LA Times columnist Steve Lopez always has an ear cocked for material. So when he hears someone scratching out Beethoven on a violin that turns out to have only two strings, he makes a detour to get a closer look. He finds Nathaniel Ayers playing his heart out on a traffic-ridden downtown corner, a shopping cart next to him piled with with presumably all he has in the world. Lopez has his column, but doesn’t realize till later the extent to which he’ll get drawn into Ayers’ life.
Ayers, like many people on Skid Row, has a history of mental illness. But Lopez’s hunch that there’s much more to the story turns out to be right. Nathaniel claims to have been at Juilliard, but “just for a couple of years.” Lopez senses that this is fact, not the deluded rantings that he sometimes drifts into. The story checks out: he studied string bass there during the 70s, partially overlapping Yo Yo Ma’s time as a student there. After the pressure cooker of Juilliard exacerbated his mental problems, he left Juilliard and wound up on the streets. Needing a more portable instrument, he switched to cello, then violin.
Almost against his better judgment, Lopez gets drawn in. His columns about Nathaniel trigger a flood of donated instruments from his readers, some of which he passes on to him. The others begin to pile up under Lopez’ desk. While Nathaniel is ecstatic to get the new instruments, Lopez worries that he’s setting him up for a mugging, given the crime-ridden street he sleeps on every night. He learns that Nathaniel has been hospitalized and medicated for schizophrenia, and begins looking into the conflicting schools of thought on the best ways to help people with this problem. There seems to be no clear answer. Lopez’ primary concern is Nathaniel’s safety. He begins working with Lamp, a facility that provides housing and outreach to the mentally ill homeless of Skid Row. He contacts his music teachers from his childhood, his classmates from Juilliard. Everyone remembers him, and wishes him well. He arranges several visits to nearby Disney Hall, including a backstage tour where he meets (or reencounters) Yo Yo Ma.
Working around Nathaniel’s stubbornness and quirks makes Lopez more acutely aware of his own. When he finally succeeds in getting Ayers to sleep inside at Lamp, he notes the improvement in his appearance and temperament, but he isn’t quite ready to let go:
A smarter man than I would nod pleasantly, be grateful for small wonders and go find something to do at least twenty or thirty miles from Skid Row. A smarter man would turn things over to the professionals, who, after all, did most of the work anyway and were right all along about what approach would work best for Nathaniel. But I’m having trouble moving on. Nathaniel, for all his intractable habits, has nothing on me when it comes to compulsive behavior. There’s always a better line than the one I just wrote, or a better column idea than the one I’ve got lined up for tomorrow. And nothing can be left hanging, whether it’s a decision on how to redo the front yard or whether a paranoid schizophrenic should be pushed to take advantage of his recent momentum and go immediately into therapy.
This story hooks you immediately. Just as Lopez can’t quit wondering what Nathaniel will do next, you keep turning the pages to see how things turn out. But the catch is that things don’t resolve in a case like this, though they may slowly improve, while alternately sliding back downhill. It’s both heartbreaking and inspiring to watch the struggle.
Click here to read Lopez’ columns on Nathaniel from the LA Times website. There’s also a video of Lopez’ update on Nathaniel.
The movie version of The Soloist is in post-production, and is set to be released in November. It stars Robert Downey, Jr. as Steve Lopez, Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel, and Catherine Keener as Lopez’ editor.
photo credits: top, Rick Loomis, LA Times