Before he heads to the poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside to hand water, food and blankets to the city’s most vulnerable citizens, costume-wearing superhero Thanatos prepares one final item for those living on the streets – white slips of paper with the word “friend” scrawled on them.
“I hope that they keep it because they remember that they have a friend out there, they have someone out there who cares,” he said. “Even if it’s a crazy guy in a costume, they know that they have somebody out there who’s trying to look out for them.”
For four years, Thanatos has patrolled the neighbourhood performing good deeds, handing out items he buys himself. He was once told by a policeman that the end of life is all some homeless people have to look forward to, so the former U.S. military man – who says he moved to Canada in 1973 – named his alter ego after the Greek god of death. “I thought if that’s the case, death better get out there and take care of these people,” he said.
During an interview at – where else? – a cemetery, he says the slips of paper were found on 16 people who died last year, a testament to the rough shape some of those he tries to help are in.
His dark costume is a mix of The Green Hornet, The Shadow, Doc Savage and even a little Batman. Along with the black and green mask, he sports a long trench-coat, skull-and-crossbones tie, and wide-brimmed hat. Around his waist is a utility belt equipped with, among other things, a Swiss Army knife and bag of marbles.
Thanatos twice taps himself on the chest while describing the costume. A dull knock confirms he’s wearing a bulletproof vest, because even though he doesn’t view himself as a vigilante, trouble sometimes finds him in the form of a knife or gun.
“I was doing a water handout and a fellow came running around the corner,” he said. “I thought he had a black automatic pistol and he put it right up against me here. I grabbed at the automatic because I've been trained to disarm someone and my intention was to jack the slide back so the gun couldn't fire. As I tried to do that, it broke apart in my hand. It was a squirt gun that had been painted black.”
Thanatos is a member of The Real Life Super Hero Project, a league of caped crusaders that aims to feed the hungry, comfort the sick and better neighbourhoods. As a sexagenarian, Thanatos is the oldest member of the group. He’s quick to note the heroes don’t fight bad guys and leave them tied up for police – that only happens in the movies.
As he walks past rows of tombstones inside the cemetery, the interview is continually interrupted by curious onlookers. Thanatos disarms their concerns with a confident hello and tip of the cap.
He talks at length about the missions he makes to the Downtown Eastside several times a month, but is much less willing to discuss the man under the mask.
All he says about his day job is that it’s “in a corner of the death industry.” He won’t release his name because he fears that if his identity is revealed he’ll be drummed from his profession.
Thanatos mentions a wife and teenage daughter, both of whom support his cause, he says. His wife sometimes joins him on the streets to serve as a spotter, and his daughter has said she’d like to help some day as well. She knows she’s not yet ready for the intensity and heartbreak, he says.
Thanatos appears to choke up when talking about a man named Wayne. He says Wayne was “just a nice guy” who suffered from alcohol problems and couldn’t land a job. “They found him behind some dumpsters where he had tried to go and get warm,” he said.
The deaths take their toll but he has no plans to give up. “It weighs on me,” he said. “It hurts. But it just strengthens my resolve. It always reminds me of what I’m out there for.”
Thanatos was not on the streets during last month’s Stanley Cup riot but expresses disappointment that it occurred. For those unsure how to better their city, he has a rallying cry: “If you're really upset about the riots and you want to make things better, everybody go out and help 10 people. If you can't give them anything, give them something that's really even more important – five minutes of your time.”
Vancouver police spokesman Constable Lindsey Houghton confirmed the department has heard of Thanatos, who says he’s been in touch with officers on several occasions. Thanatos says he even collects shell casings on the chance they might be of some assistance to police.
“We're aware of his existence and that he's anonymously doing good deeds and helping people out in his own way and phoning 9-1-1 at appropriate times, which is all we ask of people,” Constable Houghton said.
During a tour of the Downtown Eastside, Thanatos heads under a bridge to highlight a narrow crevice where people sleep. Inside lies a blanket. A message has been left for him in chalk, indicating when the owner of the blanket will return.
Thanatos leaves a bottle of water and dashes off, eager to find the next person who needs his assistance.