Meeting That GirlPosted: October 24, 2013
I kept looking at her. There was just something familiar about her.
Maybe it was the way she dressed. Perhaps it was the shape of, well, of her face. The fact that she was black had a lot to do with it. She wasn’t black in the racial sense that we commonly use. She was black, like the words in a newspaper headline.
“Yes, I’m her”, she said, “didn’t anyone tell you it is impolite to stare?” She caught me. “I’m sorry. You look so familiar. I’m sure I’ve seen you before. What’s worse, I mean, besides getting caught staring, is that I can’t put my finger on why I think I’ve seen you.”
“Let me help you” she said as she began to strike a familiar pose. Her right foot was ahead of her left. Left arm bent at the elbow; right arm extended. I shook my head, her pose wasn’t helping me. She stopped, picked up a book in her left hand and resumed the posture. That made all the difference.
“You’re staring again” she said. I apologized. The thing is, I didn’t realize before that moment that she was real. “You’re her, the girl from the school crossing traffic sign.” She nodded.
Yes, the girl from the school crossing sign is a real person. Her name is Jamie. Jamie’s not a kid anymore, but when you realize who she is, the years melt away and there is no doubt about who you are looking at.
Jamie was very kind once we got past the introductions. She didn’t seem to mind being recognized. “It used to happen more when I was a kid, especially when my brother Al was around.”
It turns out that the school crossing sign we all know is based on a photograph taken of Jamie and her older brother walking to school. The pair caught the eye of a news photographer covering the first day of school in 1971. He took several shots of them, but the one that got published and became the iconic warning we see along roads where kids walk to school was the one with Al extending a guiding hand to his little sister’s upper arm as they approached a curb.
The sister and brother were thrust into the spotlight. Strangers would approach their family and ask the kids to reenact “the sign picture.” As she got older, Jamie tried wearing jeans and shorter skirts, but was frustrated when people would say things like “y’know, there’s something about you in a dress.” She tried building her own identity by joining her high school drama club, but she only got small background parts like “girl, walking by”. Jamie gave up on acting and put her energy into the technical side of theater – building sets and handling the spotlights.
Jamie rebelled against being the girl in the picture. Meanwhile, Al embraced his moment in the sun. “Honestly, if I could have kept it together, I probably would be rolling in the dough like Al”, she said. “He made so much money for his work on the cross walk sign. By the time he did the slippery when wet sign Al was getting seven figures just for posing. God only knows how much he gets per sign.”
It isn’t that Jamie rejected modeling. “They said I had a look, whatever that means” she told me, “but no one wanted me for still shots. My agent kept booking me for runway modeling. I was doing a show in New York and as I walked the runway it hit me – they’ve got me walking again and they never let me wear the colorful stuff. Black, always black.”
Well, yeah, I suppose she did reject modeling. That was her last show. Jamie returned to school and got a degree in Theater Arts. She is in great demand as a set designer. But when her schedule allows, she’ll still slip backstage and spend a few nights as a stagehand. It keeps her connected to her roots, she says.
“Do you know what the best part of me being a stage hand is?” I didn’t. I never know what people think the best part of anything is. “Between acts, when the stage is dark and we’re moving things on and off stage.” I was confused, but right before she explained herself it hit me – in the dark, this woman is invisible.
Jamie smiled when I pointed it out. “Yeah, It’s like I was made to do that sort of work. Of course there are trade offs. It’s dangerous for me to cross a street at night. I got clipped by a taxi one night the last time I did a Broadway show. The driver said he never saw me.” She shrugged.
“It’s a blessing. It’s a curse. What cha gonna do? Right?”