Insomniac City: Bill Hayes’s Extraordinary Love Letter to New York, Oliver Sacks, and Love Itself
By Maria Popova
“If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful meditation on how differences bring couples closer together. This life-expanding recompense of embracing otherness graces every meaningful relationship, be it the love of a person or the love of a place, and it comes alive with uncommon splendor in Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me (public library) — the poetic and profound more-than-memoir by the writer and photographer Bill Hayes.
After the sudden death of his partner of sixteen years, Hayes — a lifelong insomniac — leaves San Francisco for New York in search of a fresh start. He finds himself in a city where “life is a John Cage score, dissonance made eloquent,” where “every car on every train holds a surprise, a random sampling of humanity brought together in a confined space for a minute or two — a living Rubik’s Cube.” Slowly, his heart begins to awaken from the coma of grief and he falls in love again — first with the city, then with an improbable new paramour: the late, great neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. He learns that New York, like love, is demanding and difficult but rewards those who surrender to it unguardedly. Both can break your heart, and both can break it open if you embrace their irregular edges.
What emerges from this dual love letter is a lyrical reminder that happiness and heartache are inseparably entwined, and that without the tragic, the beautiful would be just a frayed strand of half-being.
I moved to New York eight years ago and felt at once at home. In the haggard buildings and bloodshot skies, in trains that never stopped running like my racing mind at night, I recognized my insomniac self. If New York were a patient, it would be diagnosed with agrypnia excitata, a rare genetic condition characterized by insomnia, nervous energy, constant twitching, and dream enactment — an apt description of a city that never sleeps, a place where one comes to reinvent himself.
Alongside the portrait of New York Hayes paints a portrait of the irreplaceable Oliver Sacks — a largehearted genius of ceaseless eccentricity, who collects spectacles and dreams of fern salad and writes with a fountain pen and has never emailed or texted or owned a computer; who, when taught to open a champagne bottle in his late seventies, dons his swimming goggles “just in case”; who earnestly calls pot “cannabis” and exclaims with gusto when stoned into hallucination: “The primary cortex! The genius of the primary cortex!”; a man of imagination so infinite and empathy so complete that when asked what he has been doing lying in the garden for hours, he replies that he has been wondering about what it’s like to be a rose.
Hayes is the “Billy” in Dr. Sacks’s own magnificent memoir — the love of his life, whom he met after three and a half decades of singledom and celibacy. Dr. Sacks himself recounted their defining moment of mutuality: “[Billy] came to see me and (in the serious, careful way he has) said, ‘I have conceived a deep love for you.’ I realized, when he said this, what I had not realized, or had concealed from myself before — that I had conceived a deep love for him too — and my eyes filled with tears. He kissed me, and then he was gone.”
The two met when Dr. Sacks sent Billy a letter — one might say fan mail, though Hayes seems far too humble to call it that himself — after reading his book The Anatomist. Hayes writes:
He was without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known, and before long I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him.
Indeed, Hayes’s is not so much a love letter, for even the most exquisite of the genre can slip into the formulaic, but a most unusual letter of adoration — of Oliver, and of New York.
Besides that deep love and mutual adoration, Hayes’s tender account of his life with Dr. Sacks — or “O,” as he appears in the book — reveals that they share a fervent yet ungrasping appreciation of what he so poetically calls “those rare moments when the world seems to shed all shyness and displays every possible permutation of beauty.” They share, too, a good-natured curiosity about the world — one about the natural world, the other about the human world. Both are fearless explorers, but Billy is the modern urban counterpart to O’s Darwin and Humboldt and Shackleton — while Dr. Sacks ventures to remote islands of exotic ferns and curious neuropathologies, Hayes ventures into a questionable artist warehouse, comforts the sad stranger on the train and the go-go boy with the existential crisis, chats up the elderly woodworker carving a letter opener at the corner of Eighth and Jane, has his eye drawn by a 95-year-old artist with bright orange hair, and follows into a dark alley the homeless poet who writes him a koan-sonnet onto a celestial map torn from an old New York Times.
Hayes relays his disposition toward the city and its inhabitants:
I make a point of waving or nodding hello when I can. I have come to believe that kindness is repaid in unexpected ways and that if you are lonely or bone-tired or blue, you need only come down from your perch and step outside. New York — which is to say, New Yorkers — will take care of you.
Indeed, what often escapes the gliding visitor is the subterranean kindness that governs the city, that makes it not only bearable but beautiful. Hayes writes:
I’ve lived in New York long enough to understand why some people hate it here: the crowds, the noise, the traffic, the expense, the rents; the messed-up sidewalks and pothole-pocked streets; the weather that brings hurricanes named after girls that break your heart and take away everything.
It requires a certain kind of unconditional love to love living here. But New York repays you in time in memorable encounters, at the very least. Just remember: Ask first, don’t grab, be fair, say please and thank you, always say thank you — even if you don’t get something back right away. You will.
As he inhabits the city, Hayes is aglow with generous curiosity — not the greedy kind that makes souvenirs out of otherness but the warm, openhearted kind that seeks to understand and connect. He is a noticer of things — the white clouds backlit by the moon against the night sky, the hands of lovestruck couples “laced together as if in prayer,” the quality of the early morning air outside the busy subway station, “soft, as if unfinished dreams still emanated from everyone’s skin.” But perhaps, exactly contrary to the stereotype of the hasty New Yorker in a perpetual trance of busyness, every true New Yorker is — must necessarily be — a noticer of things, for this is a city where “beauty comes in unbeautiful ways.”
Strewn throughout the narrative are notes — sometimes poetic, sometimes playful, always in close contact with the profound — from Hayes’s journal, which he began on Oliver’s suggestion one spring morning shortly after they fell in love. Many of these diary meditations are loving records of unusual, endearing proclamations Oliver makes as a matter of course — precious fossils of the peculiarities that made Oliver Sacks Oliver Sacks.
In an entry from January of 2010, Hayes records:
O: “Every day, a word surprises me.”
O: “Are you conscious of your thoughts before language embodies them?”
They are also capsules of the tenderness that flowed between them — tenderness colored by Dr. Sacks’s lovable idiosyncrasies:
O: “I like having a confusion of agency, your hand on top of mine, unsure where my body ends and yours begins.”
“I just want to enjoy your nextness and nearness,” O says.
In an entry from the winter of 2010, Hayes records:
Palace Hotel, San Francisco — Over Christmas:
In bed, lights out:
O: “Oh, oh, oh…!”
I: “What was that for?”
O: “I found your fifth rib.”
In the middle of the night: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” O whispers.
In another entry:
O, in the car, on a drive back from the Botanical Garden — reclining all the way back in his seat (because of sciatica); two pairs of sunglasses on (because of his eye) — suddenly speaks, startling me (I thought he’d been sleeping):
“I’ve suddenly realized what you mean to me: you create the need which you fill, the hunger you sate. Like Jesus. And Kierkegaard. And smoked trout…”
I: “That’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me — I think.”
O chuckles, then adds: “It’s a kind of teaching, in a strange way…”
Later: I thought he was gazing at me lovingly as I drove, but then realized, no:
“I’m watching the odometer and thinking of the elements,” says O.
But love is, indeed, “a kind of teaching,” the tender mutuality of which Hayes captures in another entry under the heading “Random images and thoughts”:
How, during a daylong series of panels and performances on O’s work, he would repeatedly open his little tin and offer me a mint before taking one himself.
How, when we first met, he didn’t really know how to (or didn’t think so) share with another person. He’d never shared his life before, after all.
How when I didn’t feel well recently and took a long bath, he brought in to me a piece of toast with a slice of cheese on it. When I transferred to the bed, be brought me another slice.
On a particularly scenic July evening on the rooftop, the spectacle of the sunset aided by a touch of hallucinogens, Hayes contemplates the transcendent cross-pollination of differences that is love:
Taking in the great beauty of my surroundings — “an attack of beauty,” as O once said about a sunset — I thought two things: one, how there is so much in that head of his, so much O knows; and two, how different we are, in that what is going through my brain is not so much a stream of thoughts and images but of feelings and emotions. I am tuned into the people around me — the dynamics among the group of boys behind us, and the argument being had by the older couple right next to us, and my own complicated feelings. I may not know nearly as much as O knows, I am not as brilliant, but I feel a lot, so much, and some of this has rubbed off onto him and some of his knowledge has rubbed off onto me.
Undergirding their particular love story is the universal story of every love — that subtle yet indelible way in which two separate people come to permeate one another in the very fiber of their being, a mutual permeation works even across space and time: Those we love come to color even our past that predates them. Looking back on one of his first evenings in New York, Hayes recounts: “The tequila tasted as clean and bright as metal — like an element with a name I can’t pronounce.” He hadn’t yet fallen in love with Dr. Sacks, whose famous obsession with the periodic table would become part of their relationship — Oliver would later count Billy’s pushups by the names of the corresponding elements: “titanium, vanadium, chromium…” And yet Hayes’s mind had somehow revised his own memory with Dr. Sacks’s subsequent influence, for loving someone alters even our memory of who we were before we loved them.
What becomes clear from Hayes’s journals is not only the soul-deep affection between them, but also those small, everyday acts of care of which that affection is woven:
“I hope I get a good night’s sleep and then have a rush of thoughts, as I did this morning,” says O. “It’s very delightful when that happens — all of them rushing to the surface, as if they have been waiting for me to become conscious of them…”
I help him get ready for bed — “de-sock” him, fill his water bottle, bring him his sleeping tablets, make sure he has something to read.
I: “What else can I do for you?”
Indeed, these fragmentary glimpses reveal above all a man unwilling, perhaps even unable, to fragment himself; a man who embodies Van Gogh’s ethos that his “life and love are one” — for alongside these spontaneous pronouncements of love are equally spontaneous revelations of Dr. Sacks’s lifelong sense that “the act of writing is an integral part of [his] mental life.” In another journal entry, Hayes writes:
O: “I want a flow of good thoughts and words as long as I’m alive.”
In an entry written less than a year before Dr. Sacks’s death, Hayes records:
“Do you sometimes catch yourself thinking?” says O, out of the blue, in the car, on the way to his place in the country. “I sometimes sort of feel like I’m … looking at the neural basis of consciousness.”
“Those are special occasions,” he went on, “when the mind takes off — and you can watch it. It’s largely autonomous, but autonomous on your behalf — in regard to problems, questions, and so on.” A pause, then returning to his thought: “There are creative flights… Flights: that is a nice word.”
“Mmm, I love that word… What… triggers such flights for you?”
“Surprise, astonishment, wonder…”
When knee surgery compounds the unbearable chronic pain of sciatica, making it impossible for Dr. Sacks to sit, he tells Hayes, who has built him a standing desk:
Writing is more important than pain.
O: “I thought being old would be either awful or trivial, and it’s neither.”
I: “What makes it not awful and not trivial?”
O: “Aside from you, thinking and writing.”
Hayes captures Dr. Sacks’s indivisible wholeness, this arduous resistance to the fragmentation of identity politics, in an exchange from the autumn of 2012:
Over dinner, O talking about his late friend Gaj — Carleton Gajdusek, a Nobel laureate in medicine — with great excitement and conviction, comparing him to Goethe, of whom it was said, O tells me, “He had a nature. A nature.”
I thought I knew what O meant — O, who has always disliked being pigeonholed, typed, as simply one thing or another, doctor or writer, gay or not, Jewish or atheist, etc. — but I wasn’t completely sure and prodded him.
“A nature,” he repeated, as if that was the only way to say it. “He wasn’t this or that, fitted with so many labels, an ‘identity,’ like people today, but all aspects of him were of a piece — this is who he was, not what he was; a force of nature, I suppose.”
Hayes — whose life has been marked by loss: his longtime partner Steve, his agent, mentor and dear friend Wendy Weil, and finally Oliver himself — considers the measure of aliveness:
I suppose it’s a cliché to say you’re glad to be alive, that life is short, but to say you’re glad to be not dead requires a specific intimacy with loss that comes only with age or deep experience. One has to know not simply what dying is like, but to know death itself, in all its absoluteness.
After all, there are many ways to die — peacefully, violently, suddenly, slowly, happily, unhappily, too soon. But to be dead — one either is or isn’t.
The same cannot be said of aliveness, of which there are countless degrees. One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly, no matter how fully oxygenated the blood and brain or how steadily the heart beats. Fortunately, this is a reversible condition. One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause — to memorize moments of the everyday.
It is with such an appetite for aliveness that Dr. Sacks meets his own death when the unexpected diagnosis of the rare recurrence of a rare cancer interrupts the idyll of their love. But even this news he receives with his inescapable essence of a writer and a lucid optimist, a liver of life, underlining each word as he writes atop a new page of his notepad: “Sad, shocking, horrible, yes, but…” In one of the finest parenthetical passages I’ve ever encountered, replete with wisdom beyond its concrete context, Hayes explains:
(Oliver often said that but was his favorite word, a kind of etymological flip of the coin, for it allowed consideration of both sides of an argument, a topic, as well as a kind of looking-at-the-bright-side that was as much a part of his nature as his diffidence and indecisiveness.)
Beneath that underlined heading, Dr. Sacks lists what Hayes calls “eight and one-half reasons to remain hopeful; to feel lucky at the very moment when one might reasonably feel most unlucky.” His list would swell into his now-iconic essay on living and dying, “My Own Life,” which he dictated to Hayes almost fully formed over dinner a couple of nights later.
His life expectancy suddenly compressed by the terminal diagnosis, Dr. Sacks sets out to compress in turn as much life as possible into the time he has left, condensing even his very being to become all the more intensely himself. The seed for this zest, if fertilized by the diagnosis, had been there all along, captured in a prescient remark he had made to Hayes early in their love, years before the fatal illness, which appears as the book’s epigraph:
I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life.
In another diary installment, Hayes captures the heart of what made Dr. Sacks such an exceptional writer — his adamant refusal to slide down the hierarchy of great writing from enchanter to mere explainer:
O, as he goes over final galleys for his book.
He insists on crossing out clauses suggested by a copy editor that define or explain an unusual word or term he has used: “Let them find out!” he says, meaning — make the reader work a little. Go look it up in the dictionary, or go to the library!
In a journal entry from the spring of 2015, Hayes records what might be an epitaph for Dr. Sacks:
O: “The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”
But what makes Dr. Sacks — the writer, the human being — so singular is the unremitting love with which he approached the world he attended to in writing, an orientation of spirit that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report.” Hayes captures this in a diary entry penned just two weeks before Dr. Sacks’s death:
[O:] “I say I love writing but really it is thinking I love — the rush of thoughts — new connections in the brain being made. And it comes out of the blue.” He smiled. “In such moments: I feel such love of the world, love of thinking…”
It is fair to doubt, as I did before beginning the book, whether it is possible to render a man so beloved by the world even more lovable. But this is precisely what Hayes has done, conveying with great care and tenderness the subtleties of character that only an intimate love can reveal in a person. There is, however, a harrowing price the reader must pay for bearing witness to their beautiful love: One is left to wonder how the loss of a man as irreplaceable as Dr. Sacks, a loss grieved by millions, is at all survivable by the person who loved him the most. And yet Hayes, in a supreme testament to how love teaches us to borrow the best parts of one another, tempers his melancholy with Oliver’s infinite capacity for buoyancy of mind and spirit. Half a century after Albert Camus’s abiding treatise on the most important question of existence, Hayes writes:
I remember how Wendy once told me she loved New York so much she couldn’t bear the thought of it going on without her. It seemed like both the saddest and the most romantic thing one could possibly say — sad because New York can never return the sentiment, and sad because it’s the kind of thing said more often about a romantic love — husband, wife, girlfriend, partner, lover. You can’t imagine them going on without you. But they do. We do. Every day, we may wake up and say, What’s the point? Why go on? And, there is really only one answer: To be alive.
Insomniac City is an ineffably splendid read in its entirety, a mighty packet of pure aliveness. Complement it with Dr. Sacks’s own memoir of love, lunacy, and a life fully lived, the remarkable story of how music and literature saved him, and his beautiful, courageous farewell to the world.
Published February 14, 2017