Escape From New York

After the September 11 attacks, Jason Charles, a New York City firefighter, started thinking about the end of the world. ‘It was all heat and dust,’ he says, recounting his experience at what was later called Ground Zero. ‘It felt like at any moment the whole city was just going to implode. I knew, right then, that next time I was going to be ready.’

Charles started reading around online, and came across sites likes James Wesley Rawles’ SurvivalBlog.com – a goldmine for the aspiring survivalist. Soon, he was self-identifying as a ‘prepper’: an individual – almost always male – who stockpiles supplies in preparation for a cataclysmic event. Charles estimates he’s spent about $30,000 on equipment, including gas marks, machetes, tents, parachutes, and even a special canine-themed bag for his rescue dog Charlie.

It seems, however, that even rugged individualism requires others to flourish. Charles noticed the lack of a dedicated place in New York where preppers could come together, swap stories and prepare for the apocalypse. So in February 2010 he set up the New York City Preppers Network. Soon, it had over 100 members, around 30 of whom met outside a Harlem McDonalds one bitterly cold December morning last year. Their mission? To rehearse an escape from the island of Manhattan. The preppers needed to make their way from Harlem to Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan and then cross over the George Washington Bridge into the safety of New Jersey.

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Photo: George Steptoe

Charles, who is African-American and built like a tank, leads the group. He’s got big plans for the day. Imagining hordes of looters and rioters blocking the streets, he informs the others they won’t be heading to the bridge in a straight line. The recent Ebola threat provides a helpful narrative: ‘It’s the social breakdown that is as big a threat as the disease,’ Charles says. ‘Imagine more people getting sick – now the hospitals are flooded with patients. If people can’t get treated right, society starts to break down because people just give up on trusting politicians and everything else.’

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Photo: George Steptoe

To mimic the chaos of the escape as realistically as possible, he’s prepared an obstacle course. ‘You’ve got people coming at you, not to mention the debris and the flooding. There is always a detour when you’re bugging out,’ he says. ‘Bugging Out’ – military slang for getting the hell out of there – is a term typical of the prepper lexicon.

In the group is Adam Kosmin, an IT manager from Manhattan. He’s wearing a woolly ‘Oath Keepers’ hat, emblazoned with yellow lettering: ‘Not On Our Watch’. The Oath Keepers are an organisation that claims its members will disobey laws if they think they violate the Constitution. Kosmin believes the Oath Keepers are ‘the most important group that exists in this country today’. His friend Keith approaches from further back in the group. Keith isn’t an Oath Keeper, but he shares his friend’s prepper origin story: both believe that 9/11 was an inside job.

‘Once you understand those buildings were brought down as part of a controlled demolition, that’s your wake up call. That’s all a person needs,’ Kosmin explains.

Keith is worried about how conspicuous the group appear. ‘If this is a situation where the United States has become occupied territory, anybody with military equipment will be perceived as an enemy combatant,’ he tells Kosmin. Many of the preppers wear combat trousers or carry military-style rucksacks. Keith sees this as bait for the raiding parties who will come in the wake of disaster.

‘What I would do is go to the nearest trinket shop and make myself look like as much of a tourist as possible,’ he says. ‘Maybe wear a baseball cap or a camera round my neck.’

‘How about a 9/11 memorial shirt?’ Kosmin shoots back. ‘You can’t get more touristy than that!’ They both crack up. What would happen if the preppers don’t make it over the bridge?

‘Then my friend do not be alarmed because you will feel the warm sun on your back and you will see the fields, for you are in Elysium, and are already dead!’ Keith replies, misquoting Russell Crowe in Gladiator.

Others in the group don’t share Keith’s concerns about standing out. Much of the machismo that comes with urban prepping has to do with the amount of expensive gear you can carry on you at a time. Eddy Marzallo’s an ex-Marine from the Bronx who suffered a serious head injury in the first Gulf War. Eddy often lays tripwires in his house, just in case someone tries to steal the five years’ worth of food he has stashed in the basement. His wife has accidentally tripped them twice. It drives her crazy, but he reminds her that when there was a citywide power cut in 2003: ‘She went and got these big plastic bags I use to store water, threw them in the bath tub and started filling them up. I said to her, “I thought you weren’t into prepping?” And she just ran straight past me and grabbed the nearest LED light stick I keep in the cupboard.’

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Photo: George Steptoe

Though this is his first outing with the NYC Preppers Network, he’s come ready. He reaches down and takes something from his 72-hour emergency bag, which weighs about 100 pounds. Marzallo carries with him an army water canteen, a flashlight, a can of Fox Labs pepper spray, an American Red Cross safety kit, a baton, some firelighters, fishing gear, rope, parachute cord, and a $500 gas mask he bought off eBay. He’s spent over $20,000 on equipment and supplies in the ten years since he started. Inserted into the back of his pack is a two-foot long bulletproof plate, to stop government snipers.

Urban preppers are something of a paradox. After all, as much as anything else, prepping is born of an instinctive distrust of one’s neighbours. Sure, they may seem friendly now but as soon as Yellowstone erupts they’ll stab you in the back for your last bottle of water. Most American preppers prefer the relative isolation of the rural interior, affording them space, large properties to hide away in – and fortify – that most vital commodity to fight off others: guns. (Eddy Marzallo has access to a storeroom of assault rifles in western Pennsylvania, looked after by his brother.) For a prepper, the threads holding society together are gossamer thin, just a hurricane/financial crisis/power cut away from snapping. New York, so teeming with human life, is so poised for collapse that it shouldn’t really exist at all.

Having negotiated Charles’ detour, which turned out to be a scrubby bank underneath the highway that runs along the west side of Manhattan, the group reaches the George Washington Bridge. Charles tells everyone they need to get in single file. The path across the bridge is narrow and mostly used by cyclists.

‘Well done everyone. We survived the detour,’ Charles says. ‘Now we go across the bridge.’ He reminds the group to stay warm and hydrated. ‘Remember, walking is the shit reality of bugging out. But if you want to get out of the city, you have to do it by foot.’

The wind is freezing, numbing the faces of the group as they cross. The towers and skyscrapers of Manhattan look a long way off. Cyclists on racing bikes whizz by screaming out, ‘Watch your backs!’ One stops to ask Charles who they are. ‘The North East Hiking Association,’ he says.

When they reach the opposite bank of the Hudson River, now in the safety of New Jersey, the preppers collapse onto their haunches – mission accomplished. Many seem relieved, even happy. Of course, making it over the bridge is only the first step once society breaks down; where do you go next? Charles points to a path below them that leads to Maine. Would any of them walk it?

Not today. Jason Charles, who’s repeatedly expressed his disgust with walking throughout the journey, has had enough. ‘Fuck that walking shit,’ he says. Ideally, he’d like a sailboat – the sea being the best defence of all against marauding hordes.

Eddy Marzallo looks back towards Manhattan. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he says. ‘I don’t hate the city. I am a Bronx boy, born and raised. But, if something really happens, you’re going to be in trouble.’ He waves his arms taking in the whole of the island. ‘All these people are going to attack you,’ he says. Then he turns round, looks at the ground and makes the sign of the cross, before heading back over the George Washington Bridge.

—Joe Sykes

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