Turning mean streets into happy ones


Antonio “Tony” Morrobel has been the crossing guard at 11th and Massachusetts NW for 20 years. He has a smile, a backslap and a fist-bump for every pedestrian who crosses in his zone. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist May 6, 2013

Antonio “Tony” Morrobel is the Darrell Green of 11th and Massachusetts NW. A school crossing guard with the D.C. Department of Transportation, Tony prowls the intersection like a cornerback. He’s constantly on the move. He walks forward. He walks backward. He swivels his head and shoots out his arms: stop, go, wait, come on.

Tony is a whirling dervish in a neat blue uniform and high-
visibility fluorescent vest.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“Believe me, I get my exercise,” Tony says on a recent morning.

But he does more than just help neighborhood kids get to and from Thomson Elementary School, a block away. Tony is a one-man mood improver.

“Everybody loves him: the little children, all the people,” says Savannah Easley, who lives near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and passes Tony on her way to work each morning. “He’s great. He never has a bad day.”

And because Tony never has a bad day, he has the ability to make your day a little better.

“Morning, morning,” he says to every person he squires across the street. “How you doing?”

Sometimes he says it in Spanish, if he thinks you speak that better. Sometimes he fist bumps you, if you look amenable to a fist bump.

“What’s up big guy,” he says to a youngster about 3 feet tall who staggers under the weight of his backpack.

“As you can see, there’s quite a lot going on,” says Chuck Wellard, who works at the American Bakers Association on I Street NW. “This intersection is especially crazy. That’s why he body blocks.”

Chuck says Tony knows everyone. “He actually calls me by my formal name: Charles. I’m one of many that he knows by first name.”

How does a crossing guard — who sees people for 30 seconds at a time, a minute at most — learn people’s names? It probably helps to work at the same intersection for 20 years, as Tony has.

“I’ve never missed a day,” Tony says over his shoulder as I stand safely on the curb and he wades into the traffic. “I seen kids’ kids.”

In 1967, Tony’s mother moved to Washington from the Dominican Republic to work for a diplomat. Tony and the rest of the family came in 1973. He likes his crossing guard job for the benefits, but between his 7-to-9 a.m. and 2-to-4 p.m. stints, he does maintenance for the W.C. Smith real estate company.

He lives in Takoma Park with his wife, Martha. They have one daughter in college and another about to graduate from high school. He loves baseball, especially any team with Dominican players. He’s happy the Nationals have Rafael Soriano.

“Wait ma’am,” Tony says to a young woman in a gray dress who has just stepped off the curb against the light.

“Technology is excellent,” Tony says to me after he gives her the signal to cross. “But I think technology is the destruction of the world. See? See that woman?”

She had earbuds in. In his 20 years, Tony has noticed us getting more fixated on what’s directly in front of us — smartphone, iPod — rather than what’s all around us.

“On the phone. Texting. It gets worse and worse,” Tony says. “I save more grown-ups than kids.”

There are 16 light poles holding a total of 29 sets of traffic lights in Tony’s zone. Look at a map, and you’ll see that Washington is a city of the horizontal, the vertical and the diagonal. They all come together where Tony works: Massachusetts Avenue and 11th Street and an oddly bifurcated L Street.

And all sorts of people come together here, too: the gentrifiers and the gentrified.

“All right, guys, go ahead,” he tells a group of pedestrians.

“Bike, c’mon,” he tells a cyclist.

“Morning, morning,” he tells a dad pushing a stroller and trailed by two kids. “Come on guys.”

Why is Tony so. . . happy?

“It keeps me young,” Tony says. “Do I look like I’m 54 years old? Smiling keeps you young.”

A man in a dark Buick that’s stopped on L sees me jotting in my notebook. “He’s a good guy,” the driver shouts through his open window while pointing at Tony. And then, in the nano­second between when the light turns green and the Buick driver hits the gas, the motorist behind him honks his horn: Brraap! ­Brraap! C’mon! Hurry up! Let’s go!

That is one side of life on Washington’s streets. Tony is the other.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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