I am rushing through the night to the emergency room to meet a real-life superhero called Phoenix Jones, who has fought one crime too many and is currently peeing a lot of blood. Phoenix has become famous these past months for his acts of anonymous heroism. He dresses in a superhero outfit of his invention and chases car thieves and breaks up bar fights and changes the tires of stranded strangers. I've flown to Seattle to join him on patrol. I only landed a few minutes ago, at midnight, and in the Arrivals lounge I phoned his friend and advisor, Peter Tangen, who told me the news.
"Hospital?" I said. "Is he okay?"
"I don't know," said Peter. He sounded worried. "The thing you have to remember about Phoenix," he added, "is that he's not impervious to pain."
"Okay," I said.
"I think you should get a taxi straight from the airport to the ER," he said.
So here I am, hurtling through the night, still with all my luggage. At 1 am I arrive at the ER and am led into Phoenix's room. And there he is: lying in bed wearing a hospital smock, strapped to an IV, tubes going in and out of him. Still, he looks in good shape — muscular, black. Most disconcertingly, he's wearing an impeccably handcrafted full-face black and gold rubber superhero mask.
"Good to see you!" he hollers enthusiastically through the mouth hole. He gives me the thumbs-up, which makes the IV needle tear his skin slightly.
"Ow," he says.
* * *
His two-year-old son and four-year-old stepson run fractiously around the room. "Daddy was out fighting bad guys in his Super Suit and now he has to wait here," he tells them. (I promise not to identify them, or his girlfriend, to protect his secret identity.)
He looks frustrated, hemmed in, fizzing with restless energy. "We break up two to three acts of violence a night," he says. "Two or three people are being hurt right now and I'm stuck here. It bothers me."
By "we" he means his ten-strong Seattle crew, the Rain City Superheroes. They were patrolling last night when they saw "this guy swinging at another guy outside a bar with a baseball bat. I ran across the street and he jabbed me in the stomach. Right under my armor."
Unfortunately the baseball bat landed exactly where he'd been punched a week earlier by another bar brawler holding a car key in his fist.
"A few hours ago I went to use the bathroom and I started peeing blood," he says. "A lot of it. So I came to the hospital."
I glance over at Phoenix's girlfriend. "There's no point worrying about it." She shrugs.
Finally the doctor arrives with the test results. "The good news is there's no serious damage," he says. "You're bruised. It's very important that you rest. Go home and rest. By the way, why do you name a pediatrician as your doctor?"
"You're allowed to stay with your pediatrician until you're twenty-two," Phoenix explains.
We both look surprised: this huge, disguised man is barely out of childhood.
"Go home and rest," says the doctor, leaving the room.
"Let's hit the streets!" says Phoenix. "I'll get suited up!"
* * *
Phoenix didn't know this when he first donned the suit about a year ago, but he's one of around two hundred real-life superheroes currently patrolling America's streets, in Florida and New York City and Utah and Arizona and Oregon, and on and on, looking for wrongs to right. There's DC's Guardian in Washington, D.C., who wears a full-body stars-and-stripes outfit and wanders the troubled areas behind the Capitol building. According to Peter Tangen, the community's unofficial advisor, DC's Guardian has "extremely high clearance in the U.S. government. Nobody knows what he looks like. Nobody knows his name. Nobody knows his job. Nobody knows the color of his skin. I've seen him with his mask off. I've been to his house for dinner. But that's because of the level of trust he has in me."
And there are dozens more, like Salt Lake City's Citizen Prime, who wears steel armor and a yellow cape and is in real life "a vice president of a Fortune 500 financial company," says Peter Tangen. Like the majority of real-life superheroes, Citizen Prime undertakes basically safe community work, helping the homeless, telling kids to stay off drugs, etc. All are regular men with jobs and families and responsibilities who somehow have enough energy at the end of the day to journey into America's more needy communities to do what they can. Phoenix is reputed to be by far the most daring of them all, leaping fearlessly into the kinds of life-threatening situations the other superheroes might well run shrieking from.
Every superhero has his origin story, and as we drive from the hospital to his apartment, Phoenix tells me his. His life, he says, hasn't been a breeze. He was raised in an orphanage in Texas and now spends his days teaching autistic kids how to read. One night last summer someone broke into his car. There was shattered glass on the floor. His stepson fell into it, badly gashing his knee.
"I got tired of people doing things that are morally questionable," he says. "Everyone's afraid. It just takes one person to say, 'I'm not afraid.' And I guess I'm that guy."
So he retrieved from the floor the mask the robber had used to break into his car, and he made his own mask from it. "They use the mask to conceal their identity," he says. "I use the mask to become an identity."
He called himself Phoenix Jones because the Phoenix rises from the ashes and Jones is America's most common surname. He was the common man rising from society's ashes.
Excerpted from THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF PHOENIX JONES: And the Less Amazing Adventures of Some Other Real Life Superheroes by Jon Ronson by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright 2011 by Jon Ronson.