Superheroes of Low Plaza

This essay was originally created for a writing course on writing about cities.

The midday university crowd encircles Captain Bayonne, backpacks slung over shoulders, squares of sentient glass in hand. The Captain is surrounded by the steps of Low Library and its stately and intimidating Greek columns. The enormous arenas of stone steps are meant to ascend the viewer to a place of higher learning and power, and the canopy of columns alludes to the thunderous gavel of the state. Directly across from Low is Butler Library, whose sub-140-character frieze advertises its namesake’s personal favorites with an obnoxiously Western bent: Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato… and so on. We are perhaps meant to be as afraid as we are inspired. But Captain Bayonne is a welcome foil—a trilogy of coughs reverberating against the melodramatic anxiety of a theater.

But against the loudness of the university’s regal and dignified formality, the whimsical curiosity of Captain Bayonne’s neon Mexican wrestler’s mask, the fluorescent glow of his trainers, and the feline-themed spandex cycling uniform disarms the pretensions of Low Library. His sheer strangeness alone reminds us that Low is neither a courtroom or senate, nor even a library! So how much can we judge one’s interior from their outward appearance, anyway?

For the minutes that he takes the brick-laid stage of Low Plaza, Captain Bayonne is the star of the show. Grasping a plastic Polar Spring water bottle, he marches to a nearby fountain and leans into the basin. Only a fool would drink the off-color water that expels from the plaza fountains, let alone sink their hands into it. Yet, the Captain does not care. He dunks the plastic bottle into the basin, preparing his projectile for the games. Having filled the thermoplastic vessel to a satisfactory weight of water, he walks ceremoniously to the center of the plaza. He kneels not for a king, an oracle, or a deity, but to place the bottle gingerly between the precise splines of his trainers. His arms fall perpendicular to the ground like battle standards on his sides. He is ready.

And so the Captain scans the horizon like the tiger graphic printed on his back, waiting for his audience to assemble. No matter that his full-body spandex suit absorbs the full radiation of the sun’s unwavering heat. As if solar gain or the panoptic gaze of the audience wasn’t overwhelming enough, he fearlessly dons a dark, one-piece cycling uniform; the kind of outfit that reveals too much without actually revealing anything at all. Fear, excitement, indifference— we can discern none of these with the mask occluding his countenance.

Suddenly, Captain Bayonne extends his arms back, as if to execute a violent backflip. Instead, his fibrous, muscular legs compress like bionic pistons, extending to release a swift maneuver that sends the sends the bottle twisting into a parabolic arc into the air. It tumbles in slow motion, throwing glistening caustics onto the paving with the daylight of a rare moment of New York sunshine. And I— just another mere crowd gazer—admire the uncertain poetry of its untamed, continuous torque. Everyone can feel Earth’s gravity pulling the bottle back to the ground as it spirals toward the iron petals of the plaza recycling bins. Will he score the winning goal?

Captain Bayonne is named after his hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey, located north of Staten Island and south of Jersey City. His Instagram posts are a cryptic, curious mosaic of absurdist images that echo the disturbing, memetic quality of early Aphex Twin promotional material, in which Richard D. James’ grinning face is superimposed onto everyone from office workers, small children, to even a voluptuous swimsuit model. In one post, Captain Bayonne reports to Gettysburg in a regiments’ portrait via Photoshop. In another, Captain Bayonne appears on a vintage Mets baseball card. In a humorously ’shopped Nike ad, Bayonne is dressed as Captain America, with a quote superimposed onto him: “Footthrow an abandoned water bottle into a public trash can. Even if you fail 98 of 100 attempts, you still cleaned up the streets.” But most numerous of all, Captain Bayonne is depicted on hats of presumably local fans, photoshopped running into/away from iconic images, and most importantly of all: running. The web publication Weird NJ described him as a “Fleet-footed Crusader for Fitness”; Captain Bayonne is actually an avid runner. As depicted on his Instagram account, he is often spotted duelling automobiles on the streets of Bayonne; two legs of muscle versus eight cylinders of steel. Remarking on the virtues of running and fitness to a reporter from Weird NJ, Captain Bayonne describes running as a way to defuse violence, anger, and anxiety. “I tell people that all the time, that if you go out for a run, you won’t have any of that. It will just dissipate.” Of course, there is a special quality that running in a bodysuit and mask imparts upon a runner…

These theatrics place Captain Bayonne amongst Morningside Heights’ very own superheroes. Most who pass him by would never guess that he is a very involved community icon, as well as an employee of Columbia University. If anything, they are probably suspicious of his intentions. Upon moving to New York, I was often warned of the eccentrics, the freaks, the scammers: the type who are better off ignored… especially in Times Square. But Captain Bayonne is different from these false idols. Aside from his colorful Mexican wrestler’s mask, the feline-themed spandex suit, and bottle-throwing theatrics, the Captain is an anachronistic community figure; a unicorn amongst our current climate of inward privacy, public mistrust, fear, and paranoia. His gregariousness recalls the myth of a small-town America where neighbors know neighbors, where the deeds of nameless Good Samaritans ripple across town from the freshly-printed newsprint of the week’s paper. Our current era of distant, anonymous discourse seems far removed from the nostalgic way that Bayonne residents celebrate and adore Captain Bayonne.

When asked about the meaning of his mask, Captain Bayonne claims that he began wearing a mask to increase his road visibility after being struck by an automobile during a run. It sounds fair enough—what could stand out more than a dayglo Lucha Libre mask and a peculiar patterned spandex bodysuit? However, his mask and suit allows him to become Captain Bayonne. Much like how the suit and the mask are the borders between Peter Parker and Spider-Man, Bruce Wayne and Batman, Bayonne’s costume makes him anew. His costume is a Buddhist-like distillation of the wholeness of our universe and ourselves; it says everything we should know about him without revealing much of his details at all. The most succinct descrip- tion of Zen Buddhism is the enso, a circle-shaped marking whose simple, cyclical form expresses the concept of totality—a key Zen philosophical idea. Like the enso , Captain Bayonne’s mask serves to meld multiple meanings and communicate a refined image. At it’s core, the mask allows Captain Bayonne to seamlessly embody an essence of health, vitality, and a bit of whimsy and audaciousness. His mask and his costume simultaneously communicate and facilitate these messages; we onlookers are both disarmed and inspired by both his comical form and the perpetual motion of his running figure.

It is urban studies cliché to speak of the city as being in constant flux, churning in a cyclical, ceaseless remaking and reordering. But if Marie Kondo had any say in the art of tidying up cities, I am confident that Kondo—best-selling organization guru, reality television star, the Japanese queen of tidying—would spare those like Captain Bayonne from a spring cleaning send-off: he sparks the simplest joy in the smallest public gestures. In an interview with a Columbia student documentarian published online, Captain Bayonne reflects a simple ethos our blasé outlook often occludes. He speaks like how a troubled Bodhisattva might ruminate, daring to conjure up the most fleeting happiness in others against a backdrop of ubiquitous suffering, “I’m not trying to hurt anyone or to make a political statement. It actually makes me happy when I see people with a smile on their face—it’s more than anything that I want to do. There is so much hatred and misery in the world… if you could make somebody laugh or smile for a second, it’s an amazing thing.”

As for the bottle soaring across Low Steps: the -9.8 meters per second squared brought the plastic bottle—and some of our hopes—sputtering onto a splashing mess onto the red brick. But like the enso and the mask, Captain Bayonne’s bottle antics are an outward expression of his ethos. Captain Bayonne and his soaring water bottle is the je ne sais quoi of faith that we can always rely on our cities to deliver.