The Gray Man: How to Disappear in Plain Sight

The Gray Man: How to Disappear in Plain Sight

On an unusually cold autumn day, with the sun barely able to breach a low bank of clouds that seemed to hug the skyscrapers downtown, there was an unexpected strangeness in the air, a detached apprehension. Perhaps it was just part of your mission or maybe the unsettling way things were left between you and your fellow operators at the morning’s briefing, but an uneasy anxiety cluttered your thoughts.

Walking downtown toward the jewelry district to meet your contact, you sensed a disturbance in the general flow of the foot traffic around you. It was as if something was amiss, but you couldn’t quite put your finger one it. Nerves? Tension? Stress? These have all been a familiar part of your routine in the months leading up to today’s operation, and you’ve gone over these plans, over these very sidewalks, countless times in preparation. Why these feelings today? Your gait was steady, smoothly following the patterns of the people around you. Something was very wrong.

Stopping at a gold retailer at the edge of the district, you feigned interest in something in the window; instead, your eyes strain left and right to spot something, anything, out of the ordinary. A woman on the corner, checking her phone. A man in a business suit, waiting for the bus. A homeless guy rooting through the trashcan. Nothing sticks out. Then you see him. Dark glasses, blue light jacket, tan slacks. You saw him three blocks back, crossing the street. He stopped when you stopped. You’re being followed. By whom? Why? Double cross.

Abort the mission. Forget the plans. Three months of diplomacies and intricate procedures taught, learned, memorized, down the drain. Yes, abort and extract. Lose the tail, meet at the safe house and find out who the mole is. The first instinct is to keep moving and move quickly. Escape the situation as fast as possible; whoever he is, the bulge under his left arm says he isn’t here to make friends. But instead, slow down, act natural.

Initiate the Gray Man. A snap right turn into the parking structure on Olive Street. It’s crowded with morning traffic as the business day has just begun. Through the structure and out onto Mercury Court on the east side. A quick glance tells you he’s still back there, keeping pace and keeping his distance. He stalls at the exit on Mercury Court, as you turn right down the alley between a Thai food place and the LA Diamond Factory. You pick up the stride, darting through merchants and shoppers, barely clipping the shoulder of older man as you bound onto Hill Street. It’s Wednesday. Your destination is Pershing Square on the next block north, a large brickpaved park that plays host to a Farmer’s Market, teeming with people. It’ll be perfect, a nice crowded place to become the Gray Man.


The Gray Man is invisible in plain sight. He is right in front of you, but nowhere to be seen. He is acutely aware of his environment, of the people, the places, and the activities that surround him, but appears just enough on the outside to never be included. He is polite, soft spoken, respectful, and humble. He never calls attention to himself, never points out, by action, dress, voice, or mannerisms that he is there. There will never be an introduction, a confrontation, or even a casual exchange of small talk. People walk by him, see him, maybe even acknowledge him, but never remember him. He looks like anyone, acts like everyone, but reminds them of no one.


Most of society has tunnel vision. The mind remembers whatever stimulates it. The brain contains a filter that sifts through all the sensory input received from eyes, ears, and touch. Called the Reticular Activating System (RAS), it scans that input and determines what parts to filter out, ignore, and what parts to pay attention to; specifically, what parts to notice. This allows the brain to conserve energy by not having to process all the visual data all at once all the time. Thanks to hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, the brain will first look for threats. Is something coming at you quickly? Do your eyes see a threatening stance, posture, or face? It looks for bright colors, human and animal shapes, bright lights, movement and other things that stimulate the brain. It usually ignores areas of continuous color, shadow, dull, natural colors, slow movement and off-vector movement. This is why zebras have stripes and leopards have spots, to blend in with their environment. Imagine how easy it would be for a lion to single out a purple zebra.

Your brain is very adept at ignoring the usual and perking up to the unusual. It can ignore the sound of the ceiling fan or the refrigerator running while you’re sleeping, but you will bolt upright in a fraction of a second of hearing glass breaking or the screeching of tires on your street. That’s your RAS at work, and it is always working to keep you safe and aware of your environment. Become the Gray Man and disappear in plain sight by not tripping the triggers that activate the RAS. Don’t be a purple zebra in a black and white herd. If you do not create a stimulus— color, sounds, threats, movements—that the predator can key in on, you become invisible to him. The perfect Gray Man is ordinary in almost every respect. There should be no physical feature that people will notice. Obese, tall, fancily dressed, a big nose, bald head, an epic beard, or an unusual hat or pair of shoes are all things that stick out in people’s minds when they look at you. You don’t want to be remembered at all, and there are ways of doing it.


According to an article by Kevin Reeve, founder of OnPoint Tactical, an urban survival school: “The standard uniform for military’s civilian wear consist of tactical pants (referred to by some of my friends as “shoot me first pants”), a khaki cotton button-down shirt with epaulettes, Oakley shades, desert combat boots, and a shaved head. Add to that a nice MOLLE backpack, and you have target drawn on you. No one doubts that you have some very cool gear in that pack and they will want it.”

Clothing is a signal to others as to what you represent in life; wear a chef’s hat and people will assume you are a chef, but wear a nondescript baseball cap and normal, everyday sunglasses, and you’re a regular person who doesn’t fare well in sunshine. You not only want to avoid detection by those that might be after you, but you also want to avoid anyone remembering you by calling attention to any specific detail. (Agents against you will ask questions, maybe show a picture of you … you don’t want to stand out in anyone’s memory.) Overly political statements, sports teams affiliation, or brand association logos are to be avoided. Wear clothes that lack logos, sports teams names, or even colorful markings. Earth tones are always a logical choice in urban camouflage. Avoid bright colors or faddish styles. An earth tone or gray t-shirt with no brand markings is always a good choice. Keep it as simple as possible by skipping pins or pockets, stripes or patterns. If the weather calls for it, always wear a jacket. Not only will it not stand out (everyone notices the poor fool in the rain without a coat), but a lot of gear can be concealed under a jacket.


Your pants should be non-designer blue jeans or nondescript khaki casual pants, depending on your environment. Avoid expensive pants or fashion standouts, and avoid any kind of pants that are advertised as “tactical” or “operator,” as they will no doubt have a military aura about them, with cargo and/or zippered pockets. If it’s hot, wear shorts, as you will most definitely not blend in if it is 100-plus degrees and you are in jeans and a jacket.

Comfortable shoes are a must, especially if you plan on walking any distance. Drab athletic shoes that match the theme of your chosen outfit are most appropriate, although quality leather loafers with rubber soles can be paired with jeans as well as khaki pants. The important thing to note is to not call attention to them.


The mannerisms of the Gray Man are subtle, quiet, and reserved. Walk the same pace as the surrounding crowds, notice the things they notice, and react in the same way they would react. Blend into the group by enacting the herd mentality, even if the very things that are causing a disruption are your fault. Become one with the group. If forced to interact with people, do so briefly and quietly, but most importantly, politely without giving the other person a cause for concern. Avoid eye contact with people in the crowd. It has been concluded in studies that people tend to better remember a face if they were able to see the eyes.

While blending in, avoid any sweeping gestures, and displays of emotion or energy. The Gray Man is withdrawn and reticent, discrete in his movements to the point that he is camouflaged by those around him, an ability that will differ depending on the neighborhood in which he is hiding.

Reeve refers to this as the “baseline.” It refers to the sound, motion, and activity level of the neighborhood in a normal situation. The speed at which people move, the way they gesture, the volume and speed with which they speak. He writes, “The element of matching the baseline is probably the single most important element of personal camouflage. Learning to walk like the natives walk will hide you better than just about anything else.”


As the Gray Man, the equipment you’ll want with you depends greatly on your situation, where you are heading and what you are hiding from. Something as simple as a cell phone with a choice number of apps that can be found in any Average Joe’s possession (GPS, compass, flashlight, et al.) might be all you need to stay out of sight.

Consider a series of clandestine pieces of equipment that can help you out of any number of scrapes. For example, handcuff keys sewn into the hem of your shirt, or one attached to the zipper pull of your jacket. However, when push comes to shove, you don’t want to be the only one in a gunfight without a gun, but carrying one under your jacket can be easily spotted, and carrying long arms in traditional cases will only attract the wrong kind of attention. Several companies produce diversion bags that look like everyday bags or common items.

The Gray Man is the person who moves around the periphery of our awareness without calling attention to himself, and without causing a blip on anyone’s radar. Disappearing by blending in makes that person invisible for all practical purposes. He is neither here nor there, with us or against us, neither black nor white. He is the Gray Man.


How To Vanish Without A Trace

Sometimes something happens in a person’s life, sometimes by no fault of their own, where they’ve realized that in order to survive another day, they must completely disappear, not by slipping under the radar, but by completely falling off the map. The Feds use the Witness Protection Program when they want to secure the safety of threatened people, but sometimes, what you may have witnessed can’t be held accountable in court. It is time to leave your house, close the door behind you and never look back.

First, take into consideration the legal ramifications of what you are planning. If you are running from debts or from illegal action, you will go to prison for considerably longer if they catch you. Becoming a fugitive shouldn’t be part of your plan. Frank M. Ahearn, author of How to Disappear, writes: “You don’t successfully vanish by staging an elaborate disappearing act that ultimately involves a tri-state search, police dogs, and your home town believing that you were mauled by a bear and dragged off into the dark night.” He stresses the importance of disappearing in a legal fashion.

Start by understanding that you are now alone, and if you involve another person, you will surely fail. Benjamin Franklin said it best: “Three can keep a secret as long as two of them are dead.” Also, understand what you are hiding from. If it’s family members, how resourceful are they? How much will they care? If it is the government, remember that they have decades of experience and unlimited resources to track you down.

Get rid of possessions: Destroy pictures of you. Abandon your car in a way and place that it will likely be stolen. Leave behind all mementos and personal possessions (jewelry, good luck charms or a favorite key chain).

Unplug: Stop using the Internet, completely. Cancel all social media accounts and sever all online connections to your name and the electronic world, including credit cards, online banking, and even an ATM card. You’re in a cash-only world from now on.

Lie: Create a false persona for anyone you may meet. Build a believable backstory that is convincing enough without being too dramatic. But stick to one fake identity; having several will be confusing, and people may get suspicious. As you prepare to disappear, slowly but surely start fudging the information companies have on you. “Correct” the spelling of your name on file with the local utility company, tell them they have the wrong social security number and offer a correction, change your mailing address for your bills to a fake mail drop you set up through a private mailing company. If people come looking for you, you want them to waste their time looking in the wrong places.

Leave town: Don’t just throw all of you stuff in a suitcase and jump on the next bus out of town. Plan. Find a place domestically (no credit card means you won’t be able to fly anywhere) that nobody will know you, a place you’ve never been before, and a place large enough to easily absorb you without anyone noticing (i.e., no small towns where everyone knows everyone else except you, the new stranger in town).

Become a new you: Ditch your old habits for new ones, old hobbies for new ones, and even old ways of looking and dressing for new ones. Be the opposite of who you were: If you always wore Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops, now only wear suits and ties. If you’re a blond, dye your hair brown. Lose weight or gain weight. Get a tan or stay out of the sun.

Disappearing is not easy. You don’t just fake your own death, says Ahearn, “buy some false papers in an alley from a guy with an indiscernible accent, and then retire to a life of leisure on a small island nation. Disappearing, and doing so legally and without incurring a bigger headache than the one you’re running away from, takes careful planning.”

You need to be willing to cut contact with everyone you know, change how you shop, and even how you live your life. Disappearing means beginning a game of chase with people who want to find you and being willing and strong enough to outplay them at that game. If you can’t do that, you’ll waste a lot of time and money trying to disappear but failing.


Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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