NEW YORK - The intercom was broken outside the front door at the Washington Houses project in East Harlem on Thursday. No way to buzz a visitor up. Finally, someone leaving held the door open.
Jamel Hunter, 8, lives on the second floor of his building. He had been cooped up for days, like so many other children of New York City, as the colliding forces of the schools’ midwinter break and the subfreezing temperatures outside kept him indoors, watching television and drawing, sometimes on paper, sometimes on the wall.
This reporter handed Jamel a package. Inside was a picture frame, and inside that, a penciled sketch of a stick figure: Spider-Man. Above the figure, a word bubble read, “Hi Jamel.”
Below the figure, the signature read, “Stan Lee.”
Jamel grinned in quizzical recognition. What was this?
Backing up: In 1962, Stan Lee was a successful writer of comic books, with “The Fantastic Four” already on his list of greatest hits at Marvel Comics, when he started thinking of creating something new. That turned out to be the New York City crime fighter Spider-Man.
A girl named Phyllis grew up without a thought in her head about Spider-Man, and enough to deal with otherwise. She was born in 1968 with Blount’s disease and struggled to walk with bowed legs. She grew up and became a mother of five, and Jamel is her baby. Along the way, she suffered from kidney failure, knocking her out of the workforce - she had been a beautician, among other jobs - and into a motorized wheelchair she uses to leave the building.
Jamel has autism, his early years like a movie about childhood, sometimes in slow motion, sometimes fast-forward, a hyper blur, but never the right speed and always on mute. He did not speak until he was in preschool, when he began working with the Kennedy Child Study Center, which helps children with intellectual disabilities. He wandered away from parties, uncomfortable with the noise.
Jamel fell hard for Spider-Man. With his eighth birthday approaching in November, his mother thought he was finally ready for a party, and she decorated accordingly. There was more Spider-Man on the four walls and ceiling of that community room in the projects that day than inside three copies of Amazing Fantasy No. 15.
This reporter was among those in attendance, on assignment for an article about Jamel and the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
A woman in California, veteran jazz musician Corky Hale, read the piece. Most important to this story is her friendship with her neighbor, Lee. She approached him with a request.
“This was a unique experience,” Lee, reached by phone between meetings last week, recalled. “Corky called me and said there was a little boy,” he said. “She wanted a sketch, so I did one.”
(Lee, 92, was quick to point out that he wrote the “Spider-Man” comics but he didn’t draw them. “I’m not known as an artist, which is lucky for the world,” he said.)
The idea behind Spider-Man was to have a hero whom children could relate to, but who stood alone, not as a sidekick. And he was a bona fide New Yorker. “I decided I’d have these characters live in the real world, instead of Gotham City or Metropolis,” Lee said, referring to the main cities of the D.C. Comics universe.
His most recent incarnation of Spider-Man now rests in the very real world, on a table in a cramped apartment in East Harlem in a building with a broken buzzer, its owner probably a few years away from understanding what it means, but enjoying it all the same.