The Soloist by Steve Lopez
I’m on foot in downtown Los Angeles1, hustling back to the office with another deadline looming. That’s when I see him. He’s dressed in rags on a busy downtown street corner, playing Beethoven on a battered violin that looks like it’s been pulled from a Dumpster.
“That sounded pretty good,” I say when he finishes.
He jumps back three steps, eyeing me with suspicion. I see the name Stevie Wonder carved into the face of the violin, along with felt-pen doodles.
“Oh, thank you very much,” he says, obviously flattered2. “Are you serious?”
“I’m not a musician,” I answer. “But yes. It sounded good to me.”
He is black, just beyond fifty, with butterscotch eyes that warm to the compliment. He is standing next to a shopping cart heaped over with all his belongings, and yet despite grubby, soiled clothing, there’s a rumpled elegance about him.3He speaks with a slight regional accent I can’t place. Maybe he’s from the Midwest or up near the Great Lakes, and he seems to have been told to always stand up straight, enunciate, carry himself with pride and respect others.
“I’m trying to get back in shape,” he says. “But I’m going to get back in there, playing better. I just need to keep practicing.”
“So you like Stevie Wonder?” I ask.
“Oh, yes, certainly. ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life.’ ‘My Cherie Amour.’ I guess I shouldn’t have written his name on my violin, though.”
I write a column for the Los Angeles Times. The job is a little like fishing. You go out and drop a line, cast a net. I’m figuring this vagrant violinist is a column. Has to be.4
“I’m in a hurry at the moment,” I tell him, “but I’d like to come back and hear you play again.”
“Oh, all right,” he says, smiling appreciatively but with trepidation. He looks like a man who has learned to trust no one.
“Do you always play in this spot?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says pointing across the street with his bow to Pershing Square5, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. “I like to be near the Beethoven statue for inspiration.”
This guy could turn out to be a rare find in a city of undiscovered gems, fiddling away in the company of Beethoven.6 I would drop everything if I could, and spend a few hours pulling the story out of him, but that will have to wait for another day. I’ve got another column lined up and not much time to shape it. The deadlines come at you without mercy, even in your dreams.
“I’ll be back,” I say.
He nods indifferently.
Back at the office I seat out another column, scan the mail and clear the answering machine. I make a note on the yellow legal pad where I keep a list of possibilities.
It’s got potential. Who knows where it will go?