Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, was walking downtown in 2005 when he first encountered the homeless man. He was playing a battered violin on which he'd inscribed the name "Stevie Wonder." There was a dignity to the guy, and the sound he produced (on only two strings) seemed remarkable even to Lopez's untrained ears.
While others may have seen a bum and turned away, Lopez saw material for a column. On deadline, he told the man, "I'll be back," and rushed to finish an article. He made a note to himself on a yellow legal pad: "Violin Man." That man became "The Soloist" of Lopez's fascinating book.
Lopez returned a few weeks later to find the soloist. He learned that the man's name was Nathaniel Anthony Ayers and that he was from Cleveland. It became clear early on, however, that getting a column out of Ayers, who was profoundly mentally ill, would be a long and tortuous process. When Lopez tried again to connect with Ayers a few weeks later and couldn't find him, he worried, "I lost my column."
In the beginning, anyway, Lopez wasn't a do-gooder taking on Ayers as a reclamation project. He was just looking for column fodder. But the more he got to know Ayers, the more Lopez felt a responsibility for him.
Ayers, the product of a broken home, had a natural talent for music. He won a scholarship to Juilliard, where he was considered among the school's top bass players. But, under pressure from the rigorous training (and the social pressures of being one of the few black students there), he began to behave strangely, spouting racist nonsense. He eventually dropped out and moved back to Cleveland, where he was arrested, hospitalized and diagnosed as schizophrenic.
After being hospitalized and released several times, Ayers headed west to Los Angeles.
There he lived on the streets, with his shopping cart of belongings.
When Lopez began to publish Ayers' story, there was an outpouring of public support: Readers sent musical instruments. The Los Angeles Symphony invited him to observe a rehearsal. Two cellists gave him lessons and encouragement. A homeless advocate located an apartment for him. Lopez himself attended concerts and baseball games with Ayers, and brought him home to meet his wife and young daughter.
Despite all the helping hands, Ayers preferred the streets -- dangerous as they were. He was confrontational and paranoid, afraid that if he moved into an apartment, he would be broken into and robbed. But little by little he appeared to make progress.
Why did Lopez persist? "Not only do I want him to get better, but I want to be able to say that I helped make it happen," Lopez writes. "Yes, there's ego involved, as much as I'd like to believe otherwise."
Was there more than ego involved? At one point, Lopez was confronted by an angry man who had heard that the writer was planning a book. He accused him of exploiting the homeless for personal gain, and demanded to know if Lopez was going to give any of the book proceeds to Ayers. The two almost came to blows. "It's none of your business," Lopez screamed.
But if that man didn't deserve a reply, we readers certainly do. It seems we're entitled to know more about when film and book deals were made, how much money was involved, who would be getting what and, most important, how it influenced Lopez's behavior. Lopez is so unsparingly honest in everything else he writes, it seems strange that these details were left out.
Having said that, the book works in many ways. For one thing, it sheds light on a significant problem. Many of the nation's homeless are mentally ill, released from institutions because of budget constraints or other issues and left to fend for themselves.
Second, the book speaks to the redemptive power of music. Ayers hung onto this thin thread of reality, and his story should serve as a message to bureaucrats who want to cut music and other enrichment programs from school budgets.
Finally, the book is a sign that good people still walk among us. The outpouring of support from people of all walks of life made me want to be a better person.
Curt Schleier of New Jersey is an emergency medical technician and volunteer ambulance driver. He also reviews for the Kansas City Star and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.