I pad down the back hallway and exit the office through the door marked “Private.” As I insert my key into the lock to throw the dead bolt, I hear a man speaking in a loud voice.
Not quite twenty yards away, he teeters on the sidewalk in front of the business that abuts our office in this strip mall, head shaven, dressed in a colorful T-shirt, short pants that fall below the knee, white cotton socks and high-top tennis shoes. Back and forth he ambles, shouting phrases and epithets, gesticulating with his arms as though he were a priest invoking the gods before this makeshift altar of brick and mortar.
The community mental health services agency is housed at the rear of the parking lot. Many times clients opt for a midday stroll down to the Dunkin’ Donuts for lunch or a coffee. Mostly they just shuffle by, some seemingly lost in thought; others saunter in pairs or groups of three, quietly murmuring among themselves. This is the first fellow I’ve seen in a state of heightened agitation.
I step into the parking lot and walk to my car. He’s still spewing epithets as I fiddle with the key in the lock. I open the car door and pause momentarily to assure myself that he hasn’t got a gun.
This scenario brings to mind Oliver Sacks’ description of a mentally ill person he encountered one afternoon on the streets of New York.
“My eye was caught by a grey-haired woman in her sixties, who was apparently the centre of a most amazing disturbance, though what was happening, what was so disturbing, was not at first clear to me. Was she having a fit? . . . [A] slow smile, monstrously accelerated, would become a violent, milliseconds-long grimace; an ample gesture, accelerated, would become a farcical convulsive movement.” (“The Possessed” in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.)
Was this in fact what I was witnessing here in this man acting out before my eyes?
I start the car and drop the power windows. The man’s shouts become louder, echoing across the expanse of macadam. Perhaps I should notify someone. Perhaps I should return to the office and call the police.
As I ponder my civic duty, the man turns and strides up the sidewalk. Suddenly I see it: the appendage protruding from his left ear. He continues to spew venom into the air, but now I know that most likely he’s not mentally ill.
He’s merely carrying on a semi-private conversation through his cell phone with Bluetooth technology.