With jolly Jonah's blessings fresh on my slacks, I sought to get the skinny on the web-head's whereabouts. I began by contacting a "Peter Parker" who was listed in the Portland white pages. While I was under the impression Parker was a teenage photographer with frequent ties to Spider-Man, I quickly realized the Peter Parker I was talking to was a 99-year-old black man. My "story sense" wasn't even tickling.
My next option was the owner of a local extermination company--a man I'll call "The Grumpy Pesticide-Huffing Asshole." Talking to this flunkey, I realized he too failed to make my "story sense" palpate to any degree unless you count the itchy scalp I got from osmosis.
My last stop was the Xerces Society; a known Hawthorne hangout of suspected bug-huggers. Sure to net intelligence there, I spoke with staff entomologist, 30-year-old Mace Vaughan, who earned his Masters degree at Cornell University in entomology. As soon as I met him, my "story sense" tingled so vigorously I bit my lip to keep from blurting, "HEY! YOU'RE SPIDER-MAN!" I had to be careful.
My interview--cleverly disguised as a means to tell Daily Bugle readers about the Xerces Society--contained clever questions I hoped would break Mace Vaughan down and make him reveal his true identity. Vaughan invited me into his lair and offered me a seat. After checking for sticky surfaces, I began by asking about his background.
SPIDER-MAN - THE MAN
"I've been married for three years. We moved here to Portland about a year and a half ago from upstate New York. I was teaching there. So my background is in entomology. I teach classes about honeybees and I've taught courses on spiders. I keep bees in my backyard in Portland, a few blocks away. I spend a lot of time teaching."
Uh-huh. I see. So he spreads his spider propaganda to America's youth, came here from New York, hangs from the ceiling... gotcha. Last year, Vaughan appeared on PBS teaching innocent children how to grow bee-beards. "It's not a crazy thing." He assures me a bee beard looks "spectacular." Hmm. Spectacular, eh?
"What kind of person chooses a life among insects?" I asked carefully. "Tough to generalize. If you've got the right brain for it, you like to collect things that's one segment of entomology. Other entomologists just find these creatures fascinating. These tiny little things you can hold in the palm of your hand and their whole life is right there. You can see them moving, cleaning themselves they're alive. Insects are great subjects for studying behavior.
"Then there are those who are attracted because it's a little bit creepy. That's why I like it, partially, because people think you're a little bit weird. I'm all for that--but I don't walk around with things crawling all over me."
IN OUR OWN BACK YARD
Of the 35,000 species of spiders that have been identified worldwide, Vaughan said only about 35 are poisonous--where a bite would be fatal. If you are a strong healthy adult, you've got a good chance of surviving. If you're a kid, an older person, or in poor health, it's worse. "Most spiders you encounter can't poison you because their venom isn't toxic to us," Vaughan says. "It might hurt, but it wouldn't kill you. That, or their mouth parts are so small and fragile they can't breach the skin."
There are two basic types of poisonous spiders. One uses a toxin that affects the nervous system. "The spider paralyzes the prey to make it stop kicking. Most insects are spikey, kind of pointy things, and spiders are particularly fragile. Their abdomens are pretty soft. So if a grasshopper kicks into it with one of its claws that's the end of the spider. A spider like the Black Widow uses a neural toxin. If you're bitten by a black widow you'll experience very intense pain, wooziness, nausea--all the things associated with your nervous system being attacked. It can be horrible.
"The Brown Recluse has necrotic poison. It causes your flesh to die. Your cells self-destruct and break apart. If they bite you, it is not a good thing. Whole parts of the body will begin to fall away, and it is very slow acting. The Hobo Spider is getting a lot of press these days. You find a fair number of those around. The Hobo Spider has necrotic poison that eats away at your flesh. Nothing like the Brown Recluse, though, which is really potent.
"But the most important thing is that insects and spiders are an incredibly important part of our world. Spiders eat enormous numbers millions of pounds of insects. Then the spiders become prey for something else. You take that part out of the ecosystem and it will fall apart. I would never profess to have the ability to help people lose their fear of spiders. Hey, they're creepy. There's no denying it. But they're very interesting creatures."
HOOK, LINE & STINKER
Vaughan has yet to reveal his secret identity--which means it's time for the fast pitch. I pummel Vaughan with multiple questions: "What does the Xerces Society do? What are your duties? Do you prowl the streets at night?" Vaughan laughs brazenly at my foiled deception.
"I don't do too much night crawling," he tells me. "Although, if you ever walk up to a light at night, you'll find some pretty cool bugs. I've been known to grab one or two from underneath a streetlight or from a light on the side of a building. There have been some prowlings. That's for sure.
"We're a conservation organization. We spend our time trying to protect bio-diversity. A lot of our work involves educating people about what insects do for ecosystems. The woods, the fields, and the back yards; as well as their important role in streams. You can't have salmon unless you have a stream stocked with a healthy community of invertebrates Mayfly larvae, things like that."
Vaughan chuckled and reminisced how he's seen Crab Spiders lurking in flowers when conducting field studies, and how they attack and kill bumble bees who come along expecting nectar, cleverly changing color to match the flower. Some spiders are scavengers, like Daddy Long Legs, which eat crap like dead slugs. Others, like the Wolf Spider, leap out and attack prey savagely--silk thread be damned! Some breeds in South America are so big they hunt and kill birds. Vaughan didn't even wince telling me these things. Therefore, he must be Spider-Man. But I needed more proof.
Trick question: "Are Crab Spiders related in any way at all to sea crabs or crotch crabs?"
"No. Not even a little bit," he says. "They are totally different groups, but they have that crab-like look. They're weird looking, but they do look sort of like one of those crabs you can imagine walking sideways on the beach."
That was good. Too good. I decided to pull out the big guns: "Do you know anything about Barking Spiders?"
He paused for a moment. "You know, every so often they come out. I don't know what's going on with that. No, I don't know too much about the taxonomy of Barking Spiders. I hear they're common around places that serve burritos."
Vaughan was one tough customer. I decided to pull out all stops. McCarthy Tactics. "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Avengers or any other similar super hero organization?"
"They've asked me many times," he blurts out. Ah-HA! I've got him!!
"But," he quickly adds, "I had to turn them down. I've got my own life, working to save the world for these other little creatures, fighting on their behalf. I have never been a member of any crime-fighting spider-based organizations."
Damn! Close, but no cigar. "Have you ever been bitten by a spider?"
"I have not," he confesses, "and I have never been injected with radioactive venom."
Slam dunk! I hadn't mentioned anything about radioactivity! I shook Spider-Man's hand before leaving, but he knew I had him by the huevos! The fear on his face said it all.
The look on mine said exposé.