“Soloist” Author Speaks at Pomona, Provides Soundtrack for Change

In 2005, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez met Nathaniel Anthony Ayers plucking a two-stringed violin under a Beethoven statue in downtown LA. A Juilliard alumnus whose schizophrenia left him down and out on Skid Row, Ayers provided the basis for a series of widely-read news columns that put a human face on LA’s mentally ill and homeless community. Four years later—with a book deal and star-studded Hollywood adaptation to their credit—Lopez and Ayers are still providing a soundtrack for change.“People did not respond to anything I’ve written like they have to this story,” Lopez said. “I feel privileged on behalf of Mr. Ayers to come and tell you about this journey, with its many moments of triumphs and its many moments of great frustration.”Lopez spoke to a mixed crowd of community members and students Sunday at Bridges Hall of Music. The event was the center of the Claremont on the Same Page program, which brings the community together to discuss a book selected annually by the Claremont Library. In addition to Lopez’s speech, the Friends of the Claremont Library hosted a book discussion on Oct. 1, and will hold discussions on mental illness across the city in the coming weeks.“The book is eye-opening,” said Naomi Howard, chair of Claremont on the Same Page. “It was wonderful to see [Lopez] get this kind of support in the community.”Lopez recounted his first meeting with Ayers and spoke about the friendship that has grown out of their chance meeting four years ago. A columnist for the Los Angeles Times since 2001, Lopez turned his early encounters with Ayers into a series of popular columns that won the savant a large fan base, and put a spotlight on mental illness and homelessness in the city. In 2008, the columns were published in the book The Soloist. A Hollywood adaptation of the same name was released in April, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Steve Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Anthony Ayers.Lopez has parlayed the unexpected outpouring of support for the story into an international campaign to break down the stigma associated with mental illness. Working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Lopez speaks frequently at community events across the country, sharing Ayers’ story in the hopes that it will change the way Americans think about mental illness.“There are thousands of Nathaniels,” Lopez said. “Why is it that every Saturday in every city in America there’s a race for the cure for everything but paranoid schizophrenia?”Lopez, who testified on Capitol Hill earlier this year, advocates treating mental illness as a cost-efficient solution to rampant homelessness in Los Angeles. The majority of Southern California’s homeless population, he said, is afflicted with some type of treatable mental illness. Lopez hopes that the city will begin implementing permanent supportive housing programs that provide apartments and medical help for the city’s homeless community.“It works in every city it’s been tried in,” he said. “Permanent supportive housing not only has a better outcome, but may be the cost-effective thing to do.”Lopez also spoke extensively about Ayers’ deep passion for music. As a teenager, Ayers was accepted into the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City—one of the most selective conservatories in the world—on a full scholarship. Ayers played alongside the most talented musicians of his day, even playing in an orchestra with a young Yo-Yo Ma. When Ayers began to show symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, the competitive atmosphere proved too much to handle, and he was forced to drop out. For Ayers, however, music education was never about building a career.“He’s got more passion than anyone I know,” Lopez said. “What is this life about but finding your purpose and passion?”In honor of Ayers’ passion for music, Sunday’s event kicked off with a selection from Beethoven’s Sonata in C Major, performed by cellist Margaret Parkins and Pomona music professor Genevieve Lee on piano.“I think that Mr. Ayers’ situation is a very moving one, and he is fortunate to have had music to give him strength and purpose,” Lee said. “I can only wish that others who are suffering on Skid Row will eventually be helped by a better-funded social services program.”Although Ayers has moved off of Skid Row and into an apartment, he still struggles with his schizophrenia. He has begun performing for audiences and is working with professional musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to hone his skills.“Here we are from week to week having new adventures,” Lopez said. “It’s a celebration of the music and the moment.”

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