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("Survivor N.Y.C.")
 
Be prepared: Aton Edwards in his Cobble Hill apartment.
 
Aton Edwards has been referring to the World Trade Center as "ground zero" for six years. At lectures. In classes. On the radio. After last September, more people started listening.

Aton is a towering, muscle-bound man who roams the city wearing a black baseball cap with a fallout-shelter-like insignia of his own design. His ears point outward from the cap's sides, lending him a certain impishness, but most of the time he's all business. With the exception of his steel-toed boots, he wears denim and tightly woven cotton exclusively, for maximum fire resistance. He carries a jacket with him at all times, even in summer, to limit his skin exposure in the event of a biological attack or a dirty bomb. On his left wrist, he wears what he calls the Bandit -- a six-inch-wide leather utility band he designed with compartments for a tiny notepad, a pen, and a waterproof diving watch. His fanny pack, which he is never without, weighs twelve pounds. He made it himself out of rubber, neoprene, and stainless-steel mesh. Inside are eighteen different tools, including a soldering iron, a pencil-size butane torch, and three kinds of lighters. "The tools make it so much easier in any emergency," he says. "Pliers can make the difference between life and death if you have to turn off the gas."

Aton is something of a central figure among the local survivalists. To some, like J., he is a tenuous lifeline to the mainstream world; to others, he is a friendly front man, the one who puts a less threatening face on their worldview. In 1989, he founded the Preparedness Network, a nonprofit group, to spread the word about smoke hoods and gas masks and what he calls "improvisational adaptation" to emergencies. He's since renamed it the International Preparedness Network, and has given lectures sponsored by, among others, the Reverend Calvin Butts and Al Sharpton. He says he's enlisted sixteen other "instructors" who are as committed to urban survivalism as he is, walking the streets in their own pairs of steel-toed boots. At weekly seminars, mostly on the Upper West Side and Harlem, Aton figures, he and his friends have taught survival techniques to more than 2,000 people, many of whom, he believes, still carry around small survival kits to help them in a pinch.

Before September 11, it was easy to dismiss a lot of what Aton said as doomsday static. (One chestnut from 1999: "You've got people like bin Laden, who has been rumored to have set up a biological-weapons facility somewhere in Afghanistan. It's only a matter of time.") For years, he'd play guest Cassandra on two public-affairs talk shows hosted by Bob Slade on 98.7 KISS-FM, and people would call to complain about him. But on September 11, he was their star, on the air four times, and he's been back more regularly since. Enrollment at his seminars overflowed last fall, and he had to get larger venues before they became too much to handle and he shut them down in the spring.


Aton has thought about leaving town; for years, he's been planning to build a dome-shaped home in North Carolina, and he's bought the land. But he has bigger plans now. Aton is pitching himself and his fellow instructors as "an adjunct to FEMA" -- a civilian-volunteer corps that, with government help, could help mitigate the panic a terror attack would create. And though he stresses that his "preparedness" is a slightly modulated survivalism -- brightened a shade or two for non-misanthropes -- he does still keep one hand in the dark side, swapping survival tips and gear with loners like J. "The hard-core survivalists need to maintain their privacy because of the things they do and the things that they own," Aton says. He doesn't mention weapons, but he doesn't have to. "There's a little violence in it. Maybe I'm soft-pedaling it. There's lots of violence in it. It's 'You're gonna come for us, we're gonna take something from you.' They've been around for years, but this 9/11 thing has submerged them even more."

Last fall, Aton found himself swamped with calls from friends of friends -- frightened, well-heeled people who wanted to be prepared and were willing to pay for the privilege. "Remember Panic Room?" he says. "Well, let's just say there are more than a few people out there who are more than ready to spend liberally to protect their families." He's installed cameras and microphones on the stoops of brownstones. He's come up with a home recipe for pepper spray that's stronger, more painful. When one woman on the Upper West Side told Aton, "Tell me what to get, and I'll get it," he shrugged and shot the moon: He told her to get a Taser, solar-powered emergency lighting, a twenty-band radio scanner with a signal booster, a seismic detector for her front steps (her conventional motion sensors weren't working terribly well), a hydroponic kit for growing vegetables, and a mill for grinding her own wheat. She got it all. "People feel a little better afterward," he says.

Inside his apartment, a few steps from the front door, Aton keeps a 90-pound black nylon duffel. This is his "grab-and-run" bag, for when the big one hits -- or at least hits far enough away that he isn't incinerated. Inside is a backpack, a first-aid kit, a flashlight with batteries and an extra lamp, heat-resistant smoke hoods with charcoal-activated air filters, a fire extinguisher, emergency candles, a solar-powered AM/FM radio, a multi-tool, a knife, a pry bar, rain gear, a small tent, a whistle, a water filter, duct tape, work boots, gloves, enough freeze-dried food to last four people 72 hours, and kitty litter (for "emergency human-waste disposal"). "I'm not trying to protect from Armageddon," he says. "When it's time for the lights to go off, there's nothing anybody can do about that. This is really about comfort. I don't like to be in a situation where I feel like I'm helpless. So what I've done is I've tried to hedge the bets."

He reaches into his backpack and pulls out a wallet-size wad of orange heat-resistant plastic. He unfolds it. It's a smoke hood with a charcoal-activated filter: Slip it over your head, curl your lips over the plastic mouthpiece, and breathe. It retails for $79.

"This little thing right here -- if more people at the World Trade Center had it, even if it saved one person . . . "

After September 11, he sold more than 400 of them.

If you've ever had a passing interest in gas masks, chances are you've made your way to the Trader. The military-surplus store on Canal Street is the crossroads of New York's survivalist world. It's also where the movie people come for props and wardrobe, and where the tourists come, and the punks who are still into buying army gear. "Y2K -- I couldn't sell enough survival equipment," says the Trader's owner, Gary Hugo, a portly Romanian with a thick accent and a heavy sigh. "Masks, clothes, socks, pants, water purification. I couldn't get enough, either. Just today, I sell a hand-crank generator." Celebrities come, too -- DMX, L.L. Cool J, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Cash. Grace Jones is a neighbor and loyal customer. "She's very worried about survival," Gary says. "I tell her, 'Take a gas mask, the best one. The $300 one.' "

A few things changed for Gary after September 11. He stopped renting out the front part of his store to some guys who were selling pirated videos; he says he just didn't know them that well, but he also knew he was getting a little more scrutiny from the authorities. He moved the 81-mm. cannon and six-foot bomb casing inside, where they would raise fewer people's blood pressure.

Lately, Gary's been saying that he's getting tired, and that the Trader could be gone by the end of the summer. He has six bids on the space. They all want to put in another Canal Street gift shop. Gary would rather sell to someone like Aton, who'd keep the Trader up and running, and Aton is tempted. They both feel the place has played a small but crucial role in world events. "Remember Chechnya, when they were fighting the Russians?" Gary says. "Some guy came here for uniforms for the Chechens. He only bought twelve at a time so they wouldn't be noticed. Tall guy."

 

 

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Photograph by Michael Lewis.
 
 
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