Speaking at the OneCityOneBook event in La Cañada on Sunday, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez described his first visit to skid row in downtown Los Angeles in the spring of 2005.
“[There are] veterans who have fallen out of wheelchairs. It is just unbelievable. Prostitutes that are living in the port-a-pots that they use as their brothel. This is a complete collapse. And I am looking at [Anthony Ayers] thinking, this is the guy who brought me here. I am learning about music from this guy, I am learning about courage, and...I need to shine a light on this. What type of society allows this human landfill in a city of riches?”
Lopez, spurred by a budding friendship with Ayers, would go on to explore that question in a series of newspaper columns and later a nonfiction work titled “The Soloist.” The text was chosen by the OneCityOneBook committee as the 2009 city-wide book selection, and Lopez was invited to speak at the annual OneCityOneBook community discussion. Moderated by La Cañada-based author Mark Salzman, the event drew approximately 200 people, filling the La Cañada Unified School District board room to capacity.
Witnessing the scene on skid row, Lopez said, was one of many eye opening lessons he would absorb during his ongoing interaction with Ayers. The pair met on the streets of Los Angeles where Ayers would stand trying to perfect a difficult piece of classical music on a battered, two-string violin.
Through months of investigation, Lopez would learn that Ayers was once a promising classical musician and a former student at the Julliard School in New York. It was there that Ayers, the only African American in his class, would break under the rigorous training and succumb to mental illness. After years of unsuccessful psychiatric treatment in Cleveland, Ayers made his way to Los Angeles where he joined the thousands of other mentally ill in makeshift camps on skid row.
The columnist and the street musician struck up an unusually friendship, which Lopez chronicled week after week in the Los Angeles Times as a way to highlight the plight of the mentally ill and homeless. Largely through the intervention of Lopez, Ayers is now taking psychotic medications and lives in a supportive housing complex designed to serve the severely mentally ill.
Ayers recently procured a cellphone and calls every day, Lopez said. There are good days and bad days, he noted, adding that sometimes his messages are lucid and other times they are not. While Ayers’ stability is a victory, Lopez said, there remain thousands of mentally ill living on the streets.
“The thing that works the best with chronic mental illness is called permanent supportive housing,” Lopez said. “And that is not just a place to live but all the support services you need to keep you under that roof. That is where Mr. Ayers lives While there has been some improvements, in the greater L.A. region is maybe 10,000 or 20,000 short.”
Responding to a question posed by an audience member, Lopez said there has been some progress in the services and housing available to the mentally ill and the homeless, but that the recent economic crisis has sent a new flood of people into skid row.
“Unfortunately, as there has been some improvements there has been some growing need We see more women and more children on skid row than we did when I starting working on this because families break up because over these economic pressures,” Lopez said.
Lopez did more than secure an apartment in aiding Ayers, however. He also fostered Ayers’ life long love of music, occasionally joining him in Pershing Square to strike a few chords and helping Ayers to reconnect with the classical music world.
“I would say our friends at the L.A. Philharmonic have been terrific,” Lopez said. “There was maybe a bit of an internal struggle over what was going on that I wasn’t always aware of. There were people who thought well, what are we doing here, what do you mean he is coming to rehearsal and why is he backstage? So it wasn’t something that everyone embraced but the people who did embrace it kind of cleared the way and ran interference. And I was grateful for that because it did have such an impact on Mr. Ayers’ life. He was brought back into the fraternity.”
Lopez said that music for Ayers is “pure joy.” He has no driver’s license and no photo ID, and he doesn’t want to be bothered with money. Despite this, Lopez said, Ayers is in some ways “saner than any of us can hope to be.”
“I do believe as sick as he is, and [mental illness] is a challenge that he will have for the rest of his life, in many ways Mr. Ayers is a lucky guy because he has found his thing,” Lopez said.