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Meet Joe Ray

February 23, 2011

by TG Branfalt Jr.

It’s wet and warm. Very likely the warmest and wettest day we have

experienced during this dry, upstate New York winter.
Standing on the corner of Madison Ave – that peninsula where Madison and Western converge, that freak show of a corner with six stop lights – is Joe Ray.

Joe Ray mans his intersection / TG Branfalt Jr

A bit over-dressed for the weather, wearing a black knit cap, black gloves and black Carhartt coat and pants, Ray pulls his neon yellow reflective vest over his head and waits, thermos full of coffee tucked in his coat pocket, for parents and students headed to Pine Hills Elementary to make their way to his corner.

Joe Ray’s job is to make sure they get to school safely. Well, one of Joe Ray’s jobs.

Joseph Ray III was born and raised in Albany, he and his wife raised a daughter here, and now he looks to give back to the city where he grew up. Aside from serving as a crossing guard, an extremely part time gig with no fringe benefits, Ray is also on the Board of Zoning Appeals. There’s an incredible difference between the Joe Ray standing out in the rain with a reflective vest and Joseph Ray III sitting in the Common Council Chambers wearing a suit, mulling over matters of city code.

Ray crosses pedestrians / TG Branfalt Jr

He takes both of his jobs seriously, at the corner he refuses to continue our conversation while helping families cross the busy intersection, and at a zoning meeting, he interrogates property owners looking for a zoning variances. Joe Ray cares about this city.
Ray, briefly studied at Saint Rose, but ultimately received his degree in psychology from the University at Albany, worked a stones throw from the college at La Salle School for Boys for 31 years.

His long career at La Salle began as a janitor and culminated, albeit abruptly, as the assistant director of living.

“I went from the basement to the top floor,” he said.

Crossing guard Joe Ray / TG Branfalt Jr

Ray is a proud, yet humble, guy. He talks a lot about his children, a son and daughter. His daughter, recently received her master’s degree from New York University. His son-in-law – her husband – is an attorney.

“You gotta get an education,” Ray said, “and I tell these kids, ‘study hard.’”

Ray is well known in the community, he was appointed to his position on the zoning board by Mayor Jerry Jennings and re-selected by the common council. That, however doesn’t stop him from  criticizing the council if he feels they have made a mistake.
The council determines the salary for the crossing guards, which comes from the Albany Police Department budget.

“The common council lowered our salary this year because they feel we don’t do enough,” he said. “You have to wonder, sometimes, what these people at the common council do.”

The crossing guard job, to many, seems thankless. But the interactions he has with the parents, the kids they are bringing to school, and many at the bus stop are not thankless. He seems to know, and have, a story for everyone.

Standing on the wet corner, waiting for the light to change, are a mother and son. Ray kneels down and asks the small boy about his Star Wars beanie. The little boy tells him his favorite character is Jar-Jar Binks, and does his best Chewbacca impression. “What? You don’t like Luke Skywalker?”

That same family gave Ray a box of candy as a Christmas gift – “Just what I need, right?”

“How come you’re not riding your bike today?” he says to a passenger just getting off the bus.

“It’s too cold!” the man responds.

“We used to play racquet ball together,” he said.

A driver, stopped at the light in front of Bruegger’s Bagels, rolls down his window and honks.
“Go Giants!” the passenger yells to Ray – a former season ticket holder – who responds with the same.

“My son is a Dallas [Cowboys] fan,” he said,  shaking his head. “I’m still in therapy about that.”

Another young woman crosses the street with her small son.

“She’s a sweet girl, two kids. Environmentalist,” Ray smiles as he talks about her. “I met her husband, real nice couple. Takes her youngest to daycare first, then to the elementary school then to work.”

“He’s a nice guy,” said Eric Sherman, general manager of the Bruegger’s Bagels. Sherman serves Ray his small coffee, which he takes with cream and one Sweet ‘n Low, two or three times a week.

Brandon Irving, while walking his two small cousins home from school, shared the sentiment.

“He’s funny, super-nice,” Irving said. “He talks to everybody.”

Yet, he doesn’t say too much. He was more interested in learning more about me. He knew just a little bit about everyone that crossed his streets. He points out the “very hard working” Nigerian immigrant family, a father and three children. “He works with computers.” He chats with a babysitter, they joke about a screaming fit one of the children had last week.

He never forgets a face.

“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Ray asked me with a smile during our chance meeting at the Zoning Board meeting.

“Yeah, but I don’t think I know you.”

Joe Ray, the crossing guard, conscientiously failed to mention Joseph Ray III, the Zoning Board Member, which is perhaps the most telling. His jobs aren’t thankless, he just doesn’t seem to crave the thanks.

“My theory is to make kids happy as they cross. That way they go into the classroom they seem in better spirits.”-30-


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