Los Angeles Times columnist Lopez (In The Clear, 2001, etc.) brings empathy, intelligence and humor to his poignant portrait of a homeless man who once studied at Juilliard.
The author first encountered Nathaniel Ayers, a longtime resident of Los Angeles’s Skid Row, while en route to work. A Cleveland native who was among a handful of blacks enrolled in Juilliard in the early 1970s, Ayers developed schizophrenia while at the school. After unsuccessful treatment in psychiatric facilities, he landed on the streets of L.A. where, drawn by a statue of Beethoven in a local park, he began to play classical music on a battered violin. Lopez wrote a series of newspaper articles about Ayers that highlighted the plight of the homeless and brought the mentally unstable man donations of numerous violins, a cello and a string bass. Bedraggled and often spewing invectives, Ayers stored the instruments in a shopping cart that he wheeled through town. At night, he fended off sewer rats that scurried across the litter-strewn sidewalk on which he’d slept for years. Outraged, Lopez helped Ayers secure housing in a facility for the homeless and arranged for him to attend concerts at Disney Hall. By the book’s end, Ayers has met cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a former classmate at Juilliard. But this is not a feel-good memoir. Determined to understand the evolution of Ayers’s illness, Lopez probes his family history, revisits his painful past at Juilliard and seeks advice from mental-health professionals. He also details the myriad complications of forging a bond with a gifted musician whose schizophrenia continues to rage.
Energetic prose delivers powerful insights on homelessness and mental illness.