For about two hours a day, twice a day, five days a week, Cathy Gamble is the queen -- in neon green -- of 44th and Butler streets.
The longtime crossing guard greets pedestrians by name and blows kisses from her stark white gloves to the drivers who stop in her wake at this bustling intersection, where she estimates she crosses 300 schoolchildren and countless more adults each day.
Ms. Gamble, 52, has been a constant force here for the past eight years, but a recent spate of crossing guard departures -- due to illness, injury or other opportunities -- means there are fewer trained eyes and familiar faces such as hers on the streets.
The city's budget this year allows for 132 guards to work 109 crossings, but the actual number on the job has dwindled to around 115, including four substitutes, whose services are needed daily.
The shortage prompted police Chief Nate Harper last week to reinstate an order to have his patrol officers provide backup for crossing guards as needed, which has some police supervisors concerned that they, too, will be left shorthanded.
"They have bigger fish to fry than we do," said Ms. Gamble, who tries to avoid taking personal days and schedules appointments around her shifts. "You don't want to leave the public in a lurch, and you don't want to leave your boss in a lurch, either, because how's she going to cover it if there's no one ?"
Elaine Alter, who supervises the guards, based out of the Zone 5 police station in Highland Park, said Friday morning that she had not had to enlist the aid of police officers and would do so only in dire circumstances. They would work in 45-minute stretches during times of peak activity, like the start and end of the school day.
"We're very grateful for that added resource," Ms. Alter said. "This is probably the lowest amount it's ever been."
City records show the number of guards has continually declined since 2002, when there were at least 209 working the streets.
City spokeswoman Joanna Doven referred questions on the matter to Chief Harper, whose spokesman, Diane Richard, said he was out of town last week and unavailable for comment.
The shortage is "concerning because a lot of times, [guards] are the first people to notice something's wrong in the community ... and of course, they are trusted with the safety of our children," said City Council's public safety chairwoman, Theresa Kail-Smith, who added that she and police officials have discussed the possibility of equipping guards with old police radios for better communication. "I'm not sure we're addressing their needs as quickly as we should be."
Ms. Alter hopes to get clearance to hire more guards soon, but those candidates would still need training before they could work the streets. As members of the city's public safety department, crossing guards must take a civil service exam and pass background checks by the city's office of municipal investigations.
The process can be time consuming, a wait that can be too long for some candidates.
"If you need a job, you're going to keep looking," said Marlene Lamanna, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 192B, the crossing guards union, who has been one herself for 34 years. She is concerned that some guards are leaving for jobs with better pay or benefits.
Substitute guards earn $64.15 during a six-hour day compared to their permanent counterparts, who make $67.91.
Many guards, such as Ms. Gamble, work more than one job to make ends meet.
"A lot of them find this job is more responsibility than what they thought it was," Ms. Lamanna said.
Ms. Gamble, for example, described herself as a "part-time crossing guard, full-time mom," looking out for the rambunctious children who flood her Lawrenceville intersection.
To the kid who bounded down the street with headphones in his ears, she asked, "What's my rhyme?"
"Cross on red, you're gonna be dead," he responded without missing a beat, to which she returned, "Cross on green, if you know what I mean!"
Maryrose Tierno, 44, who has manned the crossing at Shady and Fifth avenues for more than 10 years, described herself and fellow guards as the eyes and ears of their neighborhoods, able to spot problems and identify anything out of the ordinary.
"It's not an easy job to do; you've got to really pay attention," Ms. Tierno, wrapped in a fluorescent raincoat.
The shortage means she sometimes has to work multiple posts in a day and she, too, avoids calling off.
On a chilly day last week, she stayed around a few extra minutes waiting for a notoriously late student so he wouldn't have to cross alone.
"I feel that it's my spot. I have to make sure everyone is safe."
Sadie Gurman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1878. First Published February 5, 2012 5:00 AM