Originally posted in Death + Taxes Magainze MarchApril 2010 issue
By Breena Ehrlich
Hollywood abounds with stories these days. But somewhere out there just beyond the shadows, from New York City to Mexico City to New Bedford, Massachusetts, lurks a bona fide, HONEST TO GOD NETWORK OF REAL REAL –LIFE SUPERHEROES. They are not Watchmen. They are not even Kick-Ass or Red Mist. No bullet-proof vest, no Chinese stars. These are normal people- students, bankers, what have you. They just happen to patrol over society in costume, fighting crime and doing good deeds under aliases like Life and The Dark Guardian. They are Superheroes Anonymous. For real.
What’s going on here?” Life asks, ambling up to a pair of cops as they peer though the dusty glass doors of a seemingly abandoned building. The copes turn around, take in the young man’s young face; he looks like one of the Culkin brothers- like that kind from Igby Goes Down. The kid’s fedora is set at a jaunty angle, his black cargo pants are tucked into black jungle boots, his backpack weighs down his shoulders, even though they’re thrown back confidently. He looks like a Brooklyn-dweller. A college student. A kid. Perhaps a nosy kid, the kind that watched too many cops shows as a kid. They probably don’t notice the black mask hanging from his belt loop, or the tzitzis poking out the bottom of his black winter coat.
One of the cops, a jowly man with buzzed hair and a gently swelling belly, gives Life a slight smile. “WE got a call. Some woman can’t get a hold of her husband who’s a security guard. She says she works here, but this place seems abandoned,” he answers with surprising candor and a perfectly stereotypical New York Accent.
“Yeah,” says the other cop, running his hand over his slicked-back gray hair, which still has comb tracks in it from earlier grooming. “I mean, there’s tap on the windows. That means it’s abandoned, right?”
The copes continue to peer though the darkened windows as Life jumps down to inspect a basement-level door. The radios on their belts buzz and crackle: “The missing child is approximately four feet tall, wearing a striped sweater. The suspect-“ Life joins the copes on the steps in mutual consideration of the darkened building, a gray stone apartment building near the Columbia University campus- close enough to Riverside Park that the assemblage can feel the cold air off the water buffeting their backs and faces. The jowly cop’s cheeks are red.
The men in blue bang on the door a few times and then turn to Life with equally stern brows. “Stand back,” says the gray haired cop and positions his shoulders as if to break the door down. Life hops back a little and the cops laugh. “Just Kidding,” Comb Tracks says.
“So are you a student?” Jowls inquires, apparently in no hurry to solve the mystery of the missing security guard.
“No, actually I’m a Real-Life Superhero, Life says with a slight smile, fingering the mask that hangs from his side. The cops look at each other with raised eyebrows and more than a hint of amusement.
“Oh yeah? Well, can you tell us where Columbia security is?” Jowls says with a brief smile. “Maybe they can help us figure out where this guard is
Life gives them directions and follows them to their car,” I can get in and go with you guys if you’d like…” he says, lingering near the cruiser.
“Ha, ha, nah,” says Jowls. “Thanks.” The cops drive off into the night, leaving Life and his backpack in front of the darkened building.
With the squad car disappears the glimmer of danger, the opportunity to race off in the night, the blue and red flashing. In a movie or a comic book this would be the point where our hero’s story really heats up: He discovers that the mission guard has been captured by an evil avenger with a rampant disdain for any and all authority figures- and now the poor old man is being held hostage in some fortress in the dark recesses of Governor’s Island. And because the bumbling cops neglected to adequately hunt for clues our hero is tasked with his safe return. But this is not a move. This is no adaptation- just plain old New York. IN the realm of the real, Life watched the cruiser disappears into the night, sighs a puff of cold-etched air, and jaywalks across the street. As he hops from the sidewalk, his boots clearing the curb, he indulges a brief exclamation: “Zing!”
LIFE A.K.A. CHAIM LAZAROS is a real-life superhero- designation that would likely cause many a reader to snort in derision or laugh in abject mockery. Visions of plump, sad comic book fans in spandex leap to mind- images of computer geeks wandering around darkened streets, desperately seeking some nefarious B-level crime to debunk. That’s not Life. Life is a do-gooder. He doesn’t fight crime per se– he takes to the streets and provides aid to the poor souls who many of us outright ignore: the homeless.
In a sense, this is his superpower. Where comic superheroes might manifest their powers through a supernatural affinity for controlling the weather or assuming arachnid capabilities, Life’s chosen specialty is the homeless- although he’s the first to admit that he doesn’t actually have any special abilities. “I hate when people ask where my cape is,” Life says. “Capes are stupid and ineffective. No one flies… I don’t have any super powers,” he adds. “I’m just a person. A poor, young person in New York City- and I help a lot of people. I’m not special.” Nevertheless, as his name suggests, Life provides sustenance and, well, life, to the downtrodden, specializing in a particular realm of aid- and to do so he tapes into his two natural abilities: kindness and an aptitude for spin. Life is a natural PR man, an organizer who uses the aesthetic of the super hero, the sheer flashiness of the concept, to attract others to his cause.
Life is one of the heads of Superheroes Anonymous, a collective of citizen who have made it their mission to do good by the world. Some do it in much the same way as Coalition for the Homeless or Habitat for Humanity, and some do it with the more dangerous, risky flair of vigalantes- but they all do it in costume. Each year it holds a sizable conference during which heroes from all over the world assemble. So far there have been three conferences: one in Times Square, New York City, one in New Orleans, and the most recent in New Bedford, Massachusetts, also known as The Secret City due to its large volume of unsolved homicides.
Superheroes Anonymous, which coalesced into its current state in 2007, hardly marks the first incarnation of real-life superhero-dom, although it is probably the most organized superhero affiliation. According to a history written by Hardwire, a hero from Greensboro, North Carolina, the first real-life superhero date back to the seventeenth century- his name was William Lamport, or Zorro. The modern ideal of real-life heroes started to solidify in the seventies with Captain Sticky, a man by the name of Richard Pesta who would patrol San Diego in a bubble-topped Lincoln clad in blue tights and a cape, working to launch investigations into elder care. And then there was Rick Rojatt, a daredevil known as The Human Fly, whose entire family was killed in a car crash that left him temporarily crippled. The nineties heralded the arrival of Marco Rascon Cordova, a Mexico City resident who became Superbarrio and championed the poor and working class, and Terrifica, a New Yorker who took it upon herself to protect drunken women from unwanted advances. And then there’s Civitron, a father and former counselor for children in transition who patrols New Bedford, Massachusetts with his son, The Mad Owl, a superhero-in-the-making with a love for woodland creatures.
In short, this underground community was flourishing, the network reaching across the world. But it was a fractured connection; these do-gooders mostly communicated via Internet forums and MySpace pages, connected only through the currents of the digital age- until Life came along.
Like all superheroes, life has his own creation myth, which more closely mirrors that of the famed comic book authors that of yore than the apocryphal tales of Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne. Like the majority of old-school creators- immigrants and children of immigrants who invented heroes to battle the myriad woes of their woes- Lazaros is a Jew, the son of an Orthodox rabbi who has seven children in all. The second –oldest child, Lazaros is kind of the black sheet. “He’s a very idealistic kid and he has a lot of pity on people that are downtrodden and homeless. He’s a do-gooder and he wants to do go,” his father says, recalling how, as a child, Life took on his entire bunk at sleepaway camp when they were picking on smaller boy. Still, he hasn’t quite taken the path that his father would like him to.” I thought it was more like a hobby,” his father says of Life’s superheroing. “But it became a very major part of his life. And obviously as a parent I think there are more important priorities. He’s just turned twenty-five. I’d like to see him get married. I’d like to see him have some kind of a vocation that earns a living. This is a nice thing to do on the side, you know, if you have another career. You have a family and you want to do something like this in your free time, that’s okay. But I don’t think it should be taking up the main part of your time.”
Before he became Life, Chaim was on a path that any proud Orthodox papa would approve of. He attended Yeshiva University- a college that focuses on Jewish scholarship- in New York for one year before deciding that he was too smart for the religious school. He also wanted to study film. He applied to NYU and got in (twice), but his family didn’t have the money to send him. So he left college and worked at one of the country’s top ad agencies, J Walter Thompson, where he executed the mindless task of paying invoices before realizing that he wasn’t going anywhere. He had been attending Brooklyn College at night and living in Crown Heights when his girlfriend suggested he apply to Columbia. He got in, they provided him with ample scholarships, and he was able to follow his chosen path: film studies. Little did he know that becoming a superhero would also be apart of his course of study.
Three years ago, Chaim’s friend Bend Goldman, a senior at New York’s New School, saw a sign reading “Real Life Superheroes” outside a comic book store. He was intrigued, so he Googled the term. The sign turned out to be an advertisement for a drawing class, but Goldman’s internet search revealed the rich history of the movement. Both film students, Lazaros and Goldman decided that the subject was ripe for documentation. “This whole project started off as a documentary,” Ben says. “It’s like a case of Gonzo Journalism where the documentarian becomes the subject, especially with Chaim, since he became a superhero through the project.”
“They’re very isolated in all these different communities and only communicate through MySpace and stuff like that,” Chaim says, “There had been a few very small meet-ups, but it was really this Internet culture. Basically we realized that if we made the first all-encompassing gathering of all the superheroes, then we would be able to shoot a documentary in a day.”
And so it began- the first meeting of Superheroes Anonymous. For Chaim, the convention became an all-consuming task. He barely slept. He lost fifteen pounds. He dedicated every moment to orchestrating a massive gathering to take place in New York’s Time Square. And then the duo hit a snag.
“There was a lot of this bullshit started by this one particular superhero that founded the biggest forum on the Internet for superheroes. He’s named Tothian,” Chaim says, “At the time he was respected just because he was a moderator of this forum he started.”
Tothian is a mysterious figure who resided in New Jersey and likes to keep his persona under wraps. On Facebook, his name is simply Tothian ApmhibiousKnight- He refuses to reveal his real name- and his burred picture shows a man with close-cropped hair, wearing what appears to be armor or a bulletproof vest. “I’ve been patrolling since I was about five years old,” Tothian says. “I knew form as early on in life as I can remember that I would be doing this, not as a game,” he adds. “When I was sixteen I graduated from a military high school. At seventeen I joined the Marine Reserves as an Infantryman. I’ve trained in various styles of martial arts for many years. I study criminology, private investigating and foreign languages.” Now Tothian, an ardent fan of Sherlock Holmes, patrols his local streets, striving to mitigate crime in hotspots like Newark, New Jersey. “I make it a point to never set patterns in times nor patrol routs,” Tothian says. “I have to keep it randomized for two reasons: One I don’t want people to work around my pattern. Two, I don’t want people to track me down.”
Tothian, naturally, takes the concept of being a superhero extremely seriously and was wary of the conference. His wariness, in turn lead a number of attendees to cancel their trips, including the emcee of the event, one of the oldest heroes around, dubbed, simply, Superhero. “We didn’t know them too well yet, nor what to expect,” Tothian explains. “But after we all got to know [Ben and Chaim] we saw that they’re great guys with sincere intentions and actually want to do something good for the world.”
Regardless, back in 2007 Chaim was in a bind- he didn’t want to have a meeting without an official superhero emcee. But Chaim had dons his research- he knew about the different types of superheroes, the “community crusader” in particular. “A community crusader is somebody who is not necessarily in a costume but works from within the community to move forward the cause of real-life superheroeism” Chaim explains.
After the debacle with Tothian, Chaim went to Columbia Chabad to think. “I hadn’t slept at all the night before,” he says. “It was a totally crazy week and I was like, praying and wondering, ‘Who is gonna run this thing?’ Then I realized that all the sacrifices I had been making, the thousands of dollars of my own money, all of my time and life spent toward making this happened made ma a community crusader, and therefore a superhero. And therefore I could be the one to lead this meeting. Son on Sunday when we had the meet up in Times Square, that was when I put on the mask for the first time and claimed myself ‘Life.’”
Ben, in turn, became “The Camera Man.”
“My role in Superheroes Anonymous has always been documenting what the superheroes do,” he says. He doesn’t wear a costume, and he sees this whole project as wholly short-term. He doesn’t go on patrols like Life does, but he does accompany heroes like The Dark Guardian, a swarthy New Yorker who dresses in head-to-toe leather, when they set out on missions to Washington Square Part to take on drug dealers. Although he denies being a hero, guys like The Dark Guardian would be seriously screwed without Ben around- the fact that he wields a camera helps keep criminals in check, proving that you don’t need freezrays or super strength to fight evil.
Life’s own arsenal is rather limited as well, He carries a cell phone, a pocket knight and a backpack filled with water bottles, military-issue meals and ready to eat, granola bars, socks and whatever else he can scrape together for the homeless he tends to . After parting ways with Jowls and Comb Tracks at the abandoned building, Life takes off down the sidewalk, passing houses wreathed in blinking colored lights to stock up at the local RiteAid. He picks up a coupon book and surveys the deals under the deals under the glare of the florescent lights. “This is where my cheap Jewness comes in,” he says with a laugh, trying to decide between Rice Krispie Treats (cheaper, but less nutritionous) and granola bars. But Chaim isn’t being cheap, per se. He’s a recent college grad who makes a small wage working for the Ripple Project, a documentary film company that focuses on social issues. But being the child of a rabbit, Life was taught to give ten percent of his earnings to charity. At the register, he checks over the receipt with the same precision as a fussy mother, but then grabs a handful of chocolate to add it the finally tally. “I love giving people chocolate because they appreciate it. No one else gives them chocolates,” he says.
Outside in the cold again, Life passes a gaggle of college kids on winter break, decked out in hats and puffy jackets, “I was so fucking wasted last weekend,” a girl squeals as she disappears down the concrete while Life heads to St. John the Divine to pass out supplies to the homeless who huddle on the steps. This is one of his usual haunts, and he tried to get there before the Coalition for the Homeless arrives with boxed meals- usually the homeless scatter after the trucks roll away. But when he arrives he sees he’s too late. The Coalition for the Homeless have come and gone and the poor have likely been shooed away. All that greets him when he arrives are granite steps blanketed in snow and ropes stretching across the stairs. “Those assholes,” he mutters, nothing that the ropes were likely put in place to discourage the homeless from hanging out on the steps.
Back in the summer time, the church was like a regular homeless clubhouse, but right now it’s too cold for anyone to linger outside for long. The homeless are all in shelters or are hiding out somewhere in the darkness. Back in August Chaim had tramped down to St. John’s every week- since graduating, he’s been sorting his life out, moving to Harlem and setting up Superheroes Anonymous headquarters (a.k.a. his apartment). Last summer he had leapt up the stairs distributing vitamins and shampoo to a man named John, who wore a giraffe T-shirt and leaned heavily on a cane. Tonight John isn’t here. “I thought at least the Mexicans would be here,” Life says with a sigh.
The Mexicans usually assemble in the front doorway, huddled together under the granite saints that stare out into the darkness like blank-eyed sentinels. The men are likely here illegally and, as they told Chaim, they have “No worky. No casa. Lots of Mexicans. It’s bad.” This summer they have taught Chaim how to say razor (navaja) and toothbrush (cepillo dental) in Spanish. Chaim had asked where their friend Edguardo was and a man wearing a shirt emblazoned with mountain ranges- the kind of souvenir sweatshirt that you buy on vacation- had pointed up at the saints and uttered, “Jesus.”
“Jesus loves me?” Chaim asked, seeming to misunderstand the sentiment. It’s impossible to tell how many streets have unwittingly become graves.
Tonight, however, the streets seem free of the homeless. Life wanders past another church covered in blue twinkle lights. He sing-songs in the night jokingly, like the Pied Piper, “Heeere, homeless people. Oh, Hooooomelss people…”
“I have homeless vision,” he says. Just then he sees John, leaning on his cane across from the church. Chaim approaches the old man, shivering on the sidewalk, while college students stream by taking care to make a wide arc around him. Life presents John with handwarmers, a bottle of water and cigarettes. “Is there anything else you need?” Chaim asked. John whispers in a voice barely audible above the cutting wind, “Long underwear.”
“People always ask me how I know what to bring,” Chaim says, taking off once more across the nighttime streets. “I didn’t offer John a grain bar because he has bad teeth. But people tell you what they need. How would I know he needed long underwear if he didn’t tell me?”
And that’s one of Chaim’s greatest powers: He listens. He talked to people whom everyone avoids. The true Mr. and Mrs. Cellophanes. Chaim stops to talk to them all. IN the grand scheme of things, his actions are small- he won’t be clearing New York’s streets of the poor anytime soon, nor will he eradicate poverty and hunger. But he has no illusions in that regard. Life wants to start a movement- to inspire others to do as he does. And that’s the true purpose of Superheroes Anonymous. Chaim has taken a disparate group of misfits and rebels and given them a singular vision- shaping them into a symbol for doing good.
The night is wearing on toward midnight when Life hears a thin whine rising from a huddled mass in front of a corner bank. “I’m so cold!” squeals a man supported by a walker and little else. His pant leg is rolled up far above the knee and he’s shaking violently. “My leg is broken! I haven’t eating in three days!” the main cries as people walk briskly by him, staring steadfastly ahead. Life strides right up to him, “Here, take theses,” Life says, pressing a pack of handwarmers into the man’s shaking palms. Quickly, he hands the man water, cigarettes and the coveted chocolate. The man’s shaking continues, his voice rising in agony,” My hands are so cold.”
A woman pauses on the sidewalk, wrapped in a warm-looking black peacoat with a tailored collar. She notices Life and the man on the sidewalk- the water bottles and the chocolate. She steps forward and stuffs a handful of dollar bills into the man’s shaking cup.