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Mystery of the Shrieking Woman in the Window

September 11, 1986|JOHN THOMAS NIELSEN | Nielsen lives in Studio City. and

Everyone on my street knows about the bitter woman. She's old, tiny, and she guards the path past her apartment house like a pit bull.

The path underneath her window is the quickest way to the Laundromat over on the next street. My neighbors and I have used it on Sundays for years, or on whatever weekend night is laundry night. It is well-lit and safe, and using it is much less work than walking around the block.

It is just the kind of path that belongs in a nice neighborhood, full of small, homey-looking apartments. Only the locals know about it. It's a shortcut. It's routine.

But the bitter woman has decided that she will have none of this. She has recently begun sitting near a second-floor window near the middle of the path, determined to stop us all. She waits, and then she lunges, hitting the window with her fist.


People Surprised

People were surprised at first to hear this woman speak, and then upset to hear her shriek with such obvious agony. Most of us quickly retreated, lugging our laundry down, around and back up the block. The woman would lean out of her window to watch us go away. If you looked back, she would shriek.

Everyone was taken by surprise. Some began yelling back, while others ignored her and walked through. Most of us apologize, forget, and then apologize again.

My apartment is across the street. I hear her yelling now and then. She screams at all hours, like fingers on a chalk board.

Once I tried talking to her. I was lugging my laundry past the building, and I walked through hoping she'd be there. I couldn't see any movement out of the corner of my eye. She shrieked. "GO AROUND!"

I was thinking that this woman had probably lived there for years. She might have moved in when everyone was her age, when she had friends down the street, when the neighborhood was familiar. Neighbors might have been welcome then. Maybe she waved hello.

But our neighborhood has changed, and molted. The buildings and the people grew old, or disappeared. Some of the long front lawns are missing, replaced by stucco rectangles named after Caribbean islands. The old people are mostly gone, replaced by a group of strangers. The bitter woman looks out her window and sees large families from Mexico, gay people from Los Angeles, urban young couples from interchangeable suburbs. She recognizes no one.

She is terrified, I thought. Out on the main street at the edge of our neighborhood, people are building big new offices buildings made of reflector glass. At night you almost always hear a police helicopter, and during the day your head aches when the jets fly by from the airport.

Every New Face a Threat

There is some crime now and then, and some drag racing on weekends. Several months ago there was an attempted rape. A health club has opened at the far end of the street and now there is no place to park.

Something must have made her snap. Sometime recently, every new face became a threat; every change was proof that she must always be on her guard. People stopped seeing her outside of her apartment, and no one I know has been inside it.

It was none of my business, but I thought I'd try a friendly gesture. Maybe I wanted to offer to help, or apologize, or buy flowers. I wanted to show respect, or something like it. People die when they lock themselves in. I cannot bear her shrieking.

But when I tried to speak she exploded. I could not understand her; she was livid. She stared at me, her face crimson. It shook.


I went around.

I hope I never know what she was thinking.

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