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.
Six months ago I wrote an essay for this magazine (“The Avenger Dies for Our Sins,” September 2007) about why I believed the Avenger’s actions were, from a legal and civic point of view, dangerous. I had not, of course, interviewed the Avenger for my essay. He had given only one interview, by phone, to Larry King, shortly after coming to terms with the New York City Police Department, and being granted, in absentia, by the mayor, the dubious and unprecedented legal status as “an honorary constabulary deputy of the greatest city on earth.” The Avenger tried to explain to King what, legally, this meant, but even he was not sure. The interview, the third-most-downloaded clip in YouTube history, is famously unhinged: the man whom in our sacred unease we fantasized as a harsh sentinel, an incorruptible guardian, sounded more like a slurring crackpot taking a momentary break from a barbiturate triathlon. (Only later did we learn that the Avenger was nursing a concussion after falling off a fire escape, as he explained in the second of the three letters he is known to have sent to the Times.) But because he was finally being allowed to continue his mission as the city’s protector without any more interference from authorities that once vowed to see him behind bars—though he must, at all times, report his planned whereabouts, via a secret text-message code that goes directly to the mayor and his police commissioner—the Avenger had finally elected to speak directly to the people. And despite his evasions (“I am not able at this time to tell you why I’m doing this”), his chilly bravado (“I am a most unique man”), and his stilted sloganeering (“I am the force that will make civilization civil once again”), we responded. We wanted him. We needed him.
We also hounded him, occasionally tried to capture him ourselves, and pointed an unending series of fingers at those we believed were him. This is why I wrote my article. This is why I believed the Avenger was doing more harm than good. Hardly any of the criminals he has stopped, and often beaten, have been convicted. There was, and remains, no legal precedent for what the Avenger is doing. By working in secrecy, by rejecting the elaborate and, yes, sometimes frustrating evidential byways upon which American society has settled when dealing with those who break its laws, the Avenger, I wrote, was a negation of American justice, not its embodiment. Viewed bloodlessly, and unsentimentally, he was, in fact, probably a criminal himself.
The thing about my essay was: I knew I was right, and I knew I was wrong. I was right because—more than any other event, and more than any other person—the Avenger captured the terminal nature of a culture that could not change even if it wanted to, even if it had to. We have always sought arbiters of fate that exist beyond the taxable realm of legality, and the Avenger had simply made actual the vigilante fantasy that had hitherto existed only in make-believe’s less exalted basements. I was wrong because the Avenger changed things in ways no one could have predicted. He did not rise up out of a time of untrammeled crime. He was not the voice of the people. He was, instead, the first person in our national public life to suggest that virtue, and not fame, could come first, that one was not a prerequisite of the other, that they could exist alongside each other accidentally. As time went on, as he evaded capture, and as he refused to disclose his identity, it became clear that the Avenger really did not want the attention—at least, not per se. He actually believed in what he was doing. And he always, as I conceded in my article, seemed paranormally aware of exactly how much damage to deal out to those whose crimes he stopped. He has never killed anyone. In fact, he did not even seem all that vindictive. He seemed, rather, professional. Many of the criminals he has disarmed, cold-cocked, limb-snapped, and leg-swept today profess their admiration for him, and a few credit him with the back they have shown their former lives of crime. Yes, some have sued, but this has gone nowhere. The Avenger was something entirely, paradigm-shiftingly new, and it was impossible to be entirely wrong or entirely right about a man we did not yet have the vocabulary to describe.
Days after my article appeared on newsstands, I received a letter from the Avenger. It had been postmarked in New York City. Strangely, and somewhat menacingly, it was addressed to my unlisted home address. The return address was that of this magazine, with a typed A. above it. My article had obviously riled and angered him, as part of me certainly hoped it would. The Avenger’s tone was curt, and I have agreed not to quote his letter here, but he invited me, at a time and place of his choosing, to meet with him. I heard nothing else for weeks. Then he wrote again. I was to journey by train outside the city to the Golden’s Bridge stop, wait forty-five minutes, and then follow precisely detailed directions into the nearby woodlands. I was to come alone. He wrote that he would know if I was being followed and, if so, this and any future meeting would be impossible. I believed him. The man had evaded one of the biggest manhunts in New York City history for many months, all the while continuing to foil petty criminals and in the meantime somehow become the single most famous human being in the country. Since his honorary constabulary deputization, I had felt very alone in my opposition to this man. I told no one but my editor of my plans to meet him. My editor asked, only half-jokingly, if I planned on bringing a weapon. I had not even considered this until my editor mentioned it. I then wished he hadn’t.
Forty-five minutes, when you are waiting to meet the Avenger, is a long time, and while standing on the train platform at Golden’s Bridge, I thought about the reading I had done about this peculiar species of costumed vigilantism. Others before the Avenger had taken to the streets, of course. There is Terrifica, a self-styled Valkyrie who patrols New York City bars to prevent predatory men from taking advantage of drunken women; Captain Jackson of Jackson, Michigan, “an officially sanctioned independent crime fighter,” whose group, the Crimefighter Corps, works Jackson’s troublous streets to little or no effect; Mr. Silent of Indianapolis; Ferox of Salt Lake City; Polarman of the Canadian Arctic. There are more. A website called the World Superhero Registry exists to keep track of these people. Look it up, and marvel at human aspiration at its most quietly noble and definitively unfounded. One other thing you will note is that the Avenger is not found on this site. Many of the registered superheroes I contracted for comment on the Avenger refused to say a word on the record about him. Off the record, the dissertations began. To the man—that is, to the superman (or –woman)—they regard him as a glory hound and a menace. They work with the system, they say, while the Avenger works at odds with the system. It seemed clear to me, at least, that a more green-eyed emotion was clouding these heroes’ consideration.
The men and women listed on the World Superhero Registry are without exception grassroots, community- and niche-based operators whose Lycra often poorly contains their girth. They are, in effect, noble clowns. But a few have tried to follow the Avenger’s more dangerous, socially outlying path, the results of which have been vaguely comic, utterly tragic, and nothing else. In Los Angeles a hopeful who strapped two Tasers to his wrists and called himself Taserman accidentally zapped himself during an unsuccessful prevention of a carjacking. The Boomerang Kid was shot by unimpressed gangbangers in Las Vegas. Miami’s Sunstroke was arrested for assault after being heckled by one of his fellow citizens. Chicago’s Wolfreign was arrested for solicitation. These are (and, in the Boomerang Kid’s case, were) not people like you or me, and further investigation of these “heroes” often revealed long histories of psychiatric inpatient care and Homeric rap sheets. No. They were not like you or me. Nor were they anything like the Avenger. They had made the mistake of blending the example of comic books with the inspiration of perhaps the single most peerless human being on this planet, which was rather like building a bomb from a design by Wile E. Coyote. The Avenger, as he admitted to Larry King with a chuckle, had no superpowers (“Not yet, at least”), but that did not mean the man was without some exquisite gifts. He is thought to be a fine, and perhaps even gifted, martial artist, and his bravery and physical strength are, by now, well established. The existence of his utility belt has been confirmed, as have been its assortment of nonlethal instruments: pellets of tear gas, smoke bombs, bolts of nylon cord, a supply of plastic handcuffs. At least a dozen of his prey reported catching eyefuls of Mace before being beaten senseless. The claim by one thug that he twice shot the Avenger in the chest to little ado seems to validate rumors of some kind of specially thin, easy-to-maneuver-in Kevlar vest.
Even after all this time, and all that has been written about him, I thought on the Golden’s Bridge platform, there was still so much about him we did not know. There was no other famous person of whom this could be said—and I had spent a good portion of my career writing about, and contemplating, the famous. I looked off into the bran-colored brush thickets and up the hilly copse of leafless trees in which I knew he waited. My watch’s alarm sounded. I had set it because I wanted to be exact, as exact as the man I was about to meet. The longest and shortest forty-five minutes of my life were up. I walked off to meet the Avenger.
I did not have to go far-perhaps a five-minute walk from the platform. The Avenger was sitting in a lotus position on a thronelike rock halfway up a hill. The sky, fittingly but discomfortingly, had gone as dark as a mud puddle, and the wind shook the stripped trees around us as though in indistinct warning; their trunks and branches groaned. But here he was. I lifted my hand in greeting.
Now, there is a question people ask when they learn you have met the Avenger. It is not about what he was wearing (a black ski mask—his one attempt at wardrobe iconography—and a plain gray hoodless sweatshirt; loose black pants with many marsupial pouches; black Puma running shoes; and his belt, also black, which was smaller than I had imagined but bulged with many little snap-shut pockets and holsters and plastic protuberances yet remained as essentially proletarian as that of a cable repairman), and it is not what his in-person voice sounds like (quiet, confident, accentless, a guy’s and not a man’s voice, somehow, all its energy and vitality at the edges rather than its center), and it is not whether he is friendly (read on). It is this: Is he funny? Because this is the rap on the Avenger, the attribute earned by all those suspiciously rehearsed and prefab comments he has made over the years to those he has stopped and those he has saved. The answer is that he is funny. He does not smile or make jokes, but then a fire does not need to blaze to give off heat. In fact, the very first thing the Avenger said to me, while certainly not hilarious, was funny, or at least mordantly engaged with the situation:
“Tell me. What sins of yours do I have to die for?”
I was still walking him toward him, hummingbird-hearted. His voice so startled me I momentarily forgot the title of my own, anti-Avenger essay. I stopped. “Excuse me?”
With a grand little flourish he extended his hand. Given the darkness of his garb, his hand’s flesh was so contrastingly white it seemed to glow. His only other bits of visible flesh were the twinned circles held within the eyelets of his ski mask and the oblong rectangular cutout around his mouth. His hands, one of which remained on his knee, were gloved. “‘The Avenger Dies for Our Sins.’ The reason I’m sitting here and the reason you’re looking at me.”
Now we really were looking at each other, rather than working out wary approach vectors in anticipation of what we might first say. “I guess,” I told him, “that I meant it as more of a metaphor.”
He nodded. The nod of a ski-masked man is a strangely terrifying one—one imagines other, more frightening things that such a nod might result in—and then he un- and refolded his legs. His eyes, if I had to guess, were brown. “Metaphor? Okay. But kind of a shitty one. In my opinion.”
“You have an interest in metaphor?” A stupid thing to say, perhaps, but conversations delimited by their own lack of precedent tend to result in circular restatement rather than interesting lunges.
He sat there and said nothing. I sensed that I had already disappointed him.
I asked him, “How do you know no one is going to walk along this path?”
Instantly he held up a small black device that looked like a cell phone. “I’ve placed a tiny wire across the trail fifty yards behind me. If someone trips it, this will vibrate. I can see behind you for another fifty yards. Don’t worry. If anyone happens along, I’ll be out of sight in twenty seconds, give or take. And you won’t be able to follow me.”
I motioned around at the surrounding forest, thinly treed suburban wilds through which a small recreational vehicle could have easily slalomed. “What about the rest of these woods?”
“I’ll take my chances. People stick to paths, at any rate. It’s one of the things that makes criminals so easy to anticipate. Most of us operate along a quantitatively smaller spectrum of choice than we realize.”
“But not you.”
“If I weren’t victim of the same coded inhibitions I wouldn’t be very good at predicting the behavior of others, would I? No, I’m the same. The only difference is that I am aware that when most people appear to have five or six choices, they really only have two.” His chin lifted. “If that.”
I pulled out my notepad. I held it up to him, I later realized, with the same hand, and with the same self-proud showmanship, that he had used to hold up his trip-wire-vibro-box for me. “Do you mind?”
A small, annoyed, almost teenagery shrug. “Feel free.” Two words into my first question, though, he interrupted me: “Why don’t you write short stories anymore?”
At this I could do little but laugh. I had published a book of short stories more than a decade ago. It had received a small amount of acclaim and then quickly withdrew from the world of print. The praise was enough to attract a few editors’ interest and within months of the book’s publication I began writing magazine journalism, which seemed to provide my talent a better, less frustrated outlet and my temperament a quicker, more active engagement. “You read my stories,” I said. Once again he did not move. A few reluctant raindrops fell from the sky and pattered onto the scatter of autumnally crunchy leaves at my feet. I spoke again, this time with the proper inquisitive inflection. “You read my stories?”
“I’ve read everything you’ve written. Everything I could find, at least. I’m nothing if not thorough.”
I looked at him, and he at me. I could not say I was surprised. I had come here expecting to be outwitted at every turn, but perhaps not so soon, or so intimately. I attempted a graceless flanking move. “Very interesting, Avenger. Why that name, anyway? Is that some reference to the Avengers?”
“What are the Avengers?”
“A comic book. They’re a group of superheroes that operates out of a New York mansion. Captain America. Thor. Iron Man. Did you have a favorite? My boss wanted me to ask you that.” My boss had wanted no such thing.
“I don’t read comic books and I never have. Don’t ask stupid questions.”
“I don’t read comic books, either. The only reason I know anything about that is because I started to research you.”
The Avenger remained as statuesquely still as some idol carved from the world’s biggest piece of onyx. “I’ll be honest. I didn’t care much for all your short stories, but I liked one in particular: the story about the young guy whose brother was killed. Which of course happened to you. Now, what’s interesting to me, as a reader, is that you never wrote about your brother’s death elsewhere. That story is probably the best thing you’ve written, wouldn’t you say? A rich vein of material there, obviously—one you dealt with quite effectively, I thought. It moved me. And yet what do you do after writing this story? You spend the next decade cranking out profiles of Michael Stipe and Will Ferrell.”
I looked away. When I was nineteen and my brother was twenty-five, he was shot and killed while trying to intervene in a mugging in Washington, D.C. His killer was never found. “I’ve written things besides profiles.”
“You write the occasional attempt at cultural criticism, and sometimes you write about violent crime. A fascination of yours, it seems. But—and this is what I, personally, find amazing—you somehow never manage to disclose your own brother died at the hands of violent crime.”
My head swung back quickly to face him. “I’ve written about my brother.” And I had. I had written about my brother for this magazine, three years ago—a long essay about families who had lost a member to an unsolved murder, and how, in virtually every case, those families had never recovered; the four horsemen of divorce, substance abuse, depression, and suicide stalked them from the day of the murder on, plucking away the remaining family members one by one. Writing the piece proved so personally harrowing I have never written a piece of long-form investigative journalism again.
“You mentioned your brother in two paragraphs in that essay. The only time you’ve ever faced up to what happened to your brother is in your story. Everything else is peripheral.”
“I haven’t read that story in years. I barely even remember it.” Insofar as something could be both true and false, this was it.
The Avenger now opened his legs, which spread apart as purposefully and smoothly as scissors, and after a quick little seesaw motion slid off his throne. But he took no further step. “I’m not a writer, but if I had suffered what you and your family suffered, and if I were writing critically about vigilantism, I might let the reader know what, exactly, was informing my criticism.”
“I had something in there about him, at an early point. But I took it out.”
His head tilted at canine angle. “And why did you do that?”
“Because I didn’t trust the impulse that moved me to include that information.”
“You write about celebrities. What impulses do you trust when you’re writing about Angelina Jolie?”
I put my notebook back into my pocket. Curiously, it had not rained any more than those first few drops. “You asked me here. I didn’t ask you. You asked me.”
“What did you do after your brother died?”
“How do you dispense Mace? There have been reports that you squirt it from a device hidden somewhere on your wrist.”
He extended his left arm and with his right hand pushed down on the top of his belt’s most central and plumpest barnacle. What began at his wrist as a jet of liquid became within two feet of its launching point a fine mist. Within seconds the wind had blown the lightly tabascoed air my way, and my eyes filled.
“You asked,” he said.
I nodded and rubbed my shirt against my eyes. “Fair enough. And how about the Kevlar vest?”
He lifted up his sweatshirt to reveal a tight black vest that appeared as shiny, and roughly as bullet-stopping, as neoprene. “It doesn’t look like much, but this will stop a knife and most small-caliber bullets. A shotgun if I’m far enough away. I’ve been tapped a few times. One asshole shot me and broke two ribs. People assume I’m indestructible, but I get hurt all the time. More than half of my teeth have been knocked out.” His demonstrative smile, which revealed a full set of enviably white choppers, lasted no more than a second. “Mostly dentures. All of this is part of the reason I’m not able to patrol as aggressively as I’d like. You know, the press amuses me. They write all the time about what I’m planning, and even print up little city maps that are supposed to show my patterns. There are no patterns and there are no plans. I never plan. What they call ‘planning’ is usually me holding an ice pack to my head, pulling the stitches out of my arm, and taking the splint off my big toe.”
“Your vest—you designed that yourself?”
He shook his head. “Uh, no. I’m not . . . Bruce Wayne. Right? I ordered it from a Dutch company that provides armor for security guards, Halliburton, journalists who work in war zones. It wasn’t cheap.”
“And how do you make your money?”
“I’ve invested wisely. It’s not like the stuff I use costs all that much. You’d be surprised at what you can get, no questions asked, through mail order. Becoming the Avenger required a financial investment of no more than six or seven thousand dollars. Total.”
“And do you—”
“My turn.” He crossed his arms. “What did you do after your brother died?”
I thought about how to respond. I had been in loving relationships where it had taken me many months to talk about my brother, and yet this stranger was asking me to winch up buckets sloshing with emotions and memories drawn from my darkest and most secret well. But I knew my answer would determine how close to him he would allow me to get.
“I did a lot of things. I cried. I studied the martial arts for a while, then gave it up. I traveled. Finally I wrote. He was a writer, too, by the way. At least he wanted to be. You don’t know that because I’ve never mentioned it. Not in print.”
“The martial arts. That’s in one of the stories, too.”
“I was fairly serious about it. Then it just seemed stupid. I was never very good. I don’t even like to fight.”
“I didn’t like feeling weak. I wondered if that’s what got my brother killed: his weakness. He had such a good heart, but he was weak. That’s one of the reasons I wrote my essay about you. I worried you would inspire people to step into situations they have no business stepping into.”
“That must have been one of the parts you cut out.”
“Everything I wrote is, from a legal point of view, inarguable. Inarguable. And you know as well as I do that the only reason they stopped trying to catch you is because they knew they couldn’t.”
The Avenger walked toward me. When I drew back he stopped and put up his hands. Slowly he lowered them. “Tell me why you drew back.”
“Because I was afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“What do you think criminals are, now, when they see me?”
“Of course they are. Your brother died trying to do what I have pledged to do. Your brother died because he found himself unable to stand by while someone in a position of strength victimized someone in a position of weakness. But criminals are weak, even the ones who get out of Rikers after pumping Volkswagens for six years. That’s why they’re criminals, and that’s why their strength is always that of position, of circumstance. The criminal impulse is one of weakness—abject, encircling weakness. The police do not understand this. A few academics who study crime do understand this, but they embalm their understanding with misplaced empathy. How do you oppose criminals? You change their positioning. Most people can’t do this. Almost anyone who stands up to a criminal will get hurt. It’s the first thing they tell you: Give them your wallet. I’d even tell you that, if you were being mugged, and you look like a fairly strong dude. Still, give it to him—and know that this is where I come in. I’m the agent of repositioning. Give him your wallet, and let me do my work. I’m the only one who can. Most people drawn to what I do are sadists, revenge addicts, morons, or insane. Like the Boomerang Kid or any of the other idiots.”
“Do you feel responsible for those people?”
“Not in the least.”
I shook my head. “You are a most unique man.”
“I was concussed when I said that.”
“But you don’t dispute it.”
“I wish I were more unique. There are any number of crimes in this city, in this country, that I can’t do a thing about. And so I essentially terrorize poor kids who had shitty situations to begin with. Am I happy about that? I am not.”
“That was the point I tried to make in my essay.”
“I agree with you. And I disagree. Because you have to start somewhere.”
“Why are you telling me this? Why not write another letter to the paper of record?”
For the first and only time that afternoon, the Avenger laughed. “What do you want me to say? ‘I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me, to push you out of the light’? I have nothing like that to say. And I have no story to tell you. I asked you here for one reason.” He looked down, then, at his gloved hand, and then back at me. “Which will have to wait, because someone is coming.” With a quickness all the more startling for how fully it incinerated my expectation, the Avenger broke away and ran into the woods, changing direction by wrapping a hooked arm around a birch tree, the momentum of which launched him over a rotten log. He did not look back.
I was still standing in the middle of the path when the couple that tripped the Avenger’s hidden wire came upon me. An older man and woman, arm in arm, plump with retirement, looking at me with cool, New Englandy eyes. Here is the moment where I allow the Avenger to make sense. This is the event I adumbrate into meaningful sense. Now is when I come around to the Avenger. But no. I have not heard from him again, and he has apparently not been active since I saw him, which, at the time of this writing, now ranks among his longest silences. Is he healing? Or did our encounter do something to him that it did not do to me? I cannot say I have missed the Avenger. But sometimes I allow myself to believe he will soon tell me why he contacted me and what he finally had to say to me that day.
The man and woman stopped talking as they neared me. The enforced, artificial nature of their hush, their wariness, moved me to say, in a bright, friendly voice, “Hello!” But they were afraid, and by greeting them I had only made their fear worse. They hurried past me, as closely and solidly bundled together as siblings unaware of their divisibility.