This story was first published on March 22, 2009. It was updated on Sept. 3, 2009.
This is one of those urban fables that happens to be true. Steve Lopez is a newspaper columnist for the Los Angeles Times; Nathaniel Ayers is a troubled man with a brilliant past.
As 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer reported last March, they met by chance on the streets of downtown L.A. - an encounter that would change them both. The story of their friendship is a tale about madness, redemption, and the mysterious power of music. At the insistence of Mr. Ayers, who was taught good manners as a child, they call each other "Mister." We will do the same.
Mr. Ayers and Mr. Lopez were introduced, in a way, by Mr. Music himself, Ludwig van Beethoven.
"I was in downtown Los Angeles. And I heard beautiful music," Mr. Lopez told Safer.
That day three years ago, Mr. Lopez, with a deadline approaching, was pounding the pavement, stumped for something to write about. A few blocks from the office - by a small park where a statue of Beethoven had been erected - he found Mr. Ayers, a homeless man, playing not as a panhandler, but for himself, music to chase away the demons that forever stalk him.
Asked what first piqued his curiosity about this homeless man, Mr. Lopez told Safer, "Desperation. Sweating out another column. Looked like it could work. I thought, 'Okay, where did this all begin? How does this guy end up on this street corner?'"
Mr. Lopez would find that Mr. Ayers, now 58, was once a hugely gifted young musician accepted by Juilliard, the country's preeminent music school. His talent - and future - were crushed by the weight of a devastating, incurable mental illness: paranoid schizophrenia.
His passion for music is perfectly clear. His illness becomes obvious as he tries to describe Beethoven. "And there he is still there, the consternation. And he's complete with another symphony, the elucidation. And you know, my mind goes wild. And the bird droppings are wiped away by the workers. And he's just as real and green as the next tree or beautiful scene," Mr. Ayers told Safer.
After their first meeting, Mr. Lopez tracked Mr. Ayers to the place he called home: a downtown tunnel where he played by day and slept at night, carrying sticks to ward off the rats. Though he was trained to play the bass, he also taught himself trumpet, cello, and violin.
"Playing the music in that tunnel with the cars and exhaust and God knows what, why there?" Safer asked.
"It seemed orchestral," Mr. Ayers replied. "The commotion, the calamity, and the sounds, you know?"
"You were part of the symphony of the big city?" Safer asked.
"Well, schizophrenically, yes," Mr. Ayers said, chuckling.
Slowly, Mr. Ayers opened up to Mr. Lopez about his music and his background. Mr. Lopez brought him home to meet his wife and daughter to offer a glimpse of a settled life.
"With each visit, I got more of his intelligence and charm, and more of the disjointed, all over the place sentences," Mr. Lopez recalled.
"I don't care about Beethoven as an obituary. Just Beethoven as a spirit. And my mother. Just as good as the Statue of Liberty forever," Mr. Ayers said.
A conversation with Mr. Ayers can switch with lightning speed from one fixation to another: Stravinsky, baseball, Barbara Eden, Colonel Sanders. They're tangled thoughts followed by moments of perfect clarity.
"Music is saying, you know, life isn't that bad, you know?" Mr. Ayers explained.