on the horn and kept honking the whole time as the kids crossed the street.
KL: What did you do?
ML: There was nothing to do. Let ‘em honk. I believe in karma.
KL: What’s an interesting thing about you that people might not expect?
ML: I’m pretty good at reading Latin. And I can speak it a little, but I’ve lost a lot of it because there’s no one to talk to. Took it all through high school, back in Kansas.
KL: Do you ever curse at the cars in Latin? Under your breath? Can you teach me some Latin curse words?
ML: No, no, and no.
KL: Fair enough. Any advice for pedestrians, drivers, life?
ML: Disce quasi semper victurus, vive quasi cras moriturus.
ML: Learn as if you’re always going to live; live as if tomorrow you’re going to die.