Novelist Nietzke (Windowlight, not reviewed) effectively brings the serious problem of homelessness to a comprehensible level in her sensitive account of a few months in the life of one woman who made her home on a Los Angeles sidewalk. As the preface notes, this is not a standard case study—names are changed, locations obscured, and conversations reconstructed- -yet one senses that the account is as honest as Nietzke can make it while still respecting the independence of the ``bag lady'' who lived on her street. Soon after Nietzke first approached 74-year-old Natalie, she began recording and trying to make sense of their encounters. In addition to facing the problems inherent in her lonely, homeless life (no toilet, no place to cook, bathe, or change clothes, no protection from the elements), Natalie displayed symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, which would make it difficult for her to adapt to life in a shelter for the homeless mentally ill, such as the one where Nietzke worked. Nietzke would bring Natalie food (e.g., bananas or a couple of boiled eggs), dispose of her packaged excrement, and occasionally try to coax her into taking a sponge bath, washing her hair, or changing some piece of her clothing. Equally important, Nietzke, with determined patience, conversed with this elderly, frightened woman—even though they couldn't always understand each other. Far from admonishing Natalie for her ways (or admonishing us for the part we play in this drama, if only by inaction), Nietzke looks at the person we want to label as different and sees similarity: ``It is terrifying to face the `givens' in life, both what we are given and what we are spared. I could be Natalie, she could be me.'' While literary style and sympathetic perspective make this book easy to read, it is the straightforward approach to Natalie herself that makes it well worth reading.
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