It's a sticky Saturday morning and I'm handcuffed in the back seat of a Jeep Grand Cherokee parked on the side of a Philadelphia street. On one side of me is my boyfriend, Bruce, and on the other his best friend, Nick. Both of them are also cuffed—and like me, sweating like pigs. I reach into my hair and pull out a bobby pin that within seconds I've fashioned into a simple device I use to jimmy open my handcuff locks. Our assignment now is to evade 12 professionally trained trackers in a 25-square-block area for the next eight hours.
It may be hard to believe, but we asked for this. Actually, we paid for it: $550 apiece.
Today is the final day of a three-day "Urban Escape and Evade" course offered by onPoint Tactical LLC, a New Jersey-based company that teaches soldiers, police officers, and, increasingly, civilians urban survival skills.
Among the lessons we've learned are how to break through zip ties and telephone cords (the most common materials used as binding by kidnappers), smash a car window without making a sound, pick tumbler- and padlocks, puncture the tires of a pursuit vehicle with homemade caltrops, call for help using a ham radio, kill an attack dog—and, of course, how to escape from handcuffs (see a video here). To make today's exercise even more difficult, we've been assigned a variety of missions that will test our newfound prowess in urban tactical maneuvering.
OnPoint, started in 2004 by Kevin Reeve, a 52-year-old professional scout and tracker, is the only school in the country that teaches urban tactical skills. In the past nine months, demand for the course has surged. For the first time, Reeve approximates his annual revenue to top $200,000—a fair sum for a business whose overhead consists largely of renting out space in community centers for classes and buying enough Goody bobby pins to prop up the coifs at a beauty pageant. In years past, Reeve said he barely pulled in enough revenue to make a profit.
Driving the growth, in part, is a fear that resonates from the wealthiest consumers to blue-collar workers: that with the global financial crisis dragging on, life as we know it is undergoing a radical change. Looking forward, pundits say that at best we will no longer be able to subsist on the diet of credit we have so ravenously consumed for the last decade. At worst, our future looks like something out of a Mad Max movie.
What this has to do with breaking out of handcuffs or picking padlocks requires a rather Hobbesian leap. It assumes that if the government can no longer provide for or protect its citizens, there will be a complete upending of the societal order. It assumes that humans will act to the worst of their capacity. It assumes that if, in fact, the financial crisis is just a mile marker on the highway to hell, we could soon be facing a very different, very violent world. So, beyond the novelty element of being able to pull a Jack Bauer-like escape, there is a sense that these skills are a necessity as our society becomes ever more precarious.
"I think everybody [who takes the class] wants to feel a little bit more secure. For some people it's just a hobby, but there are a number of people who look at the world, and say, ‘Things are probably not getting better,' " Reeve says.
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Each escape-and-evade class has 15 to 20 slots, and there's one held each month in a different city across the country. Last month it was in Nashville, Tenn., the month before that, in Chicago. When I attended, it was split between the sleepy town of Medford, N.J., and the downtown region of Philadelphia. Soon, Reeve will have a mobile training team that will be able to set up shop in Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Seattle. He is also restructuring the company to include Kelly Alwood, a lead instructor, as partner, and is now adding to his bench. Currently, Reeve employs about six instructors, most of them ex-military, to teach the courses alongside him on a contract basis. OnPoint offers several courses in urban and wilderness survival, tracking, and scouting, but its escape and evade is by far the most popular—by tenfold, Reeve approximates.
Increased exposure has also helped propel onPoint closer to the mainstream. Neil Strauss, who is best-known for his 2005 book, The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, attended Reeve's class in 2007 as part of a larger quest to prepare himself for an impending disaster. In March, the diminutive writer and veritable god among sexually frustrated males published a book about his experience, Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life, which spent 12 weeks on the New York Times' best-seller list. More than half of the people in the class I attended were there because they had read it.
Although escape and evade was but a small part of the book, it seems to have awakened the Jason Bourne—or even the Neil Strauss—wannabe in countless readers. One student, a chef, had recently come from a seminar in Los Angeles given by Strauss on how to be a pickup artist, his third such class. Strauss is intelligent, funny, and completely relatable. Not only do his readers want to hear about his experiences, they want to have them.