The Dragnet Shuffle

     By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  8/24/2000

PROVINCETOWN - It takes a certain kind of cop, one with the right mix of chutzpah and charisma, to control the chaos of this rambunctious town.


Patrolman Donald J. Thomas doesn't carry bullets in his revolver, refuses to issue tickets to scofflaws, and has passed the usual retirement age by seven years. But this 72-year-old officer has kept would-be miscreants in line for the past 42 years with a different kind of weapon, a device more disarming than deadly.

Call it the dragnet shuffle.

Thomas is a traffic cop. His job is to ensure that the welter of motorists, bicyclists, skateboarders, and pedestrians don't tie up Provincetown's busiest intersection, Lopes Square, the corner of Commercial and Standish streets.

Between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., from Memorial Day through Labor Day, rain or shine, the grizzled officer in dark glasses fights gridlock with a certain panache, a sashay, a swift spin, a whistle blow, and a gruff, "Move it!"

"Ain't nothing hard to me about this job," he said on a recent weekend while fighting the deluge of everything from motorcycles to minivans. "I just like it. This is my corner. It can get pretty nutty though."

Thomas is something of a legend in Provincetown, a place where it can be difficult to stand out. Here, locals frequently redefine their gender and push the limits of the human genome in everything from the color of their hair to the shape of their bodies.

Yet, Thomas's claim to local fame derives as much from his endurance as his flamboyance. He has been on the town's traffic beat since the Eisenhower administration, as far back as 1958. And he's become such a fixture in the community that a postcard at some tourist shops features him next to the Pilgrim Monument.

When the skies grow gray over Cape Cod and beachgoers flood into town for the afternoon, Thomas is in peak form, charming crowds of pedestrians to the point where they prefer to snap photos or capture his dance on video than venture into the clogged streets.

"They just line up on the sidewalk to watch him," said John Brown, a bouncer standing in front of Governor Bradford's bar and restaurant who for the past 29 years has watched Thomas's show. "People don't obey the younger traffic cops. But when he tells someone to stay on the curb, they do. In many ways he's also a storybook type of cop. He helps old ladies cross the street, gives young kids advice, and helps anyone out with directions."

While most look affectionately at "the dancing cop," as he's known, at least one local complained that she can't stand Thomas's shtick.


"After all these years, I still think he looks funny," said a clerk in a shop off Commercial Street who wouldn't give her name. "He does the opposite of what he's supposed to - he holds up traffic."

One of Thomas's bosses at the Provincetown Police Department, Staff Sergeant Allan Souza, takes exception to any criticism of his most seasoned officer. When Thomas isn't on one of his daily breaks for tea at Adams Pharmacy or on a walk along the pier, Souza maintains, he's the most effective traffic cop on the force, even if he hasn't made an arrest or issued a ticket in the past four decades.

"Donald may have more leeway than other cops on the force," Souza said, "but nobody doubts that he gets the job done. A lot of the younger guys don't want to be doing traffic. They think it's beneath them. But that's why he's here. He loves it."

Thomas has lived his whole life in Provincetown, driving a fishing truck and doing other odd jobs when not battling traffic or spending time with his grandkids. Marian Goveia, 72, who went to high school with him, said, "Everyone has always known him for one thing: He's just a damned nice guy."

During a break from his duties, Thomas pined for the good old days when Provincetown was more tranquil, affordable, and less commercialized. Back then, fewer aggressive drivers had license plates from New York or Texas, and he jokingly recalls that "the biggest vehicles on the road were horse and buggies," not the monster sport-utility vehicles that barely fit on the town's narrow streets.

Still, the vehicles don't bother him as much as the myriad bicyclists. "They have no brains," he said, "They go wherever they want. If I have one pet peeve, it's bicyclists. I wish to hell a law would ban them."

The wizened cop, however, is anything but cynical or grouchy. His coarse language and glib commentary is regularly lightened by humor. And any burst of anger at impatient pedestrians or defiant drivers is quickly tempered by his graceful, well-rehearsed two-step.

"People used to listen more than they do," he said. "But I get them to listen to me. I don't give them much choice."
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.  Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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