Heart Of A Hero01 August 2015 Written by By Ricky Mena
Published in July 2015 Articles
I’m a professional Spider-Man impersonator but, for a growing number of Bay Area children, I am the real Spider-Man, come in the flesh.
(Well, come in the suit, I guess.) They think they are friends with Spider-Man. It’s a wonderful illusion, on their parts, because if Spider-Man is your friend, everything will be all right.
It is important for my young clients to believe that everything is going to be all right because, for most of them, things in the real world haven’t been “all right” for a long time. Furthermore, for some of them, things will never be all right again. But, whether the child’s lifetime will extend for weeks or decades, being buddies with a real
live superhero brings to the young children a note of irresistible hope and comfort. We make our own realities, they say, and I’m in the business of helping young children to create a reality — always fun and usually exciting — where they can smile, laugh, and in some cases, find a stepping-stone on a path towards healing.
The kids themselves are great. I’ve seen 5-year-old Colten a few times. His cheerful grin and infectious sense of humor stands against his serious form of cancer called Neuroblastoma. The most recent time I saw him, Colt was wearing a Spider-Man sticker on his beanie. He offered to guide me to his friend, Rylan’s, room and led me on a covert pathway through hospital corridors, sneaking past the “evil guards” at the nurse’s stations. We finally got to Rylan’s room and Colten called, in a normal voice, “Come out, Rylan.” When he stepped into the hallway, Rylan was transfixed with excitement at finding that Spider-Man himself had come for a visit.
I have only been Spider-Man since last October, but my brief career has burgeoned beyond anything I could have ever planned or even hoped for in my wildest dreams. In spite of the fact that this all happened without a business plan or awareness of what was going to happen, my Spider-Man persona came to me as no accident. Spider-Man is my destiny, if the idea of a destiny ever has any meaning at all.
Like most children, I became interested in Spider-Man as a child; I enjoyed reading comic books rather than textbooks. I was drawn to the fact that comics were action-packed and colorful. As an unintended outcome of my fascination, comics also improved my vocabulary because the writers weren’t afraid of using big words, such as “organisms,” “species,” “vegetation,” “microscopic,” and “invertebrate.” In fact, as its name implies, a book called ESL Vocabulary Comics, uses comic books as vocabulary expansion tools, defining and elaborating on words like the ones I just listed.
I enjoyed all the superheroes, but from the beginning, Spider-Man was always my favorite. Like me, Peter Parker was a humble, goofy, nerdy guy who lived a quiet existence without anyone around him knowing that they were in the company of a superhero. He was also one of the smallest of the super heroes — young, slender, and short of stature. During the day, he was an unexceptional photographer but in the evening — when the criminal elements, demonic beasts, and savage monsters made their appearance — the weakling Peter Parker would undergo his heroic transformation into a champion with great physical strength and the ability to defeat any foe. I loved him! Spider-Man became my personal hero and role model. I was actually an athlete, playing a number of sports, and becoming captain of every team I ever played on. However, I followed Spider-Man’s behavior and never acted arrogant or boastful about my talents, but tried to emulate the humility and quiet spirit that I saw in Peter Parker.
Sometimes a person’s life will turn around in a single day. That day happened for me in early June last year. I fell into a dream state in which my grandmother, Nana, who had passed away in 2013, came to me. There is no way to prove that it was real, of course, but I know in my heart that it was no dream. Nana’s presence was actually there in the room with me. I don’t have the slightest doubt.
“I want to show you something,” Nana said. She then projected a video on a blank wall showing Spider-Man going into a hospital and passing out presents to the children. I was powerfully moved by the expressions on the children’s faces as they received their presents. “Wow, Grandma!” I said. “That is really cool!” “But what does this have to do with me?”
“That’s you,” Nana said. “When you wake up you are going to put this into motion.” Then she was gone.
I was gasping and short of breath because of the marvelous encounter I had just had. I immediately Googled “Spider-Man Suits.” There were a lot of them, but none of them looked right. I finally discovered a page, SpiderNation, that showed the phenomenal artistry of a professional costume maker who was in the business of making outfits for people engaged in Cosplay, which is the hobby of dressing up for Comic-Con type conventions. The realistic suits were priced in the $2,000 neighborhood, which was ten times my bank account at the time. When I spoke with him and told him my vision, he dropped his price to $1,300. I sold my fancy Dub-edition Chrysler 300, bought a highly used Honda Civic, and paid for that amazing suit.
It took four months, until October, for the suit to be delivered. I spent the time contacting hospitals, homeless shelters, foster care facilities — anyplace I could find that might be home to some suffering child whose life could be improved by becoming friends with a real superhero. At first people were reluctant to give the time of day to some grown man wanting to visit their children while dressed in a Spider-Man costume. The whole business was on hold until the suit was delivered and I had a chance to actually sell myself and my vision.
The suit finally showed up. When I unpacked the box, I had an unreasoning fear that it wouldn’t fit or for some other reason wouldn’t look real, and I would have wasted all that time and all those dollars. I put it on, looked in the mirror, and was shocked because the real Spider-Man was standing there looking back at me. I knew that I had hit the ball out of the park! This would be the key to my success. My buddy took some pictures with his smartphone camera and we began emailing them to potential clients. Everyone had the same response I did. “You really look like Spider-Man,” they said.
In late October I made my first visit to a child named Jeremiah, who was a patient at Children’s Hospital Oakland. His mom was friends of one of my training clients, Mia Stylez, who set up that first encounter. There were a number of coordination problems and the appointment got set back a few times.
When I finally walked through the door into his hospital room, Jeremiah’s response was all that I could hope for. When he first saw me, his eyes grew big in disbelief and for the next 20 minutes, or so, he remained in a state of shock. Little Jeremiah was obviously a big fan of the Web Slinger because his room was filled with Spider-Man toys and paraphernalia. He was wearing a Spidey suit himself because, as I learned later, he would not let his mother take it off.
We spent an hour visiting together. Mia took pictures of the event and forwarded them to me. Whenever I am in my Spider-Man persona, I’m in some kind of zone and not acutely conscious of all the dynamics going on in the room. However, seeing the pictures on the ride home really moved me to tears — especially when I recognized that they were the very scene from my Grandma’s video. When my mom saw the pictures and heard the story, she asked me if I knew what that day was. It was a year to the day of my grandmother’s death. I got goose bumps and tears.
Those pictures really made the business take off; Jeremiah became poster boy for the movement. My hours began filling up with visits; I would bring backpacks filled with Spider-Man themed toys, masks, and stickers. My Spider-Man business began to attract a following. I would post pictures on Facebook that would get 800 likes in an hour.
The suit began to fray and I had to figure out how to get a replacement. The Spider Nation owner was anxious to help because news of my activities was helping his business, so he sold me a better suit for only $800. I created a Go Fund Me account, promising to invest 100 percent of the proceeds into the purchase of the suit. People responded in a heart-warming fashion and I now have four suits. We got a good boost when NBC reporter Garvin Thomas, shared our story. The same week, KTVU Anchor, Frank Summerville, shared our story, which really put us on the map. I’ve really been busy and have taken Spider-Man to children’s hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses in Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio, Pittsburgh and Morgantown, Pennsylvania, and to West Virginia.
None of this would have happened if Kristin & Michael Harvey hadn’t taken over management of the business. They make it possible for me to do what I’m doing. Kristin manages the FB page, does all my bookings, handles customer service, takes pictures at the events, and handles all the clerical work. I just show up where and when she tells me to and she takes pictures at the events. Michael, her husband invests in the business. Their six-year-old daughter, who is my god-daughter, is a fan as well. We call her Little Spidey because she loves to wear a small zip-up hoodie with a Spider-Man print on it.
The Harvey’s are also my landlords. They provide a rent-free room. I trade them with personal training. They’ve lost 150 pounds between the two of them. Everything is fine; the business is good. To the Harvey’s, however, as to me, it is not about the income. We’re not doing this to make money; we’re making money in order to keep the business going.
Spider-Man recently met with 8-year-old Charlie, who has terminal cancer. When I came in, he had just gotten off the radiation table. When he realized what was happening, the smile on his face was great! I put an Ultimate-Hero band around him. Family members and nurses had gathered. They knew that Charlie’s end was not far off. There was not a dry eye in the place. I’m just getting started. I’m planning to reach out to Body Armor, which makes fitness clothing, to see if they will sponsor me. Other organizations are planning to sponsor us, as well. We’ve established my Spider-Man as a 501(c)(3) tax free charitable business, and I’m planning to branch out and bring in other Superheroes including Batman, Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Spider Girl — eventually providing heroes for suffering children from coast-to-coast.
My Spider-Man business is too good to stop. We’re bringing smiles and laughter to too many faces pinched by pain and disease to ever think about stopping.