I was in a downtown Cleveland hotel overnight, tossing and turning as I always do while sleeping in a strange bed in a strange place, when I was jarred into consciousness by shouts of a ranting man outside the window. It’s an unsettling way to greet the day.
Fortunately, I don’t often hear angry voices — and this guy was livid, shouting at the top of his lungs, his furious words, muffled into indistinctness by the window, echoing down the dark streets. I snuck a peek out the window, lest he see me and train his rage in my direction. There he was, four stories down, a one-legged man sitting in a wheelchair, gesturing angrily at no one that I could see. What was he doing on a downtown Cleveland street at that pre-dawn hour? What had caused his awful, uncontrollable anger?
When Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C., it was shortly after governments had decided to “deinstitutionalize” the former residents of mental asylums. The streets were filled with homeless people who had nowhere to go and, apparently, only a tenuous grip on reality. They slept on the subway grates, shuffled along muttering to themselves, and mostly kept to themselves. One man, however, was always angry and shouted out his madness to every passerby. We called him the ranter and gave him wide berth. And, we always wondered: what made him so filled with rage, and why wasn’t he being helped — as he so clearly needed to be?
It’s disturbing to be awakened by the angry rantings of a stranger when you are in a strange place — but obviously it pales in comparison to the torment that the man in the wheelchair must have been experiencing, as he shouted his frustrations to a world that was trying to ignore whatever it was he was saying.