THE BLOG

The Soloist Plays, Vet Wants off Heroin, Poor Folk Need to Sit: Just Another Day at Skid Row

02/04/2013 05:53 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2013
AP

"I want to play it at a Dodgers game when they come back in April," Nathaniel Ayers proclaimed. The inspiration for the book and subsequent movie, The Soloist -- Ayers was standing across the street from his Skid Row apartment. "I want to play the National Anthem opening day. I don't know if they'll let me. I might get a shot at it. I've only played it once before. Yesterday I tried playing it. Do you want me to play it for you?" Ayers took the trumpet from its case and played "The Star Spangled Banner" with only a few detectable flaws. He said that he'd keep practicing right up to opening day, just in case he got to play.

Fans of the 2009 film will remember that homeless Juilliard-trained musician, Ayers, was discovered on the street by Los Angeles Times writer, Steve Lopez. By the end of the movie Ayers had a home -- maybe the same one he has now.

Ayers wants to changed what people call him. He wants to be Tony Ocean. He has emblazoned the new name all over his violin case; his trumpet case hasn't yet been monogrammed.

Ocean says "his" reporter made him a household word: "I have a reporter. His name is Steve Lopez, from the LA Times. He made me famous. I went to the White House. I was in the China Room. I flew Alaska Air. They made a movie about me and about his book." It seems this fame is the reason Ocean has dumped his old name. "I threw the other one away. I want to be Tony because I like the food there." Ocean took the menu for Tony's lunch counter out of his trumpet case to emphasize the name change, "and because my mother liked to call me that. I picked Ocean because I like the sound of the ocean. I like the rolling sound as it comes and goes."

Ocean likes the sound of the music he hears on Skid Row too. "I was a Cleveland-born person. I decided to move here because the center of town has Beethoven. And you can get food. They have a pot full of beans and they will give you some," Ocean explains without mentioning exactly who "they" are. Then he referenced his audience as a reason to stay, "And Steve Lopez says, 'you were playing your violin for your friends.'" And that's reason enough for Ocean to stay on Skid Row.

Why thousands of other people stay is perhaps more of a mystery. According to The Soloist, Ayers -- uh, Ocean -- has a mental illness, which could be true of many Skid Row residents. Still others have addiction problems.

28-year-old veteran "Lincoln James" smokes heroin. He had been in rehab but started getting dirty again after a few weeks. The VA administrators finally kicked him out for 30 days. Tuesday he gets to go back and James is looking forward to it. He's trying to wean himself off the heroin before then, but his first words during the interview were -- which he granted in exchange for lunch at Tony's lunch counter -- "I'll try and answer your questions but I just smoked and it may take me a few tries to answer them correctly."

James said he was a small-time user while in the military. He said that the military's regular urine tests made him shy away from marijuana which he'd preferred to use but Marijuana stays "hot" too long. He used hard drugs instead, "Hard drugs, that word seems so ridiculous to me. They are the drugs that are the easiest to get rid of so I think of them as easy."

James didn't try heroin until after he got out of the Air Force. His roommate smoked heroin and James never saw any ugly side effects so he thought all the warnings were hyperbole. "I know now he didn't have side effects because he only used on Fridays." James says smoking more often makes you need it more and the side effects when you withdraw are agony, "Your temperature goes up and down. Your diaphragm spasms and you throw up. Your legs hurt from the inside. It hurts to move them but it's uncomfortable not to move them. You're full of energy. You're always tired because you stay awake for a week straight."

James fantasizes about being normal -- and by that he means not addicted. When he got into heroin, the VA had been paying him to go to school. But he dropped out and lost his income. James confesses, "I started doing what other people do to keep a habit. I never thought I'd do that, but I do it. That's what happens when you use stuff that changes the way you use your mind. And you see yourself doing things your mind couldn't have handled. It's crazy, it's like a disease. It's like an allergy you never knew you had until you come in contact with the thing you use whether it's heroin, speed or alcohol."

Skid Row residents aren't all mentally ill or drug addicted, many of them are just poor. TC Alexander, one of the homeless "leaders" of the Occupy LA movement summed it up, "Skid Row's been the homeless capital for 100 years. Why is it still? Because they're pimpin' the poor." And here Alexander means law enforcement arresting the homeless, the missions pulling in donations and city government drawing down federal funds, "They aren't wagin' a war on drugs. They are waging a war on people on drugs. There is no war on poverty, there's a war on poor people." Alexander says he was arrested 12 times in 2012: "Twice I was arrested for sitting on a crate, once for blocking a sidewalk and another time for sleeping on the sidewalk. I was arrested for being a person and doing what people do."

Ocean would like to play at the Dodgers game and that might happen because -- Alexander believes -- it's easy to honor just one man. As for drug-addicted Airman James, at least he has the VA and he's grateful, "If I had to pay for rehab, I couldn't get it. It'd be a hundred thousand dollars I'll bet." For the rest of Skid Row, Alexander sees no end to the suffering as long as government agencies and not for profits have a financial incentive to keep them there.