Monday, November 2, 2009

The Author

Watching the movie The Soloist this weekend put me in mind of an encounter I had recently, one that continues to haunt me.

The Soloist -- which I highly recommend, by the way -- is a true story about the relationship between a journalist, Steve Lopez, and a homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers. When Ayers, who is playing a two-stringed violin on the street and is pretty obviously schizophrenic, mentions something about having gone to Juilliard, Lopez does some research and finds out it's true: the guy was once a promising cellist. Lopez writes about Ayers and helps him get a cello, reunite with his family, and move off the street.

Here's my own experience: a couple of weeks ago I was leaving the Library of Congress after an intense day researching the woman I'm currently writing about, Eliza Anderson Godefroy. Outside on the deserted pedestrian walk, I saw something that turned out to be a couple of crumpled dollar bills. I picked them up but I felt funny about taking them: I didn't need this money. I resolved that I would give them to the first homeless person I saw on my way to the Union Station Metro stop.

There's generally no shortage of homeless people hanging out in front of Union Station. When I got to the first of the pedestrian islands you cross in order to get to the station itself, I found no fewer than four homeless people clustered there, begging cups at the ready. What to do? How could I choose between them? If there had been only two, I could have given them each a dollar bill. But there were four.

I hurried on, intent on making my train. But at the next pedestrian island -- at the side of the ornate fountain depicting Columbus staring forth boldly from the prow of his ship -- there was a lone scruffy-looking middle-aged African-American man seated on the ground, a knit cap pulled low over his brow. Quickly, I stuffed my dollar bills into his cup and began to move on.

But he thanked me and called me back -- and, surprised by his clearly articulated, unaccented English, I turned around.

"I want to tell you something," he said crisply as I drew closer. "I want you to go to the Library of Congress."

"That's where I just came from!" I said.

"Well, I want you to go there and look me up in the card catalogue," he continued. "Rod Amis. A-M-I-S. There are three of us: Kingsley, Martin, and me. They're British -- and I'm half-British myself. Anyway, go to the Library of Congress. You'll see I've written 11 books. You'll find them there."

I was amazed. The specificity of his description (not 10 books, but 11) and his obvious acquaintance with literature (he was familiar with Kingsley and Martin Amis, neither of them shlock writers) were convincing. Eleven books?? I wanted to ask what had happened to him, how he had ended up propped up against a marble fountain, begging for spare change.

But I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. Instead I told him that I too was an author -- that I had a book (only one) in the Library of Congress myself. I told him that I would be sure to look him up and that I had enjoyed meeting him. He gave me a warm, slightly surprised smile and nodded graciously.

I couldn't get Mr. Amis out of my mind during my ride on the Metro. And as soon as I got home I looked him up in the online catalog for the Library of Congress. To my dismay, I was told that my search had found no results. I tried again, then again. I tried a Google search and found a Rod Amis who had self-published a couple of books, but who was clearly not the same Rod Amis I'd met.

Finally I had to face the fact that I'd been duped. And yet, I couldn't feel annoyed at Mr. Amis for taking me in. Maybe he hasn't written 11 books -- maybe he hasn't written any books -- but he's clearly got a story of some sort to tell. I'll probably never know what it is. And I'm certainly not going to get a book out of the encounter, the way Steve Lopez did.

But what I did get out of it was a moment of connection with someone I had dismissed as just another homeless person. Whether or not Mr. Amis is a fellow author, we at least have -- or perhaps in his case, had -- similar aspirations. And my gut feeling is that Mr. Amis actually believed what he was telling me -- it was not so much a matter of lying as of confused realities. What's more, the look on his face when I told him I was glad to have met him -- words he probably doesn't hear too much -- is something I hope I'll never forget.

And those words were true.

ADDENDUM: After I published the foregoing blog post, I heard from an old friend of Rod Amis's. It turns out that the "Rod Amis" I found through Google IS the same Rod Amis I met. I had dismissed the possibility because the Rod Amis I found had written a book about New Orleans, and I just assumed he'd still be in N.O. But apparently Mr. Amis has now migrated to D.C. Lest there be any doubt, there are pictures of him in front of Union Station -- displaying a sign that says "Rod Amis ... Author, Raconteur, Bon Vivant" -- accompanying a posting about him at by Debbie Elliott.

So I stand corrected: Mr. Amis has in fact written at least two books (I could only find mention of two) and was a pioneer in (ironically, since I'm writing a blog post) the blogging world. The comments I came across online about his writing were almost uniformly enthusiastic -- and from what little I read, the enthusiasm is justified.

According to the NPR post, Mr. Amis has "slowly lost the use of his brain because of a vitamin deficiency often brought on by alcoholism" -- possibly an occupational hazard of his former profession as a bartender. I would amend that: he clearly hasn't entirely lost the use of his brain, although it's likely his writing days are over.

I was also wrong about another thing: as Mr. Amis's friend observed in his e-mail, a book could certainly be written about this man. Alas, I don't think I'm the person to write it.

What I'd really like to be able to do is figure out some way to get Mr. Amis off the street and into some kind of safe shelter -- especially on a day like today, so cold and wet that I myself am reluctant to venture outside even for a moment. It pains me to think that Mr. Amis -- or anyone else for that matter -- is spending an entire day unprotected from weather like this, weather that's only going to get worse in the coming weeks and months.


  1. Natalie, Rod was in an assisted living place close by DC in Maryland. He kept running away. Finally, a year ago about this (Christmas) time, he ran away from the locked portion of the place and his sister decided that if that is what he truly wanted, they would let him be. I sorely miss his blog and his frequent emails (we've been net friends since the late '90's when he was a tech columnist and I was the IT guide on He's an educated man, speaks several languages and was a great writer. Just chalk him up as another casualty of the 2000 net bubble -- he just couldn't seem to land any thing of substance after the bubble burst. DC Stultz, Largo, FL

  2. DC -- thanks for letting me know. I have a call in to a local homeless organization in hopes that they'll be able to do something for Rod, especially now that winter is upon us. But obviously, from what you say, effecting a change in his situation is probably not going to be easy.

  3. hi, I'm a friend of Rod's too, an English woman living in France. I used to write for his international journal and he came to stay with me for a few weeks in London, a decade or so ago. I heard from a mutual friend just now that Rod passed away on tuesday 16th march, at 2pm. He was not in pain. He basically slept from Sunday until the day he passed. He will be cremated and his ashes scattered in the waters off Bermuda. I am posting this in the hope that the word might spread among the many friends Rod has, and had, around the world. Felicity

  4. He has now died.
    And he has transformed more people than you would think. Transformation probably is as wrong a description as transmutation; let me thus be simpler and plainer. He had a unique gift - never before have I met such a person - of identifying talent from all corners of the world, of developing it and making it shine. Many writers owe to him, and I daresay that he had the touch of Midas (referring to intellect, not money). And maybe, alas, also Midas' curse.

  5. I'm so sorry to hear of Rod's death, and I only wish I'd been able to do something for him--or get to know him--before he died. But I'm glad that my blog has been able to serve as a venue for people's remembrances of him. He really sounds like an extraordinary person.

  6. I too had several encounters with Mr.Amis at a community hospital in SE DC where I work in the ER.I'm sorry to hear that he has passed.I wanted to correct something that offended me as soon as I read it. Mr. Amis did not suffer from any brain defficency nor was he an alcoholic.He simply choose to have freedom and not be chained by the weights of the world.When I first met him I knew right away this was not your ordinaty homeless man.I spent hours talking to him and listening to his stories.For the life of me I had a had time grasping that a man who loved journalism and was succesful at it gave it up to be a D.C.bum.My co-workers were not buying it until we googled his name and a picture popped up.Since I have met him I read his books and truly have been touched by him.His story made me appreciate life and learn to be more humble.

  7. I am so very sad about Rod. He was an outstanding young boy in High School who overcame many racial hurdles to become a leader. Most of the world missed out on the gift it was given in Rod. We were lucky for the moments we had to know Rod. Sad, very sad.