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Cat Breaks Thousand-Year Silence 

This guy was walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago wrapped up in a cardboard sandwich covered by an alarming text written in black magic marker that said, in part: "Russian anthrax! KGB sends Sen. Daschle Anthrax for being an Unreliable Spy!" The crackpot strolled amiably through the crowds window-shopping at Neiman Marcus and Marshall Field's. A bit later, I saw a bearded Jesus carrying a huge wooden cross stopping to kneel in front of a sheet of painted plywood by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The plywood was there to shield some street work, and the painting featured, among diverse objects, a Virgin of Guadeloupe copied from a Mexican postcard. An angry man carrying a briefcase went rapidly past Jesus, shouting: "Down with Monotheism!"

The wackos serve an important function. They externalize everybody's paranoia to a point where it appears preposterous. But paranoia heightens the senses. The world is full of opinions right now. As fast as news breaks, there are opinions that grow on them like mold. Opinions, however, are soporific. People crave stories, no matter how insane. Anything real, even if insane, or maybe precisely because insane, is quite therapeutic. We'd rather hear from somebody at the bus stop what Nostradamus said then read the op-ed page. Of course, we'll read the op-ed page, too, but in a coffeehouse where the resident freak is hacking off his hair with nail-clippers, muttering, "This used to be a well-groomed country!"

You wanted to be a writer, didn't you? Well, this is the time. Everybody's losing it. People have parachutes under their desks at work. Lovers buy matching gas masks. Look inside a purse, always a writer's gold mine: right next to the old mace you'll now find a silver Cipro case. Stories crowd around you. People are more awake and thus so much easier to milk for stories, turn them into words. Truncated anecdotes line up to get completed. Obscure facts wish to climb into relevance on the bumps on your keyboard. Everybody feeds you lines and everything winks or just stares.

Remember the time when the real business of the world eluded you and you got so bored you turned postmodern? It got so bad, you used to think that the main preoccupation of reality was to elude you, its would-be reporter. Every writer back then had that feeling. You used to think that the alternatives were: a) silence and b) faking it. Silence seemed more honest, but you didn't knock faking it. Somebody had to make a living. Well, things are still more or less like that, but the world has more stories now.

An ancient cat in Baton Rouge broke a thousand-year-old silence to tell a story. What? Now, that's the question, isn't it? Somebody I know was taking his morning jog through the peaceful woods near his house the morning after the terrorist attacks. A man with a huge gun was hiding behind a tree. "What are you doing?" shouted the jogger. "They are unloading the elephants," said the man with the gun. It was an apocalyptic metaphor. The jogger nearly fainted. Then he saw it. The truck convoy. Stepping out of the semis were the elephants. The circus was in town.

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