A lot of talk in the last few months has been about when and how to open schools.
Marshall St. John wasn’t as interested in the how, but he was definitely interested in the when.
After all, when you are 93 years old, you don’t want to sit around.
That’s what St. John was doing until last Thursday. He was missing his job as a school crossing guard since — he remembers the day well — Friday, March 13. That’s the day the merry-go-round stopped for him, and he’s been waiting ever since.
If the name and his story sound familiar, it’s probably because I wrote about St. John before the pandemic after several people tipped me off to this wonderfully friendly crossing guard at Mission Street and Marengo Avenue in South Pasadena.
I sometimes wondered during the pandemic how he was faring at his apartment on El Centro Street.
I caught up with him last Thursday — which happened to be when kindergarten through 2nd-graders returned to school. And St. John went back to work.
And, boy, was he happy.
He found his crossing guard vest and paddle — you know the one that reminds you to stop while children are passing — but he couldn’t find his company hat, so he wore a hat from St. John University — which of course bears his surname.
And he got on his red scooter and went back to his job at Mission and Marengo. He had been a crossing guard for seven years when the pandemic shut everything down.
“It felt so good to be back,” he said. “For me, it felt like the first day of school.
“I’d been sleeping in,” he continued. “There was no reason to get up early. So, the night before I was to start back, I set my alarm. It was kind of chilly (in the high 40s) that first morning so when I breathed, my glasses fogged up a little bit.”
But there was really nothing for St. John to complain about.
“It was a piece of cake after not doing anything for almost a year,” he said.
There weren’t many children the first morning on his first of three shifts, from 7:35-8:15. He goes back from 10:50-11:50 a.m. and then again from 2:30-3:25 p.m.
Bring it on, the white-haired, goateed and mustachioed St. John said.
He has seen parents who brought only one child to school now bring three, and girls who used training wheels now go by on two-wheelers with their fathers. St. John counted maybe a half-dozen walkers the first day. He guessed that many parents drove their children to school. Several of the cars honked a greeting as they passed and they waved to welcome him back.
One group of passengers rolled down the window to shout out a greeting. He loved it. One reason that the job has become even more enjoyable is that St. John said he’s learned something about himself while he was sitting around during the pandemic.
“I know now that I appreciate the sameness of life,” he said. “I miss doing the same things over and over. You get up. You put in a day’s work, and you sleep better at night,” he added. “In fact, the first night back, my sleep was better than during the time I was away.”
The crossing-guard spot is extra special to St. John, because he can look across the street into Garfield Park and see what is going on.
“I missed being on the corner watching people,” he said. “I’d see people playing badminton without a net, kids on bicycles, mothers pushing baby carriages, boys throwing footballs and fathers playing catch with their sons.”
There were times during the pandemic when he hopped on his motor scooter that he also uses to get to and from work, and just drove around town people-watching.
“I just wanted to feel the fresh air,” he said. We all can relate.
He also got on the treadmill or walked “just to keep moving, but it wasn’t the same as working.”
He played some Scrabble on the computer to have something to do, but board games were a poor substitute for getting out and about. His son got his groceries. He moved to South Pasadena in 2011 from Spokane, Washington, where he was a reporter and anchorman at a TV station and then drove a school bus there for 10-12 years in retirement. He moved to South Pasadena to be closer to his son.
A story in the South Pasadena Review attracted his attention and now St. John has become a beloved figure in the neighborhood. The children call him “Mr. Mark” and they and their parents often say hello when they are crossing the street. They show him drawings they have made at school, and parents might bring him coffee when it is particularly cold or rainy.
He’s old enough to put this pandemic into historical perspective.
“There’s never been anything like it in my lifetime,” he said.
His other benchmarks include Pearl Harbor; being inducted into the Marines in 1945; the assassination of President Kennedy; Sept. 11; and the recent march on the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
But, putting aside the historical perspective, St. John is back living in the now.
He has got his two vaccinations and you’ll find him three times a day at his corner — sometimes sitting on a small stool — waiting to help parents and their children cross the street on their way to and from school.
On Monday, St. John was back, helping a girl in a princess dress cross the street with her father. Joggers gave him a smile and a thumbs-up as they said, “Great to see you back.”
“I guess I’m a sign that things are getting back to normal,” he chuckled.
Marshall St. John is a happy man once more.