It’s 11 in the morning and I’m running late. I’m supposed to meet my security detail in Manhattan, at the West 30th Street Heliport. The night before, I was up in bed, tossing and turning and thinking about money. My net worth is currently $38. Rent is due in 13 days, and I’m hoping my paycheck will show up in time.
I dismount the train at the new 34th Street–Hudson Yards station and sink my empty iced-coffee cup into a trash can. A protest sign at the top of the stairs implores: “ASK STEVE ROSS WHY RELATED IS SILENT ON ISSUES OF RACISM, SEXISM, AND UNION BUSTING AT HUDSON YARDS.” I never get the chance. I jog through the canyon of new, empty condos and hang a left turn on the West Side bike path. I’m probably one of a handful of people who have ever arrived at the heliport on foot.
The heliport is an arbitrary, but representative, meeting point, suggested by my lead protection agent, Kenneth Bombace. Ken, 48, is the president and CEO of Global Threat Solutions, a Long Island–based security firm that provides armed and unarmed protection services for CEOs, celebrities, visiting dignitaries, and anyone else with a spare $1,200 per day. The company’s motto is “Peace of Mind in Uncertain Times,” and (needless to say) business is booming. As smartphones, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle continue to impose the specter of violence on our daily lives, the idea of safety has become a hot commodity. The majority of the big publicly traded companies now require security protection for their top brass—regardless of whether executives want it. In 2017, Facebook spent $7.3 million to protect Mark Zuckerberg—a negligible sum relative to company profits, but still out of reach for even the average prestige credit cardholder. How can these expenditures possibly be worth it? What does executive protection really buy? In the interest of helping me to answer these questions, Bombace and his team have graciously agreed to offer their protective services for the day.
“The reason I chose this location, the West 30th Street Heliport, is because a lot of dignitaries and VIPs will land here,” Bombace explains. He introduces the other two members of the force: Cliff Lent, my second agent, and Dan Offerman, my security driver. Lent, 48, is an off-duty detective, serving out the final years of his pension requirement with a police force on Long Island; Offerman, also 48, is retired highway patrol, and Bombace himself is a former police detective. All three men exude the kind of enthusiastic conventionality of guys who jump over fences in suits. Over the course of our day together, I will come to like them more than my own politics can account for.
The history of the security detail is arguably as old as the history of power. For as long as there have been people at the top, there have been knights, samurai, somatophylakes, housecarls, Varangians, and Praetorian Guards cast in the role of personal protectors. Like today, the guards of bygone times shared a close relationship to the military and police. The image of the modern bodyguard, with his no-frills suit and unflappable demeanor, dates back to 1901, when the United States Secret Service—initially an anti-counterfeiting agency—served after the assassination of William McKinley to protect the new president-elect, Teddy Roosevelt. Since then, the industry has expanded in step with mass media. As the world of media and the paparazzi grew, famous faces with something to fear increasingly turned to bodyguards for their protection.
“Actually,” says Bombace, “We don’t use the term bodyguard in this industry. Quite frankly, to people in the executive protection industry, it’s offensive. It rings of somebody who thinks we’re like, a bouncer.”
The term “executive protection” was first coined in 1970, when US Public Law 91-217 established a new force to protect visiting foreign dignitaries. It was during this era that Laurence Tureaud, the Army veteran better known as Mr. T, worked his way up from a humble nightclub bouncer to become the most fool-pitying EP agent in the world, guarding big names like Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali. By the early 2000s, the EP agent was a fixture in the tabloids, if only in the background of paparazzi photos. For people with public images to maintain, getting executive protection declares that they’re someone, and someone not to mess with. Today, as the news gets worse and the rich get richer, EP agents are increasingly called on to offer their protection to those who are simply wealthy. No longer an accessory for just the rich and famous, safety has become a kind of status symbol for aspirational classes as well.
“With crowds getting run over by vans in London and Germany, people are nervous,” says Bombace. “People who previously never would have considered security are hiring agents to go on vacation.”
Our plan today is to leave the heliport, drive downtown to the 9/11 memorial, and then head uptown to lunch and an imaginary meeting, if time allows. According to Bombace, these are things that rich people want or need to do when they come to New York. Most of the work of executive protection happens before the protectee even arrives. If this were a real operation, Bombace explains, he would have sent an advance agent to scope the safety risks of each venue. In this line of work, risk tends to looks more like an out-of-order elevator than a pipe bomb.
“Say we went down to the stock market,” he says. “You would have to know, if something bad happens, where are our exits to get out of here? Where are we parking what we call an ‘egress vehicle’? That vehicle is going to be staged outside the back, so we can get them out quickly, and get them off what we call ‘the X.’”
“What’s the X?” I ask.
“The X is where something bad is,” he explains. Possible Xs include bombs, knives, active shooters, terrorist attacks, unflattering political protests, drunk people, overly zealous fans, stalkers, medical emergencies, and pie-throwing pranksters. (In a banner event for the security industry, Bill Gates encountered the latter outside a meeting in Belgium in 1998.) “It’s not all assassinations and kidnappings,” Bombace says, establishing a fact he’ll repeat throughout the day. The primary goal of executive protection is avoiding bodily harm; the secondary goal is avoiding embarrassment in the press or on social media. Most executive-protection agents are former cops or ex-military, but the actual work of the job is much gentler than law enforcement. When police hear gunshots, they tend to run toward them. An executive-protection agent wants to get away.
“That’s muscle memory,” Bombace says, shifting his weight to the opposite foot. “You have to kind of retrain people. We’re not worried about arresting somebody for having a gun. We’re worried about getting our principal—that’s what we call who we’re protecting—out of this zone as quickly as we can. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re here for. We’re not fighting fights—”
Just then we hear a clang coming from the helipad behind us. We all jump. Offerman turns around to investigate the culprit: a jiggly manhole cover. Lent cracks a joke.
Everyone laughs. I add “manhole” to my mental list of Xs.
We all pile into a black Chevy Suburban to head downtown along the West Side Highway. The Suburban, with rear captain’s chairs, is the industry standard for people who don’t drive but do get driven around. The car is so spacious, and the ride so smooth, that I try to imagine New Jersey out the window as just a picture scrolling by on a scrim. When Offerman worked highway patrol, he was primed for zigzagging car-chase maneuvers. Now, as a security driver, he mostly just tries to go slowly over speed bumps. In the security industry, the focus is always on the person in the back seat.
“Police in general are not naturally designed for this type of work,” Bombace says. “They’re [used to being] in an authority position, and they don’t necessarily have that customer service mind-set. I’ve had new hires in the past say, ‘I don’t get bags.’ Well, guess what? We get bags in this industry.”
I smile at the thought of a police officer wheeling a little pink suitcase, then shudder at the thought of anyone servicing my other professed enemy, the rich. Bombace calls his clients “people of means.” The main thing he has to say about them is that he cannot say anything about them at all, per a signed nondisclosure agreement. Beyond that, he says they tend to visit the same places: airports, office buildings in the Financial District, the New York Stock Exchange, the Four Seasons Hotel. In theory, these places exist within the ordinary city of New York. In practice, they form their own separate map, connected via the hermetic comfort of Suburbans.
The executive class is, of course, further insulated from the public by flanks of hired help. Bombace says a client with executive security almost always has assistants, managers, PR people, hairdressers, nannies, and housekeepers as well. This division and outsourcing of labor become second nature. Clients get used to counting on others to manage entire aspects of their lives.
“A lot of times in restaurants, they’ll just get up and walk out,” he says. “Someone has to pay the bill.” Often an agent will pick up the check, then get reimbursed.
“It’s not all assassinations and kidnappings.”
I ask Bombace if he ever thinks his clients are assholes, and everyone in the vehicle bursts into laughter. Bombace is adamant that he has never thought poorly of anyone he protects. The minor slights are vastly outweighed by the number of generous gestures, he explains. Since starting his company in 2015, he’s dined at many of New York’s best restaurants, and once saw a horse win the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes. Some of his agents have been to the Olympics, but because of the private nature of their work, any kind of bragging is highly frowned upon. Even a single location-tagged Instagram post can put a client’s safety in danger. Bombace’s one lapse into gloating is a brief but enthused mention of “sitting with the governor, watching Billy Joel!” Otherwise, he remains one of the least starstruck people I’ve ever met, a quality probably achieved by way of overexposure. He assures me he’s seen some very private things.
Outside of the fancy perks, Bombace says the main appeal of his job is the puzzle of working out small details. “I have a little bit of OCD,” he jokes. “That helps me in this field, because small things [can become] big mistakes.” Compared to a psychic, who needs to predict only one future, an executive-protection agent must predict and plan for every potentiality. Every blocked exit or unscheduled trip for ice cream opens an alternate timeline, each with a slew of unforeseen risks. Bombace’s main skill is being able to foresee them. He measures a good day at work by what doesn’t happen. “You never know your successes,” he says. “You don’t know what you might have deterred by just being there.”
We pull up outside the 9/11 memorial, and I wait, as instructed, for Lent to open my door. Vehicle entry and egress form the baseline routine of executive protection. The principal always exits curbside. (Not incidentally, this is where press and paparazzi can be found.) The curb is the place where actual protection crosses the line into security theater. Bombace says his clients are acutely aware of what a security detail can symbolize. Even certain microgestures might be read as statements of power. Bombace’s clients exploit this fact to multiple ends. A female CEO, for instance, might open her own doors to distance herself from presuppositions of ladylike weakness. A celebrity, on the other hand, might want doors opened as a show of diva status. For politicians, a security detail might suggest elitism, or a prodigal attitude toward spending. (For an extreme case, see the recent scuffle over ex-EPA head Scott Pruitt’s $4.6 million security bill.) According to Bombace, most politicians see a security detail as a “liability” to their public image. Bombace sometimes wears shorts to seem more discreet. In general, he is happy to indulge any kind of theatricality, so long as it does not get in the way of actual safety.
Once out of the car, I walk toward the memorial with Bombace ten feet ahead and Lent ten feet behind. Walking with security is like shopping in Marshalls while wearing a backpack. I quickly grow accustomed to taking up more space than my actual body does. Whichever way I turn, Bombace and Lent adjust their axis. This is an abnormal walking formation, even in a place designed for all manner of sidewalk-blocking tourist groups. I feel like a single penny inside a walk-in safe—totally unworthy of so much protection. A few people stare at our pointless show of force, and I wonder if I should do something more active, like run into the street or fake a heart attack. I settle on a performative, pensive mosey toward one of the reflecting pools, where I strike a good lean on the black marble slab. Bombace catches up and strikes a lean too.
“This is beautiful, right?” he says. I agree, in earnest. We make some idle chitchat about the memorial, avoiding the subject of the actual attacks. In any discussion of safety, the ghost of 9/11 hangs heavy; in a conversation about executive protection, it is doubly fraught. On the one hand, the 2001 terrorist attacks are proof that fear of terrorism is not entirely irrational. On the other, they showed how rare and ultimately unstoppable these kinds of incidents actually are. With Bombace and Lent, I feel protected from pipe bombs and broken doors and random loonies, but I wonder what they could actually do if a passenger plane were to take out a nearby skyscraper. Standing next to One World Trade Center, the three of us seem very small.
“So,” I begin, staring down into the water. “I guess let’s talk about this while we’re here. People are, um, really scared of terrorism.” I take a long, long breath and squeeze my voice into its least confrontational tenor. “But there’s, um—only so much that you can do?”
By now, Lent has caught up with our conversation. Bombace is repeating everything he said before, about getting off the X, and an egress plan, and knowing where the closest police department is. “If there’s a gas explosion, we don’t have to think about what direction we’re going,” Lent adds. “A normal bystander might freeze for 45 seconds!” This is all true, and I nod in agreement, but I can’t help but think that, as with any other product, protection can’t promise the fantasy it sells.
We get back into the car to go to lunch, with Lent and I repeating our earlier entry-egress routine, but in reverse. Bombace confers with Offerman up front and reports back. “He says the restaurant is not open until 16:30.” We reroute to Del Frisco’s, the kind of normative steak house with cold, salty butter and very good rolls. Offerman drops us off and waits with the car. Inside, our table has no fewer than four waiters. I order halibut. Bombace gets a burger. Lent gets fava bean soup and a steak. I think about asking what they could do to protect a young left-wing journalist from the reputational liability of having dined extravagantly with two off-duty cops. Instead I change tack and try to play hardball.
All day I’ve been wondering how Bombace and Lent function when most of their day is spent leaning into fear. They don’t have executive protection themselves, nor do their families or children. I wonder how it feels to believe that there is so much danger around but go on living unprotected lives. I ask if they think they’re more nervous than the average person.
“Probably,” says Lent. “I think that comes with working in law enforcement. You’re more concerned and aware about things.”
Lent raised his kids to embody a survivor’s mind-set: You’re going to fight to your last breath. You’re going to survive. He’s instilled basic situational awareness in them—know your exits, keep off your phones—but tries not to freak them out too much.
Bombace agrees. “If there’s one thing that gives me vulnerability in my life, that’s my kids,” he says. In recent years, he’s taken on what he calls “a heightened posture.” When he takes his kid to the movies, he thinks to himself, “What’s my plan? Where am I going if something goes down?” When he takes them on an airplane, he gets the aisle seat, just for the sense of control. “If anyone is going for the cockpit, I’m going to be on them in three seconds,” he says.
I can’t help but laugh.
“Statistically, you should be more afraid of getting into a car accident,” I say.
He doesn’t disagree. “Even if it’s not statistically accurate, you have a sense of control. When I’m driving the car, I feel like I have some control over what’s going to happen to me. If someone comes in the movie theater and starts shooting up the place, it’s a helpless feeling.”
Lent starts rattling off some statistics, and I’m not sure if they’re supposed to make me feel better or worse. “There were 138 active-shooter incidents in the United States in 2017,” he says. “A very small number. But then, if you take statistics and everything else, there’s a mass shooting every day, where four or more people are shot. And then there’s the random gun violence! And fire! Those explosions in Massachusetts, the gas leaks—”
He continues in this way until Bombace cuts in.
“I wonder what’s more likely,” I ask. “Someone trying to assassinate you, or getting eaten by a shark?”
“Our company slogan that we have on our website, it says, ‘Peace of Mind in Uncertain Times.’ Statistics don’t affect your emotions and the way you feel about your family and your security. When you watch the news every day and you see how horrific things are, it impacts people psychologically, and security makes them feel better.”
I feel like we’re finally reaching common ground. If the world feels more dangerous—whether it’s actually more dangerous or not—it makes sense that people would want to feel safer. Still, something about this equation doesn’t sit right with me. If your product is safety, then you need danger to sell it. I ask Bombace how he comes to terms with the idea that fear and horror are good for his business.
“I’ll just say this,” he begins, speaking with the calm assurance of someone who really believes in what he does. “I don’t wish bad things to happen for business. I want the world to be a safe place. I’ll leave it at that. We provide a service that’s been here, even before the recent trends of violence in the world. We’ll be here after. I don’t want to see bad things happen so I can make more money. We provide a needed service.”
He excuses himself to send a text message.
Our food arrives and the conversation moves away from security. We talk about normal things: George Washington crossing the Delaware River, the differences between LA and New York, and how, at one point during the war in Iraq, “the Samara was probably 80 percent bodies.” Dessert comes around and we all order coffee. The conversation turns toward sharks. The Saturday prior, a Massachusetts man had been killed by a great white shark off Cape Cod. It was the state’s first fatal shark attack since 1936.
“When sharks are coming that close in the surf, how do you put your kid in the water?” Bombace asks. “How can that be legal? People at Cape Cod will be like, ‘Well, there’s no great whites at this beach—they’re only at this beach and that beach.’ I’m like, ‘You’re splitting hairs! Let’s just go ahead and say there are great whites everywhere.’ You know what it is? I grew up watching Jaws in the ’70s. I still haven’t got over it. That’s what it is again, statistically. It’s so minuscule, but it’s so horrific at the same time.”
“I wonder what’s more likely,” I ask. “Someone trying to assassinate you, or getting eaten by a shark?”
Bombace takes a sip of his coffee.
“It’s probably damn close.”