Margaret O’Brien has done many jobs over the last five decades: served on an assembly line as a “pudding smacker” at Hoboken’s Hostess factory, taste-tested coffee for Maxwell House, sat atop elephants in a traveling circus, lobbied in a parent-teacher organization, sketched art, and authored various books on Hoboken history.
But she’s most famously known around the mile-square city as the crossing guard at Eleventh and Washington streets, who warmly greets families new and old, and even knits blankets for new babies in her neighborhood.
O’Brien handed in her whistle this month, relinquishing the part-time job that she’s held since 1968, when Louis De Pascale was the mayor. He called her “Scarlet” – a reference to Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone with the Wind.”
O’Brien – who says she feels 19 though she’s 72 – became painstakingly quiet when discussing her departure from her post.
“If my health was okay, I would stay until I was there 50 more years.” – Margaret O’Brien
Large city figures bemoaned the announcement of O’Brien’s departure, namely Police Chief Kenneth Ferrante and Mayor Dawn Zimmer – who thanked her for decades of service to the city with a proclamation at the recent City Council meeting.
Helping to cross an ever-changing city
O’Brien was born on an Army base in Indiana before growing up in Bayonne and settling in the mile-square city in the 1960s. Back then, she remembers the cobbled roads of Hoboken.
Of her early days as a crossing guard, she faintly recalls when two children of a neighbor, Ralphie Rodriguez, got struck by cyclists at 11th and Hudson Streets while she was taking a walk to the park. “I was there. I called the ambulance for them,” she says. “One of the boys was in the hospital for three weeks with broken bones. That same week I called the governor and asked to put a traffic light there.”
She says the only things a crossing guard needed to work in those days were a whistle, white gloves, and hands. Thanks to a recent overhaul by the Hoboken Police Department, crossing guards must fulfill numerous requirements, including undergoing a full physical examination and holding STOP signs instead of gesturing with their hands.
“I don’t like them,” griped O’Brien, looking over the sign she was given. “I’m good with my hands. That’s how I got used to doing the job.”
O’Brien said she laughed when given a commemorative STOP sign upon retirement. It contained messages written in black marker from fellows crossing guards, city officials, and friends.
“Congrats, with love,” wrote Police Lt. John Petrosino, who now runs the crossing guard program. And just below, a message from Ferrante: “Thank you for your service and history lessons.”
Unlike some city workers, O’Brien has never been intimidated when making her opinions known about city issues and city officials, writing letters to the Reporter when she was concerned about a situation, or giving compliments when she felt they were needed. She has run for office before and has expressed a great passion for the city and its history.
O’Brien commended Zimmer and past mayors for making the streets safer for children over the years with more traffic signals, flashing stop signs, and crackdowns on dangerous drivers.
She recently underwent the new crossing guard training overseen by the Police Department even though she was nearing retirement.
“I was like a poster child,” she jokes. “I think they were throwing hints to show the rest of the crossing guards that you can’t do [things] like a cop anymore.”
Jack of all trades
Though many know her from her post on 11th Street, she initially stood at Third and Madison Streets before heading to 12th and Washington, and finally 11th.
She said – in present tense, forgetting for a moment that she retired effective Jan. 1 – that she “crosses hundreds of children these days, but when I started it was 60-something.”
Over the years, the number of school-aged children in the city has ebbed and flowed, from the days of big families decades ago, to the time in the early 1990s when families were leaving for the suburbs, to recently when Hoboken has become a hip family destination.
Now that O’Brien has more time on her hands, she plans to spend it with her three adult sons: Tim, Darin, and Brendan (going from oldest to youngest). Back in the 1970s, her husband became ill upon his return from the Vietnam War and passed away at the age of 31.
O’Brien has many plans for the future, including possibly video or book projects. She recently joined an arthritis support group and began practicing tai-chi to stay nimble.
She already has an array of self-published books under her belt, using the name M.A. O’Brien: Veritus, Columbus, The Julian Coin, The Gressel Pendant, and Hoboken Captains, Fore and Aft. She has spent hours researching the early history of Hoboken and has written numerous articles about it.
She said that sometimes, she mourns the “faces” she used to see at the corner.
“Most people, especially friends my age, have all passed,” she says. “There’s nobody left. Teachers, principals, the past mayors…sometimes I feel like I’m on an island because everybody’s gone.”
Circus and the old ways
O’Brien laughed, saying that if not for her mother, she might have continued with the circus when she was in the 11th grade.
“The circus was a trip,” she said, remembering a traveling show that was based in Morristown. “Do you know you have to do every single job? Some of them are disgusting, like cleaning up after the elephants. But I also interacted with the children, learned to high-wire, [and] when they were short a clown; you have to get in a clown suit, put the nose on, and throw confetti.”
She said she was drawn to the enthralling live atmosphere that circuses afford, but her mother was adamant that she continue in school.
Later, she took her place in the mile-square city.
O’Brien said she already misses her post and loves the city, but does sense some change.
“We were all friends in the neighborhood back then,” she said. “We used to sit our windows and talk to each other. That’s all gone now…people here now are not that friendly.”
Still, she has hope for Hoboken, which “reinvents itself every 10 years.”
It’s safe to say that she plans to do the same.
Steven Rodas can be reached at email@example.com.