I quickly duck behind a parked bus on a deserted street in East Harlem. It’s two a.m. on a warm Friday night in September and I’m crouched on the pavement hiding from a supposed gang member who ten minutes ago threatened to get rid of me. In my pursuit for safety I’m accompanied by two real life superheroes on a safety patrol.
The escorts in my descent to danger are Dark Guardian and Spectre, two New Yorkers who are part of a growing community of young, masked mystery men and women around the nation who don self-made costumes and spend their free time trying to stop drug deals, breakup robberies and prevent assaults.
There are hundreds of superheroes in cities across the nation. They fall under the umbrella group, Superheroes Anonymous, a volunteer-run organization that runs classes, workshops and discussions on the state of crime prevention nationwide. New York’s superheroes patrol the nighttime streets for crime, putting themselves in situations that ordinary citizens do their best to avoid. Though New York City’s crime rate has drastically decreased from its notorious heyday between the 1960s and the 1990s, it has recently seen an uptick. Based on data from the NYPD, rape has climbed 14.5% in 2013 from its low point in 2009. Robbery and felony assaults have increased 2.8% and 21%, respectively, from the same period. There are dark gaps in the city’s terrain where some superheroes believe the watchful eye of Commissioner William Bratton’s police force does not reach, and where they believe they are needed. One of these heroes is Dark Guardian.
It is eleven at night on a Sunday. I’m standing under a traffic signal on the corner of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue waiting to meet Dark Guardian. We’re going to patrol Greenwich Village. I spot him a few feet away, a man who cannot be missed in the dark of the night among the fashionable youth of the West Village. Dressed in baggy black and red track pants, a fitted polyester/spandex tank top colored red with a blue stripe blazoned down the middle and “DG” printed on his chest, Dark Guardian walks determinedly with seriousness in his step. He is not tall, approximately five-foot-seven, and he does not blend in with the neighborhood, which is precisely what he wants. His face is unmasked, except for a thick, black line of face paint running from his temple to his chin. Around his waist is a red, studded belt, which looks like it was bought at an S&M store. Attached to it are a first aid kit and a large magenta MagLite flashlight.
“Do you carry any other weapons?” I ask the thirty-year-old.
“There’s not much legal in New York. This is really the best. I also have a bulletproof and stab-proof vest,” he says.
I look down at my attire and feel underwhelmed in my T-shirt and jeans. Dark Guardian has studied mixed martial arts, Shodokan karate and kickboxing since he was a teenager and teaches martial arts seven days a week. I, on the other hand, haven’t been to the gym in four months.
Dark Guardian is not alone on tonight’s patrol. A young woman, another superhero, accompanies him. Her name is Athame, which is the name for a ceremonial dagger in Wicca, a neopagan witchcraft religion. Dressed more subtly in ripped gray jeans and a black tank, she blends into the crowds. The large black imprint of a hand on her face, however, betrays her purpose in this part of town. They both have marked their faces to appear intimidating. Yet Athame, twenty-four and new to crime deterrence, is buoyant and lighthearted, contrary to Dark Guardian’s purposeful and calm demeanor.
We waste no time starting our patrol. “We’re just going to walk around here tonight, see what’s going on, make our presence known. This area is a good place to start. Stuff does happen but it’s not crazy dangerous like the middle of Harlem or the Bronx,” says Dark Guardian. I ask if there’s a specific strategy he adheres to. “It’s not about chasing down people. It’s not anything crazy like that. You post up on certain spots, you make your presence known. You’re out there to deter possible things. There were two armed muggings on Christopher Street recently. So stuff happens. It’s good to be out here to deter anything.”
The modern trend of costumed superheroes started within the last decade. To understand the motives of these superheroes, I got in touch with clinical psychologist Robin S. Rosenberg, who has taught at Harvard in addition to running her own clinic, and has written and edited several books on superheroes, including “What’s the Matter With Batman?” and “The Psychology of Superheroes.”
According to Dr. Rosenberg, many real life superheroes begin their service to society in one of two ways. They have family in some sort of civil service: law enforcement, fire service, military. They are influenced by those roles at a young age and follow that path when they are adults. A second reason is emotional trauma they have experienced. “To recover and make sense of this trauma they project their efforts into making sure others don’t experience the same event,” she says. “They take proactive measures to ensure this.”
Dark Guardian has been doing this for twelve years. His real name is Chris Pollak and he grew up in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. “My neighbor was murdered. My friend’s mother was murdered,” he says. “It was bad then, especially at the time. But it was kind of normal.” Dark Guardian himself never ended up in any real altercations, except for one time he and his friends were almost mugged by some kids when he was younger. “I just bolted through back yards and what not to get away.”
We walk west down Christopher Street, a comparatively loud and garish stretch in an otherwise postcard-perfect neighborhood of expensive townhouses and Belgian block streets. Residents blame the PATH train stop that leads to Jersey City, which brings in commuters during the day and teens to the bars at night, for the commotion and less-than-idyllic aesthetic. Dark Guardian thinks it’s a combination of factors, citing prostitution and drug dealers in the area.
After walking for a few blocks, Dark Guardian abruptly stops and positions himself up against a wall. He nods over to his left, alerting Athame and me to a group of three men who look to be in their late forties. They’re disheveled and drunk, and one has an open whiskey bottle in his hand. They’re speaking to or harassing, we can’t tell, a waitress sitting by herself on a chair outside a restaurant. We observe for a few minutes and two of the men notice us and walk over.
“Is that a tattoo on your face?” one of them asks, commenting on Dark Guardian’s black mark.
“Nope, it’s just face paint. Have a good night,” he says calmly and politely.
They seem amused and walk away. The third man leaves as well. Dark Guardian decides that we should follow them for a little while. We keep a distance and monitor their movements through other streets. After determining they pose no real threat, we move on to a different part of the neighborhood.
The patrol consists of a lot of walking and not a lot of action. I ask Athame how long she’s been doing this and she says only a couple of months. I ask Dark Guardian and her how they got in touch. He pauses, then sheepishly says, “We, well, uh, we’re dating. So she decided to get involved.”
Dark Guardian works seven days a week at his martial arts job and Athame trains horses seven days a week. “This is actually a good way for us to spend time together,” she says.
We continue patrolling the same area encompassing a few city blocks and avenues, continuously making a circle. We don’t encounter any apparent criminals but we do get a lot of attention from the young people who are hanging around the bars and streets.
“You guys all ‘Kick Ass?’” says an arrogant teen, referring to the movie about a teenager who dresses up as a crime-fighting superhero. “Get over here, let me see you.”
“What is this? What are you guys? I’m not going to mess with you guys,” says another.
“We’re real life superheroes. We do safety patrols,” says Dark Guardian, always with a cool head.
“You’re not doing anything illegal, right?” asks another person nearby.
“No, we’re just making sure everyone’s safe. We’ll be around, have a good night, stay safe,” Dark Guardian says and walks away.
“Have you ever had a weapon pulled on you?” I ask Dark Guardian.
“A guy flashed a gun at me once,” he says. “Another guy smashed a bottle and was holding it up to me. Other people threaten us.”
“With the gun we just didn’t budge. They’re just posturing, trying to scare us. Then they just walked away. The other guy was out of his mind, he was on something. I just kept him cornered till the police came.”
I ask Dark Guardian if he’s ever scared when he goes out on patrol. “Yeah, I think that’s a normal thing. It keeps us safe from doing something stupid. And also part of that is overcoming fear and standing up to these people.”
Many people have good intentions, but the fear of being hurt would usually keep them from doing something dangerous. I ask Dr. Rosenberg how someone like Dark Guardian is able to put that aside. “When people have a fear, like spiders or elevators, the treatment of choice is called exposure, which is where you systematically expose yourself to the thing that was feared. There are some people by virtue of their temperament or upbringing who go out of their way to expose themselves to the thing that they are afraid of,” she says.
We walk by a bar on Christopher Street and two guys in their mid-forties burst out. One is aggressively yelling at the other. They’re both clearly drunk and appear to be a couple fighting. The guy yelling gets aggressive, screaming at piercing volumes, hitting the wall, running down the street, verbally abusing the other man. The argument continues over a few blocks, and they both run into traffic. It gets pretty intense with crowds watching. We follow them until the first man pushes the second away. That’s when Dark Guardian steps in. “Just walk away. Walk away right now,” he says to the calmer of the two and leads him away while the first man continues down the street yelling. We follow him to see if he’s going to be a problem. After a few blocks it looks like he’s calmed down, sitting on the pavement, and we continue on.
Rosenberg expands on the idea of becoming a superhero as a response to emotional trauma. In psychology it is known as post-traumatic growth. Rosenberg argues that most people who experience trauma don’t develop post-traumatic stress disorder but rather post-traumatic growth. “The trauma challenges people’s belief in the world, about its safety and the safety of regular people. Often they become social activists at the end of that process and try to protect other people, trying to find a silver lining in the dark cloud,” she says. As examples she cites Bruce Wayne becoming Batman after his parents’ death, and in non-comic book life, Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“Why did you start doing this?” I ask Dark Guardian.
“I made mistakes when I was younger and did some things I wasn’t proud of, and this is a way for me to fix that. Seeing some of the things I did when growing up definitely had an effect,” he says.
“A lot of people have made mistakes. A lot of people have had rough upbringings,” I say. “But most don’t go out and become superheroes.”
“Growing up, like most kids, I loved superheroes. I looked up to them,” he says. “I didn’t have any real positive male role models in my life. Superheroes really helped me along.”
“It wasn’t until later on, till I was eighteen…heavily involved in martial arts and teaching martial arts. I just kind of wondered, why hasn’t anyone gone out and tried to do what a superhero would do? Like most people do nowadays, you go, ‘Let me look this up online and see if there’s any information or anything currently out there.’ I came across a really obscure Internet blog where people were talking about the idea.”
“Why not become a fireman or a police officer instead?”
“It was something different, out of the ordinary, out of the box. That definitely appealed to me. And it was something really not many people had ever done before.”
Rosenberg says there are two types of real-life superheroes. One group is those who perform good deeds in a lower-risk setting with no threat to his or her life. On the other end are true vigilantes who try to prevent serious crime. “The true vigilantes have experienced significant adversity and feel that the law enforcement and criminal justice system have failed them and that is part of their willingness to take the law into their own hands,” she says. “They want to protect other people from what happened to them, and don’t believe the law enforcement can do that.”
“Like most youths, I was looking for a purpose or some kind of meaning,” says Dark Guardian. “I hung out with the wrong crowd, I was doing graffiti, I even sold drugs. I’ve done some wrong things. I hit a point and I was like ‘You know what? I’m done.’ When I was around eighteen, I got rid of all the negatives, and doing this really filled that void of finding adventure, purpose and direction in my life. And then it was full steam ahead.”
* * *
We patrol for a few more hours but it’s quiet. Athame tells me it’s about being a presence in the neighborhood. “People see us walking around a few times and they know we’re in the area so they’re less likely to do something,” she says. “But tonight’s a slow night.”
At around two a.m. Dark Guardian calls it a night and we disband. It’s three weeks before I hear from him again, telling me he’ll be patrolling East Harlem, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York, and asked if I’d like to join him.
I meet up with Dark Guardian at midnight, outside a fast food joint on 116th Street and Lexington Avenue. A few minutes later, Simon, a new superhero on one of his first patrols, joins us as well. He goes by the moniker Spectre. Dark Guardian is dressed subtly this time. His spandex/polyester top is covered by a black fleece and he wears blue jeans instead of dark track pants. The black face paint is gone. Spectre is wearing a black t-shirt and black pants, which blend nicely into the night.
The sidewalks are busy with people and police cars regularly drive up and down the streets, slowly, looking to spot trouble. Our only significant encounter is with a middle-aged man who appears mentally unstable, perhaps on drugs. He mumbles and harasses individuals who walk by. We monitor him for a few minutes until he wanders away.
We make our way further north, reaching 130th Street and the highway lanes of the FDR Drive. The streets are deserted and the quiet increases the sense of danger. Dark Guardian seems eager to find something wrong in the neighborhood. We circle the block a few times and the silence is interrupted when a car with tinted windows drives by. After a few minutes we end up at Harlem River Park.
It’s a large park with an open field for baseball and football games. The park is enclosed by wire fencing and circled by large stadium lights, all of which are shut off. The glow of the FDR Drive and nearby street lamps supply the only source of light illuminating the field. Outside the gate we see movement, so Dark Guardian walks over. As we approach the fenced gate two people who appear to be transgendered prostitutes wander out, dressed solely in black lace bras and underwear, accompanied with high heels. Inside the park we see people sitting on the floor and on benches. It doesn’t look safe.
“Let’s check it out,” says Dark Guardian. My heart sinks. I wouldn’t walk through this park during the day, let alone at one a.m. But against my better judgment, I don’t protest.
The three of us make our way through the gate and down the path. Around fifteen individuals are scattered about, drinking beer, smoking weed and what appears to be other, heavy drugs. A man walks by us and throws a beer can on the floor, mumbles creative epithets and stumbles out of the park.
We continue down the paved path until we reach the end of the park and turn a corner under the overpass, parallel to the highway. As soon as we make the turn an intense smell of urine hits us like a bomb and we see a handful of homeless people scattered asleep on the floor. We continue towards the exit and observe two people on a bench. We notice movement but can’t make out what’s going on. When we get closer we see a transgendered person aggressively performing oral sex on a man. As we walk by they stop and stare at us in a mix of confusion and uncertainty.
“Come on, let’s keep going,” Dark Guardian says cautiously.
We continue past them and I turn my head back to see that they’ve continued their transaction. We pass through pitch-dark basketball courts; huddled in a corner is a group of men who stare us down as we exit the park. At that point Dark Guardian dials the NYPD to tell them that there are drugs and prostitution in the park and that they should send some officers over. The individual on the phone confirms that officers will come by.
The three of us make a decision to go back to where we entered the park. Rather than walk through it again, we head down the sidewalk adjacent to the highway, past the overpass, and as we go by, spot more prostitutes and prospective clients talking. They scatter when they see us, as if we were the police. No one wants to do business when three men who clearly don’t belong in the area are roaming around.
We resume walking away but one man bursts out of the park to follow us. We continue to walk away and he continues to follow. Each time I look back he’s walking faster towards us. We decide to get off the path and cut through a patch of bushes under a broken billboard sign, across the width of the park. As we emerge from the shrubbery we’ve lost him.
Back where we initially entered the park, we climb up an overpass and come across a man splayed out on the floor. He looks dead.
“Are you O.K.?” Dark Guardian asks him. In a delirious response, the man stutters, “Yeah, yeah. Fine.”
“Probably on some drugs,” Dark Guardian surmises.
We get to the top of the overpass, which looks down on the park and provides a bird’s eye view of the scene. We stand and wait for the police. People enter and exit the park but no police appear. It’s been fifteen minutes since we called. Dark Guardian turns to me and asks, “Why don’t you call the police? Sometimes when more people call the more likely they are to show up.”
I ring 9-1-1 and speak to the operator, tell her what’s happening and she says she’ll send a few officers over.
After a few minutes of silent observation a male voice screams from the field, “What the fuck are you looking for?” We don’t see anyone and say nothing. Then a few seconds later the same voice yells out, “What the fuck are you looking for?”
Eventually a figure emerges from the shadows. It’s a middle-aged man of large build in rough, tattered clothing. He points up at us and yells again, “What the fuck are you looking for?” As he continues his verbal tirade he moves faster and closes in on us. Within seconds, he throws open the park gate, roaring, runs up the steps of the overpass and is standing right in front of us.
He arrives with one of the transgendered women. “What the fuck are you doing here? Are you cops?” he questions.
“No, we’re just doing a safety patrol. Making sure the neighborhood is safe,” Dark Guardian responds.
“Sure officer, get the fuck out.”
He doesn’t believe that we’re not the police and clearly doesn’t care if we are. He looks over to the woman and says, “Hey baby, go back, it’s fine.” I realize then that he must be the pimp.
The argument escalates between him and Dark Guardian. “Why you gotta scare away the fucking money?” he demands to know. Calmly, Dark Guardian tells him that we’re just patrolling the neighborhood.
“The fucking lights are off in the park, you know that. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to be here?” the man yells.
Dark Guardian and the man, who is yelling and waving his cane, continue arguing. Yes, he actually had a cane.
I look over at Spectre every few seconds to try to glean some sort of emotion. After all, this is his first time in a superhero standoff, as it is mine. We’re being initiated together and I wonder if he is as concerned for our lives as much as I am. However, he seems oblivious to the whole thing, as if the furious man with the cane was not even here. I think that maybe the fear of the situation has shocked him.
“White people are no good for Harlem, no good,” the pimp says. “We’ve been watching you, coming through the park, circling, watching us. White people are no fucking good here. I’m going to get rid of you. I’m going to fucking get rid of you right now.”
He then takes out his phone and calls someone. “Yeah, A-K, there are these white boys here messing up our business. Yeah come and take care of them. If you look straight down from where you are, at that overpass, you’ll see me and them. Get rid of them.”
At that point, I thought to myself, “Time to go.” Who knows what A-K is capable of and how far he is willing to go to “get rid” of us? As I start to walk away I call the police and tell them that they should come now because we’re being threatened.
“Who’s threatening you?” the operator asks.
“I don’t know, pimps and prostitutes.”
“Are there any weapons?”
“Not now, but there might be in a few minutes when A-K comes by.”
“Alright, I’ll send officers over.”
Dark Guardian and Spectre follow my exit, and the three of us quickly head down a side street, which ends up being deserted. I think that this is probably not a good place to be if A-K is driving by in his car looking for us. A few vehicles cruise by, and we’re not sure if one of them is about to roll down the window and point a gun at us. This might be my overeager imagination working, but the danger feels real.
We duck behind a few parked buses, crouching quietly as we make our way towards the end of the street. Every few steps we pause to make sure no car is coming down the road, and then we continue a few more paces. Dark Guardian offers to take the side closest to the street. After several minutes we cut through a parking lot and make it to a main street. Fifteen minutes later the cops call us back and say, “We’re here, where are you guys?” Fifteen minutes later. We could’ve been dead, I think. We never end up meeting the police.
After we reach a safer area, the three of us sit down, a little shaken, and discuss what happened.
“What are you going to do about the park?” I ask Dark Guardian.
“There’s a lot of work to do to clean up the park. I’m going to start a campaign to get rid of the drugs and prostitution,” he says purposefully. I don’t doubt that he will. “I’m glad I found it,” he says.
I am exhausted from the night’s patrol. I have work on the horizon in a few hours, as does Dark Guardian. I’ve consistently wondered why these superheroes put so much of their free time and energy into protecting a city that consists of people who mostly mock and jeer them. But on the walk home I look back and see Dark Guardian surveying the street he’s going down, and I can’t help but think I’ll sleep easier tonight knowing people like him are out there watching over us.
* * *
Ali Hussain is a freelance writer and photographer based in New York City. He received his master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. His work has been featured in various media outlets, including the Huffington Post and New York City art galleries.