Robinson said Nathaniel is in the midst of a transition that's never easy for people who have been on the streets so long with mental illness. Robinson believes Nathaniel is trying to figure out whom he can trust, and he's carefully weighing the bargain involved in a world of rules and social contracts.
And yet when Snyder and I arrived at the apartment the other day, what was Nathaniel doing?
He was taping things on the wall, making it more homey. He'd put up a news clipping about the Broadway musical "The Color Purple" along with a map of the United States. On the windowsill, he'd put a laminated ad for Baby Magic lotion because he thinks there's actually magic in the baby's eyes, and he was putting up a photo of Neil Diamond, claiming he thinks it's a photo of me.
While Nathaniel sawed away on cello with Snyder watching closely, I read the card sent by his sister, Jennifer.
"Our mother would be so proud of all the attention you are getting because of your talent," it began. "I know Momma is smiling from heaven because she is so happy to know you have a place to lay your head."
Someone had sent Nathaniel a yearbook from Juilliard, where he was studying more than 30 years ago when his illness struck. But the book was still sealed in plastic wrap.
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"I don't want to open it," Nathaniel said. "I want to imagine what it would be like to be back at my school."
Mark Ragins, a psychiatrist at the Village in Long Beach, is one of the first people I talked to for guidance after meeting Nathaniel early this year. I checked back with him last week and he said Nathaniel's progress is impressive, but he's probably got one more big hurdle to jump before agreeing to come in off the streets.
When you're at rock bottom as Nathaniel was, Ragins said — with no friends and a beat-up violin that was missing two strings — you come to appreciate the freedom of having nothing to lose.
"Once you've got something to lose," Ragins said, "it can be scary."
So scary that you try to sabotage the possibility of a better life. In a previous trip to the apartment, Nathaniel told me there was no point in getting too comfortable there, because smokers would get on his nerves, drug dealers would steal his things and incur his wrath, and he'd surely be evicted in time.
And yet here he was, looking very much like a man in his domain, playing the music he loves and glancing every now and then at his mother and Beethoven as if to make sure they were still there.
It was a scene far removed from the one in which I first glimpsed him early this year. He was just another anonymous street bum then, left to fend for himself in a society that discards the mentally ill without shame.
Nathaniel has taught me a great deal this year about the power of art, the mysteries of the mind and the instinct for survival.
I've seen him awaken on cold pavement and lean into the day with dignity, walking Los Angeles in the company of demons and dreams.
When the lesson was done, I put a hand on his shoulder, thanked him for his friendship and wished him a Merry Christmas.