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'Hello, Nathaniel': Obama welcomes Mr. Ayers to D.C.

July 28, 2010|STEVE LOPEZ

In those early days after we met 5 1/2 years ago, when Nathaniel Ayers slept on the streets of skid row, he was a dreamer. He'd play a two-string violin at the feet of the Beethoven statue and imagine a day when he would figure out how to get the two missing strings, or a day when he might visit a concert hall or play well enough to draw an audience.

But he never would have guessed that one day he'd be invited to the White House to meet the president and to perform at a celebration commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"It's the most incredible thing I ever could have imagined," Mr. Ayers said a few weeks ago on hearing of the invitation through his sister, Jennifer.

To be honest, I had misgivings about the trip. I tend to err on the side of being overprotective and shielding my friend from stressful situations. Despite remarkable progress, he is still at the mercy of unpredictable storms like those that knocked him out of the Juilliard School of Music nearly 40 years ago with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

But the dreamer already had the scene in his head -- Mr. Ayers goes to Washington. And he made a passionate appeal to our friendship, asking me please to be there with him.

OK, I said. But Mr. Ayers needed a new set of duds for his big day, so Bobby Witbeck, a longtime Ayers family friend, took him to a Hollywood Suit Outlet.

Mr. Ayers knew exactly what he wanted, and when I later asked why he got a white suit, white shoes, white bowtie and white derby, I already knew the answer.

"Because it's the White House," Mr. Ayers said.

And so it was that on Monday, a warm and sunny day that followed a pounding storm, Mr. Ayers found himself in the diplomatic meeting room at the White House in a splendid vanilla-colored outfit, a nylon hair wrap under his derby, waiting to meet the first African American president of the United States.

"Mr. Ayers," I said, nudging him across from a portrait of George Washington. "You're in the White House."

"I can't believe it," he said.

"What are you going to say to the president?" I asked.

"I'm going to tell him to have a good day and a blessed presidency," said Mr. Ayers, who had written Obama's name on his trumpet case and, to top off his outfit, was wearing garden gloves with the fingers cut out.

Soon afterward, Mr. Ayers was called in for a private moment and a photograph with Obama. When he returned, he was beaming.

"I'm flabbergasted," he said.

He said the president had greeted him with, "Hello, Nathaniel."

To which Mr. Ayers said:

"The president of the United States of America. Praise the Lord!"

Outside, on the back lawn of the White House, about 300 government officials and others had assembled to hear a speech by Obama and performances by Patti LaBelle and Mr. Ayers, who would be accompanied by his buddy and former Juilliard classmate Joseph Russo.

In the crowd were many pioneers in the fight for the rights of those who had known rejection, discrimination and stigma because of all manner of disability.

There's still progress to be made, particularly for those with mental illness, and there are still critical shortages of supportive housing and rehabilitation. But this was a day of celebration.

"It's a great day," said Alan Toy, a Los Angeles civil rights activist and disabled actor. He had been in the same spot 20 years ago for the signing of the disabilities act by President George H. W. Bush, a law mandating access and employment rights.

After a few speeches, the big moment arrived. My heart rose when Mr. Ayers was introduced and emerged from the back door of the White House in his dandy suit, walking under the seal of the president of the United States.

I was nervous because I knew he felt the pressure, and I was proud, because he'd come so far and represented the hope of so many. I had informed the White House staff that you're not always sure what you'll get musically from Mr. Ayers other than passion, but the White House had taken a risk.

Mr. Ayers was to be included, not left at the gate. Kareem Dale, a special advisor to the president, had told me this would be an audience that knew and respected perseverance. Dale himself is blind.

Maybe it was the sweltering heat, or the pressure, but Mr. Ayers couldn't seem to get his fiddle tuned, and as the moments dragged on, it was unclear whether he would proceed. Mr. Russo, on piano, and the audience, waited patiently. I, meanwhile, was practically hyperventilating, and pulling for my friend.

Finally, he found a groove, and the audience swayed, Mr. Ayers lifting spirits with his music. He switched to trumpet after a few minutes, and although he would later say it wasn't one of his better performances, Mr. Ayers' very presence at the event -- his journey from skid row to the White House -- was a triumph his audience understood and applauded.

"Yes, we can," Obama later said in rallying the crowd to continue the fight for equal opportunity.

After the speech, Mr. Ayers shook hands with Obama again and darted in and out of the White House as if he were a resident. On the back lawn, he accepted congratulations and posed for pictures.

Russo said he had never been more inspired by his buddy Mr. Ayers, saying his performance was perfect for the event. He struggled, Russo said, but he soldiered on.

When we got back to skid row Tuesday, the White House seemed a million miles away. As I dropped Mr. Ayers off at his apartment, I asked how he would ever top his trip to D.C.

He had an answer.

"Do you think we can go to Rome and meet with the pope?"

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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