On a small patch of tar in front of the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority terminal, where Oak Bluffs avenue, Seaview avenue, Seaview avenue extension and the ferry pier all converge, Officer Matthew Stein is holding court.
"Careful as you go, mopeds, careful as you go," he bellows as he waves on a smiling couple zipping off to Edgartown. "Have a nice day."
"Hello sir and thank you for wearing your seat belt," he hollers to a truck as he points it towards Circuit avenue. "Have a nice day."
"Good morning ladies, how are you on this fine day?" he asks a gaggle of women crossing the intersection. "Have a nice day."
If you're counting, that's three ‘have a nice days' in the span of 30 seconds, and all with genuine smiles. In that time, a small group of people has gathered on the corner simply to watch this flurry of motion and sound radiating from the middle of the street. "That's got to be the happiest cop in America," a woman says, shaking her head. "What's he on?" another wonders. "I wouldn't want his job, but he sure seems like he enjoys it," says a third.
But it is early and Officer Stein is just getting warmed up. He's got plenty more where that came from, and as the MV Martha's Vineyard pulls into the slip, ready to unload her cargo and flood this already congested intersection with yet more cars, trucks, bicycles and pedestrians, he spies the crowded deck and smiles. "Here comes the 10:15, right on time," he says as cars start snaking their way up the dock. "Here we go."
It's another typical summer morning in Oak Bluffs: a typical ferry docking teeming with a typical crush of visitors, about to create the typical traffic headaches. But as the cars, cyclists and pedestrians queue up for their passage through gridlock to the freedom beyond, it becomes clear that Officer Stein is anything but your typical traffic officer.
"Welcome ashore folks, enjoy your stay," he calls out to a family in a car coming off the ferry. "Have a wonderful day." He waves them by, saluting them with a hand to the brim of his cap and a swift chirp from his whistle, and swivels to face another line of cars. His arms are a constant swirl of motion, waving the new line of cars through while he politely addresses everyone who catches his eye. Everyone gets his or her own "Have a nice day."
Soon the intersection is crammed with vehicles entering and exiting from every direction, nine converging lanes of traffic in all. But with all of this bearing down on him, Officer Stein just glides and sashays over his little spot in the middle of the road, pivoting from one lane to another like a dancer. His movements are deliberate and often exaggerated, but the traffic is flowing smoothly. As someone who is trying to command the attention of dozens of people at once, he is the intersection's visual center of gravity.
"I'm like a ballet dancer, that's certainly one way of looking at it," he says with a chuckle. "But I like to use the symphony analogy. I am more of a conductor."
As the downtown day-watch traffic supervisor, Officer Stein has conducted at the intersection for the past four summers, becoming a fixture in the process. Though he is on "temporary loan" from the Brookline police department (he is a reserve officer there during the rest of the year) to assist Oak Bluffs with its seasonal traffic crunch, Officer Stein has become a central figure in the community's comings and goings. His gregarious nature, kind demeanor and boisterous performances ("I like to call it flair") have caught the attention of just about everyone he comes in contact with.
"He's one of a kind, really," says Ernestine Kinnecom, who sells coffee at a store near the police station. "He is kind to everyone, even the tourists. He is the best thing to happen to Oak Bluffs."
Fellow traffic officer Marie Fisher, who works the ferry terminal intersection with Officer Stein, says people don't know what to make of him at first. "They aren't used to such genuine humor from traffic officers," she says. "It's funny, people do stare and look at him kind of strange when he is whirling around, but once they get to know him, they love him." She says he makes an otherwise tedious job fun. "I love working with Matt. He's very funny."
Officer Stein, who is in his 24th year as a police officer, smiles when he hears compliments like these and says he takes pride in his role. "People are shocked when I say ‘thank you' or ‘have a nice day,' " he says. "But my job is to serve this community, a community that is really a pleasure to serve. Some people have never heard that from an officer before, and that surprises them. I'd like to change that. What is the cliché about a spoonful of sugar?"
For all of his amusing intersection antics, Officer Stein is quick to point out the importance of what he does and why he does it. It's the first rule of traffic management, or his primary "Steinism," as he calls it. "Safety, safety, safety is why I am here. And that means your safety, my safety and their safety. In one day, you have 33 different ferries disembarking directly into the town of Oak Bluffs, and that creates a huge swell in pedestrian and vehicular traffic. I want everyone to get to their destinations safely, and if I can make some people laugh along the way, then all the better."
Officer Stein's fundamental belief in the ‘protect and serve' mantra comes from his family. His father, an immigrant from Hungary, was a Holocaust survivor who suffered for six years in a concentration camp as a teenager and taught him the meaning of compassion. "He used to ask me every day, ‘What have you done for your community today?' " he says. "He told me I needed to make a difference every day." His grandfather was a renowned doctor who never turned an ailing patient away no matter the situation, and his mother was a teacher. "I mean, how could I not serve my community?" he says with a grin.
As the last car rolls off the Martha's Vineyard and the traffic turning from Seaview avenue starts to thin, Officer Stein starts to wind down his routine. Another boat has emptied into Oak Bluffs and its traffic has passed without incident. As he makes his way to the curb, as group of women toting suitcases catches his eye.
"Good morning ladies, can I help you in any way?" he asks.
"Do you know where the Surfside Motel is?" one of them says, looking rather helpless.
"Yes I do, ma'am," he says cheerfully before pausing a few seconds. "Would you like to know, too?" After pointing the ladies in the right direction and bowing with a tip of his cap, you just know what is coming next.
"You ladies have a nice day."