Out Late With Oliver Sacks

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.

We had just finished dinner, it was about 7:30, when we heard noise on the street — chanting. We went to the big picture window overlooking Eighth Avenue. It was a Black Lives Matter march — the avenue filled, police escorts, signs, bullhorns.

“We should be with them,” Oliver said. Ordinarily the very definition of apolitical, he had been extremely distressed about the events in Ferguson, Mo., the killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island, repeated incidents of police brutality — all “morally reprehensible.”

But by then, the marchers had already moved north a block to 14th Street. We sat back down.

About 10 minutes later, I heard the same sound, the same chanting. “Oliver, I think they’re coming back — the rally — another wave.”

“Let’s go!” Cane in hand, Oliver scurried as quickly as he could to the coat closet, and began putting on his down jacket, muffler, hat and gloves. Whereas I could throw stuff on in a second, it simply took him longer. By the time we got outside our building, the marchers were once again gone.

We went back inside, deflated. But before we could hang our coats up, we heard yet another round, faintly, and without going to the window to check, pulled our coats back on. “We’re like the Marx Brothers,” Oliver said, laughing.

We got back into the elevator, got ourselves onto the sidewalk, and joined the tail end of the last wave of the march up Eighth Avenue, then heading east on 14th. His mood now sober, Oliver raised his voice with the others for several blocks. We walked more slowly than the rest, so we made it only as far as Sixth Avenue. From there, we stood and watched the marchers recede, headed for a big rally at Union Square.

On Sundays, Oliver and I would take a long walk in the West Village and often end up at our favorite bookstore, Three Lives & Company. On such a day in June of last year, one of the clerks, Troy, asked us if we were going to “Oliver Sacks Night” at Julius, the gay bar across the street from the store.

We had no idea what he was talking about. With that, Troy pulled out a flier for the monthly Mattachine Society party held at Julius; each party had a theme, and this month’s was Oliver Sacks. Apparently, it was inspired by the photo of him on the cover of his memoir “On the Move” — Oliver in 1961, age 27, looking studly in full leather atop his BMW motorbike. In the book, published a month earlier, he had come out as a gay man and discussed our relationship publicly for the first time.

I looked at Oliver skeptically: “Would you go? Do you want to go?” I was sure he’d say no.

“Yes,” he replied at once, “I would.”

In our six years together as a couple, we had never been to a gay bar. Oliver felt genuinely nervous about being recognized at one; but equally so, with his increasingly poor eyesight and hearing, he couldn’t abide crowded, noisy places of any kind. Oliver hadn’t been inside a gay bar in at least 40 years. But now? And for such an amusing reason — why not?

The party started at 9. We were early. (Oliver was always early for appointments; to be late, even five minutes late, could throw him into a panic.) I ordered beers and, feeling cheeky, introduced Oliver to the attractive bartender. The young man looked confused, as if thinking, “What? Oliver Sacks is still alive?” (One couldn’t really have blamed him; in a widely read essay published a few months before in The New York Times, Oliver had written candidly about his illness and impending death.)

Normally tongue-tied when it came to small talk, Oliver spoke right up: “Yes, that’s me —” he pointed to the fliers bearing his image taped all over the place, on the bar mirrors, on the walls. “Well, me a long, long time ago.”

The young man shook O’s hand with an air of genuine respect, then disappeared. In moments, I understood why: A voice came over the loudspeakers: “Gentlemen? Ladies? Queens? May I have your attention? I have just been told that Dr. Oliver Sacks is in the house — welcome to Oliver Sacks Night, Dr. Sacks!”

Applause erupted. Oliver could not have looked more tickled. And then, delighting him more, a tall drag queen appeared, tapped Oliver on the shoulder, and took his hand. She led him further back into the bar, and got a stool for him to perch on next to the table where a D.J. was setting up. “What can I get you, hon?” said the drag queen.

“Oh!” Oliver exclaimed. “I don’t know!”

Oliver and decisions: another difficulty for him.

“We had beers,” I interjected, “how about another beer?”

The drag queen gave Oliver a squeeze on his upper arm. “You got it, babe,” she said. “And by the way, nice biceps.”

“Why, thank you,” Oliver said courteously.

A cold Heineken was placed in his hand, but he was able to take only a swig or two. Men and women were lining up to meet him. Here he was, enthroned on a rickety bar stool next to a makeshift D.J. booth in what’s known as the oldest gay bar in New York, shaking hands with one fellow gay person after another. Many were dressed like the Oliver Sacks in the poster — in leather. Some simply said hello, a few asked for autographs or selfies, three or four told stories. Everyone said thank you. A young woman told Oliver that she was autistic, and his writings on autism had helped her and her family to understand her identity.

By now, an hour after our arrival, the bar was jammed, the music getting loud, and for Oliver’s comfort and safety we thought it best to leave. We said our goodbyes and stepped outside. But a number of men followed us out onto the sidewalk. Questions came: How are you doing, Dr. Sacks? How are you feeling? What are you working on? What was Robin Williams like when you filmed “Awakenings”? What’s the most bizarre case you ever had? And so on.

Oliver propped himself against a streetlamp pole. A semicircle had formed around him (Troy and his boyfriend among them). He chatted and answered questions with élan for half an hour then signaled to me with his eyes that he was ready to go — exhausted, I could tell.

Not long after this night, we would learn that the metastases in his liver had spread to other organs, making his prognosis even more dire than we had expected. We had hoped he might have another six months at least.

Oliver took my arm, and we slowly walked home.

“Well, that was very nice,” he said, “very congenial indeed.”

I agreed. “Maybe we’ll go back again some night.”

Oliver thought about this for a moment. “No, that was enough for me,” he said. “That was perfect.”

(Originally published in The New York Times, August 28, 2016)

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