Saturday, December 09, 2017

No, This Way

In June of 1989 during the protests in Tiananmen Square in China, a single man stood in front of a column of rolling tanks, forcing it to stop. The footage of Tank Man, as he became known, ricocheted around the world, and became a symbol of what one person can do in the face of authority. And this in China, a country and a culture where individual shows of defiance are few and far between. 

It's a bit of a stretch to draw a direct ink between Tank Man and 28-year-old Xiao-Cai who lives in the city of Lianyungang in that country, but then again maybe not. While the identity of the man from 1989 has never been definitively established, we do know some things about both individuals. Both are Chinese males who saw an injustice and were willing to stand up to it. Both took matters into their own hands. Both were willing to risk their lives to accomplish their goals. But while Tank Man was trying to stop a potential massacre, Mr Cai was just trying to get home from work on time. 

At least that's what he told police after they tracked him down. Actually, "tracking him down" was pretty easy, as he was still on the site of his act of defiance, identified easily by the paintbrush in his hand. Seems that Mr.Cai took a bus to work each day, and was constantly bottle-necked and delayed at the intersection of Keyuan and Cangwu on his way home. While he was sitting there looking out the window and not moving, he noted that there were open lanes for left turns, while his lanes for going straight were jammed. Depending on where you live, think 5PM and the Holland Tunnel in New York, the I5 between the 710 and 605 in Los Angeles, or Interstate 35 virtually anywhere in Austin. 

If you conjure up your own local road-rage locale, you know how Cai felt. But while there are those among us that would just keep reading our books or listening to our tunes or napping, he had had enough. So one day he decided to make things better, at least for his particular situation. As you can plainly see on the surveillance footage, he showed up at the offending intersection with a ruler, a bucket of paint, some professional reflective finishing sand, and the aforementioned brush. 

In plain sight as traffic swirled around him and pedestrians walked by, he very carefully added a "straight ahead" arrow to the (in his estimation) under-utilized left-hand turn lane. Not wanting to inconvenience those who did indeed need to go that direction, he also added a "waiting area" to some shorter stretches of pavement further down the road. No stick figures here, the arrows are in the same style as the official markings, and other than their newness, blended in with the existing symbols. 

In fact, so perfectly did he create his little revolutionary modification that had the cops not caught him in the act, it's possible that the markings would have completely escaped detection until some traffic engineer stumbled upon them. As it was, either someone glanced at the surveillance camera monitor, the cops happened to drive by or someone called it in. No matter: there was Cai, paintbrush in hand and unapologetic. According to the police, he "acted ignorant" when questioned. But the tape left little doubt. And so they hauled him in, fined him 1000 yuan, or about $151, and painted over his handiwork. 

One wonders if Cai was just improving upon the exploits a deliveryman in the city of Jinhua from earlier in the year. There, officers walking patrol were baffled by a series of strange markings on the pavement. After viewing surveillance footage, they found that the man had pulled his van over in an area where there was no parking, then got out of the vehicle and drew his own space with chalk. However, his lines were incomplete and easily identifiable. In that respect Cai was an evolutionary step up. 

Small chafes against authority, to be sure. But you gotta admire Cai's inventiveness. After all, who among us hasn't tried to buck the man, and brought 13 items to the empty 10-item-only express checkout lane? It might not be a tank, but sometimes the situation requires you to take matters into your own hands.


Marc Wollin of Bedford takes deeps breathes when he gets to toll booths. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.