“A newspaper column is a perfect job for an impatient man with a short attention span. There is little time to mull things over. You take on a subject and boom, you are onto the next like a hit and run driver,” says Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times columnist and author of The Soloist.
Today, a former subject is no longer just a subject. He is Nathaniel Ayers, a friend, companion, mentor, and guide. “Nathaniel has lured me into a cul de sac. Impatience fortunately is not my only flaw. I am stubborn too. Nathaniel has to dictate the tone of our encounters and I have to roll with it,” says Steve.
Six and a half years ago, Steve was looking for his next column. He describes it as a strange business where you are always sweating and you never know if the next story is going to be there. He was in Pershing Square, in downtown LA, thinking about how journalism school taught him to always keep his eyes and ears open.
At that moment, his eyes were open to the striking image of a man playing a violin. “He was even more striking when I looked closer. Although it sounded good to me, his violin was missing two strings,” says Steve. It was smudged and carved into it were the words ‘Stevie Wonder.’ ‘Little Walt Disney Concert Hall’ was written onto his grocery cart. Interestingly enough, Disney Concert Hall was just up the street,” says Steve. Nathaniel was suspicious of Steve and claimed he didn’t play well enough to play for money. He said he lived near Skid Row.
At this point, Steve observed that he began to worry about Nathaniel and began to question why he was worrying about him. This was unfamiliar territory for a high speed columnist.
Over time, Steve would return to the Nathaniel’s cul de sac to learn more, to bring him donated violins, to sleep on Skid Row, and to check in with social workers at Lamp Community, a homeless services agency. He would worry more, and he would write about this young man with talent and mental illness who had been to Julliard School of Music.
“For Nathaniel, music is an anchor, a connection to great artists, to history and himself. His head is filled with mixed signals, frightening jumble of fractured meaning. In music there is balance and permanence. Music is a meditation, a reverie, a respite from madness. It is his way to be alone without fear,” says Steve. He explains that Nathaniel taught him how to reconnect to music. He began to appreciate Beethoven, the pulsing, the hammering, the expectation and splattering. “I began to listen to music in a whole new way,” says Steve.
Today, Steve and Nathaniel share a life changing friendship. Nathaniel is no longer homeless, and Steve’s life has been transformed. “I feel like my life is richer now. I am really happy to have met Nathaniel. Our relationship is one subject that I can speak to people about and make a difference in their perceptions. It has come at a great price as well and many times it is hard to manage all my competing priorities. But I feel more alive. I have a new faith in storytelling. The man who did this for me was living out of a shopping cart. He has taught me about the arts and what it means to believe in something. These kinds of relationships give a lot. I really feel that there is a grace that you experience when you give.”
After I interview Steve, I introduce myself to Nathaniel. His smile is the melting kind. We look over his musical instruments, but not before he makes an immediate melodic connection to my name and starts singing with a wide smile. Wendy’s got stormy eyes that flash at the sun above… I know the words and we sing together. Nathaniel opens the case to his cello and gently touches the instrument before putting it away, touching it the way you might rub a child’s back at bedtime. I admire the color of the cello - it is soft like saffron - and his adoration of these instruments. Steve comes over to play the guitar and I observe the ease between these men; it passes between them like a quiet southern breeze. I thank them and we part ways, leaving their companionship in my wake and in my heart.
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