There Goes My Hero

Originally posted: http://theminaretonline.com/2011/02/24/article16780
By ??Richard Solomon

Photo by George McCaughan
Photo by George McCaughan

??Ever seen a real superhero? Ever met someone in a mask who had been shot? When I stumbled upon an article about a man in Seattle who wore a costume and fought crime, I had to find out more. After reading more articles, sending emails and making phone calls I was granted the opportunity to meet some superheroes and go on patrol with them. This is my story about flying across the country, visiting Canada, staying up all night following guys in masks in the worst parts of Seattle and Vancouver and coming back to tell the tale. I video taped people trying to break into a car, saw a life get saved and didn’t even know it at the time, and managed to meet some of the most incredible people you could ever imagine.
Knight Owl parked his car outside of Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery where fellow superhero Thanatos was going to meet us.
Earlier that day I had flown into Seattle. Knight Owl met me at the airport. I had seen pictures of him online in costume, but he met me in normal street clothes. He looked nondescript and average. He would be the first of several superheroes I would meet over the weekend.
Who are real-life superheros? They are people who wear costumes and adopt monikers in order to help others. They are people who keep their real identities secret and in some way obscure their appearance. (Knight Owl, for example, keeps part of his face hidden and Thanatos completely covers his head.) For some, this secrecy is meant to keep their families safe, while others believe that the symbol of their alter ego is more powerful than their true-life, street-clothes persona.
Saving Lives, On My Own Time
Back in the cemetery, Knight Owl and I headed to the circle of graves where Thanatos was supposed to meet us. But before the cemetery there was the drive to Vancouver from the Seattle airport– three hours in the car with the first superhero I had ever met.
Knight Owl does mostly humanitarian work. He patrols occasionally with other superheroes in Portland, Oregon or in Vancouver, but mainly participates in homeless outreach.
Although he does not handle a lot of crime prevention (“In two years of patrolling, I’ve never once been in a dangerous situation”), he knows what danger is. As a paramedic in training and a former firefighter, he has the perfect response for critics who tell superheroes to quit and leave things to law enforcement. “I’m a firefighter,” he said, “and I choose to go out on my own time and help save lives, for free. How can you criticize me for that?”
To Knight Owl, being a superhero is about saving lives, whether that means giving food to the homeless or knowing first aid in case someone on the street needs help. Beyond the activities, he has also done his homework on the superhero appearance.
He told me of the additions he would soon be making to his suit. Among them, a cowl lined with a kind of rubber polymer that would harden when hit to protect his head; and a gadget that would create brief bursts of fire to scare off would-be attackers. As he related, just because he has never been in a dangerous situation does not mean he should not be prepared for one.
Photo by George McCaughan
Photo by George McCaughan

Amongst the graves, we searched for Thanatos’ usual meeting spot. At first, all I could make out was a dark shape emerging from the dim light of the cemetery. He got closer and I recognized him. As impressive as it was to meet Knight Owl, nothing could have prepared me for Thanatos.
Clad in dark clothing with a distinct death motif, Thanatos (Greek for ‘death’) exuded a mocking image of the Grim Reaper. From a tie covered in skulls and cross bones to a death-themed utility belt, every part of Thanatos’ attire was covered in death symbols.
He had on a long black coat, the aforementioned tie, a flat brimmed hat and all of the skulls looked more like they were from a Halloween novelty store than on a grim reaper’s attire. The overall effect was imposing and awe-inspiring. I didn’t feel frightened, but a criminal might have a different opinion on that.
Yet, his costuming’s dark theme contrasted with the cheerful optimism of the man under the mask.
Thanatos is arguably the most well-respected member of the superhero community. With a MySpace blog over two years old, Thanatos has been consistently doing homeless outreach since his first night out on Halloween 2008.
Thanatos and I did laps around the cemetery for close to an hour. He was open about his mission and about how he feels he is affecting the city of Vancouver.
“I don’t think I’ve made [Vancouver] any worse,” he said. “I know there are those who feel inspired enough to do something because of me.”
He said he was inspired by old comic book superheroes, specifically citing a “Superman” issue in which Superman attends a charity event. “The more you do, the more you have to work with,” he said. “It’s not just crime-fighting.”
He felt that the homeless people of Vancouver live with death every day to the point that he wanted death to start looking after them.
“Something has to be done, and there has to be a way to draw attention to it,” he said.
“There’s just too many people dying on the streets. It’s too easy to die on the streets. . . . I am a parody of the death. Where death walks around and dispenses grief and sorrow, I walk around and I dispense life.”
So he put together a costume and called himself Thanatos. His costume is not only aesthetics and skulls though. There is a surprising amount of functionality in what he wears. A utility belt with everything from a flashlight to marbles (“Have you ever seen The Defender?” he asked me), a multi-tool and cell phone close at hand.
But why wear a costume?
“I do it in costume because what I’m doing is much more important than who I am,” he said. “I was told by a cop that people on the street had nothing better to live for than to look forward to death. I said, ‘If that’s the case then death better start taking a hand at taking care of them.’ That’s where the costume came from. It got modified because I realized walking around with a big scythe and long robe wasn’t going to work.”
He believes this symbolism works. “People aren’t stupid, they get the idea, they know what I represent. I represent death. Death is so common now that he’s walking around on the street taking care of them. People get it. It’s a very powerful symbol. I put on the mask, take on the persona and here’s someone from Florida just to interview me.
“It’s not just me doing it either, and it does work. It draws attention to the problems, whether it’s high crime in Seattle or homelessness in Vancouver.”
Thanatos goes out whenever he can to distribute bundles of goods such as bread, peanut butter, socks, a razor blade. His goal is a noble one.
“You do what you can,” he said. “I give out my bundles. I do what I can, I’m keeping that person alive for one more day. That’s quite a victory over death. If I do my normal handout and I hand out 10 bundles, that’s 10 victories.”
Homeless outreach is not all he does. Whether he is dressed as death or in street clothes, Thanatos also observes area street gangs and drug dealers.
He takes copious notes on who sells what– and where– and copies down license plate numbers and makes notes on where those cars travel. He will submit this information to the police and he said he has previously succeeded in helping get drug dealers arrested.
A Man Named Armando
After the interview, Thanatos drove Knight Owl and I around some of the bad areas of Vancouver. We finally stopped outside of a homeless shelter, where the three of us handed out items. People were openly grateful, thanking us over and over. The Minaret t-shirts I had brought with me to distribute were a hit and the razors I had also packed vanished right away.
Thanatos had shoes, pants, and other goods. Everything vanishing in a matter of minutes. Some recognized him, others asked who he was. Several of the more nervous people came up to me to ask me who he was. I explained what he did. I was surprised that for many of the homeless I met that night, they just wanted someone to talk to. They were grateful for what we were handing out, but they were also grateful to have someone actually listen to them.
We got back into Thanatos’ vehicle (he drove with his mask off to avoid being pulled over, not at all concerned that I could see his face) and headed back to Knight Owl’s car. Along the way Thanatos told me a story about a man named Armando.
Armando and his family walked to Vancouver all the way from Chile. They were being tortured by police in Chile and finally had to leave. The police cut off all of Armando’s fingers. His wife was raped and had her breasts cut off. Their torturers then mutilated her face and tried to cut off her nose, but failed because they cut upwards and the knife got caught on the septum. Surprisingly, Thanatos told me that Armando is one of the most cheerful men he has ever met. I thought about how the average person must treat them– looking away from the woman with the scarred face, ignoring the man with no fingers. These were people who just wanted help. And Thanatos was doing what he could to help them, one bundle at a time.
We dropped off Knight Owl and then Thanatos took me to the Vancouver train station. It was only 1:15 a.m. Thanatos apologized for the early night. He explained he had to be up for work at five and needed some sleep.
The rest of my night had nothing to do with superheroes but was important nonetheless. The train station was closed and Thanatos had already driven off. I didn’t have his phone number and I knew Knight Owl was busy. Two shifty guys nearby started talking louder, looking at me and then walked towards me.
I made a quick decision and began walking. I couldn’t stay at the station, but I knew nobody in Vancouver. I realized suddenly that I had nowhere to go and almost nobody knew where I was beyond I was spending the night in Canada. If something happened to me nobody would notice until I missed my interview the next day. I was wandering the streets of the worst part of Vancouver.
I was carrying a camera, my laptop in a backpack and a duffel bag of clothes. If you’ve ever been (un)fortunate enough to be alone in the worst part of a city in a foreign country with no one to call and nowhere to go, carrying all your possessions and being eyed up and down by what seems like every shady-looking person in the area, you’ll know exactly how I felt.
I couldn’t run with all the bags I was carrying. I wondered if homeless people feel this same way; having everything that matters to you fit in a few bags, nowhere to go, hoping to stay safe. But I just had to make it through a few hours, they live with this feeling every day.
I ducked into a 24-hour diner full of people and nursed a coffee and milkshake for three hours. I didn’t get mugged or hurt that night, but whether that’s because of dumb luck or actual safety I can’t say. I wondered if my trip to Seattle the next day would be less eventful. I had no idea what I was in for.
Harder Than the Last
The next day, Saturday, I was set to see Phoenix Jones. If Thanatos was the most respected member of the Real Life Superheroes community, than Phoenix Jones was certainly the most famous. Media continually begged him for interviews. He even has his own Wikipedia page.
Jones has become an Internet sensation, with articles about him going viral. He has been stabbed, shot, tasered, and had his nose broken, but he still fights crime on the streets five nights a week.
At just after midnight on Sunday, I paced anxiously outside of my hotel. A friend, George McCaughan, was with me. He had flown up from Tampa that morning to go on this adventure for himself and take pictures.
At 12:30 a.m., a car rolled up in front of us with three superheroes inside: Buster Doe, Pitch Black, and the famous Phoenix Jones.
From the moment he began talking, it was obvious Jones was a very intelligent man. His suit was absolutely incredible. It sports a ballistic cup to deflect bullets, along with leg plates to protect his inner thighs; a bulletproof vest underneath stab-resistant armor that was lined with blood-coagulating packets; and even special gloves. I recalled Knight Owl telling me of the hardening rubber material he wanted to get for his cowl; Phoenix Jones had this material in his gloves, meaning that every punch he threw would literally be harder than the last.
He demonstrated this to me by whacking his gloves emphatically against the hotel desk. I tried it myself and felt the gloves get harder the more forcefully I hit them.
Jones also had a working utility belt. It lacked the death theme that Thanatos’ had but was efficient nonetheless. A taser, tear gas with special properties, and a cell phone were also part of the outfit.
It’ll Ruin My YouTube Clip
Phoenix Jones first sprang to life in a water park in Seattle. “I was at Wild Waves with my son,” he said.
“At the end of the day we were going back to the car and we always race back.” He said someone had broken into his car and the glass from the window cut his son’s leg. Jones was doing his best to stop the bleeding and hold his son’s leg together when he saw someone close by with a cell phone. As Jones recalled, “I asked him to call an ambulance and he said, ‘I can’t, it’ll ruin my YouTube clip.’”
Later, police told him they could not find the person who had broken into his car. Jones had found a mask wrapped around a rock in his car, the tool the burglar had apparently used to break the window. He called the police to tell them of the discovery. They never called him back.
A few weeks later, Jones was outside a club and saw a man get struck down with a club (the man would have a large scar for the rest of his life). He ran to his car to get his phone and saw the mask the burglar had wrapped around the rock to break his window sitting in the glovebox, where he’d left it after he found it. On a whim, he grabbed the mask instead of his phone and ran back. He chased the assailant down– wearing the mask– and succeeded in holding him down on the ground until the police arrived. When they asked him who he was, he replied, “Phoenix Jones.”
He explained to me that the Phoenix part of his adopted name comes from the mythical creature that rises from the ashes, signifying life from death, birth from destruction. Jones, he said, was because it was a very common last name and he wanted to represent the common man.
Like Knight Owl and Thanatos, Jones feels the real foe he is fighting is apathy. A man who would rather film a kid being hurt than call the police is the exact kind of person Jones hope to inspire to change.
The Superheroes of Seattle!
After the interview we went back to the lobby where Buster Doe and Pitch Black were waiting for us. Before heading out, Jones delineated the roles for the evening. “Buster Doe, you’re on backup duty,” he said. “Pitch Black, you call and then backup Bus’ if needed.” If Phoenix got into an altercation, Buster Doe was to help him out as needed while Pitch Black called the police. Once the phone call was done Pitch Black was to help Buster Doe if the situation hadn’t been settled already.
Though there were only three out that night, there are actually 11 members of the Rain City Superhero Movement. Jones is the leader of the group. The others go on patrol with him as often as they can.
Jones also told me that there would be several people in plain clothes shadowing us all evening. They were unknown members of his superhero group who would all be carrying cell phones and guns. If someone pulled a gun on any of us, we would have someone nearby to pull a gun on them. I kept an eye out all night and, despite the warning, did not notice anybody until Phoenix Jones told me the next day who the shadow forces were. I went through the photos of the night and, sure enough, the same people were around us multiple times.
We walked up and down busy streets just as the bars closed. Reactions to the superheroes differed wildly. Some people became excited and begged for a picture with them. Others shouted obscenities. A few inebriated revelers became scared. Most of the women we came across were eager to get a photo with Phoenix Jones, usually inviting him home with them. “I lost my hotel room,” they would say. “Can you help me find it?”
Most people seemed to recognize the trio, some shouting, “It’s the superheroes of Seattle!” I heard constant references to “Kick-Ass,” a movie that all superheroes seem to praise and hate in the same sentence. They think it portrays the process of becoming a superhero well, but the over-the-top violence and the lack of planning the character Kick Ass puts into his costume seem to turn them all off to it.
Throughout the night, Jones was unfailingly polite to everyone. He would greet people and ask how they were, if they needed help. Nothing was too small for the superheroes– whether it be getting ready to break up a fight, stopping to talk to people about staying safe, and making sure a drunk man did not hit his girlfriend.
During our patrol, I spotted countless police around us. Some were in cars, while others were on bicycles. All of them managed to glare at Jones.
The “Jones Patrols,” as he called them, were a direct result of his activity. “The mayor of Seattle got upset that I was stopping all these crimes and the police weren’t,” he said. “He made a rule that every single officer has to spend at least an hour of their shifts on the street. . . . You can argue that I’m not helping or that I’m not effective, but because of me there are more police officers patrolling the streets. I’d say that’s a good thing.”
Photo by George McCaughan
Photo by George McCaughan

They Are Not Batman
Roughly halfway through the night we came upon three men trying to break into a car– using a screwdriver, a crowbar, and a hanger all sticking into the door and trying to force it open. Jones asked them what was wrong. One of the men said he had locked his keys in his car. We were on a fairly busy street and Jones asked if they would like him to get a police officer. The men looked uncomfortable at this idea and declined, despite Jones insisting that a cop may have something on hand to jimmy the lock.
The men looked shiftier, so Jones decided to talk to a police officer. He and Pitch Black went off with George to find a cop while Buster Doe and I stayed behind by the car. The three would-be car thieves glanced uneasily at my camera but didn’t say anything because I wasn’t taking pictures. (I was actually video taping the whole thing, including the license plate of the car!). While we waited, two officers rode by us on bicycles, but did not stop or say anything about the car with a crowbar sticking out of one of its doors.
Jones reported back something similar. Police said they did not have anything to open the door. When he raised the possibility of it not being the men’s car, he said they just shrugged. In that type of situation, Jones explained he could not do much after notifying the police. We moved on.
Real-life superheroes are not vigilantes. A vigilante is “any person who takes the law into his or her on hands, as by avenging a crime” according to dictionary.com. Another definition on the same site notes that is an act “done violently and summarily, without recourse to lawful procedures.”
Jones and the other superheroes are not vigilantes. They all learn their local laws and call the police whenever something happens. They do not break the laws and they do not take justice into their own hands. They are not Batman. They are much realer than that.
In fact, Phoenix Jones thinks Batman is one of the worst superheroes to be influencing people.
“As Bruce Wayne, a billionaire, he spends eight hours a day doing nothing and pretending to be a careless jerk. Then he spends four hours every night fighting crime? How about instead of beating up some drug dealers you buy their house. How about instead of fighting gangs you buy the neighborhood and clean up the streets.” I had asked Jones earlier about what he did for a day job and he revealed he was a professional MMA fighter and worked with autistic kids when he wasn’t fighting. In many ways, Bruce Wayne has nothing on Phoenix Jones.
After the car incident, things were mostly quiet. We went down a lot of dark alleys and kept an eye on those who were especially drunk or loud.
At one point, we walked by a woman passed out on a stoop in front of a doorway, neck bent at a horrible angle, breathing shallowly. A shady-looking guy with her said she was fine and friends would be along soon to pick them up. We asked if he wanted an ambulance but he insisted no. We told him to at least fix her neck and he rearranged her.
The girl worried us so we stayed close by, unsure of what to do. The woman looked like she may need real medical attention, but on the other hand perhaps she was indeed fine. A steady stream of people walked past her, unconcerned.
Finally, the decision was made. Pitch Black called an ambulance. While he was on the phone, two policemen rode by, again on bicycles. I watched one glance at the woman, clearly unconscious, and then keep going.
Within a few minutes, one ambulance, then two, pulled up. Another came after that. The woman’s “friend” moved further away and by the time the third vehicle arrived he had disappeared. We heard the paramedics say the woman had low vitals and Phoenix Jones observed a tube being put down her throat.
Emergency Medical Technicians took her away. I received a phone call from Jones a few days later. Apparently he had received an e-mail from someone saying they were friends with the woman. The friend wanted to thank him. The woman had asthma and that combined with a little too much “fun” were causing her to asphyxiate. She may have died if we had not called an ambulance. I thought of the shady guy near her, the police who rode by, and the people who walked past. None of them had looked even a little concerned.
It was late enough that we decided to call it a night. The heroes led us to a 24-hour café, Night Kitchen. Jones and Buster Doe ordered Sprites and some fries to split, while Pitch Black asked for Limeade. Apparently lemon-lime is the flavor of choice for masked crusaders.
Jones headed to the bathroom to take off some of his costume, mainly his chest piece. The way his suit is configured leaves him with less mobility for his head.
“Remember in Batman,” he said, “when Bruce Wayne asks Morgan Freeman to make some changes to his suit and Morgan Freeman goes, ‘You want to be able to turn you head?’ You have no idea how true that is.”
Jones kept his mask on, but put on a simple t-shirt over his bulletproof vest. The five of us sat there for an hour while the heroes exchanged stories. Jones told us about some of his first patrols and showed me photos.
At about 4:30 in the morning we called it quits. Buster Doe drove George and I back to the hotel.
And that ended my weekend with superheroes. I had the opportunity to see two of the biggest names in the superhero community, and meet people who stop crimes and feed the homeless. I saw an entire community that is relatively unknown doing what they feel is right and changing lives in the process.
Interested in learning more about superheroes? Check out RealLifeSuperHeroes.org and RealLifeSuperHeroes.com to find out more.

Tagged with: Costume, Homelessness, MySpace, past the mask, peter tangen, phoenix jones, Real Life Superheroes, Richard Solomon, rlsh, Seattle, thanatos, Vancouver