“One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly,” writes Bill Hayes in Insomniac City, his memoir of moving to New York in his late forties and falling in love with notorious writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks. Leaving San Francisco behind after the death of his long-time partner, he ponders the thrill of not being dead, and in doing so the many pleasures afforded by life – and love – in the city than never sleeps.
Illustrating his story with street photography and diary entries, he recounts his love affair with the bustling metropolis, whose restless energy guides him through grief to a place where he can love again.
Just as his photographs are like short stories, Hayes writes like a photographer. Carefully framed vignettes reveal hidden splendor in the mundane rituals of city life – exchanges with strangers, subway encounters, a shirtless skater gliding by like a panther. He describes the high of domestic bliss when one chooses to surround oneself with books, science, weed, music and laughter, sensual pleasures always within reach.
There’s an art to finding beauty and depth in the everyday, an observant mindfulness sharpened by a photographic lens or a way with words. It’s abundant here yet never twee, maybe because it dwells in the knowledge that we forever stand in the shadow of death. What we learn from this proximity to loss is a sense of our own mortality which can heighten our experience of the present.
As he recounts Sacks’ final months, days, hours, I was profoundly moved by this love affair between two men born three decades and an ocean apart, who found each other late in life and were offered a second chance. In their curiosity, tenderness and small acts of bravery I relearned a sense of wonder.
I write this in our twelfth week of pandemic-induced lockdown here in Sydney. This has been a period of introspection during which, like many of us, I have pondered the things I took for granted – travel, human contact, gathering in groups or crowds – and what I truly wanted or valued in life. Consciously or not, I’ve sought answers in the books I’ve been reading. There are many to be found in this simple but multifaceted gem.
Insomniac City is published by Bloomsbury