Violin Man

Author Steve Lopez puts a human face on mental illness

Steve Lopez, a busy human-interest columnist for The Los Angeles Times, was walking back to his downtown office some years ago when he spotted a homeless man on a street corner who was dressed in rags and playing Beethoven on a battered violin.

Homelessness isn’t unusual — sadly — on the streets of Los Angeles. There are many such people, often suffering mental illness and agitatedly wandering about, full of confusion or fear or anger. It’s rare to find someone who can find a state of grace, however momentary, by making music. Not only that, Lopez noted, but he was also good.

Lopez jotted down an entry on his list of column ideas. “Violin Man.” It’s got potential, he thought, and went back to his office. It did, indeed, have potential. Lopez slowly developed a friendship with that homeless musician, a fiftyish black man named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. He had once attended the prestigious Juilliard School, but his paranoid schizophrenia had slowly brought him to L.A.’s hellish Skid Row.

The result was a series of columns in which Lopez slowly got to know Ayers — his dreams and his demons — and helped him connect with professional musicians and mental-health service providers. So popular were his columns 36 that he wrote a book last year, The Soloist, about the relationship. It has been adapted into a movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx that will be released in April.

“I think it’s the one thing that brings him peace,” Lopez says of Ayers, during a recent telephone interview. “There’s something about the structure, the rules, that’s great for a guy struggling with a disorganized mind. When he holds sheet music in his hand, it makes the world stop spinning and he knows where he is. I think music for him is like some form of medicine.”

As the bond develops, Lopez helps Ayers find newer, better instruments to play and even — after long struggle — a shelter off the streets. At the same time, he must deal with the latter’s serious illness, propensity for terrifying rages and refusal to take medicine. What holds it together is that Nathaniel keeps trying — and loves the joy inherent in playing and hearing classical music.

The Soloist also is about Lopez, a middle-aged career journalist discovering — as his newspaper, like so many, undergoes cutbacks — what is most satisfying about his work.

“That makes me want to keep looking for those stories,” he says. “But what do I do if the whole industry is collapsing? So Nathaniel has been a process of self-discovery for me. Nobody has given me a better look at myself than Nathaniel.”

His experience with Ayers has also made Lopez a knowledgeable advocate for helping the mentally ill homeless who can be found in all cities.

“The country should be ashamed that people with mental illness have been abandoned, discarded and shoved off into these human corrals,” he says. “One of the great things about getting to know Nathaniel is that he puts a face on this.”

The Public Library of Cincinnati has chosen STEVE LOPEZ’s The Soloist for this year’s On the Same Page Community- Wide Reading Program. Lopez will be present for a launch and reception 2-4 p.m. Sunday at the Main Branch Downtown. He’ll also appear at 6 p.m. Sunday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers and 7 p.m. Monday at UC’s Tangeman Center Great Hall.

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