Steve Lopez first stumbled onto Nathaniel Anthony Ayers near a tunnel in Los Angeles, not far from Skid Row. Lopez, a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times, was hard up for a column topic, heard an unusually talented street musician in an unlikely place, and struck up a conversation. Articulate, clearly unwell, and doing impressive things with a broken-down violin, Ayers half-intrigues and half-amuses Lopez, who comes back to see him. On his second visit, Lopez notices Ayers scrawling names in the asphalt. "Who are those people?" Lopez asks. "Oh, those are just my classmates from Juilliard," Ayers answers.
Wait, what? That last sends Lopez back to his office to do some Googling and make some phone calls. Indeed, it turns out that Mr. Ayers attended Juilliard as a bass violinist before paranoid schizophrenia drove him out and eventually onto the streets. If the word "Juilliard" means nothing to you, suffice it to say that musicians with the chops to get into the immensely prestigious New York City academy do not ordinarily wind up homeless. Here, Steve Lopez thought, was a column. Maybe a couple.