Serenade in the key of glee

It was as if a rock star had arrived, and Mr. Ayers was mobbed by admirers who were attending NAMI's annual convention.

NAMI is a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by mental illness. Though Mr. Ayers has many challenges ahead, the story of his long journey -- from psychiatric hospitals to the streets to supportive housing at Lamp Community -- has given hope to many. They wanted to thank him, hug him, pose for pictures and get his autograph, and Mr. Ayers was all too happy to oblige.

That evening, he performed on cello and violin for a crowd of several hundred. I've never seen Mr. Ayers happier than he was when a roar broke out as he was given an award for his courage and spirit, and for sharing a story that has helped decrease the stigma.

When the celebration was done, Mr. Ayers linked up with a young pianist named Will, who has a story similar to his own.

They adjourned to the lobby of the Hilton Towers and jammed into the wee hours. The lights of San Francisco twinkled through the windows behind them as the musicians found a way past the labels, limitations and isolation they've known, rescued once again by the music.

On the ride back home, Mr. Ayers switched to trumpet and blew hard enough to be heard by the cows at Harris Ranch. He thought aloud about moving to San Francisco but then said he'd miss Los Angeles, and besides, there were so many homeless people in the Tenderloin district.

"It's depressing," he said, as if the illusion of a magical place, without pain or suffering, had been shattered.

We were about to climb the Grapevine when Mr. Ayers began dreaming about recording a CD.

We decided that if it happens, he should do nine cuts and play a different instrument on each one, like a baseball player who fields a different position every inning of a game.

The CD would be called "Putting on Ayers," we decided, and before we knew it, we were home.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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