Alexis Rivera, owner of Little Pedro's Blue Bongo in downtown Los Angeles, was riding his bike to work one night when he saw Nathaniel Anthony Ayers playing violin near the mouth of the 2nd Street tunnel. Rivera stopped and listened for more than an hour before approaching Nathaniel with a proposition.
"He played so beautifully," said Rivera, who had read about Nathaniel and knew he had been diagnosed in the 1970s with schizophrenia while a student at Juilliard. "I really love Los Angeles, and sitting there watching him as all these cars were whizzing past, with helicopters going by in the shadow of Disney Hall -- if you took a video image, it would perfectly capture the city."
Nathaniel was taken aback.
"He said, 'What? Nobody has asked me to do that in 30 years.' "
Nathaniel expressed doubts, saying he was too dirty to do a show, and there'd be nowhere to put the shopping cart that contains all his belongings.
It took about 15 minutes for Rivera to persuade Nathaniel to serve as an opening act on Tuesday nights, from 7 to 9, for rhythm and blues singer Mickey Champion. Rivera told Nathaniel if he got there early, he could have dinner for free.
" 'If I have dinner before I perform, I'll throw up,' " was Nathaniel's response, Rivera said.
On that first Tuesday, Nathaniel ran so late, Rivera wondered if he'd forgotten. When he finally arrived, Nathaniel seemed very nervous and took so long tuning his violin he never started. Shannon Murray of Lamp, the skid row mental health services agency that has been reaching out to Nathaniel, used her usual perfect touch in consoling and encouraging Nathaniel.
"I was horrible," Nathaniel later told me, but he said he was eager to do better next time. In fact, he said, he was putting in lots of practice time.
I arranged for a couple of psychiatrists to watch his next show with me at Little Pedro's, not just to get their assessment of Nathaniel, but because California is on the verge of the greatest growth of mental health services in four decades. Under Proposition 63, which voters approved in November, more than $700 million a year will be available statewide to expand and improve mental health care.
Darrell Steinberg, the former state assemblyman behind Proposition 63 -- which put a 1% tax on Californians with income over $1 million a year -- believes that if the money is spent wisely, the state can make a huge dent in homelessness caused by mental illness and begin to relieve the suffering of both the mentally ill and their tormented families.
"We have a historic opportunity to help a lot of people who have been ignored," Steinberg said. In Los Angeles County alone, the homeless count is estimated at 90,000.
The new money is "the most important thing to come along in 40 years," said Dr. Roderick Shaner, who joined me at Little Pedro's and is medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
Shaner, who is helping to prepare the county's plan for spending an expected $100-million annual shot in the arm, said some of that money would go toward efforts to cajole people like Nathaniel off the streets and into therapy and housing.
But he realizes there are no easy cases, and Nathaniel provided the latest proof. As 7 p.m. came, the stage at Little Pedro's was empty.
Had Nathaniel forgotten?
When 7:30 rolled around, Vera Prchal, a Lamp psychiatrist, seemed as concerned as I was, and she hadn't even met Nathaniel yet.
Just before 8, I decided to go look for him in his usual skid row haunts. I was losing hope. But Nathaniel was already on his way.