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Interview With A Superhero: A Rabbi's Son Transforms Into A Masked Crusader

Under cover of darkness, Chaim Lazaros works the streets of New York City disguised as “Life,” a real life superhero with a mission to help the homeless. He’s not alone. The U.S. is now home to some 300 wannabe urban vigilantes determined to help their fe

Chaim Lazarus, aka Life, a real life superhero
Chaim Lazarus, aka Life, a real life superhero
Stéphanie Estournet

MAXÉVILLE -- I have to admit that going into the interview I found the whole situation more than a bit amusing. But now that I'm actually here, at the Totem – an abandoned brewery in Maxéville, near Nancy, in the east of France – I realize I'm already letting my imagination run a bit wild. I almost expect to see Batman jump off the main building's brick chimney. Or Spiderman dangling from his web behind an old billboard near that bright yellow wall.

The person who pops out instead is Chaim Lazaros, a laid-back looking 26-year-old armed with a netbook, a boyish smile and distinct New York accent. Lazaros is a freelance film and radio producer. He's also a real-life superhero (RLSH). Once a week, he transforms himself into "Life," a do-gooder character of his own creation.

The transformation begins, of course, with a superhero costume – in this case a white shirt, dark trousers and a black domino mask. Lazaros then heads to the streets of New York, where he can be seen – in summer and winter alike – talking to the homeless and distributing toothbrushes, tee-shirts and socks. Most of all, he gives the down-and-out "something human," he adds while putting his hand over mine. The gesture makes quite an impression – message received.

"He gives them advice about hygiene, but as for the rest, I don't know what he tells them," says photographer Pierre-Elie de Pibrac, who followed the RLSH for two months in the United States. "Life remains extremely discreet about it. But he does take the time to talk to them."

The whole thing is reminiscent of post-9/11 stories, of heroes rising from the ashes like those Jay McInerney described in The Good Life. "They are inspired by firemen, Red Cross volunteers," says Pierre-Elie de Pibrac. But unlike traditional philanthropists who wear casual clothes or mandatory uniforms, Chaim Lazaros has chosen to go about his benevolent business in costume. Life's superhero look was inspired by the masked vigilante called Green Hornet. Lazaros, a practicing Jew, was also inspired by his parents. "My father is a rabbi and my mother a nurse, so I was almost destined to disguise myself to do good."

Lazaros says the disguise helps people see him not as a particular person. Instead they "look at what I stand for," he says. "Here's what matters: when I put on my costume, I leave evil in the closet. And when someone who's not an English-speaker sees me, he knows I'm not a threat. They think it's funny, and it creates a bond."

The making of a movement

Lazaros discovered the RLSH movement by chance about five years ago – on the Internet. At the time, America's real life super heroes hadn't yet gained much attention. Lazaros went about linking up with other RLSHs and created a website called superheroesanonymous.com in an attempt to take a nationwide census of urban super heroes. "As of today, there are about 300 of us in the United States. The numbers have increased significantly over the past few years."

They come in all shapes and sizes -- with all sorts of missions. Some try to prevent violent crimes by dismantling drug cartels, for example. Others tackle poverty. One particularly patriotic hero named DC Guardian travels the United States preaching "American values' and the essential principles of the Constitution. Another RLSH, Direction Man, uses an arsenal of maps to help out lost tourists.

But even the most experienced superheroes can find themselves in tricky – and even dangerous – situations. "You have to understand that homeless people don't have anything to protect," Lazaros says. "They only have themselves. So when we feel threatened, we just step back and lay low. I don't have any weapon, obviously."

What about the police then? How do they react to these caped crime-fighters? "That's the thing: We're not crime-fighters," Lazaros explains. "If I witness a crime, I call 911. As long as we obey the law and stay true to our humanitarian role, everything's fine."

Lazaros is now at the core of what looks more and more like a genuine movement. Real life superheroes even have an annual convention. They also have some influential fans, like photographer Peter Tangen, who worked on Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. Tangen cowrote The 12 Steps To Superheroism, a list of rules modeled after the well-known Alcoholics Anonymous program.

"We've been organizing gatherings every month for a year now. We meet up to talk about what our philosophy entails. Then we brainstorm about costumes for our new volunteers," says Lazaros. That would make him a trainer, in addition to being a crusader, webmaster and spokesperson. One thing he's not, however, is a leader. "A superhero's only master is his own conscience. That's the reason why I'm not part of any registered charity," he says. "Like every RLSH, I'm my own boss."

Read the original article in French

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