The man whose own press materials call him “the world’s most legendary pickup artist” was having trouble getting to second base.
“The damn goat wouldn’t let me get to the udders,” Neil Strauss is saying. “You’d think I’d have at least gotten to the udders, considering.”
Considering that he’s America’s most famous writer dweeb turned seduction specialist, considering that he’s the author of the New York Times best-seller The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, considering that he runs Stylelife.com, which he calls “the world’s first online academy for attraction …”
But the object of his attentions, an actual goat, wasn’t buying Strauss’ openers. Granted, he wasn’t interested in the goat romantically, he just wanted her milk. His cleaning lady, who showed not the least bit of surprise that he had a goat running around his house, finally came to the rescue and taught him some moves. Now he is an expert at milking a goat.
There are, by Strauss’ own estimate, 100,000 pickup artists waiting to see what he’ll do next. How they’ll react to him milking a goat or, for that matter, drinking fish spinal fluid to combat dehydration is anyone’s guess. But Strauss doesn’t have time to worry about that — his new game is all about learning to survive not dating disasters but actual life-threatening, end-days disasters, an obsession that brings plenty of its own worries.
Four years ago, what with Bush’s reelection, and Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina — with its images of bodies floating down rivers — Strauss started to worry about his country. Psychic trauma in response to global crisis, of course, is a standard writerly rite of passage — most end up with a novel. Strauss, on the other hand, stocked up on firearms and canned food and began preparing in earnest for the Apocalypse. As he puts it, “I started doing stuff, then thought, crap, I better write a book about this, I’m spending so much time on it.” His misadventures in catastrophe training are chronicled in the memoir Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life, which he recently finished editing.
Having learned how to survive earthquakes, biochemical attacks, nuclear winter and being stranded at sea, Strauss is now trying to navigate his way through one of the most trying aspects of book publishing, the part that makes many authors want to lie down and die: that is to say, promoting the book.
“The thing about survival is that it’s really selfish. So I’m going to hoard all my supplies and sit on them with my shotgun,” he says as he waits for a newspaper photographer at his home in Laurel Canyon. “You have to do extreme things.”
Extreme like eat another human being? “You know, I’ll probably be asked that. I’ll have to get used to it.”
The cannibal question reminds him of when he was out in the forest, learning advanced knife skills with a survivalist named Mad Dog. His girlfriend, Katie, refused to join them.
“She’s a survival liability,” Strauss remembers apologizing to Mad Dog.
“Not necessarily,” said Mad Dog. “She’s an excellent source of protein.”
In the kitchen, standing next to jars of strawberry preserves he preserved himself, Strauss chews on a piece of beef jerky he jerked himself. Surviving keeps you busy, whether you’re setting up false identities, burying supplies of fuel along your escape route to Malibu Lake, desalinating seawater off Catalina Island, or milking goats for your morning coffee. Three goats, a mama and two kids he delivered himself, now wander around his house.
“Hey, Christine,” he hollers to his assistant upstairs, “do you know where my schedule is?”
“You mean what to do in what order? When you were doing nature walks and eating dandelion soup?”
“Wine,” he says, feeding one of the baby goats pieces of Brussels sprouts, “it was dandelion wine.”
As his schedule is procured, one goat clambers over his ivory bouclé sofa and Noguchi coffee table and puts her cloven hooves up on the kitchen counter, as if she’s about to order a cocktail. “I know, I know,” he says, looking at her, “it’s surreal, right?”
He is sensitive about the goats. He will not have his photo taken with them. He feels guilty. Mostly because he slit a goat’s throat as part of his survival training.
On the whole, Strauss is much more the lover than executioner. Out in the wilderness, when it came down to it, there were some raccoons he could have hunted, but they were too cute to eat. “There were acorns I was going to survive on, but the squirrels beat me to it.” He was going to make a blowgun out of the stem of a plant he found, which turned out to be hemlock.
“Survivalists believe the worst about human nature,” he says as the photographer snaps his picture on a shrubby hill behind the garage. He baked a chicken in a pit here with hot rocks for one of his weekly survivalist dinner parties. It smelled delicious but took too long, so his guests called out for pizza while they waited. “It seems like there are two types of people, and your view of human nature determines your path. There are the misanthropic survivalist guys and the permaculture-movement guys who create self-sustaining communities. I’m the permaculture guy who’s got his guns hidden in the cellar. Expect the best, prepare for the worst. Like my dad said. I have the guns, and I don’t know how I feel about them.”
“Less tense,” the photographer instructs.
“Sorry,” says Strauss, rearranging his face. “Like this?”
“Anything but wimpy nerdy. Give me tough, rugged.”
In the garage, there are piles of Crystal Geyser, Tupperware bins filled with military MREs, cans of kerosene, a Kevlar vest, empty ammo canisters, a pruning saw, a spade, Thermo-Gel to spray on his roof in case of wildfires, and a Rokon motorcycle with wheels that are hollow so you can store gas in it.
“Dude,” said his survivalist friends, “if you’re gonna escape on your motorcycle, people are gonna try to jack it.” Which led to Strauss learning Krav Maga. There are endless techniques to learn because the litany of things that can go wrong is limited only by your imagination.
“The demon is known by the name of Just in Case,” he writes in the book. “It has many heads. And the more fear you have, the more heads you see.”
He surveys the largess and scratches his head. “My original plan was just to get a second country,” he says.
You mean purchase a country?
“No, no, get a second citizenship.”
Things he was naturally good at include lock-picking and disappearing into a crowd. Things he was naturally terrible at include camping and being cold.
“The things I’m worst at, I study the most.” Strauss would, for instance, like to keep studying pain resistance. As a final test, the instructor throws you into a pit with an angry wild boar. (“I probably won’t do that.”) He also throws darts at you. (“I kind of want to do that.”)
After a while, he drives to a pet store in Granada Hills to buy the goats some hay. He is allergic to the hay he already bought. Plus, the goats are munching on the corner of his shirt. On the way there, Strauss’ cell phone rings with the tune from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There’s a message from a guy who read The Game and wants to know a good pickup line to meet girls at the airport.
“I get hundreds of these a day,” Strauss says. “I can’t answer them all, but every now and then one will break my heart and I’ll relent.”
“Do you guys have heat lamps?” he asks the sales clerk at the pet store. Strauss is planning to raise chickens for eggs.
“Do you know where they would be?”
“Somewhere. In the back.”
Strauss sighs and walks to the back. “Remind me to show you my license to carry a concealed weapon when we go to pay,” he mutters to me.
By evening, outfitted in a blue search-and-rescue volunteer uniform that makes him look like a cop, he drives out to a California Emergency Mobile Patrol meeting. Strauss is an EMT and has enough supplies in his car to keep him alive for a week, which, given the state of Los Angeles freeways, will come in handy even if the world does not end. At the meeting in the Devonshire police station, he isn’t Neil Strauss, best-selling author who can seduce any woman on the planet. He’s just Neil Strauss, guy who finally passed the CEMP probationary period, guy who can jump-start your heart if you happen to fibrillate. “I really do like this stuff. If I wasn’t a writer,” he says, grinning, “I’d probably be a paramedic.”