Los Angeles’ skid row, as Steve Lopez writes in “The Soloist,” is the homeless capital of the nation.
Hidden in plain sight just down the street from City Hall and mere steps from the offices of this newspaper, skid row is a reeking repository of disease, drugs and desperation that most of us avoid when possible or hurriedly step past when necessary, averting our stares from hollow cheeks and hollow eyes, as if they were invisible.
“The Soloist” is Lopez’s compelling and gruffly tender account of what can happen when you don’t step past.
In his unsparing portrait of this universe and the plight of the homeless mentally ill, Lopez offers not a moment of wonkery or preachiness -- just his keen observations and eye for telling detail as he unfolds the story of his unintended and improbable friendship with a homeless, schizophrenic classical musician, Nathaniel Ayers.
Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is an old-school news guy in the tradition of legendary columnists Mike Royko of Chicago and Jimmy Breslin of New York. This means he is no pundit but instead favors getting his butt out of the newsroom (you’d be surprised how rare that is) to dig up character-driven stories and, whenever possible, to poke a sharp stick in the eye of authority. Writing two to three consistently good columns a week is one of the hardest jobs in journalism, and Lopez is very good at it.
“The Soloist,” his fourth book but first work of nonfiction, grew out of a series of columns he wrote about Ayers. I had some doubts that those fine columns I’d read would provide enough meat for a book, but he has fleshed out the story beautifully and engagingly. (I should note that, beyond sitting on a book festival panel with him once, I don’t know Lopez.)
His involvement with the homeless middle-aged musician began when Lopez impulsively stopped to chat with Ayers after hearing him play some haunting refrains from Beethoven on a partly strung violin on a downtown Los Angeles street. Only semi-coherent, his possessions jammed into a shopping cart at his side, Ayers nevertheless cut a memorable figure, an “image of grubby refinement” that Lopez figured just might be worth a column.
A few more conversations and a little checking revealed that the man’s unlikely story of being a former prodigy and student at the famed Julliard School in New York was true -- and Lopez had himself a nice human-interest story of a talent, a fall and promise unrealized. The headline: “He’s Got the World on Two Strings.”
And that would have been that, except the response to that first column outstripped anything Lopez had ever written. Offers flooded in from people who wanted to donate cellos and violins to the homeless musician. Lopez was roped into being a conduit for the donations, then into finding a place where Ayers could keep them, then into trying to find a place where Ayers could stay and possibly receive treatment.
Suddenly Lopez found himself sucked in, his life upended. He was no longer just a columnist; he had taken on a measure of responsibility for Ayers’ welfare. Several more columns ensued, then a series of front-page stories about skid row and the homeless, a book, a movie deal and, perhaps strangest of all for Lopez, whose columns project a rather curmudgeonly image, an unusual -- and mutually rewarding -- friendship.
And that’s just the setup for the story told in “The Soloist.”
Most of the book consists of the surprisingly suspenseful roller-coaster chronicle that follows Lopez’s initial involvement with Ayers, of the hopes and frustrations that arise as he tries to understand and to deal with the intractable problems of homelessness and chronic mental illness.
Lopez also digs into Ayers’ past, his musical promise as a youth and his eventual descent into mental illness, homelessness and ostracism from his family. But the most immediate, involving part of the tale lies in Lopez’s efforts to help Ayers and the uncertainty of the outcome.
Ayers’ wild mood swings and unpredictability -- except when it comes to his passion for music -- challenges Lopez’s patience and resourcefulness at every turn. The journalist’s initial instinct was to assemble the ingredients that would fix things quickly, then let him move on, back to his wife and child and regular workday, which doesn’t normally involve a daily rendezvous with a homeless guy who wears bandannas made of yellow police crime scene tape.
But there were no easy answers, Lopez found. Just tell me the best course of treatment, he demanded, only to find that the experts couldn’t agree. He wanted to know if Ayers should be compelled to take medication, but that was a mixed bag too, as was any thought of coercing or forcing him off the streets and into housing for his own good.
Ayers had left Julliard at age 21 after suffering a breakdown; now he was in his 50s and had been on the streets most of his life. You can’t change that behavior and lifestyle with just a pill and a clean apartment, Lopez learned. Somewhere along the line, Lopez found that he was asking questions less like a journalist and more like a family member. As a result, “The Soloist” puts a deeply personal face on the world of mental illness, offering a very human drama that is hard to put down.
Crossing a line
Lopez’s columns got the mayor and an inter-governmental task force on the skid row case after many years of not so benign neglect, although, as he notes, nothing short of universal health care, a living-wage economy and housing for all will cure the blight of homelessness, and none of those things are likely to be on the task force’s agenda.
It’s also worth noting that Lopez’s personal advocacy for Ayers ensured that that homeless musician received consideration and opportunities unavailable to most other skid row denizens, including hiring a lawyer for Ayers and arranging a backstage meeting with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But this ended up demonstrating less about the value of having a big-time columnist in your corner (except perhaps for the Yo-Yo Ma part) and more about the importance of having a friend watching your back -- which is something most homeless schizophrenics lack.
To his lasting credit, Lopez crossed the line on this story from dispassionate journalist to advocate. He deserves congratulations for being the one person who did not avert his eyes and walk past the grubby man with the violin.
Edward Humes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of numerous books of nonfiction, most recently, “Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul” and “Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream.”