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Dodging Insults and Slurs on the Beat

September 27, 2013

Roberta McGee walks the traffic agent beat in Queens
Roberta McGee walks the traffic agent-beat in Queens.

By Marc Bussanich

Queens, NY—Roberta McGee was out of the workforce for 15 years to raise twin daughters. At 51 years old she wanted to get a job she’d like doing. She took a civil service test and landed a job as a traffic agent; 15 years later she’s expecting to retire by year’s end. She’ll miss many of the people she’s gotten to know on her beat, but she won’t miss the insults or slurs.

McGee works out of the Queens North Command out in Flushing on 32nd Avenue and Linden Boulevard. She walks the beat in different Queens neighborhoods–Ridgewood, Kew Gardens, Astoria and Long Island City–where she makes sure meters are paid and hydrants and bus stops are car-free. If they aren’t, she whips out her electronic handheld and issues a summons.

Naturally, people aren’t thrilled when they see her writing a ticket; they fume and hurl invectives. But when they leave a car running in front of a crowded bus stop to run into Starbucks, she has no choice to write them up.

“We tell most people to move their cars when they’re in front of a bus stop or hydrant, but when they leave their car unattended to go get a cup of coffee, I gotta issue the ticket,” said McGee.

She encounters daily an incident where she spots a parked car in front of a bus stop with passengers looking glum and asks does anyone know who the owner of the car is.

They all invariably answer they don’t know; she then spots a passenger in the passenger seat who’s texting or dialing a phone.

"Every day on the beat, men will stop their cars in front of the bus stop and leave their wife or girlfriend behind to go get a cup of coffee. When I ask the woman to move the car, she says either she’s doesn’t know how to drive or she’ll call her husband to come back out to move it,” McGee said incredulously.

Rather than being humbled by a $115 ticket for disrupting public transportation, drivers confront McGee.

“They come running out with a hot cup of coffee in their hands, yelling at me and calling me stupid for writing them a ticket. I tell them, ‘your car is blocking a bus stop, and I’m the one who’s stupid,’” says McGee.

She doesn’t want to be hard, she tries to be nice, but people just don’t seem to take advantage of her gestures and instead blame her without taking responsibility.

One job aspect she likes is communicating with some of the people she’s seen regularly over her 15-year career as a traffic agent. She’s gotten to know business owners along Queens Boulevard and Linden Boulevard.

"I’ll run into an old lady who’ll say she’s so happy to see me and then offer a cupcake.”

But the good feelings from the goodwill can change quickly. She’s been subjected to a lot of yelling and shouting by irate drivers; she can handle that on most days. But the name calling and racial slurs hurts.

“I can be having a good day, but some guy starts calling me the N-word and wishing the worst on my family because I wrote him up for not moving his car during street cleaning.”

Luckily, those encounters are rare.

“I can’t let those kinds of comments bring me down. I’m bigger than that,” McGee said.

Luckily, also, she wasn’t severely injured when she was physically assaulted 10 years ago. She was standing in front of car when a man punched her in the back and fell face forward onto the car’s hood.

Like most New Yorkers who have gotten tickets for misreading the maze of parking signs hovering 15 feet above the concrete, McGee’s husband got one, even though he put money in the meter.

“I told him make sure you read the signs. But he came home recently in a fit because he got a ticket. He said he put money in the meter but I told him it didn’t matter how much money he deposited because he was parked during street cleaning hours,” McGee said.

Her husband refers to McGee as his lovely wife but apparently not on the day he received a parking summons.

“All of a sudden I’m not his wife, but ‘you people.’ He asked me if I could fix it. I told him no sir. You were wrong and now you have to pay the ticket.”

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