I am thinking of building a fallout shelter in my basement.
I am semi-serious about this, having gone from head-shaking comments tossed-off in the spirit of “I really would move to Canada,” to a bit of online research, to evenings spent scouring Amazon for supplies. Ads for bug-out kits follow me around the Internet now. I find that oddly reassuring.
I know my thinking about these things has taken a definitive turn because I don’t joke about it anymore. Instead, I shoot straight up in bed when I hear Wanda Sykes describe on Conan some particular renovations underway on her home: “We’re making a, what do you call it, family room, great room—no, a bomb shelter.” Yes, Wanda. Yes.
The fact that I have a basement is noteworthy in itself. A private basement is an anomalous luxury in New York City, where I live. There are countless communal basements in the city, most of them unlovely transactional spaces. There might be some storage cages down there, or a bank of washers and dryers if your building is big enough. The typical city basement is the province of a super who communes with the pipes and manages the twice-a-week disgorgement of garbage out onto the curb.
The centerpiece of most New York City basements is the boiler, a thrumming metal dragon that shoots heat up in fiery blasts. The first New York City basement I ever saw was sometime in the early 1980s, in a tenement in the Bronx that had switched over from coal to oil two decades earlier but still had a small pile of black chunks in the corner, where the chute used to empty. It was loud and dark and retrograde in that basement, not the kind of place you’d want to hunker down for safety, though there may have been a yellow-and-black triangled fallout shelter sign on the door leading down to the stairs. This was a decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the early days of the Reagan era, when Prince sang “Ronnie Talk to Russia.” Old school nuclear annihilation was still possible, but it didn’t capture my attention then. I was more preoccupied with my own self-destruction and the hastening and/or reversal of same.
In December 2017—less than a month after North Korea’s most robust nuclear test to date and around the time President Trump started taunting Kim Jong-Un as “Little Rocket Man”—New York City began systematically removing thousands of obsolete fallout shelter signs from around the city. The spaces those signs had pointed to, so designated at the urging of President Kennedy in 1961, had long since been filled in as storage space or locked and forgotten. The city took the fallout shelter signs down from schools first. Apparently they didn’t want to provide false hope that safety could be found the bowels of P.S. 139.
We are on our own now.
And with so many more things to seek shelter from, in addition to the aforementioned nuclear annihilation. Rising seas, terror attacks, super storms, earthquakes. Earthquakes! I thought I had escaped that particular threat when I left my hometown on the San Andreas Fault, my mother’s mordant quip about future beachfront property ringing in my ears. But apparently the bedrock under New York is a century overdue for its own Big One. I add it to the list.
When I tell my husband about my fallout shelter vision, he looks at me as if I had come to the breakfast table with a shaved head and camo face paint: he searches for some sign that the sunny pragmatist he married is still there under this momentary display. I’ve always been the encourager, the optimist, obstinately glass half full. For years I would joke to friends that I should just make a recording of me saying, “Everything’s going to be alright, honey,” then hit play a few seconds into any conversation with my husband, in person or by phone. He’s a natural born worrier. He believes every scenario will end in the worst case. He plans months in advance for adverse outcomes. He doesn’t quite know what to think about this basement shelter obsession.
Actually, that’s not true: he thinks it is ridiculous. Both too much and too little to matter in the tally of likely disasters ahead. Global warming? That’ll be floods, we’re on relatively high ground—and if we’re not high enough to escape the water, the basement will be the worst place to shelter. Nuclear attack? North Korea will more likely aim for LA or DC—and if New York City is hit, our raw basement, uninsulated on three sides and full of damp spots after a spring rain, won’t protect us from radiation. What’s the point? There is no point.
I know he’s right. But this instinct to be prepared is so new to me, I feel compelled to poke it and ponder it. Like a minor new ache, or a different flip of the hair.
My whole life I’ve fancied myself a risk taker. Watch, watch while I vault off this ledge! Leaping into thin air to reach college and then change colleges, throwing myself into the next city, the next job, the next squeeze. I got married and divorced once that way, got drunk that way and sober too. I just jumped, and the universe caught me, and so I started to assume it always would—at least until my luck ran out. It’s the misfortune of the fortunate, this sense of a cosmic tote board on which each good break adds a chit to the doom column. The trick is knowing when to stop leaping and start looking. Like when I quit hitchhiking, or stopped upgrading to first class on the company’s dime.
So maybe I am not a risk taker after all, but an odds calculator. Not so much a gambler as a card counter. And lately, the cards are telling me to get prepared.
There have been other messengers besides Wanda Sykes. Last summer, six months into the Trump Era, I was driving around Western North Carolina, along a road checkerboarded with First Baptist churches and natural food stores that signified a certain kind of political purpleness, when our party decided to stop at the next Dollar Store for snacks and such. I walked the aisles looking for some clue of why America had turned the way it had, but all I saw was the same beef jerky and Mountain Dew they have at my corner bodega in Brooklyn. And then, at the checkout, waiting for the long-haired cashier with his tattoo of an eagle clutching marijuana leaves to ring up the family ahead of me, I saw it: American Survival magazine, gunmetal gray and half an inch thick. Its cover promised a story about training your dog to be part of your post-disaster team, a bug-out bag buyer’s guide, tips on home-making a Faraday cage to survive the digital apocalypse of an Electromagnetic Pulse event. It was all presented in a suburban-normative, non-fringe kind of way. The ad on the back cover asked: “When disaster strikes—be it natural or man-made—do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” There was only one right answer. I bought the magazine, and when I read parts of it aloud in the car, it was only half ironically.
Not long afterward I stumbled across a piece in the New York Times about progressives signing up for survival courses and stockpiling canned goods, which led me to a closed, 3,000+ member Facebook group called The Liberal Prepper. I haven’t joined, but find it reassuring that such a group exists. If I am crazy, at least I have like-minded company.
Remember the fable of the grasshopper and the ant? The grasshopper parties all summer while the ant works and saves. When winter hits, the grasshopper starves while the ant smacks away at the fruits of its labor.
Now let’s say you’ve made a career out of grasshopperly grand gestures, while bad-mouthing the anti-joy ant. Let’s say you look back fondly on your youthful habit of hooking up with grasshoppers, especially if they had long curly antennae and woke you up in the middle of the night to sing their summer songs just for you. Let’s say you invoked the “work smarter, not harder” rule to argue the grasshopper was better adapted to the modern economy. Let’s say you went to rather extreme measures to conceal some very ant-like qualities you might yourself have had (workaholism, single-mindedness, obsessive striving).
What would it take to make you embrace your actual ant nature?
Winter, maybe. The impending end. Your own or the world’s or both.
As I speed right by all the ages I never expected to live past, I see from those just ahead of me on the road how grim existence can be for anyone who trudges those last miles without some forethought. The whittling away of identity when work dwindles, the ever-more unmountable stairs, the fretting over the cost of one fancy coffee or one new book. Since I did not after all have an early and glamorous grasshopper death, I go all ant. I stash away savings. I make a will, living and otherwise. I buy insurance. I develop dignified avocations. And I reconcile myself to the apocalypse as something that might figure prominently in my retirement.
Which brings me back to the basement bomb shelter, the prospect of which only an ant could countenance. A grasshopper would rather fry in the sky than burrow underground, nibbling on MREs and cranking the shortwave in the dark to preserve batteries. But I imagine an ant could hang out indefinitely in the 92-ton prefab steel room—complete with air filtration and a gravity toilet—that you can buy online from Norad Shelter Systems and have installed in your cellar. An ant could happily preoccupy itself with the gathering of items from the FEMA Emergency Checklist (one gallon of water per person per day, a whistle to signal help, and yes, duct tape) to store neatly on the shelves. An ant might be persuaded by its own industriousness that hard work can carry one through even the nuclear winter. That’s kind of hopeful, in its own end-of-days way.
That’s what I am thinking about as I survey all the junk in my basement that I will need to get rid of to make room for any kind of shelter. We’ve lived in this house for a little more than 22 years, but we still have the stuff we stashed down here the summer we moved in. My wedding dress. My husband’s early sculptures mummied in so much bubble wrap that they look like the pods from Cocoon. Halloween and Christmas decorations. Two decades worth of tax returns, three careers worth of work samples, a lifetime in photos. None of which will matter in the coming flood, fire and fury—although we may die from a hoarder avalanche before the radiation poisoning gets us.
As I feather-dust the years off of the next shelf of boxes, the furnace rumbles to life. Like my first New York City boiler, this one has evolved from coal to oil to natural gas, its boxy metal octopus arms lifted in an eternal shrug: so it goes. Its engines shake loose a shimmer of silt from the low-slatted ceiling, packed with a mixture of ancient plaster and horsehair. Through the haze I see the milky winter light filtering in through the high small window. Outside, confused crocuses push tentative fingertips into the temporary thaw of February. Doomsday may be coming, but spring is prepping to get here first.
by Mickey Revenaugh
Mickey Revenaugh is an essayist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Catapult, Cleaver, Chautauqua, Lunch Ticket, The Tishman Review, and Louisiana Literature, among others. She was a finalist for the 2017 Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction and the 2017 Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction Award, and a semi-finalist for the 2017 American Short Fiction Prize. Mickey received her MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College, and also holds a BA from Yale University and an MBA from New York University. She lives in a house with a basement in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.