Z bounces from foot to foot, ducking and weaving, and then works the bag: Left-Left! Right! Left! Right-Right! Left! Right! He keeps swinging while some heavy tracks from Penthouse (aka 50 Tons of black Terror) blast in the background. His fists connect with the punching bag so hard that it leaves gouges in his knuckles that he later bandages.
The 28-year-old is known only by that single letter, and is a member of a team of crime fighters known as The new York Initiative, a small group of Brooklyn-based vigilantes who spend their spare time fighting crime.
The New York Initiative is a splinter group from a worldwide movement of people calling themselves Real Life Superheroes (RLSHs), who adopt costumed personas of their own invention and take a number of approaches to the concept. It may seem like mere role-playing or a cheap copy of the popular The Watchmen comic and recent movie, but this growing cohort take their responsibility to do good seriously.
Some conduct charity fundraisers or visit children’s hospitals. others do civic duties like picking up litter or handing out food, water and supplies to the homeless. many do “safety patrols,” much like a concerned citizens’ walking group might. A few of the superheroes, like the NYI, actively fight crime. This anonymous, leaderless Justice League has been estimated to be anywhere from 100 to 400 members strong in cities from coast to coast, as well as around the world. They convene online in chatrooms and message boards or form groups on Facebook.
Unlike many other RLSHs who dedicate a small area for their alter ego—a spare room, basement, the trunk of their car or a sock drawer—the NYI have devoted their entire Bed-Stuy apartment to the lifestyle. A lot of the “crime fighting gear” is illegal in new York, so it remains unused, stored in the apartment. Z flaunts the collapsible batons, stun knuckles (that make a loud zapping sound), throwing knives and spiky hand guards that look like something Genghis Khan would brawl in.
He also hands me weapons out of an umbrella stand of pain: a couple of giant ax handles bound with duct tape, a metal pipe and an ordinary walking cane, which he wields as a fighting stick. Another rack holds more practical items such as protective arm gauntlets, gloves, flashlights, walkie-talkies and binoculars. I notice a decorative battle-ax and a pair of katanas. A workbench and shelves hold a mess of tools, building materials and armor.
The group’s “gadgeteer”—he calls himself Victim—shipped a box from his home in seattle with a sampling of different panels of polycarbonate squares, hoping to test the durability against a variety of weapons. Z shows a panel with a few minor dents in it; the polycarbonate has withstood a variety of knives and blunt instruments.
Then there’s Lucy, a kitten they found on the street that they nursed back to health. she’s purring and rubbing up against body armor. A strange juxtaposition of cute and cruel.
Near the workbench, a dry erase board lists some nYI goals for the next year. A mirror on the wall has a piece of paper stuck to it with a quote: “What can be broken, must be broken.”
Z shares his Brooklyn apartment with Tsaf and Zimmer, two other self-proclaimed superheroes. (since they are trying to maintain their anonymity, they asked that their exact location not be disclosed.)
Tsaf (pronounced saph) is the team’s only active female member. The 32-year-old is small but toned and emits a Zen-like calm. While Z punches, she meditates in her room.
Zimmer, 22, has no secret identity or code name and since he already has a snazzy surname, he uses it. He first learned about RLSHs when he was a teenager in Texas. He later started patrolling at 18 in Austin. He moved to new York and has graduated from an EMT certification course and serves as the “field medic” for the team.
Zimmer gathers gear and adjusts the straps on his “Northstar non-lethal backpack,” a powerful but compact LED light, clasped to the chest with backpack straps. The light is blinding and can be used to daze attackers. When he demonstrates it outside, the spotlight hits the night sky like a bat signal searching the tops of buildings. The power source is a row of batteries in the bottom of the small backpack, wired to the light. His backpack also holds a first-aid kit, cPr mask and handcuffs in case of a citizen’s arrest.
The only person missing is Lucid, 28. The fourth NYI member, Lucid isn’t available for the night’s patrol because he’s working his job as bouncer at a Williamsburg bar.
After a couple more
rounds with the punching bag, Z sits down and begins strapping on his
full body armor, a homemade medley of leather, pads and stainless steel
bits and pieces, which he describes as a “poor man’s Iron Man suit.”
The suit includes boots, leg, knee and ankle pads. A pair of arm
bracers he made out of leather and steel are attached to his arms with
truck ties and work as both defense and offense. To complete the look,
he wears a black Predator-type mask sure to creep out anyone
who sees it on the street. He then puts on his “butcher mail,” a
stab-proof apron of metal scales over a lightweight bulletproof vest,
which he then covers with a sleeveless, brownleather zip-up.
Z buckles and snaps his gear into place, he begins to describe what it
feels like to don his costume. “It depends who is around,” Z says as he
pulls the straps on the arm bracers. “But I’d say it’s almost like a
holy, sacred feeling for me.”
REG BY DAY, SUPERHERO BY NIGHT
and Zimmer say they have similar goals, but they often have different
ideas on the proper approach. Zimmer compares himself and his
philosophies to the movie The Matrix and Z relates his persona to Fight Club. It’s
a pretty accurate description of their personalities: Zimmer as the
cyber rebel and Z as an enigmatic underground street fighter.
has strong connections with the RLSH movement and is an administrator
for the Heroes Network, one of the two major online forums for RLSH.
His gear includes jeans with built-in kneepads and calf-high canvas
shoes, along with his signature T-shirt printed with the binary code
for the letter “Z” (01011010) in white numbers down the side. He also
works as a freelance writer, churning out articles about science and
technology, and his room is overflowing with piles of books on computer
chosen the last letter of the alphabet for other, mysterious reasons.
He also explains that he’s had issues with the RLSH movement, including
a couple of RLSH who claim they have “metaphysical powers.” He feels
some RLSHs have inflated egos or are simply bloviating. And then there
are the spandex outfits: Don’t even get him started.
I wear is either protective gear or to blend in during plainclothes
patrols, with gear underneath. No spandex. Ever,” Z explains. “If I
ever wear spandex, I deserve to get shot down in the street like the
dumbass that I am.”
Z moved from Detroit to Philly and finally to New York, and his room is spare: the punching bag, some weights, a mattress.
and Zimmer say their goal in moving to the city was to assemble the
NYI. Several others had planned to make the pilgrimage to New York as
well, including Death’s Head Moth from Virginia and Lionheart from
London. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out. The NYI remains a
gang of four.
SHOW AND TELL
its website, the NYC Resistor describes itself as “[a] hacker
collective with a shared space located in Downtown Brooklyn. We meet
regularly to share knowledge, hack on projects together and build
claims to have a lot of involvement with hackers, and has spoken about
RLSHs at two different hacker conventions, including one in Austria. “I
think hackers and Real Life Superheroes have a lot in common in what
they do, but a lot of people in this community probably don’t see
that,” he says.
three of us walk to the collective’s warehouse near the Fulton Mall for
its first “Show and Tell” night, an open invitation to share any useful
gadget. Inside, 15 or so people show off things: a portable UV light
and a self-balancing unicycle. Zimmer takes the stage and demonstrates
his Northstar and explains the premise of the NYI, and then calls Z up,
who shows off his stainless steel arm bracers, clanking them together
loudly. When he dons his new mask and turns on an LED light attached to
its side, some in the audience gasp. Because the mask resembles the Predator alien,
someone asks if he also has a missile launcher built into the shoulder.
Afterward, one young man in his twenties approaches the duo, saying
he’d like to be involved with tech support for the NYI.
we head back to the NYI headquarters, we’re stopped half a block from
the subway platform by the police. They ask to see what is in the metal
suitcase we’re carrying and find Z’s arm bracers. “Skateboard pads,” Z
explains. They seem to accept his explanation but decide to pat us down
anyway. The cops tell us they stopped us because we’re white and
therefore, the only reason for us to be in the neighborhood would be to
and Zimmer say that they live a block away, the cops are surprised. “In
fact, we’re trying to do something kind of like a community block watch
or safety patrol,” Zimmer explains.
watch?” one officer snorts. “Naw, fuhgetabout that. You’ll get shot.
The guys in this neighborhood, they’ll shoot you and no one will tell
us who did it. There’s a strong ‘no snitching’ rule out here.”
from police and others don’t deter the NYI, and shortly after
encountering the cops that night, the trio of superheroes begin their
pre-patrol rituals. They plan to stage a “bait patrol.”
strategy is that Z will skate ahead on a longboard, a sturdy, fast
skateboard made for cruising. The longboard is also a good excuse to be
wearing a lot of protective gear. Next in the lineup is the bait
(described as the “nucleus” of the patrol)—usually TSAF or Zimmer. In
tonight’s case, TSAF wears a white dress, purple eye makeup and is
carrying a bulky purse. She tries to lure predators looking for someone
vulnerable. Zimmer follows on foot about a block behind her.
if he were here, would act as a runner, skating back and forth on his
longboard between the group members as they move forward. TSAF watches
for Z; Zimmer watches for TSAF; and Lucid would be watching everyone.
Communication is vital: All parties are connected by cell phone, ready
to leap into action if anything happens.
“I don’t see this movement fading away, superheroes are real now and there is no turning back.”
looks good on paper, but we encounter some problems. First, I am trying
to keep up with Z, but my board is having some technical issues. We
backtrack for a pair of pliers to fix the skateboard. Back on the
street, we make it just a few blocks before determining that there are
tech problems with the phones. The NYI can’t hear each other. There is
much frustration all around, and Z decides to call off the patrol.
next day, I skate around Brooklyn with Z, running errands. Z and the
NYI are more or less everyday New Yorkers, trying to live their lives
with normal friends and day jobs. Their secret night patrols are the
only thing that makes them feel different. We end the day at a
Williamsburg bar, where Lucid works security and the NYI spend spare
time hanging out.
a few games of pool, Z and I decide to skate around for a bit. That’s
when we spot an intoxicated young woman stumbling along and tripping
over her high heels down the empty street. “Let’s do an impromptu bait
patrol,” Z says. “You fall behind, and I’ll skate ahead.” So we follow
the woman for several blocks, trying to remain inconspicuous. I hang
way back and gave Z a “thumbs up” sign periodically. The woman stumbles
to a bus and boards. All clear.
BATTLES IN WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK
Guardian organized the meet-up under the Washington Square Park arch,
while a horde of people enjoyed a science fair on a sunny day. Dark
Guardian is from Staten Island and says he’s had several nighttime
confrontations in the park. His goal is to try to kick drug dealers out
of the park by himself or with other small groups of RLSH.
with a crew of cameramen and a bullhorn, Dark Guardian has walked up to
drug dealers in the dark corners of the park dressed in black motocross
gear, telling them to leave.
left and some didn’t. He was often outsized and outnumbered, and he
says one alleged dealer flashed a gun tucked into his waistband. Dark
Guardian didn’t let it deter him. He returned to the park several
times, relying on the confidence he’s acquired as a martial arts
meeting is meant to assemble other like-minded individuals. A few
showed up: The Conundrum (New Jersey); Hunter and Blue, a dynamic duo
from Manhattan; and Mike, who hasn’t picked a persona yet but is
interested in the idea. Dark Guardian has been leading an effort to try to unite RLSHs of New York and get them to work together—some of the other RLSHs who populate the area include Nyx and Phantom Zero, Life, Champion, Thre3, Blindside and Samaritan
also decides to attend, a significant step in Dark Guardian’s quest to
unite a larger group of people in New York. Zimmer and Z have had
disputes with Dark Guardian, who administrates The Real Superheroes
Forum (therlsh.net), which is similar to Zimmer’s Heroes Network. It
turns out in real life, superheroes are not free of Internet drama, and
the two forums often have disagreements about methodology and public
relations, which has led to long, drawn-out arguments. Today, however,
Zimmer and Dark Guardian have put aside their differences to pool
hope to get more people involved in New York City in making their
communities a better place,” says Dark Guardian. “I hope to get Real
Life Superheroes working together to make a bigger difference. I would
like to get patrol groups together, work on community service projects
and organize events. Real Life Superheroes can make a real difference
here. I see the real life superhero movement growing and more people
getting involved. I would like to see things become more organized and
for there to be some form of training. I would love to be a part of
that. I don’t see this movement fading away, superheroes are real now
and there is no turning back.”
for the New York Initiative in Brooklyn, Z says that its main goal is
to try to do the right thing and protect people on the street who need
“There’s a lack of decency in the world. That’s something we’re about,” Z explains. “We’re not trying to just be badass dudes. We’re trying to be decent people.”