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."
A few weeks ago, some other guys walked into the Trader and asked for night-vision goggles and range finders. Gary, who believes he has a facility for placing accents, decided they were from Kuwait. He called the NYPD's intelligence division, the number of which has been on a note pasted next to his register since last September. A car came immediately and some plainclothes cops ushered the guys out of the store -- no longer Gary's problem.
Gary notices survivalists all the time. One, named Clayton, has a garret in Pennsylvania that's completely covered by earth. He maintains a five-year supply of firewood; the chimney and ventilation ports are protected so that when society collapses, no one can get to him. And yet, in a pitch-perfect illustration of urban cognitive dissonance, this same man pays for this lifestyle by working in New York City, commuting through barely protected bridges and tunnels twice a day.
Gary says he can tell at once the difference between army-surplus dilettantes and the hard-core survivalists: "The real guys, they ask for coveralls. Mosquito netting -- the mesh that you attach fabric to so you seem invisible. The tree holders, the things where you sit in the tree. The handheld generators. Special kinds of warmers, fire starters. Foods like military foods, rations. Good machetes, not the regular cheap ones."
A woman down the aisle overhears this and turns to her red-haired boy, who's about 9 and wearing olive army fatigues: "That's it. We're done."
When Aton was in the sixth grade, a teacher, Miss Hirsch, found him a copy of H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come. That was it for him. The premise of the novel is, like Aton, both resigned to doom and desperately hopeful: Warlords dominate a decimated, bombed-out planet . . . until a fringe movement of craftspeople and scientists forms a collective, creating a society free of war. "No bureaucracy either," Aton says. In seventh grade, he read Buckminster Fuller's Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth -- in which humanity is imagined as journeying through the abyss, our fates inextricably linked -- and he practically committed it to memory. "My copy's torn apart, but I still have it," he says. "He had the vision. Why aren't we living it out?"
When he graduated from City College, Aton started to proselytize, first as a stand-up comic. "His famous bit was about how the people in the missile silos probably can't even read," remembers Kim Coles, a comic who met and married Aton in 1985 (and later went on to star in the sitcom Living Single). "His bit was, one kid says to the other, 'I'm hungry,' and the other kid says, 'Press that button -- it says LAUNCH.' Some people laughed, and some people didn't."