TWO STRINGS: When L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez is honored by the Mental Health Association of Santa Barbara County next week, he’s sure to be asked about Nathaniel Ayers, of The Soloist film fame.
How is he, they’ll want to know? Where is he?
I phoned Steve to pose the same questions. As his readers and many moviegoers know, a few years ago Steve started writing about a homeless guy who played a violin with only two strings left.
Most passersby would ignore someone like Nathaniel. Just another bum hanging around Pershing Square in downtown L.A. But Steve, a caring man and good columnist, stopped and listened. He found that Nathaniel had been a talented young musician attending the prestigious Juilliard School when schizophrenia struck.
“Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, who sleeps on the streets of the city, takes his meals at the Midnight Mission and plays a two-string violin, attended the acclaimed New York City school on a scholarship,” Steve told his readers.
Being mentally ill and homeless is not a lifestyle choice, as some seem to think. L.A. didn’t give a damn about Nathaniel. Until, that is, Steve started writing about him, phoned his former teacher, and learned that it was mental illness that sent him to the streets.
Steve wrote more columns about Nathaniel and mental illness, then a book, titled The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music.
And, in 2009, the movie The Soloist hit the theaters. It got mixed reviews, but it also got the word out.
Today, Nathaniel is living in an apartment in a mental health center. “It took a year to talk him into it,” Steve told me. “He has 15 instruments,” including a flute and a bevy of horns. “He plays every day. It’s the best therapy. It’s just a joy to watch him.” Nathaniel isn’t trained in all those instruments, Steve said. “He wings it. He found his passion and indulges it every day.”
Nathaniel is much more confident now and has a lot of friends, Steve said. He and Nathaniel are still pals and go to concerts together.
“It’s a ‘There but for the grace of God’ story,” said Steve. Nathaniel, now in his late fifties, told Steve that he started learning music in Cleveland public schools, then went to both Ohio University and Ohio State University. He said he’d played many times at the Aspen Music Festival and studied two years at Juilliard before illness set in.
“He had the talent, that’s for sure,” Homer Mensch, one of Nathaniel’s mentors at Julliard, told Steve. “He’s an outstanding player,” said Ron Guzzo, an Ohio music-store manager who knew Nathaniel for many years. He told Steve he sold Nathaniel many instruments over the years, including a Glaesel violin he now plays.
When Nathaniel’s instrument was stolen, he’d work at Wendy’s or shovel snow to buy another, Guzzo said. He started playing a bass, then took up cello, and then violin. He’d had no violin training, but it fit better into his shopping cart than a cello.
Steve and I talked about a 2005 column he’d written about how Norway humanely treats its mentally ill homeless. Why, he’d asked a Yale professor who had helped design one of the world’s most progressive mental health treatment programs in Norway, were there no mentally ill people living on the streets of that Scandinavian country? There are no skid rows there, Thomas McGlashan had replied. “There is no homelessness. It is banned.”
In Norway, McGlashan said, Nathaniel would have been connected to an outpatient clinic, had a regular doctor, a nurse who visited him at home, and a day-care worker who checked to see if he needed help managing his life.
Norway, of course, has a national health system, and, McGlashan said, there are no questions about who is covered and for what.
I’ve spent time in Denmark and Norway and admire much that I found in this compassionate, peace-loving society with a long history of social welfare legislation. Cradle to grave, it’s been called, not always kindly. There are negatives, of course, including high taxes and regulations that would grate on many Americans. In life, you give and you get.
I asked Steve about qualms he must have felt about putting Nathaniel’s difficult life in print for thousands to read, even with the man’s permission. “Every step of the way,” Steve said, he pondered “if I had a right” to write about his new friend. “I tried hard,” he said, to shield Nathaniel from negative ramifications.
“It’s easy to pass judgment on someone on the street,” he said. By not understanding the story behind a homeless person, “We perpetuate the stigma.” He said he hoped that by shining a revealing light on the plight of the mentally ill homeless, his columns would help open people’s eyes.
On Friday, May 21, Steve and USC Associate Dean Elyn Saks will receive Heroes of Hope awards from the Mental Health Association of Santa Barbara County. The Lobero Theatre event begins with a 6:30 p.m. reception. Tickets are $150. All proceeds will benefit the Mental Health Association. For further information and ticket purchases, visit mhainsb.org or call (805) 884-8440.