Columnist with heart

Book in Common author inspires Chico

Steve Lopez has been a hot topic on the Chico State campus and in the community ever since his book was chosen as the Book in Common.

Steve Lopez has been a hot topic on the Chico State campus and in the community ever since his book was chosen as the Book in Common.

PHOTO by alan sheckter

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez often encourages people to look past preconceived notions and stereotypes about people, because we never know when someone will leave an impact that can last a lifetime.

“One person can make a difference,” Lopez said in an interview before he spoke at Laxson Auditorium Tuesday evening (March 23) at Chico State.

Lopez is author of The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship and the Redemptive Power of Music, which is the university’s 2009-10 Community Book in Common (and also became a popular movie). It’s a story about Lopez’s friendship with former Juilliard School musician Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, who was living on skid row in Los Angeles when Lopez met him. The musician’s career came to a halt when he lost his ability to function due to his symptoms of schizophrenia, which led him to become homeless.

In addition to speaking to the Chico community, the writer also spoke and answered questions about his book to a group of students earlier in the day.

A California native, Lopez told his story about how he met Ayers five years ago in downtown Los Angeles while he was looking for a topic for his next column. He heard music and saw Ayers playing a violin with only two strings like it was “the performance of his life.” The violin was carved up and had the name Stevie Wonder inscribed on the face. Ayers was standing next to a shopping cart that contained what looked like all his belongings. It had a small sign that said, “Little Walt Disney Concert Hall,” a reference to the Walt Disney Concert Hall that houses the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

At first Ayers was scared to death of Lopez. It wasn’t until several meetings later that Lopez discovered Ayers had once studied at Juilliard with a full scholarship, until he abruptly left the school during his third year after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Lopez continued to write about Ayers and befriended him, hoping to help the musician leave the streets. “[Ayers] hears things and sees things that no one else does,” Lopez said. “On some level he is aware of everything, but it is so fragmented. He is aware of all the pieces, but isn’t so sure how to put the pieces together,” he continued. “The only time it settles down for him is when he is near music … Everything stops and makes sense when he is holding a sheet of music.”

It took one year, but eventually Ayers moved into an apartment that he has been living in for four years now. Lopez had to learn a concept of meeting “them where they are,” rather than trying to force Ayers to do something he wasn’t ready to do. “You build a level of trust and hope it builds from there,” Lopez added.

In learning about Ayers, Lopez also discovered Los Angeles’ homeless skid row, the largest in the nation, and that many people on the streets are living with some sort of mental illness.

“Skid row is filled with people who are trying to drown out those voices, those ghosts,” he said, describing a place where hundreds of people live together, filled with trash, people dying on the sidewalks, veterans falling out of wheelchairs and drug dealers counting cash.

“Skid row is a creation, it’s our creation, it didn’t happen by accident,” Lopez said. He added that it is a symbol of a failure of public policy. Rather than spending money on the criminal-law system and jails, Lopez advocates for permanent supportive housing programs that also offer services such as counseling and job-skills training.

While Lopez made a difference in Ayers life by just being a friend, he says the gift he was given in return was priceless. “He taught me about classical music, courage and perseverance,” Lopez said.

“Think of all the ways Mr. Ayers has made a difference in my life. … Through this experience, I have discovered there is indeed grace in giving.”

One of the first questions Lopez says everyone asks him is whether he is still in contact with Ayers. The two talk daily, with Ayers often calling Lopez in the mornings at 5 a.m., and they see each other regularly.

Lopez said Ayers called him somewhere near Yuba City while he was driving to Chico early Tuesday. He played music and gave Lopez a message to tell everyone in his presentation.

“Tell Chico,” Ayers said to Lopez, “Tell those people—participate, do not be a wallflower.”