From her cashier's booth in the Sinai Hospital parking lot, Linda Green sees him coming: a somber, sleepy child, pressed against his mother in the front seat of their car. The strain on the woman's face and the baseball cap on the boy's head tell all.
Chemo patient, Mrs. Green surmises, mustering her biggest smile.
"Helloooo, Prince Charming!" the cashier exclaims, peering in the car window. "Are you ready for the school year? No? Well, that teacher called and said she's ready for you!"
The child grins. His mother beams. For a moment, the cancer is forgotten. They drive off as Mrs. Green prepares to "treat" the next folks in line. And the next. And the next.
Each day, hundreds of Sinai Hospital patients and visitors pass the small glass kiosk where Mrs. Green collects parking fees while dispensing hellos, handshakes and hugs. Plus change for a fiver.
Seven hours a day, five days a week, she flags the sick, the sad, the suffering. Heart patients. Cancer victims. Relatives of the ill and infirm. Few leave the lot without exchanging pleasantries with Mrs. Green, an exuberant 46-year-old resident of Howard Park.
"Pick that smile up," she tells a weary-looking man leaving the hospital in a battered pickup truck.
The man smiles wanly. "I'm just tired," he says.
"That's OK," she says. "You can be tired, but not sad."
The gate rises; so do his spirits.
Next up: a pale, glum woman with a patch over one eye. She appears distressed; her car nearly clips the cashier's booth. Mrs. Green peels herself off the wall and calmly greets the driver.
"Don't you look nice!" she exclaims.
"I'm not feeling too good."
The cashier feigns surprise. "Well, you've got to catch up with your looks."
The woman departs, primping in the rearview mirror.
Lifting their burdens
"I try to lift their burdens," Mrs. Green says. "I try to take the weight off of them and put it on me. Their smiles are my feedback; I cherish that."
Her empathy runs deep. Mrs. Green lost a sister to cancer; her husband has suffered heart problems, and their 9-year-old son has cerebral palsy.
About 300 cars pass her booth each day, Mrs. Green says, meaning she has greeted the occupants of more than 191,000 vehicles since she began work 2 1/2 years ago.
Public response to her curbside manner has been overwhelming, hospital officials say.
"We've gotten many letters saying, 'She lightens my day,' " says Walter J. Pry, Sinai's director of security. "People stop me in the hospital halls to talk about Linda.
"She defuses many who leave here under stress. I'd like to have 10 more like her."
Motorists familiar with Mrs. Green's demeanor go out of their way to find her kiosk, pay their tab and receive their dose of civility.
"She waves like she really knows you," says Rita Herbst of North Baltimore, who visits the Pimlico-area hospital regularly to comfort a sick relative. "She takes the stress out of my life. I leave this parking lot with a smile on my face."
Compliments of Mrs. Green's compliments.
"What a beautiful outfit you're wearing!" she'll say.
To guarantee a chuckle, she aims for the funny bone.
"That'll be $2.75 -- and thank you for shopping at Sinai!"
"Have a wonderful weekend -- and blame it on me."
"I respect everyone who comes through here -- the strong, the weak, the happy, the sad," says Mrs. Green, who earns $6.50 an hour.
"Some of them are in shock that a cashier would say 'hello.' They look up to see if I'm a recording."
She lingers longest over children. Every boy, she calls "Prince Charming"; every girl, "Pretty Princess."
"Many kids who come here have special needs," she says, returning the wave of a 2-year-old girl with Down syndrome.
"I speak as loudly as I can until they get a 'glow' about them."
Generic, her banter is not.
To a visiting clergyman, she says: "Have a full service on Sunday."
To a pregnant woman: "A good delivery to you."
To a very pregnant woman: "Go have lunch and come right back."
To a man on crutches, hobbling toward his car: "Stop speeding across my parking lot!"
The man breaks into spasms of laughter and nearly falls.
To chemotherapy patients who have lost their hair, Mrs. Green pops out of the booth and shows off her own close-cropped hair. "We're going to make this the style!"
"Nobody leaves here a grump," she says.
Often, people see her cordiality as a cue to stop and bend her ear, halting traffic.
'She's a jewel'
"I listen to their stories as best I can," she says. "Sometimes I have to tell them to come back when I get through work." There, on a wooden bench beside her booth, she sits and laughs and listens.
"You'd think the job would drain her, but she draws energy from being here," says James Berry, hospital parking manager.
"Hers is not an easy job. At hospitals, people come and go under pressure, and the cashier is the one at whom they vent their anger," says Mr. Berry.
"Linda? She's a jewel, they say."
Appreciative motorists bestow Mrs. Green with gifts -- flowers, candy and greeting cards that say, "I don't even know your name, but thank you."
Tips and invitations, she declines. One couple asked Mrs. Green to church. Another invited her to dinner. She also has received marriage proposals from gentlemen whose lives she brightened, however briefly.
Such hubbub over displays of common courtesy is not surprising, says Richard Wright, director of inpatient psychiatry at Sinai.
"Baltimore is full of rude people," Dr. Wright says. "Everyone's in a hurry; people don't make an effort to be very civil with each other, and to suddenly have someone make your day brighter by saying a few positive things . . . well, it just doesn't happen much in our society anymore.
"Trouble is, she's going to put me out of a job."