Mr. Lopez Meets Mr. Ayers

Uploaded by CDSCWU on 11.07.2011

DAVID BROWNING: Now one of those urban fables that happens to be true.
Steve Lopez is a newspaper columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Nathaniel Ayers is a troubled man with a brilliant past.
They met by chance on the streets of downtown LA.
An encounter that would change them both.
The story of their friendship is a tale about madness, redemption,
and the mysterious power of music.
At the insistence of Mr. Ayers, who was taught good manners as a child,
they called each other mister. We will do the same.
Mr. Ayers. Mr. Lopez.
Introduced in a way by Mr. Music himself, Mr. Ludwig van Beethoven.
STEVE LOPEZ: I was in downtown Los Angeles and I heard beautiful music.
BROWNING: That day three years ago, Mr. Lopez, a deadline approaching,
was pounding the pavement stumped for something to write about.
A few blacks from the office by a small park, where a statue of Beethoven had been erected,
he found Mr. Ayers. A homeless man, playing not as pan handler, but for himself.
Music to chase away the demons that forever stalk him.
What peaked your curiosity in the first place about this homeless guy?
LOPEZ: Uh, desperation. Sweating out another column.
Looked like it could work. I thought, okay, where did this all begin?
How's this guy end up on this street corner?
BROWNING: Mr. Lopez would find that Mr. Ayers, now 58,
was once a hugely gifted young musician accepted by Julliard, the country's pre-eminent music school.
Whose talent and future were crushed by the weight of a devastating, incurable mental illness –
paranoid schizophrenia.
His passion for music is perfectly clear.
His illness becomes obvious as he tries to describe Beethoven.
AYERS: Yeah there he is, still there.
The consternation, and he's complete with another symphony.
The elucidation, you know, and in my mind goes well, you know.
And the bird droppings are wiped away by the workers,
and he's just as real and green as the next tree.
A beautiful scene.
BROWNING: After their first meeting, Mr. Lopez tracked Mr. Ayers to the place he called home.
The downtown tunnel where he played by day and slept at night.
Carrying sticks to ward off the rats.
Though he was trained to play the bass, he also taught himself trumpet, cello, and violin.
Playing the music in that tunnel with the cars and exhaust and God knows what. Why there?
AYERS: It seemed orchestral. The commotion, the calamity, and the sounds
BROWNING: You're a part of a symphony of a big city.
AYERS: Well, it's schizophrenically...
LOPEZ: You got a couple of tunes?
BROWNING: Slowly, Mr. Ayers opened up to Mr. Lopez about his music and his background.
Mr. Lopez brought him home to meet his wife and daughter, to offer a glimpse of a settled life.
LOPEZ: With each visit I got more of his intelligence and charm,
and more of the disjointed, all over the place sentences.
AYERS: I don't care about Beethoven as an obituary, just Beethoven as a spirit.
And my mother, just as good as the Statue of Liberty, forever.
BROWNING: Conversation with Mr. Ayers can switch with lightning speed,
from one fixation to another. Stravinsky, baseball, Barbara Eden, Colonel Sanders.
Tangled thoughts followed by moments of perfect clarity.
AYERS: Music is saying life isn't that bad.
BROWNING: Mr. Lopez began writing columns about Mr. Ayers.
His illness, his life on the streets, and before the darkness descended,
as a supremely talented kid growing up in Cleveland.
Did you look up to him at that point in your life, to your big brother?
JENNIFER AYERS MOORE: Always have. I still do.
BROWNING: Jennifer Ayers Moore is Nathaniel's sister.
She remembers the family's pride in his acceptance to Julliard in 1970 when he was 19,
and the alarm they felt when he came home one summer.
MOORE: He was always neat, always well groomed,
and when we went to pick him up from Julliard,
I was really shocked that he had on an old, tattered-like sweater,
and he just didn't look like the brother that I saw leaving to go to New York.
BROWNING: He was one of only a few black students in his class at Julliard
where the competition was cutthroat.
LOPEZ: It was really sink or swim.
He had to prove himself as a musician, and probably on some level
had to disabuse people of the notion that maybe he was there because he was African American.
BROWNING: His grades were dropping.
He was angry and confrontational with teachers and fellow students.
LOPEZ: Nobody knew what was going on with Nathaniel, but in fact he was losing his mind.
He ended up in a police car on his way to Bellevue hospital, and that was it.
His career went off a cliff.
This career that might well have landed him in one of the great orchestras of the world was done.
BROWNING: He went back to Cleveland to the home he grew up in,
but eventually drifted away to live in the streets.
Medication didn't help.
Out of options, his mother agreed to a last resort – shock therapy.
MOORE: She felt like this was gonna be it, and I remember when he came out,
he had this look on his face. It was almost like a zombie.
She expected him to go in and come out a different person,
and it just didn't work out that way.
BROWNING: As the years passed, Mr. Ayers drifted on to California.
Mr. Lopez's columns prompted readers to give him musical instruments
to replace the battered ones he'd lugged across the country.
His story touched a nerve in the Los Angeles area, where after sunset,
as many as 60,000 homeless people wander the streets.
CASEY HERREN: That's more than San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Houston, and Seattle combined.
BROWNING: Casey Herren runs LAMP, a private agency which provides
shelter and services for the large number of homeless who are mentally ill.
After a year of trying, Ms. Herren and Mr. Lopez were able to talk Mr. Ayers
into coming off the starts at night, sleeping in a small room.
HERREN: So he sees it now as his home, and he really values his home.
BROWNING: But his spiritual oasis is Walt Disney Concert Hall,
the Frank Gehry designed building that's home to the Los Angeles philharmonic.
Mr. Lopez arranged to take Mr. Ayers to a concert.
LOPEZ: And Mr. Ayers said people should not have to pay good money to see great music,
and have to sit next to somebody like me.
I live on the street, I don't have the proper clothing,
and we said, "How about a rehearsal?"
BROWNING: And so they become regulars at rehearsals.
Mr. Ayers following the score, telling Mr. Lopez what to listen for.
LOPEZ: I knew that Mr. Ayers was home.
That being in this concert hall meant a great deal to him.
BROWNING: And he's a familiar face backstage.
Here with another of his idols, the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
ESA-PEKKA SALONEN: It's good to see you.
AYERS: I hope you stay forever, please?
SALONEN: Thank you. Same. I hope you stay forever, too.
JOANNE PEARCE MARTIN: One, two, three!
BROWNING: The orchestra's musicians also took up Mr. Ayers' cause, rehearsing with him.
Pianist Joanne Pearce Martin takes him through the music he's loved since his student days.
ADAM CRANE: When he comes into this building, he transforms into a different person.
BROWNING: As publicist for the orchestra, Adam Crane became friends with Mr. Ayers.
Do you get any sense of what his talent might have been had he not had the illness?
CRANE: You either have it or you don't. He has it. He feels it.
He was very rusty, but clearly he knows what he's doing.
BROWNING: To get rid of the rust, orchestra members give Mr. Ayers lessons.
Violinist Robert Gupta, a virtuoso, gives a master class.
AYERS: Mr. Gupta has an incredible genius.
BROWNING: Will Mr. Ayers ever be able to play at Mr. Gupta's level?
It's doubtful, but that says the young teacher isn't the point.
ROBERT GUPTA: The fact that he has people that understand him
and that respect him and that wish him well.
I think that is incredibly therapeutic for him.
BROWNING: To no longer be considered some nut on the street.
GUPTA: Exactly.
BROWNING: But with terrifying memories of shock treatment,
and the medication he was given years ago, Mr. Ayers refuses to try new,
more effective drugs now used to reduce the ravages of schizophrenia.
So his demons still take charge.
LOPEZ: You want to believe that this man is well on the way to recovery.
The next day, he's the devil.
His eyes are bloodshot and there's rage and terror in them.
AYERS: Kiss my mother******* ass.
BROWNING: We got a small taste of that at LAMP where Mr. Ayers sleeps.
AYERS: All right I ain't here to be bothered by nobody like that. Okay?
If I'm ******* out here so I can't have the key to the piano room so **** that. ****
BROWNING: His sister had come from Atlanta to visit him for the first time in months.
He'd had an argument with someone about getting the key to a room where he practices.
He was enraged.
Does he know, does he understand you think, just how sick he is?
MOORE: You know, sometimes I wanna say no he doesn't,
but then other time my heart is saying that someday
he's gonna just say you know I don't wanna live like this anymore.
I need to do something. But that's just a hope.
BROWNING: It's fitting perhaps, since they met in the movie capital,
that a film has been made about Mr. Ayers and Mr. Lopez.
The Soloist is based on the book Mr. Lopez wrote about this odd couple.
Several hundred homeless people were hired to play themselves.
Who after all could do it better?
And the stars are Robert Downey Jr. as Mr. Lopez.
Jamie Foxx as Mr. Ayers.
A story that confirms that life is indeed stranger than fiction.
AYERS: It's very good to be alive right now.
It's very good to be able to be in the company of Mr. Lopez.
LOPEZ: It's the most meaningful friendship that I've had in my life.
It's the one I've learned the most from.
BROWNING: In this process do you kind of discover the inner good guy?
LOPEZ: I think that I did. He grew to trust me, and he grew to rely on me,
and I knew that he needed that in his life.
And I felt good about giving that.
AYERS: Thank you.
LOPEZ: Mr. Ayers, nice work.
AYERS: A lot of wrong notes, but I tried.