A Cello Backdrop for Voices Inside

When I saw Nathaniel Anthony Ayers back in his usual location, I had to ask: How could he stand playing a crummy violin when he had a brand new cello waiting for him several blocks away?

Nathaniel lowered his eyes. He was dying to play that cello again, he admitted. But not if he had to trudge through the heart of skid row in downtown Los Angeles and play it at a drop-in center for the homeless and mentally ill.

He wondered if I would go get the cello and bring it back to 2nd and Hill. That's his spot, he told me, just like the L.A. Times building is my spot. Second and Hill is where I had first seen Nathaniel playing a violin with two missing strings, and it's where Nathaniel had first played the cello that was donated by a reader.

I told Nathaniel I'd love to go get the cello and bring it back, but I didn't think it was a good idea to lug a valuable instrument through the streets. Someone could mug him and run off with it.

I didn't let on that I also hoped he'd make a connection at Lamp Community, which treats the mentally ill. At some point, Lamp counselors say, Nathaniel could be a candidate for an apartment in their independent-living program.

"I looked through the door to the courtyard," Nathaniel said of Lamp, "and I saw one of the biggest purse snatchers who ever worked this city." He also saw people smoking, and he can't stand cigarettes.

Nathaniel promised he'd go back sooner or later, but I had my doubts.

Be patient, the Lamp staff told me. It could be weeks, months, or years. These things can't be rushed, especially in the case of someone who enjoys his solitude as much as Nathaniel does.

A few days later, I got an early-morning phone call.

"I have some good news," said Shannon Murray, a Lamp director. "Nathaniel is in the courtyard, playing his cello." His impromptu concert was still in full swing when I arrived. Nathaniel, diagnosed with schizophrenia 30 years go, looked a little more ill-at-ease than usual, but he was OK with the compromise for the moment. The onetime phenom, who grew up in Cleveland and went to New York's famed Juilliard School on a scholarship, had an audience of a dozen homeless and mentally ill clients, about half of whom were paying attention.

"He can't play," sniffed one critic.

A woman seated at a table fell asleep while eating a piece of chicken, her head resting near her lunch. A young gent with short-cropped hair marched into the courtyard and barked in an angry voice: "Yeah, like this family can ever have a sensible conversation." Nathaniel played for hours, searching for fragments of the Schubert and Dvorak pieces he studied so many years ago. He didn't even look up when a social worker announced: "Anger management. Anybody here want to go to anger management?"

Patricia Lopez, another Lamp director, said she wished I had caught an earlier conversation between Nathaniel and Carol, an elderly resident of the shelter. Carol, diagnosed 40 years ago with schizophrenia, had approached Nathaniel to say she had read all about him in The Times.

"He told her his expertise was music, and she told him her expertise was salvage," Lopez said. "They sat down and talked for about half an hour." By the time I caught up with Carol, Nathaniel's concert was drawing to a close. He was itching to get back on the street.

"It was a big treat to have him playing here," Carol said. With her coiffed white hair, neat clothes and angelic smile, she looked like she got lost on her way to Sunday Mass and decided to take up residence on skid row.

I asked about her salvaging operation, and Carol went into great detail.

She walks through downtown, she said, collecting plastic bottles and aluminum cans and taking them to recycling centers. As I listened to her lecture on waste, I wondered if on some level she was offering a commentary on the way society discards the mentally ill.

"The world wastes too much," Carol said, and too many people are out of work. She insisted she can attack both problems by opening a large-scale salvage operation, and she is undeterred by the small matter of being in her mid-70s and living in a shelter for the mentally ill.

"I've got to dream," she said.


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