Like everybody else, my life is full of secrets. Some are less guarded than others—I used to be in the military but never mention this when I am overseas—while some may never see the light of day.
My biggest secret is probably
I’m secretly a genie and will grant the wishes of the first three people who you mail me $500- contact me for payment instructions not something I will share here. My weirdest secret is that I used to be a Real Life Superhero (RLSH). I didn’t think I was a superhero, but I wanted to find a way to help and I needed to stay anonymous so I donned a mask and a pseudonym and voila, I was a Real Life Superhero. I wrote about my origin story earlier in I Used to Be a Real Life SuperHero, Part One.
After around 18 months in the RLSH community, I went to Project HOPE, a large RLSH gathering in San Diego that doubled as a homeless outreach. Dozens of superheroes from across the United States gathered, armed with backpacks, socks, and hundreds of burritos. We spent the morning walking through downtown San Diego, offering packets of clothes, food, and hygiene items to those who we met. I wrote a journal about the gathering last year, I Used to be a Real Life SuperHero, Part Two, a followup to my origin story.
I was out of the country and missed the HOPE gatherings in 2014 and 2015 but was determined not to miss the 2016 edition. When I learned that Roxanne Cai had a book signing for A True Origin Story: How to be a Real-Life Superhero in 12 Steps the night before HOPE, I booked a flight to San Diego immediately. I then learned that Roxanne’s band, The Filthy Müdbloods, was playing the night of HOPE and that San Diego’s Xtreme Justice League would be holding a public safety patrol that night. Things kept getting better.
Two main groups would participate in HOPE this year: the Xtreme Justice League and The Initiative.
The Xtreme Justice League focuses on crime prevention and safety patrols at night, patrolling in superhero regalia and stopping bar fights, escorting women safely to their cars or cabs, helping people get medical help, and offering a protective presence. After a rash of sexual assaults at San Diego State University, student groups asked the XJL to patrol on campus for a time to prevent the assaults, which they gladly did. The XJL started in San Diego in 2006 but has since formed branches in Oklahoma and North Carolina.
The Initiative is a community outreach group with chapters operating in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, New York, Seattle, Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, Virginia, and the U.K. They focus on community service, such as offering free self-defense classes, disposing of used needles and syringes, and fundraising for charities, though they also do safety patrols on occasion.
“You’re doing what?” Dana, a Scottish woman I met shortly after arriving in San Diego, asked me.
“Well we’re not actually superheroes, we just dress up like it to stay anonymous,” I answered.
“Why do you stay anonymous while you’re doing charity?”
“I was a teacher and didn’t want my boss or students to know I was running a charity on the side. Other people do safety patrols and get a lot of publicity and new volunteers when they dress up. Some people just like to dress like superheroes. Everybody has their reason.”
“You sound like an interesting group. Balboa Park at 9:30 tomorrow morning?”
“Yup, see ya’ then. Check the discount grocery stores for water bottles or socks for the handout,” I said as I left for the bus station.
I arrived at San Diego’s Greyhound station and met with Razorhawk, a former semi-pro wrestler who has been active in the RLSH community for several years. I would be sharing a spot on Roxanne’s floor with him for the weekend. We made our way to a small bookstore near the convention center where Comic Con was being held. We met Roxanne there, as well as two other friends codenamed NightBug and Vector.
Roxanne gave us pamphlets to hand out advertising the book signing so we left the bookstore to convince people to attend the signing. I handed out pamphlets to 15 people and was told “no” five times, received three maybes, got dirty stares from two people, and was never told yes.
I headed back to the bookstore as the signing was about to start. We were told to dress as superheroes if we wished but my old costume was stuck in storage so I went with wearing a striped shirt and carrying Hobbes. It’s from a comic book at least. People dressed like actual superheroes trickled in and bystanders stopped by to stare at the costumes, though only four strangers stuck around. Roxanne talked about why she feels being a costumed volunteer is more effective than a normal volunteer, the changes she has seen in her efforts over the years, and then described common mistakes to avoid. Children in soccer jerseys watched her, curious and unsure of what the hell was going on.
After the signing we jumped into two cars and made our way to the rental house. Razorhawk, Vector, Doc Mystery, and I were in one car while Roxanne, her son, and NightBug were in a second. Doc Mystery was a new RLSH, operating in Palmdale, California, and was here to learn the ropes. Doctor Mystery and I shared the floor of an office/music studio on the bottom floor, Ted and Travis and a friend from the Utah Initiative all shared a room, while Razorhawk took a couch in the dining room and Roxanne’s crew from San Francisco all shared a bedroom. I snagged a blanket from a couch upstairs and used Hobbes and my thickest shirt as a pillow, but immediately wished I had brought a real pillow and sleeping bag. A sheet over a hard floor makes a terrible bed.
After a breakfast of bagels and leftover garlic bread, Doctor Mistery, Razorhawk, Roxanne & the San Francisco Initiative, and the Legacy Initiative (from Utah) piled into three cars and drove to Balboa Park near downtown. A tarp was spread out on the ground with countless backpacks and assorted supplies on top.
Superheroes carpooled to the park and arrived two by two. Some were old friends and some were newcomers. San Francisco and San Diego had the largest groups, but superheroes from Central California, Oregon, Utah, Georgia, Minnesota, New York, and North Carolina also came to the event. There were lots of new faces, and I was a new face to many. My old mask and hat had been replaced by a simple grey shirt and I had to introduce myself as “Jason, but I used to be Monzon” before some people recognized me.
We set up a table and quickly got to work sorting the packages. Each backpack got a toiletry kit complete with sunscreen, a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, and a roll of toilet paper, plus granola bars, a bottle of water, ziplock bags, socks, and sunglasses. My Scottish friend Dana arrived just in time to help count the backpacks. They weren’t countless after all: there were 222.
After putting the backpacks together and piling them into three vans, we had a short meeting. First we split into groups and determined our routes, then we, finally, had time to talk. I reconnected with The Grimm and met Impact, a new superhero starting his own team in North Carolina. Everybody told stories and caught up before regrouping for pictures and to honor the original six, who had gone to each of the six HOPE events.
Just before we left, the Legacy Intiative showed up with at least 500 fresh burritos to hand out. We then split into three teams with each led by a member of the Xtreme Justice League. After an extended hunt for parking downtown, each team grabbed all of the backpacks it could carry and set out to help. We spent the next hour walking through crowded streets, offering backpacks and smiles to anybody living on society’s fringes.
Our teams were well-organized and walked in loose military formations, led by an XJL member who gave radio updates with requested supplies and our exact location after every block. I made an effort to learn something about each person I met. Each was as friendly to me as I was to them. I wasn’t sure if they appreciated the backpacks or the humane treatment more* but I was too busy to overthink it.
And just like that, it was over. The number 222 sounds like a lot of backpacks, but our group was so large that we had less than ten backpacks each. The joy of giving the supplies was dampened by explaining to men that you had just run out— they could look 20 feet down the road and see people who had received backpacks. We had extra burritos that we continued to give out but they were a poor consolation prize when compared to the backpacks stuffed to the gills with supplies.
*Just kidding. Of course they appreciated the backpacks full of supplies more.
We made our way back to Balboa Park after running out of supplies. A small group had skipped the handout to reserve a spot at the crowded park for a barbecue.
I spent the next hour tossing a frisbee and meeting more new people until the food was ready, then wolfed down hamburgers and potato chips shamelessly fast— my breakfast of a quarter bagel and leftover garlic bread hadn’t been as filling as I had hoped.
Our time at the bookstore was on a loose schedule and our morning gathering was rushed. At the barbecue we finally had time to catch up. Many of the attendees saw each other every year at HOPE, though it had been three years for me. I soaked in as many stories as I could and avoided the “one time in Mozambique…” trap that my mind sometimes gets caught in when telling stories. After the food was gone, the cake came out. The cake was dedicated to Mr. Xtreme, the leader and founder of the Xtreme Justice League (which has now spread to Oklahoma City and Raleigh, North Carolina), celebrating ten years of volunteering.
After stuffing ourselves just short of adult-onset diabetes, we cleaned the park and I caught a ride with Razorhawk, Doctor Mystery, and NightBug back to the rented house to catch a nap. The evening would feature a benefit concert and an overnight crime patrol and I needed all the rest I could get.
Next week I’ll publish the story of the benefit concert, the crime patrol downtown, and our farewells the next morning.