Nathaniel's Story: From Juilliard to Skid Row

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Commentator Steve Lopez has been writing for newspapers for three decades, but one story he wrote about this past year has moved him in a way no other story has. It's the story of Nathaniel Ayers: He was once a student at Juilliard and now lives on the streets of Los Angeles.


Now a story about a state program that just might change the life of one man. It's from commentator and newspaper columnist Steve Lopez.


It was a chance encounter. I was strolling through downtown Los Angeles early this year when I came upon a man in his early 50s playing a violin. It was clear from the nearby shopping cart that he lived on the streets, and yet his playing suggested serious classical training. He told me he stood in this particular spot for inspiration. Across the street was a statue of Beethoven. I would later learn his name is Nathaniel Anthony Ayers and that while he was a student at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. That was more than 30 years ago, and the disease has been unrelenting and cruel.

Readers have followed his odyssey in my column in the Los Angeles Times, and several have donated instruments. Nathaniel, who's incoherent and delusional at times, can also be perfectly elegant, and never is he more balanced than when he's sawing away for hours at a time on violin or cello.

Like many states in the US, California virtually abandoned the mentally ill several decades ago. It shut down mental hospitals but never delivered on the promise of community clinics to take up the slack. Many of the sickest people have ended up on Skid Rows, like the one where Nathaniel lives. The scene in Los Angeles is a surreal encampment where the insane rant and howl, addicts inject heroin in plain sight and forgotten veterans roll by in wheelchairs and flop under awnings when it rains.

What a sight Nathaniel is, this lean African-American man lugging his cart full of instruments through hell, dreaming of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. I spent a night with him on Skid Row. To chase away rats, Nathaniel had two sticks on which he had scrawled the names Beethoven and Brahms. I asked if he wouldn't prefer living indoors, and he said he didn't want to be cooped up. `I hope you rest well, Mr. Lopez,' Nathaniel told me as he lay his head down, using a violin case for a pillow. `I hope the whole world rests well.'

Is it possible that people as ill as Nathaniel can be helped? It isn't easy, but yes. And in California, voter-approved Proposition 63 gives a new chance to hundreds of Nathaniels. A 1 percent tax on million-dollar incomes will pay for comprehensive outreach and intervention services, like those provided by LAMP, a highly regarded Skid Row agency in Los Angeles.

Nathaniel resisted any help at first, but now he drops by LAMP for meals and a shower. He has a social network, contact with counselors who hope to steer him into treatment and the occasional big event to look forward to, such as when the Los Angeles Philharmonic invited him to a rehearsal. For the big day, he was in a foul mood at first, jabbering to himself about cockroaches and greyhounds. But the closer we got to Disney Hall, the mellower he became. When I told him I'd be seeing Itzhak Perlman there in a few weeks, he was awed. `Oh, my God,' he said. `He's like molten lava on violin.'

Moments like those make me think Nathaniel will have a life of purpose one day. I see him taking an apartment that's now being offered to him by LAMP. I see him teaching music when he's not playing it. That's all a ways off, sure, but recovery in some form seems like a very real possibility, given the progress Nathaniel has made this year. It seemed real when he entered Disney Hall and Nathaniel chatted comfortably with musicians. It seemed real when he watched the rehearsal with rapt attempt, leaning forward at the end of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony to utter a single word: `Bravo.' It seemed real when the orchestra left and Nathaniel opened his violin case in the empty auditorium, tucked the instrument under his chin and played Disney Hall.

SIEGEL: Steve Lopez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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