Neil Strauss is ready for any emergency
Neil Strauss hardly seems like a guy who’d kill a goat and gut it with his own hands. A slim intellectual in silver jewelry and designer jeans, he doesn’t appear to be the kind of person who would stash food in a forest or plot an escape from his Laurel Canyon home using fire trails and a motorcycle he barely knows how to ride. ¶ Yet that’s precisely what Strauss has learned to do over the last three years in an effort to prepare himself should society collapse. It’s a journey he not only chronicles in his new book, “Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life,” but continues to pursue. ¶ Days before his book’s release, Strauss’ BlackBerry is brimming with projects. (Get motorcycle license. Take pain-resistance training. Grind grain.) He’s looking to strike a few items off his list. ¶ “I’m here to pick up a shotgun,” he says, stepping up to the counter at Gun World, a Burbank shop whose anteroom is loaded with ammo and shell cases. The shotgun is a Remington 870 Wingmaster -- the third part of an unholy trinity that also includes a 9-millimeter pistol and a rifle, all of which he keeps in a hidden safe at his house.
“Three years ago, I never would have been in a gun store,” says Strauss, who was a New York Times music and culture critic before writing the bestseller “The Game,” a guide to picking up women. He also collaborated with Jenna Jameson on her 2004 memoir “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star.”
Strauss’ transformation took place gradually. In 1999, halfway through a 10-year stint at the Times, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became a regular participant in what he calls the “stupid human Hollywood thing.” He spent sleepless nights with Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love and other musicians, frequently filing articles from their living rooms.
Although he ghost-wrote books with Manson and Mötley Crüe, his breakthrough came when he teamed up with Jameson. That same year he left the Times. In the meantime, he was growing increasingly concerned about societal breakdown and eventually decided to act upon his fears.
It started after Y2K raised the specter of a doomsday, after Sept. 11 prompted him to purchase a gas mask, after the reelection of George W. Bush led him to investigate citizenship in other countries, after Hurricane Katrina made him realize the most powerful nation in the world couldn’t protect its own citizens.
“We were born with a silver spoon in our mouths. Bad things happened to previous generations,” says Strauss, explaining the original, third-person premise for “Emergency,” which evolved into a first-person survivalist how-to.
“We had it all,” continues Strauss, who is in his late 30s. “The Cold War was over. The Internet was bringing everybody together. Wars were a thing of the past. Then all the things that happened from 2001 to today, it was like dominos falling over. All of a sudden I realized that all the things you read about in history books, they could happen to you.”
Standing between a mounted moose head and a trio of hulking, goateed clerks, Strauss doesn’t look like a gun shop regular. The only thing he has in common with most of the other people in the store is the fact that he is male. And as males go, he doesn’t exactly play macho.
He is Columbia-educated, petite, soft-spoken, borderline giggly. He’s “a hipster” who “looked quite humorous in a class with a bunch of Blackwater types wearing combat boots and 511 tactical pants,” says Kevin Reeve, who taught Strauss how to hijack a car and escape from handcuffs, among other things, in a class called Urban Escape and Evasion.
Reeve, who runs a New Jersey firm called onPoint Tactical, also coached Strauss on a three-day survival exercise in Northern California’s redwood forest, where the author brought nothing but his wits and a knife and lived on foraged food and water.
Wilderness survival is “really hard” for someone “who is not a nature person,” admits Strauss, who lived in a shelter of leaves and made fire using nothing but sticks and his shoelaces. But it is also empowering. In many ways, Strauss has only done what a lot of people might consider if they had the time and money.
He’s even secured citizenship in another country. It took more than a year, and half a million dollars, but he’s now a citizen of the small Caribbean island of St. Kitts. To get there, he’s learning to fly an airplane.
Describing his training as “a rabbit hole of preparedness,” Strauss has also taken edible plant walks and learned how to fish and to sail a boat.
He has licenses to operate a ham radio and to work as a security guard.
He’s apprenticed himself to a knife-making survivalist and trained in CPR and first aid.
He even became an emergency medical technician and joined the California Emergency Mobile Patrol, where he volunteers on the state’s search and rescue team.
“Everything is politically strange. Half of what I’m doing is completely right-wing stuff and half is really left-wing stuff,” acknowledges Strauss, leaving Gun World after paying $919 for his new shotgun. He throws the weapon in the back of his silver Dodge Durango.
Along with the gun, the cargo hold contains a mix of merchandise that proves his point. There are survivalist supplies, rescue gear and spilled hay -- feed for the three goats he’s raising at home, two of which he delivered himself.
His next errand? Picking up a pair of baby chickens from a feed store.
For a man who once spent 45 minutes staring at a paw print in the woods as part of a survivalist training course called Tracker School, Strauss is surprisingly dependent on technology. Driving around L.A., he’s constantly checking his Garmin GPS and listening for directions from its robotic female voice.
“There’s a certain crew of people: We’re scared enough to get prepared, but we’re not scared enough to leave the city,” notes Strauss, a Chicago native who has spent his life in urban environments.
“If you really think something’s going to happen, you go out to Montana or Wyoming. But when you start sacrificing your lifestyle, the things you enjoy, for safety, you’re putting yourself in a prison.”
Judging from his chic Modernist home, Strauss is hardly living in a prison. He’s just folded in a new set of priorities. His goats paw the refrigerator, roaming (and defecating) freely inside the house and around the slate patio that rings his swimming pool.
His kitchen counters hold Godiva chocolates and Grey Goose vodka -- along with containers of homemade strawberry preserves and beef jerky. His garage houses surfboards, a Corvette and a generator.
And yet there’s a method to the madness. What began as an exercise in terror has led to self-reliance. Sure, he’s made plans to flee, but he’s equally prepared to stick around and deal with the aftermath.
“Before,” he says, “I really came out of a place of fear. I was scared of all these things that could happen, and I used to spent time worrying about it. There was a big rush, like I’ve got to get this done before something happens.”
But after three years of preparation, “it’s literally like I don’t ever worry about it. It doesn’t mean my chances of surviving are better, but I kind of think that as much as the stuff buys you survival, it also buys you peace of mind.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.