Move over, Gregory Hines. Officer Floyd Johnson has some moves to show you.
Johnson performs most weekdays at evening rush hour, at the busy intersection of 36th and Walnut streets. There he is, twirling, whirling, dipping, pointing, waving and blowing his whistle, all to keep traffic flowing and to let the pedestrians cross safely and quickly.
Not only does Johnson enjoy the job. It’s clear to the people who pass his corner that Johnson performs a valuable service. “Have you ever seen it when he’s not there?” said Joan Bobroff, the office manager at Penn Hillel, where we spoke with Johnson. “Let me tell you, there is a major difference when he is not there. People don’t believe in red lights.”
Johnson expounded on that statement and other lessons learned in years of observing traffic during our interview.
Q. What led you to join the Penn Police?
A. After I had 25 years of service in [the] housing [police], I figured it was time for me to move on and I figured that Penn was a good spot to stop at. And I was correct.
Q. What did you do on housing patrol?
A. I was catching drug dealers, purse snatchers, having domestic problems, you name it, I was doing it.
Q. Isn’t traffic detail a bit of a comedown?
A. No, it’s a come-up. ’Cause I was down in the ditch working. So now I’m up on the mountaintop looking down at people. [laughs]
Q. What did you do at first when you arrived on campus?
A. Well, when I first arrived, I was doing regular patrol work. I think my first traffic assignment was 38th and Spruce on move-in. I always did like traffic.
Q. What did you like about it?
A. It was like a conductor conducting an orchestra. You’re going to get out there, smooth things [out], in command, just kind of take charge, it’s a good feeling.
Q. What’s the difference between having a cop directing traffic and having the signals do it?
A. People run signals. A lot of times, they’re in a hurry, they’ll claim they can’t see the signals. Policemen on the spot have a tendency of showing more authority than traffic lights. By them seeing me there, and they run the light, they know that I can either take their license plate [number] and mail them a ticket or I could call for a squad car to stop them down the road and give them a ticket.
I’m a diversion. I stop traffic. Then I can stop [cars] from clogging up the intersection. ’Cause a whole lot of times, when the light changes, or the light doesn’t have to change, they just run right out into the intersection. Now you’ve got to maneuver yourself around the car. And as soon as the cars stop, people’s tendency is stepping out in the street. As soon as the cars stop, [it doesn’t matter] what they stop for, they step right out in the street. And another car comes right along. Sometimes I have to tell them, Get back on the pavement [sidewalk]. ’Cause a car in your chest is not a fashion statement. Doesn’t look good. And I don’t think it feels good.
Q. Are there any challenges in your job?
A. After being around a long time, sometimes I think there’s nothing new that could be shown to me, but sometimes they fool me.
I had a little old lady tell me, You stopped me and wouldn’t let me cross the street ’cause I had the green light. I said, Yes, but an ambulance is coming. See, you don’t want to come out in the street and get run over by the ambulance, would you? “But I had the light.” I said, OK, I said, next time you get the light, I’ll make sure you get across the street. She was just as happy as she could be as she walked away.
Q. Any safety tips for the people crossing the street?
A. Sure. Watch what’s going on, and not so much watching the light. The pedestrian doesn’t always have the right of way. Why would you walk out in front of a car when you know this car ain’t going to stop? That isn’t going to help you out at all. You might get a lawsuit, but you might be dead. When the cop on the corner tells you to stay there, then stay there. That way he can get you across.
That’s the main purpose I was put there, to make sure the pedestrian gets across the street safely. ’Cause when they [drivers] come across 34th Street, if they catch that light at 34th Street, sometimes I have to get out of the way. I can look up and see these turkeys coming and [it’s] like they’re driving on the expressway.
What they need is a couple of those road blocks, where you see those bumps in the road, if you ride across that, you mess up your front end. Or put a light in between 34th and 36th. It’s too long of a stretch. I’m surprised that we don’t have many accidents, or pedestrians getting hit from 34th to 36th Street, the way some of those people come through there. [Johnson stated that there have been no injuries or fatalities at the intersection while he was directing traffic there.]
Q. Any tips for the drivers?
A. Slow down! You’re not on the expressway. Slow down. There’s other people out there, and “I’m sorry” is not going to do it. You can’t be in that big a hurry. Sometimes, you drive so fast, you miss things.
Originally published on November 8, 2001