The concept of a Grey Man, or pretty much a grey anything is simply using the word grey as an adjective to describe transparency. Many people think that Grey means blending it, but that can be just as dangerous as standing out. Blending in means you are one of the many, and of equal value as a target. Instead, “Going Grey” in my mind is the physical and mental adjustment you can psychologically force upon others to shut off all alarm bells. Going Grey means disappearing into the background noise of whatever environment you are Greying into. In a city you should attract no more attention than a phone pole, or a stairway, or street sign even if that means standing out just like a phone pole or stairway or street sign does.
Transparent, Not Opaque
Going Grey also means providing others with just enough information for them to create their own narrative for you. People are exceptionally good at creating explanations or inferences for what they see. So give them just enough narrative rope to hang themselves.
The challenge of Going Grey is that you must look Grey and act Grey while not really being the Grey. Humans, like all predatory animals, are keenly aware of actions inconsistent with intent. If the intent is to be harmless, then anything off that mark should pull the fire alarm! Why would that harmless looking man circle back around behind me? Why would a coyote stop running when the dog stops chasing it? Why would that car drive by me twice? How come that person keeps glancing my way? Why did those people stop talking when I walked by? Why is that car backing into the alley? How come that guy didn’t look up when there was a loud noise? To Go Grey, you must behave so predictably as to become the yardstick from which inconsistent behavior is measured. And, of course, you have to look the part.
Hold My Beer and Watch This!
Outside of acting lessons, you can practice your Grey Skills by going passive. Let the whims of the world dictate your movements like a leaf in the wind. The key is flow. If you move out of the natural flow, you are quickly identified as something to pay attention to. Like a log floating in a river, your presence will be noted, but then ignored. That is until you snag on something and immediately fall out of flow creating many downstream changes.
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During an extended backpacking trip in Alaska, a herd of caribou hung out downhill from our camp. As the days wore on, we became keenly astute to their natural rhythms. The flow indicators were how fast they moved, where they were looking (both individually and as a group), how many were laying on the ground, how quickly they turned their heads, the density of their distribution, and how long they stood still. In essence, the caribou were our alarm system for anything non-caribou that approached. Like any good hunter knows, you can tell a lot about what is going on in the big picture by noticing small details. The sum of their parts is the big picture but you don’t need to connect very many dots before the outline of the picture becomes obvious.
It’s one thing to fool the inattentive, but quite another to become transparent to someone who is watching. I remember observing a “homeless” man on a park bench near Battery Park in New York City. Something just seemed odd about him but I couldn’t immediately put my finger on it. See if you can follow this: Something was off about someone who was off to begin with meaning that something wasn’t off that should have been off. The homeless man’s posture was just a little too straight. His attention was a little to sharp. And his actions were just a little too stereotypical especially with the vodka bottle in his hand. Slowly the picture of an undercover cop behind those ratty clothes and bad manners emerged from the situation. So when I ran his further actions and appearance through my lens of “cop” everything else he did fell into place. I could even triangulate his attention allowing me to connect the dots until I could see that where I was standing was not a safe place to be. Something was about to go down and I wanted no part of it. A few minutes later, the cacophony of sirens proved my theory correct.
The homeless cop is just one of many examples of disruptive flow that I’ve experienced over the years and around the world. And I know many soldiers who have keenly honed their flow detectors during their hot desert tours. It is extremely hard to act differently from what’s actually on your mind so to truly become transparent, you must believe you are transparent and act accordingly. Your attitude may be more important than your appearance. And you might have to risk not looking around which is the exact opposite of the whole head-on-a-swivel thing. Like a deer, you might have to trust your psychological camo to do the job even if it means letting the danger get awfully darn close.
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Another quick story. It was a pleasant afternoon when I was walking the dog. There was a housing complex across the street from the park where I was at, and I noticed a couple normal looking guys exiting a car in the parking lot of the park and walking across the street to the housing complex. Everything looked 100% normal until one of the guys looked behind him as he crossed the street. Nobody does that! Alarm bells went off in my head. Then I noticed that where their car was parked was just out of sight from the housing complex entrance. I gave a quick call to 911. You know, see something, say something. Ten minutes later, the men I saw cross the street were in handcuffs and being shuttled away in the back of a police car. While it was all great entertainment for me, it also drove home the point that in order to truly be Grey, you must act Grey even at the risk of missing something behind you. Remember, nobody looks backwards unless their guilty. A head on a swivel is also a flashing light!
Dress Up to Dress Down
One of the few famous Dolly Parton quotes is “You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap! “ Not the same with the Grey look. The physical side of Going Grey is a combination of clothes and accessories. And lucky for you, a Grey Wardrobe can had for a few bucks at the Goodwill store. From head to toe, the Grey Costume must neutralize its wearer. No particular item should stand out and be an identifying characteristic. You want to make it hard to describe what you are wearing, thus ringing no bells through association or curiosity. No bright colors, but not all in black either. Aim towards navy blue, black, dark green, and brown, and of course grey. All just dirty enough to be real, but not so much to be a mockery of being unclean. Dress in obvious layers as if you were wearing all your clothes at once. Cover every inch but your hands and face if temperature permits.
Choose a knit stocking cap over anything more modern. And avoid unworn shoes or boots. In fact, shoes are one of the fastest ways to categorize people, and even cops playing hide and seek. Just as my footwear sticks out in New York City, so too does a city dweller’s shoes here in Montana. Brands matter. I can tell those brands and styles native to the US compared to those worn overseas. And I can tell those shoes prefered by city dweller’s compared to those who live around here even if it’s the same type of shoe. Montana has more than its share of tourists so I get to practice my skills often. Even locally bought boots are not worn with the same effort as the locals do. Same with cars. Same with outdoor gear. Same with the way the person interacts with the environment.
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You can have on all the tactical garb you like under your Grey Suit, but don’t let it adjust your attitude. Your exterior must be believable, not like a Sierra Club bumper sticker on your Hummer. Here is a possible shopping list to begin your Grey Journey, with bonus points for weathered, stained, dirty, faded, repaired, and too-big-for-you items. Mostly I manufacture my grey clothes locally, but when needed, I supplement my wardrobe for a buck or two. Remember, you are not going for the full homeless look, just the surviving on the edge look.
Hat: Dark blue or black knit stocking cap and/or lightly stained baseball cap with meaningless logo.
Coat: Old olive drab ancient military coat, beat up dark colored down coat, or dirty brown canvas work coat like a Carhart. The elbows must show wear.
Insulative layer: Hoodie sweatshirt of grey or dark blue. Full zips are best for their quick change, and easy access to interior items.
Main pants: Darker colored work pants with much wear and staining. Should be too big and if way too long can be “hemmed” with scissors to mildly long or too short. Holes are fine since you will be wearing another pair of pants under this pair.
Insulative pants: Another pair of similar work pants but of a different color so it is easy to see you are wearing two pairs of pants. Or you can choose a lighter layer if warm. Either way, you don’t want anything obviously as “cover.”
Footwear: Beat up work boots are best, but make sure the laces are heavily worn and show signs of being broken and tied back together. Better yet, have laces that are too long or short and tie up the boots accordingly. The soles must be well worn, but skip the duct tape since that is a dead giveaway that your condition is short term.
Grey Luggage: This is both for you and your advanced kit including gas cans. Imagine a string of bright red gas cans strapped to the roof of your Bug Out Vehicle. What can scream “Resources!” like a pile of full gas cans? Instead contain your precious gas cans in trashy looking luggage not so feebly tied onto a roof rack. And what screams “cheap crap you don’t want!” more than crappy-looking suitcases tied to a car with fraying yellow polypropylene rope.
Once you have your new threads, lay them out and look for things that stand out, or would catch someone’s eye, or could be used in a description of you. Avoid all patches, discernible writing, brand labels, and strong color contrasts.
Before you ask, I’ll go ahead and share where I got my experience. I love to travel with reckless abandon. I’ve had my passport taken by border guards in Yugoslavia. I’ve had East German soldiers point their machine guns at me while hanging out around one of their bases (yea, I’m that old). And I’ve walked right through a wall of French riot police by pretending to be a photojournalist. That last one is a bit of cheating since I actually was a photojournalist in a previous life. I could go on about adventures in the seedier parts of Barcelona and New York City. How about getting pulled over, illegally searched, and then let go by the Birmingham, AL police. And being passed over by muggers in South Africa because, as I found out later, they could not tell if I was a local or a tourist (how do I know? I went and asked them). In every case, I went as grey as I could, and forced every hint of my confident attitude or the chip on my American shoulder dissolve into a bland bowl of tasteless oatmeal. And that skill has served me when at security checkpoints, in unwanted confrontations with authority, and when passing through intensely sketchy areas like a dark park in New Orleans, an alleyway in DC, under a bridges in Prague, a closed train station in Hamburg, the Shanty towns of Cape Town, through racially charged neighborhoods in Chicago, across “Needle Park” in Zurich at night, or a dark pathway in LA.
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Not everything goes a planned, and I’ve had to run from danger, but mostly it works. I’m not an expert in these matters, just a fool who pushes his luck over and over, but keeps mental DOPE mixed with sociology and psychology. So with all that said, you also need to set boundaries and, “You’ve got to know when to hold’em. Know when to fold‘em. Know when to walk away. And know when to run [like hell!].”
Come Out and Play
Here are some fun exercises to hone your skills:
- Wander the isles of better stores looking for their loss prevention staff (shoplifting, or shrinkage as they like to call it). Many stores have loss prevention employees that look for shoplifters, or provide “enhanced” customer service. Something is always off with these guys and gals. See if you can detect them following others around. Or see if you can draw them out with minor (but legal) actions.
- Invade personal space. Get too close to people and events to initiate a response. I’ve often “invaded” secure areas like staring at a camera on an FBI building, or forgetting something during a TSA baggage search, or asking security a non-standard question like “Wow, is that an MP5?” Nothing big or dangerous, but this game serves two purposes. First, it identifies the players and rules. And second, it’s good to practice being innocent.
- Play stupid. One of the biggest problems when playing stupid around family and friends is the desire for someone else to jump in and help. I’ve asked directions from multiple people (to triangulate the information) only to have a friend jump in and answer my question with the previous person’s information. You need to practice hiding what you know.
- Rehearse your story. At some point during an engagement with a security person, a decision will be made if you are a threat or not. If you have a story ready and engage enforcement personnel, you can tell in their body language when they drop their focus on you and shift it elsewhere. Eye contact is broken, they might step back, their chin goes up, their gaze goes back to scan mode. As long as you are credible, you pose no threat, but it takes a moment or two for that decision to be made. Just don’t over do it or you will re-engage their defenses.
Grey equals transparent, and transparent equals sincere. Without believing in your own story, nobody else will buy it either. Going Grey is one of these few survival traits that can save your life by doing nothing.