Survivor N.Y.C.
It used to be paranoia. Now it's being prepared. Robert Kolker hangs out with urban survivalists who've made a science of getting ready for anything the city -- or Osama bin Laden -- might throw at them.
If 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 like that."

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."



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Photograph by Michael Kraus.
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