Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
It was nine A.M. on Sunday morning and I was in the backseat of a Range Rover, handcuffed again. This time, it was to another student. His name was Michael, and he was preparing to work in Iraq as a truck driver for Halliburton. He was trying to earn money, he said, to open a laundromat.
“Everyone has to wash their clothes,” he explained, the dollar signs practically glinting in his eyes.
Reeve had driven us ten minutes outside downtown Oklahoma City, confiscated our bags, and left us handcuffed in the SUV in a parking lot in a desolate part of town. If we were caught anywhere in the city by Reeve and his cohorts—most of them bounty hunters and military trainers—we’d be put in restraints, thrown in the backseat of their car, and dropped off miles away to start all over again.
Luckily, I had internalized the first lesson of urban survival: planning. I’d spent the previous night locating supplies, hiding them in caches, and finding collaborators in the city. To make sure my bobby-pin pick wasn’t confiscated, I’d made a thin slit in the seam of my shirt collar and stashed it inside.
I pulled it out and undid my handcuffs, then Michael’s. Beneath the Range Rover floor mat was an envelope containing the first of several tasks we’d need to execute in downtown Oklahoma City to prove we’d learned to successfully navigate a dangerous urban environment. Our first assignment was to meet an agent wearing a black hat in the Bass Pro Shop in an area known as Bricktown and use persuasion engineering to get her to reveal our next mission.
Bricktown was a long walk away—especially since we’d get caught by bounty hunters if we took the main streets. Nearby, however, there was an Enterprise Rent-A-Car office; perhaps someone there would give us a ride.
The only customer inside was a young, muscular man in a large sleeveless basketball jersey. He was at least six inches taller than me and three times as thick. His face was crisscrossed with scars.
So I asked him for a ride.
“Our friends dropped us off here as a joke, and we have to make it back to Bricktown. Is there any way we can get a lift?”
“Do you got any guns or drugs on you?” he asked. That wasn’t exactly the response I’d expected.
“No, definitely not,” we reassured him.
“I’ll give you a ride then,” he grunted, “but I gotta warn you, if I’m pulled over by the police, I’m not gonna be nice to them.”
I didn’t know what he meant exactly, but it was scary as fuck. In that moment, I realized this wasn’t a game. This was a real city, and this was real life.
Yet we followed him outside to a black Chevy Tahoe and climbed inside anyway. This, I realized as he drove us into town, was how people got killed. Evidently, in my mind, the law of conservation of energy had overruled the principles of common sense.
As he drove into town, he handed me his card. Underneath his name were the words CREDIT DOCTOR. “If you ever need your credit repaired, I can do it overnight—for the right price,” he informed me. He, too, was an urban survivalist of sorts, with his own method of beating the system.
He dropped us off in an alley in Bricktown where I’d cached a bag of disguises the night before. In a lecture on urban camouflage, Reeve and Alwood had taught us there was a certain category of people in cities called invisible men. If the city is a network of veins, invisible men are the white blood cells: they work to keep it clean. They’re the janitors with bundles of keys on their belt loops, the alarm servicemen with clipboards and work orders, the UPS men hidden behind piles of boxes, and the construction workers with hard hats, safety vests, and tool belts. In these disguises, Reeve and Alwood said, we could walk unnoticed into almost any event.
However, since Alwood and Reeve had taught us these disguises, I knew they’d be looking for invisible men. But what they wouldn’t be looking for was an invisible woman.
I slid under the back porch of a Hooters restaurant and found my bag of disguises. Miraculously, it was still intact in a small ditch in the rear of the crawl space where I’d cached it the night before. I grabbed the bag, climbed out, and entered a small corridor of shops above while Michael waited in the alley.
Inside, I found a public restroom and began my transformation. First I shaved my mustache and goatee in the bathroom mirror. Then I stepped into the stall and put on a flowery yellow cardigan I’d bought at Wal-Mart, after having seen a nondescript woman wearing a similar top.
I removed my cargo pants and replaced them with women’s black dress slacks, then swapped my sneakers for yellow flats. Next, I pulled out a purse I’d stuffed with the rest of my disguise: hat, wig, sunglasses, clip-on earrings, and makeup Katie had recommended—face powder, mascara, and lipstick.
I left the stall to put on the hat and wig. Gazing at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I realized, to my disappointment, that I didn’t even make a good transvestite, let alone a passable woman. I hoped Katie’s makeup tips would help.
I powdered my face, which helped conceal the faint outline of my freshly shaven beard. But as I was pulling out the mascara, the bathroom door swung open and a thick-necked college student with a crew cut and a striped button-down shirt stumbled in. His face was patchy and red, as if he’d been drinking.
He looked at me and slurred, “What the fuck are you doing?”
“I’m doing a class exercise,” I blurted, hoping it would sound normal enough to calm him down. Then again, I was in a men’s room in Oklahoma, dressed like a woman.
“What the fuck are you?”
I wasn’t so sure I understood the question, but I tried to answer anyway. “I’m being chased by bounty hunters, and I need to dress like a woman so they don’t recognize me.”
He glared at me and knitted his brow. I tried to clarify: “It’s for a course I’m taking on urban evasion.”
In response, he opened the bathroom door and yelled into the corridor. “Hey, broheim, get a look at this.”
Seconds later, broheim walked into the bathroom. He was bigger than his friend, and just as drunk.
“What do we have here?” he asked as soon as he saw me.
At this point, I was sure I was going to get my ass kicked.
With the two of them blocking the exit, I needed to put my survival skills to use immediately. Unfortunately, there were no locks to pick and no cars to hot-wire. And instead of my Springfield XD, I was carrying a purse.
I’d learned from Mad Dog that force respects greater force. So I ripped my hat and wig off in one motion, mustered as much toughness as I could, and told them coolly and firmly, “I’m in the fucking marines. We’re doing a drill in the city. Now back the fuck out before I get the rest of my battalion.”
The thick-necked guy who started it all stared for a moment at my shaven head and then said, sheepishly, “I guess you are in the marines.”
Thank God I hadn’t attached the clip-on earrings yet.
I made a mental note to add another skill to my survival to-do list: hand-to-hand combat. I couldn’t be a runner all my life. The only reason they were leaving was that they thought I was a fighter. I was reminded of something Tom Brown had said at Tracker School when teaching us to hunt: “A fleeing animal is a vulnerable animal.”
After they backed out of the bathroom, I quickly changed into my jeans and tennis shoes again. Then I put on a military-green cap I’d bought, glasses, and a flannel shirt. With my facial hair gone, I hoped I’d be difficult enough to recognize. I’d learned my lesson: cross-dressing is not an urban survival tactic. It’s an urban suicide tactic.
When I returned to the alley, my urban escape team was waiting for me. Michael had been joined by four locals I’d recruited by posting a bulletin on MySpace the previous night, asking for volunteers in Oklahoma City for a top-secret mission. (Evidently, there’s not much to do in Oklahoma City on a Sunday afternoon.) Because the instructors had divided us into pairs, I hoped to escape their notice by moving in a larger group.
Sticking to alleys, parks, and industrial areas, we made our way to the Bass Pro Shop and safely carried out the first few missions. But then I made the mistake of leaving the group to grab another cache, which included a set of lock-picking tools. As Reeve had taught us, “Once you learn lock-picking, the world is your oyster.”
I found the cache behind a pile of sandbags lying along the banks of the city’s canal. But as I made my way back to the group, I noticed a bounty hunter on a bridge above. He hadn’t spotted me yet. But he would soon.
There didn’t appear to be anywhere to hide or run—except for a door on the side of the bridge. I tried the knob. It was locked. I grabbed my lock-picking tools, found a pick with a flat underside, stuck it inside the lock, and raked it against the pins. There were five of them.
I selected a thin pick with an S-shaped end known as a snake and stuck it into the lock. At the bottom of the lock, I inserted a tension wrench. As I raked the snake along the pins, I pressed gently downward on the handle of the tension wrench. After a few minutes, the wrench began to turn. I pushed slightly harder on the wrench and, with a click, the door was open.
This class was better than my entire college education.
I needed to remember this wasn’t a game. This was reality and it could have consequences.
After emerging fifteen minutes later, I rejoined my team and completed the remaining assignments, which mostly involved finding and photographing survival locations and items in the city: a water source, food source, daytime hiding location, safe place to sleep at night, easy-to-steal car, and an item that could be turned into a stabbing weapon.
This could just as easily have been a Fagin-like class for future career criminals. But like most governments, police forces, and armies, by calling ourselves the good guys, we had full permission to do any bad things we wanted—that is, until other people who thought they were the good guys felt otherwise.
While looking for water (available from several fountains) and food (available from edible plants and public ponds stocked with fish), I accidentally found several caches in the bushes made by homeless people. One contained a frying pan, the other a plastic bag with blankets inside. Between the cracks of the city, there was another world. And in that world, I learned, it was possible to live with no name and no money. I’d never thought of the homeless as survivalists before.
After completing our assignments, we reported back to Kevin. “How’d you get everything done so quickly without getting noticed?” he asked suspiciously.
Though I was worried he’d accuse me of cheating, I told him the truth: I’d recruited a scout and camouflage team on MySpace.
“I saw those guys, but I had no idea who they were. That goes down as one of the all-time great class stories.”
I was relieved. Unlike wilderness survival, urban survival had no restrictions. Whatever worked was permissible. And that’s why it appealed to me. After all, living like our primitive ancestors doesn’t necessarily mean using sticks and stones. It means using every resource available and any means possible.
When I’d talked to Spencer after returning from Gunsite, we’d concluded there were only two scenarios to plan for: bugging in and bugging out. Thanks to Reeve and Alwood, I was finally ready to aggregate the skills I’d learned and conduct a trial run of the apocalypse to make sure I was fully prepared.
That is, after I called the Krav Maga center in Los Angeles and signed up for street fighting lessons. I wasn’t going to get caught defenseless in a bathroom dressed as a woman again.