When he saw a bedraggled musician playing a broken violin with uncommon skill on a downtown street corner, Steve Lopez (a columnist for the Los Angeles Times) immediately thought that the man might be a great subject for a story. He learned that the player's name was Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, and that he was homeless, spending his days making music in the vicinity of Second and Hill Streets in Los Angeles, and his nights outside the Midnight Mission, a rescue center on nearby skid row. Ayers's violin had only two strings, but the sounds that he coaxed from it were nothing short of phenomenal. Intrigued, Lopez visited the musician several times and discovered that he had once been a student at New York's famed Juilliard School, but had had to leave when mental illness rendered him unable to function.
Lopez published his first column about Ayers on April 17, 2005, and reader response was unprecedented, prompting him to write several more. In an effort to help the prodigy, some concerned individuals sent instruments to Lopez on behalf of Ayers. Lopez presented them to the musician, but then arranged for them to be kept at the Lamp Community, a downtown charitable facility for the mentally-ill homeless, to be used by Ayers on-site whenever he desired. Lopez's rationale in orchestrating this arrangement was twofold: (1) he realized that it would be impossible as well as dangerous for Ayers to carry a number of valuable, bulky instruments around with him in the shopping cart that held all his other worldly possessions; and (2) Lopez hoped that by introducing Ayers to the Lamp Community, he might be able to entice Ayers to move off the streets and to take advantage of treatment opportunities for the schizophrenia that had forced him to drop out of Juilliard and had plagued his life ever since. Ayers, however, was mistrustful of the medical establishment, and of people in general. With deep-seated paranoia, he was unreceptive to the idea of any intervention that would compromise his freedom and relegate him to self-imposed confinement, even temporarily, in what he saw as claustrophobic rooms with four walls.
Lopez was dogged in his attempts to "rescue" Ayers from the streets and enable him to lead a more "productive" life. He secured a coveted apartment for him at Lamp, arranged for him to take music lessons with members of the Los Angeles Symphony, and contacted Ayers's sister in Atlanta. Ayers did make progress, eventually even consenting to move indoors into an environment that was safer than the squalid city sidewalks, but every step forward that he took was seemingly followed by two steps back. He continually reverted to periods of extreme paranoia and rage. Lopez became increasingly frustrated at the inconsistent results of his attempts to "save" his new friend and, in a very realistic examination of the situation, questioned his own motivations. Lopez considered the possibility that finding a permanent cure for Ayers's illness was unlikely.
In looking back after two "exhausting and fulfilling" years with his recalcitrant friend, Lopez had learned to accept Ayers as he was, an intensely spiritual man with amazing courage and an uncanny ability to find happiness and purpose in the power of art. In the final analysis, Lopez says:
It's not a stretch to say that the man I hoped to save has done as much for me as I have for him.
Steve Lopez did not intend to write a book about Nathaniel Ayers when he first began recounting his story for a newspaper column. He was convinced to take on the task, however, by overwhelming reader response, in conjunction with urgings from mental health advocates who pointed out the positive effects that the attention generated by such a project would have in promoting the cause of the mentally-ill homeless. The result of the undertaking is this elegantly written and deeply moving book that tells the story of two very disparate men and the improbable bond that they formed. The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music was published in 2008, and, during the following year, was made into a feature-length movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.