This is how I spent my morning coffee. I can't believe this guy is still at it and still alive.
If you have time, read the entire article. It's worth it. It goes from amusing to interesting to hilarious (Urban Avenger) to freaking fascinating. Amazing.
We live in interesting times.
I am rushing to the emergency room to meet a real-life superhero called Phoenix Jones, who has fought one crime too many and is currently peeing a lot of blood. Five nights a week, Phoenix dresses in a superhero outfit of his own invention and chases car thieves and breaks up bar fights and changes the tires of stranded strangers. I've flown to Seattle to join him on patrol. I landed only a few minutes ago, at midnight on a Friday in early March, and in the arrivals lounge I phoned his friend and spokesman, Peter Tangen, who told me the news.
"Hospital?" I said. "Is he okay?"
"I don't know," said Peter. He sounded worried. "The thing you have to remember about Phoenix is that he's not impervious to pain." He paused. "You should get a taxi straight from the airport to there."
At 1 a.m. I arrive at the ER and am led into Phoenix's room. And there he is: a young and extremely muscular black man lying in bed in a hospital smock, strapped to an IV, tubes attached to his body. Most disconcertingly, he's wearing a full-face black-and-gold rubber superhero mask.
"Good to meet you!" he hollers enthusiastically through the mouth hole. He gives me the thumbs-up, which makes the IV needle tear his skin slightly. "Ow," he says.
His 2-year-old son and 4-year-old stepson run fractiously around the room. "Daddy was out fighting bad guys in his super suit, and now he has to wait here," he tells them. Then he makes me promise to identify neither them nor his girlfriend, to protect his secret identity.
He looks frustrated, hemmed in, fizzing with restless energy. "We break up two or three acts of violence a night," he says. "Two or three people are being hurt right now, and I'm stuck here. It bothers me."
By "we" he means his ten-strong Seattle crew, the Rain City Superheroes. A few hours ago, they were patrolling when they saw a guy swinging a baseball bat at another guy outside a bar. "I ran across the street, and he jabbed me in the stomach," he says, pointing at a spot just below his belly button. "Right under my armor."
Unfortunately the head of the bat landed exactly where he'd been punched a week earlier by another bar brawler holding a car key in his fist. That attack had burst a hole right through Phoenix's skin.
"A few hours ago I went to use the bathroom and I started peeing blood," he says. "A lot of it."
I glance over at Phoenix's girlfriend. "There's no point worrying about it," she says with a shrug.
Finally the doctor arrives with the test results. "The good news is there's no serious damage," he says. "You're bruised. Rest. It's very important that you go home and rest. By the way, why do you name a pediatrician as your doctor?" "You're allowed to stay with your pediatrician until you're 22," Phoenix explains.
We both look surprised: This big masked man, six feet one and 205 pounds, is barely out of boyhood.
"Go home and rest," says the doctor, leaving the room.
Phoenix watches him go. There's a short silence. "Let's hit the streets!" he hollers. "My crew is out there somewhere. I'll get suited up!"
Phoenix didn't know this when he first donned the suit about a year ago, but he's one of around 200 real-life superheroes currently patrolling America's streets, looking for wrongs to right. There's DC's Guardian, in Washington, who wears a full-body stars-and-stripes outfit and wanders the troubled areas behind the Capitol building. There's RazorHawk, from Minneapolis, who was a pro wrestler for fifteen years before joining the RLSH movement. There's New York City's Dark Guardian, who specializes in chasing pot dealers out of Washington Square Park by creeping up to them, shining a light in their eyes, and yelling, "This is a drug-free park!" And there are dozens and dozens more. Few, if any, are as daring as Phoenix. Most undertake basically safe community work: helping the homeless, telling kids to stay off drugs, etc. They're regular men with jobs and families and responsibilities who somehow have enough energy at the end of the day to journey into America's neediest neighborhoods to do what they can.
Every superhero has his origin story, and as we drive from the hospital to his apartment, Phoenix tells me his. His life, he says, hasn't been a breeze. He lived for a time in a Texas orphanage, was adopted by a Seattle family around age 9, and now spends his days working with autistic kids. One night last summer, someone broke into his car. There was shattered glass on the floor, and his stepson gashed his knee on it.
"I got tired of people doing things that are morally questionable," he says. "Everyone's afraid. It just takes one person to say, 'I'm not afraid.' And I guess I'm that guy."
The robber had left his mask in the car, so Phoenix picked it up and made his own mask from it. "He used the mask to conceal his identity," he says. "I used the mask to become an identity."
He called himself Phoenix Jones because the Phoenix rises from the ashes and Jones is one of America's most common surnames: He was the common man rising from society's ashes.
It's 2:30 a.m. by the time we reach his very messy apartment, where he quickly changes into his full superhero costume: a black-and-gold rubber suit complete with stab plates and a pouch for his Taser and Mace. "It's bulletproof," he tells me.
We head downtown and park in the business district, a bunch of empty office buildings in a nice part of Seattle. Other than some junkies and drunks wandering around like zombies, the place is deserted. We see neither his crew nor any crime.
"How are you feeling?" I ask.
"I'm in a lot of pain," he says. "The cut's still bleeding, internally and externally. A couple of my old injuries are flaring up, like some broken ribs. I'm having a rough night."
"Maybe you're going too hard," I say.
"Crime doesn't care how I feel," he replies.
Just then a young man approaches us. He's sweating, looking distressed. "I've been crying, dude!" he yells.
He's here on vacation, he explains. His parents live a two-hour bus ride away, in central Washington, and he's only $9.40 short for the fare home. "I've asked sixty people," he pleads. "Will you touch my heart, save my life, and give me $9.40?"
Phoenix turns to me. "You down for a car-ride adventure?" he says excitedly. "We're going to drive the guy back to his parents!"
The young man looks panicked. "Honestly, $9.40 is fine...," he says, backing away slightly.
"No, no!" says Phoenix. "We're going to drive you home! Where's your luggage?"
"Um, in storage at the train station...," he says.
"We'll meet you there in ten minutes!" says Phoenix.
Thirty minutes later: the train station. The man hasn't showed up. Phoenix narrows his eyes. "I think he was trying to scam us," he says, looking genuinely surprised.
Does this guilelessness make him delightfully naive, I wonder, or disturbingly naive? He is, after all, planning to lead me into some hazardous situations this weekend.
At 4 a.m. we finally locate his crew on a corner near the station. Tonight there's Pitch Black, Ghost, and Red Dragon. They're all costumed and masked and, although in good shape, smaller and stockier than Phoenix. He stands tall among them and does most of the talking, too. They're monosyllabic, as if deferring to their leader.
They have a visitoróa superhero from Oregon named Knight Owl. He's been fighting crime since January 2008 and is in town for a comic-book convention. He's tall, masked, and muscular, in his late twenties, and dressed in a black-and-yellow costume. It is similar to, but less awesome than, Phoenix's sculpted and buffed one. The crew briefs Phoenix on a group of crack addicts and dealers loitering at a nearby bus stop. A plan is formed. They'll just walk slowly past them to show who's boss. No confrontation. Just an intimidating walk-by.
We spot them right away. There are ten of them, clustered in a tight group, looking old and wired, talking animatedly. When they see us, they fall silent and shoot us wary glances, probably wondering what the superheroes are talking about.
This is what the superheroes are talking about:
Knight Owl: I've discovered a maskmaker who does these really awesome owl masks. They're made out of old gas masks.
Phoenix: Like what Urban Avenger's got?
Knight Owl: Sort of, but owl-themed. I'm going to ask her if she'll put my logo on it in brass.
Phoenix: That's awesome. By the way, I really like your color scheme.
Knight Owl: Thank you. I think the yellow really pops.
We're ten feet away now. The superhero chatter ceases, and the only sound is the squeak of my luggage wheels as I roll them down the street. Up close, these dealers and addicts look exhausted, burnt-out.