"I lost a god and I gained a god," he told me. His mother died in Cleveland, but he came to Los Angeles and found a statue of Beethoven in Pershing Square.
As I struggled with the violin, a man named James walked up, stood next to the "Smoking Prohibited" sign and lit a cigarette.
"Excuse me, sir," said Nathaniel, who hates smoke. "You can't smoke here."
"Who are you?" asked James. "You don't live here."
"I do too live here," Nathaniel snapped. "I have a place."
It was music to my ears. On some level, maybe Nathaniel had already begun thinking of the apartment as home, even if he hadn't spent a night in it.
"Where's your place?" James asked.
Nathaniel told him the room number.
"You're in violation of the city ordinance against smoking in that spot," Nathaniel persisted.
"Well, so what? I don't have a house on wheels."
"You see?" Nathaniel said, standing next to his cart. "I knew it was personal."
"You need soap and water," James said.
"You're killing yourself and everyone else," Nathaniel retorted.
"Get a doctor," James said. "Get some help."
If Nathaniel was hurt by that, it didn't show. I wondered how many times in 30-plus years he's been insulted that way.
"You know what?" James asked. "It's a shame you allowed yourself to give up."
"I didn't give up," Nathaniel said.
"You're a young man, strong, you could get a job. You're a musician and you should encourage someone else. You can't encourage no one looking like that . Look at all that talent gone to waste."
Nathaniel shrugged as he got his cart ready to leave.
"You gave up," James went on, reciting what sounded like a speech he'd heard a few times. "You push a cart and say, 'I quit. I quit on life' . I can't stand to see you like that. I don't even know you, but I love you as a human being."
Nathaniel was ready to go. He told James he hadn't quit anything. Then he thanked him for trying to help, and pointed once more to the room he hasn't yet slept in.
"That is my place," he said.
Maybe one day it will be.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org and read previous columns at http://www.latimes.com/lopez .