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<the shrieking man>

The year I got divorced—in fact, the very week my ex-wife moved out, taking everything but my clothes and the unpaid rent bill—I stumbled out of my apartment and was immediately accosted by a deranged homeless man.

"Happy Father's Day, sir!" the man shrieked at my back.

It wasn't Father's Day. I wasn't a father. The man did not know me, nor I him. I cast a nonthreatening smile back over my shoulder, rounded the corner, and kept walking.

He followed at a slight distance, shrieking even louder.

"Happy Father's Day, sir!"

It went on for about five city blocks. I never looked back, never acknowledged that he was behind me. I don't know who he thought I was or what message he hoped to convey. I walked, he followed, shrieking his lungs out.

"Happy Father's Day, sir!"

We formed a strange parade, me and the shrieking man behind me. A few pedestrians glanced our way, but not too many. If you live in New York City, you've already seen everything, and you know not to stare at anything that looks potentially dangerous.

Eventually he wandered off, taking his psychodrama with him. Maybe he found someone else to shriek at. Or maybe he had shrieked himself out. I never knew the moment he stopped following me, and I never saw him again.

This week whole armies of shrieking men sprang from the ranks of a community I belong to. With loud, ugly voices, they demonized their peers, their friends, and even total strangers. First one artist was attacked, then another. One group, then another. It ran on and on like a cheap horror movie that's more stupid than scary.

You cannot reason with shrieking men. Every trembling fiber of their being needs them to be right and you to be wrong. They require a demon and you're it. Or your friend is it. Or some hard-working stranger. No one is safe when the shrieking starts.

Maybe the whole thing was a blip. Spring fever. Jock itch. Fear of a bad economy. A meaningless, freak occurrence, annoying but harmless. For a moment that lasted a week, everyone forgot their manners, everyone confused rudeness with "honesty," resentment with "integrity," nonspecific rage with "truth."

In reality nothing happened and nothing changed. But after a run-in with a shrieking man, you never feel quite as safe as you did. And if even for a moment you become a shrieking man yourself, you will always wonder if your friends still trust you.

The shrieking will stop. It always does. But what will be left?

29 April 2001
The author and his opinions.
Copyright © 1995–2002 Jeffrey Zeldman Presents
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