Bad things are happening to old ladies," Batman explains. "They're getting jumped. Their purses are being snatched. You know how it makes me feel? Ticked off." His eyes narrow like Clint Eastwood's. "Real ticked off. So I says, `Don't worry, ladies, I'll walk the streets.'"
Tonight, those streets have led directly to the Cinema Lounge, on South Colorado Boulevard, where purse-snatchings and muggings are at an all-time low, but karaoke night is in full swing. Pretty soon, in fact, Batman will need to interrupt this public-service message to sing. Even superheroes need to decompress. And on the off chance the forces of evil should crop up suddenly, he is wearing the red leather caped ensemble he prefers for midnight alley-stalking. The styrofoam hood, the one with the bat ears, he saves for later. As for his real identity, he says, "let's just keep it a mystery."
"He even writes original songs," says the Lounge's daytime bartender, Chris Power. "Some of them are real good. Some of the customers don't realize it. Some are really reticent of him, because he's a little...off. But so what. He's good-hearted."
Power first encountered Batman about six months ago, when the caped crusader began stopping in afternoons for a few beers between crime-fighting assignments. He showed her his mask, described his mission to keep Denver safe, and explained, forthrightly, that he is receiving Social Security payments for a nonspecific mental disability. He told her he had once worked as a janitor at Denver General Hospital (where there is no record of his ever having been employed) but had been "contaminated" by a sack of dirty hypodermic needles and was thinking of suing.
"He's a night person," Power says, "and I work days, so I didn't realize at first that he would come here and sing. He puts on his Batman mask and he's a novelty. People have started coming here to hear this dude Batman. Business has picked up, it seems."
"It's true, really," Batman says modestly. "All of a sudden everyone's pretending they're related to me."
"They're saying I discovered him," says karaoke emcee Ralph Carrol, "but if I remember right, he discovered us. He's, uh, different, but you get used to that in the karaoke business. And he brings us these trophies he makes."
Carrol takes his own trophy, a blue one-by-four with two spent Duracell batteries glued onto it, to each Wednesday night karaoke session because, he says, "it represents energy."
Batman confirms this, adding that he has made personalized trophies for just about all the Cinema Lounge regulars. "It's all out of my imagination," he says, though he is unable to explain the significance of tonight's statuette, which he has titled "FIRST PRIZE OSCAR AWARD AND SNOOPY POT PIE." It's a conglomeration of aluminum pot-pie tins, an empty bottle of Obsession for Men, spent batteries and Snoopys cut from newspaper all mounted on the trademark blue board. In the running to win this objet d'art are several female country crooners, two Elvises, a handful of Jim Croces and Willie Nelsons--and Batman himself, who has just been announced to relatively wild acclaim, considering the crowd numbers about thirty drinkers and pool players.
"Here I go, but don't expect much," he says. "I can't even read the words--I can't read or write at all, unless you're talking about a stop sign."
Never mind, though. Laurie, a very beautiful and very inebriated woman wearing white go-go boots and cut-off jeans, has volunteered to help by whispering the lyrics into Batman's ear.
"All right!" someone yells. "Batman is a national treasure!"
"Somewhere in a deserted warehouse in Gotham City," another carouser begins, before being cut off by the strains of "I Shot the Sheriff." "Oh, well," he says, "Batman may be a little off, but he's a lot cool."
"Isn't it about time we had a harmless wacko to look up to?" asks Wes Griffin, an investment banker who is not above singing "Heartbreak Hotel." "I mean, he's fun. When I watch him, I feel like I'm having a flashback. I like that."
"So do I," says Sheree Gamet, another regular, "and he even made me a trophy. Besides, you know what? I believe he really does help people. I am absolutely sure that he does."
Back from the stage, Batman explains how this came to be. "I'm mentally disturbed, you could say," he says. "I was on Thorazine and Haldol, but I kept getting run over by buses, so I quit. And I had a job at Denver General. I kind of wacked out watching people come in stabbed and hurt. I started to lose it and booze it, which means drink too much." He came out of it about four years ago, he says, when a rash of purse-snatchings in the Washington Park area spurred him to action.
"I started just going through alleys at night and taking out criminals," he recalls. "How I do it is, I take them down at the knees with my martial arts kicks, or sometimes I wear gloves filled with sand--that stops 'em. Then I call the police and report the crime, but when the police show up, I'm not there. All they hear from the victim is, `Oh, officer, there was a giant Batman who saved me.'"
A slightly built man of 37, Batman is anything but giant, he admits. "That throws them off. I'm really pretty small." The costume he wears is less an homage to Batman the comic-book hero then a self-described "publicity" gimmick. "Oh, I watched the movies, but the main reason I dress like this is, people like to stare at something--so why be an average dresser? Plus, the police are looking for me, and this is a good disguise."
Over at District 3 headquarters, a spokesman is mystified but not opposed, philosophically, to Batman or his crime-stopping activities. "Basically, a citizen can protect other citizens," he says. "He would have to use the same restraint as a police officer, but still, if there's a Batman around protecting people, fine."
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"Oh, they'll say they don't know me," Batman replies, "but they're looking for me. They need my help."
So, apparently, do the Guardian Angels, whom Batman says he briefly considered joining but decided against because he doesn't like "the way they operate. Someone could get hurt. I told them flat out: I ain't about to wrestle anyone to the ground. I prefer to kick them in the head." The Angels say they have yet to confer with Batman, but they wouldn't reject the notion.
These official entities are of far less concern to Batman than the legions of scared citizens he's saved from purse-snatching--and worse. They tend to be in an advanced state of shock when they first encounter him, he says, and by the time they recover, he's gone. Still, the few words of encouragement they manage to utter are all the praise he needs.
"Pretty much," he says, "they'll just say, `Thank you, Batman.' And that's enough for me.