Urban Survival Bag: Things I Carry Around the City

No, I don’t roam around Milwaukee hoping that Monty Hall will stop and offer $1000 for an unusual item in my bag (though I’d be happy to make such a deal). I do, however, carry what you might call an urban survival bag, a messenger bag full of useful things for the city-roamer. Inspired by memories of the resourceful abyss my mother called a purse and some hard-learned lessons from my own urban experience, I’ve assembled a basic survival bag that everyone who spends time in the city should carry with him or her. It’s not out of classic American fear that I suggest these items; rather, it’s for convenience and comfort. If you, like many urban dwellers, take public transit or walk between your destinations, consider carrying these things with you around the city. The goal is not to tote a fifty-pound knapsack crammed with crap for every imaginable contingency – it’s to carry a basic urban survival bag with just enough resources to make your daily travels comfortable.

First, make sure you have a bag that you dig. Whether it’s a knapsack, messenger bag, or conventional purse, choose something that is sturdy, weather-resistant, and well-appointed with pockets inside and out. The reason I prefer my messenger bag is that it slings easily on and off my shoulder but also has a small handle for hand-toting if desired. Think about your commute or other urban routines, and select a bag that you can envision yourself using on a daily basis. Questions to ask yourself:

– Can I easily access the bag while it’s “on” me?
– How easily can I take it on and off?
– Do I hate the sound of velcro?
– Will I annoy others with loud, obnoxious velcro?
– What kinds of compartments does it have?
– Can it handle getting wet?
– Are the shoulder straps comfortable / adjustable?
– Is the bag ugly?
– Is it big enough / small enough?
– What is the padding situation like?
– Overall, wow well-constructed is the bag?
– What will it look like when it’s dusty or dirty? (Light-colored bags can get pretty nasty!)
– Is it my style?

Once you have purchased (or otherwise identified) a bag that is satisfactory, it’s time to pack. Here are the things I carry with me all the time, in addition to my keys, wallet, and cell phone.

1. Small, compact umbrella. You never know when you’re going to need one, so it’s worth tucking a small umbrella into your urban survival bag. Large, expensive umbrellas may not be worth your while as umbrellas are frequently lost – just ask anyone who’ handled a lost-n-found. Besides being bulky and taking up lots of room, large umbrellas have another drawback: they attract people who want to share your safe haven. Teach these folks a lesson: get yourself a cheap but sturdy umbrella so you’ll never have to share! I found one at a drug store for $1.50, and it’s saved me from sogginess many times.

2. Tissues. These may seem obvious, but they’re vital for two main reasons beyond nose-blowing. First, you never know when some careless fast food employee will forget to stuff a napkin in with your to-go order, so extra tissues can save the day. Second, and perhaps more vitally, tissues can be used as toilet paper in a pinch. If you’re a city dweller, you know that inevitably you’ll have to use a public restroom from time to time. And given the law of averages, you’ll eventually encounter a TP-less bathroom.

3. Newspaper. I’m not suggesting that you need to carry the Sunday version of the New York Times with you everywhere. Even a local, independent newspaper will do – and those are free. Beyond serving as reading material, newspapers have several alternative uses. They provide something safe to sit on should you find yourself with seating that is sticky, wet, or similarly deterring. They also make excellent padding if you need to carry something delicate.

4. Music. Remember that an iPod or small radio is not only your entertainment – it’s your first line of defense against panhandlers, crazy people, and chatty folks with whom you may want to avoid contact. Not every would-be bugger is dissuaded by the presence of headphones, but many are. If you take public transit, you probably know what I mean. Watch who the undesirable conversationalists prey on; it’s usually people who are not wearing headphones. Heck, sometimes I leave mine on even when the music is off!

5. Pen and Notepad. Carry a pen that (1) won’t leak and (2) will work even in cold weather. Make sure you have a decent notepad so you can jot things down. Whether you’re the artistic type constantly crafting lines of poetry or the practical type busy making grocery lists, a pen and notepad are indispensable.

6. Breath Mints. No one likes dragon breath. With the wide selection of mints, gum, and other oral hygiene products available, there’s no need to hassle others with your halitosis.

7. Tylenol / Advil / Aspirin. Pick your pain reliever and carry some with you. We don’t plan our headaches, and we’re more likely to have them when we’re out-n-about than when we’re hunkered down at home. I procured some sample pouches of Tylenol and Advil and tote them everywhere.

8. Cash. In these days of debit and credit cards, we sometimes forget to carry cash. It’s worth tucking a $10 bill in your bag for those situations when a merchant doesn’t accept plastic. My favorite coffeeshop, for example, has a $5 minimum for debit card purchases – and I’ve been caught cashless before, buying muffins and cookies to get over the $5 threshold. I now keep some emergency cash to avoid this problem!

9. Quarters / Loose Change. Along the same lines, you never know when you’ll need some change, especially quarters. And if you’re feeling especially generous, ready to perform a random act of kindness, you can feed someone’s expired meter. I do this as a reward for cars with leftist bumper stickers that I dig, so maybe it’s not totally random. Anyway, to that guy on Water Street in Milwaukee who still had the Dennis Kucinich sticker on his car in January of 2006, you’re welcome, dude.

10. Punch Cards. These require some explanation. I’m talking about the brand loyalty punch cards that many retail establishments use to reinforce repeat customer business. I work very hard not to be “that guy” who’s up at the register fumbling through a wallet to find some punch card so he can get every eighth coffee or twelfth sandwich for free. (I hate “that guy,” so I make sure I have the card out ahead of time.) But here’s why I use them: when they’re ready for redemption, the cards are a great thing to give panhandlers asking for money for food. Since they can only be redeemed at one place for a limited range of products, you know your little donation is going to be used for something positive. Unless you happen upon an especially enterprising vagrant who later sells your little punch card in exchange for booze money, you can rest (more) assured that you’re helping someone.

11. Nail Clippers. You’d be surprised how handy these are for things other than nails that need trimming. Like loose thread, pricetags, etc.

12. Stamps. To be honest, I probably don’t need to carry stamps with me, since anything I need to mail is usually originating at home. That said, I figure that, since they’re so small and likely to get lost, the safest place for them is in my messenger bag because it’s always with me – home or away from home.

13. Transit Map / City Map. Even if you know your city well, it doesn’t hurt to keep a transit map handy in your urban survival bag. From time to time, you’ll have to venture – by bus, train, or foot – to someplace unexpected or unknown. And despite my best attempts to thwart people’s advances, I also tend to attract direction-seekers, probably because I don’t look like a tourist. Often, I find it helpful to show these lost sheep where things are on a map. What an ambassador I am for the city of Milwaukee, eh?

14. Library Card and Book. If you’re spending large amounts of time traversing the city, chances are you at some point pass a branch of the library. Get a card if you don’t already have one, and start checking out books. Library books are a free way to pass the time while waiting in line or waiting for transit.

15. Matches / Lighter. I don’t smoke, but from time to time, people ask me for a light. If the person is sketchy, I usually say no. But every now and then, someone really cute will ask, and then I have a reason to oblige and support their unhealthy habit.

16. Chap Stick. Milwaukee is America’s other Windy City, and don’t my lips know it. Thankfully, I care lip balm.

17. Granola Bar / Breakfast Bar / Protein Bar / Trail Mix. Whatever your preference for snacking, it’s worth carrying some nosh that is small, non-perishable, and easily stored. This may prevent you from spending money on treats from stores, which can add up fast.

You may identify other handy items for your urban survival bag, but these are my starter suggestions. The best way to enjoy your city-wide romps is to be prepared with a sound bag and some basic items. Happy foraging in the asphalt jungle.

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