Monday, September 21, 2009
Steve Lopez, writer for the Los Angeles Times, needs a story.
When I first heard about him, I had difficulty understanding how a writer could possibly run out of stories. I see them everywhere. I wish I had more time to write all of them. But then again, this is not a paid position. I can write about anything that strikes my fancy on any given Monday morning. That gives me a freedom most paid writers do not enjoy.
Writing for Lopez is his job. His next piece has to be original. Compelling. And suitable for a sophisticated Southern California audience. The year is 2005. Way back when the Times still believed (naively) that it had a future even in the age of the Internet.
All morning, he looks at a blank new page on his monitor. Nothing but backlit white. He surfs the net long enough to know that this is the sort of day that is going to be a fine writer’s torment. No ideas emerge to get the proverbial ball rolling. Not one. So Lopez takes a walk downtown just outside the storied offices of the Times, stumped over his paralyzing writer’s block.
Generally, professionals like Lopez stay clear of the street corners where the homeless gather. But this time, he doesn’t care. The scent of unkept bodies and piles of discarded debris, odd collections of anomalous treasures heaped up in baskets and backpacks and smelly faded threadbare blankets tied up at the corners fills the air. Unwashed fabrics retain their pungent stench. Lopez knows this world. But on this particular life-altering lunch hour, he hears something new. It is the clear strain of a soulful violin. The player is indistinguishable from the mass of neglected human beings sprawled on the concrete sidewalks, abandoned entryways and graffiti covered block walls except for the way he holds the bow. He moves like a concert violinist. Perfect pitch. Lopez freezes. He is mesmerized.
He walks up to the man propped up by a wall and on closer look, he notices. Two strings. The banged up violin is missing two strings.
Lopez strikes up an awkward conversation. This is not the first time outsiders have engaged the homeless man. He is cautious. In and out of coherence. In the stream of words, Lopez, the researcher/writer, picks up a few details. Among them – Juilliard. And a name – Nathaniel Ayers.
It is enough to get Lopez started. He telephones the celebrated Juilliard School in New York City. Acquiring an acceptance letter from this renowned academy would put Nathaniel Ayers, the wretched street dweller, in the company of the finest musicians in the world. The people in the office of admissions were helpful; but on the first round, they only reviewed the list of graduates. “No one named Ayers,” they say. Disappointed, Lopez hangs up the telephone, shaking his head. He tells himself that this just happens to be a homeless man with a healthy imagination and rare talent.
A few minutes later, the phone rings. It is Juilliard. “Yes, we found him. Nathaniel Ayers studied here for two years and then dropped out.” Lopez’s eyes widen. He fist pumps the air. He finds his story.
How does one man get from New York’s prestigious Juilliard to the mean streets of the Lamp Community in Los Angeles? Lopez determines to find out.
Lopez goes back to that same street corner. Ayers is there, playing his violin. And over the next few weeks, the Times reporter writes a series of articles that captures a wide audience first in Los Angeles, and then around the world.
Lopez and Ayers become friends. Lopez finds a new instrument, a cello, and delivers it to Ayers on the street. He entices him to come to a studio. He introduces him to other musicians. He offers lessons. He believes the day might well come when Ayers will experience a break-through and emerge whole and thriving in some philharmonic orchestra, among his true peers.
It is so typically American to immerse ourselves in a project, believing somehow that we can achieve what no one else can. We dream of the day we will appear on the other side as conquering hero.
But for Lopez, such is not to be.
Not that he didn’t try. Ultimately, it is Lopez, not Ayers, who experiences that breakthrough moment. His spirit broken in the effort, Lopez comes to a new level of self-awareness. It is enough, enough to be a friend.
* * * * *
Lopez’s collection of articles for the Times is now a book. The book has been made into a full-length feature film, too. The Soloist stars Robert Downey, Jr as Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers. You may have seen the story on CBS’ 60 Minutes.
* * * * *
On this Monday morning, you are committed to making a difference. You are boundless in your optimism. You have seen transformation. You know change is possible. You believe.
But you also know that some of the things you would change never will. You have tried so hard. Invested so much.
Before you walk away in utter frustration, look back. Think harder. You may be missing something. Open up. Listen.
Instead of changing it, it may well change you. For the better.
How do I know? It’s happened to me.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009