Defending Her Turf, One Crossing At a Time

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:05

School crossing guard Gisela Casella patrols her slice of the Upper East Side

Even Wall Street Journal reporters hoped to catch a glimpse of the famed Gisela Casella, an Upper East Side institution for the past 24 years, but they weren't able to meet her terms: I'll see you on my street corner or not at all.

For over two decades, Casella has shepherded school kids across busy Manhattan streets morning, noon and evening, from her perch on the corner of 84th St. and Madison Ave. She calls the street one of the busiest in the area, noting some days it's more like a racetrack as commuters scurry to beat the barricades put in place to protect the kids.

"I love the kids and kidding around with people," says Casella. "If you're miserable you cannot do this job. If you're nice to people, they're nice to you," she adds, noting the children and their families are the most rewarding part of the job.

Despite her lightheartedness and familiarity with every dog and dog-owner in the neighborhood - she greets about 20 different dogs on a daily basis - Casella takes her job as a school crossing guard very seriously. (Ditto her anonymity; she didn't want to be photographed for this article.)

And the job is not without its hurdles. She describes a particular incident in which a woman repeatedly tried to bypass her barricades and then lied to Casella about her intentions. Not only did Casella reprimand the woman on the spot, she launched a stakeout. She would not be taken for a fool.

"I started watching her," says Casella. "I started waiting for her."

The battle between Casella and this particular nemesis went on for some time, before the woman stopped coming around when Casella was on duty.

After a dispute, one angry commuter told Casella she hoped she'd get run over by a car, while other locals surreptitiously move her barricades because, Casella alleges, they view them as eyesores. Casella doesn't stand for any of this.

"I believe in karma," she says.

Not only has Casella faced trouble from outsiders trying to circumvent - or even destroy - her barriers, she's also faced opposition on the job from other crossing guards who have come and gone over the years.

"Other crossing guards get jealous because the kids like me better," she says with a laugh. Indeed nearly every kid who passes by has a joke or a warm greeting for this jovial fixture.

She says others simply cannot handle the job - when the temperature drops, or the weather is harsh, they just stop showing up, and sometimes get away with it.

That couldn't be farther from reality for this German native, however, who doesn't mind the winter cold a bit.

"You have to be here," she explains emphatically. "You can't be late, everything goes by the minute."

"If I look like a bum, I don't care," says Casella, noting some crossing guards treat the job more like a fashion contest. "I'm here."

When she's not talking about the joys and travails of being a crossing guard, the conversation turns to politics, and Casella has a lot to say on the subject. Unsurprisingly, animals are another one of Casella's passions. At this point she only has one dog, but says her house resembled a zoo when her daughter was growing up.

Steven Merdinger, a local CPA who sees Casella just about every morning, and first tipped Our Town off to her local renown, calls Casella "one amazing lady."

A school security guard in the area smiles at the mention of her name. "Yeah, she's been here over twenty years," he says.

"She knows every kid, parent and bus driver," adds Merdinger. "She's out there rain, shine, sleet or snow."