I usually get a thrill out of treacherous street scenes, but this was
freaking me out. It was so late on a Saturday night that it was actually
Sunday and I was walking through a dark alley in the Tenderloin. I could
see lighters flashing on crack pipes in the shadows up ahead and I could
hear rough voices mumbling. I wanted to run the other way. But it wasn’t
because I have a problem with junkies; I was scared because I was dressed
like a comic book character and I was about to start a fight.
Luckily, I wasn’t alone.
For the past three hours, I’d been marching through the city behind a stocky man wearing an armored vest, a faceplate, combat boots, and a hat with a skull. To my right was a man wearing reflective goggles over a neoprene face mask, and to my left was a dude in a homemade ninja suit.
Motor Mouth, Nightbug, and Justified were their names and they are identified as Real Life Superheroes, brave men dedicated to protecting the public while indulging their childhood fantasies at the same time. They’re a lot like the kids from the movie Kick-Ass, which is no coincidence.
In fact, my leader for the night – Motor Mouth, the dude with the skull hat – told me the official Real Life Superhero Movement began gathering steam in 2008, right after the comic book version of Kick-Ass, the saga of a comics-obsessed teenager fighting real crime, came out. Since then, it’s grown from a handful of brave souls to over 250 RLSHs – they say it quick, like Are-El-Ess-Aitch – worldwide. There’s Axle Grinder Man in London, who wears a gold bodysuit and carries a giant saw to cut through clamps police put on illegally parked cars. Then there’s Nyx, a female RLSH who patrols New York sporting a goth-meets-slutty-schoolgirl ensemble and a bright pink Taser. There’s even a man named Supergay in Mexico City battling homophobia in a rainbow-emblazoned wrestler suit.
It sounds fairly ridiculous – grown men and women in shiny leotards and capes jumping from the shadows to stop crime, but you gotta hand it to anyone risking their life for the greater good. Which is to say, being a superhero ain’t all costumes and make-believe. I mean, sure, dressing up is fun. And who doesn’t fantasize about punishing bad guys? But the thing is, when you’re out there with real criminals, stuff can get messy quick. Phoenix Jones, a well-known RLSH from Seattle, for example, made headlines recently when a gang of thugs broke his nose and threatened his life. Motor Mouth has also seen his share of danger. He’s been beaten by criminals and apprehended by the police more than once. Most recently, he was nearly stabbed while stopping a mugger in the Castro.
But Motor Mouth’s dedication to justice has never wavered and he will
defend the RLSH Movement until his last breath.
“We’re just a bunch of people trying to take back our communities,” he said. “We want to take back the streets and make the world that much better of a place.”
Motor Mouth has a very official way of speaking and he made the whole RLSH thing sound pretty legit, but there’s something that happens when you wear a costume outside of a party. People notice you. And let’s just say they’re not always nice about it.
Our patrol started near the 16th Street BART station at 10:30 p.m., right as all the drunks began to swarm the Mission. “Happy Halloween!” somebody screamed as we walked by Casanova Lounge. Girls yelled from cars, guys laughed, and some dude on a bicycle even chased us down 21st Street to hurl insults as we marched forward looking for crime. Which proved to be harder than expected. To tell the truth, I was worried we might never see a criminal and that this was all some weird exercise in humiliation. But Motor Mouth was happy. RLSHs, he explained, operate according to a system of steps, and the costumes are the most important part.
Step One is acting as a visual deterrent. “Say what you want about our gear, but the fact is, when people see us, they’re much less likely to commit a crime,” he said. In other words, who’s gonna mug somebody in front of a bunch of crazy guys in face masks? Step Two is threatening to call the cops. If, however, a criminal doesn’t respond well to these actions – if, for example, a criminal were to attack – then the Super Heroes would move on to Step Three: weapons, of which they have plenty.
Motor Mouth carries a pocketknife, mace, and a pair of Blast Knuckles, which are like brass knuckles with 950,000-volt Tasers at the end. It’s all (pretty much) legal, he assured me, but the cops have been known to get upset. “Our relationship with the police department is tenuous at best,” Motor Mouth said. Which proved to be true. Although no one was arrested, our fellow soldier, Kingsnake, who’d been patrolling another part of the Mission, was stopped and threatened with a citation. He went home afterward, but the rest of us were just getting started. The Mission, it turned out, was just practice, a “soft patrol,” Motor Mouth called it. Now it was time to get serious.
We left the Mission at 1:00 a.m. and headed to SoMa, where, Motor Mouth
told me, things tend to be more dangerous. It was exactly what I needed
to hear. It’d been fun just watching until now, but I yearned to feel
the power, the thrill, of being super. So I ducked into the shadows
and came out as Nightman, wearing a ski
mask, goggles, black gloves, and a scarf from California Surplus in
the Haight. I marched behind Motor Mouth under the freeway overpass
at Harrison and 14th and out into the harsh streets of SoMa. The burden
of the RLSH was now on my shoulders and it felt great.
I mean, sure, people were pointing and laughing, but I didn’t care because nobody could tell who I was. And that, I realized, is part of the draw. It doesn’t matter what people think or say because no one knows who RLSHs really are. And who they are might surprise you. “We have people from all walks of life,” Motor Mouth told me. “Paramedics, cops, you name it.” The one thing most RLSHs have in common is a tremendous concern for the safety of others. They’re good people doing good work and, in my opinion, they should be applauded.
Which is why, by the time we reached SoMa’s designated clubland near Harrison and 11th Street where people started lashing out, I no longer felt even a tinge of embarrassment. The sense of pride Motor Mouth takes in his work is just that infectious.
“What’s up with you guys?” a girl in a miniskirt laughed as we pushed through the crowd at Crepes A Go Go where clubbers from DNA Lounge, Slim’s, and Butter congregate to stuff themselves sober before heading home. “We’re Real Life Superheroes, ma’am,” he replied. “Check us out online.”
When a group of guys asked what we were doing, Motor Mouth puffed up and said, “Just out bustin’ heads, sir.”
The night went on like this for hours as we weaved through SoMa en route to Sixth Street and the Tenderloin area. We never actually got a chance to stop crime, but I could tell from the heckling that we were fulfilling our role as a visual deterrent to the max. Everyone noticed us.
It was now nearly dawn. The bars had been shut for hours and a hush
had fallen over the city. Everyone was tired. Everyone except Motor
Mouth, that is.
“Let’s hit this alleyway,” he said, “and then call it a night.” It wasn’t the best idea I’d ever heard, but whatever. I mean, sure, this is a dangerous neighborhood, I thought, but Motor Mouth knows what he’s doing. Then I saw the derelicts at the end of the alley and all at once realized how serious this was. Here I was dressed like a thrift-store superhero at the most dangerous time of night in one of the skeeziest neighborhoods in town and I was about to walk up to a bunch of street people to see if anything was wrong. I know Motor Mouth thought we looked tough, but we didn’t. We weren’t. And we were totally about to get our asses kicked!
Silence consumed the alley as we got closer and Motor Mouth whispered something like, “Get ready guys, there’s something going on.” I steeled myself for a showdown and considered fleeing, but instead followed my leader as he veered into darkness.
“How you doing tonight, folks?” Motor Mouth said.
There was some unintelligible muttering followed by silence. Finally a girl giggled. Then a man said, “Uh, great?” And we were off. As we rounded the corner I stuffed my mask and goggles into my backpack and said, “Shit, that was scary!” Motor Mouth, Nightbug, and Justified just laughed. I was wrong. These dudes are tough.
Check out the Real Life Superhero website for details on how to join Motor Mouth’s crew. You can also try to catch the heroes distributing food to the homeless on random Saturday nights near the entrance to Golden Gate Park at Haight and Stanyan.