“It began with me in search of a story,” Steve Lopez, famed Los Angeles Times columnist, told the audience at Samohi’s Barnum Hall. He was referring to The Soloist, the best-selling book based on a series of columns Lopez wrote about his friendship with homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers.
The Soloist has won critical praise, and a movie version, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Ayers, is due to open in March. Among those who have been touched by the book was Joy Horowitz, a journalist herself and a Santa Monica High School parent, who brought Lopez to the school on December 10 for an evening of music and talk to benefit OPCC (Ocean Park Community Center).
Classical music performed by the Santa Monica High School Chamber Orchestra, and guest soloists including LA Philharmonic cellist Ben Hong, provided the appropriate lead-in to Lopez’s true-life fairy tale.
Admitting that Los Angeles contains no shortage of good stories, Lopez, who joined the Times in 2001 and delivers two columns a week, was finding it a challenge to “feed the monster” that is a daily newspaper. One drizzly day about four years ago, he was strolling around Pershing Square and heard the sound of a violin.
“I looked closer,” Lopez continued. “I saw that this guy’s violin was missing two strings and that he was standing next to a shopping cart containing all of his belongings. I also didn’t see any open violin case or donation box. This guy wasn’t playing for money.”
Lopez struck up an acquaintance with Nathaniel Ayers, who regularly played in the square where he could be next to a statue of his idol Beethoven. He told Lopez that he had attended the famed Julliard School of Music in New York, that he had studied the bass but took up the violin because it was easier to carry when one is on the street. Schizophrenia, a neuro-chemical disorder, had caused him to descend to a life on Skid Row, where Lopez visited him and saw all of its horrors.
“I was amazed,” Lopez said, “that this man could live there and wake up every morning as happy as anyone -– because he had a passion [his music] to live for.”
Lopez’s continuing columns about Ayers brought a tide of sympathy and eventual help for the “soloist.” Ayers is now housed at the LAMP Community shelter in downtown Los Angeles, owns a collection of instruments, and, although he will always be struggling with his illness, is now living with dignity.
Lopez was modest about his efforts. When he first wrote a column about Ayers, he admitted, he was just a journalist doing his job. “I didn’t see what the readers saw. They saw the ‘there by the grace of God’ story and they had a rooting interest.”
But as a result of following through and stepping out of the journalist’s traditional role as observer, he added: “He has done so much for me. He has given me the gift of being able to tell his story.” And along the way, Lopez learned a lot about classical music. “I even took a violin lesson.”
The evening also included a speaker who has a similar story of triumph over adversity. Rene Buchanan, who now works as a volunteer for OPCC’s Daybreak program, told the audience how, with OPCC’s help, she overcame the depression that had caused her to become homeless.
-“Because of [OPCC] I have the awe-inspiring honor of serving the bravest people I have ever known,” said Buchanan. “They are why I know that today, I can survive anything, anywhere.”