Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
Tomas calls and announces, “L.A. has shut down. Lights out, water off, gas off.”
His timing couldn’t be worse. I have a towel wrapped around my waist, and I’m about to step into the shower. But I must follow the rules. And the first rule is that Tomas will call me at a random time during the week to begin the three-day test, simulating a citywide emergency shutdown. So evidently I won’t be showering for a while.
In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the outside world won’t exist until Tomas comes by in three days and tells me the crisis is over. The goal of the test is not just to take care of myself during that time without utilities, but to make sure I have the necessary logistics and supplies to hole up for an entire month or longer, both here and in St. Kitts, in the event of a major disaster.
I grab the flashlight near my bed, walk to the fuse box, and shut off all the circuits. Then I find the master valve for the water line and turn that off. Next, I turn off my BlackBerry and unplug my land line. Finally, I grab one of my new survival tools, the Res-Q-Rench—a combination seat-belt cutter, window punch, gas shutoff, and pry tool—and turn off the gas.
In the dark silence that ensues, I feel calm and look forward to a deep sleep. Because I am prepared—or at least think I am—I don’t fear the isolation. All I fear right now are the fish—which I’ve been practicing catching, gutting, and primitively cooking—spoiling in the freezer and stinking up the house.
I write on my troubleshooting list: “No fish.”
I bring my laptop into bed to write. I work for half an hour with no TV, no ringing phone, no Internet, no e-mail with a link to some YouTube video of a hamster licking its balls to distract me. I’ve never had a more productive thirty minutes. This little experiment might just be the best thing that’s ever happened to me. At least that’s what I think until I discover the first flaw in my three-day test.
I credit this discovery to my bladder after eight hours of sleep.
The problem is that I can’t relieve myself in the toilets, because they may not have a last flush left. I can’t go in my backyard, because it’s small, I don’t want to attract vermin, and, well, I just don’t want to pee in it. And I can’t use a bush outside, because there’s a busy road in front of my house and I’ll definitely be spotted urinating alongside it.
As I’m kneeling above my kitchen sink and unzipping my pants, worried that without water to wash it down the drain, my urine will reek up the house along with the dead fish, I remember the seventy-two-hour survival kit I bought from Nitro-Pak after 9/11. It remains untouched in my garage.
I zip up, find the duffel bag, brush off the dust, and open the top flap to discover a stack of water pouches and, below them, this gift from heaven:
It contains a cardboard base, a cardboard seat, and five biodegradable garbage bags. I assemble the Jungle Jon and carry it to a secluded spot in the backyard where my neighbors won’t accidentally see me.
After finally emptying my bladder, I notice that the Jungle Jon has no lid. To keep the smell from attracting animals, I tie the ends of the bag together. I don’t want to waste these bags. I’m going to need them.
As I walk back indoors, I’m reminded, for some reason, of when I was ten years old at overnight camp. Every Wednesday, the counselors took us to town so we could purchase a couple dollars’ worth of candy. Most campers ate all their candy within the hour. But I hid the candy in my duffel bag to save for when I needed it most. Each week I stockpiled more sweets, until, at the end of the year, I had to throw most of my candy out. But I had no regrets over the waste. Though I never got to eat it all, I always had candy when I wanted it.
Even at age ten, I was stockpiling supplies.
I write on my troubleshooting list: “More biodegradable toilet bags.”
I learned in CERT class that, in an emergency, I should first eat everything in my refrigerator that could go bad. Then I should move on to the freezer. And only then should I dip into the canned foods, MREs, and emergency supplies.
I check the refrigerator. There’s milk, eggs, cheese, more butter than I can possibly consume in a day, tortellini, half a pizza, and leftover Chinese food.
I gather twigs and sticks from the side of the road, add a strand of jute twine to use as tinder, and build a fire outside so I can make an omelet. Then I check the refrigerator to figure out what to add to it. The carton of Chinese leftovers seems to be in immediate danger of putrefaction.
I look at the egg rolls inside. They’re vegetables, meat, and eggs, basically. So I bring them to the fire, peel away the fried wrapper, and dump the contents into my omelet, avoiding the cabbage whenever I can.
The result: one of the most delicious omelets of my life. Necessity is truly the mother of invention.
I write on my troubleshooting list: “More egg rolls.”
My next challenge is one thing the survivalists never taught me: how to wash the dishes WTSHTF. Without a creek, lake, or pond nearby, I’m not about to waste my precious drinking water to scrub a frying pan.
As I stack the dishes in the kitchen sink, I realize there’s water everywhere around me. Half the houses in the area have swimming pools, and most of my neighbors are probably at work. Though my house has a small pool of sorts, I drained it months ago because it was old and the plaster was cracking.
So I grab a waterproof plastic storage container from my garage, sneak into a neighbor’s backyard, fill the box halfway with chlorinated water, and run home, sloshing liquid everywhere.
I’m only half a day into my survival test, and already I’m looting the neighbors. Maybe the gun nuts were right after all.
I write on my troubleshooting list: “Repair and fill pool.”
After eating, I return to the computer and enjoy an hour of uninterrupted writing time.
Until, suddenly, I feel a kick in my stomach. Now a gurgle. Then a push.
I try to ignore it. The last thing I want to do is sit on a piece of cardboard in my yard and take a dump in the blazing sun. I need to control myself. I can’t go through this after every meal. I must hoard my shits like candy at camp and save them for when I want them.
Survival is easy until your body begins to make demands.
I cross out “More egg rolls” on my troubleshooting list.
I walk outside to urinate but am horrified to see a small puddle leaking from underneath the Jungle Jon. I lift the bag to check for a hole, and there’s water dripping from the plastic in multiple spots. Evidently, the bag is already biodegrading.
I take it outside and carefully throw it in a trash can. Then I grab a regular garbage bag and use it to line the Jungle Jon.
I never imagined so much of this journal would be devoted to my waste functions. I’ll never take a flushing toilet for granted again.
I cross out “More biodegradable toilet bags” on my troubleshooting list.
I eat the leftover pizza, then start the generator so I can recharge my computer. As I’m writing, Katie drops by with her sister.
Katie is wearing a tight pink T-shirt, a pair of low-rise jeans, and three-inch heels. She is the very apex of civilization.
“The air-conditioning isn’t working.”
“That’s because I’m doing the three-day test now.”
“It’s too hot, baby. I’m going to Kendra’s house.”
“It’s cooling off. I just opened all the doors.” I don’t want her to leave. I don’t want to be alone. “Stay with me tonight. It’ll be um, fun.”
“Can I still use my curling iron?”
“I can put the generator near the bathroom, and we can use extension cords.”
“What about going to the bathroom?”
“I have a little toilet I set up outside. Want to see it?”
“Does it flush?”
“No, it’s just a little bag.”
“I’m going to Kendra’s.”
I write on my troubleshooting list: “Get a more adventurous girlfriend.”
I’ve been so busy today I haven’t been able to write until now. Living without conveniences takes time. I had to clean out the refrigerator and eat just about everything that could possibly rot. Then I gathered wood, built a fire, made soup, cooked fried chicken strips from the freezer, borrowed more washing water from the neighbors, cleaned the dishes and the grill, and added gas to the generator.
It would be a lot of work doing this for a four-person family. It seems that almost everything we call modern—everything we think separates us from previous generations—serves only a small number of purposes: to help us avoid pain, minimize work, and/or save time. Otherwise, we’re not that much different from our primitive ancestors.
As soon as I finish lunch, my stomach cramps. There’s no denying my body this time. Maybe the chicken was bad. I can barely untie the knot on the garbage bag fast enough.
The cardboard throne is surprisingly stable under my weight. And there’s actually something pleasant about taking a dump while sitting in the sun. It’s like being at a nudist beach. I can even get a tan at the same time.
If you ever see me with golden-brown skin but white marks in the shape of elbows on my knees, you’ll know what I’ve been doing.
I write on my troubleshooting list: “Get Imodium. Just in Case.”
When night falls, I shut the doors to trap the heat in, bring all the tools inside, replace the batteries in my lights and flashlights, fill the lanterns with kerosene, and build a fire for dinner.
I take the last of my mostly defrosted fish out of the freezer, gut them, and stuff them with spices, lemon, and onion. Then I wrap them in tinfoil and place them on the coals of the fire. I’m reminded instantly of the fate of the rebellious Iraqi villagers that the marine at Tracker School told me about.
While waiting for them to cook, I realize I need to shave. I bring a handheld mirror out to my dishwater container, set it up on the drying table, and start shaving.
When I finish, Katie comes by. Hopefully, she won’t ask why my face smells like dish soap and chicken grease. She’s with her friends Kendra and Brittany. She never arrives alone, because she’s still too scared to drive.
“Romantic,” Kendra says when she sees the house. Katie smiles. I can see this makes her more comfortable staying here. Maybe, instead of calling everything primitive, I can just call it romantic and get her more involved. Camping can be a romantic trip for two under the stars. Shooting guns can be a romantic fireworks display. Skinning an animal can be a romantic trip to the mall for a new coat.
“I know you don’t like being here with the power out,” I say, “but I’m making a romantic dinner right now and I’d love it if you could join me.”
“What are you making?”
“I’m preparing some fish I caught.”
“With your bare hands?”
“With a fishing pole.”
“What about the bathroom?”
“If the bathroom toilet has one good flush left, it’s all yours.”
I lead Katie and her friends outside to show them the fire pit. The fish seem finished, so I remove them from the coals and unwrap them. The skin peels off perfectly and the bone slips right out, leaving tender white meat that drops off in perfect flakes. Her friends stay to eat with us, and we feast on every bite in the glow of the lanterns.
“This is like the perfect Friday night,” Kendra tells Katie. “You’re so lucky. I have to stop dating these club losers and find a real man.”
“Try checking the Santa Monica pier for fishermen,” Katie replies.
Despite the joke, she’s beaming ear to ear. She picks up a lantern and walks proudly to the bathroom.
I hope it flushes.
I cross “No fish” off my troubleshooting list.
My refrigerator and freezer are nearly empty of solid food. No more eggs, no more meat except for two soggy chicken breasts I’m saving for dinner, not even an unmelted pad of butter. Though Katie wants cereal, the milk has gone bad. So I start a fire, heat up water, and make oatmeal instead.
“If we had a goat, we’d have milk for the cereal,” Katie says, her head nestled on my chest as we curl up on the couch after breakfast. “It could be like our dog, but better than a dog, because it doesn’t go around biting things. It just chews on shoelaces.”
Since that fateful afternoon with Mad Dog, Katie hasn’t stopped talking about Bettie. I suppose seeing her as a rug every time she enters the living room doesn’t help much.
“I know,” I tell her. “I looked into it after going to that permaculture place, but I don’t know where to keep it.”
“Maybe you could just keep it in the pool.”
Farming is the first survival skill Katie has been supportive of. And I’ve actually found a person willing to sell me a beautiful Alpine goat. So maybe keeping it in the pool isn’t such a bad idea. After all, a live dairy goat—perhaps paired with a male for mating—will be better than a whole larder of canned food WTSHTF. And maybe it will help ease my conscience and fulfill the nurturing obligations of the circle of life that Mad Dog mentioned.
I cross “Repair and fill pool” off my troubleshooting list.
My neighbors are going to kill me.
With Katie acting as a lookout, I take a covert plunge in the neighbor’s pool in lieu of a shower, then dip into the rations for lunch—peanut butter, Nutella, and graham crackers. Afterward, Katie and I make love on the couch. It’s the sixth time we’ve done it since last night. I could get used to this.
Katie wants to make s’mores. I like that she’s getting into the spirit of the test. We walk along the road together and gather twigs and dead leaves. I teach her how to build a fire, and we roast marshmallows on sticks together.
Since the fire’s already going, I decide to make the last of my perishable food. I teach Katie—who’s never cooked anything in her life but Pop-Tarts—how to prepare and season the chicken breasts. Despite her fears of fire, raw chicken, and work, she tosses the meat on the grill and cooks it.
“It’s all wet and gushy and gross,” she says.
“Am I going to get a disease from this?” she asks.
“I don’t want to burn myself,” she complains.
But she sees the project through. And when she’s done, the chicken is soft and moist, with spices cooked deep into the meat. It pulls off the bone in scalloped shreds. It may be the best chicken we’ve ever had.
Though I can’t wait to turn the power back on, I’m enjoying this. I was never able to understand how people could live happily in the past without electricity and modern conveniences. Now I understand. They got along just fine.
I cross “Get a more adventurous girlfriend” off my troubleshooting list.
I think of all the half-empty soda cans I’ve thrown in the trash, all the half-finished plates of food I’ve scraped into the disposal, and all the times I’ve said “no, thanks” when a waitress asked if I wanted a doggie bag. Now that my refrigerator and freezer are devoid of anything edible and every sip of water and morsel of food has become precious, I’m ashamed of my wasteful past.
I think of all the times I took long showers, left the lights on when I went out, ran water in the sink to cover up bathroom sounds, and maintained a house temperature of seventy-three degrees day and night. Thanks to this test, I’ve come to realize most of that consumption was completely unnecessary.
But because all those resources are there, because they seem limitless, because they’re available at the press of a button or the flick of a switch, I—and most others—use them far too much.
Perhaps the root of the energy crisis is not our wasteful habits, but the ease with which seemingly unlimited power, gas, and water are available to us. In a normal three days, with Katie and her sister at the house most nights, I use 531 gallons of water. This week, I’ve used just a gallon. In a normal three days, I burn 121 kilowatt hours of electricity. This week, all my electricity has come from a gallon and a half of gasoline. In a normal three days, I use 2.28 therms of gas. This week, all my heat has come from dead leaves, sticks, and a ball of jute.
I search through my rations for a late-night snack. I’m starving. Most of what I find is crackers, trail mix, and some canned food. Nothing seems substantial enough.
Then I notice my 9/11 safety bag in the living room and remember the box of MREs I’d also been talked into buying at the time. Supposedly they last seven years. And this just happens to be their seventh year.
I open an MRE. There’s a packet of grape drink mix with absolutely no nutritional value, which I dump into a bottle of water to create some sort of weak Kool-Aid. The next package reads CRACKER, VEGETABLE ON IT. There’s also a tube of grape jelly in the envelope, which I assume goes on the cracker. Together, they taste pretty good—and, due to some feat of army engineering, don’t produce any crumbs.
I’m beginning to think I can live off these—until I open the next package, which is marked CHICKEN STEW. I squeeze it into a bowl, and it sits there brown and chunky like dog food. But I trust the army corps of food engineers, so I take a bite. I don’t know if it’s spoiled, if it’s supposed to taste this bad, or if I need to heat it up or something.
As I’m trying to force it down, there’s a knock on the door. It’s Katie’s sister, Grace, dropping by. As she sits down on the couch next to me, I notice she has a bag of takeout food in her hands.
I watch as she removes an entire pineapple from the bag. She pulls off the top of the fruit, and the smell of delicious Thai cooking fills the room.
“Do you want some?” she asks when she catches me staring at the steaming hot food she’s spooning out of the hollowed-out pineapple.
“I can’t. That pineapple shouldn’t even be here. You’re ruining my disaster simulation.”
“Just try some. We won’t tell anyone.”
“I’m trying to see what it’s like to live in a world without takeout restaurants.”
“You’re missing out.”
“No, you are,” I say, and take a bite of my gruel, trying to repress the gag reflex that follows.
I force the rest of the chicken stew down my throat, unwilling to let anything go to waste, then move on to dessert, which is a lemon pound cake that tastes surprisingly fresh after seven years in storage.
I write on my troubleshooting list: “Buy new MREs.”
Day three is coming to a close. Tonight or tomorrow, Tomas will come by and end the simulation. I feel like I’ve been on vacation, and I’m not looking forward to the phone calls, e-mails, and obligations waiting for me when I return to the plugged-in world.
Not only have I learned a lot from what was basically a simple test, but it’s been one of the most romantic weekends Katie and I have ever had. We needed this.
If there’s ever a citywide shutdown, I won’t look at it as an inconvenience anymore, but as an opportunity.
“Baby.” Katie is nudging me awake. “I want to shower.”
Tomas should have been here by now. I check the door to see if he’s left a note. Nothing.
I want to just turn the gas, water, and electricity on, but I must follow the rules. So I eat dry cereal, wash it down with warm water, turn on the generator, and write.
“When do I get to shower?”
“When Tomas comes.”
“I’m going to Kendra’s.”
I sit listlessly on the couch. I’ve gone through some beef jerky and tuna fish, and now I’m eating peanut butter and graham crackers again. I feel like life is passing me by. I could continue like this for weeks more, but I’m beginning to miss another thing the survivalists don’t stockpile: variety.
There are no channels, and nothing’s on. There are no restaurants, and no specials of the day. There are no websites, and no new episodes of Homestar Runner.
There’s just me, in my house, with my stuff.
Still no sign of Tomas. I start writing a comprehensive list of supplies I’ll need to survive for a month, so I can keep stashes both here and in St. Kitts.
Of course, now that people know I’m stockpiling, the first thing all my friends will probably do when there’s a disaster is run to my house.
I suppose they’ll make an excellent source of protein.
Why do I keep making these jokes? Is there a half-truth somewhere in them?
I used to fear being the eaten. Now I fear being the eater.
Still no sign of Tomas. I wish I could use my cell phone.
I’m going to walk to his house if he doesn’t come soon. That’s fair.
This isn’t fun anymore. Or romantic. It’s lonely and irritating.
I have things to do, people to see, goats to order.
A loud, urgent knocking on the door wakes me.
I walk downstairs to find Tomas, looking repentant.
“Did you turn everything back on already?” he asks.
“No. I was following the rules.”
“Well, is the emergency over?”
“Yes. Sorry. It completely slipped my mind.”
I hate him right now. But I’m also grateful for the lesson he accidentally taught me. It may be fun to have a vacation from modern conveniences, but it’s hell to live there.
I write on my troubleshooting list: “Fire Tomas.”