THIS CANADA

A corner for traffic cops

Randolph Joyce March 1 1982
THIS CANADA

A corner for traffic cops

Randolph Joyce March 1 1982

A corner for traffic cops

THIS CANADA

Randolph Joyce

It was rush hour and the pavement was black with rain as 19-year-old rookie policeman Bob Shannahan stood directing traffic at the corner of Prescott and Duckworth Streets, a wellknown St. John’s bottleneck. About 15 minutes into his stint, he recalls, “I stopped traffic in three directions and I was looking over my shoulder to see what was coming down Prescott.” The next thing he knew, he was flying through the air and landed some six metres away. After a Short blackout, he looked up and saw “a girl kneeling over me.” The careering Volkswagen that upset the young policefnan and sent him to the hospital for stitches in the back of his head was pursued and overtaken by another car. One year, one week and two hours later, the girl, who had been driving the second car in line, became Bob’s wife. “It was love at first sight,” recalls Judy Shannahan, 14 years after the accident. “I went home and asked my dad if he knew any Shannahans from Harbour Grace.”

Meeting one’s future wife is not an occupational hazard that Stan Wicks and Frank Miller, present guardians of Prescott and Duckworth, worry much about, since both are already married. But it is hard to ignore that 14-degree slope to which their, backs are turned five days a week. “Yob feel nervous all the time,” says Mel Parsons, 37, who

recently left his job after 13 years on the corner. “You don’t know what might be coming down over that hill.”

At one time, policemen were a familiar sight at every busy street corner. But since traffic lights began to take over in the ’40s and ’50s, the full-time, traffic cop has become virtually extinct in Canada. Among the last of the breed are the two men who work at Prescott and Duckworth, where a long succession of traffic cops has worn a permanent imprint in the pavement of the intersection. The cost of policing the intersection is about $60,000 a year, es-

timates Insp. Allan Tilley, head of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s street patrol—about $20,000 each for the full-time men and $20,000 for relief policemen who work on an occasional basis. So, why not do as everyone else does and put up a $25,000 traffic light? Tilley explains that even the most sophisticated electronic light system is not endowed with the discretionary judgment needed to handle the disproportionate traffic flows that occur at peak times of the day—nor with the treacherous hill.

Prescott and Duckworth is only 43

m—or five car lengths—away from the intersection below it at Water Street, and the line of traffic must be prevented from overflowing and blocking Water Street. Any vehicle heading up the hill and stopped at Prescott and Duckworth is perched at the steepest point of the slope, and starting up again on ice or in melting slush is a nice exercise in driving skill. “No one,” points out Tilley, “likes to get stopped on the hill”— and that refers in particular to the drivers of the five city buses and numerous trucks that use it every day. So when the policeman sees a bus or a truck coming north up the hill, he can stop east-west traffic to give it a head start. If at midday Duckworth Street traffic is backed up 20 cars both ways— all St. John’s, it seems, goes home for lunch and back—and north-south traffic is lighter, then Duckworth Street gets moved first. Says constabulary chief Richard Roche: “There’s no computer that could take care of the buses and the rest of the traffic.” Not to mention that the present narrow street widths were fixed shortly after the great St. John’s fire of 1892; that all manoeuvres, including left turns, are permitted; and that the last traffic count of the intersection, conducted in the 1960s, showed more than 3,000 vehicles an hour using it in rush hour. “It would be more now,” says Tilley.

Apart from the pressure, the worst thing about the job is “the cold,” says Wicks, his face ruddy with the wind as he comes off a 90-minute shift. “When there’s heavy traffic, an hour goes by quickly. When traffic is slow, whew.” Winter in St. John’s, with its fluctuating temperatures and generous municipal salting of streets, brings salt-ridden super-cooled slush. “Even dry cleaning can’t get the salt out,” says Parsons, drawing on a tipped cigar after work in the shelter of Kevin Waddleton’s novelty store on the corner. “Even if you get a snowstorm, you’ve got to be out there at eight o’clock a.m. It gets dark before five, and [in bad weather] the pedestrians, you can’t see them. In snowstorms, your face gets iced up—I’ve had a lot of good hours out there, but a lot of miserable ones too.”

Last month, Parsons left the corner to take a crime prevention course at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa; when it’s over, he will be reassigned. His bosses, though, may think twice about using him in an undercover role because Parsons’ swarthy, mustachioed face is as well known in St. John’s as any TV newscaster’s. His rhythmic, decisive directing style has even inspired a musical composition. In 1980, Newfoundland composer Don Wherry’s multimedia piece Traffic Cop was performed in St. John’s by an avant-garde ensemble called Fusion. A backdrop of

projected slides of Parsons in action reinforced the theme, and as the last notes and whistles died away, a spotlight zoomed in on Parsons himself, sitting in a theatre box with the province’s lieutenant-governor. Parsons rose and pantomimed himself, and the audience roared. The tradition of flamboyant traffic direction in St. John’s goes back further than Parsons; some connoisseurs argue that the art reached its apogee with “the dancing policeman,” Fred Winsor, whose elaborate gesticulations and nimble footwork graced the corner for about 10 years, until he retired in the early ’70s. In Winsor’s time, traffic policemen on night duty often wore ingenious battery-operated lights strapped on for visibility. The night shift was taken off 10 years ago, since nighttime traffic downtown has diminished with the stores’ migration from Water Street to the outlying malls; for today’s limited after-dark duty, bright orange slickers suffice for visibility.

For Stan Wicks, the move to Duckworth and Prescott after 23 years on the force was one of convenience, not of vocation. He has eight months to go until early retirement, and “the job was open, so I took it.” When the vacancy came up in January, a memo was circulated around the force, and, as usual, the job was given to the applicant with the most job seniority. There are always men interested in the job—“We had five applications, about usual,” said Tilley. Since Parsons left, some fear the days of the career traffic cop are numbered. “What they’ll probably do now is put on men who are about to retire,” predicts novelty store owner Waddleton, thoughtfully puffing on a cigarette. “There’ll probably never be the likes of Mel Parsons or Fred Winsor again.” But police and municipal officials agree there will probably always be a policeman at Duckworth and Prescott. And where there’s a public stage, there will always be an occasional showman to liven up the corner.