the soloist-steve lopez

“Nathaniel flutters about our living room and kitchen, yammering as he sets up to play. Caroline, who is used to holding court and being the only one in the house privileged to talk nonstop, looks like a child who fears she might not get the first piece of cake at her own party. When Nathaniel begins playing Saint-Saens, Caroline stops and stares at him and his cello. She saw him play once before, near the tunnel, but now the music is in her house and she can hear it and feel it coming up through the floorboards. She’s mesmerized, at least for a minute, and I envy Nathaniel’s ability all the more. His music has warmed the house and captured my daughter’s attention.” (207)

and that, is a beauty-full and circular passage on the human tendency to need attention.

“For all his troubles, Nathaniel has gone years without a worry common to the rest of us. He has no money, wants no money, needs no money. But, ordinarily, room and board aren’t free. Nathaniel has been getting a free ride at Lamp in part because his story has generated donations to the agency. For other residents, a disability check helps play the bills, but Nathaniel has been off the books for years and claims to have no interest in applying for Social Security.” (239)


9 thoughts on “the soloist-steve lopez

  1. “One day in the Lamp courtyard, a client puts my limitations as an amateur social worker in perspective when he offers both a reality check and a critique.
    “When are you going to write a real story about your friend Nathaniel?” he asks.
    “What do you mean?”
    “I mean the way he treats people around here.”
    “And what do you mean by that?”
    “The names he has for people He’s got a mouth on him. If you’re not black you’re a white bitch. That kind of thing.”
    I’ve learned it’s not uncommon for people with schizophrenia to be hyperreligious or hyper-race-conscious. But I didn’t realize Nathaniel had descended into daily confrontations with fellow clients at Lamp.
    “We have some issues,” Stuart Robinson says when I ask what’s going on.
    It usually begins with someone violating the supreme commandments in Nathaniel’s nonnegotiable code of human conduct-thou shalt not smoke cigarettes, and thou shalt not flick the butts. In his mind, the guilty deserve nothing less than an eternity in hell, roasting the fields of smoldering ash. The man of the arts who was so eloquent at my house and in the company of the world-class musicians call the offenders ni**ers, white bitches and fags, and if they don’t like it he stands his ground with clenched fists, ready to back up his convictions.
    Is it possible that i barely know Nathaniel, that my perspective is blurred by both my own selfish desires and the fact that he is usually on his best behavior in my presence? The more I visit, the more I catch glimpses of this darker Nathaniel.” (213-4)

    we all have good and bad days, right? and we only know of others what we let others know. and that’s already coloured by what we think we know about ourselves, and what we don’t want to admit.

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  2. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been a very good friend to anyone, maybe because friendship is too much about the past. Do you know what ever happened to what was his name? Do you remember the time? I’m too busy moving from one city and one job to another, loyal to the rhythms of a column-writing schedule that serves as my metronome. Who has time to look back? Friendship is easier when it has no history, no time for broken promises and all the little piques that fill a running tally sheet. To Nathaniel, as well, the past is irrelevant. Life is all about the next phrase, about feeding the monster, about finding a definition of himself that makes sense for at least one day. We’re like each other in many respects. Do you think about writers the way I think about musicians? he asked when I spent that night with him. Yes, I do. But I don’t have time to do enough of it.” (196)

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  3. “How can I ever reel him back to the world of rules and regulations, of protocol and privies? He is tied to nothing but his passion and the world it delivers him into, a world in which the city in his orchestra and the conductor is a statue. He sees a swaying palm and hears violins. A bus roars by and gives him a bass line. He hears footsteps and imagines Beethoven and Brahms out for a stroll.
    “I can’t survive,” he once told me of his refusal to come indoors, “if I can’t hear the orchestra the way I like to hear it.” (128)

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  4. “When you’re a prostitute in an outhouse, there are no good days. But this one has been worse than most. She says a man died in the outhouse a few hours earlier and was taken away by paramedics. It was a friend and she doesn’t know what happened. When the door of the outhouse opens just enough, I can see clothes on hangers draped along the sides, and a radio, and some toiletries. T.J. doesn’t just work in the outhouse. She lives in it.
    It’s an open secret on Skid Row that some Porta Potties are not being put to their intended purpose. Drugs, sex, housing. Anything goes. T.J. insists her outhouse is only an occasional residence, reserved for when she works too late to get home to Inglewood. She shows me where she stores her shoes and fishnet stockings and fancy hats, and she demonstrates how she covers the toilet bench at night and curls up on top of it to sleep. This is the outhouse where her friend died earlier in the day, on the street that has claimed two victims in the last forty-eight hours.
    While I’m talking to her a rat comes up from the sewers. It runs past a discarded brassiere, a tossed apple core and an empty Fritos bag. The rats are a common sight in and around the Porta Potties, which do on occasion get put to their intended use, as an overpowering stench suggests. But then there are those who refuse to enter the stalls and instead squeeze between and behind them to do their business. This explains the hot rivers of urine on the pavement.” (118-9)

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  5. “I hear on the radio that two teenagers with baseball bats have gone on a crime spree in downtown Los Angeles, clubbing street people as they lie sleeping.
    Police are saying the teens were inspired by a video series called Bumfights, in which promoters pay street people to beat one another, pull teeth with pliers, set their hair on fire and perform other dangerous stunts. Some of the victims are down-and-out Vietnam vets who never got free of the war’s reach.” (91-2)

    the fact that people even come up with ideas like this is a sign of the innate cruelty of the human spirit, or the power of feeling so power-less that you would devalue another human life to this level. but it’s another example, like the pickton pig farm swallowing up the murdered sex workers of the downtown eastside and the expressions of how society is stratified.

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    and this the paradox of the blurring of all lines of media and integrity-i mean, the commentators are correct here-dr. phil does exploit this guy who clearly exploits homeless people-“i’ve made millions…i paid him twenty bucks. i put homeless people to work.”

  6. Reading this piece on Nat reminds me of a lot of similar connections & transfers that I have with him. Professionally speaking of course 😉
    We are all soloist who want a standing “O” when we perform our work, some of us like to perform all the time wherein lies the variables. What i’m still adjusting to is that: “we can be soloist but by virtue of existence our instruments are part of the band. ” This was once told to me by my good friend C.Topher, thought i should share it.

    • ah, C.Topher! i was just telling anabells last night about that great philosopher truth! glad he still provides so much wisdom in your life.

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