I just finished reading The Soloist for the umpteenth time. In a friend’s house on spring break, the book called my name again. I drank iced tea on her balcony and soaked in the beauty of the story and the breeze and sun on my face and smiled and teared up and felt whimpery by turns.
It’s the true story of how Steve Lopez, journalist for the “Los Angeles Times” was looking for a story for his column and came across a homeless man, Nathaniel Ayres, playing his violin with 2 strings under Beethoven’s statue in Pershing Square.
He plays as if he’s a student, oblivious to everyone around him and this is a practice session.
How can I tell you the story without telling the story and spoiling it for you? It’s about music, creative genius, and friendship, and schizophrenia, and homelessness. About two lost men who inadvertently help save each other. Some name dropping here: Ayres and Yo-Yo Ma played in same concert orchestra at Julliard.
In a crazy, surprising way, I found myself identifying with Ayres and his ramblings. The way he would burst out passionately and eloquently about Beethoven and LA and “people who destroy themselves with the drug known as tobacco.” And interspersed were phrases that broke my heart: “I can’t believe how beautiful that sky is—can you believe it?” The only difference between us is that I don’t (usually) say my lines out loud because, well, I don’t like the blank looks I get when my spaghetti brain becomes verbal. I have this fear that my friends get tired of me exclaiming childishly about the beauty that’s stunning me, but Ayers just let it all out. “I cannot believe how gorgeous that concert was tonight. Did you see how perfect Mr. Hong was? It was absolutely flawless. How could he do that? I don’t want the concert to ever end.”
Lopez, a genius in his own right, tells the story with utmost sensitivity. Maybe the story moves me so much because of how fragile I feel even on the best of days. Like Nathaniel Ayres with his colorful, clumsy grocery cart of belongings that he couldn’t possibly let out of his sight even when he went to a concert hall, I have my own issues of letting go and trusting. His story reminds me of how crumbly the edge of mental health is, and how unpredictably the slide down can happen.
One of my favorite parts of the story is a conversation between the journalist and a doctor who’s seen it all at the homeless shelter. I think I like it because it’s an accessible, simple approach to the complex issues they’re discussing:
Let him find his way. Be patient. Be his friend. Relationship is primary. It is possible to cause seemingly biochemical changes through human emotional involvement. You literally have changed his chemistry by being his friend.
Disclaimer: In case you’re sensitive to it, there is rough language in some of the dialogue.