STEVE LOPEZ / POINTS WEST

The Best Present for Nathaniel: a Future

Christmas came a couple of weeks early to the skid row apartment of a soulful gent who goes by the name of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers.

Nathaniel got an L.A. Philharmonic T-shirt from Peter Snyder, a cellist in the orchestra, followed by a vigorous lesson focused on rhythm and pitch. He also got a package of clothes, toiletries and family photos from his sister, Jennifer, in Atlanta. Nathaniel dipped into the box and pulled out a Jazz Age black-and-white photo of a striking woman of about 40.

"That's my mother," he said with quiet reverence. The resemblance between Nathaniel and his late mother was uncanny.

The next gift was from Adam Crane, publicist for the L.A. Philharmonic. Nathaniel opened a Styrofoam box and gasped.

"Oh, my God!" he exclaimed.

It was a bust of Beethoven, and Nathaniel was stunned as always by the visage of a man who to him is very much alive.

Nathaniel still lives on the street, camping out in the 2nd Street tunnel these days. But this apartment is being held for him because his case managers at Lamp, a skid row agency for the homeless mentally ill, think that after a year of steady progress, he's close to taking the next step and coming indoors.

We all thought it might help if his room had a few personal touches, mindful of his argument that he has to be on the streets with his muse, the Beethoven statue in Pershing Square.

"Beethoven can watch over you in here now," Snyder told him.

We set up the photos and the Beethoven bust on the dresser, and they formed an appreciative audience for Nathaniel's lesson, in which he swung comfortably from Bach to Schubert to Beethoven.

"Jesus," Snyder whispered at one point, "the man feels every note."

Under different circumstances, Snyder said, Nathaniel might have been one of the world's great cellists. As it is, moments of brilliance are followed by rough spots as fractured and fragmented as his thinking.

"Nate," Snyder implored him, "you must keep your dreams."

No worry there. In fact, during a two-hour lesson, Nathaniel asked Snyder and me when we could arrange a recital. He wants to make a recording with an accompanist. It's definitely possible, Snyder told him, but he's got a lot of practicing to do between now and then.

Nathaniel said he had worked overtime on Schubert's "Arpeggione" and Pablo Casals' "Song of the Birds" since his last lesson.

"There was no way I was going to ignore that assignment, because I want to record," he told Snyder.

I'd like so much to see Nathaniel off the streets and staying in a safe place, I sometimes have to remind myself how far he's come toward a better life this year. After years of just drifting musically, playing a wrecked violin on city streets, he now has a cello and a couple of much better violins. With treatment, who knows what he could be capable of?

Thanks to Snyder and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he has not only gotten to hear great music, he is again studying and practicing with purpose. And for a man to whom music is more important than anything else, this is a huge step.

And then there's his life on the street. After a rocky start at Lamp, when he insisted the agency had little to offer him, going to Lamp is now part of Nathaniel's daily routine, which means he's seen regularly by people who want to help him and know how to do it.

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