DATE April 22, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Columnist Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times
discusses his relationship with homeless musican Nathaniel Ayers
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
For seven years, readers of the Los Angeles Times have enjoyed the wit and
insight of columnist Steve Lopez. In his Points West column, Lopez regularly
eviscerates politicians, tells stories of ordinary Los Angelinos and
illuminates trends and issues in Southern California. But Lopez's encounter
three years ago with a homeless street musician led not just to a column but a
life-changing friendship, a series of columns, a book and a movie. Lopez has
struggled to understand the mental illness that wrecked the promising music
career and has tried to get his friend into treatment and off the streets.
The film is now in production, with Robert Downey Jr. as Steve Lopez. Steve
Lopez has written three novels and award-winning pieces for four newspapers
and several national magazines. His new book is called "The Soloist: A Lost
Dream, an Unlikely Friendship and the Redemptive Power of Music."
So, Steve Lopez, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, as a columnist in Los
Angeles, I mean, I'm sure you've met lots of homeless people. What made
Nathaniel Ayers particularly interesting to you?
Mr. STEVE LOPEZ: I was walking through downtown Los Angeles actually looking
for something else, and spotted this gentleman, you know, a little over 50
years old, playing a violin. And it's the violin, first of all, that made me
turn my head. And then I noticed that he was wearing rags and there was a
shopping cart next to him. And as I got closer, I realized a couple of
things. First of all, that the music was really pretty good and suggested
there'd been some formal training. And the other thing I noticed was that the
violin had only two strings. So the natural first question is, `Hey, mister,
that sounds pretty good, but are you aware that a violin has four strings?'
And I had to wait for him to break. He was very much involved in the piece
that he was playing. I'm not sure what it was. And I knew very little about
classical music. But what I heard, I thought was quite beautiful--a little
scratchy and maybe a little bit broken up, but the whole thing was just
intriguing and I wanted to know more. And I was thinking maybe there's a
column in this guy's story, whatever it might be.
So that's how it began, and I waited for that break, and I introduced myself,
and I said it sounded pretty good. And he jumped back, frightened, and I
tried to calm him a bit but he was very skeptical, and what were my motives.
And he didn't want to talk too much, and I just told him in that first
encounter that I thought it sounded good and maybe I'd come back and talk to
him about it another time. It was clear that he was not comfortable. So I
left, and I went back and I kept him in mind as a possible column to return
to. But that was the first contact.
DAVIES: And at some point you went and you noticed some names he had scrawled
on the pavement next to where he was standing, and that's a fascinating little
nugget, isn't it? Tell us the names and what they meant.
Mr. LOPEZ: OK. Well, this was maybe the fourth, fifth, sixth visit.
Mr. LOPEZ: I can't remember. He had moved to another location. Another
thing that intrigued me about that first location, though, I asked him when he
warmed up a bit, `Why do you practice right here?' And he pointed across the
street and he said, `Because of that. Because of the Beethoven statue.' And I
have never recognized a Beethoven statue in the middle of Pershing Square,
which is a little park in the center of downtown Los Angeles. And I said,
`That's Beethoven?' And he said, `Yeah, somebody put it here, I don't know who
did, but it was brilliant, it was inspired and I come here to play near him so
that I can keep an eye on him for inspiration.'
So then I spot him, I don't know if it's a couple weeks later, maybe three
weeks later, playing a few blocks from there. And by this time, he was not
startled when I arrived on the scene, and he was down on his knees scrawling
names on the sidewalk, I had noticed. And I asked, `Who are these names?'
It's, you know, Betty and John and Sally and Robert, whatever the names were,
and he said, `Oh, those were my classmates at Juilliard.' It just stopped me,
and I said, `Juilliard? You mean the Juilliard School for the Performing Arts
in New York City?' And he said `yeah' in a very nonchalant way. And I said,
`You were a student there?' And he said, `Oh, yeah, that was a long time ago.'
And I asked him a little bit about it, and he was, you know, quite modest
about it, and it didn't seem like it was such a big deal to him. To me, it
was. I ran back to my office and I got on the phone to call Juilliard to see
if indeed this guy playing a two-string violin in downtown Los Angeles had
been a student there. And I got a call from Juilliard the next day saying
they did have a Nathaniel Anthony Ayers as a student at Juilliard in the late
'60s and early '70s.
DAVIES: Maybe to give us a little bit more of a sense of what Nathaniel Ayers
was like, because here's a guy who clearly had enormous musical talent and had
been at the Juilliard school and had gone on a long, difficult journey since,
and obviously was lucid in some respects, there's a moment at which you
describe some of the monologues that, you know, he would deliver. Maybe you
could read a little bit of that for us.
Mr. LOPEZ: Sure, and to give you a picture, Nathaniel, you know, his clothes
are kind of soiled and rumpled, but there's some order to it, as if he's
conscious of his appearance and is concerned about it. He would comb his hair
and part it neatly. So he was trying to maintain some dignity, it seemed.
And, you know, I didn't know what to make of what was going on in his head,
but every once in a while he would say something that I'd just stand back and
say, `oh, wow,' you know. Here's one of the passages that might help
"Los Angeles is sloped downhill like a valley: Santa Monica Mountains,
downtown Los Angeles, Honolulu. I haven't seen the ocean in Los Angeles.
There's supposed to be an ocean, the Pacific, but this is not ocean terrain in
the downtown area.
"You don't see the military statues like you have in Cleveland, where those
are the leaders of the city and they have their army all over town with lots
of horses. Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams, those are armies, too,
military regimentation, experimentation, with Mr. Roman Gabriel--the
quarterback--Roman, Romans, Roman empire, Colonel Sanders, Mr. Roman Gabriel
designing a play in his dreams. Look, there go all the wide receivers down
"This little guy here is the quarterback of the orchestra, this violin which I
purchased some years back at Motter's Music in Cleveland, Ohio. A cello can
back this guy up with the same moves, but the cello is not the concert master.
It's this youngster here that leads the way. Itzhak Perlman, Josha Heifitz,
they're like gods to me. I wish I had that talent, but if I practiced for the
next 10,000 years, I could never be that good.
"In Cleveland, you cannot play music in winter because of the snow and ice,
and that's why I prefer Los Angeles, the Beethoven city, where you have the
sunshine, and if it rains you can go into the tunnel and play to your heart's
content. I am absolutely flabbergasted by that statue. It knocks me out that
someone as great as Beethoven is the leader of Los Angeles. Do you have any
idea who put him there?"
DAVIES: OK, so there's a little bit of a sense of what Nathaniel Ayers, the
man who played the violin on two strings, sounded like at moments. So you
wrote this column and got enormous reader reaction. Now, you've gotten
enormous reader reaction before, and it could have been a story that ended
there. Why didn't it?
Mr. LOPEZ: Along with the reaction, I had the donation of instruments. I
believe there were six violins donated after the first column. There was a
cello donated. Later came another cello donation. A woman donated a piano.
And I eagerly rushed out to the street to deliver some of them to Nathaniel,
who could not believe this. I'm not sure that he really understood what was
up. I mean, he connects in some ways, and in other ways isn't sure what's
So I'm delivering these instruments to him, and he is gladly taking them off
my hands, and I am struck by the problem I've created for myself. Here's a
guy who lives on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, and as far as I could
gather at that point, wandered over several blocks at night to sleep on Skid
Row, which is an unbelievable place where a few thousand people at that time
bedded down on the pavement every night, and there were some sick people and
some scared people and some predators, and I was now handing over three
violins and a cello to this guy. And I thought, `He is going to get killed.'
So that's what got me, beyond the first column, thinking, `I've got to not
just write about this guy, I've got to try to solve his problem. I've got to
get him off the streets or he's going to be beaten up for these instruments.'
So I tried to negotiate a deal in which I kept the instruments and delivered
them to him by day so that he could play with them. And he just was not happy
with that. And very early on, I got hold of a mental health agency, and they
had come out and they took a look at him and they said it's hard to talk
somebody in who's resistant and has been out there this long. And I said,
`Well, how about if you guys keep the instruments, and I'll tell him that if
he wants to play the cello or the violin, he's got to go over to the Lamp
Community on Skid Row. And maybe that'll be a way to make the connection that
gets him started going there, and maybe he can get the help that he needs.'
DAVIES: Now, he eventually showed up and played them there but, I gather,
managed to sneak away with them and then take them back with him to his life
on the streets.
Mr. LOPEZ: I thought he would never go, and I was just so frustrated, and I
thought, `Well, maybe I've done all I can do for this guy.' And then I got a
call one day from somebody at Lamp saying, `Guess what? Guess who's giving a
free concert in the courtyard at Lamp Community on San Julian Street?' And I
said, `Oh my God, is he still there? I have to see this.' And I raced over
and indeed there he was, and he had a little audience and he was playing. And
it just felt so, so good to see that he was in a safe place where there were
professionals who might give him some help.
And I watched and then I left, and I heard back later that when he left, he
tried to steal the instruments. He tried to walk away with them, and somebody
caught him. And the next time he went back, he pulled it off. He went and he
played the instruments, and when nobody was looking, he left with, I think it
was a violin and a cello. And now I really had a problem. I had a guy out on
Skid Row with a brand-new violin and a brand-new cello, and this is a place
where the sirens never stop. It's one of the highest crime areas in the city
of Los Angeles. And there are some desperate people and there are some sick
people. And I was just worried sick. When my phone rang at night at home, I
thought surely it was the police calling or the hospital, saying, `There's
some guy here who's beaten up pretty badly and he says he knows you.'
DAVIES: Our guest is Steve Lopez. He is a columnist for the Los Angeles
Times, and his new book is "The Soloist." We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: My guest is LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. His friendship with
Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless street musician, is told in his new book "The
One of the interesting things that you did was to go and spend a night with
him, where he slept, which is not the tunnel where he played. Describe that
Mr. LOPEZ: Yes, in the evening he moved off of sort of the business district
of downtown Los Angeles to Skid Row, and he stayed at a place that was very
near a shelter where, if you needed to use the bathroom or get a meal, he
could go in there. And I thought, you know, I know him in a safe place by
day, and I wonder what his life is like at night, and I need to spend a night
with him. He thought this was the strangest thing that he'd ever heard, that
this guy, this columnist, wanted to go and spend a night on the pavement with
And what I saw that night was extraordinary. He, first of all, cleared a
space on a street that had--as I recall, a few dozen people were going to camp
out there for the night. And one of the interesting things that I was writing
about here as I did follow-up columns, is that this is about three blocks from
city hall in Los Angeles. It's about four or five blocks from a glittering
skyline that looks like a profit chart. And here are all of these people, as
if they'd been shoved off into this human landfill, like a modern-day leper
colony or something. And here I go to spend the night with him, and he begins
by going to his spot--you know, some people with schizophrenia can be
creatures of habit--and this was his spot and this was his world and he was
sticking with it. And he would begin by crunching with his heel all of the
cockroaches and scattering them, kicking them off into the curb.
And then he would go through his shopping cart, which was just packed with all
of these things, including the instruments. And I would often try to help him
either load or unload the basket, and he would always tell me, `Please don't.
I know where everything goes.' I later learned, because I consulted with a
psychiatrist by the name of Mark Ragins throughout this entire thing, that a
schizophrenic can't control much. They're bombarded constantly with images,
audio and visual. They control what they can, and a shopping cart is
something he could control. He can compartmentalize his life, and that's what
he had. Everything's set up the way he wanted with him in control on that
So he takes out the cardboard, he puts it down on the pavement. He brings out
the blankets, the pillows, and is setting up his bedding, and gets his violin
case, puts a blanket over that--that's going to be his pillow--and stands up
on the curb and begins reciting Shakespeare. I had never heard this from him
before, although with every visit I was surprised all over again by this man.
He's reciting the Hamlet soliloquy. And...
DAVIES: And how did his fellow Skid Row residents react?
Mr. LOPEZ: They looked and, you know, you see a little bit of everything on
Skid Row, and they kind of shrugged it off, and, `Gee, he must be crazy.' And
it was this perfect--it sounded like Richard Burton had gotten up from this
cardboard bed and is standing there with a great Shakespearean accent, and
then gets back down on his bedding and looks up in the window and says, `Mr.
Lopez, do you think about writers the way I think about musicians?' And I
said, `I do, Nathaniel. I do think about writers. I don't think that I'm as
good a writer as you are a musician, and I like hearing you talk about it.'
And he looks up into a window and sees people living in these nearby
buildings, and he said, `You know, Beethoven was up in a window like that, and
Mozart. They lived and breathed as we do.' And he said, `I'm just inspired to
know that they created what they did. Do you find inspiration in that?' He
would say things to me like this that my jaw would drop, and the grace of this
man and the humility.
And one of the things that struck me was that there was never any expression
of any regret. This was a man whose career was ascendant. He was 20, 21 and,
through no fault of his own, was struck down by this unlucky blow and his
career went off a cliff. And here he was, happy each day to find some time to
play and content to be out here bedding down where he could look up into the
windows and imagine a Beethoven symphony as he was falling asleep.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that I know that you did was you managed
to introduce him to some musicians from the Los Angeles Symphony, I mean,
initially at a rehearsal.
Mr. LOPEZ: Right.
DAVIES: Was that a critical step for him?
Mr. LOPEZ: It was indeed. You know, I had--people were rooting for
Nathaniel, and they were reading for me to be able to help him and to figure
out what I needed to do. And through this series of columns, people were
staying, you know, on top of the story and I'd hear from them, `What's the
latest?' Well, the latest was that somebody up at Disney Hall, the big concert
hall in downtown Los Angeles, said, `Why don't you bring him to a concert?'
And I said, `You know, when I first met Nathaniel, he had written on the side
of his shopping cart, "Little Walt Disney Concert Hall." And it would be great
to get him to the big Walt Disney Concert Hall, but I don't know about this.
I don't know about bringing him in his condition into a concert hall. I still
am not sure what I'm going to get when I'm with him and what kind of behavior
we can expect.'
So I got an idea, and I called Adam Crane, publicist with the Los Angeles
Philharmonic, and I said, `Adam, by chance do you think we could come to the
rehearsal for that concert rather than to the concert?' And Adam said, `I
don't see why not.'
So when I went to get Nathaniel on the big day, I thought maybe if I work
through the music, that's the way to get to his mind and his soul. That's his
passion, and if I can advance his recovery by bringing him back into the
fraternity of musicians, maybe he'll feel differently, maybe he'll one day
want to have an apartment and get into a community orchestra or something. I
didn't know what was possible, but I thought this was the logical next step.
So on the day when I went to get him on Skid Row, my heart fell. He was in a
foul mood, he was arguing and bickering, he was foul and belligerent, and he
said he didn't want to go. And at this point we're six months into this, and,
to be honest, I'm pretty tired. And the ups and downs are endless. And I
said, `Nathaniel, I think this is a great opportunity, but if you don't want
to do it for yourself, will you do me a favor? I've invested a lot of time.
Will you do this for me?' And he looked at me and he said, `OK, let's go.'
On the way up the hill to Disney Hall--this is a trip of about 10 or 12
blocks--when Disney Hall comes into view, he begins to calm down. It was
really an amazing thing to see. And we got close enough where he said, `Oh my
God. It looks like an iron butterfly.' And indeed it does. It's this Frank
Gehry inspiration that, you know, looks like a schooner in full sail. And I
said, `You know, now that you've gotten me interested in classical music and
you've been giving me an education, I'm going to be going in a couple of weeks
to see Itzhak Perlman with the National Symphony.' And he says, `Oh my God.
Itzhak Perlman, he's molten lava on violin.' And this is the man who, 10
minutes earlier, had been talking about cockroaches and greyhounds and using
slurs and belligerent language.
And now he's calming down, and we get up to Disney Hall, and he runs his hand
across the performance board. And he looks at names like Beethoven and
Mozart, and he looks like he's just in awe. And we go in and meet Mr. Crane,
the publicist, and I still don't know what to expect. And Mr. Ayers, when he
stepped into that hall, he said he probably hadn't been in a music hall for
10,000 years, but it felt good to be back in one. And he immediately struck
up a conversation with Adam about composers, about conductors, about music.
It was all way over my head. And I just kind of stood back like a proud
And Mr. Crane, the publicist, introduced him to a couple of musicians. One
was a cellist by the name of Peter Snyder; another was a cellist named Ben
Hong. And Mr. Ayers spoke to them about music and about common acquaintances
and things going all the way back to his days at Juilliard, and they were just
delighted by this man. And they thought he's so charming and he's so witty,
and look at him. I mean, he clearly was a man of the streets. He said he'd
injured his right hand in a fight, and it was wrapped in a rag, and so here
was this raggedy guy who brought such refinement up to the hall, and they were
all fascinated by him.
And when they were done with rehearsal, I realized that Nathaniel had had his
violin with him the whole time, and it was so common that I didn't even take
notice. And when the orchestra left the stage, Mr. Ayers opened the violin
and we walked up there behind the performance area, and he pulled it out and
he started to play. That moment--that moment was just one of the great
moments of my career, of my life, to see this man who was back home.
DAVIES: LA Times columnist Steve Lopez's friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, a
homeless street musician, is told in his new book, "The Soloist." Lopez will
be back in the second half of the show. Here's some music from Nathaniel
Ayers. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with Steve Lopez, who writes a widely read column for the LA
Times called Points West. His new book "The Soloist" tells the story of his
friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic, homeless street musician who
studied at the Juilliard school in his youth. In his efforts to convince
Ayers to get treatment for his illness and get off the streets, Lopez brought
him new instruments and got him into a rehearsal of the Los Angeles
Philharmonic where he met some of the musicians.
Moving the story forward a bit, I mean, you--his reacquaintance with music
through your introducing him to musicians progressed, and eventually he saw a
full concert and you introduced him to Yo-Yo Ma, and he had the thrill of
being among musicians again. And you managed to get an apartment for him at
this facility, the Lamp Community. But he wouldn't stay there for a long
Mr. LOPEZ: Well, he was willing to. It was hard to get him in there. And,
again, I used little tricks. Peter Snyder, that cellist from the orchestra,
agreed to give him lessons. And I said `Nathaniel, Mr. Snyder wants to give
you lessons. Here's a great opportunity.' And by this point Lamp Community's
mental health folks thought that he was advanced enough that he could move
into an apartment. And this is an apartment in what's called permanent
supportive housing. All of the services you need are there:psychiatric
counseling and job training, and you get hooked up with your Social Security
and all of that. And Nathaniel was resisting, didn't want a place to stay.
And I said `well, here's the deal, Mr. Snyder needs a quiet place to conduct
this lesson and there's no room up at Disney Hall for him to do this, and he
has asked if we could do this in your apartment.' And he said, `I don't have
an apartment.' And I said, `yes, you have this space that they're holding for
you.' So that was how we got him in there finally.
And we held the first lesson there, and Mr. Snyder was great and he looked at
him and heard him play and said `oh my God, this guy,' he said `I know of
musicians who play that well, but not without years of training.' And
Nathaniel, when he was done with the lesson said, `OK, that's great, but I'm
not staying in here. I prefer being in the tunnels.' And Mr. Snyder said
`well, why don't you think of this as your new tunnel.' And Nathaniel just
wasn't buying it, so it was still quite a while after that, and we got to
where I was really concerned about his behavior seemed to be a problem and he
was taunting people and I was worried that he was going to get into some
trouble out there.
And one night I couldn't find him in his regular spot on the street and I was
desperate. I went out and drove around looking all over downtown for him and
had a fitful night's sleep and woke up the next day and called Lamp to see if
anybody had seen or heard from him. And Stuart Robinson, one of the directors
there, said `yeah, he's right here.' And I said, `oh my God, what a relief.
Do you happen to know where he spent the night? Because he was not out on the
street?' And he said `yeah, I do know. He slept in the apartment.'
DAVIES: And so for all this many, many weeks he had had an apartment that
they had been holding, but he had been carefully loading up his shopping cart
and pushing it blocks and blocks every day back and forth because he wasn't
ready to come in, and finally he did, right?
Mr. LOPEZ: Exactly. And, you know, there are these hurdles. There are
these, you know--if you live on the street, one advantage is that you've got
nothing to lose. And the idea of now having an apartment and now returning to
the world in which he had cracked were probably psychologically too much for
him to handle. And it took months for him to get up the courage and the
comfort and the trust with all of the people who were telling him that he
should do this, to finally do it. It was a huge breakthrough when he did it,
and I just threw my hands up. I wanted to run down and hug him and have a
parade. And I went down to see him and he said, `yeah, it was fine.' He said,
`you know, I really worried when I spent my first night there that I wouldn't
be able to hear any noise.' But he said, you know, `I could hear the sirens
all night. I could hear the helicopters, and the faucet was dripping. It was
DAVIES: And that was comforting to him, yeah.
Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah.
DAVIES: You know, one of the interesting things is that there was a period
where he had this apartment at the Lamp Community but wasn't staying there.
And it's a little odd because he almost had a status as a a celebrity homeless
person because he was, you know, you'd written so much about him in the
columns and so many people were rooting for him. And I wondered if any of the
other folks there who didn't have all this attention resented this and felt he
was getting special treatment?
Mr. LOPEZ: I think that the folks at Lamp were under a lot of pressure to
explain themselves. And they also felt, I think, as though they were under
pressure to make this philosophy work. They were the ones who had kept
telling me, you know, `he's going to come in. He's going to do it on his
time. He's getting close, he's getting close.' We were all rooting for him to
move in. And, yes, they had people on a waiting list and here's this guy who,
if he hadn't been in the paper, you know, probably wouldn't have had an
apartment held for him. And I had to define for myself, at what point am I a
columnist, at what point am I using the column to the benefit of a friend, at
what point am I putting the folks at Lamp in an uncomfortable situation, and
are others not getting the same advantages? Those are moral quandaries that I
never could quite work out.
And what always motivated me, the rationalization I used was, this is an
important story. We have discarded and abandoned people who are in need. If
you had 2,000 people with pancreatic cancer, you would not push them all into
this hole out of the way, out of sight, out of mind in downtown Los Angeles or
any other city. Why is it OK with mental illness? I was just wrestling with
all of these things and not sure what the right answers were. But I knew at
this point that I cared deeply about this man and was going to do whatever I
could to help him.
DAVIES: At one point, one of the other residents in this Lamp Community,
people who had, you know, many of them schizophrenia and many of them who had
been homeless, came to you and said in a very tough and challenging way, `When
are you going to tell the real story, when are you going to write the real
story about your friend Nathaniel?' What did he mean?
Mr. LOPEZ: What he meant was that Nathaniel was not always, as I have said,
the refined, gentile, man of music and poetry. There was always, lurking just
beneath the surface, this other guy who lives inside of him, and it's an
angry, resentful, paranoid guy who thinks that people are stealing things from
him and who thinks that they're out to get him and that he's got to defend
himself. And what that translates into is some very aggressive, you know,
interaction with people. It might be telling them that he's not putting up
with their nonsense, and it might be with veins bulging and eyes--just rage
coming up in him. And it can be very intimidating.
DAVIES: And you had one terrible experience with him yourself, and this was
when, you know, you got to know his family a bit, his sister you connected
with. And there came to be a legal issue, right, where you wanted to have her
have some legal authority, and he regarded this with a sort of paranoid rage
that you had seen in others. And you had this really disturbing exchange. If
you could describe that.
Mr. LOPEZ: His sister Jennifer from Atlanta was coming to Los Angeles for a
court hearing at which she was going to be named his conservator, to handle
his financial matters. And I had to notify him that there was a court
appearance scheduled, and he said OK. And I handed him the papers and I told
him that he didn't have to appear, but that she would be appearing in his
behalf. And he said that he was OK with this, he didn't want to manage any
money that he got, you know, from a movie or a book or anything else. He
wasn't interested in it. He had no material needs, and could his sister
please handle it. OK. Well, that involves coming and having the court
declare that she's in charge.
And so I delivered those papers, and the next time I went to see him to tell
him that Jennifer was about ready to arrive in Los Angeles, I went to the
courtyard, the very place where he first played music, and Nathaniel ignored
me when I got there. And I called out to him. He was playing a trumpet. I
had bought him a trumpet that I bought on Craigslist. He told me he needed to
try out the horn. And he started to walk down the stairs and he looked at me,
we're maybe 20 feet away, and he shook the trumpet at me. And it came up in
him again, this rage.
And he started screaming at me, saying that he wasn't going to court, nobody
was going to make him go to court and he was not going to be locked up again.
And I said that `you don't have to go to court, nobody's going to lock you up.
This is not about that.' But he's been locked up. He's been in handcuffs.
He's been in jail. He's had shock treatment. And part of the resistance to
medical attention now is that he fears that he's being duped and that's what
we're going to do with him. We're going to put him in a straitjacket and, you
know, do the shock therapy again, or whatever, or zap him with Thorazine. And
I said, `no, no, it's not like that, Mr. Ayers. You are--we are not going to
force you to do anything. She's just coming to town to help out. She's
coming so that you don't have to worry about looking at contracts or any of
this other stuff. She's going to manage your affairs.'
And he wasn't buying that. He thought that this whole thing had been a plot
for me to get him arrested and dragged off to a hospital or a jail. And he
shook that trumpet at me and threatened me. He threatened my life. He said
that if he ever saw me again that I would be reduced to a pool of blood. He
screamed at me, he told me to please leave. He yelled as I walked away and he
told me that he never wanted to see me again. That was about the worst that
it ever was. We've had a few of these. That was the worst.
DAVIES: You looked into Nathaniel Ayers' background, and he grew up in
Cleveland and was obviously a gifted musician. He came from a broken home.
But his psychotic break, when he made it to New York to study at Juilliard, as
best as you can tell, what happened?
Mr. LOPEZ: In his second year at Juilliard, he began to have trouble
focusing. As I looked back at his transcripts, he did best in classes where
he was expected to perform. In other words, in the orchestra class he got As
and his judges said that he was, you know, a promising, brilliant young
musician. If he had to sit and listen to something about music theory, the
grades went from Bs to Cs to Ds to incompletes. And nobody knew at the time
what was going on, and he just struggled a bit.
And when he went back for the start of his third year at Juilliard it all just
came apart. He was hearing voices. He was having more difficulty getting by
in class. Amazingly, he still performed extremely well when he had the
instrument in his hands. But one night he was in the apartment of a
colleague, another student, and began taking his clothes off. And the
classmate said, `What are you doing?' And Nathaniel didn't have a coherent
answer and didn't seem to know what he was doing. And so the classmate called
911 and they took him away to Bellevue. He...
DAVIES: That's a public hospital in New York, right? Yeah, yeah.
Mr. LOPEZ: Yes. He snapped and he was soon thereafter diagnosed with
schizophrenia and dropped out of school, went back home, spent many years in
treatment. He lived with his mother, who was the real saint in this story.
She took him and dealt with all of the difficult times, kept taking him back
in even when he would get aggressive and violent. And she had him seeing a
doctor. He's had some treatment. He was in shock therapy. He was on
medication. He always, though, fell off and would end up wandering.
And when she died he moved to Los Angeles. He got on a bus and he came west
knowing that his father had lived here. Unfortunately, when he got here his
father was already gone, had moved to Las Vegas. So Nathaniel stayed with a
relative awhile and began wandering the streets sometime--I don't know, I'm
not sure, I can't tell--2001, 2002, somewhere around there and had been pretty
much hanging out on the streets of downtown LA until that day I met him.
DAVIES: LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. We'll hear more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Steve Lopez. He's a columnist for the Los
Angeles Times. His new book is "The Soloist."
Well, Nathaniel Ayers eventually did manage to come inside, but at least as
you finished the book, he was still refusing medication and wouldn't really
see doctors about his schizophrenia. Is that where he is still? Do you ever
see him seeking treatment for his mental illness?
Mr. LOPEZ: I hope. I have hopes that he will. There are still these signs
of slow, steady progress. Recover, as I learned, is not linear. You have
good days and bad. But he does have a little music studio and he likes to go
in there and play music. He called me this morning. It's the 7 AM call that
I get. And he said, `you know, Mr. Lopez, Mr. Crane up at the LA
Philharmonic said that maybe we could do a recording session. He's got Robert
Gupta, a violinist in the orchestra, is a friend of his, and a pianist thought
they could play together.' You know, these are--we go to ball games. We go to
concerts. And he goes to his music studio. And his goal, he says, is to be a
music therapist, to use music to help other folks. He's not there yet. He's
got a ways to go.
I do have this hope, this dream that one day he gets well enough to give
medication a try. I do know, however, that that's not--that's no panacea,
that it's difficult to find the right medication. And even if you do, with
this new generation of anti-psychotic meds it's not necessarily the answer.
He might get so well that he says, `hey, I'm feeling fine; I don't need
these.' And you're right back where you started. The thing that I tell
myself, though, is that he's in better shape than he was when I met him and so
am I. I was so inspired by him and by the work that's being done on Skid Row
that I thought about getting out of my dying newspaper business and trying to
start a second career. He inspired that. Just because of his courage,
because of his patience, I thought, I'm going to do this. I was prepared to
take another job.
What I decided in the end is that one of the many gifts that I've gotten from
Nathaniel--and this has always been a two-way street, it's not just me doing
for him--you know, there's this humility, there's this good feeling I have
from giving something. I was never the big brother type. And now here I am
with this relationship where I've really meant something to him, and he has to
me. And thinking about his passion made me realize that it was that music
that got him through all of these troubles, you know. The world is always
spinning wildly for him. But the music has not moved. The notes are in the
same place on the page. They've been there for two centuries, and he loves
that music. He loves how it balances him. And I thought, for me, the passion
is word. The passion is the privilege of writing about people like him. And
he has re-sparked my interest in what I do for a living. I cannot leave this.
That's one of Nathaniel's gifts to me. I'm re-committed to what I do for a
living, and I might be the last one out of the building even as the, you know,
the whole thing is going under.
DAVIES: You mentioned a moment ago that he called you at 7 AM. Does he call
you every day?
Mr. LOPEZ: Most days I get a 7 AM call and I get a 6 PM call. And it
begins, `Good morning Mr. Lopez. How is Allison, Mrs. Lopez? How are
Jeffrey and Andrea Lopez? How is Caroline Lopez? I had a breakthrough last
night, Mr. Lopez. You are not going to believe what happened on the Elgar
Cello Concerto. I don't know how it came to me. There must have been a
spirit in the room. I was practicing and all of a sudden the music made
sense, and Jacqueline du Pre and Janos Starker and even Yo-Yo Ma are going to
have to step aside.'
Mr. LOPEZ: These are the kinds of conversations we have. And `Mr. Lopez,
are we going to the Dodger game this Tuesday or was that next Thursday?' Yeah,
every day we're in contact and see each other a couple of times a week.
DAVIES: Your book "The Soloist" is now a movie in production with Jamie Foxx
playing Nathaniel Ayers, and you're being portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. Does
Mr. Ayers--is he aware of this? Does he have any role here?
Mr. LOPEZ: He's very much aware. And he's not particularly interested in my
book, although he's read it. And he said, `Hey, congratulations, I hope you
win an award for it,' he said. But the movie--he's interested more in the
fact that the people associated with the movie, from Jamie Foxx and Robert
Downey to the crew, are curious about him and like seeing him and like hearing
him play. So for him this is an opportunity to have a new audience. And he's
been invited over to play for the crew on occasion, and that part he likes.
A couple weeks ago they shot the scene at Disney Hall, which was our first
visit. And I said, `Mr. Ayers, we've got to go. It's going to be Jamie Foxx
and Robert Downey sitting in the very seats that we sat in.' And the LA
Philharmonic plays itself in this movie. And he's got--you know, he knows
half the orchestra now and he knows friends there and teachers there. And I
thought this would be such a great day for him to drop by the set of the film,
which is almost done as I speak. And he said, `I'll meet you there.'
So I get to Disney Hall, he is set up across the street. He's got a brown
folding chair. He's sitting on that. He's got his cello out and he's
playing. And I go over and say `Mr. Ayers'--we address each other as Mr.
Lopez and Mr. Ayers. He once yelled at me for calling him Nathaniel while he
always referred to me as Mr. Lopez. And ever since then I've called him Mr.
Ayers. It sounds strange to people, Mr. Ayers, Mr. Lopez. But I said,
`They're doing the scene, the big scene, come on, we've got to go inside and
watch this.' And he said `well, you know,' and he looked up at the sky, a
beautiful blue sky, a nice day, sunny, he said `I just started playing this
thing and it's really going well, and, you know, I think I'd rather play.' And
I said `Mr. Ayers, this is the big scene, this was our breakthrough day, this
was--they're shooting our first day in Disney Hall. Don't you want to see
that?' He said, `Yeah, well, you know, I do, but I've really got something
going here. I think I'm going to stay and play this just a little bit
So I crossed the street, climbed the stairs at Disney Hall. I look across and
there he is sawing away, as he calls it. And inside this building, maybe 300
people, the LA Philharmonic, the cast, the crew are shooting a film about his
life. And I said to the producer, Gary Foster, `you know what, Gary, we
picked the right name for this thing, "The Soloist," there he is.'
DAVIES: Well, Steve Lopez, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. LOPEZ: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: LA Times columnist Steve Lopez's new book is "The Soloist."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Geoff Nunberg looks at the phrase "under the bus" used
in presidential primaries
DAVE DAVIES, host:
We used to talk about making somebody a scapegoat or throwing them to the
wolves. Now we're more likely to talk about throwing them under the bus. Our
linguist Geoff Nunberg has been tracking the phrase that's become the
linguistic megastar of this year's political season.
Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: To judge from appearances, the presidential candidates
have been spending half their time explaining away their own mistakes and the
other half repudiating the things said and done by their supporters and
friends. So it's no wonder the phrase "under the bus" has appeared in more
than 400 press stories on the campaign over the last six months.
Under the bus is where Hillary was described as throwing her chief strategist
Mark Penn, and where the radio talk show host Bill Cunningham said that John
McCain had thrown him after McCain disavowed Cunningham's reference to Barack
Hussein Obama at a McCain rally. And after Obama's speech on race, under the
bus is where he was accused of throwing his grandmother by Ann Coulter, Fred
Barnes and Karl Rove, not to mention well over a hundred other conservative
columnists and bloggers.
That piling on might suggest a certain lack of originality, but it takes a lot
of self-restraint to pass up on an opportunity to charge a politician you
don't like with throwing his grandmother under a bus, even if it's only in a
manner of speaking. That helps to explain why throw somebody under the bus
has shot so quickly from new kid on the block to the idiom A-list.
The word sleuth Grant Barrett has traced it back as early as 1991, but its
origins are lost in the mists of the 1980s. Some people suggest it's derived
from a phrase for a washed up rock star on tour, and others connect it to the
announcement made by a minor league baseball manager, `bus leaving, be on it
or under it.' There's no evidence for either origin. But we always assume
that there has to be some real life scenario behind each of these metaphors,
however farfetched it is. And the Internet and bookstore shelves are teaming
with treasure troves of word lore that are eager to oblige us with ingenious
speculations as in, `see, back in Elizabethan times the household pets used to
curl up in the thatched roofs to keep warm until they were washed out by a
You hear a lot of talk these days about the wisdom of crowds, but when it
comes to the crunch, we're reluctant to credit the collective mind with the
same creative imagination that we accord to an individual artist's. It's as
if we expected Bob Dylan to be able to point to the event that inspired every
line in his songs. `So then I wet my finger and I stuck it in the air and I
said'--actually, it's my guess that somebody just pulled `throw under the bus'
out of the ether one day and other people picked it up and passed it along.
It's what marketers like to describe as a viral process, except that these
aren't exactly like the unaccountable fads that can instantaneously populate
every kindergarten class with Ethans and Emmas.
The geography of betrayal was already mapped out pretty thorough in English.
You can hang somebody out to dry, throw him to the wolves, let him twist in
the wind, sell him down the river, offer him up as a scapegoat, or make him a
fall guy, a patsy or a sacrificial lamb. So throw under the bus wouldn't have
caught on unless it suggested a compelling new take on some familiar
perfidies. Or probably I should say new takes, since the expression seems to
conjure up different things for different people. Some people like to think
of the thrower and throwee as fellow passengers on a team bus or tour bus.
That would explain why we talk about the bus rather than a bus. And it
foregrounds the idea of a betrayal. But it makes the action a little hard to
picture since you have to imagine one rider on a moving bus managing to throw
another rider under its wheels, which seems like a stunt from a Steven Seagal
movie. So evidently a lot of people just picture the victim being pushed off
a curb in front of an oncoming Greyhound.
But one way or the other, the expression conveys the singularly modern image
of stop-at-nothing ruthlessness. These things work like little film clips.
You hear "He made her take the fall," you flash on "The Maltese Falcon." You
hear "he threw her under the bus," and you envision some more recent movie. I
don't know exactly how the plot goes, but it probably features Javier Bardem.
We have more exacting standards in mayhem these days, whether in our movies or
our metaphors. There was a time when the emblematic moment of movie sadism
was Jimmy Cagney shoving a half grapefruit into Mae Clark's face in "The
Public Enemy." And when people could still get a vicarious tingle out of
saying that "so and so got worked over" or "got the living daylights beat out
of them." But those expressions seem pretty demure for the age of Hannibal
Lecter and Anton Chigurh's cattle gun. The verbal violence that we get off on
is a little more graphic, which is why Google reports a quarter of a million
hits for people talking about "tearing somebody a new one."
I have some trouble imagining Cagney using that phrase, probably for the same
reason it's hard to picture Sam Spade tell Brigid O'Shaughnessy, `Angel, I'm
throwing you under the bus.' That's not a judgment, mind you, but every age
seems to get the idioms it needs.
DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information
at the University of California at Berkeley.
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