Exceptional and Homeless
‘The Soloist’ explores homelessness, mental illness and friendship
By Lew Moores
In a brief scene in The Soloist, the TV news is on. The year is 2005. The screen shows black faces, residents about to be made homeless by Hurricane Katrina. Nothing further is noted; perhaps Katrina merely sets the year.
But it does more. As it played out over the days back in 2005, Katrina reminded the nation that not everyone had it well in America, that not everyone could escape natural disaster in their cars, that some were trapped by poverty. We had forgotten in 2005 – given not only the relative prosperity of that time, but also due to the fact that many newspapers had largely abandoned reporting on the poor and inner-city issues – that there was still an under-class in America. They hadn’t disappeared.
You get that same feeling watching The Soloist, with its Dickensian scenes of poverty, homelessness, despair, self-abuse and hopelessness.
Based on a book by Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times who spent more than a year chronicling the life of a homeless but talented classical musician whose glory years were in his youth, the book and the film percolate on several different levels.
While the film is ultimately about the redemptive value of friendship and music, it is also about the complicated world of poverty and homelessness and how to address it.
In the case of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, the promising Julliard School student who dropped out of school in the early ‘70s, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he has not so much chosen a life of homelessness as been a victim of his illness. Ayers “chooses” only because he has options – an apartment awaits, as does medication and psychiatric help. But he’d had enough of that while in his 20s (he was in his mid-50s in 2005), so he’s chosen a life on the streets of Los Angeles, playing classical music on a violin and later a cello in a park with a statue of Beethoven, then in a Los Angeles highway tunnel. His nights were spent sleeping on Skid Row in Los Angeles among other broken and lost souls.
He has in tow – more evident in the book than the film – a shopping cart with all his possessions, the detritus of other peoples’ lives. Palm fronds, broken clock, sleeping bag, buckets, boots, hubcap, clothing, a tarp. He fends off sewer rats by tapping sticks on the pavement near where he sleeps. Ayers wants nothing to do with medical and social help; musical instruments and sheet music will do. His cart is his crutch, as Lopez explains in the book.
“The cart really is about security, and letting go of it would be like letting go of the side of the pool for the first time,” Lopez writes.
As long as Ayers has his cart, Lopez writes, he could never visit a doctor’s office: He couldn’t fit it through the doors.
Ayers is rarely without his cart. To take a room would involve the hassle of moving it in and outside the room each time he left. He illogically maintains that he couldn’t just leave his cart unattended in an apartment. That would be to invite thievery.
“Every criminal in Los Angeles will be coming through that door right there and they will steal everything I’ve got,” Ayers says in Lopez’s book.
Ayers hears voices he has since he was a student. He doesn’t so much carry on conversations as deliver riffs on whatever pops into his head. When he is invited to a rehearsal concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he balks.
“I am not going,” he tells Lopez in the book. “I don’t care. I don’t need to go to Walt Disney Hall, Fantasia, Donald Duck, Beethoven. … Does a cockroach talk to a greyhound?”
The book and film are about homelessness aggravated by mental illness, so it is even more vexing, a double quandary. Solutions to Ayers’s homelessness, at least, are there – medical solutions are available, and an apartment offered largely as the result of Lopez’s columns. But Ayers has to be a willing participant. He doesn’t want the apartment, doesn’t want psychiatric help.
So where does that leave others whose paths came from different directions, those who have no champion in a newspaper columnist? Lopez poses the question and suggests the answers are enormous, having to do with affordable housing, eliminating poverty and so on. Where to even start?
In Cincinnati, about 31 percent of the homeless population suffer from chronic mental illness, according to a 2000 study by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.
While a new study of homelessness is due soon, the coalition estimates that altogether about 25,000 people experience homelessness in Cincinnati (90,000 in LA) during the course of any given year. At any one time, depending on time of year, a few hundred may actually live on the streets – in encampments, abandoned buildings, cars. Another few hundred live in shelters, and most might find themselves doubled-up with friends and relatives.
Those who choose to live as Ayers did do so for a number of reasons, according to Josh Spring, executive director of the coalition. They prefer their independence on the streets – “Having your own spot,” he says – or they despair of the hopelessness they might find in shelters, where they see that so many others share their homelessness. Other advocates have said some do not like the rules of shelters, prefer to come and go as they wish, or are substance abusers who can’t take their alcohol and drug habits inside shelters. Others just don’t trust shelters.
While the classically trained and talented musician Ayers is the exception, are there people like Ayers among the homeless in Cincinnati? Spring offers a heartfelt assessment.
“I think that everybody who is homeless has something extraordinary in them,” he says. “They’re continuing to live and go forth in a system that says they’re not important enough to have a home. There’s something extraordinary that keeps pushing them along.”
The numbers of homeless in the new report due out will undoubtedly show an increase from 2000, Spring says.
“We are pretty sure that since 2000, and with the economic crisis, the numbers are higher,” he says.
Lopez appeared April 26 on CNN’s Reliable Sources. He told host Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media critic, that it had taken five or six visits with Ayers before he finally wrote a word about him in 2005. For the past three years Ayers has lived in an apartment run by an L.A. group that offers housing to the homeless mentally ill.
Lopez told Kurtz that he urged Soloist director Joe Wright to hue “true to the essence of this friendship.” That is there in the film.
The film, of necessity, compresses. The book and film have no grand ending. Ayers does not end up playing for the L.A. Philharmonic or at Carnegie Hall. Instead, he ends up in an apartment, off the streets, and continues to play his instruments. That’s all.
At the outset, Ayers is simply a story to Lopez, a good story, his next column. It moves beyond that. Other columns follow, then a book. During the course of it, Lopez tries to become Ayers’s de facto social worker. He schemes on how to get Ayers into an apartment, into treatment.
But finally, when all is said and done, he becomes simply his friend. In the end, that’s all that counts.