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Originally published Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Nicole Brodeur

The other half of "The Soloist"

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez is one half of the unlikely pair that shares the story of "The Soloist."

Seattle Times staff columnist

Truth be told, Steve Lopez was never a giving guy.

"I wasn't an evil person," he told me the other day. "I just never got involved in any cause or mission."

One fateful meeting on a Los Angeles street changed that. And now Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has given a part of his life, his career and his heart to a homeless, schizophrenic musician named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers.

The unlikely pair share the story that is "The Soloist," which started when Lopez met Ayers on the street, playing a two-string violin. He learned that Ayers had gotten as far as the Juilliard School before mental illness drove him from the music and people he loved and onto Skid Row.

A series of columns by Lopez became a book and now a motion picture starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx.

"I just had no idea what the upside might be, what the downside might be and that I would be involved with this guy for the rest of my life," Lopez said of his friendship with Ayers. "It is not easy, but the triumphs are more gratifying because of the challenge. It feels good."

Lopez will speak about it all at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Seattle's Town Hall.

The event is copresented by the United Way of King County, which has a $25 million campaign to move the region's 2,000 chronically homeless into permanent housing.

(For tickets, go to www.brownpapertickets.com/event/58275. Tickets also will be available at the door).

" 'The Soloist' is the story of what we do," said Vince Matulionis, the United Way's director of ending homeless. "It bridges the gap between who we are and 'the other' people not like us.

"It is so easy to dismiss who they are," he said. "But any one of us could have been Nathaniel Ayers."

"The Soloist" has resonated with people seeking to understand and address the homeless.

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Colleges have chosen the book as required reading for freshmen, and cities like Cincinnati have chosen it as part of "read the same book" campaigns to generate community discussion and action.

Meanwhile, the friendship between "Mr. Lopez" and "Mr. Ayers," as they call each other, continues.

"It is a constant challenge," Lopez said. "But then I will sit there under the stars with him, enjoying beautiful music. So there are so many great rewards, as well."

The other day, Lopez went out to Skid Row to talk with Ayers about how he was managing the money he made from the film.

As they were sitting on the curb, a homeless woman asked whether Ayers was the man from the movie, and could he help her get an acting job?

Perhaps, Ayers told her, because there is a sequel to "The Soloist" in the works. Lopez could only shake his head. There is no sequel planned, no part for this woman. Just Ayers on a curb, his own little concrete casting, with what Lopez called his "vivid imagination."

And what of Lopez?

Director Joe Wright told Lopez "that I am the soloist as much as Nathaniel is," Lopez said, "and that I had this singular mission to rescue him."

But Ayers rescued Lopez, too, from bitterness about the state of journalism — his love and gift, just as music is to Ayers.

"I was consumed by the darkness," Lopez said, "and I would look at Nathaniel and think, 'He went from playing onstage at Julliard with Yo-Yo Ma to crushing cockroaches on Skid Row.'

"This man woke me up," he said, "and I rediscovered my passion through him."

There's a chance "The Soloist" could wake us all up to the stories on our own streets, and the compassion we may have lost.

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

Downey Jr. — not too shabby

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Nicole Brodeur

My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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