THE FUNERAL-home SUV makes a fast U-turn on Broad Street at Ellsworth, and a crossing guard jumps out, dashing up the steps to St. Rita of Cascia church, barely ahead of the hearse.
Juanita Perkins-Qui, 62, drops her uniform hat and yellow safety vest by a podium near the altar and gets to work.
"Here I am, Lord . . . ," she sings, as the casket of a 98-year-old widow rolls up the aisle.
Her hands glide in front of her, sometimes like a choir director tugging at the voices of mourners in the pews to sing, sometimes like a crossing guard, pointing the way to whatever comes next.
"Be not afraid . . .," she sings later. "I come before you always. Come, follow me. And I will give you rest."
Her voice fills the church, envelops the family and friends gathered there, the lyrics of comfort a melodious balm for their grief.
The family files out an hour later, following the coffin, on this sunny Wednesday in April. There is the cemetery to see to. And then a gathering at a catering hall.
Perkins-Qui lingers, then heads back to her post for the lunchtime travels of students.
If getting to school were a baseball game, 12th and Wharton streets would be the hot corner.
There sits Annunciation BVM, a Catholic school. One block west is Christopher Columbus Charter School. Half a block north is Andrew Jackson, a public school.
It is a swirling stampede of school uniforms. Perkins-Qui keeps order with short, sharp double-toots on a whistle and broad, pointing measures, commanding cars to stop for students.
She jokes with her charges, calling one boy in sunglasses "The Matrix" and a trio of pretty preteens her "movie stars." She asks one girl if she is counting down the days to summer vacation, and a boy with a cast on his left foot how the injury is healing.
She spots a young man avoiding her corner, dashing between parked cars in traffic.
"You know that's a jaywalk?" she asks in a firm but friendly voice. The boy mumbles a reply and she wishes him a good day.
"I always tell people I cross big kids and little kids," Perkins-Qui says, laughing, after crossing one elderly lady headed to a senior center for exercise and another going the other way with a push-basket stocked with groceries.
She stops traffic for a parade of mothers pushing strollers to the public park across the street.
Most have a kind word. But not everyone is in a good mood.
A field trip for the charter school's eighth-graders has large groups of kids crossing the street to board a line of buses. Traffic stacks up at the intersection.
A woman in a black BMW SUV leans on her horn, and again, and again, as traffic rolls slowly.
"Ain't nobody got all day," she yells out her car window, with apparently just enough time to give the crossing guard some lip.
"Irate people," Perkins-Qui says with a sigh. "If you're late, you're late. And that's all there is to it."
Perkins-Qui has a front-row seat on finality.
Last Monday, she walked the seven blocks from her crossing-guard post to St. Nicholas of Tolentine church to sing in the funeral of a 49-year-old mother of four. When the weather is rough, Perkins-Qui takes the bus. If the schedule is tight, funeral homes send a car to get her to the church on time.
A few years ago, tough economic times cost Perkins-Qui her car. She was working as a student adviser at Computer Learning Center, a chain of schools that went bankrupt. She then tried her hand at retail, working at a store that sells women's clothing, but found it hard to get enough hours to pay the bills.
Caregiving has been like a second job, tending to her first husband, a sister and her mother as health failed for them all. She has since remarried.
Perkins-Qui had her hopes set on a job as a concierge at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, across the street from City Hall. It didn't work out.
"After you get to be 50, nobody wants to hire you," she said.
She took the test 3 1/2 years ago and was hired as a crossing guard. She works a four-hour day, split into three shifts: 90 minutes in the morning, 75 minutes at lunch and 75 minutes after school.
"People think this is the easiest job," she said. "Rain, snow, sleet and hail - we're almost like the mailman."
It was "A Cold, Cold Heart" that showed her mother that Perkins-Qui could sing. At 3 years old, Perkins-Qui belted out the Tony Bennett cover of a Hank Williams country-western song she'd heard on the radio.
"The feeling, the timing, the melody were all there," Perkins-Qui said.
There was always music. Hymns in Latin for high Mass. The glee club and plays at St. Maria Goretti High School. Nuns teaching her songs. A summer camp with a music program.
Her mother was a widow with nine daughters and a son.
"My mother kept us occupied," she said with a laugh.
Perkins-Qui and three sisters sang for the USO, at Fort Dix in New Jersey and the Veterans Administration Hospital here.
Perkins-Qui had three options after high school: get married, go to college or find a job.
She joined the U.S. Air Force.
"It was kind of like being in Catholic school but a little rougher," she said. "I was used to being in uniform. I was used to shouted commands. It was no big deal."
She was trained as a dental specialist and sent to a base in San Antonio. In the service, she met her first husband, Sammy Perkins.
They left the Air Force together. He went home to California, and she came back to Philadelphia. They agreed to live wherever one of them found work.
A job at the University of Pennsylvania Dental School decided it: They would live in Philadelphia.
An organist noticed Perkins-Qui singing at a funeral for a fellow church member and asked her to take up the job on a regular basis. She earns $85 to sing for a funeral, $100 to $130 for weddings.
The family and friends filed out of St. Nicholas last Monday, ready for the ride to a Cheltenham cemetery. Perkins-Qui headed back to her corner, to her students and everyone else crossing.
"I'm so happy you were here," said Marie Hood, a singer who performs as Marie Conti, hugging Perkins-Qui after the funeral. "You made my heart feel so good when you sang."
Bob Frederick, the church's organist, has been playing for 50 years, more than 20 of them with Perkins-Qui singing.
"She has a great voice," he said. "And it doesn't ever fail her. She's a real trooper."
To Mark Rago, director at the Monti-Rago Funeral Home, she is simply "the best, one of our most requested singers."
A job that requires regular attendance at funerals might bring some people down. But Perkins-Qui and Frederick were enjoying the sunny morning, joking about old songs. She can remember all the old lyrics, Frederick said.