Nathaniel was shy in our first encounter a few months ago, if not a little wary. He took a step back when I approached to say I liked the way his violin music turned the clatter around downtown L.A.'s Pershing Square into an urban symphony.
"Oh, thank you very much," he said politely, apologizing for his appearance. He had gone through a couple of recent setbacks, Nathaniel said, but he intended to be whole again soon and playing at a higher level.
"Well, first of all, it's beautiful here," said Nathaniel, 54, who told me he had been diagnosed many years ago with schizophrenia. "And right there is the Los Angeles Times building. New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles. All I have to do is look up at that building and I know where I am."
Nathaniel had an orange shopping cart that contained all of his belongings, including a huge plastic water gun, a single black boot and his violin case. We were practically in the shadow of the new Disney Concert Hall, and although Nathaniel said he wasn't sure where it was, he had written the following on the side of his shopping cart:
"Little Walt Disney Concert Hall -- Beethoven."
Nathaniel plays classical music, some of it recognizable to me, some of it not. One day, I asked if he could play jazz, and he tucked the violin under his chin, closed his eyes in anticipation of the ecstasy that music brings him and began to play "Summertime."
He doesn't always hit every note, but it's abundantly clear that Nathaniel has been a student of music for many years.
"That was Ernest Bloch," he casually told me after one piece, spelling out Ernest and then Bloch. "Opus 18, No. 1."
I was more than a little impressed, especially when it occurred to me that Nathaniel's grimy, smudged violin was missing two of the four strings.
"Yeah," he said, frustration rising in his brown eyes. "This one's gone, that one's gone and this little guy's almost out of commission. You see where it's coming apart right here?"
Playing with two strings wasn't that hard, he said, because he began his music education in the Cleveland public schools, where the instruments were often a challenge.
"If you got one with one or two strings," he said, "you were happy to have it."
I noticed an empty bag from Studio City Music in Nathaniel's violin case and gave the store a call to ask if they had a homeless customer.
"Black man?" asked Hans Benning, a violin maker. "We do have a guy who plays with a badly beaten-up fiddle. He comes here every so often. He's very kind, very gentle and very proper. He's a delight."
I told Benning his name is Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, and he seems to know a thing or two about music.
"Yes, he does," Benning said. "He talks about the Beethoven sonatas and then slips back into another world."
The reason he used to hang around Pershing Square, Nathaniel told me, was so he could study the Beethoven statue for inspiration.
"I've never seen anything in my life that great," he said. "I'm flabbergasted by that statue because I can't imagine how he's there. I don't know how God is operating."
STEVE LOPEZ / POINTS WEST
Violinist Has the World on 2 Strings
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