Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Sr. Burns rubber in her highway traffic act

  • September 1, 2022

I come from a family of lead-foots. I think we have black-and-white checkered genes. Nunhood made no dent in my “need for speed” heritage. So here are a few of my encounters with law enforcement on the roadways of North America. (Be it known that I’m always dressed as a nun. I don’t really have any other clothes.)

Kingston, Ont. — Speeding along in the fast lane at night, I noticed a truck bearing down on me. I switched lanes to get out of its way. So did the truck. So I switched back. The truck followed me. After a few more do-si-dos, I wondered if this was some kind of police vehicle. Affirmative. We both pulled over. The officer was very kind and told me that his boxy paddy wagon had little blue lights all over it and that should have been a sign to me that he was a cop. Outcome: No ticket.

Evanston, Illinois — Speeding on the way to a doctor’s appointment, I got pulled over. When the policeman saw who the driver was, he paled. “Are you a nun?!” “Yes.” In all superstitious seriousness: “I’m not giving you a ticket! I want to go home to my wife tonight!” (Be it known that I never pull rank as a Sister, or lie that I’m on my way to a dying soul’s bedside. I’m always ready to face the music—that often doesn’t come.)

Toronto — I am guilty of “American stop signs” (when you don’t really stop, but just kind of slow roll through them). I was often culpable of these rolling stops on a favourite side street of mine. Turned out it was also a traffic cop’s favourite side street. As he held my license in his hand, he could somehow tell that I was a brazen scofflaw. (Be it known that I was in my cowgirl 20s.) He literally threw my license back at me and said disgustedly: “The law applies to you, too.” Now, I felt very, very sad at having given such bad example to this upright public servant, but not bad enough to stop the rolling stops, because — I didn’t get a ticket.

Oakville, Ont. — Speeding back to Toronto from a Catholic school, I got my picture snapped by those now-illegal unmanned vans parked by the side of the road. A ticket for $350 smackeroos showed up in the mail with an extremely detailed, hi-res photo of our convent car with all the religious bumper stickers on it, and moi, with my veil flapping out the window. Mother Superior was not amused.

Erin Mills, Ont. — This is where I pulled a cop over. Actually, he had just pulled someone else over, and I was lost and in sore need of directions (these were the days before GPS). I got out of my car and approached the officer at the window of the other motorist. “Excuse me, officer….” Officer: “What are you doing?!” “I just need some directions” (pointing to my paper map). “It’s illegal to interrupt a police officer in the middle of an interaction!” “Please, I’m really lost.” (Sad puppy dog face.) The officer angrily poked at the map. “Turn around and take your first left! Now get out of here!” I felt like the Syro-Phoenician woman with Jesus. Hey, I got what I wanted, didn’t I?

Boston, Mass. — My mother was visiting at the motherhouse for some big shindig we were hosting. She realized she completely forgot her purse with some important items in it. I hopped in her car to go get it (she lives close by). In my haste, I went through an orange light. OK, it was already red, but it had just, just turned red. What was I supposed to do, slam on the brakes? “Wee-ooo! Wee-oo!” The young Polish cop was aghast on seeing a Sister. “Siostra! What are you doing?!” (I guess Polish Siostras don’t drive like Yankee Siostras.) I explained what I was doing. “Driver’s license and registration, please.” “Um, I don’t have ’em.” The young immigrant police officer was further shocked and scandalized. After a stern lecture in a thick accent, I was sent on my merry way.

Let me be clear. I back the badge. The way I look at it is this: When I call 911? I really want someone to come. And although I’ve been stopped by cops countless times, I’m not complaining. I take full responsibility. I was infracting each time. But — I can’t help it, it’s hereditary.

(Sr. Burns, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA. Twitter: @srhelenaburns.)

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