Rich Mayfield: Feeding the monster, or gathering weekly inspiration
I nodded in seasoned agreement as Steve Lopez, popular columnist for the Los Angeles Times, described how it was to “feed the monster” each week. The monster, I already knew even as he explained to the rest of his audience, was his newspaper column, a seemingly easily produced essay that demanded its quota of well-conceived and presented content week after week. This was a monster never to be satiated, endlessly demanding to be fed. This was a monster I knew only all too well.
I spent this past week in L.A. fulfilling my dual California roles of doting grandfather and dutiful son. Although they are separated by 86 years, my mother and my granddaughter share equally in drawing me back to my home state several times each year. This weekend’s Mother’s Day celebration and last week’s blizzard only added to my motivation.
In any case, there I was on holiday in the golden state and routinely in search of a Saturday column when I serendipitously discovered Mr. Lopez addressing a gathering of grateful fans at a church in Pasadena. He was pitching his latest book, “The Soloist,” soon to be presented as a major motion picture starring Jamie Foxx.
Coincidentally, and while hoping to distract myself while flying through a winter storm, I had spent a harrowing two hours of flight time earlier in the week reading an article on Lopez in the latest New Yorker magazine.
This best-selling book now multi-million dollar movie grew out of a humble weekly newspaper column begun one grey winter afternoon when Lopez got up from his desk at the Times’ downtown office building and set out in search of a subject, any subject, to feed the ever-present and ever-voracious weekly monster.
At the church gathering, Lopez expanded on the New Yorker story. His monster-feeding search started with a stroll through L.A.’s Second Street tunnel, a hundred yards or so of dark, dank, urine-soaked concrete that served not only as passage for thousands of cars and trucks each day but as temporary residence for dozens of Los Angeles’ ever-growing population of homeless men and women.
Simultaneously repulsed and curious, Lopez walked the stretch of underground street carefully keeping an eye out for oncoming traffic while just as carefully stepping over sleeping bodies on the sidewalk. Near the end of the tunnel, he noticed a man playing classical music on a worn and weathered violin. He drew closer and couldn’t help but notice two very distinctive elements of this impromptu concert: the music was very, very good and the violin only had two strings.
The columnist listened for awhile and then, remembering the monster waiting to be fed, he approached the ill-kempt musician hoping that herein would lie food sufficient for the weekly feeding. As Lopez tells it, the monster certainly got his meal but the feeder got so much more.
“The Soloist” tells the story of what happens next when an unsuspecting columnist, innocently searching for another 600 words, finds himself enmeshed in the life of a musically gifted but mentally troubled man. The book is a compelling adventure that reveals the complexities and inherent contradictions that can be a part of the noblest of intentions. Lopez’s life is changed to be sure but sometimes in ways that may surprise the reader and probably disappoint the do-gooder in all of us. Nevertheless, it was apparent from the enthusiasm and genuine warmth the columnist, now best-selling author, displayed before our group that this life-changing experience was certainly all for the better.
As Lopez wrapped up his presentation, giving great acclaim to his gifted if unusual subject and thanking us all for coming, I mused on the continuing matter of the monster. I had gone in search of a good column fit for a weekly feeding and found, instead, a great columnist who served the very same purpose. And now both of us, be our readership large or small (and we all know which is which), share a common, continuing challenge to find tasty fodder for next week’s inevitable feeding.
I wonder if there is a movie in that?
Word on the Hollywood street is that Foxx’s performance as the homeless savant in the upcoming movie will be Oscar-worthy but you needn’t wait for the film’s release when this inspirational book is available right now. “The Soloist” by Steve Lopez. (G.Putnam, 2008. $25.95)
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