"How are you feeling this morning? . . . . Hi, honey, haven't seen you for a while . . . . Don't you look nice today . . . . Okay, let's let these children cross the street," commands Ellen Spraggins, keeping up a steady flow of chatter from the middle of a downtown intersection.
Spraggins works as a school crossing guard, but many of the commuters and pedestrians know her as a friend who has banished urban anonymity from the intersection of 21st and K streets NW and has transformed it into a small-town crossroads of waves and smiles.
"She's really something to watch in action," said Carl Shedrick, a third-grade teacher at Stevens Elementary School, which is a half block from the intersection. "I've never seen her down. Sometimes I come to work depressed and she uplifts my spirit."
In the midst of morning and afternoon rush-hour traffic, many glum pedestrians begin to smile as they see the spritely gray-haired woman speaking to friends, waving to drivers, weaving in and out of the bumper-to-bumper traffic and ordering behemoth trucks to "back up a little, honey."
Nearly 2,500 motorists pass through the intersection each weekday morning, as do nearly 1,000 pedestrians. Some commuters enter Spraggins' world with a distant sleepy look on their faces, only to have her knock on their car windows with a cheery, "How you doin' today?" The suddenly alert commuters reply, "Fine, just fine."
"That woman makes my day even when I'm a little depressed. Everybody loves her," said Melvin Warshaw, an administrative judge at the U.S. Department of Labor.
Spraggins knows the influential lawyers, mothers walking their children to school, tattered street people and cab drivers who frequent her intersection. They know she worries if they get sick and are missing from the intersection for a few days.
"She's a wonderful person," said David Houlihan, a lawyer. "Some people are all gloomy because it's too early in the morning, but by the time they go past her they're all brightened up. People just love her."
Last Friday was Spraggins' last day of work before the school's summer break. To say goodbye, Houlihan stopped in the middle of L Street and shook her hand. Another fan gave her a present wrapped in silver paper with a big white bow, and someone else gave her freshly baked brownies.
"When people give me gifts and flowers it makes me feel real humble because I'm just out there doing what my mother and father taught me to do, to be kind to everyone," Spraggins said, who has manned the intersection for 12 years.
"Whatever you give comes back to you. One woman wears a new hat every day and I always compliment her on her hat," said Spraggins, "now she comes out of her way to show me her hats."
When she asks a regular what's wrong, "They sometimes just come out and say they're worried about their children, or they say something's wrong at home, and we'll talk about it for a while."
Spraggins, 47, the mother of two daughters and grandmother of two, was born in Mississippi and reared in Arkansas. She comes from a family of 19 children. "Fourteen lived to adulthood and 11 are still living . . . . We were a big happy family," she explained.
She moved to Washington with her husband in 1964, and has worked for the D.C. police department for 18 years as one of 199 crossing guards. She earns $5,000 a year, but says the job is well worth the low pay.
"I love children and I love people. If I had it to do all over again I'd be a crossing guard," she said. No child has ever been injured in her intersection while she was on duty.
During the day she works as a volunteer at a day care center in Stevens School. This July she will volunteer at the Stevens School summer camp, "and then I go fishing in August," she said.
"I keep a tight ship," laughed Spraggins. "I teach these children how to cross the street, and if they don't do it right I make them do it again and again until they do. And that goes for parents, too. If I see a parent jaywalk with their child I make them both go back and cross at the corner."
Spraggins, an enthusiastic angler, often can be seen with her arms stretched wide, next to a car, describing her latest catch.
Often she talks to several drivers and bystanders at once, as if she were conducting a class. In response, her fans applaud and laugh in unison.
One morning Spraggins greeted a man and told him she "had the worst toothache." He turned out to be a dentist and insisted she come to his office that afternoon. He's been her dentist ever since, and charges "little or nothing," she said. "Now when I see him I yell, 'Hey everybody, there's the man responsible for my smile,' and everybody laughs."
One day a tall man grabbed her from behind and spun her around. After she gave him a stern warning, the man told her he was one of the children she used to escort across the street many years ago.
"He was always getting into trouble as a child and I had to spank him several times," she recalled. "He told me, 'I just want to thank you for all those spankings because they set me straight.' " Then the well-dressed man told her he was working as a consultant.
"It's just the way God meant us to be, kind-hearted and good to each other," mused Spraggins.
"In 18 years, I'd say I've only had about five people who did not respond to my hello, and those are the people I pray for."