Actually, Maybe I Should Carry Around a Styptic Pencil

I like to keep a kit, a sort of an urban toolkit of helpful things. Really it’s about being prepared for contingencies, with a balance between expense, likelihood of need, and practicality. I’m not a survivalist, I swear!  When civilization falls, I fall with it.  I just like to be ready for a bump in the road, a city-wide emergency, or if I just have to get out of Dodge.

This all started when I was a young teenager, probably about fourteen. On weekends I would sometimes hop on the subway to Manhattan, parts unknown, just to get out and explore. On one such occasion I got off at the World Trade Center and was rather disappointed at the lack of retail shops. I came across a three-card-monty game, and being a foolish youth I plunked down my Jackson and lost it just as quickly. Fair or unfair, I’d wagered it and lost it, so although I was chagrined I didn’t feel cheated. Thing is, that was all the money I had on me; I’d come to the city with two subway tokens* and the $20 and that was it. Now all I had was a subway token. As I wandered away from the card table I felt increasingly uneasy about my situation.

I could walk around and just, well, not buy anything, which seemed kind of pointless. If I got hungry I could start back home and be there in an hour and half or so, if all went well. What was gnawing at me was the possibility that all would not go well.  All I could think about was how vulnerable I felt; how, if I needed anything I would be unable to do anything about it. If I lost the token somehow I’d really have a problem, and I didn’t even have a quarter to call home**. It was worrying, and I decided to call it quits and head back home.

Dropping the token in the turnstile left me feeling penniless. Because I was.

Never again. Never again, I resolved, would I let myself get caught flat-footed and unprepared. Always carry emergency cash, enough to make a worthwhile difference. Enough to put myself up in a room for the night, and get myself some food, and a taxi home – something like that.

A little later on in life I found myself in another situation, albeit a trivial one. I had something – and I can’t remember what it was – that needed repair, if only I had a screwdriver. I did own a screwdriver, but at the time I was away from home, and the very thing I needed was at home and being useless. How hard would it be to carry it around in my backpack? It was small & light enough that I wouldn’t even have noticed that it was there, but it would be there if I needed it.  Indeed, the more I thought about it, there were quite a few small, inexpensive, and very useful things I could carry around without noticing them.

These were the beginnings of my kit, which has evolved over the years. I started out with a little commercial survival tin – one of those silly things which had, for example, a cube a bullion, a fishhook and tackle – like I was going to go fishing in the East River or something.

I was young; I didn’t know what I was doing.  As time went on I added and refined the kit.  The tin had to go but I did get myself a Swiss Army knife, later replaced by a Leatherman.  When I would find something small & useful I’d add it to my backpack or fanny pack – a Photon LED light, matches, subway map, and so on.

After 9/11 I put together a more serious go-bag and I keep it in the trunk of my car. I also have a nylon briefcase-sized bag which I bring to and from work which has a bunch of other tools and supplies. My gas tank never goes below half-full.

What it means to me is peace of mind. I know that, at the drop of a hat (or, when the balloon goes up), wherever I am, I can just get in my car and drive. If I have to hunker-down in-place, home is best for that as I have food enough to last months, and water for weeks.  Some of it turns out to be quite handy, too.  I use my Leatherman Wave with surprising frequency (and also my SouthOrd Jackknife, but that’s another story).  Conversely, when I have to travel light (as when I travel by plane, or have to enter a courthouse***) I feel sort-of vulnerable – unprepared for trouble and hoping nothing goes wrong.

I tend not to advertise the extent to which I keep prepared because people think it’s weird, but amongst the people I’m around I tend to get a reputation as the MacGyver with the MacGuffin. A year or two ago I was driving with Noocyte in my car; he took off his glasses and asked me, “Do you happen to have a microfiber cloth?” I pointed to the passenger side visor; he flipped it down and found a little plastic bag with just what he wanted, right next to the Lifehammer. He cleaned his glasses, and, after a pause, said to me, “Y’know, there aren’t a lot of people I’d ask that of.” I was reminded of a scene in an episode of Taxi: Latka needs a styptic pencil, which Jim has – right behind his ear.

Alex: “Jim, why do you carry a styptic pencil behind your ear?”

Jim: “Under the circumstances, I think a better question is: Why don’t you?”

* Yes, tokens.  Back then, the NYC subways took tokens, not MetroCards.

** Quarters, for payphones.  Payphones were common because cellphones weren’t invented yet.  Now, get off my lawn!

*** For Jury Duty.  Just Jury Duty; yeah, I carry lockpicks and I know how to use them, but I’m not a freakin’ burglar, man.

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