From Skid Row to Disney Hall

Nathaniel Ayers

JOURNEY: Nathaniel drags his cart through skid row to store briefly while he goes to the hall. (Damon Winter / Los Angeles Times / October 6, 2005)

Nathaniel was in a panic over what to wear.

"I can't wear these grubby things," he said, taking stock of clothes that bore the stain of the streets. "I've washed them over and over, and that's the best I seem to be able to do."

For months, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers had been excited about an invitation to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic in action at Disney Hall. "The anticipation is horrible," he told me a week before the designated day. He'd started showering daily at a shelter, he said, to gussy himself up as much as possible.

Nathaniel was a music student more than 30 years ago at the prestigious Juilliard School when he suffered a breakdown. Today, as he continues to battle the schizophrenia that landed him on skid row, music is one of the few things that inspires and consoles him.

He plays violin and cello for hours each day in downtown Los Angeles, lifting his instruments out of an orange shopping cart on which he has written:

"Little Walt Disney Concert Hall — Beethoven."

Thursday was the big day. Nathaniel had decided it would be best to attend a rehearsal rather than a concert, because he didn't want to make a scene — a homeless man in the company of well-heeled Angelenos. He was particularly excited because the orchestra would be rehearsing Beethoven.

Nathaniel finally decided on fresh-washed burgundy sweatpants, a black T-shirt, a blue cardigan and white sneakers. He tied a red sweater around his waist and parted his hair in the middle, pasting it down neatly.

But something was still bothering him Thursday morning before we left skid row. Nathaniel was talking to himself more than usual, spouting something about how a cockroach doesn't give orders to a thoroughbred. He refused to leave his cart at a shelter, as arranged, insisting on hauling it to my office parking lot, a 30-minute trek guaranteed to put us behind schedule.

I drove to my office to make the arrangements and then waited, fearing he'd get distracted and lose track of time. But just as I was writing him off, Nathaniel appeared in the distance, lugging his cart west on 2nd Street. He parked it in the garage, pulled out his violin and headed jauntily toward Disney Hall like a student on his way to school.

At 2nd and Hill, where Nathaniel often plays against the clatter and percussion of incessant traffic, I mentioned that Itzhak Perlman would perform at Disney Hall later this month.

"Oh, my God," Nathaniel enthused. "He's like molten lava on violin."

The angry man I had seen on skid row continued to soften as we approached Disney Hall, the Frank Gehry creation Nathaniel referred to as an iron butterfly. The mysteries of his illness are so profound that I still find it impossible to reconcile the poetry with the madness. This is a man I've heard many times carry on incoherent conversations with someone who isn't there, only to then rhapsodize on the structure of a Mozart composition.

When he reached 1st and Grand, Nathaniel studied the performance schedule outside the hall, awed at the thought of the world's greatest musicians playing a mere two blocks from where he takes a bow and "saws away," as he calls it.

Adam Crane, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's director of public relations and an amateur cellist, greeted Nathaniel as if he were a visiting dignitary, handing him a copy of Gehry's book on Disney Hall. Crane reminded Nathaniel that the orchestra would be rehearsing Beethoven's Third Symphony.

"The Eroica," Nathaniel said, asking if they would play each movement, and delighted that they would.

Crane asked Nathaniel when he had last set foot in a concert hall.

Nathaniel laughed bashfully.

"I haven't been in a concert hall in 4 billion years," he said.

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