Author and L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez spoke to the APSU student body, on Thursday, Sept. 29, in what was the culmination of over a week of Peay Read events. Lopez’s book “The Soloist” — about a schizophrenic musician, Nathaniel Ayers, who becomes homeless — was chosen by the Peay Read Committee as this year’s required freshmen reading material. Events for the Peay Read included movie showings of “The Soloist,” book discussions and a student essay contest. Having spoken to dozens of groups across the country, Lopez said the message he most wanted to leave with the students was to “take advantage of the opportunities college offers you to figure out what you really have a passion for.”
As members of the faculty, student body and community members filed into the Dunn Center, the sounds of classical cello pieces Ayers had been known to play in “The Soloist” were recreated by graduate music student Esther Sooter. Lopez was introduced by President Tim Hall, who preceded the author’s speech with a quote by Plato. “An unexamined life is not worth living, but an examined life is a dangerous life … There is no better example of the perils and rewards of an examined life than Steve Lopez,” Hall said.
“Seven years ago, I bumped into a guy in Los Angeles, and he has taken me on such a journey” Lopez began his story. He was simply looking for an idea to put in his next column when he stumbled upon Ayers playing a two-stringed violin on the street.
Lopez noticed Ayers was not playing for money, but rather just for the joy of music. As he grew closer to Ayers, Lopez managed to research some of the man’s history.
He discovered Ayers had been a bass prodigy at Julliard in his younger days, but began showing signs of schizophrenia during his third year at the prestigious school. With his degenerating mental health, Ayers dropped out of school and spent time in jails and hospitals.
According to Lopez, the rocky life of many mentally ill people has to do with perception. “There’s a stigma put on mental illness … But through mental illness, so many people are cut down by no fault of their own.”
As Lopez grew closer to Ayers, he discovered “skid row,” a dilapidated area of downtown Los Angeles where thousands of homeless people — many of them veterans or mentally ill — sleep each night.
Ayers reminisced about carrying two sticks in his sleeping bag to scare away sewer rats. “The man who wants nothing more than to play the music of the Gods, wandering around Dante’s inferno,” Lopez said of Ayers’ struggles.
When readers of Lopez’s column began sending expensive instruments for Ayers to play, Lopez became even more worried about Ayers’ safety on the street and eventually convinced him to move into an apartment that had been provided. The difficulty in getting Ayers off the streets was “returning indoors meant returning to the world in which [Ayers] had snapped.”
Despite the difficulties Lopez faced, Ayers moved into his apartment and has been living there for six years. Along the way, Ayers has performed at the National Mental Health Conference and the White House for the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When Lopez asked Ayers what his advice to students would be, he said, “Tell them not to miss out on life. Tell them to participate.”
Lopez said he gets tired of people congratulating him on helping Ayers because Ayers has also helped him. As a 35-year journalism veteran, Lopez has found his life was about finding the next column. By watching Ayers live solely for his passion for music, Lopez has learned there’s more to life. “Mr. Ayers was the one who reminded me . . . I’ve got the same burning passion,” said Lopez.
Lopez admits he began this journey simply looking for another story to write. However, due to his experience with Ayers, Lopez said. “The Soloist” is ultimately “about the goodness in all of us, about the desire to help someone else.”
Though Ayers still suffers from schizophrenia, he has made considerable progress, and Lopez feels they have changed each other’s lives for the better. “I’ve never felt more proud to be a journalist.” TAS