Four years ago this month, Nathaniel Ayers was an anonymous homeless man on the streets of LA, and Steve Lopez was a columnist for the LA Times, pounding the pavement for a story. Now, they are being portrayed on the big screen by Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.
"The Soloist" is premiering this week, and I can't wait to see it. I think everyone in Los Angeles SHOULD see it, because it's a story about our city and the parts many of us will never see on our own: A musical prodigy at Juilliard who loses everything to mental illness, and ends up on the streets of LA.
And it all started with an LA Times columnist, wandering the streets of the city, desperate for a story. Sometimes they're right there in front of you. Steve Lopez could have walked by the ragged homeless man with the battered violin, like so many other people did, but he stopped. And he listened, and marveled. And it changed both of their lives.
Watch this video so you know what I'm talking about, and the one if you click here with Ayers playing, as Lopez describes, with the sounds of the city and sirens as his accompaniment.
It's how Ayers likes it.
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"Violinist Has the World on Two Strings" was the name of the column in the LA Times, and I remember considering NOT reading it, thinking it might be some high falutin' story about musicians that I wouldn't identify with. Don't get me wrong, I love music and all, but I'm not the most culturally literate person when it comes to the fancy stuff. I follow the comings and goings at the LA Philharmonic with vague interest, and, you can imagine, with a mother named Aida (who's from Egypt, even) I have a sort natural attraction toward Opera. (Yes, my mother has a beautiful voice.)
But this story grabbed me right away because it wasn't any of that ... not fancy, high falutin', but high quality. And about as accessible as you can get ... right there on the streets of LA.
You can read the April 17, 2005 column that started it all here.
I remember after reading that April, 2005 column, a desperate feeling that I had to do something. Here was a guy with a battered violin, playing better with two strings than most musicians could with all four. An excerpt:
I was more than a little impressed, especially when it occurred to me that Nathaniel's grimy, smudged violin was missing two of the four strings.
"Yeah," he said, frustration rising in his brown eyes. "This one's gone, that one's gone and this little guy's almost out of commission. You see where it's coming apart right here?"
Playing with two strings wasn't that hard, he said, because he began his music education in the Cleveland public schools, where the instruments were often a challenge.
"If you got one with one or two strings," he said, "you were happy to have it."
Ayers didn't want freebies, or charity (he plays for himself, Lopez says; he doesn't panhandle) or help getting a roof over his head. Lopez managed to get him the new strings after much negotiation; Ayers paid him back with a concert right there on the street.
But the outpouring after this column back in 2005 was like nothing Lopez had ever experienced before. A brand new cello, donated to Ayers, and a place to stash it. See, Ayers had been a cello guy, but switched to violin on the streets because it could fit more easily into his shopping cart. But Ayers didn't really want to go to a treatment facility to go play his new cello, which was the deal, and he worried it would be stolen from him if he did. The next column in Lopez's series, "A Cello Backdrop for Voices Inside," was even more heartbreaking than the first :
...he managed to sneak the cello out.
I saw him playing it on Friday in his favorite spot, just outside the 2nd Street tunnel. Don't worry, he told me, a T-shirt wrapped around his head like a turban. He had kept the cello on the street the previous night, and nobody bothered him. He said he had tied the cello to his violin, hid the instruments under a tarp, and slept next to them on the sidewalk near 4th and Los Angeles streets.
He still had every intention, Nathaniel promised, of taking the cello back...
I remembered pondering the cycle of homelessness and mental illness that is all around us here in Los Angeles, but in a different way than usual. Steve Lopez put a face on it, but it was more than that. He made us really care about this guy, and his unfulfilled promise. And made us wonder, how many others like him are there?
Then, I think the natural progression of that, is to wonder; how do you put a value on a person's promise or ability to contribute to society? A story yesterday on the news about a homeless man, murdered in a truck yard in Commerce, barely made a ripple ... until we got the story of who he was. Everyone is loved by someone. In this case, a bunch of truckers, and a bunch of dogs.
The back story started making its rounds on Facebook yesterday, of the dog who settled down to hold vigil near the dead man's body and didn't budge, even as investigators worked around him. A story on the KTLA website said the truckers in the yard knew him as a really nice guy who made sure all the stray dogs were taken care of, adopting a few of them as his own:
The truckers would buy tacos at the lunch truck for the man and his dogs. He would polish the tires and wheels of big rigs, and a couple of times, truckers would even take him on hauls to Arizona and beyond.
They marveled at the affection he showed his two dogs, bathing them with a water hose a security guard let him use and grieving when one of his pets was killed by a car. The security guard grew to consider the homeless man a friend, and bought him an old van so he wouldn’t have to sleep outside.
Everyone has something to offer, and in this case, it wasn't beautiful music, but kindness to lesser creatures in a plight similar to his own.
The dog in the picture has been adopted, and will have a home now. The same can't be said for so many homeless people, whose stories we don't know, and even if we try, we often fail to help them.