Sunday, January 23, 2011

The first man to try it: The Citizen

"Well, you're my hero," the beggar told him.

Many will look at the guy above, the guy who designed his own costume, gave himself a codename, declared himself a super hero and started running around downtown Chicago at night, and will see a joke. The man in the costume knows he set himself up for that.

But to the homeless men and women who received free hats, blankets, food and bottled water on an afternoon when the high temperature was a single digit, The Citizen wasn't a punchline, he was a solution.

At the center of "The city of broad shoulders," The Citizen gives a hand to a man who will never be able to stand upright again

I have never had an assignment like this one: The Chicago Sun-Times sent me out to interview the guy who claims to be a "real-life super hero." Being a lifelong reader of Marvel comic books, the idea of meeting a costumed vigilante had me curious, but I was wary — costumed vigilantes look really cool on printed pages, but I did not expect it to translate well into reality.

Judge for yourself.

The man in the red jacket seemed grateful for the care package The Citizen handed to him, but wasn't sure what to make of his benefactor

The Citizen has no super powers — and no delusions of them, either — but he is certified in CPR and a skilled fundraiser. What he does possess is a vision:

Thousands of Chicagoans caring enough about their city to stand up and act for good.

In a conversation that sounded heavily inspired by Ken Nolan's brilliant film "The Dark Knight," The Citizen explained his public-relations campaign to me. The theory is that if one man has the guts to put on a costume, tell some penny-ante drug pushers to get out of the neighborhood and deliver some necessities to homeless folks, the average Joe will think about something like volunteering at a local library, and a task that once seemed daunting would start to look doable.

The Citizen told me that he knows he isn't going to fix anybody's problems. His hope is that he will inspire someone who can.

So, we walked a few miles through The Loop on an afternoon in January, looking for folks who needed help. The streets were crowded, and he got a lot — a lot — of long looks. He had eight care packages for the homeless: hand-assembled, afforded through his own fundraising system and squared away in cardboard boxes. He stacked them in a cart that he pushed around, and with a ski mask and old hat on, he almost looked like a vagrant himself.

We got rid of seven in less than half an hour. The search for the eighth took more than an hour. His fingertips were uncovered and, with a cart to push, he couldn't put them in his pockets; we journeyed blocks and blocks away from his car, but he wasn't going back to his lair until he helped everyone he could.

We finally found a man outside Union Station who needed the clean blanket that The Citizen wanted to provide. Like the others, he asked a few questions about what this guy's deal was, then expressed his gratitude — but this guy left us with a quote that made the search worth the freeze.

"I've never met a real-life action hero before," the man said.

I have.

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