Thursday, July 30, 2009

Steve Lopez, the homeless & personal experience

7/22/09 Chatterbox Chose to make a difference Betty Kaiser Once you’ve witnessed a psychotic breakdown on a city street; observed individuals sleeping and urinating in alleys; or experienced guards at supermarket doors, the problems of a growing homeless population become reality. Steve Lopez, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, is well acquainted with the homeless population. His book, “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship and the Redemptive Power of Music,” not only made best seller lists coast to coast but became a powerful movie, “The Soloist.” His experience with one man led him to become an advocate for the homeless and the chronically mentally ill. Lopez was the reason I was attending a newspaper conference last month in Calif. Due to its proximity to downtown, many of us conferees got lots of interaction with the homeless. We also gained new skills in rejection as we practiced saying, “No” and “Sorry,” to the multitude of homeless winos, drug addicts and schizophrenics near the refined hotel where we were staying. Now, I am easily moved to tears by the plight of those who suffer. At the core of my being, I am a ‘helper.’ If you need a shoulder to cry on or a helping hand, I’m your gal. If you are at wit’s end and don’t know where to turn for advice on childcare, your next meal or clothes for a job interview … I’m only too happy to sit down and help you figure out the answers to the dilemma. I am also human and there is a limit to my compassion. Panhandlers really upset me. A grubby derelict who approaches me with his hand out saying — “Excuse me, ma’am, got any change?” —usually gets a cold shoulder and a brusque answer as I walk on by. Watching street corner prostitution agreements being made or drug deals go down disgusts me. As part of America’s middle class, I don’t like to walk on by. I’d like to be part of the solution but where does one begin. One must actually do something to make a difference. But what? Steve Lopez is my hero. He is one of those unlikely people who made a huge difference in the life on another. But if you’ve read his book or seen the movie, you know that the road wasn’t easy and the end of the story is on-going. Life is better for one homeless man but not perfect. Dave Lieber of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram introduced the tall, gangly Lopez as our speaker at the Crowne Plaza Ventura. “He is not the cold, uncaring, ‘just looking for a story’ individual as portrayed by Robert Downing, Jr.,” said Lieber. “He is the sweetest, kindest, nicest man I know.” Lopez never has to look far for a story. Skid Row, Los Angeles, is the homeless capital of the nation and just a few steps from the L.A. Times. It was there in 2005 that Lopez met Nathaniel Ayers — a grubby, semi-coherent individual whose entire possessions were stuffed in a shopping cart. Their relationship would eventually transform both of their lives and inspire the world. Lopez struck up a conversation with Mr. Ayers who was playing a two-stringed violin because he couldn’t afford the other two strings. He came down to Pershing Square near the Beethoven statue and played daily. Most people ignored him but Lopez stopped, looked him in the eye and said, “Why do you play here?” The answer was simple: “for inspiration.” It was gratifying to hear Ayer’s story as personally told by Lopez. He looked like the typical bum but his genius shined through his playing. A multi-talented musician in his 50s, he had left Julliard at age 21 when he suffered a mental breakdown. He was on and off medication, counseling and even shock therapy. The streets were his home but music remained his passion. Slowly Lopez became his advocate and learned that life with Mr. Ayers would never be simple. There are no easy fixes or magic pills for schizophrenia. A clean apartment, healthcare and even a renewed acquaintance with super star cellist Yo-Yo Ma could not totally reverse the damage that the years had wrought. “He’s Got the World on Two Strings,” was the first of 30 columns on Ayers that eventually became a book. Donations of instruments and money poured in. People cared! Step by painful step trust was built. Today the professional journalist and his skid row friend are still dialoging. Lopez keeps his friend supplied in strings and concert tickets. Ayers occasionally makes appearances at mental health events like the annual NAMI convention. The duo is on a journey together. Recently, I was sitting in a Starbucks in Eugene when a homeless man and his two dogs stopped outside. He was riding a bike and pulling a bike trailer; a guitar tenderly cradled by his side. He was obviously homeless but something in his eyes told me that he wasn’t your usual panhandler. He was a young man; perhaps in his early 30s. I could tell that he was weary as he pulled a pan out of his trailer and walked into the restroom to get water for his dogs. Thinking he could probably use a cup of coffee, I went outside to meet him. What happened next still stuns me. As we talked, his eyes filled with tears and he shared that his itinerant lifestyle wasn’t what he had planned but he didn’t know how to go back. I tried to encourage him as I cried with him. Sometimes in life, we all take a wrong turn and need someone to show us the way back. It’s important to remember that all of us are God’s children. We must keep the dialog going and be there for those who’ve lost their way. We can make a difference, however small it may be.
Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.
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1 comment:

Dave Lieber said...

Great post, Betty. You captured the event so well!