I’d been working the crime beat at the Times for about a month, and as was my typical routine, Grosney and I would retire to a nearby watering hole to drown ourselves in whiskey and commiserate about the state of the world today. A favorite reporter pastime.
Grosney was an old hand in the newspaper business. He could remember the “good old days” as he called them, when he used to set type and the saying “stop the presses!” actually meant something. Sometimes he used to joke that he was there when Guttenberg printed the first bible.
Looking at him, you might forgive his hyperbole. He was in his 70s and he looked it. Decades of heavy drinking and seeing the worst that the city had to offer had etched deep lines across his sunken face. A steady diet of booze, greasy food, coffee and stress had left him thin with a nose the color of a bruised tomato.
“I’m telling you Stu,” he said to me while stirring his drink, “this city is going to shit. Shit!”
I was used to his rants about the state of affairs and I knew how to play my role. “Yeah?” I asked.
“Hell yeah!” He slammed his fist on the bar, almost upsetting the bowl of nuts and earning a cautionary look from Drew, the barkeep. “You’ve only been working at the paper for what, 5 – 6 weeks? You haven’t got a clue!”
He turned to look at me.
“Forty years ago this city was a metropolis. It was a thriving urban center! Back then politicians were honest, beer was cheap and women still had their virtue. You could walk down the street at night without fear of being mugged, raped or killed!”
“It’s not that bad,” I countered. “I think the police do a pretty good job. And of course, there’s Paladin.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. The flying freak in the cape. We were better off before he got here. He’s just as bad as the crooks! I’ve seen him in action before. He was stopping a bank robbery by standing in the middle of the road, stopping the guys from driving away. Everybody remembers the ‘foiled bank robbery’, but nobody remembers the nine-car pile up he caused because his dumb ass decided to just stand in the middle of the friggin’ street!”
“Hey Grosney, keep it down over there, I’m warnin’ ya!” Drew yelled from the other end of the bar.
“Keep your shirt on! I’m done with this place anyway, I got a 8-point column to write about the murder/suicide at the high school this morning,” he replied.
Grosney stood up and threw some money down on the counter. He may have been a little drunk, but years of drinking gave him the experience to be steady on his feet. He turned to me one more time.
“Just remember, this city’s going to hell and that super jack ass is helping it happen. It’d be a better place if he’d just stop playing superhero and let people live.”
After Grosney left, I took my whiskey and decided to find another table to sit at, preferably with more upbeat company.
Drew’s Pub wasn’t a popular place. Thankfully it has stayed undiscovered by rowdy college kids, gangs or other undesirables in the forty years that it’s been open. Drew’s father established the pub back in 1968 and Drew has kept it almost intact when he took over. It has its regulars and it’s a hang out for the newspaper types. There used to be more typewriter jockeys coming in for a drink after a stressful deadline. But with the advent of the internet, newspapers and reporters are a dying breed, rarely seen in nature.
I’ve only been frequenting the bar for the last month, but Drew considers me a semi-regular and I recognize almost everybody in there. So when I saw somebody sitting alone in a corner, his back to the wall, nursing an entire bottle of something, I decided to do the friendly thing and introduce myself to him. Maybe, I thought, he could cheer me up after that talk with Grosney.
I walked over to the table, which was in the darkest part of the bar. It could have been for ambiance, it could have been to keep the patrons from seeing the roaches running around like the owned the place. Either way, I couldn’t really see the stranger’s face.
“Hi there! My name’s Stu. Mind if I join you?”
“Knock yourself out,” he replied.
“So, I don’t think I’ve seen you here at Drew’s before. What brings you down to this dingy basement?”
“I just wanted a break is all. And this seemed like a quiet place where nobody would bother me for a few hours.”
I inferred from his answer that he wanted to be left alone. So, I scooted the chair back to stand.
“Hey, wait…that doesn’t mean I want you to leave,” he said, holding up a hand to stop me. “In fact, I could really use the opportunity to blow off some steam. Do you have the time to listen to a guy get some shit off his chest?”
His grip on my arm was like a vice, the only way out would have been to chew my own arm off. With that in mind, I gingerly sat down, ready to listen to this guy’s story, hoping this wasn’t the prelude to his eventually murdering me. It’s a tough call in this city, you can’t always tell who’s a friend and who’s a psycho.
“Sure man, lay it on me. I’m a journalist, so I’m great at listening to people. It’s my job.” I told him.
“A reporter, eh?” even in the shadows I could see his face twist in contempt. “Well, keep everything off the record and you’ll be fine.”
The threat in the way he pronounced “you” was unmistakable. I started wondering who this guy was and what he had to say.
“Alright, I’m all ears.”
He looked at me for a moment like he either he regretted telling me to stay, or was composing his words. “Listen, Mr. Journalist,” he started off. “Do you remember three weeks ago when there was a blackout on the east side of the city for a few hours?”
I did remember, it was annoying as shit.
“I’m the reason it was only a few hours instead of being an EMP that wiped out the whole coast. And you know what? Nobody thanked me!”
“Well, though it isn’t often expressed, people are very grateful for the electric company and everybody who works there for what they do. Don’t feel bad, I’m sure your boss will give you the recognition you deserve,” I said in consolation.
“What? I’m not an electrician and I don’t work for the electricity company.”
The confusion on my face must have been apparent, because even in the shadows I could see his eyes narrow in frustration.”
“Sigh…Did you notice last summer when gas prices skyrocketed by three dollars for about 12 days?” he asked.
“Sure. I didn’t live in the city then, so I was doing a lot more driving in those days. Just when everybody was getting used to the prices going down, they jumped up again.”
“Do you know why that happened?”
Not wanting to appear fully ignorant about socioeconomic trends on an international level, I used a trick most journalists employ when the questions are turned around on them for a subject they’re not too knowledgeable about: vaguely mumbling an answer. “Well, I assume that…you know…peak oil had reached, ummm, the tipping point of what the, uh…market could bare, vis a vis prices…” I trailed off, realizing that he obviously wasn’t buying it. “I haven’t a clue. Like most people I just assume the oil companies were trying to get as much money from people as they could.”
“Actually, it was my fault. The Devastator was holding the world’s supply of oil hostage and was threatening to destroy it all unless a ransom was delivered by the governments of the world. Unfortunately, during my battle with him, a bunch of oil caught fire. If I hadn’t put it out, all the oil would have burned up. Leaving the world high and dry. Because of me everybody gets to continue using their cars and trucks and commerce can thrive and the world can continue as it is, none the wiser. But nobody thanked me for that either. It’s kind of depressing.”
The Devastator? Ransom? World’s supply of oil? This guy was talking nonsense, I thought to myself. Even at my drunkest I never rambled on like I was some kind of superhero…
That’s when it hit me.
“Holy shit, you’re Paladin!” I yelled out. Then I caught myself and looked around the bar to see if anybody had heard me. Luckily everybody seemed to be lost in his or her own alcohol-fueled world and didn’t hear me. I leaned forward over the table, “holy shit,” I whispered, “you’re Paladin!”
I don’t know why I didn’t notice before. I must have been more inebriated than I thought. Upon closer inspection, it was pretty obvious: the costume, the cape that I had first mistaken for a heavy coat hanging on the back of his chair, the mask that obscured most of his face, accentuating his eyes. Everything that I –and the rest of the world- had seen countless times in newspaper pictures.
“I don’t get it, what are you doing here?” I asked.
“What does it look like? I’m getting drunk.”
“Because I don’t care anymore.” He sounded depressed, resigned.
“I don’t understand,” I said, prompting him.
“You don’t even realize the dozens, if not hundreds, of times I’ve saved your life and the lives of everybody on this damn planet. If you even were aware of how often your existence has been close to snuffed out, it’d blow your naive brain out of your ass. But what’s the point of doing it all if nobody knows? It’s a thankless job.
“Even the countless publicized times I’ve saved people and stopped crimes nobody’s thanked me. I’ve foiled robberies, rapes and murders, redirected the course of rivers, stopped lava from destroying towns and put out raging forest fires, and all without any gratitude from anybody.”
He stopped and took a dip swig from the bottle in front of him. Then he put his face in his hands and shook his head, before looking back at me and continuing.
“I feel underappreciated. People are so used to me being there to catch falling babies and punching crooks in the face that they just take it for granted that I’ll do the hero thing. The general populace often forgets that I don’t get paid to do this. I’m just a volunteer.
“You know, I wonder if people would even notice if I just quit. If one time I didn’t show up to save the day. Do you think they’d care then?” His voice started to increase in volume. “Would I even be missed?!”
“Of course you’d be missed!” I quickly said, hoping to calm him.
As quickly as it came, the anger drained from his face. “I don’t ask for much,” he said, his voice quivering, his eyes on the table. “I don’t want a reward, or anything. I’m not trying to get laid by being a hero! I just want to feel appreciated. I would like people to thank me for doing this out of the kindness of my own damn heart.”
It pained me to see Paladin like this. It was also awkward. I had never really considered the human side to the superhero. In a way, he was right. I did take for granted that he’d be there to save the day whenever we needed him, and I’m sure others did too. It never even crossed my mind to wonder what he wanted, or what he thought about things or what he did in his free time.
“I see your point Paladin. Maybe people don’t thank you enough for what you do. Maybe they do kind of take you for granted. But you want to know why? It’s because they know you’ll always be there. They know that no matter what happens, Paladin can make things better. You’re a rock. You bring so much security and peace of mind to the world it’s incredible. People go to and from work, go to sleep, get married, have kids and live their lives feeling safer simply because you exist. You can’t take that security away from the world, it goes so deep it’s ingrained into everything we do!”
He looked up at me then, questioning, almost like he was willing to believe my words. Or maybe that was just me being hopeful.
“If that doesn’t change your mind, think about this: even if you think the people you save take you for granted, I can tell you who doesn’t; criminals. If you take just one day off, they’ll notice. If you aren’t a superhero for yourself, or for the people who need you, then be one for those who will take advantage of your absence!” I said, somewhat accusingly.
For a few minutes he was quiet, lost in thought. Occasionally he’d look at me as if searching my face for the truth of my words, but mostly he’d look down at the table. Finally, he poured himself a drink in the glass next to the bottle. He raised the glass to his lips but stopped an inch short. He once again looked me in the face.
“Maybe,” is all he said.
He then stood up a little shakily, pushed the chair away from the table and slowly, (but still managing to do it heroically) walked out of the bar without looking back at anybody.
It was the first and only time I met Paladin. I don’t know what the conversation meant to him. I’m not sure he remembered my name or if I was just another one of the faceless thousands he’s saved over the years. But I like to believe that ever since then, every time I read or write a story about him rescuing people from a burning building, or stopping kidnappers from absconding with some child, that maybe he thought of my words while he was doing it. Maybe he knows that not everybody takes him for granted and if even one person appreciates him, then he can never quit.
It’s the only thanks I can give him.