IT WAS A SUNNY, BREEZY, BLUE-SKY

day, and I didn't have a care in the world. On my way to lunch, at the crowded corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street, I noticed him. His dark, heavy clothes were ragged, his hair was matted, and he was talking to himself.

I was wearing light cotton slacks and a wonderful old Hawaiian shirt my wife had found for me at a thrift shop. It was midnight-blue rayon, with orange and white flecks resembling quotation marks, and it felt like a million bucks.

As I stepped off the curb, the man He made a beeline toward me, waving his arms wildly and bellowing. I dodged out of his way and moved to the right to pass him. Just then he screamed, reached out and ripped the front of my shirt right off. I was still wearing the sleeves and the back.

His eyes were full of fear, confusion and hatred. My instinct was to reach out for him, but I knew there was no point in tussling with a deranged man in the middle of Connecticut Avenue. Instead, I pointed to my chest and shouted two of the most unnecessary and obvious sentences I've ever uttered.

"What are you, crazy?" I yelled at him.

His eyes began to blink rapidly.

"You just ripped my shirt off!"

He made a little moaning noise and ran off down the street, clutching my shirt front in his hand.

Okay, I thought to myself, you have to go buy a shirt. I remembered seeing an ad for a nearby shirt sale in the morning paper. When I walked into the shop, a salesman approached me and with no visible trace of curiosity or sarcasm asked, "Is there something we can help you with today?"

"Well," I said, "I'm looking for a shirt."

The next day, I saw my undresser again. He was sitting cross-legged at a Metro stop and seemed to be inspecting his shoelaces.

There was a cop nearby, and when I told him what had happened the day before, he spoke into his walkie-talkie and three plainclothes cops appeared in less than a minute. They sauntered over to talk with the man, then walked back across the street.

"There's no use in arresting him," one of them told me. "I mean, we could, but he'd just be released to the shelter again. He says he's a vet."

"Sometimes these guys don't take their medication," another one explained. "They stay overnight at the shelter, and they're supposed to take their medication before they go out in the morning."

"But some of them, they don't," the first one said.