On Monday, the White House held a ceremony commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act commonly known as the ADA.
It was a Rose Garden Ceremony of the type that happens nearly daily where the President greets those responsible for one thing or another, gives a short speech, does the ritual “grip and grin” in the crowd for a bit and then returns to the Oval Office and other business.
On this occasion it was accompanied by picture taking. When that is on the agenda, people wait in the Blue Room until each can have a moment with the President and a picture taken in remembrance of the occasion.
I am a veteran of these mini dramas so I am cynical about them. The people who have the opportunity to participate come from all over the country. They are awed by them. I understand that and happy that they are.
This one was different, for reasons even a cynic could appreciate.
Five and a half years ago, a columnist for the LA Times, Steve Lopez, decided to know more about a small and seedy combat zone near his office and blocks from the magnificent new Concert Hall. It is Los Angeles’ Skid Row. He met a man named Nathaniel Ayers, a profoundly mentally ill man, a dreamer, who slept on the streets, trusted no one, yet stood near an overpass each day, at the foot of the statute of Beethoven, and played passionate classical music on a battered violin with two stings missing next to his shopping cart that contained all his belongings.
The story of their odd, ever evolving and moving friendship was chronicled in Mr. Lopez’s columns and then in his bestselling book, THE SOLOIST, A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, and The Redemptive Power of Music (Berkley Books,2008). It is a remarkable story. It continues as Mr. Ayers---as he has always been called by Mr. Lopez---still fights his demons down the long corridors of unexplained behaviors and emotional outbursts. He now lives off the street but still is most comfortable in the small cruel world of LA’s Skid Row. He has also made the decision to take the drugs which he so long mistrusted that help let him function in his societal structure thanks to is unlikely friend. It has modified his behavior, but has not “cured” his disease nor completely made over his personality. He is still profoundly schizophrenic and is capable of uncontrolled behavior. He stills stands by the overpass most days, now with his new violin, viola, and trumpet, entertaining those passing, lost in his own world as he tries to interpret and understand the music of his hero, Ludwig van Beethoven.
Nathanial Ayers grew up in Ohio. His extraordinary musical gifts took him to The Julliard School in New York. His lost is way there, although no one is sure precisely how or why. The pressures of performing at that level or some other force made him lose his sense of balance and appropriate behavior. Besides being a magnificent musician then, by his second year he developed serious social problems and left. Where he has been since is still a part of his vague story but when Mr. Lopez found him at the overpass, competing with the sound of traffic while he played the music he loved hoping he could find a way to replace the two broken strings on his violin.
He has one living relative, a sister Jennifer, from whom he learned a few weeks ago of his improbable trip to the White House. Mr. Lopez admits to being skeptical. Mr. Ayers does not react well to pressure or new situations and he worried for his friend. Yet the dreamer already had the scene firmly in his head and pleaded with Mr. Lopez to go with him.
In the end he agreed but warned he would need new clothes. A longtime friend helped him pick out a new suit. He knew exactly what he wanted. A white suit, white shoes, and a white derby hat and bow tie.
Of course. What else? He was going to the White House.
On that bright and brutally hot Monday morning following a pounding storm, this large man in his splendid vanilla outfit, a nylon wrap keeping his long hair under his new derby and white garden gloves with the fingers cut off, waited to meet the President of the United States. He was awed by the experience. When asked, he said he knew what he would say when they met.
“I’m going to tell him to have a good day and a blessed presidency,” he said.
Soon, he had his private moment and he was beaming when he returned. He said the President greeted him with, “Hello, Nathanial.” He said he was “flabbergasted,” and then mused, “The President of the United States of America. Praise the Lord!”
There were 300 government officials gathered on the lawn outside as well as so many others who had helped make this landmark legislation a reality. They know that there is still much progress to be made in access and employment rights, but this was a day of celebration with performances by Patti La Belle and Mr. Ayers. His longtime friend from Julliard, Joseph Russo would accompany him on piano. After the speeches, Mr. Ayers was introduced and emerged in his dandy suit and walked under the Presidential Seal. Mr. Lopez had told the staff at the White House that you could not always be sure what you would get from Mr. Ayers musically in such circumstances except passion, but they thought it worth the risk.
After an inordinate amount time tuning his violin when Mr. Lopez worried whether he would be able to play after all, Mr. Ayers began to play, found a groove, the audience swayed, and Mr. Ayers lifted their spirits as his music soared, that passion very much on display.
After the President spoke, Mr. Ayers shook his hand again and darted in and out of the White House as if he were a resident. On the lawn, he accepted congratulations and posed for pictures. He would later admit that it was not one of his best performances, but the fact that this man who had made the journey from skid row to the White House was here at all may have been the real performance and triumph his audience understood and applauded.
Later that same night, he returned to his now indoor home on the strip of mean street he knows so well, the White House seemed a million miles away. When Mr. Lopez asked him how he would ever top this trip to Washington, Mr. Ayers had a ready answer.
“We can go to Rome and see the Pope.”
Yes We Can.
Note: Some of the information, and the direct quotes of Mr. Ayers in this piece are taken from copyrighted material in the Los Angeles Times of July 27,2010.