On being a “Gray” man

Bendigo Strange
As Evening sets in
August 11th, 2022

Whether familiar with the term “Gray Man”or not, were you to conduct the briefest of internet searches one would be met with a definition that goes something akin to this. “A person who can blend in to any environment who does not draw attention for the right or wrong reasons, does not appear neither prey nor threat, while possessing the skills capable of handling any circumstance thrown at them”. If it reads to you like something out of spy fiction, that is because largely it is. Suddenly websites, articles, and social media posts became voracious in their push for the adaptation of one becoming a “gray man”, and for some reason there was always pictures that included wearing a hoodie pulled up, and low over the face. Followed with pictures of whatever micro compact 9mm pistol is the rage, a flashlight, tactical folding blade, and a newer nylon backpack that was just like the older tactical packs only no Velcro or MOLLE panels on the outside.

No doubt, covert operatives from any nation are taught to hone these skills to avoid detection in a very real world. And while you may automatically think of the Agency or MI6, there are a host of nations, both friendly and animus alike who employ a small number of individuals to work in specific areas of the world. Their main tasks can be to develop assets (spies), conduct reconnaissance on military installations, power grids, water supplies, response times to natural or man made disasters, locate sufficient landing areas for water craft, or aircraft, and most frequently act as saboteurs. For the individuals who are employed to conduct covert intelligence operations the ability to blend into whatever society and go unnoticed is quite literally a matter of life or death.

To anyone on the outside of the personal defense culture looking in, this no doubt was a head scratcher. Isn’t this just ditching your (enter favorite veteran t-shirt company name), and wearing clothes from the mall, Target, or what have you?

The “Gray Man” bandwagon was/is simply neotactical fashion, to replace what was once the all black “ninja wear” of the late 80s and 90s, to the Coyote, FDE (Flat Dark Earth), and sand fashion of the first decade plus of the twenty-first century. Kuhls for a while was the brand you wore to blend in, because they sold them at those high end alpine shops, till everyone wore them to gun school. So those had to go. Next came retailers hawking their obvious tactical gear for your life and vehicle, while calling it “gray man”. Leaving the inside of your truck looking like a police cruiser

The irony being, many of these retailers have touted their “veteran owned” status as if to allude to the fact they were all covert operators, when in reality they did their combat tours quite literally in uniform, with regulation hair cuts devoid of facial hair. A veteran owned company, a special forces operator does not make. Point being, that many of the retailers of such goods, had ideas to sell to the burgeoning market, while not actually having any practical work experience behind it.

When I was in my twenties, I was hired by a law firm in the heart of downtown to identify a stalker that was harassing a young attractive paralegal of one of the firm’s partners. By the time I was brought on board her stalker was sending unwanted and bizarre gifts to work, and phone calls were made to her direct line. One has to reach back in time and understand that the internet was not what it is now, and there were not surveillance cameras on every street corner and office building. For the first few days, I put on a suit and tie and followed about a block behind her, running a counter foot surveillance from public parking, noting the contingent of local homeless people in the area during her five to six block walk. Before sunrise the next morning I was seated on a piece of cardboard near the office high rise entrance, unshaven, wearing intentionally modified clothing. Around 9:30 that morning two of the local homeless guys walked over to where I sat, the older of the two waving his palm down indicating for me not to standup, then he sat down. “You too clean and you walk too rigid, like you on guard. Everybody smell the cop on you.”, I mimicked offense and said “I sir, am no cop.” An hour later they had given me strict pointers on how to carry myself, most importantly stop looking defiant. No one is going to give a handout to someone they thought was going to harm them, or to quote my friend “you got a killer look on your face. Relax.” In the process of the tutoring I received, gained a network of spies along four streets. Her stalker it would turn out, was a guy who was older and married and worked in a building three blocks in the opposite direction. They passed each other every morning. Where I was looking for someone following behind her, I figured out he was following ahead of her, every morning walking in her direction only to pass her. Clearly early on he had followed her at some point to find her vehicle, but where they passed one another on the street he could stop, take a few sips of coffee and watch her walk into her office a block away.

Adopting the “vagrant” method would be one I would go on to use and develop for the next twenty years. Rarely is the method the linchpin to the solution, but rather a way to pick up puzzle pieces, along the way. For a week one summer I stood near a highway overpass with an obligatory “homeless vet” and “God Bless anything helps” sign just to ID a vehicle a target drove, and which direction on the highway they got on. This in turned allowed me to set up a vehicle surveillance the following week. Slow methodical work. I also made just under $300 in the course of a week standing there.

I thought about all of this late last week when I needed to adopt a modified vagrant, slightly meth-head appearance to delve into an on going Client circumstance. In this instance a foray into a various bits of rural American towns that are off the main arteries of the interstate highway system. Where there are unlicensed, hidden in plain sight strip clubs, bars and even casinos. Some are out of the way, others hidden behind the glass of old strip mall store fronts. Where you watch the old guy in a wheel chair, who lost his leg to diabetes, do a bump of coke with a hooker. Meth is usually the choice, so the presence of cocaine takes you back a bit. Small town America can not shake the devastating effect of drug culture.

Walking past them on the sidewalk you enter into the storefront and joke to yourself “light on the store and heavy on the front”, pay the door guy the five dollar fee and he slides you over a “membership card” and a pen. “Keep this on you while you are here. You can come and go until close as long as you present the card. I have to wand you for weapons and have you lift up your shirt”. The last part kind of surprises you because they didn’t do that the last time. The wand lights up and makes it wurgurbeep sound as it passes over your crotch and then right pocket. “What’s in your pockets?” So you pull out three quarters, a bic lighter and a Swiss Army Knife, and shoot him a raised eyebrow. He scoffs and says “yeah a pen knife is the least of my worries dad”. You kind of feel that one, but at the same time understand that his dismissal at your not quite twenty years age gap works to your advantage. So you slide them back in your pocket, while realizing that he made the mistake of assuming the well worn Smith & Wesson J frame .38 and Otanashi Noh Ken tactical folder riding in your crotch holster was the brass zipper on your frayed and stained cargo shorts. “Gotta let me look through your bag too,” At first you wonder if bringing the manatee colored Umlindi Pack from Hill People Gear is a mistake, especially since you didn’t cut the HPG tag off. He leans down and unzips the top and says “hey there aren’t needles in here are there? I don’t care if you got ‘em I just don’t want to get stuck.”, “nah man just clothes and shit”. He does a cursory poke through the bag, pulls the water bottle from the side pouch and gives it a quick sniff to make sure you’re not bringing in booze, because after all, the illegal “gentleman’s” club wants you to buy theirs. BYOB this is not. He hands the pack back, as you make out the butt of his pistol. Yup, a full size Hi-Point in a black nylon velcro tabbed holster, worn cross draw none the less. Despite his thirty pounds and two inches (and twenty years junior), you feel relatively sure that if need be you could walk out of here with it. Then just for fun you say “Whoa! You guys are serious. I was in here back in the winter and I don’t remember anyone packing a 9 caliber hand cannon.” The flat face look wins another quick dismissive toned response “9mm. There’s no such thing as a 9 caliber pistol, and that plywood on the door was from some guys trying to rob us back in June. Shot the door out as they left.”

So for the next hour while the covert camera on your person records away, you make mental notes on as much as you can. Your head feeling oily and greasy from the dirty, gun-oil stained black bandana that’s tied over your head. The reddish and white tinged spots from where your old favorite “gun shirt” with the skull on front got hit with bleach at some point melds perfectly with the long passed frayed and ripped, knee length cargo shorts and torn up hiking boots. Yet the boots are valuable, as they provide not only solid foot protection but anti-slip traction. You can fight in them (and with them) and run. Just before you leave, you pick up your backpack, head into the bathroom to discover one of the “strippers” providing VIP service to a customer. Passing by he offers you a nod and a fist bump at you while grinning. To not fully acknowledge the bathroom debauchery is two fold, one being moralistic and out of place, so you do. Giving the fist bump over the top of her head and laughing you add “fuckin’ full service” with an unlit Swisher Sweet between your lips. The second social feux pas in not acknowledging his in delicto however, could quickly be seen as a slight, where you could quickly find yourself in a confined space with a lean, aggressive fighter a couple or more decades younger than you, and clearly armed with a truck stop tactical folder. Slipping into the stall you pull the snubnosed .38 and knife from their deep concealment, and into your waistband for faster access should the need arise. No sense in hampering yourself for the 1/8 of a mile walk back to the truck.

The one thing I have found in traversing this type of landscape, is that if a person is not traveling in a vehicle, ie; they are on foot or the ever present bicycle, there is always a backpack present. This works only in your favor.

About three or four years back, I was hired to penetrate the satellite office for a company whose employee was up to no good, and regularly absent from the office where he was the sole occupying force. For two or three weeks straight, both in the middle of the day and evening I would venture into the office building dressed in whatever I chose to wear in order to blend into that landscape of lawyers, insurance agents, and small office rental America. When they decided they were going to terminate his employment they asked if I could go in the night before and obtain all relevant documents and his desktop PC, to which I obliged. After spending the better part of an afternoon going through the office collecting what was needed, I left well after dark with the contents in tow in a roller suitcase, dressed in a Filson Mackinaw jacket, khakis and leather boots, and a messenger bag on my shoulder. Walking out, with the lady across the hall to the elevator bank she asked “how long have you worked in that office?” I laughed, then lied “two years too long.” She simply added “Isn’t that all of us.” As the elevator doors opened she bid me a good evening.

What we term “tactical” gear is not as out of place in American culture as one may be lead to believe. For instance, the retailers TJ Max and Marshals carry on the regular, backpacks, fanny packs and duffel bags in OD Green, Black, knock off camo and Coyote complete with MOLLE panels. Every major hardware store sells one handed, pocket clip knives work knives, and I know a large swath of guys who carry a pocket clipped knife who either don’t own a gun, or are anti-gun. This mythos of a knife in the top of your pocket equates you to carrying a firearm is little more than none sense. Hang around the outside of a truck stop sometime and observe all of the guys looking for handout or rides across the country. Most all of them have a knife and I would venture to guess that less than 5% of them have a firearm. The same could be said of sitting in a sandwich shop, taco or burger joint during the lunch rush. The average blue collar guy (and gal) carry a one handed folder every day. There might be a gun under the seat or in the arm rest, but the majority of laborers aren’t carrying a gun at work. This is America after all.

The “Gray Man” methodology is well intentioned in it’s more honest areas, but we also need to call a spade a spade. Some of this is nothing more than slick marketing, convincing you to spend three hundred dollars on a shirt and pant ensemble to make it look like you spent $150 at Kohls.

In all of my years, which can now be marked by having successfully traversing from one century to another working surveillances, protection details and being situationally present ; there was always one thing that made people stand out of the crowd more than anything. It was and remains how they acted, or carried themselves. The guy who always starts problems in a nightclub, wedding, or social event telegraphs his intentions a half hour or more before the show starts.

Having worked in any myriad of environments both domestically and abroad my clothing never made me “stand out”. Having, at times, a rough edged demeanor certainly did.

All that to say, blending into the landscape from which you live and work around on a daily basis isn’t difficult, its nothing more than common sense. But for the love of God, if you go to Europe, leave the white socks at home.

3 thoughts on “On being a “Gray” man

  1. Thank you for this common sense information. Back in the 70s and early 80s when I was hitchhiking all over the western US I always had a Buck 110 on my hip. No one said anything. Those were good times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I rarely read more than a paragraph these days, before moving onto the next thing. However, I read every word of this post. You paint pictures with your words and that is worth my time. I also need to be reminded of what it takes to move through the world more smoothly. As I get older, it’s easier. Most pay no attention to the older woman.

    I buy most of my clothes at thrift stores. You can’t always find what you want when you want it, but I’ve seen everything you mentioned at a thrift store at one time or another. Your $150 at Kohl’s is my $15 at the Thrift store. Cheers!


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