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Half-naked

Human dignity vs. don't feed the animals

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This is how unobservant I am: I did not even notice the lady was naked from the waist down. I mean, Christ, how many half-naked women sitting five feet from your car outside in the cold would you fail to spot? Probably not many.

But to be fair to myself, it's not like I overlooked her, I saw her right away as I pulled up to park at the church where Mae's preschool is located. The lady was sitting behind a chain-link gate that stood butt flush with the sidewalk, traversing a small concrete easement between two buildings. The lady was right up against the fencing, facing the sidewalk, looking like -- and I don't want to be disrespectful -- but she looked like a placid creature in a cage.

Like I said, I noticed her right away; I noticed her eyes, big and bleak, her hollow cheeks and the concave of her upper lip from the absence of teeth. I noticed how she was shivering, and I noticed her bare, bloody feet. I just didn't notice her poor little bare ass is all.

Besides, church is the last place you'd expect to find a half-naked lady, right? It's also probably the last place you'd expect to find me for that matter. I have gone to church maybe four times on a whim in my entire life, but one thing I noticed while there was that people were pretty well-dressed, with hats and everything. My child's preschool happens to be attached to a church, but other than that it's a secular establishment. I was a little worried at first about the church thing, but when I set foot in there and didn't burst into flames, I figured it would be fine.

Today I have to say I am mighty proud of myself for picking Mae's preschool. She has friends of all religions and races, and at 2 she can speak Spanish -- OK, to be truthful all she can say is aqui, but that's pretty damn great if you ask me. When I was her age my biggest trick was fetching beer out of the fridge for my father.

Anyway, this preschool and this church are located in the city, and evidently half-naked homeless people are more likely to end up there -- trapped behind a locked gate in what amounts to be little more than a concrete crack between two buildings -- than they would if these buildings were located in a suburban cul-de-sac. That is just something I knew going in, but still it's surprising when you see it.

"She's cold," Mae said, pointing to the lady behind the gate. I did not need to be told. We tried talking to her, but her response was incoherent. So I told her I'd be right back and took Mae to class.

When I returned I saw the church's pastor, Suzanna, unfastening the cumbersome padlock that secured the gate. Until then the half-naked lady had been trapped, and we still don't know how she got in there short of climbing the chain link, and she didn't look in any condition to shimmy. I could see my friend Fred walking toward us with a cup of tea he had bought at Kelly's on the corner. Fred's boy, Jake, is one of Mae's best friends. He is a large, handsome child with eyes like liquid Christmas lights, all bright and inviting. Fred handed the tea to the half-naked lady, who promptly spilled it on her feet. Her feet looked just about frozen, so this could have been on purpose.

We discerned that she probably had hypothermia, seeing as she must have spent the night outside in below-freezing weather, so an ambulance was called. In the meantime, another cup of tea was delivered and spilled on her feet, and her pants were found, marking the moment I finally figured out she was naked from the waist down.

I guess until then my brain was just filling in the blank where her pants should have been, offering her a dignity that didn't exist at that particular moment but was hopefully bound to return. And it did. Suzanna helped her into her pants, and then she did something that I personally am ashamed to admit I would not have done. Suzanna put her arms around the lady -- her whole arms -- and tried to rub some warmth back into this lady's poor hide.

For some reason I was really relieved to see that. I was really relieved to see there are people braver than me, brave enough to be that kind to a crazy, bare-assed homeless person with bloody feet. Fred said so, too. He said that he was worried he'd be admonished for offering her the tea, worried there was a kind of "don't feed the animals" mentality regarding homeless people in this neighborhood, because there is that attitude in other neighborhoods, believe me.

I was once subjected to total public humiliation by a coffee-house employee, who yelled at me from across the courtyard for 10 minutes because I gave a buck to a beggar.

"They're like puppies, they'll just keep coming back!" she hollered, and I had to slink away, chastised. But now here Suzanna was restoring my faith in humanity by holding this shivering, incoherent, half-naked homeless lady in her arms, holding this person with her whole arms until nobody was half-naked anymore.

Hollis Gillespie's commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered." To hear the latest, go to Moodswing at atlanta.creativeloafing.com.

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