The Kid Who Saved the City

Annie Tittiger | June 20, 2014 | Story Best of the Bay

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To reach Tulelake, you veer off I-5 in Weed and steer 90 minutes northeast on a lonely two-lane highway through territory that looks more Montana than California: Ghostly marshes hug the edges of the pavement, wild pheasants swoop by your windshield, and Mount Shasta soars above, shrouded in ominous-looking storm clouds. The only other vehicles on the road are 18-wheel rigs and two-story-tall tilling tractors, looming monsters that you begin to imagine might transform into Decepticons and smash your pathetic little SUV. Hopping back and forth over the Oregon border, you drive on until you finally find yourself in the idyllic farm town of Tulelake, a mere seven blocks wide, grain fields stretching from the edge of town as far as the eye can see. This is where Batkid lives.

When he greets me at the door, Miles Scott, the five-year-old leukemia survivor who became an international phenomenon when his wish to be Batman was granted by Make-A-Wish’s Greater Bay Area chapter, pretty much ignores me. It’s the kind of embarrassed disinterest common among shy kindergartners, but it’s clearly not a family trait: His two-year-old brother, Clayton, takes to me immediately. “Who are you? Who are you?” he says, bouncing up and down in the carpeted entryway of the Scotts’ modest mid-century home, wearing nothing but a diaper and an orange T-shirt.

Miles and Clayton’s mom, Natalie, a 27-year-old vocational nurse with a thick mane of blond hair that she tucks behind her ears, shakes my hand and directs me to the bathroom (I’ve been on the road a while, after all). “The wallpaper in there is kind of crazy,” she warns. “We had a flood a few years ago, and it’s the only room that wasn’t soaked, so it didn’t get updated.” She’s right: The bathroom is lined with pink and gold Aquitaine-style wallpaper, ’80s-chic lantern lights hanging over the sink. An orange and lime-green training potty seat next to the tub complements the decor nicely.

When I emerge, Miles and Clayton have taken to running around the living room. They bounce off the big gray sectional, dart past the old wood-burning fireplace, and pause suddenly at the picture window that looks out on the front lawn. A faded gold 2007 GMC pickup has parked in the gravel drive.

“It’s the Golden Pick!” Miles exclaims, and I realize that he is now addressing me. “My dad calls it the Top Hat, but I call it the Golden Pick because it’s gold and it’s a pickup,” he says, giddy in anticipation of his father’s arrival. Nick Scott, a big-boned 29-year-old hay and grain farmer (of whom Miles is the spitting image), comes in through the back door wearing a flannel shirt under a down vest. With a massive mug of coffee in hand, he settles into a well-worn leather armchair. Miles clambers onto his back and throws his arms around his father’s neck. Nick barely flinches. Natalie has moved to the floor, sitting on her knees and patiently dressing Clayton one sock at a time while he wriggles away to continue building a Lego ship. They are all within arm’s reach of each other, a storybook picture of the American family, about as tight as a four-person unit can get.

When we get up to tour the house, everyone rises at once, the boys scuttling from room to room to point out the Batman paraphernalia that is, unsurprisingly, everywhere. The kitchen is filled with crayoned pages from Batman coloring books. Miles’s room is decked out with posters, a Batman blanket, and trinkets from the Batkid day. Nick’s office walls are covered in newspaper clippings, including the instantly collectible San Francisco Chronicle faux front page: “Batkid Saves City!” Below it hangs the key to Gotham that San Francisco mayor Ed Lee bestowed upon Miles. Nick pulls out a box overflowing with letters from all over the country. He rummages through a pile in the corner and pulls out a two-foot-wide papier-mâché Bat symbol. “I don’t even know what to do with this,” he says ruefully. Miles grabs it, putting it against his chest. “Look,” he says, lowering his voice a few octaves and puffing out his chest: “I’m Batman!” The phone suddenly rings, and the family pauses for a beat. Nick sighs wearily, then lets it go to voicemail. Ever since November, when Miles went viral and the Scotts’ lives changed forever, the landline has been ringing nonstop. Media reps nationwide still want to get ahold of Miles, the Batkid, to get him to dress up, play the role, lift our spirits. “Part of the problem,” says Nick, “is that we don’t have caller ID.”

It’s hard to draw a direct line between the peaceful, ordinary scene here in the Scott home and the crowds swamping the streets of San Francisco, the national news outlets broadcasting Miles’s face to millions of viewers, the tweet and stilted six-second Vine from Barack Obama (bemused, thumb pointing: “Way to go, Miles. Way to save Gotham!”). All I see now is a young family slowly preparing for the day’s adventure, a trip up to Medford, Oregon, for a cousin’s birthday party. Nick and Natalie are more concerned with getting everyone in socks and out the door than with who may be on the other end of the phone line. They have a calm maturity that one doesn’t expect from media-besieged parents in their late 20s, but then again, they’ve been through a lot in the past four years.

Miles was only 20 months old when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in early 2010. It all started when he fell off a barstool at Natalie’s grandmother’s house. His parents took him to an inpatient clinic in Klamath Falls, Oregon, to get x-rayed, thinking that he might have broken something, maybe his clavicle. He turned out to be only bruised, not broken, but a few weeks later Nick and Natalie noticed a suspicious lump right below his ear, so they took him back. The doctor thought it was an ear infection and sent them on their way with some antibiotics. But Miles wasn’t getting any better: He wasn’t eating, he was vomiting all the time, and he was having trouble sleeping.

At the time, Natalie was working at the same clinic as Miles’s primary care physician, so one slow drop-in day she asked Nick to bring their young son into the office for some blood work. What it revealed was every parent’s worst nightmare: Miles's hemoglobin was incredibly low, his white blood cell count incredibly high, and his immune system completely shot. The doctor immediately called the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland and loaded Miles with antibiotics. Nick and the child got on a plane and flew up that night, and Natalie and her mom followed in the car, not arriving at the hospital until 2:30 in the morning. The family stayed in Portland for three weeks, one week in the hospital, another two in a nearby Ronald McDonald House. A few months before, the water heater had burst back in Tulelake, inundating the Scotts’ entire house—the flood that Natalie mentioned earlier. Nick had wanted to do the work himself, but because of the emergency they had to hire outside contractors. “You can see that the workers messed up the floors,” says Nick, pointing to missing grout between the kitchen tiles. “But no one was here to make sure they did it right.”

It was around this time that a social worker at the Ronald McDonald House told the Scotts about Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit that grants the wishes of children diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition, but Nick and Natalie wanted to hold off on registering Miles until he was healthier. “We didn’t want to make the wish for him,” says Natalie. “We wanted to wait until he was well enough to wish on his own.” Miles technically went into remission in May 2010, but in order to make sure that he wouldn’t relapse, doctors recommended chemotherapy (most boys, Miles included, have to endure an extra year after the normal dosage in case the cancer is still hibernating in the testicles). For three years, the Scotts made the trek to Portland every three to four months, with additional two-hour trips to Medford for chemo treatments. Miles’s medications caused night terrors and mood swings, constant fatigue, and never-ending stress on his immune system. “Everything was a danger, even his own stomach,” says Natalie. “He could have ingested some harmful bacteria from fresh produce.”

Since he couldn’t do much else while he was sick, Miles watched a lot of Batman, “the old Adam West ones,” his dad explains. Soon, as he felt stronger, Miles got into dressing up. He would run around the house, the backyard, and the front yard in costume, often making baby Clayton dress up with him. And it wasn’t just Batman. “He likes them all,” Nick says. “He goes through phases; new movies come out—Green Lantern, Captain America. But Batman was his first and was always the best.” (Miles still has a closetful of getups, from Spider-Man to Superman and, of course, the Batkid costume—“It’s not a costume, it’s a suit!” he clarifies—all hanging neatly in a row as if they were his everyday wear.)

As Miles was wrapping up treatment in February 2013, the family finally registered with Make-A-Wish. A husband-and-wife duo came up from Mount Shasta to interview Miles—alone, Natalie jokes, “so he could actually articulate what he wanted, and not have us saying, ‘Wish for a Corvette!’” Natalie and Nick told the volunteers that Miles loved Batman and superheroes, but that was about it. The husband took Miles into a room while the wife did paperwork with his parents. Miles sat for 30 minutes drawing pictures and talking—about what, his parents can’t say. But when he came out, he had his wish: He wanted to be Batman.

Page two: The day that San Francisco's cynics had to temporarily pipe down.

And so it was that for one day in mid-November, all the cynics and worriers and op-ed writers warning that San Francisco had lost its soul had to temporarily pipe down or risk public scorn (more on that in a moment). Miles Scott became Batkid, a pint-size caped crusader who traversed the city performing heroic act after heroic act: He saved a damsel in distress from the cable car tracks; he stopped the Riddler from robbing a bank; he rescued the Giants’ mascot, Lou Seal, from the dreaded Penguin. He saved Gotham—that is, us—and restored...something. Hope? Wonder? Gratitude? Whatever it was that he did for us, it sure felt great. What started as a cute, adult-enabled game of pretend with a five-year-old became a citywide outpouring of joy, goodwill, and fist-pumping, the likes of which San Francisco hadn’t seen since, well, at least the last World Series parade. People came out by the thousands to cheer Miles on—over 20,000 turned up on Civic Center Plaza to watch Mayor Lee give Batkid the key to the city—but the response was defined by more than just the cheerleaders.

Off-duty SFPD officers volunteered to help corral the crowds and escort the Batkid caravan; the Chronicle printed 1,000 special edition newspapers with Batkid headlines dominating the front page; Miles’s Batkid suit was donated by a dad who had made it for his son one Halloween out of old hockey gear; the San Francisco Opera reworked the other costumes to make them look authentic; the Giants offered up AT&T Park, and team president Larry Baer personally escorted Batkid across the field after he nabbed the Penguin; Comcast handled live streaming video, which enabled thousands more to watch across the web; Uber dropped Batman off at his hotel first thing in the morning and shuttled Lou Seal across town to beat the traffic before lunch; Twitter helped live-tweet the event; Livefyre created a virtual bulletin board on the Make-A-Wish site that aggregated all the social media chatter; 13,000 people RSVP’d to participate in a flash mob in Union Square (the number that showed up was actually closer to 20,000); Burger Bar hosted the Scotts and their extended family for lunch; and the list goes on.

The man who played Batman to Miles’s Batkid, Eric “EJ” Johnston, jury-rigged a miniature projector on his wrist to play videos of police chief Greg Suhr telling Batkid where the bad guys would strike next. “I could have used my phone,” he says, “but then I’d just be a guy with a phone. Not Batman.” Johnston’s wife, Sue, who played the damsel in distress, built a fake bomb to tie herself to (both EJ and Sue are engineering whizzes). The day before, Miles had met EJ at the Circus Center on the Haight*, where, unbeknownst to EJ, all the acrobats had dressed in costume to create a superhero training center. Make-A-Wish received so many offers for help with the day’s production that it had to turn some down (apparently there are a lot of Batmobiles out there). “There was a phrase that everyone kept repeating that day,” says Jen Wilson, the marketing and PR director for Make-A-Wish’s Greater Bay Area chapter. “They said that it was a privilege to be asked to help.”

As spontaneous and enthralling as the day turned out to be, as enthusiastic as people were to help make Miles’s wish a reality, it didn’t happen because that wish was particularly unusual or creative. Look through Make-A-Wish’s archives, and you’ll find that the desire to be a superhero is pretty common. In 1999, a six-year-old battling cystic fibrosis transformed into Beetle Boy and saved Pittsburgh. In 2010, more than 350 volunteers in Seattle helped a 13-year-old become Electron Boy. Just months before San Francisco dressed in Gotham drag, the Orange County chapter granted one kid’s wish to be Robin and even included the Anaheim Angels in the adventure. So why did Miles’s wish become so much bigger than those precursors? “That’s the million-dollar question,” says Make-A-Wish’s Wilson. “People really adore Batman as a character, then you couple that with Miles’s story and what he went through at such a young age. People’s faces that day were like what I’d imagine extras in a movie look like when the superhero appears.” It was a chance for people to go back in time and experience what it’s like to be a child again, adds Wilson, “to be happy about something just for the sake of it, and not overthink it.”

But while the city certainly experienced an epidemic of childhood nostalgia that day, something more was happening as well. What transpired was more akin to a chemical reaction, one that could only have taken place here. Our obsession with social media and proximity to its purveyors, our disproportionate population of comic book geeks, our uncanny resemblance to mythic Gotham (the trolley tracks, the narrow streets, the moody fog, the pointy skyscrapers), our willingness to ditch work on a Friday afternoon in fall, and, most of all, our aching desire for feel-good news after a full year of finger-pointing and culture-clashing and affordability angst—all of this combined to create the inimitable alchemy of Batkid.

What would have been just another Friday, people counting the minutes until the weekend, became a citywide catharsis. It wasn’t unusual to overhear people saying that this was the best they’d felt about San Francisco in a long time. For those who demurred—most notably Supervisor Eric Mar, who tweeted, “Waiting for Miles the BatKid & Wondering how many 1000s of SF kids living off SNAP/ FoodStamps could have been fed from the $$...”—the public and private rebukes were swift and brutal. (Mar spent the next several days in damage-control mode.) But aside from the few naysayers, it was hard to locate a person within 20 miles of downtown who wasn’t misty-eyed about the proceedings.

But how, exactly, did shy, young Miles Scott make the leap from Bay Area cause du jour to global celebrity? Less than two weeks before the event, Stefania Pomponi, cofounder of the San Francisco–based social media marketing agency Clever Girls Collective, found out about Batkid through Reddit. She called Make-A-Wish and offered her company’s services pro bono. The agency then sent out a newsletter to its 6,500 influencers (mostly women bloggers, instagrammers, and pinners), explaining the event and inviting them to share it with their communities.

The gambit worked. The hashtag #sfbatkid prompted over half a million tweets and by 7:30 a.m. that Friday was the number-one trending Twitter topic in the world—before Miles’s adventure had even begun. By that afternoon, the Make-A-Wish website was seeing a thousand hits per second, a more than 1,400 percent increase over its previous record, which of course caused the site to crash. Celebrities, including current and former movie Batmen Ben Affleck, Christian Bale, Val Kilmer, Michael Keaton, and even Adam West, gave their nod of approval via Twitter and video interviews. By the following Sunday, according to Clever Girls estimates, Batkid had logged 1.8 billion social media impressions. That night, national news outlets, including ABC News World, NBC Nightly News, and CNN’s Situation Room, reported that Batkid had saved the city of Gotham. It spread across social media like wildfire, a phenomenon akin to Gangnam Style or the Harlem Shake—and everybody wanted a piece of it.

After that day, the Scotts’ phone never stopped ringing: Reps from Jay Leno, the Ellen DeGeneres Show, Jimmy Fallon, Queen Latifah, Good Morning America, the Arsenio Hall Show, and Access Hollywood all wanted to feature Miles. Batkid had become a symbol of hope and joy—the unifier of a city. “People think, ‘Well, you made S.F. happy, so maybe you can make the rest of the world happy,’” Natalie says. “Like that’s not any pressure.” Wilson did her part to mitigate the barrage of media attention. “There was one person who told me in so many words that he was going to stalk the family. His exact words were ‘Don’t make me chase them.’ It was just unbelievably aggressive.” The family was asked to comment for articles, offered slots on late-night talk shows, you name it. It was hard to choose which offers to accept, if any, so the Scotts laid down a few ground rules: They’d consent if it benefited and raised awareness for Make-A-Wish, and, of course, if Miles wanted to do it.

“It became clear pretty quickly that what excites a lot of adults doesn’t appeal to a five-year-old,” says Wilson. “Miles doesn’t want to go on a talk show. You can barely get him to say a few words.” Even when the White House extended an invitation to the family to attend the State of the Union address, the Scotts declined. “What the heck is a five-year-old going to do there?” Nick asks.

The few times that they did say yes, there were some major disappointments. “When you watch that Good Morning America footage, you just cringe,” says Wilson, referring to the morning show segment in which Batkid had to save the rapper Pitbull from the Joker. “You can tell they weren’t thinking about it from a kid’s perspective.” When I watch the GMA outtake again, it’s easy to see how entirely different it was from the wish day: the flashing lights of the Bat Cave, the Joker’s creepy makeup, Pitbull as the damsel in distress (as if any five-year-old should know who Pitbull is). The footage comes off as a day on the job for a battle-hardened child star—a far cry from the sweet, apprehensive little boy I met up in Tulelake.

Then there was the Oscars ordeal. Miles was supposed to present an award with Andrew Garfield, the British lead of The Amazing Spider-Man, but the presentation was cut because Garfield and the producers allegedly had a disagreement over the script. The producers tried to make it up to the Scotts by giving them a VIP tour of Disneyland, but the incident was only made worse by another wave of media attention, this time trying to get the scoop on the movie star’s behavior. “We’re not even sure what happened,” Nick says. Natalie shows a little bit more disgust. “At first with the Batkid stuff, it was all promoting something good, so we were OK with it,” she says. “But this was just dwelling on the bad, and why would you do that?”

Of course, there have been plenty of good experiences, too. The Scotts were happy for Miles to participate in the Oregon Air National Guard’s Pilot for a Day program in Klamath Falls in April. Miles got decked out in an F-15 pilot uniform and sat in the cockpit, defeating the Riddler and the Joker in a simulation program. And the family was ecstatic to return to San Francisco on April 8 for the Giants’ opening day, where Miles got to throw out the first pitch to Matt Cain. When the boy wonder hopped out of the Batmobile and confidently thrust his fist into the air, the crowd went nuts. “We’ve been disappointed in a lot of cities,” Nick says. “But not San Francisco.”

But for now, Miles has put away the costume—sorry, the suit—except for special occasions. “He’s still at an age when he believes it’s all real,” his mom says under her breath when he leaves the room for a fleeting moment. In Miles’s mind, EJ is the real Batman and he really did help nab the Riddler and stop the Penguin back in November. And if Miles is called to duty again, you can bet he’ll suit up.

Until then, Miles will play tee-ball, which he started this spring, and will sign up for basketball for the first time this winter. Aside from the occasional autograph session at school, the notoriety in Tulelake has begun to taper off. And here’s the most welcome news: Miles’s health is fully restored, with no treatments on the horizon. “That was the best part of all this,” says Nick. “It was the perfect send-off.” Once shy, the boy has gained a new level of confidence, a development that has surprised even his parents. “We were like, ‘Wait, who is this kid, and what’d they do with Miles?’” Nick says. “But now it just goes along with putting on the suit.” The family is returning to everyday life, their biggest concern now being whether or not to sign Miles up for karate classes in Klamath Falls. “It’s a 30-minute drive up there,” says Natalie. “I don’t want to do it if he’s not interested.”

But tucked away in a file cabinet in Nick’s office is the evidence of a brief but meaningful brush with fame: a stack of news clippings from Time, the Huffington Post, the Oregonian, the Chronicle, the Examiner, the Sacramento Bee, and the Herald and News (Tulelake’s local paper) detailing the significance of the Batkid day. Nick and Natalie plan to wheel it all out again in five or so years, when Miles is old enough to understand the reverberations that his wish created, the impact that it had on so many lives. As I say goodbye to the Scotts, Miles is standing precariously balanced on the arm of the big leather chair, rocking back and forth and rattling off as much superhero information as he can—he wants to tell me more about his toys, his suits, his action figures. Then his dad comes into the room and tells him to get down.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Circus Center as located on the Embarcadero. It is in the Haight.

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco.

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