Wednesday, February 24, 2010

COLUMN: Stoplight

I remember painfully little of the grade school years (a fact which I blame on the college years.) But for no particular reason, one homework assignment has always stuck out in my head.

My 3rd grade teacher, a wonderful little hippie lady named Mrs. Harlan-Marks, asked us to write a paper on who our "hero" was. Oh, and it couldn't be someone in your own family - you had to think outside the box. And thinking outside the box threw me for a loop.

My hero? Outside of my parents, I didn't really have any. I thought about it forever and ever, but no magic light bulbs went off above my head. That's when I committed my first memorable act of bull-pooing: I decided to announce to the world (or at least to Mrs. Harlen-Marks) that my hero was... Dan Tanna.

Dan Tanna was the character Robert Urich played on the short-lived 70's TV series "Vega$." I'd never even seen an episode of the show before that night, but it was on TV in the background while I was working on the paper and I was desperate. I don't remember if Dan was a cop or a detective or a mercenary or a gambler or what, but for one brief shining moment in 1970-something, he was my hero.

Twenty plus years have passed since that assignment, and nowadays it's easier to come up a list of heroes. My parents (still.) My girlfriend (always.) Dispatch/Argus Publisher Jerry Taylor (because it never hurts to suck up to your boss.) 2nd Avenue/RIBCO owner Terry Tilka (or your other boss.) Eddie Izzard. Chuck Klosterman. Dave Barry. Whitney Matheson. Musicians like Johnny Marr, drummer Loz Colbert, and the greatest songwriter of our generation, Martin Carr (look him up.) The list goes on and on, but this column involves some other heroes of mine.

Recently I got the ability to stream Netflix purchases over to my TV, and I discovered that Netflix has every episode of one of my favorite shows: Mythbusters. These two guys, Jamie and Adam, set out in every episode to dispell popular myths via elaborate experiments and, if at all possible, large explosions. It's funny, it's science, and exploding things are cool. The Mythbusters rule.

Another set of heroes? Journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- two guys who four-handedly brought down a corrupt American presidency through sheer determination, willpower, and by being really really annoying. There isn't a newspaper writer alive who doesn't want THAT kind of a story to fall into their laps.

And I think I've got mine. That's right, it's time for this columnist to move to the big leagues. I will now -- by the cunning use of Mythbuster experimentation and the doggedness of Woodward and Bernstein, bring down a corrupt Rock Island stoplight.

Flashback: June 2009. A horrible car accident occurs at the intersection of 24th St. & 4th Ave. in Rock Island. A semi truck and an SUV meet in a most unfortunate of ways. People are sent to the hospital, but thankfully no-one dies. Our paper runs a story with the following quote:

"After the accident, several people said the sensors, which trigger the stoplights, haven't been working properly for several months."

What the article doesn't mention is that one of those "several people" was yours truly. Every weekend, I head home from my DJ gig at around 4 a.m. Usually, that puts me southbound on 24th St. at the 4th Ave. intersection. And every night for a month before that accident, that stoplight sensor hadn't been working. I would pull up on a red light, and it would stay red - indefinitely. Since 4th Ave. is a one-way street with a turn lane I'm never in, my only choice is to become a rebel without a cause and roll cautiously through the red light.

So when that accident happened, I naturally assumed that the broken light was to blame and promptly told our reporter as much. But when the reporter questioned the police about the sensor, Lieutenant So-and-So responded (again I quote from our June article,) "sensors on the stoplight at the intersection appear to have been working properly."

Properly, my journalistic fanny. But who am I to correct a cop? Instead, I shut my yap, ignored my journalistic duty, and started taking a different way home, assuming that the light malfunction would eventually be rectified. But this past Saturday, I absent-mindedly took the old route home, found myself southbound on 24th St., and once again ended up waiting indefinitely at the 4th Ave. stoplight. It still isn't fixed.

So I can't let Woodward & Bernstein down. I need to expose this light for the broken hunk o' junk it is. I need documentation and experimentation. I need to bust the myth that this light is working properly. It's now 9:40 p.m. on Monday, February 8th. My investigative team (me and my girlfriend) are heading out to the intersection to see if we can conclusively prove that the light is failing. We know that my New Beetle will NOT set off the sensors, so we'll be in Amy's Toyota Avalon instead. We'll approach the intersection from a variety of scenarios. Wish me luck...

Okay. It's now 10:21 p.m. We have just proven beyond a shadow of a doubt... that the Acapulco Cafe on the corner of 4th and 24th has pretty good chips and salsa. Other that that, I've got nothing. It looks like the sensors don't come on until the wee hours. Right now, it's just on a timed loop, changing lights regularly regardless of traffic flow. I bet it doesn't change to sensor activation until after midnight.

Woodward and Bernstein would go back out and interview everyone who went through the intersection. The Mythbusters team would go back out after midnight and run a variety of simulations and experiments. But the Mythbusters are in California, where 5-8" inches aren't on tonight's forecast. And Woodward & Bernstein didn't have to meet Deep Throat in the middle of a snowfall. As for me? I'm home, I'm comfy, and now I've got chips and salsa.

I firmly believe that the stoplight sensor is broken, at least when it comes to 2712 lb. Volkswagen Beetles at 4 a.m. And now I've gotten that in print. I leave it to someone else to bust the myth that this stoplight works hunky-dory. I recommend Dan Tanna.

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