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."
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."