Insomniac City by Bill Hayes
Bill Hayes left San Francisco desolate after the death of his partner, Steve. He bought a one-way ticket to New York and rented an apartment. He recalls observing five ailanthus trees from his sixth floor window. “Ailanthus,” Hayes learns, is an Indonesian word meaning “tree of heaven,” and he watches what he refers to as Tree TV, learning resilience and the art of being still through grief.
Welcome to Insomniac City, Bill Hayes’ love letter to his adopted home and to Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author, with whom Hayes fell in love and shared his life in New York until Sacks’ death from cancer in 2015.
Hayes, both a writer and photographer, walks the New York streets with his camera at the ready. He is intrepid in approaching strangers for photos and probing them with questions. Hayes approaches his subjects with an open heart and empathy that is rewarded in kind. A woman writes a poem for him; another draws a portrait of his eye; he engages otherwise angry New Yorkers, unearthing their stories. He has a gift for rendering poetic what to others is mundane, and he does this with both his photos and his writing.
“Taking wrong trains, encountering unexpected delays, and suffering occasional mechanical breakdowns are inevitable to any journey really worth taking. One learns to get oneself turned around and headed the right way.”
Oliver Sacks is 76-years-old (Hayes is 48) when the couple starts dating. Oliver had never been in a relationship, had never come out as a gay man, and hadn’t had sex in decades. He had devoted his life to his work – to reading, writing, and thinking.
It is 2009, Hayes’ first summer in New York and the summer that Michael Jackson died. Oliver asks Hayes, “What is Michael Jackson?” The neurologist knows nothing of popular culture, though his writing has placed him squarely in the middle of it. Hayes recounts a remarkable lunch with Bjork at her home in Reykjavik after Oliver had worked with the Icelandic artist on a BBC documentary at her request. And in a whirlwind run-in with 1970s supermodel Lauren Hutton, Oliver has no idea who she is, but she is starstruck upon meeting him.
Much of Insomniac City is comprised of sections titled, “Notes from a Journal,” entries taken directly from Hayes’ personal journals, which access with intimacy the couple’s relationship and Hayes’ love for Oliver. Hayes finds everything about Oliver endearing – the way he invests inanimate objects with qualities of the living, his genuine belief in the deadly risks of accidentally eating a firefly, and his vast library of books alphabetized by author and uncanny ability to recall quotations and find them in that library.
We get to know Oliver through Hayes and we too fall in love. We fall in love with the way Oliver uses the pronoun “one” in place of “I” as in, “One feels they want to be cleaned” (referring here to the dishes). And we love that even Oliver’s most mundane observations betray his genius, for example when remarking at the skatepark how the skaters “describe curves in hyperbolic space,” and how the ancients would have admired them.We fall in love with Oliver’s signature pronouncements:
“Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a planet where the sound of rain falling is like Bach?”
Insomniac City is episodic in nature, comprised of vignettes of Hayes’ life in New York. Among my favorites is when Hayes’ brings his nieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and one of them falls in love with a Monet water lily. Hayes teaches her how she can own that painting:
“This is when I let each girl in on a secret: It can be yours. No different from falling in love with a song, one may fall in love with a work of art and claim it as one’s own. Ownership does not come free. One must spend time with it; visit at different times of the day or evening; and bring to it one’s full attention. The investment will be repaid as one discovers something new with each viewing – say, a detail in the background, a person nearly cropped from the picture frame, or a tiny patch of canvas left unpainted, deliberately so, one may assume, as if to remind you not to take all the painted parts for granted.”
Insomniac City will make you smile, and it will break your heart. If you’re like me, it will leave you thirsting for more (perhaps one of Sacks’ own books). Make it your own. Linger. You can own it, and perhaps, like Tree TV, it will teach you the art of just being.