Juilliard? I asked.
While waiting for a callback from Juilliard, I called Motter's Music House in Lyndhurst, Ohio. Nathaniel told me he had bought many instruments there over the years, including the Glaesel violin he now owns.
"He's an outstanding player," said Ron Guzzo, a manager at Motter's. He saw a lot of Nathaniel over a span of 20 years, because Nathaniel's instruments were often stolen from him on the streets. He would work at a Wendy's or shovel snow to save up for another.
"As I understand it, he was at Juilliard and got sick, so he came back home. He'd sit out in our parking lot on a nice day playing the cello, and we'd wonder where the heck that was coming from. It was Tony," Guzzo said, using Nathaniel's nickname.
Cello? Yes, it turns out Nathaniel started on the bass, switched to cello and has never had any training on the violin. He switched to the latter after ending up on the streets, because it fits more neatly into his shopping cart.
Everything he had told me about his life was checking out, so I figured Juilliard must be for real too.
Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, who sleeps on the streets of the city, takes his meals at the Midnight Mission and plays a two-string violin, attended the acclaimed New York City music school on a scholarship.
Nathaniel told me a bass player named Homer Mensch was one of his mentors at Juilliard. Mensch, 91, is still teaching, and he immediately recalled Nathaniel.
"He had the talent, that was for sure," said Mensch, who remembered that Nathaniel had suddenly disappeared, never to return. I told him Nathaniel's illness had begun while he was at Juilliard and he was now a homeless violinist in downtown L.A.
"Give him my very best," said Mensch. "I would certainly like to hear from him."
Nathaniel has memorized the phone numbers of the people who inspired him. To recall the numbers, he writes them in mid-air with his index finger. One day he gave me the home phone number of Harry Barnoff, a bass player and former teacher who recently retired after 46 years with the Cleveland Orchestra.
Barnoff was in tears at the memory of Nathaniel.
"Please," Barnoff pleaded, "you have got to go tell him how much I think of him and that I still remember what a wonderful musician he was."
Barnoff says Nathaniel was a bit of a slacker when he was in junior high and taking lessons at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. But with encouragement, Nathaniel set the highest possible goals for himself.
"During the riots, he was in the music building, practicing. He really worked at it and got to where he knew I had gone to Juilliard, and he wanted to go, too.... Next thing I knew, he got a scholarship."
Nathaniel had the potential to play with any of the major orchestras in the United States, Barnoff said. He tried to help Nathaniel through his most difficult times, offering him work around his house and taking Nathaniel's calls from mental hospitals and the streets.
Nathaniel was often in a state of distress, Barnoff says of his former student, until they began talking about music. And then everything was right with the world.