Coles wasn't always up for it, either. "It's depressing to believe at any minute something major will go down and it's all over. He told me he had a cave picked out for us. I can't live like that." They split up in 1991. "But thanks to Aton, I'm ready for it. I have a stash of water, I have several flashlights."
On the morning of the 11th, Coles madly dialed and redialed Aton from California. She finally reached his cell as he was standing on the terrace of his Cobble Hill apartment, watching the Trade towers tumble. "I said, 'You were right,' " Coles remembers. "And he said, 'I told you, I told you.' He wasn't at all frantic. He was calm."
After hanging up, Aton turned to Ginger Davis, the mother of his 3-year-old son and his partner in preparedness for more than ten years. There was no screaming, no crying.
"Well," Ginger said, "I guess it's time to go. Do we get on the BQE? Or do we go downstairs and get the raft?"
In his spare time, Aton is preparing a preparedness manifesto. The latest draft is 430 pages. There's a chapter on building low-cost dome-shaped homes in hurricane country, and other chapters on fire, flood, nuclear meltdown, biological warfare. While FEMA manuals offer such useful tips as "Tune in to television and radio reports for official information," Aton's book envisions a world where humans rely on their wits to survive, employing a mishmash of disciplines from the martial arts to Taoism. Today's society, he explains in Chapter 3, is slothful, sedentary, obese, and dependent on technology. He extols the survival skills of cavemen, who "make the modern city slicker seem feeble in comparison."
It's less a survival manual, really, than a guide on how to be Aton Edwards -- a treatise on his "improvisational adaptation" plan. "Most emergencies, they happen unexpectedly," he says. "It's the old Murphy's Law scenario: Whatever can go wrong will. And usually, you're not gonna have what you need to deal with whatever particular crisis that you find yourself in. So you have to improvise and adapt -- hence 'improvisational adaptation.' "
The book, Aton believes, could one day take the place of his survival classes, making his philosophy available to everyone, especially FEMA. "I know there are things we know that they don't know," he says. "The government wants to prepare the infrastructure, but they're not preparing the population. And the thing is, it's so much cheaper to just tell the American people 'This is what you need to do,' as opposed to just saying 'Well, we're gonna watch you, and we're gonna take care of this.' For them to take care of us just gives the terrorists more power. You know, people are adults. They're not children. And they'll accept responsibility for their own actions. You have a prepared population, they're not powerless."
For Aton, a large part of preparedness is having the right tools, so I ask him to show me what's inside his stainless-steel-mesh fanny pack. It takes a half-hour for him to extract and explain absolutely everything, from the manual chain saw to the scissors that EMTs use to clamp blood vessels. "Now, my kit weighs twelve pounds," he says. "Nobody's gonna carry this around. But a regular person's kit weighs about two pounds, and it's something that can fit in anybody's backpack, briefcase, bag."
"So, what's in that small kit?" I ask.
"A hand-pump flashlight," he says, "one that doesn't need batteries." A good multi-tool with pliers -- "not scissors, because a sharp knife is always better than scissors." The multi-tool should also have a file or metal saw and a screwdriver -- good for opening grates for air, or elevator panels, or to bend things back. Or you can use the whole multi-tool to pound like a hammer.
Bring some matches -- for sterilizing. Alcohol swabs. Pain reliever with an anti-inflammatory, like Advil or Motrin -- "good if something has dropped on you."
Eye drops. A product called Dermabond can close cuts without stitches. Gauze. Band-Aids. ("Females can use Maxi pads -- they absorb a lot of blood.") And little vanity items, like a toothbrush, soap, a comb. "Because quite frankly, the philosophy is, every time you leave your home, you don't know if you're gonna be able to go back."
What about money?
"Oh, yes. Emergency money. I do have money in my personal kit, but it's buried so deep that I haven't even seen it. It might be powder by the time I get to it."
How about a passport?
Aton sneers. "If it gets to the point where you need to carry a passport all the time," he says, "then we're in deep doo-doo. If you have to cross borders, you're pretty much dead."
Then, just as quickly, Aton brightens.
"But I'm not saying it's not practical," he says. "Because I can tell you that my passport is in my 72-hour kit."
The 72-Hour Kit
It can't happen here . . . but if it does, you'll want to be prepared. Below is a survivalist-certified checklist of everything a New Yorker might need to survive in the urban wilderness.
Questions of Survival
Everything you always wanted to know about being afraid of terror, asked.
The Luxe List
Want to rough it in style? Get out your credit card.