Bill Hayes's boyfriend of eighteen years, Steve -- "only forty- three" -- had vanished, out of the blue and into a fatal heart attack, breaking Hayes's heart. Hayes enters a ghostly dreamtime -- liminal: not quite alive, not dead. "One day I met a man with the name of an angel," Hayes writes. "We got to talking. Talking as balm. 'You're going to be fine,' Emmanuel said right away. 'Something bad always leads to something good . . . When my partner disappeared . . . ' and Hayes cuts in. 'You said "disappeared." ' He nodded. 'That's exactly how it feels for me.' "
Hayes is no innocent; he's knocked around, but by disposition -- and dint of vocation -- he is open and vulnerable. He is a writer, a poet, a street photographer. He is fully feeling. "The night after he died, I found that a sliver of light from the streetlamp shone through the blinds just so and cast a single yellowy tendril across his pillow. It was the opposite of a shadow. Which is as clear a definition as I can come up with for the soul." "With morning, the light was gone." Empty and agonized, soon it would be time to move to the next station. San Francisco was, New York City was to be: Insomniac City, where sleep goes to die, just the place for Mr. Restlessness. He lands in what New York criminally calls a "studio," sized enough for a table, chair, and single mattress. Visitors sit on the floor: "This apartment should be illegal," his friend Miguel says. "There must be some code somewhere that's being broken." The city's middle-of-the-night annoyances become Hayes's sleepless familiars: the clip-clop of police-horse shoes, lovers' sidewalk quarrels. "What is music to my ears may be intolerable to another's. Life here is a John Cage score, dissonance made eloquent" (yes, he did say "music to my ears"). Hayes is still shell-shocked, but he's a soldier, still damn-the-torpedoes open. He is grateful, courteous, and quick to tip his hat hello: "Kindness is repaid in unexpected ways," he believes. "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." He loves the 2 a.m. burble from the outdoor seating at the French restaurant six flights down. "I discovered a phenomenon heretofore unknown to me: Laughter rises." Hayes turns out to be that particular kind of big-city denizen, the irrepressible soul who treats the pavement like a cocktail party. He approaches strangers if they appear to be doing something that strikes him. In his mind's eye, this is neither discomfiting nor suicidal. He gathers those incidents and accidents that most of us have only heard in a song, experiences missed by being wary or the fear of being uncool. Sidewalks and subways are his hunting grounds. From a guy carrying fishing poles he learns that there are sharks in the Upper Bay. He promises a virginal, Sri Lankan cabbie that sex is everything he dreams it will be. From a homeless poet he learns the transit of Venus is taking place that week, an event "that only six times in recorded history have humans witnessed." Underground, he marvels how the random sampling -- the mash -- tests our kindness and compatibility. "Is that not what civility is?" Hayes stops people in the street and asks to take their photo: a cop, a vendor, two sisters. His black-and-white photographs dapple the chapters -- chapters that are quick though composed, sometimes simply snatches from his journals. "We are eating outside. All at once, 'Oh!' he exclaims, seeing a firefly, Tinker Bell-like at our feet. 'Isn't it amazing!' 'Yes, but don't -- as I have told you before -- eat one.' 'Ah, the dreaded death by firefly . . . ' O nods his head very seriously. " Enter O. Oliver Sacks -- The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, Island of the Colorblind, Hallucinations: that Oliver Sacks -- had sent Hayes a letter praising his book The Anatomist, a pitch-perfectly, disarmingly Sacksian card: "I meant to write a blurb [but] got distracted and forgot." They subsequently met in New York and started a correspondence. Hayes looked him up when he got to New York, eight years ago now. Sacks exuded innocence and vulnerability, protected only by his aura of brilliance. He took Hayes to his favorite haunts -- the botanical gardens, the mineralogy collection at the American Museum of Natural History -- and told him stories about the periodic table. Sacks fell in love for the first time, well into his seventy-fifth year. Sacks experiences his first passionate kiss on his seventy-sixth birthday. Hayes: "After I kiss him for a long time, exploring his mouth and lips with my tongue, he has a look of utter surprise on his face, eyes still closed: 'Is that what kissing is, or is that something you've invented.' " Their relationship is charming and charmed -- words here stripped clean and in amplitude. Sacks is murderously shy, and to witness how he emerges from this cocoon is wonderful. He is pulsing with life, his curiosity on some faraway astral plane: "Do you sometimes catch yourself thinking?" he asks. "Those special occasions when the mind takes off -- and you can watch it. It's largely autonomous, but autonomous on your behalf." Hayes takes him to see some skateboarders. "They may not have read Euclid, but they know it all." They sip wine from the bottle on their rooftop. There is a moment when Hayes catches Sacks, who is slowly going deaf and blind, trying to snip an uneven edge off a sheet of paper. "He was missing it entirely, scissoring the air very, very gently." This is a memoir, so a lot of other things work their way into and out of the story: Ali and his head shop; Ilona, the ninety-five-year- old, orange-haired, foot-long-eyelashed artist who draws Hayes's right eye ("She told me she'd drawn Tennessee Williams's eye once."); the moving man who never moves; incidents and accidents. And there is the "cancer arising from the pigment cells in his right eye," a recurrence of a melanoma that had by this point metastasized throughout Sacks's body. You both read and watch, from Hayes many portraits, the vanishing of Oliver. He is such a brick. A journal entry from four months before Sacks dies: "O, when I accidentally dropped a carton of cherry tomatoes on the floor. 'How pretty! Do it again!' So I do." When all Sacks can eat is gefilte fish, they have a taste test between Russ & Daughters and Murray's. And Hayes is a brick, too. There, and aware that he had not only fallen in love, "it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him." It's the kind of adoration that glows invitingly, like a warm, lighted window passed on a nighttime walk through a sleeping city. Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.
Reviewer: Peter Lewis
The Barnes & Noble Review
…a loving tribute to Sacks and to New York. [Hayes] provides tender insights into living with both…
Insomniac City is written in fragments and vignettes, mostly chronologically, often in the form of actual journal entries, though it includes some of the author's poetry and photographs, too…Read just 50 pages, and you'll see easily enough how Hayes is Sacks's logical complement. Though possessed of different temperaments, both are alive to difference, variety, the possibilities of our rangy humanity; both are avid chroniclers of our speciesSacks in his case studies, and Hayes in his character sketches of the people he meets in the street. Hayes is a true flâneur, a man who actively engages the city with all of his senses.
The New York Times - Jennifer Senior
Hayes’s tender memoir is a love letter—to New York City and to renowned science writer Oliver Sacks. Devastated by the sudden death of a longtime partner, Hayes (The Anatomist) relocated from San Francisco to Manhattan, where he became enamored with the strange rituals and brusque charm of the locals. At roughly the same time, he entered a relationship with Sacks, whose magisterial prose and celebrity concealed the fact that he’d been celibate for 35 years and never had a serious romantic attachment. Hayes explores his fascination with his new home and growing intimacy with the unworldly, brilliant man three decades his senior who was experiencing true love for the first time. In a mélange of journal entries, photos, scenes, and meditations, Hayes reconstructs his immersion in New York and the flowering of his involvement with Sacks, a romance cut short by the fatal return of Sacks’s cancer. Hayes’s stylistic approach provides immediacy to his recollections, imbuing conversations with cab drivers and the clerk at the local bodega with significance that resonates past the superficial mundanity. Sacks wrote until the very end, and his public examination of his impending death and sexual orientation help to make Hayes’s understated descriptions of their life together remarkably poignant. Readers will find themselves wishing the two men had more time, but as Hayes makes clear, they wasted none of the time they had. (Feb.)
"[A] loving tribute to Sacks and to New York . . . Read just 50 pages, and you’ll see easily enough how Hayes is Sacks’s logical complement. Though possessed of different temperaments, both are alive to difference, variety, the possibilities of our rangy humanity; both are avid chroniclers of our species . . . Frank, beautiful, bewitching[Hayes’s photographs] unmask their subjects’ best and truest selves." - Jennifer Senior,
New York Times "This touching memoir of the late neurologist Oliver Sacks, by a photographer and writer with whom he fell in love near the end of his life, turns a story of death into a celebration." - The New Yorker "[ Insomniac City] seems written in heightened states of feeling that infuse every detail with meaning and transient beauty." - Our Best Adult Books of 2017 - Nonfiction, Shelf Awareness "Remarkably poignant. Readers will find themselves wishing the two men had more time, but as Hayes makes clear, they wasted none of the time they had." - Publishers Weekly "A unique and exuberant celebration of life and love." - Kirkus Reviews "Like Patti Smith's haunting M Train, Hayes' book weaves seemingly disparate threads of memory into a kind of sanctuary a secret place where one can shake off the treasured relics of past lives and prepare to be reborn anew." - San Francisco Chronicle "Hayes captures both the frenetic, exhilarating pace of New York City as well as the whimsy, fun and romance of the years he spent with Sacks." - New York Post " Insomniac City is resoundingly about lifeabout being wide awake to possibility, to the beauty of every fleeting moment." - Oprah.com "Buy a box of tissues and pray for snow: This is the perfect weekend February read, and will have you alternately bawling and giddily clapping your hands for the lovers that may not have had the time they deserved, but certainly made the best with the time that they had." - Newsweek, "The Best New Book Releases" "Hayes beautifully depicts the life and night light in a city which never sleeps. As you read this beautifully written book, you feel as if you are walking through the streets of New York and living this insomniac city's night life. This is an extremely enjoyable read for those who never stop fancying New York." - Washington Independent Review of Books "As eloquent in its silences and visuals as it is in its telling of the secrets of the heart. . . . The brilliance of Insomniac City is that almost Tolstoy-an directness and concretion of observation, both down-to-earth and downright visionary." - Bay Area Reporter "Poetic and profound . . . What emerges from this dual love letter is a lyrical reminder that happiness and heartache are inseparably entwined. . . . Insomniac City is an ineffably splendid read in its entirety, a mighty packet of pure aliveness." - Brainpickings "That life permeates every page of Insomniac City, a dual love story of a powerful relationship that will shortly end but, also, of a city that is constantly reinventing itself." - Counterpunch "Breathtaking . . . It's the kind of book that makes you stay up late without regret . . . Hayes' precise and affectionate observations of his newly adopted city, its denizens, subways, bodegas, and landmarks allow the reader to experience it through fresh eyes." - Palette Magazine " Insomniac City is a beautiful memoir in which Oliver Sacks comes wonderfully to lifea double portrait that also provides a vivid picture of New York City's neighborhoods and people. The ending is exquisitely wrought, heartrending and joyous." - Joyce Carol Oates "Like New York, the city he celebrates so poignantly in this book, Bill Hayes mixes 'memory with desire' to create a heartbreakingly gorgeous story of love, loss, and renewal." - Azar Nafisi, author of READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN "Hayes turns out to be that particular kind of big-city denizen, the irrepressible soul who treats the pavement like a cocktail party." - Peter Lewis, Barnes & Noble " Insomniac City is a love story to New York and the people we cherish, for Bill Hayes, the late Oliver Sacks. With prescience and tenderness, written with a sharp eye and a camera attuned to life on the streets, Hayes has composed a gorgeous memoir on why place matters to the soul of our humanity. I loved every single sentence in this quiet night-book, erotic and evocative, at once." - Terry Tempest Williams, author of THE HOUR OF LAND "A lyrical love letter to his partner of six years, Dr Oliver Sacks, and to New York City itself. Through a series of tender vignettes, we meet the characters from the streets of Manhattan, and we are brought into the cocoon of Oliver Sacks' apartment" - Irish Times "No lack of tenderness in Insomniac City, Bill Hayes's memoir of his life in New York with the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks" - Guardian "A love letter to Sacks, but also to New York... Overheard remarks, curious reflections by Sacks, poetic observations keep the narrative moving" - Edmund White, Guardian
A photographer and distinguished nonfiction writer's account about starting over at midlife in New York City and falling in love with famed neurologist Oliver Sacks. Looking for a fresh start after the sudden death of his long-term partner, Hayes (The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy, 2007, etc.) moved to Manhattan from San Francisco in 2009. He immediately felt at home in New York largely because the "city that never sle[pt]" was as much an insomniac as he was. The author quickly made friends with Sacks, with whom he had begun corresponding about The Anatomist. Not knowing whether Sacks was hetero- or homosexual, Hayes found himself "sort of smitten" with the eminent neurologist from the start. Shy and formal, Sacks was as ebulliently "boyish" as he was quirky and brilliant. As their relationship deepened, Hayes was also drawn into the magical restlessness that was New York. He took pictures, many of which he intersperses through the narrative, of everything from trees in winter and his beloved Oliver to young lovers and ex-cons. Hayes also diligently recorded his impressions—alongside conversations had and overheard—in personal journals, and he interweaves these observations throughout the book with anecdotes about his relationship with Sacks, who died of cancer in 2015. The author's vignette-style recollections are especially endearing for the sensitive way they portray a 70-something Sacks coming into awareness of—and claiming—his own homosexuality as he fell in love with Hayes. But perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the way it weds one man's openness to experience with what ultimately, and quite unexpectedly, became his two greatest passions: a closeted neurologist nearing the end of his life and a city in an endless state of flux and evolution. A unique and exuberant celebration of life and love.