Jason Charles used to be scared.
A New York firefighter and the lead organizer of the New York City Preppers Network, he spent two years after 9/11 afraid of the world and the people within it.
“I became a bit of a coward,” said Charles, who was on scene as an EMT when the towers fell. “I was scared to fly in planes, I was scared to get on a roller-coaster ride. I was just scared.”
Now, Charles is prepared — or so he thinks. The burly 42-year-old father of five estimates he’s spent $10,000 since 2011 on provisions for the end times, an investment that in recent weeks has seemed prescient. When reports about the novel coronavirus began to surface early this year, Charles checked his closet and found N95 masks, which people around the world have rushed to buy in an attempt to protect themselves from the virus.
“It’s weird seeing all the stuff I have stored away,” he said in early March. “I might be using this shit very soon.”
Charles and his group of doomsday preppers met on March 1 for an emergency discussion of the coronavirus. When I met him at his apartment on Friday of that week, I went in for an elbow bump in lieu of a handshake. He offered his hand.
“This is not the end-game. This is not going to wipe out humanity.”
Doomsday notwithstanding, Charles is pleased he’s been prepared for what others haven’t. It’s vindication for him and the few hundred members of NYC Preppers. The righteous indignation that has always animated preppers has seemed to reach a fever pitch as the toll of the coronavirus has increased. In the public imagination, preppers have been painted for years as fanatics with anxieties removed from reality. The pandemic today has legitimized many of those same fears.
“This is reassurance for preppers,” he said. “The problem is, as soon as this passes, we’ll be the class clowns again.”
Charles was born in Washington Heights and lives in Harlem. After our tentative handshake, he led me to the kitchen and poured himself coffee. He wore a black baseball cap, shorts, and a navy-blue t-shirt with a vignette over the left breast depicting fire fighters approaching the twin towers. He was packing that day for a “bug-out,” a simulation of post-apocalyptic life that doesn’t sound unlike camping, in the Catskills over the weekend and said we’d have to hurry.
The kitchen is something of a preview of the hallway closet that overflows with masks, torches, ramen packets, and rope. (Charles also has a storage unit in the Bronx stuffed with survival equipment.) There’s a panoply of vitamins and a profusion of canned food. One of Charles’ vitamins is made from a mushroom and supposedly helps with stamina. You have to take individual vitamins, he tells me, not that “bullshit centrum.”
Charles began his vitamin regimen around the time he started prepping. In 2011, he read William R. Forstchen’s “One Second After,” a novel about a devastating electromagnetic-pulse attack on the United States. The story awakened in him a feeling that first sprouted after 9/11 — that Americans lacked the kind of imagination that would compel them to prepare for a disaster. Government officials were unable to heed the warnings of intelligence officers about an attack by al-Qaeda, he argues, because the idea was too fantastic to them. Doomsday was the same — until this year.
The coronavirus may not be the doomsday Charles has spent thousands of dollars preparing for and countless hours envisioning, but it still should be taken seriously, he says. Skeptically, in fact. Charles is sympathetic to the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was manufactured by the Chinese as a bioweapon. I ask for elaboration.
“One theory is it was for Hong Kong,” he said. “The timing is just too impeccable.”
“But it’s affected the Chinese population more than Hong Kong, hasn’t it?”
“That’s why it was an accident, right?”
Charles’ belief in this theory betrays a general distrust of established knowledge. He thinks the government is not only ill-equipped to respond to disaster, as further evidenced by the U.S. reaction to the coronavirus, but also inherently malevolent, an entity that “can’t be trusted.” He believes vaccines are partly to blame for the rise in mental health issues in many developed countries and that greed is the principal motivation of most politicians. In 2016, he wrote himself in on his voting ballot because “you have to vote.” Today, he thinks he’ll vote for Trump in November, but his big hang-up is the president’s decimation of the EPA.
“If you don’t want to protect the environment, then fuck you.”
The coronavirus has also given Charles an opportunity to spread his survivalist message, even if he realizes that most people will emerge from the pandemic still skeptical of prepping. Since early March, Charles has gained roughly 2,700 subscribers on YouTube, he said, and when I spoke with him by phone in late March, he seemed glad people were seeking out his help. He’s still working as a firefighter in the midst of the crisis, but Charles also believes that in these uncertain times he’s become something of a journalist.
“I’m reporting the facts,” he said. “I have my own theories on the coronavirus; I’m not gonna say it on YouTube.”
When I caught up with Charles in late April, he said his chief concern now is the potential second wave of Covid-19. The CDC has been plenty wrong, he surmised, but its warnings about a return of cases during flu season should be heeded. He still thinks he’ll vote for Trump in November, even if the president’s comments about injecting bleach “can’t be defended,” and he thinks the protesters who have charged that the government is using the coronavirus as a way to lock down the public are just conspiracy theorists. He hasn’t run through his stack of N95 masks yet, and he’s led a virtual meeting of NYC Preppers and is gearing up for another.
The pandemic has also become more personal for Charles since March. Two EMTs he used to work with have died of Covid-19, he said, and now when he’s responding to calls with Ladder 19, he’s increasingly cautious.
“You’re more aware now,” he said. “Where you put your hands, what you say to people. Some people ask for reassurance. You can’t sit there and tell them it’ll be okay.”
One of Charles’ YouTube videos about the start of quarantine, posted on a Monday morning in March, begins with drone footage of a burning building and people with gas canisters waiting in line for fuel. The title screen fades in at the 20-second mark: “The Angry Prepper, Urban. Prepare Today, Survive Tomorrow.” The screen fades out and Charles appears, reporting from his neighborhood about the first night of New York lockdown, a scene that feels almost quaint by now.
“There is no movement anywhere around me tonight,” he says, standing beneath the streetlights of his empty block. He’s wearing the black hat that he had on when we met and a dark hoodie. “The governor and the mayor don’t want to use the words ‘lockdown’ or ‘self-quarantine’ because they say people think the word is scary. Listen, man: Fuck being scared.”
Alex Wittenberg is a graduate student in the Magazine and Digital Storytelling program