Dressed in a navy-and-white-striped polo, fitted khaki shorts, and a hefty silver watch, Mike, 37, blends in with his neighbors as they return to the well-appointed high-rise they inhabit in Alexandria, Virginia, after a casual Friday at work. Mike, who moved to the D.C. area about a year ago for a website job in nearby Crystal City, is the picture of American industriousness and upscale success. He’s the first person in the office each morning, he’s working on a master’s in communications in his spare time, and he lives in a sleekly designed apartment with a spectacular view of the Washington Monument.
But another picture of Mike, also very American, starts coming into focus after he opens the double doors to his kitchen pantry.
There, he’s stashed enough food and water to live on for 90 days. The inventory is staggering: a floor full of water jugs lined up like soldiers; 150 water-purification tablets; 75 freeze-dried meals like kung pao chicken and two dozen ready-to-eat meals (MREs), complete with mini Tabasco bottles and breath mints; 20 pounds of rice; enough canned goods to stock a grocery-store aisle ... and dessert. “I love chocolate,” Mike says; his personal hoard includes 60 Hershey’s bars50 of the 3.5-ounce variety and 10 one-pounders.
He shuts the pantry doors and continues the tour in his living room, where there are 10 backpacks lined up against the rear wall. Some are filled with more freeze-dried food, others with camping gear. “This is part of my thing that is maybe weird,” he says, betraying no sense of irony as he opens one backpack and pulls out a T-shirt, pants, a rain jacket, and a hata full camouflage outfit. “If things do go bad, I’m not going to walk down the highway looking like everyone else.”
In the sixties and seventies, men who considered themselves survivalists found a lean-to (or better yet, a bunker) in the country and holed up with a ham radio, a shotgun, and rabbit meat, anticipatingand perhaps, in a perverse way, wishing forthe nuclear holocaust that they considered inevitable. Today, guys like Mike who are worried about, as he says, “a complete societal breakdown,” prefer to be called “preppers” (as befits their polo-clad ways). They’re living off the fat of the land, not off the grid. They’re the guys in suits (most preppers are men) next to you on the train or the expressway, making their way home to watch The Office or Monday Night Football or to play soccer with their kids in the back yard. And they are not about to leave their good jobs and desirable zip codes just because at any moment the economy could collapse or a bird-flu pandemic might arrive. Instead, preppers are cramming their homes full of goods to help them through the tough times ahead, including luxuries that old-school survivalists would scoff at, from laptops in ammunition canisters to bottles of vodka to iPods in waterproof cases.