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Loving Oliver Sacks and the city: Bill Hayes' new memoir
by Liz Baudler
2017-05-24

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Shortly before his death in the summer of 2015, the eminent and beloved neurologist Oliver Sacks did an interview with the public radio show Radiolab.

For the first time, Sacks was open about his sexuality: he was, in fact, gay. Though he spent much of his life without a relationship, in his final years Sacks fell in love with the writer Bill Hayes. They met after Sacks failed to write a blurb for Hayes' forthcoming book and wrote the other man an apologetic letter. As Sacks recalled on the radio show and in his memoir, On the Move, after some months of acquaintance Hayes came to him and told him, "I have conceived a deep love for you." They were together until Sacks passed away.

Two years later, Hayes penned his own tribute to his partner in his new memoir, Insomniac City. While his relationship with Sacks threads the narrative, the book begins with Hayes' decision to move to New York after the sudden death of his partner, Steve, in San Francisco.

"New York saved my life," said Hayes. "I had just reached a point in San Francisco, where, it's not like it was the end, but I didn't see my life going forward in any meaningful way. I could have stayed, but I sort of felt like it would have turned into this sort of sad, sort of boring life, and I didn't want that. I moved to New York and I felt just embraced by this big crazy chaotic diverse city."

Despite the clear presence of Sacks, Hayes considers New York the book's main character, and he illustrates his love for the city with both images and stories of its denizens. Equally talented as writer and photographer, Hayes often chronicles his encounters with random New Yorkers. The stories people tell and their faces paint a vivid picture of both the city and the author.

"Having the eye of a photographer combined with the storytelling instincts of a writer makes me not only curious, but sort of driven," Hayes explained. "It gives me a sense of purpose, even though I may just be walking to the drugstore to pick up a prescription. If I have my camera with me, I'm sort of on the lookout."

Although he'd describe himself as quiet, Hayes said his reserve disappears when he rides the subway or hops in a cab. "I'm completely fearless with strangers. Part of it is just curiosity, genuine curiosity, and openness to other people. I can't exactly explain why that is, it's just how I am, and what I find is my openness brings out openness in other people. And it can be kind of disarming, but they often respond in kind."

Hayes described the process of putting together Insomniac City as intuitive. His reflections and city encounters mingle with scenes from his relationship with Sacks. "I really wanted the photographs to come and go and appear almost like you're passing strangers on the streets of New York," Hayes explained. "They would be part of the narrative without explicit description or explanation."

Most of the book took shape during a six-week trip to Rome, where Hayes combed through a 750-page journal Sacks had encouraged him to keep when they began dating.

"I spent my first week in Rome reading through the journal with a yellow highlighter, just highlighting passages that jumped out at me, conversations we'd had, or even just one-liners," Hayes recalled. "Once the reader is introduced to Oliver and to me and the concept of the journal entries, you get it. It was important to me that they have dates, because the dates of the journal entries drive the narrative forward in time."

He struggled with how much of each part of his New York world—the city versus Sacks' apartment—to include. "This may sound a little harsh, but I didn't want to get sick of Oliver and me," Hayes explained. "You could sort of go too far into 'one more dinner with Oliver.' Up until the last draft, one of the challenges was cutting things out, just to leave things in that were the most vivid, or the most moving, or the most funny."

It's hard to imagine ever being sick of Hayes and Sacks as a couple. The journal entries reveal a charming, moving, hilarious, unquestionably unique bond. Decades and lifestyle separated them—Hayes carried a smartphone, Sacks never sent an email in his life—but the two shared a love of language, people, and intense curiosity about the world.

"One of the most delightful things about being with Oliver was watching him blossom in a domestic relationship," Hayes recalled. "Whereas I had been in long-term relationships and probably took for granted the pleasure of making dinner with your partner, with Oliver, it was fun. He'd led this life as a bachelor, where he would eat a tin of sardines over the sink. He wasn't familiar with his appliances before he and I met. And once he got to know his appliances, he totally delighted in it. He loved to clean up the kitchen, he loved to load the dishwasher. If it wasn't full, he'd put clean mugs and glasses in so they'd all be snug and have company."

Hayes loved seeing how quickly Sacks took to having a partner. "We brought different things to the relationship," he said. "I was the more experienced one in terms of even having a relationship and experiencing love. He came to this with this lifetime of knowledge and reading. Oliver, this man who knew so much about evolution and evolutionary history, was a prime example of accelerated evolution. He was entering into totally new territory."

He takes exception to the idea that Sacks was closeted. "I understand the use of the word, but the truth is, Oliver had led a very private life," Hayes said. "It was a monk-like existence devoted to his patients and his practice and his writing. It was just a very different life than most of us lead. Certainly very different from the life I had led. But not necessarily tortured in the way that that sounds with the word 'closeted'."

Although Hayes had to adjust to Sacks' initial concern for privacy, he soon found it was nothing to chafe against. "Looking back, I really treasure it. Not everyone knew the details," he said. "People understood that we were very close. But it was private in a way that was lovely. A friend of mine described our relationship as being like a beautiful secret. I thought that was such a nice phrase. It was like a beautiful secret, but it was also one that, at the end of his life, [Oliver] shared with the world."

He remembered with amusement that Sacks didn't really connect to his own fame. "He understood that he was famous, and that when he did readings or lectures there were thousands of people," Hayes said. "And it also slightly puzzled him in a way. It was exactly that quality that drew people to Oliver Sacks. Here was this obviously brilliant man, but someone who had a kind of humility and modesty and innocence, almost. He was very boyish in that way. Definitely a part of what I fell in love with, this boyish charm and curiosity."

By all rights, Insomniac City should feel like a book about loss—in addition to losing two partners, Hayes also writes about the death of his beloved agent, and, in passing, his mother. Yet the book teems with vibrant examples of life, which Hayes said reflects his own outlook.

"From my early 20s, living in San Francisco in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, illness and sudden death were part of my life, so it wasn't just the loss of Steve and the loss of Oliver," he explained. "I wanted that to be sort of seamless within this book, that acceptance that death is part of life, but so is joy. And joy and pleasure and play and enjoyment are very much part of this book."

Because of his time with Sacks, Hayes looks forward to aging. 'Which is not the kind of thing you normally hear," he laughed. "I'm 56, so I'm already old, but [Oliver] was 75 when I met him, and he made—and he would use that term himself—he made being old seem fun. He fell in love, he wrote three amazing books, we went to Iceland three times, we swam three times a week, and he would go to the gym. Even though there were hardships...he adapted to old age really well."

He also believes that old age was part of the reason he had a relationship with Sacks at all.

"We both experienced very painful losses, and [Sacks] had experienced a very scary cancer with the melanoma in his eye. He had had his own brush with mortality not long before we met," Hayes reflected. "And I think that also contributed to Oliver's openness in entering a relationship for the first time. He knew "life is short and this is something I never really experienced, and here's this guy named Bill Hayes, I don't know where he came from, but he keeps calling, and we keep having a good time together." So he went with it."

Bill Hayes' website is BillHayes.com .


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