By John Guy LaPlante
Old Saybrook, CT- It’s a nice, sunny afternoon. I stand on the corner in amazement. Jim Schneider is the traffic cop here.The school day is over and the loaded school buses are filing out from the Goodwin School, one after another. Also parents who have picked up their kids. Soon teachers and staff will be driving out. It will be a hectic 40 minutes or so.
I say in amazement because Officer Jim is doing his thing. Right out there in the middle of the intersection, mind you. And nobody does it better. He’s 72 but as agile as an Old Saybrook High varsity tennis player. And just as determined and energetic.
I’m one of his fans. I stop by the town library on many afternoons. It’s just up the street. I like to stroll over at 3:15 now and then to watch him. He is really something to behold.
As always, he’s impeccably dressed for the role. His black uniform seems freshly pressed every day, I swear. His proud hat gets brushed every evening, I think. The brilliant yellow reflective vest looks brand-new. His matching yellow gloves also. When the rain and the cold come, he’ll wear more, of course, but for sure everything will match to perfection. I’ll bet he’s the most dapper officer on the force.
But no handcuffs. No gun. No Billy club. None of that.
He’s in total control of the traffic situation here. From the north and the south and the east. Those are the three possibilities. Telling this bus to turn right. Telling that car to hold it. Telling another car, come on, move forward! Waving to another to hurry up. He smiles at one car going by. Permits the car behind it to turn left. Smiles to the next car approaching. Suddenly he stops traffic in all directions to let three kids ride their bikes across.Then swings back into action.
All through this he’s pivoting like a quarterback to face this direction and that one. Making one quick decision after another. Does it all with the instantaneous reactions and grace of a…. yes, I have to say it, a ballet dancer.
And this is his final gig of the day. He does three. From 7 to 8 and then 2 to 3 over at at the Middle School on Sheffield Street. And every afternoon from 3 to 4 here at the Goodwin School. Another officer covers here in the morning. In between Jim switches to his other role—keeping the police station spiffed up He’s had a lot of experience at this other work, as you’ll see in a minute. This has been his schedule for seven years since he got started here.
I brought my camera. I snap pictures of him as quickly as I can. I want you to see Jim at work! See what he puts into the job. If I were his promoter, I’d charge folks for the pleasure of standing and watching him. And if I knew of an annual Traffic Cop of the Year Contest somewhere, I’d nominate him in a minute.
Well, now the last bus and the last car have left. The school and the street are quiet again. I say to him, “Well, Jim, what now?”
We’re standing by his police car. He’s pulling off his gloves. He’s relaxed. That was quite a workout out there. He’s not pooped at all.
“Home!” he says. “I live not far away. A nice warm shower. A little rest. Barbara will have supper just about ready. We’ve been married 24 years. I eat light in the evening. A little cheese. A few crackers. A small glass of wine. An apple. That’s it. She makes my big meal at noon. Fish or chicken. I don’t eat red meat any more. Potatoes. Vegetables. Very nice.”
“That’s all? You need 5,000 calories a day to do what you do!”
He laughs. “No, no!” He pats his stomach. It’s flat. I’m sure he can’t pinch any fat anywhere. He’s proud of that. He’s still 145 pounds at five-ten. Hasn’t put on any pounds in years. He chuckles. “I must be doing something right!”
Well, here’s his story. Before this he was a cop for 16 years in much bigger Stamford. Started as a beat patrolman. Did it all. Responding to emergency calls. Arresting people. Testifying in court. Writing out reports. And directing traffic.This is what he liked best.
“Stamford has an intersection with traffic from five directions!” he tells me. “That’s where I got my start. A madhouse at rush hours. I loved it! It’s all about communication, you know. Drivers want to know what to do. Well, I tell them. In fact, I tell them emphatically. Then they understand. And then do what I want them to do. So it becomes a nice, steady, controlled flow. No accidents, and accidents can happen in a tight situation, believe me. I feel really good doing it.”
Back then he also ran a sideline business. A cleaning service–banks, offices, homes. Very good, he says. He had a whole crew on the payroll. Twenty years. In fact, he resigned from the Stamford police department to give all his time to the business. Sold it when retirement age approached and they settled on Old Saybrook for their new life.
“We checked out a lot of towns. Really did. It didn’t take us long to decide Old Saybrook would be it. And before long I was a police officer again. Right here. But part time. Doing school traffic—my first love. And custodian work at the police station, too.”
He’s silent for a minute, then smiles and tells me, “You know, now and then the Chief comes over and takes a look. He yells to me. ‘Jim, stand back! Get out of the middle of the street! Stand back!’”
“No way! That’s where I’ve got to stand to do it right.”
“Ever have a real problem of any kind? Maybe a driver getting very mad at you?”
He smiles. Shakes his head. “No. Never. Lots of people wave to me. Very friendly.”
“What’s your big plan?”
“You mean about retirement finally?” I nod. “I don’t think about it much. I like what I’m doing. Truth is, I love it.”
I chuckle.“No kidding? I really couldn’t tell!”
He laughs, too.
By now I’m sure of a few things about him. It would take a brave driver not to snap to an order from Jim. And watching Jim has to be inspiring to anybody looking on. Kids especially, I like to think. It’s got to be good for them to see a man who really and truly likes the work he’s doing. If all of us did our jobs with as much pride and gusto, wow!
Later I spoke to a couple of key people who know him well.
Said Goodwin Principal Sheila Brown, “All of us love to see Officer Schneider on the job. We just can’t help but smile and wave back, you know. Staff, pupils, parents, everybody! He does such a terrific job. It’s obvious he’s got his whole heart in this. We really appreciate him.” She smiled. “And he knows it!”
Police Chief Michael Spera said to me, “He’s fabulous. A really great asset for 0ur department. You know, he thinks he’s 29 years old out there, and I don’t want him to think any different.” He laughed. “There’s just one thing I don’t like. When all of us get introduced to everybody in the school at the beginning of the year, Jim gets more applause than I do!” A big, hearty laugh.