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Beloved, celebrated, and very, very famous, the Avenger at long last steps out of his crimefighting shadows-for a one-on-one meeting with the last man in America who opposes him.
This is a story about heroes. Yes, it is also a profile of a famous man, a “celebrity,” I suppose, but it is first and foremost a story about heroes, what they mean, and the draperies of significance with which we decorate them. The hero in question came to us as unexpectedly as a micrometeorite, and little has been the same since his impact. Of course, nearly everyone remembers how and when the man now known as the Avenger first made his existence public. Most origin stories are cumbrous with mythic overlay. But the Avenger arrived in twinkly, almost pointillistic detail. There was nothing to add to the story to make it better; it defeated augmentation.
New York City, 2005 A night in late January. A pair of muggers approach two Japanese tourists unwise enough to have wandered too deep into the swards of Central Park at too late an hour. Moments after the muggers assault the tourists, who do not resist them, a fifth party rushes into the fray. “We don’t know what happened,” one of the tourists tells the police afterward. “It happened so fast.” One of the muggers, speaking to the police later that night from his hospital bed—his colleague’s broken, wired-shut jaw rules out any statement—is slightly more descriptive: “He came out of nowhere, sprayed us with some shit, hit us a bunch of times, cuffed us to each other, and then he was, like . . . gone.” The mugger’s statement is leaked to the press. The Post’s headline: “he came out of nowhere”: good samaritan foils park thugs. The Times strikes a less populist, more skeptical note: nypd grateful for, concerned by actions of park vigilante. No follow-up, no one comes forward—just one of those uniquely weird New York stories of a person stepping out of the potential everythingness of the city and then retreating anonymously back into it.
Then, three days later, and once again in Central Park, a purse-snatching teenager from the Bronx is chased down shortly before midnight by a man he later describes as “the fastest white dude ever.” The man, wearing “a black ski mask,” and, evocatively, “motherfucking Batman’s utility belt,” extracts the purse from its captor with minimal force, but extends to him some friendly advice that will, of course, later become legendary: “If you plan to continue this line of work, may I suggest a better cardiovascular routine?” The next evening the crime’s victim receives her purse, by courier, at her Upper West Side home. The sender of the purse lists a nonexistent Manhattan post office box under an equally nonexistent name, but he does include a typed note: “I believe you lost this last night. May I suggest you consider wearing your purse strap across your body?” The note is signed in all caps (THE AVENGER) but this small pertinence does not fully register for weeks.
The Avenger has been with us for so long now that those first few months when no one was quite sure what to call him are remembered through the same murky vale as the pre–September 11 skyline. The “Central Park Vigilante” was the NYPD’s preferred cognomen. The Times opted for “New York City’s Unknown Self-Appointed Guardian,” but sometimes, and grudgingly, resorted to “the so-called Avenger.”
In the beginning, though, he is for most of us not a person. He is rather a question: Did you hear about that guy?
Then, two weeks later, shortly after the purse snatcher (who was never charged) had come forward to the press, and immediately after the purse’s owner had been photographed smiling while holding up her mysterious note for the cover of the Times’ City Section, two burglars are found beaten and hog-tied on the floor of a Chelsea brownstone. Their situation is brought to the police’s attention by an anonymous pay-phone 911 call believed to have been made by That Guy Himself. The Post’s simple headline, in letters half a foot high, tells us all we need to know: he’s back! Our news cycles will have a different algorithm now, synced to the actions of a man no one can find, no one knows, and whose actions no one can predict.
One thing was clear: New York City had an entirely new kind of inhabitant. Was he a polite Bernhard Goetz? A human Superman? A witty sociopath? A professional headline seeker? A nut? A saint? Yet few of us back then were asking, Who is he? The cookie containing that particular fortune seemed bound to crack open at any moment. This was what we were asking: Why is he? And why now? Months, and then years, later, no one was any closer to being able to answer either question.