Insomniac City made me cry – but in a nice way. I am an incurable romantic and Hayes’s revealing memoir really tugged at my heart-strings despite my best efforts to give his book a clinical analysis. I am the kind of person who likes old-fashioned love stories like City Lights, the black-and-white, silent 1931 film starring Charlie Chaplin as the little Tramp, and Virginia Cherrill as the blind flower seller with whom he falls in love.
“The last scene of ‘City Lights’ is justly famous as one of the great emotional moments in the movies; the girl, whose sight has been restored by an operation paid for by the Tramp, now sees him as a bum–but smiles at him anyway, and gives him a rose and some money, and then, touching his hands, recognizes them. ‘You?’ she asks on the title card. He nods, tries to smile, and asks, ‘You can see now?’ ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘I can see now.’ She sees, and yet still smiles at him, and accepts him. The Tramp guessed correctly: She has a good heart, and is able to accept him as himself.” – Roger Ebert, 1997
Like Ebert, I found this scene simply unforgettable and the high point of the film. Insomniac City is the story of Bill Hayes’s time in New York, and his relationship with Dr. Oliver Sacks, and I found many similarities between it and City Lights. Mainly, the discreet, almost diffident signs of affection between the Hayes and “O” as he called Dr. Sacks, reminded me of the old-worldly developing romance between the Tramp and the flower seller.
But Insomniac City does not only have that one heart-wrenching moment that City Lights has (“You?” she asks) – it has many like that, intensifying and becoming more revealing as the relationship deepens, and all made more important by the reader’s awareness that Dr. Sacks is now dead, and that this book was written in mourning.
Regardless of how eloquently Hayes describes New York, the interesting people he meets, and the sights, sounds and experiences, it is the quoted conversations with Sacks, and Sacks’s sometimes plaintive questions to him about the nature of love and their relationship, that are most memorable. Their words sit there on the page, brief but heavy with meaning, like the onscreen inter-titles in City Lights.
I wish I could take you through this book page for page – but it would take too long. Believe me, every page has something special in it, a photo, even a drawing, a moment, some words. It could not be more poignant, more romantic, or more intriguing if it were a romantic drama on screen.
Blaise Pascal:“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows not”
Oliver Sacks never married and lived alone for most of his life. He declined to disclose the details about his personal life until he published his autobiography, On the Move: A life (2015), not long before he died in Aug. 2015. He had been celibate, in body and mind, solely focused on his research, for thirty-something years before he and Hayes met in 2008. Their relationship, at first hidden and private, slowly evolved into a committed long-term partnership that lasted until his death. He was very shy, of course more intelligent than most people, and not interested at all in TV, celebrities or computers. They got to know each other by writing letters; “Dear Dr. Sacks…” and “Dear Mr. Hayes”.
Moreover, Sacks, apart from being very hard of hearing and having weak eyesight, suffered from topographical agnosia, an inability to recognize land marks, as well as prosopagnosia, an inability to recognize faces, that made him reclusive. For a doctor who was surrounded by patients all his life, he had a great many problems himself. (Strange, I always thought of him as unaffected by illnesses like those suffered by his patients, almost super-human, like Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee.)
Despite their differences, these two became a couple. Hayes loved (still loves?) Sacks and cared for him until he died, and from the text I can infer that the relationship was not straightforward, and quite a surprise, especially to Sacks. Nonetheless it made both of them the happiest they had ever been. The heart, as philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said, indeed has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.
Thank goodness that they found each other – Hayes, because his relationship with Sacks healed his grief after his previous partner, “Steve”, died, and Sacks, because he got to experience a loving relationship, and all the amazement, discoveries and sheer happiness that come with that, before he died.
Hayes’s partner Steve had died from a heart attack, and then Sacks died from cancer. How can one human stand so much grief? I asked myself, as I shakily searched for a tissue to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. Time, apparently, is the answer. Time, and perhaps, the city and the people in it.
“With morning the light was gone, and I found the days empty and agonizing. It would take about three years for this feeling to pass – a thousand days, give or take – people who had been through this told me. As it turns out, they were right. What no-one said is something I discovered on my own: A thousand days is a thousand nights is a thousand chances to dream about him.” (p.28)
If you are lonely or bone-tired or blue…
Hayes’s writing is lovely – tenderly expressive and yet precisely observed, as if he had a camera not only in his hand, but in his brain, and had recorded these moments all along.
It is also, I suspect, revealing and truthful. Heck, anyone who has ever lived and lost a loved one would recognize the honesty, the detail, and the pain in his descriptions.
Do I want to see New York after having read the book? No – I understand that the outside of the city, the dirt, potholes, run-down buildings, the rushing crowds, rough sleepers and so on, would put me off, and that it is only when you live in it, that you can see the charm of the city.
“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.” (p.21)
The same can be said of this book. Get into it, and you’ll feel better. Hayes got to know New York by wandering around at night, when he was unable to sleep – hence the book’s title. That resonated with me – but also, piercingly, one of his last conversations with Sacks, in which, as always, he wished him sweet dreams and a good sleep, as one insomniac to another:
“Last night, before getting some sleep, I came in to see if he needed anything. I tucked him in and kissed his forehead.
‘Do you know how much I love you?’ I said.
’No.’ His eyes were closed. He was smiling, as if seeing beautiful things.
‘Good,’ O said, ‘very good.’
‘Sweet dreams.’” (p.355 of 371)
I hope, as Sacks did, to be lucky enough to die in my own bed, with the person I love and who loves me holding me close, with no pain. Sacks did – and the burden of loving him (yes, burden, because it was hard) was borne gracefully and gratefully by Hayes. Lucky Sacks. Lucky Hayes.
Pascal’s original line in French:
The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction, Bill Hayes is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the author of four books: Sleep Demons; Five Quarts; The Anatomist; and Insomniac City: New York, Oliver Sacks, and Me. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Review of Books, BuzzFeed, and The Guardian.
Hayes is an established photographer, with credits including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times. His portraits of his partner, the late Oliver Sacks, appear in the volume of Dr. Sacks’s suite of final essays Gratitude. A collection of his street photography, How New York Breaks Your Heart, was recently published by Bloomsbury. His photography is represented by the Steven Kasher Gallery, where the first exhibition of his photographs is on view through March 17, 2018.
Hayes has lectured at NYU, UCSF, and University of Virginia, and has appeared at the Sydney Writers Festival, the 92nd Street Y, the Times of India (Mumbai) LitFest, and other venues. He serves as the Creative Director of the Oliver Sacks Foundation and as a co-editor of Dr. Sacks’ posthumously published work (Gratitude and The River of Consciousness). Hayes, 57, lives in New York City and is currently at work on a book in which he explores the history of exercise (Bloomsbury, 2020). (Rtrvd. from https://www.billhayes.com, 2018-02-28)