I hadn't been looking for J., I'd never have noticed him -- neither
short nor tall, rail-thin, dark T-shirt and khakis, no logos or name
brands. The non-look is by design. "It's always good to hide in plain
sight," he says. He is a survivalist, but not a grizzled Vietnam vet
with a camouflage wardrobe, hunkered in an earth-covered shack in
Idaho with a thumb-worn copy of The Poor Man's Atomic Bomb. He is
young, 27, and a freelance artist (album covers, graphic design),
and, most discordantly, he lives in New York City, which, all things
considered, seems like the last place in the world right now where
a survivalist would choose to survive.
At a quiet spot under a tree in Union Square Park, away from the
crowds, J. admits that he's thought about leaving, especially since
last September. But he's become such a student of blending in that
sometimes it's easy for him to consider himself invulnerable, in
the city but not of it. That said, he still isn't sure talking to
me is a good idea; it took about a dozen phone calls and one missed
appointment to get to this moment.
He hasn't eaten in a restaurant in eight years. He doesn't watch
TV ("That shit's a distraction"), and he listens only to instrumental
music ("Lyrics are another part of conditioning"). He owns two different
kinds of gas masks, a hand-crank flashlight, a generator. "I don't
rely solely on Con Edison for my electricity, the phone company
for my communication, the television for my education, and definitely
not the supermarket for my food," he says. He has most of his food
shipped to him, freeze-dried, and over the years he has found that
there are certain bugs that you can eat.
He carries a white plastic shopping bag. Inside is his kit, containing
a multi-tool, antibiotics, bandages, a long knife. Sometimes he
spends weeks looking for just the right piece of gear. The gas masks?
The artillery? They're at home, in an outer borough, itself a feat
of urban camouflage. "My home looks like no one lives there," J.
says. "That's the best thing about it. You can walk right by it,
just like someone could walk by me and not take me seriously. I
He does keep guns there -- "weapons that I would consider legal"
-- but he doesn't like to talk about them. And with an eye to the
next attack, he's selected a few neutral safe spots throughout the
city where he can defend himself.
"A lot of people think survivalism is about being on a rooftop
with a rifle, paranoid and afraid," J. says, noticing a few more
people taking seats on the lawn around him. "I mean, if it had to
come to that, I definitely see myself doing the same thing."
J. has crossed paths with at least 60 others like him in the city
-- nouveau survivalists who are equal parts urban and apocalyptic,
methodically preparing for a future that was unthinkable to most
of us before last September. "I've met them, all races, all sizes,
even women," J. says. "Some of them are very extreme. I feel like
I'm in the middle. They're fucking paranoid."
With that, he stands up: "I've got to meet someone." I shake his
hand and start to walk away, but he calls me back.
"After today, if I see you on the street, I don't know you, you
don't know me. And don't call me anymore. It has to be that way."