I am convinced that a great majority* of the island’s police force is comprised of all the kids who were beat up, made fun of, and otherwise pushed down throughout their formative years in school and they’ve determined that this is their big chance to vindicate themselves against those who have done them wrong. And by those, I mean society as a whole. And what better way to govern the masses in a small town scenario than to place people in charge who can pull over the guy who stole his pudding cup in 5th grade and pay him back with a speeding violation. Justice at its finest.
In the US Virgin Islands, as a form of compensation, police officers are given the use of their squad car to drive as their personal vehicle as well. This means you never know who is going to be stepping out of the cop car at any given time. From the woman in curlers, cut-offs, and toe-separators fresh from a pedicure to the Notorious B.I.G. look-alike complete with doo-rag – you are often left believing that they should be the ones under questioning.
One duty of an island police officer is the much coveted task of directing traffic. Virgin Islanders seem to be born with an inherent passion for this, similar in nature to their suburbia counterpart, a character you may be more familiar with: the housewife who moonlights as a crossing guard. Selfless volunteer or a woman in orange harboring a veiled lust for power? Upon the slightest instance of a fender bender, rather than moving the cars off of the two-lane road, island drivers jump at the chance to direct the rest of the traffic around their vehicles, which are now obscuring a full lane. Police officers directing traffic get to fulfill this instinctive calling on a much more distinguished level – they get to do it with a badge and government-issued authority, complete with Mickey Mouse’s trademark white gloves. And on an island with more cars than people, potholes the size of craters, and enough blind curves to throw Mulholland Drive for a loop – the opportunities abound.
One morning, while carpooling to work with my friend Joann, there was a police officer directing traffic on the main waterfront road. Traffic was minimal and his presence seemed unnecessary, especially considering that he had stationed himself beneath a functioning intersection – one of the few actual stoplight set-ups on island, in fact. But, far be it for me to judge; duty calls.
Our light turned green and he continued to ignore our car and the line of vehicles behind us, as he was in the midst of what appeared to be a riveting debate with a taxi driver friend in the lane of stopped cars to our right. Joann waited a few beats for him to give her the consenting wave and when one did not come, she used her best judgement to proceed. After all, the lane was clear, the light was green, all signs pointed to go for it. As we were a couple 100 yards down the road, we noticed him in the rear view mirror waving his arms and white-gloved hands, jumping and screaming in our direction. Joann stopped the car briefly, but due to it being a one lane road and seeing as how he made no effort to head in our direction, we made the decision to just move on. And by “move on”, I mean so in both the vehicular and emotional sense of the word.
Roughly 5 months later, Joann and I were headed along the same route to work. While waiting at the same waterfront light, we were jarred from our conversation by a pounding on the driver’s side window. As we whipped our heads in the direction of the startling sound, we were met with the enraged face of Officer D. Barton, as stated on his sea salt-encrusted badge. Joann cautiously rolled down her window, an unfeigned look of innocence on her face.
“Good morning, Officer.”
“You tink I don’ remember who you are?! You remember me?!”
Joann glanced at me, searching my face for a clue but I had nothing. “Ummmm, no, sorry? I apologize, but I don’t know what you’re talking about Sir…”
“I am Officer D. Barton, and I direct de traffic! You do NOT direct de traffic! I DIRECT DE TRAFFIC! You don’ just go runnin’ troo light when you please. You all come down he’h, tinkin’ you make you own law. Gimme you license! Now!”
“Ok, I’m sorry, but I thou -”
Joann sheepishly produced her stateside license, which she had failed to convert over since her move to the islands almost a year ago.
Officer D. Barton scrutinized it momentarily, then continued, “California, huh! You probably don’ stop at de light d’ere, do you? Well dis ain’t California, miss. Dis MY island an’ I direct de traffic! I don’ care wha you thought. Nex time you see me directin’ de traffic you bettah pay attention. Don’ tink I no recognize you. I am De Law. You must follow De Law!”
“Ok, but I – ” Joann’s attempt to interject any explanation into his tirade was unsuccessful and it was clear that a simple nod was the only action her character was allowed in our impromptu island scene.
Officer D. Barton continued his rant about his role in facilitating traffic and our abhorrent disobedience of yore. Joann looked at me and we shared a glance of now what? I looked at the dash clock and began assessing the upcoming consequences at being late to work once again. Come on, buddy. Let’s wrap this up. I hardly think you can get a ticket 5 months after the incident. I mean, what do you fill in on the citation’s DATE line? Ummm…let’s see….I think it was 18.6 weeks ago at 7:54 am….
As I considered declaring this ultimatum, a balls out, Well, what’re ya gonna do about it, Officer D. Barton?!, I thought better of it and decided to keep my mouth shut. With no other options available to us, we sat back as he continued, nodding vehemently at every “I direct de traffic”.
Our agreement seemed to appease him, as he brought his traffic diatribe to a close with a final, “I direct de traffic. Not you. Understand?”
“Yes, Officer Barton,” we chimed. There was nothing left to add.
Satisfied, he walked away, shaking his head in disgust. Joann hesitantly rolled up her window and took a left at the green light, being sure to use her blinker for an added show of obedience. An essential, yet often overlooked, touch.
As we drove off in stunned silence, it dawned on me that this was apparently something he had been losing sleep over and dying to discuss since the day of our malfeasance. In our minds, it was a minor misunderstanding, an almost non-existent infraction. But to Officer D. Barton, it was a true slight on his authority in matters of traffic control. Perhaps he tossed and turned over what he would say to our slime-ball asses when he got the opportunity, Joann’s blue 4 Runner imprinted in his brain, derisively deciding over the last 5 months that “I direct the traffic” really summed it up. And in that moment, I understood completely how he felt.
I, too, have lost sleep over petty disagreements with random strangers that others would deem insignificant. I could definitely relate to the feeling of impotence that comes with screaming after a moving vehicle. Yes, Officer D. Barton, you DO direct the traffic. I hope it was all he longed for and more.
* I would like to note that while there are plenty of egotistical bullies in the island’s police force (as with anywhere in the world), I have also encountered many exemplary individuals who do an honorable job servin’ and protectin’ de people. My thanks to them.