Living in a city like New York that is overflowing with people, it is hard not to become a sort of amateur anthropologist. You have to look around all the time here anyway, since letting your eyes wander for even a second could result in death by bike messenger (or, worse, being accosted by a street lobbyist), so it becomes second nature to notice everything--and everyone--around you. I find that whether I'm making a passing observation about the rise in weave pieces abandoned on the street (much higher in summer months, it seems--perhaps the wearers' necks get overheated?) or simply silently judging people on the subway based on their shoes or reading material, the city is constantly offering up subjects for unscientific studies in human behavior.
Last week, for example, I saw a crazy person while I was getting lunch at Subway. This man looked like your average beefy sports guy (although, upon closer inspection later, his eyes were just... not right) eating a sandwich. When he finished, he got up, clapped, and yelled "YOU GUYS, THAT WAS THE BEST FREAKIN' SUB I HAVE EVER HAD! BLESS YOU!" and then started to dance. It was a beautiful moment for me, because it's not every day I see a new category of crackpot in New York, a city in which you can be reasonably sure that no matter where you are you are on the same block as someone who is mentally ill (Note to tourists: The Naked Cowboy does not count).
I haven't read Mitch Ablom's The Five People You Meet In Heaven, but having lived here all my life I could teach a class on The Six Crazy People You Meet in New York City. Let's all hope the two categories don't overlap.
The Bullseye lets you know, by way of their personal hygiene, clothing, or posture, that they are out-and-out nuts (one example is the poet laureate of the 2 train, who carries approximately 50 plastic bags and wears a hat made of buttons). Think of this as a gift: even though their lazy eyes, missing teeth, or underpants-with-cape ensemble might be off-putting, at least you know to steer clear.
You can spot these gentle giants pretty easily, as they are whispering, mumbling, or yelling to no one in particular, often accompanied by emphatic hand gestures. Most of the time they are Bullseyes, but sometimes they are Bluetooth users, so check for an earpiece. Danger level is low; the self-talker is busy having a conversation with someone invisible. They won't notice you unless you try to get in on the conversation (this is not advised). The self-talker is generally found outdoors, but enjoys riding the New York City Transit system, as do all crazy people.
The Provocateur is a self-talker gone bad--he or she hones in on a victim and whispers, mumbles, or yells provocative insults and threats. Sample dialogue:
Provocateur: YOU DON'T KNOW ME.
Victim: [Shifts uncomfortably].
Provocateur: YOU THINK YOU'RE BETTER THAN ME? IN YOUR RED JACKET.
Victim: [Changes seats].
Provocateur: WHY YOU RUNNING AWAY, BITCH?
The best course of action when faced with a Provocateur is to change cars. Be warned: the truly crazy may follow you.
The Religious Fanatic
I'm not trying to be anti-religion here. There are plenty of religious fanatics that are not crazy (although, if you define crazy as "talking very loudly to no one in particular on the subway"--see the self-talker--a lot of train preachers qualify). I am talking about people like the obese woman who once chased my sister out of a Burritoville, yelling "Don't run from Jesus!"
The Slow Burner
You can be sitting this next to this person on the subway for twenty minutes with nary a peep, and then suddenly, in a Tourette's-like outburst, they scream something at the top of their lungs. One memorable example of this is the average-looking man I once stood next to during rush hour who suddenly began to yell "MY VAGINA IS ON FIRE!" over and over. The scariest Slow Burners are the ones that are otherwise nondescript. When faced with a Slow Burner, often the best course of action is to pretend you don't notice them. Remain still and turn up the volume on your iPod. Sudden movements could direct the stream of obscenities toward you.
Aside from the effusive sandwich-eating jock in Subway, I have only seen one other member of this group, a man who stood in the middle of my train station every day in high school shouting "Goin' to work! Go, go, goin' to work!" It was pretty awesome. If you ever see a Jester, you should count yourself lucky--crazy never looked this good.
Let me know if I've missed any. Also, if you are from another state or country I'd be interested to know if these classifications are universal. Does the Bullseye turn up in an Iowa cornfield, wearing a wok for a hat? Does the Slow Burner ride the Paris Metro screaming "MON VAGIN EST EN FEU!"? Or is there a particular brand of bonkers that is unequivocally native to New York? In a strange way, I'd like to think that ours are special. And I mean that both with and without quotations.