By Susanne Beck
Crossing-guard skills come naturally to Joe Bree, the friendly presence who is at the corner of 93rd Street and Central Park West every weekday morning from 7:30 am to 8:30 am, shuttling young students and their families across the avenue on their way to Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School, a private school between Central Park West and Columbus.
“I grew up in the Bronx and my school was literally up the block,” Bree remembers. “We’d go to school as a whole group. I became what they called the “Triple A Guy” — the older boy who’d be crossing kids at the corner. I had a little badge.”
Today, Bree still sports a badge, plus a neon yellow vest, and regardless of the weather, a warm, engaging smile. He is employed by Sam Schwartz Pedestrian Traffic Management Services, a New York-based company that, according to its website, “specialize[s] in optimizing high-volume pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow on busy streets, at large venues, and at special events nationwide.”
“Sam Schwartz was known as ‘Gridlock Sam’,” Bree says with a chuckle, a nickname Schwartz earned during over 20 years with the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT), including a stint as New York City Traffic Commissioner. According to Forbes magazine, Schwartz, if not coined, helped spread the term gridlock during a 1980 transit strike that brought traffic in the city to a near standstill.
The same mission of safety guides Bree’s work at the edge of the park. But he also places a priority on connecting with his young charges. “I say have a good day, you know, enjoy school today, have a good morning, that sort of thing. And some of the kids will respond and say, ‘hi my name is…’, you know, Jane or John. And I say what’s your name? That sort of thing.”
Since he took on the Columbia assignment seven or eight years ago – “the [children] all blur together,” Bree admits with a laugh – he has received holiday cards and gift cards, but none on his birthday since no one asks when it is (it’s May 31). And he has literally weathered all kinds of conditions. “We have to be there sunny or rainy,” he explains. “[In a blizzard] school would be called,” Bree continues, “but that happens very rarely since it’s Manhattan.”
Worse than inclement weather, however, is some of the push back he gets from harried, hurried adults. “’You’re not a cop. Who the hell are you?’ [they say]. That sort of thing.” But it’s okay. I mean, that’s all part of the business. You let it roll off your back. It doesn’t mean anything. [I just say] have a good day, you know, that sort of thing.”
During his time away from the Upper West Side, Bree might be assigned to any number of locations where the Schwartz company has a contract. Last weekend, he was at a half marathon in Jersey City, then a soccer game at Red Bull arena. He worked the World Trade Center reconstruction site before Columbia Grammar. “The Port Authority engaged Schwartz to control the pedestrians because there was such a flow of traffic, not only [cars], but pedestrian traffic” that bordered on chaos at times.”
Bree says he loves every aspect of his work, yet it’s clear that the school job is a favorite. “I just like the whole atmosphere of the school and the staff; I look forward to work, quite frankly.” Almost wistfully, he adds, “the fact that I can see them grow up. It’s amazing…I just love it, period.”