I’m going to share a short piece from my book-in-progress on homelessness, The Crumbling Mansions. It’s a touching story, at the very least, and one that I am privileged to have heard and then committed to paper. It’s important to me that I share these stories.
I hope you enjoy the piece.
We forget sometimes that even superheroes were children at one time. This is true whether the superhero is Iron Man or Superman or Spiderman or Wonder Woman. We associate superheroes with being masters of will, masters of self-control, people who fight to avenge the innocent and the vulnerable, the downtrodden and the exploited, people who are always strong and always make the right decisions, even when it’s hard, even when it seems like there is no hope left: Because they are superheroes. Because they are strong. Because they will save us.
But we forget that even Batman was a kid once.
I want to share a story that I heard about some homeless people (a father and a son, to be more specific) from a friend of mine who has been teaching me a lot about homeless folk in Salt Lake City and homelessness in general.
My friend told me about a father and son, the son of which was about five-years-old. The kid was wearing a batman mask, and my friend and the kid had a little exchange, an innocent exchange, actually, if the truth be told.
“So what’s your name?” my friend asked the kid.
“I’m Batman,” the kid said, confidently, with the arrogance and confidence of a young superhero.
My friend responded by asking the kid his name again, of course to get to know him.
“I’m Batman,” the kid said. “I have to be Batman because I have to protect my dad from all the bad guys.”
I don’t know about you, but such gentleness carries a lot of significance and weight.
Let me finish the story, however.
Later on, my friend was able to give the kid a couple of action figures. Superheroes. And the kid was so incredibly happy to receive this gift. He received them enthusiastically and good-naturedly, as if he’d just gotten an X-Box or some other fancy game system.
There are a lot of implications with this as well.
I want to analyze both components to this story, and analyze what this means philosophically.
I had, at least until today upon hearing this story, given up on the notion of “Gavroche street kids” or Oliver Twists or Ragged Dicks, all of which are innocent street youth in various novels of the nineteenth century, particularly in the tradition of the social realist novel. But hearing these stories gives me hope that there is still such innocence, wonder, and beauty within homelessness, that it isn’t all corrupt and corrupted, that it isn’t all lost and desperate and hopeless.
The kid, in fact, is of his own character: Batman. A kid superhero. I can’t help but find a kind of beauty and grandeur in that. No, no, he isn’t a Gavroche in the strict sense, but there’s something special about this exchange, of the child wanting to protect his father from all the bad people, from the enemies, from the villains. In fact, rather than adopting a Gavroche persona, it would seem, the kid drew on the rich array of characters we have in our cultural fictions, and he chose a superhero that represents strength within the darkest of moments, that represents toughness amidst some of the darkest truths that exist within this world.
It’s the innocence that stands out about all of this, told via the character of Batman.
Which brings me to my next point, after being refreshed and encouraged: We put on masks sometimes, cultural masks that are icons of the deep character, the deep fundamental nature that characterizes people who want to err on the side of justice. Because isn’t that what Batman was? A justice seeker, a person who sought to beat the bad guys and save Gotham City from all of the Jokers and Two Faces and Riddlers?
All of this illustrated via a child!
This raises further considerations. How could a child understand at such a young age such love and devotion for people he loves? How could he, being homeless, love his father so much he would be willing to sacrifice his safety?
In all honesty, this isn’t a surprise. I said before I’d gotten jaded, and was slowly starting to believe that crime was all that characterized homelessness … but I was wrong. Thankfully very wrong. Gavroches, or Gavroche types, exist. Gavroches, though, exist via Batman characters (I must qualify the statement for accuracy). And how does the kid understand such fundamental notions of self-sacrifice? It goes deeper than just a fundamental innocence: It comes down to the strength of human character, and our ability to give ourselves and the ones we love dignity, even in the worst of situations.
How much strength that would take! What five-year-old, privileged and with everything at his disposal, dare to sacrifice anything for his parents? Isn’t there a myth, in fact, that children that age are the dependent ones, not the defenders and protectors and the avengers?
Personally, this story touches me greatly, not just because of the philosophical implications, but because of how it affects me as a human being. It shows strength and courage, this exchange. We naturally know that the child can’t protect his father, at least not in any traditional sense. But who is to say that the child doesn’t protect the father in some other way? Simply by the father knowing that he has a son that loves him? Simply by knowing that his son cares enough about him to in principle sacrifice himself to keep his father safe? And isn’t that what a true superhero is? A superhero doesn’t need to be able to be sling webs or wield a hammer or fly in order to be a superhero.
That’s what I get out of this story.
I am reminded that character is something that we build, something that we cultivate, and knowingly, willingly. And it would seem that this child has already cultivated the desire to be a hero in the truest sense. Maybe he will grow up to be a firefighter or work in law enforcement, and get justice for the downtrodden. Maybe the streets won’t beat him. Maybe he has enough will to beat the streets.
Because we have to remember that even Batman was a kid once. Even Batman was a kid, and he had dreams, and he had things he wanted to do, and he had an innocence that even the roughest of conditions could never take away.
It would seem to me that in terms of the homeless, we have to remember that they are indeed people as well, and they have the ability to be superheroes in their own way. They have the ability to be compassionate and brave and courageous. Who are we to judge the kid as a false superhero, simply because he’s homeless? We have no right or authority to judge him. We have no right at all. In fact, it is difficult not to find these traits admirable. Because it forces me to ask the question of, if I was in a desperate situation, how far would I go to protect the ones I love? It reminds me again of what I have to be grateful for, and how I must do all I can to be selfless.
Which leads me nicely to my next point: The kid was so grateful for the action figures, the toys that made his day. Because he was a child, and he deserved to let the imagination play, to exist for its own sake. His imagination didn’t exist simply for his survival: It could exist just so he could be a human being, a kid, and enjoy himself and believe in himself.
It is such things that could make me weep with the understanding that we are capable of such great good and goodness. That we can be happy with so little, if our hearts are in the right places, and we superheroes, and we have let our imagination exist in all of its grand beauty.
And in that moment, I see a touch of Gavroche in the gentleness of the gratefulness of the story. I wish I could have been there to see the happiness, to see how grateful the kid was for ninety-nine cent toys. When I have so much, and take it for granted, and this kid had nothing, but just a little something, to give him hope, just a glimmer of hope.
Because we can’t forget that homeless children are real. They do exist, whether we like it or not. And they have needs as well. And we can’t forget them. Even just giving them toys … how much it makes them grateful for everything they have. How beautiful it is: a touch of Gavroche. A touch of Oliver Twist. A touch of Ragged Dick. It is amazing what the spirit can accomplish when it is willing, and when it can be grateful for what it has. To value the things that are most important, such as our family and community, such as our imagination and dreams and hopes, such as the beauty that exists in this world. When we value those things instead of all of the superficiality that exists in this world, to distract us, to make us want more, and more, and more.
We have to remember that Batman was a kid once, with dreams and goals. It’s our duty to protect these kids, just as they will protect us. Because we never know when they will grow up and they will defend us. We never know. We can’t know … but we can believe. We can hope.
Because I think deep down, we know that one day, it is people like this that will indeed one day be saving us.