He looks like a toreador with dark glasses and a gun. He stands ramrod straight in the intersection as the mechanical bulls from Detroit and Tokyo charge past him, grazing his spotless uniform.
He is Patrolman Ed Sheeler, point control officer at Baltimore and Calvert streets, one of 20 traffic police officers permanently assigned to intersections in Baltimore's cluttered downtown core.
Every day, Sheeler, sporting his distinctive white traffic hat, sees Baltimore approaching gridlock as cars, buses, construction trucks and utility vans pile up behind one another, vying for space, searching for escape routes through the narrow streets. With whistle and hands, his job is to head off automotive Armageddon, keep the flow going and get the streets cleared by 6 p.m.
So far, it's worked. Sheeler, a genial man who waves almost continually at the familiar faces of motorists and pedestrians streaming by, has been at the same intersection for five years, "and the traffic just keeps on moving through," he says. " . . . You see the same cars, the same patterns every day. . . . People are creatures of habit."
At 35, Sheeler is a new kid in the traffic division of the Baltimore Police Department. He's been there only 11 years, and only five years at Baltimore and Calvert streets.
Some traffic officers have worked the same corner for 25 and 30 years. Ed Panowitz, 63, a block away at Baltimore and Light streets, is the granddaddy of traffic. He's been a policeman for more than 35 years, ever since March 1948, most of it in traffic.
There is nothing like this in the District of Columbia. Many years ago, District foot patrolmen were permanently assigned to key downtown intersections, just as they are today in Baltimore, but the tradition was dropped in favor of motorized patrols and temporary foot assignments.
Baltimore police contend permanent assignments have many advantages. The officer begins to see daily patterns of movement on the streets and sidewalks. A momentary deviation could mean something is wrong, anything from a "bank robbery to a sick person," says Sheeler, and only a policeman assigned permanently to a particular spot is going to notice the difference.
Traffic police have made numerous arrests for shoplifting, burglary and assault, just by being on their corners, Sgt. Wayne Hartel said. Last year, they made more arrests of bank robbery suspects than any other division of the police department, he said.
"We get to know the people--the store owners, the employes, the secretaries," Sheeler said. " . . . If somebody doesn't come out for their regular lunch break or something, you miss them. You get concerned. They're like family."
"If the pattern's different," said Officer Bill Koller, 42, at Fayette and St. Paul's streets, "something clicks. . . . Just glancing in the window of a bank you can tell if something's disturbed or not normal."
Merchants and employes "know they always got a man standing out there," said Officer Ray Boblitz, 53, speaking in the gritty accents of Baltimore, known more familiarly here as "Bal'mer."
Boblitz has been in traffic for 29 years. He worked Howard and Fayette streets downtown for 15 years before moving recently to Baltimore and Charles, the official center of the city surrounded by imposing bank buildings and the Morris A. Mechanic Theater.
Like other traffic police, one of his additional duties during quiet periods is checking on the banks. Several times a day, he strolls through the nearby Savings Bank of Baltimore and others within a block of his post, saying hello to the tellers and making sure everything's all right.
"We have a kind of understanding," he said. "I always wave to the tellers. If they don't wave back, that means they got a problem. It could be a suspicious person or some guy's just handed them a robbery note."
Last October, Sheeler arrested a bank robbery suspect at gunpoint outside a Baltimore Federal Savings & Loan branch near his corner after the branch manager signaled him that the man had run up a nearby alley.
"I saw him getting into a car," Sheeler said. "I pulled my service revolver . . . and he got out. He had a police radio scanner on his belt and an earplug in his ear."
Officer Herman Heidel, 56, with 29 years in traffic, works the intersection of Baltimore and Howard streets, a tough section just west of Sheeler and Boblitz's beats.
Things are usually manageable, he said, but he once shot a woman thief after she had knifed him in the face. She had stolen a gold tray from a jewelry store, he said, and as he approached her from behind on the sidewalk, she suddenly turned and jabbed a knife into his chin.
"She didn't put the knife down, so I laid one in her," Heidel said. "Simple as that."