BY ZOLTAN SCRIVENER
On a small residential side street in the English town of Sittingbourne, just east of London, a man is struggling to get into blue tights and a T-shirt in the confines of a car while I stand watch for cops, or traffic wardens, as they’re called here.
“It usually goes quicker than this when the adrenaline is really flowing,” he says apologetically, slipping on a pair of gold underpants over his tights. After a few more glimpses of elbow and knee through the car windows, his feet—now gleaming in golden boots—plop down onto the sidewalk. A young mother across the road peers at him as he places a small golden mask over his face, à la Scarlet Pimpernel. I deflect her with the first thing that comes to my head, “It’s for a children’s comic book.” Turning away she replies, “I just hope my kids don’t read it.”
He bends down and reappears brandishing a gas-powered metal-cutting circular saw painted gold—an “angle grinder,” as we Brits call them. With his golden cape flowing majestically in the breeze, he is now ready to strike.
He might have climbed into the car as just another ordinary overtaxed and overregulated British motorist, but when he emerged, bulging in all the right places in his tight outfit, he had turned into “Angle Grinder Man,” a new hero to motorists in southeast England, as seen on national breakfast TV and occasionally briefly glimpsed on the streets of London.
If your car has been “clamped” (most commonly for illegal parking) and you do not want to pay the £90 ($162) fee to have the clamps removed—and if you can find him—then he will fly to your aid. Or more likely, drive to it. With a few grinding sparks, he will liberate your car from the clutches of the evil empire, the local authority, or private clampers. He is also planning on “broadening” his “appeal” by tackling speed cameras, too.
He’s not too difficult to find, as it turns out. Brits just call 07984-121043, and over dramatic recorded music, they hear this message: “This is the voice-mail of Angle Grinder Man, the world’s first wheel-clamp and speed-camera superhero vigilante! I am out cleaning the streets of bureaucratic vermin! Good, honest, decent folk can leave me a message after the grinding noise—with God’s help, we shall prevail!”
Over the past year, the 40-year-old superhero (he will not reveal his identity) has foiled authorities by freeing about 50 cars. He has been seen in full flight running down London’s busy Oxford Street, his cape flapping, clutching his grinder and a freshly cut clamp, fleeing to his getaway car, where he, like all superheroes, will change back into an ordinary Englishman.
Very funny, but if he’s caught, he could face up to three months in jail for “criminal damage.” And he could be charged with theft—he now has a collection of orange and yellow clamps from the various boroughs of London.
We had to meet in the parking lot of a train station, since he worries about walking into a trap. When he receives a call for help, he suspiciously looks for telltale signs. “A genuine female caller should usually be close to tears,” he explains. He then does a reconnaissance of the area where the car is clamped, making sure there are no police security cameras overlooking the street. Then he’ll pull alongside the immobilized car, get out, and cut through the clamp’s padlock chain. It takes about 45 seconds. His cutter gets about 37 clamps to the gallon.
Owners can’t be prosecuted unless it can be proved that they summoned the superhero.
Angle Grinder Man’s bravery is undisputed. In addition to the problems the cops could give him, the makers of the clamps are after him. Authorities hire private companies to clamp cars. Angle Grinder Man says, “A lot of the private clampers employ ex-criminals. I’ve had some really threatening calls from them, including death threats.” He upset them big time when his first Web site provided advice on how to remove the clamps. “Have confidence when the sparks fly,” he says. “Just let the weight of the grinder cut through. Don’t bother lifting the grinder to see what is happening—you’ll just waste time trying to find the groove again.” His advice works. He says happily, “I once got a grateful call from a rejoicing 85-year-old granny who told me she had just cut off her first wheel clamp!” The clampers do not appreciate this. “One guy left a message telling me, ‘There’s a price on your head. People have been paid to take you out.'”
The virtuous Angle Grinder Man would never charge for his freeing service. For him, this is not a business opportunity but “a fight to change the perception that we can do nothing in the face of bureaucracy.” It’s a one-man crusade against the “inflexibility of the modern world,” where the citizen has lost the will to control the very politicians and bureaucrats his votes put into power. “They work for us! We pay their wages!” he declares. When his own car was clamped, after being told by a traffic warden that it was okay to park in a spot legally, he rented a circular saw and cut off the clamp. It was the last straw, and soon he was stretching into blue tights and running around in gold underpants.
But he has paid a big price for his lonely fight. In the green canvas bag containing his superwear—”to make it more comic and difficult for the authorities to deal with me,” his suggestion that a judge wouldn’t want to appear in the tabloids sending a costumed superhero to jail—he also carries a roll of toilet paper. “I couldn’t afford my rented accommodation anymore, so now I live in a squat. The drug addicts I share it with take my toilet roll if I leave it there.” The cost of traveling and of maintaining his own Web site and server to deal with up to 800 e-mails a week (including one of support from a retired Florida cop) led him to bankruptcy. In the past couple months he has had to curtail his superhero activities and concentrate on earning a living, although he won’t say what he’s doing.
But he’s now back in action, even conducting interviews for Russian TV and talking to Colombian ministers via telephone on a radio chat show. He’s hoping one day to help the citizens of New York, too. But what is he going to do with all those clamps? “I think they should be made into a sculpture—perhaps Damien Hirst could do it.” It might not make the Tate Gallery, but it would certainly make an interesting exhibit in court.
BY ZOLTAN SCRIVENER