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I stop by the smoke shop down the block. It’s about 6 o’clock. Ali has arrived for work just as Bobby is leaving for the day. I’ve hardly ever seen them here together; it’s either one or the other behind the counter. They are talking about something with great vigor and animation—at least, that’s how it appears to me. I can’t understand a word they’re saying.
“Gentlemen. Gentlemen?” I can hardly get their attention, they’re so enthralled. Finally, I have to interrupt: “Hey! What are you two arguing about? And, by the way, what language are you speaking?”
“Panjabi,” says Ali, ignoring my first question. Bobby has walked away, into the back somewhere. Ali calls after him, as if getting in a final jab. He can’t disguise his delight. He is a cat waiting for the mouse to return to play.
Moments pass. Bobby returns to the counter, as if nothing had happened between them, and I have to smile: Here they are, side by side, these two from whom I’ve been buying Sunday papers and rolling papers and bottles of water and Kit-Kat bars for the past five years: one Muslim man, one Hindu, matching mischievous grins on their light brown faces.
“Yes?” says Ali.
“Mr. Billy, what we can do for you?” says Bobby, feigning seriousness.
Now I can’t even remember what I came in here for, so I change course. “Teach me a word in Panjabi,” I say. “Just one word.”
“Okay,” says Ali.
“All right,” says Bobby.
They stare back at me, waiting for a prompt.
“Hold on, let me think. What is—um, what is..the Panjabi word for beauty?” I say.
They look at one another.
“Sohni,” says Bobby.
Ali nods: “Yes,” then adds, “but it’s ‘sohna‘ if you’re talking about a man—sohna, not sohni.”
Ali: he knows me all too well.
“That is very helpful—thank you, Ali,” I say.
“You’re welcome, my friend.”
I had a medical appointment Friday in a part of Manhattan that you can’t really get to easily by subway. Someday there will be a 2nd Avenue line, but until then? You take a cab.
I don’t take cabs all that often, so even after seven years in New York, it still almost always feels like an original experience: You get into a car with someone you do not know, you tell him where to take you, and then: You are a passenger.
There are so many ways you can spend that time: look out the window, look at your phone, text people, read emails, make a call, close your eyes, talk to the cabbie.
Sometimes I have to work up a little nerve, but I usually talk to the cabbie, see how that goes. Sometimes it goes nowhere.
On Friday, the cabbie was listening to talk radio: some back-and-forth about Trump.
“So, what’s gonna happen with this campaign?” I said.
No response. I thought he hadn’t heard me but then realized he was formulating his answer.
“I don’t know, I haven’t voted since Jimmy Carter–that was the end for me.”
It was such a good answer.
“Jimmy Carter!” I responded, crouching forward. “Wow, man, that is commitment right there. I gave up for a while after Bill Clinton, all that impeachment bullshit. I hardly remember the Bush years, to be honest, I really don’t–”
He shot me a glance.
“–But then, Obama came along,” I added, “and I was smitten.”
He nodded, but not in agreement: “They’re all the same, always will be; it’s a militarized economy, the U.S.” He went on to cite statistics from every war America has been involved in since WWII–Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, other military operations; he knew what he was talking about. “Thousands and thousands of people slaughtered,” he continued, his voice rising. “Millions of dollars spent–millions! For what? For what..? For money. Money.”
I sat back. “Yeah,” I murmured.
I didn’t mention this yet, but the cabbie was very dark-skinned, around 65, and had a pretty heavy accent–beautiful, French somehow; I couldn’t place it. “Where are you from originally?”
He looked in the rear view. “West Africa.”
“Where in West Africa? Ivory Coast?”
I nodded, looking for it on a mental map.
“Been here forty years,” he added. “Forty years ago, got to New York, got my citizenship.”
So: I thought to myself, he moved here in 1976, voted for Carter, saw how that went, then he gave up. Oh, America.
Traffic was terrible, and I was already late for my appointment. I called the office and told them I was five minutes away–ever the optimist. We were close, but it was going to take way more than five minutes; cars weren’t even moving anymore; it’d be faster to walk the last couple blocks. The cabbie agreed: “…New York…” he said sort of under his breath but chuckling at the same time. He had a sense of humor about all of this.
“Listen, I’ll get out here, you can just pull over.”
He did so. I paid the fare, tipped him, told him my name, and he told me his. We shook hands through the window between driver and passenger.
“Take it easy, boss, nice to talk to you,” he said.
When Oliver Sacks died on Aug. 30 of last year, at 82, the world lost a beloved author and neurologist. I lost my partner.
Oliver hated that term: partner. “A partner is what one has in business,” he would say, bristling, “not in bed, not in the kitchen next to you making dinner.” The man was nothing if not meticulous about words. We’d never married — never wanted to — so “husband” was out, and “companion” was too euphemistic. Oliver was old-fashioned: He preferred the word “lovers.” We loved each other; that said it.
Thinking back on my life with Oliver, two episodes from his last year come to mind, each revealing something of the private and public Dr. Sacks. The first took place at home in late November 2014, two months before he learned of his terminal cancer diagnosis. Read the rest of this post »
PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY, 8-15-16:
“Bill 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. 14, 2017 – BLOOMSBURY)
It’s about five after 1:00 yesterday. I see a head emerging from one of those trap doors on the sidewalk. The young man is hauling a dolley with 2 kegs precariously on top.
“Hey,” I say.
“Man it’s hot–I can’t believe how it is.”
He nods, Like, what are you going to do?
I hold up my camera. “I’m a photographer. This would be such a cool shot. Can I take a picture?”
“Huh? You mean the truck? Sure, go ahead.”
I turn to look behind me: a Budweiser truck parked at the curb. I chuckle. “Yeah, that would be a good picture, too. But I meant you. Can I take a picture of you?”
The young man built like Atlas stares back at me for a moment, then shrugs. “Okay,” he says.
This is my neighbor, Karen. She lives on 14th Street, I’m not sure where, but we see each other now and then and say hello.
She has MS–has known since she was twelve. “Before that, my mother would just give me aspirin for the longest time, she didn’t know what was wrong with me.” Karen lost the ability to walk when she was 20 and had her first child.
Today she was at the new Free Wi-Fi station on 8th @ 14th with her friend, Benedict, who’s homeless. The Wi-Fi station replaced a phone booth on this spot. Karen was charging her phone and at the same time listening to her music on Spotify or something.
Benedict was charging his phone but he wasn’t sure how he felt about this. “It’s kind of like when they took the horses off the road. No more telephone booths. They’re gone.”
“That’s right,” said Karen. She thought for a moment. “But, they’d just turned into places where people did crack and pissed. Sometimes I’d see someone go in to use a pay phone, and I’d say, ‘Honey, don’t pick up that phone–do you know what’s gone on there?”
Karen laughed hard, thinking about this. So did Benedict and I.
I looked over at him. “And yet? Here you are charging your phone–that’s kind of cool, right?”
“Yeah, man.” He told me you can even watch porn on the small screen on the kiosk.
“You serious?” I said. “Well…That’s an upside.”
Benedict shrugged his shoulders. “You gotta just go with it, man,” he smiled.
Cook on a break – Trastevere