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For one New Yorker, being a superhero didn’t require Herculean strength or X-ray vision—just a willingness to look others in the eye and ask, “What can I do for you?”

By Grant Stoddard
Photography by Peter Yang

 

In the beginning my ambitions were lofty enough to leap tall buildings.

I would scour the sidewalks and subways of New York City in pursuit of strangers in need of a hand. I would guide a lost soul across the city. Carry someone’s bags to lighten their load. Find a gig for a struggling street musician. Heft an air conditioner up the stairs to rescue a family from the sweltering summer heat. 

We all hear these tales. Someone leaves an oversize tip for a dedicated waitress or buys groceries for another person in the checkout line. Despite our collective shouting about the world gone wrong, people still do nice things for one another. How hard could it be? 

Well, after one week: I’ve been scolded for interrupting a phone conversation. Lost tourists have brushed me off. I’ve been flatly ignored, gotten really strange looks, been lectured on my uselessness, and received some bizarre requests via Craigslist. 

And then I nearly met my end. After hours of desperately scanning city streets for people to assist, I found myself walking along the Bowery, a Lower Manhattan strip that once rivaled Fifth Avenue for its glamour before becoming “Skid Row” in the 1940s. Today, gleaming high-rise condos and a Whole Foods mingle with lighting stores and kitchen gadget wholesalers. This is where I happened upon a gentleman feverishly searching a small patch of concrete.

“Hey, man,” I said gamely, once I was within 10 yards. “Can I help you? Did you lose something?” 

He turned, glared at me for two beats, and then plucked a discarded fluorescent light tube from a garbage can and smashed it on the rim. He brandished the razor-sharp, foot-long remainder in his right hand and beckoned me toward him, grunting unintelligibly. I darted into the relative safety of oncoming traffic, astounded that my first real opportunity to brighten a stranger’s life almost cost me my own. 

When I recount this story to my friend Annie that night, she finds it funny. It’s a steamy July evening, and we’re strolling through the chic neighborhood of Nolita. She is wide-eyed, laughing, her hands plastered to her face. “I didn’t know that sort of thing still happened here,” she says. 

In my 16 years here, I’ve rarely encountered anything so reminiscent of the hardscrabble city life of yesteryear. Although, a confession: I’m a busy New Yorker and seldom tuned in to this particular frequency. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll offer directions when asked and even give a guy a dollar or two if I’m feeling flush. But these are piddling tasks. I’m loath to admit as much, but as my own prospects have improved over time, it seems I notice the needs of others less. The more I’m able to help, the less I actually do.

At 11 p.m., the day’s heat still radiates from the concrete. We pass a park on the corner of Mulberry and Spring, and through the iron railings I lock eyes with a curly-haired woman who looks to be in her early 20s. “Are you stuck in there?” I ask, mostly out of curiosity. After staring down a tube of serrated glass, I’ve shed my Good Samaritan guise for the night. 

“Yeah,” she says, taking a drag of her cigarette. “Some lady yelled out that the park was closing, but when we got to the gate, it was locked, and she’d already taken off. We talked to a cop when he passed by 10 minutes ago, but I don’t think he’s coming back.”

There’s another, more harried young woman alongside her, who is clearly not handling the  incarceration as well. Annie squeezes my elbow. “This is your chance to help!” she implores.

“Uh,” I stammer. “Can I get you over these railings? Maybe I could climb in and try and boost you over the top.”

“I don’t think we can make it over the spikes without getting hurt,” the calm one says, pointing to the medieval fencing. 

“Then how are you going to get out?” I ask, my sole idea a nonstarter. My question sends the unnerved woman into further panic. 

“How are we going to get out? How are we going to get out?” she repeats frantically. Her friend attempts to seize her flailing arms. I find myself backing away as the meltdown escalates.

“That’s it?” Annie says in disbelief. “You’re done helping?”

Annie’s horrified stare compels me to comfort the panicky woman. “It’s okay,” I say, lacking conviction. “You’re going to be out of there very soon. Try not to worry.”

Mercifully, the cop reappears on the scene with a sledgehammer and smashes the padlock. The 20-strong crowd, drawn by the clanging, cheers wildly for the young officer. He’s a hero. I, on the other hand, feel impotent.

Suddenly the distressed woman runs over and envelops me in an enthusiastic hug. “Thanks for the moral support!” she says, before her embarrassed friend drags her off into the night. 

“There you go,” Annie says with a sarcastic smirk. “You kinda sorta helped!” 

 

 

******

Once, at the tender age of 3, I left home early one morning dressed as Batman: cape, utility belt, the works. Toting my civilian clothes in a mini wicker suitcase, I cut a conspicuous figure in my sleepy hometown in southeastern England. Perhaps if I’d worn my civvies and packed the costume, I could’ve gone far. Instead, our milkman, Bert, saw right through the disguise. He intercepted and delivered me back to my family. During the five-minute escape, they hadn’t yet noticed my absence. My dreams of heroism were up on bricks. 

Now here I am, 34 years later, in the pulsing heart of Gotham, eager to save the day. My uniform is understated, at least for a New Yorker: pink shorts, polo shirt, navy blue Top-Siders, and tortoiseshell Wayfarer sunglasses. My biggest obstacle, however, I didn’t anticipate: how to spot those in need of rescuing.

In the afternoon I home in on a woman sitting on the sidewalk, her sobs rising above her drawn-up knees and floppy hat. I imagine consoling her, perhaps even proposing a tonic to brighten her day, and approach cautiously so as not to startle her. “Hi there,” I begin. “I couldn’t help noticing…”

She stops, shoots me a contemptuous glare, and points at her ear, against which she holds her smartphone. “Sorry,” I offer, before slinking off.

Are people simply out of practice when it comes to accepting help from strangers? Hardly surprising. Fear of the few bad guys out there often erodes our faith in the overwhelming majority who are predisposed to helping one another. Throughout history, human progress has resulted from remarkable cooperation. Kindness, among other things, has enabled us to become the dominant species. 

Hours later I duck into a bank to withdraw some cash, and a conflict erupts in the line beside me. The fellow to my left is hearing impaired, and the teller brusquely instructs him that his check will not be available for withdrawal until tomorrow. The man desperately explains that he needs a hundred bucks right away, but the teller’s only advice is to try an unspecified “check-cashing place.” Dejected, he drifts out into the afternoon heat. I feel for his plight, then abruptly wake up to the fact that I should help. I wrap up my transaction and dart outside, but the cash-strapped stranger has vanished.  

On my way home, I’m distraught by my failure. A lapse in concentration, a moment consumed by my own needs, and I’m unable to connect intent with action. As I arrive at my stoop, I’m so preoccupied with this thought that I nearly miss another opportunity. An exhausted young couple sits on my bottom step, their tatty personal effects strewn around them in backpacks and plastic bags. They hoist a cardboard sign: “Stranded. Need $ for bus ticket to Tennessee.”

I ask about the cost. “It’s $225 for the both of us,” the guy says, “but we only need another $30.” Tyler is a discharged soldier who served in Afghanistan and was formerly stationed in Tennessee, near the home of his companion, Sarah. I give them the money and wish them luck. 

Tyler shakes my hand, while Sarah wipes tears from her grimy cheeks. “You are so kind,” she says, throwing her arms around Tyler’s shoulders. “Now we can go home!”

 

 

******

Inspired, I rush upstairs and make my own sign, albeit a digital one. My Craigslist post: Hey there. Do you need a hand on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday? Do you need something that will make your life measurably better in a minor or major way? I’m devoting myself to the service of strangers this holiday weekend. If you need a hand with something, I’m going to come help you out and make your day/week/month/year.

Responses are random: a request to borrow a Dremel rotary tool for a craft project, a solicitation to serve as tour guide for a tourist visiting the city, and a plea for help in finding a job. That last message is from Holly, a single mother of two in Brooklyn. After brainstorming how to help, I offer to fine-tune her résumé, a volunteer service I have some experience with. However, after our initial, rapid-fire exchange, our correspondence suddenly drops off.  

I have more luck with Facebook, though many friends are rightfully suspicious of my motives. Through a friend, I’m connected to Myra. 

The morning of my Facebook post, Myra’s transit pass was swiped from her purse, and her employer refused to replace it. She can’t afford to pay $112 for a new monthly MetroCard because a year ago, at 38, Myra was diagnosed with lymphoma. She’s burdened with mounting medical bills due to costly stem cell transplants. Her distraught Facebook post concludes: “Seriously, my life is a joke.” 

I message Myra and offer a new pass. She’s thrilled and embarrasses me by suggesting I’m an “angel.” We arrange to meet at her apartment.

At the subway station, it strikes me that I can help folks without their consent. “Free swipe!” I say as people approach the turnstile. “Uh, okay,” says the first person through, wrinkling her nose disdainfully.

Another halts, reverses out of the turnstile, and swipes his own card through an adjacent one. Though miffed at first, I recall a time when I refused a stranger’s help. About 10 years ago, I wasn’t doing so well. Undernourished, scruffy, and sitting in a park, I attracted the attention of some kindly ladies giving out free sandwiches to the poor. I really could have used that meal, but I took umbrage with their offer. It was a case of pride, I suppose. I can’t pretend to know what irked this particular guy, but I’m familiar with the indignant feeling an unsolicited kindness can create.

I swipe for another 10 minutes, smiling all the while. Most passersby seem appreciative and touched, or at least amused, by two dollars and fifty cents’ worth of random kindness.

 

 

******

Myra welcomes me into her cozy apartment like an old friend. Her hair is growing back in the wake of chemotherapy, and she talks loudly, gesticulating with every word. She works in the media industry and is about my age, which makes her suffering feel more personal. 

“Getting my MetroCard stolen was definitely a blow,” she says. “But my company refusing to replace it was what really left a bad taste in my mouth.” She felt abandoned.

I pass her the new card and she embraces me. “It might not seem like much, but this really is a huge help for me,” she says. “You’re a hero.”

I’m buoyed by Myra’s gratefulness, but there’s a problem. Despite my efforts and good intentions, I’m still no champion of the weak and defenseless. While travelling to her apartment in Spanish Harlem, I stood by as a woman in front of me berated an elderly, shirtless and toothless man who claimed the seat next to her. Apparently, she found his odor offensive. She moved away but continued to harangue him for all to hear. “You smell nasty!” she shouted. “Take a shower! It’s giving me a headache!” 

The man smiled weakly, shrugged, and shook his head. As her assault continued, he stared off into space. I wanted to help him; I really did. Initially I convinced myself that I didn’t know what action to take, but there was no shortage of options. I could have taken him to my apartment, offered him a shower, given him a few sets of my clothes, and bought him something to eat. But as the lady so cruelly pointed out, he was repulsive. His wretchedness and utter hopelessness made it too inconvenient.

But there was another option that didn’t strike me until later: I could have at least stood up for the guy. Defending the weak and vulnerable, isn’t this the very essence of heroism? Why didn’t I speak up? 

 

******

I ditch the digital feelers and go for something tangible, heading to the Staples in Union Square and buying a marker and pack of giant, pink Post-its to craft a sign: IN A JAM? I WANT TO HELP YOU TODAY! JUST ASK! I brace my new weapon like a shield against my chest and surge into the throngs of people crisscrossing the square. Some look perplexed; others smile warmly. I barely make it 10 steps before a guy sporting a vest the color of my sign strikes up a conversation. “Hey man, is this for real?” he asks.

Hector tells me that what I’m doing is “really cool.” His friend is less impressed. “What do you know that can help me?” he asks incredulously.

I admit to having no special knowledge. “Then how are you in a position to help anyone?” he asks. He shakes his head and walks away, but his cynicism bolsters my resolve.

“Can you spot me a subway fare?” Hector asks. He assures me it’s all he needs, so I hand over my own MetroCard. He grins and hugs me, and then chases after his friend to relay the good news.

Seconds later a young man named Simba approaches. “Can you do something for my friend here?” he asks. David, he tells me, has been sleeping on the street since he arrived from Florida a week ago—he was robbed of his cash savings his first night in town. David is shirtless and all ribs, but his words are measured and intelligent. The three of us make the short hike to McDonald’s, but just as we’re about to order David stuns me by refusing the meal. “Hey, if you can only help one person,” he says, “there’s someone who needs your help more than I do.”

David leads the way to a nearby park, where Jonathan sits surrounded by a small crew of friends, his lower leg swaddled in bandages. An injury has temporarily cut off his meager income as a bike messenger. He and his friends are hungry and tired, but Jonathan’s chief concern is for his son, a toddler named Thor. The little guy has olive skin, green-blue eyes, and wavy brown hair. He looks happy and relatively healthy despite the colossal challenges his parents face in caring for him. Today is his third birthday, the exact age when I left home dressed as Batman, seeking someone in need of rescue. Finally, here’s my chance.

I grab lunch for the whole crew, but there’s more to do. One of Jonathan’s friends suggests surprising him with movie tickets to celebrate Thor’s birthday, so I buy a gift card to the nearby theater. Jonathan gushes. “Me and his mom can take him to see the movie he’s been talking about. He gets to feel special, like a normal kid on his birthday.” 

 

******

In one last effort with my sign, I trek to the East Village. “Yo! Is this for real? Can you help me get published?” asks Zachary Scott Hamilton, an aspiring poet from Portland, Oregon. I jot down his email, tell him it’s unlikely, but promise to give it my best shot. 

Then my phone buzzes with a belated response to the Craigslist post: “I saw your CL ad and I really appreciate what you’re doing… could you treat me to a meal this evening? Nothing big…I’m just a young guy trying to get by until my next payday.”  

Gabe and I settle on Chipotle. He’s thin, bespectacled, in his late 20s. Over burritos, he reveals that he walked the 5 miles from his apartment to save on subway fare. He likely burned more calories than his meal provides, so I get the feeling he’s searching for more than dinner. 

He asks about the sorts of things I’ve been doing, and I mention my encounters with Myra, Jonathan, Tyler, and Sarah. He appears a little embarrassed that his degree of need doesn’t measure up, but it’s not the effect I intended. We all have our struggles; there’s no shame in that. My hope is that offering a bit of kindness will not only lift people’s spirits, but also increase their awareness of an opportunity to help someone else. It’s common for therapists to recommend that depressed patients volunteer for charity projects. Temporarily inhabiting the lives of others in need helps to relieve our own suffering.   

Gabe is a filmmaker. “It’s what I want to do with my life,” he says. “I take odd freelance jobs from time to time to help, but I’m barely getting by.” He pauses. “I’m at this point where I’m thinking, Should I be doing this anymore?

I tell him I’m a writer and that, until my late 20s, I endured many stretches when I was ready to trade in my aspirations. I confess that sometimes I still do. By the end of dinner, he professes to feel better and eagerly describes a film he hopes to shoot, called It’s Raining on Prom Night.

He declines train fare home and asks instead for a Gatorade to drink during the 90-minute walk. “It gives me time to think,” he says.

I’ve done some thinking of my own. In the weeks since this assignment began, I’ve become a happier, kinder, more compassionate person, and that feeling has created a virtuous cycle. When asked for a spare dollar, I find myself giving more, more often. The other day I helped a woman carry a stroller up the stairs. Not a remarkable act, and something I likely would have done before, but my amped-up consciousness enabled me to see the opportunity. Heroism, I’ve learned, is a state of mind. I react to many things I might have ignored before. Despite my desperate search in the beginning, there was never actually a shortage of people to help. It’s a bit like night vision. If you stay away from the light long enough, you realize that all kinds of previously obscured things pop into view. 

 

“Four Invisible Laces”
By Zachary Scott Hamilton

A shadow can multiply if the ego is

right, and perfectly conundrum,

for the words are lights, not storm.

 

Grant Stoddard is the author of two books. He lives in Gotham and occasionally Vancouver. 

 

 

WOW!

Okay, so when it comes to helping people, sometimes superpowers do come in handy. Just ask Superman, Wonder Woman, and Spidey. 

By Melinda Mahaffey Icden

 

Forefather of Good Will In 1938, Action Comics No. 1 debuts Superman, who saves an innocent Evelyn Curry from execution. He flies in with the real criminal bound-and-gagged, and then breaks down a steel door to awaken the governor and secure a pardon. 

Chemical Reaction In 1964’s Daredevil No. 1, studious teenager Matt Murdock sees an Ajax Atomic Labs truck careening toward a blind man crossing the street; he pushes the senior citizen out of the way, getting splashed by toxic chemicals in the process. The accident both blinds him and amplifies his other senses in this Daredevil origin story.

Meeting of the Minds Shortly after Dick Grayson overhears thugs trying to extort money from a circus owner, his acrobat parents die in an “accident.” Batman, who attends the fateful show as Bruce Wayne, convinces the lad not to go to police for fear they’ll kill him too, and then takes him in and transforms him into Robin in Detective Comics No. 38 from 1940.

Best Men Dr. Doom seeks to ruin the wedding of Sue Storm and Reed Richards in 1965’s  Fantastic Four Annual No. 3. Super-pals from the Avengers and X-Men save the big day, and in the end Nick Fury throws out two wedding crashers—Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the comic’s creators.

Secret No More In 1984’s The Amazing Spider-Man No. 248, little Tim Harrison is visited by his favorite superhero. When the 9-year-old asks about his true identity, Spider-Man removes his mask. Then the comic poignantly reveals the boy is dying of cancer.

Party of One After hearing a prophecy that the Justice League members will die saving the world from an ancient dragon, Wonder Woman incapacitates her superhero teammates in order to save them. Once Batman, Superman, and the rest are safe, she flies off to battle the fire-breather herself in 2000’s JLA: A League of One.

Bite Out of Crime Trying to protect his closest human friends from the Legion of Super-Villains, Superman hunkers down with them inside the Fortress of Solitude in Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow from 1986. But when Kryptonite Man and his allies siege the protective stronghold, Superman’s dog, Krypto, attacks, sacrificing his life for his master.

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