We have a general rule of thumb in our household that before seeing a movie, we try to read the book on which it is based. (By the way, this has proved to be a great motivator for our son to plow through the Harry Potter books). You may have recently seen the trailer for a new movie called “The Soloist,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jaime Foxx that is slated to be released in theaters on April 24, 2009.
The movie is based on a book by the same name written by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, which I had put off reading until very recently. It wasn’t because I thought I wouldn’t like the book; but rather because the story was so familiar. The book emerged from a series of Lopez’s columns about the friendship he developed with Nathaniel Ayers, a mentally ill homeless man in Los Angeles. As a loyal subscriber to the Times, and in particular a regular reader of Lopez’s column, I probably felt the book wouldn’t have much more to offer. I’m glad I followed our rule of thumb, because I was wrong. Whether you are familiar with this story or not, I encourage you to read The Soloist, a beautiful account of taking risks, learning, friendship, and personal growth.
Steve Lopez describes himself as a fisherman, constantly casting nets out for interesting stories which hopefully come back once in awhile with hidden gem. He admits that in an industry that is crumbling by the day, he has a privileged position. Like his heroes Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin before him, Lopez plays the role of muckraker and storyteller for a city. He enjoys “sticking it to the man” (Cardinal Roger Mahoney, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have been skewered on several occasions for what Lopez believes are both personal and professional transgressions) but also telling the stories of normal everyday people that have larger societal implications. None of his stories has had as much an influence, both to himself or society, as that which began as a chance encounter with the person he first calls Violin Man.
I’m on foot in downtown Los Angeles, hustling back to the office with another deadline looming. That’s when I see him. He’s dressed in rags on a busy downtown street corner, playing Beethoven on a battered violin that looks like it’s been pulled from a dumpster.
“That sounded pretty good,” I say when he finishes.
He jumps back three steps, eyeing me with suspicion.
I notice while talking to him that someone has scrawled names on the pavement where we’re standing. Nathaniel says he did it with a rock.
The list includes Babe Ruth, Nancy, Kevin and Craig.
“Whose names are those?” I ask.
Oh, those people, he says.
“Those were my classmates at Juilliard.”
To a curious journalist like Lopez, those last words were a provocation to dig much deeper, and dig he did. More than just the subject of a column, however, Nathaniel becomes a friend and teacher to Lopez, introducing him to the travails of mental illness, homelessness, and racism and taking him on a journey of self-discovery.
Lopez is fascinated with the story of how this talented musician, who overcame all sorts of odds as an African American male during the 1970s to attend Julliard, ended up on the streets of Los Angeles. He learns how quickly an illness such as paranoid schizophrenia can take someone with such promise and even family support down a path toward extreme poverty and homelessness. Lopez begins to care about Nathaniel, learns about his past, develops a common appreciation for classical music, provides him with new violins and cellos that have been donated by reader of his columns, and ultimately tries to get him the care and housing he needs. He struggles with the fine line between being a journalist and friend, whether by helping his new friend he’s putting him at risk:
Every time the phone rings at night, my stomach does a flip. I’m always sure it’s the police, calling to say Nathaniel is hanging on by a thread after a mugging, and nice going Mr. Columnist.
In his columns, Lopez can at times come off as arrogant and condescending. In this book, he bares his soul a bit more, detailing the ethical and personal dilemmas he faced in trying to help his new friend. Is he exploiting Nathaniel for his own ends? How can he help someone who so often expresses a distaste for wanting to be helped? Recounting the experience of receiving an award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness for his role in educating the public about mental illness, Lopez expresses his own inadequacies:
I don’t feel as though I’ve done much more than write about what people at the conference already know, and as I look at a crowd that is standing and applauding, I’m tempted to grab the microphone and ask if anyone out there can tell me what to do next.
It is clear to Lopez that Nathaniel needs psychiatric care and a place to live, and he tries numerous ways to entice his friend into both, usually involving using Nathaniel’s passion for music as bait. He works with LAMP Community on Skid Row to create space for Nathaniel to practice his music. He enlists musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to provide lessons for Nathaniel. He gets LAMP to reserve a room for Nathaniel to live in and bangs his head against the wall trying to get Nathaniel to stay there.
Ultimately, however, Lopez learns that this journey is not about himself. Their relationship goes through many ups and downs, and it is after one of the particularly stressful times, when Lopez seem to almost have given up hope that Nathaniel makes the choice on his own to spend the night in the apartment. Lopez recounts how he found out while driving around the streets looking for his friend and talking on the phone with LAMP staffer Stuart Robinson:
“Do you have any idea where he was?” I ask.
“Yes,” Robinson says. “He spent the night in his apartment.”
I pull the car over to avoid driving up on a curb. Almost exactly one year after our first encounter, he did it.
Yes, he did it and thus begins a long process of recovery that continues to this day. The two remain close and appear to be doing well.
I saw them at the launch of the Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation, which was founded by Nathaniel’s sister to support programs for the artistically gifted mentally ill several months ago. Mr. Ayers – as Lopez turns to calling him near the end of the book – played his cello as a surprise guest at the event, and the affection and respect toward each other was evident. I have heard some question whether Lopez’s views on homelessness and mental illness are too colored by his own savior complex and relationship with Nathaniel Ayers, and whether he would have shown any interest in this person if he did not have a unique musical talent. It’s a fair challenge, but one that I think Lopez is open to struggling with. In the end, I think anyone can see that he has played a very important role in educating all of us through his writings.
About a quarter of homeless persons in the U.S. have a serious mental illness such as chronic depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and severe personality disorders. That means there are about 165,000 people on our streets every day struggling with a serious mental illness. What will it take for us to mobilize the dedication and patience to ensure that all of these people get the care and housing they need and deserve?
Hopefully the movie will be a great success and will generate a national, and even international, discussion to remove the stigma associated with mental illness and homelessness. But, even more hopefully, people will read this book and wrestle with the challenges and hope it provides.
The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. Steve Lopez. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York NY. 2008. 273 pp. ISBN 978-0-399-15506-2