67. Yelling Man
I thought I might have a nap. That is when the yelling started again. Every day around lunch time, a man stands on the corner of Ninth and Chestnut to yell for a while. We are nine stories away, so we have never been able to make out what it was he had been yelling. I thought it might be fire and brimstone, that he was a sermonizer using the street for his pulpit. He aroused both my ire and obsessive curiosity, and I felt compelled to hurry downstairs and confront this abrasive preacher. I sought to quench and squelch the fire and brimstone, but Ms Keogh, my cherished companion, disapproved of the idea. However, the day came when Ms Keogh was not there to prevent me.
The guy was not a preacher, but an entirely different kind of crazy. He was a regular guy, simply mentally ill. He was a black man about my age, which would put him in his sixties. Dressed in a black leather jacket with Air Force insignia, he wore a dark blue cap that read Air Force Veteran. Near his feet were a black briefcase and a black suitcase on wheels. Both bags had phrases posted all over. They were in multiple languages. Besides English, I detected Russian, Hebrew, Chinese, possibly Farsi and Vietnamese. On his back he wore what I thought could have been a rifle case. He had handcuffs hanging from his belt. I decided to talk to him.
As I approached, he yelled at me as loud as he could to keep away. It would have scared me, too, if I hadn’t been expecting it. He had been yelling at everybody and nobody. With deliberation, I greeted him pleasantly in a mild voice, but he cut off any attempt at conversation, cursing and threatening me. He utilized the foulest language, yet I never raised my voice. I noticed one of the phrases on his bag read, “Assassinate Trump,” so he couldn’t be completely deranged.
I tried to engage him on the phrases posted on his bags. Did he actually know all those languages? His reply was to just curse and spit.
His threats were enough to scare others. The pedestrians gave him a wide berth. I wanted to know more about him, but every step closer I took, disregarding his bluster, caused him to step back. He was more afraid of me than I was of him. Nor could I moderate his mood or speech with temperate talk. His response was to clutch his briefcase and shout for help, shouting for the world to know that I was trying to steal it and that I was trying to suck his dick. I suspect the mess in his head saw everyone as a threat. When I refused to be scared off, when I stepped closer still, he snatched up all his belongings and leaped into the street. That is when I gave up the experiment. I didn’t want to scare him. I didn’t want him to hurt himself in a confrontation with a bus.
The story doesn’t conclude there because Yelling Man continued to regularly return to the sunny spot at the corner of the Post Office Annex. He could be quiet for a moment and would then explode again catching passersby off guard. His rants were insensible, hinting at imagined conspiracies in which he couldn’t keep facts and names straight. I went down to try again.
When he saw me, he shouted, “This goddamn asshole was here yesterday. He wants to steal my bags.” He remembered me! At the top of his lungs he began threatening that he was going to cut my throat if I didn’t go away, but he yelled without looking at me. Rather, he directed his voice out onto an audience that had not gathered.
I could have left it at that, but that would have been the easy way out. Not only was my curiosity greater than before, but I wondered if I couldn't do something for him and the community he frightened and disturbed. I realized, I was not qualified and not likely to succeed, but I also knew that no one else was trying to intervene to help. Maybe no one had checked to see if there wasn't a simple solution. There wasn’t.
I noted at the next meeting his handcuffs were hanging from his nylon briefcase and not his belt. This time his backpack did not alarm me because a bit of research on the Internet taught me it was for pool cues. I also noted a pattern, that this day as on previous days his left boot, and left boot only, had its red tongue hanging out. What significance did this have for the Yelling Man?
“You know,” I said to him, “you scare people. Do you mean to scare children? Do you mean to frighten and insult mothers, to threaten children’s mothers with physical and sexual violence?” I didn’t also mention that he was disturbing my afternoon naps. I had no influence. He began to gather up his things and depart. I told him, “Don’t go, I don’t mean to chase you off. You can stay and I’ll leave.” As I left, he turned around and came back.
The next day he was quiet.
The day after that, he was yelling again. Again, I went down and approached him, but this time I just stood and listened. He didn’t talk to me nor did he move away. He tolerated my being near him. In fact, at one point, in a quiet, gentle voice I had never heard emit from him before, he warned me, “You gotta watch your back.” It felt like I had made progress.
I reached out to a friend of mine who is a mental health advocate. She felt I shouldn’t be talking to Yelling Man anymore. “He clearly doesn't want to talk with you.” She was right to regard me as unqualified, but she was also concerned that I was taking an unnecessary risk. A number of catchphrases crossed my mind: Am I my brother's keeper? Is a life unexamined worth living? If not me, then who; if not now, then when?
I did not regard my efforts to talk to Yelling Man as an excessive risk. Still, if he was a risk to the community, wasn't that all the more reason he needed to be dealt with? Meanwhile, my friend came through. The matter was taken away from me and I don’t deny feeling relieved. I was not confident in what I was doing and uncertain as to what I expected to achieve. Hoping to rescue Yelling Man and sparing the community was never realistic with my absence of skills. My friend had seen to it that I could be relieved of any further responsibility. She had given me the name and phone number of a contact at the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania. If Yelling Man should again ignite into his outrageous outbursts, I am merely to call this contact and he, a man with proper credentials and experience, will come and meet with Yelling Man.
But now I will never know why Yelling Man is the way he is. Nor have I learned the best way to deal with yelling men in the future. What will happen if next time there is no trained authority to call upon?
Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.