Advance praise for How We Live Now:
“This is a love story—for one particular man in the love affair that began as the pandemic did, for the city of New York and its people coping with an unanticipated catastrophe, for what words can do, for the light and darkness, shade and illumination of black and white street photography, for wandering and encountering and seeing, for being truly a citizen of the city and an inhabitant of the streets. Even at a moment when we were all supposed to withdraw from each other, HOW WE LIVE NOW reaches out.” — Rebecca Solnit
“Bill Hayes has unwrapped a New York under wraps during the lockdown. He is, in his photos and writings, the great poet of the everyday.” — Edmund White
“Author and photographer Bill Hayes captures raw and beautiful moments of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. From deserted streets, shuttered restaurants, and other changes in this strange new world, he manages to find grace and gratitude. How We Live Now is a deep look at this unprecedented time we’re all living through together.”
“Completed in early May of this year, Hayes’ (‘Insomniac City,’ 2017) latest is an achingly timely and moving portrait, in words and photographs, of New York City during the current global COVID-19 pandemic. Describing himself as “a loner and an introvert (except when it comes to strangers),” Hayes has long celebrated the beauty of New York and its people in his street photography (previously gathered in ‘How New York Breaks Your Heart,’ 2018). Interspersed among journal-like chapters, he shares new photos, some of which are before-and-afters: a busy, brake-lit 8th Avenue in December 2019, precedes a black-and-white image from the same vantage point, the street deserted, in April of this year; a June 2019 photo of a city stoop overflowing with Pride revelers is followed by a stark image of a woman sitting alone in March 2020. Mourning his and his city’s giant losses and expressing melancholy for what may never be again, Hayes also finds joy in surprising things, like cooking for himself and joining a “metaphorical bread line” outside his favorite bookshop, and in sweet, affectingly related memories.”
Since early in the year 2020, experts and pundits have been desperate to make sense of the grand and sweeping ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic is rapidly shifting the world. What acclaimed New York City author and photographer Bill Hayes brings to the conversation with How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic, however, is the same ground-level, impressionistic sensibility that made his memoir Insomniac City the tender and moving portrait it is, of living, loving and grieving.
“It’s strange,” he writes, “to try to retrace one’s steps, thinking about where you were at what point in this pandemic while still in the midst of this pandemic–and whether or not you’d ever been or put yourself at risk.” Living in isolation, limiting non-essential excursions outside the home, the days blur into weeks with little to distinguish them. Yet, somehow, Hayes pulls salient moments from the ether and infuses them with a resilience that might seem precious were it not bolstered by his clear-eyed perspective, having mourned two long-term partnerships and worked in AIDS awareness and prevention. His hope rises from the quotidian, which persists in his exchanges with people he photographs on sidewalks and in parks, in conversations with taxi drivers and store clerks, in the chants of Black Lives Matter marching through the city and in navigating new love once again. Threading essays together with journal entries and fine-art photography, How We Live Now is a wise and understanding companion for the lonely nights of catastrophe. –Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
“In this somber reflection, author and photographer Hayes (Insomniac City) chronicles life in New York City during the Covid-19 pandemic. Hayes’s question perfectly sums up the times: ‘What if I looked out and saw no cars at all? Not one. As if every last person in Manhattan were taken by this pandemic, except for me, standing alone up here.’ Images of empty streets and subways, when juxtaposed with Hayes’s recollections—mostly of romances and amusing encounters with other New Yorkers—make for a startlingly potent contrast and show how abruptly life shifted from the pre-coronavirus world to the ‘new normal’ of today. Hayes captures acts of kindness during the pandemic: shopkeepers providing for their community, medical personnel on break or in training, and a woman making a mandala. The volume also provides an occasion for reflection, ‘In the enforced solitude and silence, you can sometimes hear yourself replaying moments in your life, things said or not said, done or not done, love expressed or not expressed, all the gratitude you’ve ever received, all the gratitude you’ve ever felt.’ Hayes’s photos movingly capture a fraught and frightening moment in history.”
One day in March, I went to the movies with a friend. I don’t remember what we saw. It was a lovely afternoon but it didn’t seem that meaningful. The next day, the Washington, D.C. area went into pandemic mode. Since then, my outing with my buddy seems momentous.
Everyone, I bet, has a memory from the Before Times etched in their DNA. As I write, a Washington Post news alert comes on my screen. The coronavirus has killed at least 1 million people worldwide, it says, “there is no end in sight.”
Yet, despite being sucker-punched by the pandemic, we keep going. “How We Live Now,” released on Aug. 25, by Bill Hayes, a New York City-based gay writer and street photographer, captures how we are going about our lives in the midst of our “new normal.” The slim volume is a time capsule and a memoir (in real time) of Hayes’ life during the pandemic.
Don’t be fooled by this book’s slimness. Its short chapters, interspersed with interludes of photos, pack a wallop of poignancy, beauty, love – even joy.
I don’t, thankfully, mean joy like a Hallmark Christmas movie. You know from the get-go that this won’t be a sappy book! It begins with an epigraph from “The Way We Live Now,” a 1986 short story by Susan Sontag. (Sontag, author of “Notes on Camp,” was the least sappy of writers.) Sontag wrote it at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The story doesn’t mention the word AIDS. Yet, it’s clear that it’s about how a group of friends feel about living in the midst of the epidemic (when no one is sure what causes AIDS).
“Of course, it was hard not to worry, everyone was worried,” Sontag writes, “but it wouldn’t do to panic…there wasn’t anything one could do except wait and hope, wait and start being careful, be careful and hope.”
Like many of us in the queer community, Hayes, 59, has been impacted by AIDS. Steve, his partner for 16 years, had AIDS. Ironically, he died from a heart attack. After Steve’s death, Hayes rebuilt his life. He continued to write and to take photographs. When you’re as good a non-fiction writer and as evocative a photographer as Hayes, what else would you do? He moved from San Francisco, where he’d lived with Steve, to New York City. There, some years later, he met, became friends with, then fell in love with renowned gay author and neurosurgeon Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015 at age 82.
Hayes, a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, wrote “Insomniac City,” a moving memoir of his life with Sacks, his grief when Sacks dies and his transformation from an out-of-towner into a New York City denizen.
As was the case during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, people are having crushes, dating, having drinks with friends – during our COVID-19 era. Even in the face of loss, despair and death. Hayes falls in love on the Christmas before the pandemic began with Jesse, a young guy he met playing pool in a bar. “He was tall and muscular, but it was the Santa hat he wore with exactly the right amount of irony that caught my eyes,” Hayes writes. The two text and see each other a few times after the pandemic begins. Yet one of the last times they kissed was New Year’s Eve.
Hayes writes evocatively about everyday pandemic moments from having a drink (far apart from other patrons) at a bar to shouting your order to a clerk from outside a bookstore. His photographs vividly illustrate the difference between life in New York City before and after COVID. One eerie photo shows Eighth Avenue with no traffic.
One of the most trenchant chapters in the book is deceptively simple. It’s a list of the last time Hayes did everything from going to a movie to laughing before the pandemic. You might think, I could write this! But, you’d be wrong.
“How We Live Now” is a lively, bracing read for our time. – Kathi Wolfe
Here we are six months into the COVID-19 pandemic and still, still, experiencing its assaults on our everyday lives.
Bill Hayes was in one of those heart-sinking moments a lot of us experienced in those early days in March when it became all too patently clear that how we were living was about to change dramatically.
In this slim volume, Hayes captures in real time the period from mid-March to June when New York City was slowly morphing into an apocalyptic ghost town. In photographs and short vignettes, he documents the changing landscape, ephemeral moments with other New Yorkers in restaurants newly outfitted for takeaway service only, on subways, in parks, and city streets where the usual throngs have vanished.
Here and there, he encounters denizens of the metropolis that make up the black-and-white street portraiture interspersed in the book. In one, a young girl arranges what look like magnolia petals to create a mandala. She tells Hayes she doesn’t know why she is making it, just that she always has made them. She always has — even before the pandemic. It’s a stunning moment to think that the blight did not affect her art did not prevent her from making more of it.
Hayes wants to tell her that she is “making a whole universe out of what would otherwise go underfoot, unnoticed… a different universe from the one we are currently inhabiting.”
She lets him add a stripped twig to her work. When he goes to scour the ground for it, he has to concentrate and focus to find something. The impromptu exercise has forced him to defamiliarize the tiniest natural element — to really see it and appreciate it — in spite of what else is going on all around him.
A photograph of the mandala-in-progress with the shyly smiling woman in the background is interspersed with other photographs of New Yorkers. At first, none of the subjects is wearing a mask. As you move through the pages, nearly everyone wears one.
This book is a long love letter to New York, to a city not many of us can imagine shuttered to the point of desolation. The book also includes a love story — one that began for Hayes in late December 2019, a few months before the springtime first wave devastated the country, the world.
And another love story — about Hayes’ long-time partner, Oliver Sacks, the world-renowned neurologist, naturalist, historian and author.
Sacks had “treated survivors of the encephalitis lethargica pandemic that swept the world in the early twentieth century, killing or incapacitating five million people.”
From him, Hayes learned the imperative to write. Hayes shares that one evening in 2015, a few months before he died, Sacks looked up from his work and said to Hayes: “The most we can do is write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”
Hayes is the author of “Insomniac City” and “The Anatomist,” as well a collection of street photography, “How New York Breaks Your Heart.”
In some ways, this new book could be titled, “How New York Puts the Pieces Back Together Again,” as we see the ways — with numberless implications — that New Yorkers have adapted to the pandemic crisis. Certainly, Hayes documents enough of them to restore a sense of hopefulness about what is yet to come and the ways we must continue to alter our lives for the sake of survival.
Hayes recounts moving exchanges with those who had heretofore made up his daily life — waiters and barbers, pharmacists and UPS delivery drivers — and so many others who keep the city that never sleeps awake and alive, bustling and thriving. We read about the ways they keep on, masked and socially distanced from life as they knew it.
The 51st chapter in the book of short vignettes features a list of confirmed pandemic cases and deaths in the United States, starting with day 57 and going backward to day one.
May 7 was months ago now, and the numbers have grown to staggering and inconceivable totals.
Although Hayes’ accounting of the pandemic ends in May, he offers an early June postscript.
Because the streets of New York were largely empty, by the early summer, Hayes could hear birds singing and trees rustling, sounds that pre-pandemic were drowned out by the hustle and bustle of an ordinary day in New York City. But now the sounds were drowned out by something else — the chants of protesters in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Hayes grabs his camera and his facemask and hand sanitizer and heads out before the curfew.
This afterword in this collection of photographs and brief chronicles is a poignant reminder that no matter what else happens to us as a community, city or country, this is “how we live now.” – Yvette Benevides
Out gay author and photographer Bill Hayes’ eloquent and elegant new book, “How We Live Now,” is subtitled, “Scenes from the Pandemic.” Hayes provides “snapshots” of life during COVID both in prose and in black and white street photos. (Check out his Instagram for additional images, including ones from the book in color).
His slim volume can — and perhaps should — be read in one sitting. But readers also may feel like they should wear PPE while holding it. “How We Live Now” is delicate both in its prose and content. Hayes’ writing is crisp, and several chapters are poetic. (None are more than a few pages).The thoughts expressed in the short, snappy vignettes are reflections on life during lockdown. Hayes’ tone is elegiac, but he holds the reader’s hand through what he (and most everyone) is enduring during these uncertain times. This is not a survival guide — though to an extent it is; it is more like an undated diary, where days bleed into one another. He writes out an exercise regimen on March 18, 2020 and 25 pages later, he acknowledges a lack of motivation to exercise. Only nine days have passed.
Hayes misses the gym, and swimming. He is bored and restless in his solitude and living alone. (His husband, the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, died in 2015). One of the first chapters is a list of 41 things he used to do, from “shaking hands with a stranger” to “falling in love.” This entry provides an ersatz table of contents as “How We Live Now” recounts Hayes’ thoughts and experiences about simple things like riding a subway, kissing someone, going out for a drink, or getting a haircut.
He mixes personal stories with observations. The approach works, because much of what Hayes writes is universal. He recounts the moment last Christmas when he met Jesse, his lover, in a bar and took him home. He reveals his weakness for Jesse’s gap-toothed smile and writes about kissing and kissing and kissing Jesse on New Year’s Eve.
Readers may be disappointed that Hayes does not include an image of Jesse, but then, several pages later, he does. It is an arty black-and-white nude entitled, “The Last Time I Kissed a Man,” dated March 14, 2020, 1:44 p.m. The gap-toothed smile is hidden under a pillow. The fact that such intimacy may not be recaptured for a long time is potent because their nascent romance is arrested by the virus. Despite a weak moment where they meet in person after lockdown, most of Hayes’ exchanges with Jesse are conducted via text or at a social distance. Hayes bemoans celibacy, and that he no longer needs to take PrEP. He longs for touch and human contact.
“How We Live Now” provides other impressions of life during quarantine. Hayes chronicles the eerie, enforced silence of New York City, documenting the change as Manhattan feels like “everyone has gone missing.” Whereas the subways have throngs of riders wedged tightly, “shoulder to shoulder, ass to ass,” he includes a photo of the “L Train at Rush Hour” at 5:05 pm, April 22. It is as empty as his photo of 8th Avenue on April 6.
Hayes writes briefly about depression, and he could have expanded more on that topic. His observation, “The most important thing I’ve learned about depression is not to think about it as ‘a depression,’ as if it were a single monolithic thing,” is practical, useful, but also vague. It would have been interesting to know more about how he coped with the bouts of loneliness under lockdown.
The book suggests he took walks, and met people, from a woman arranging a mandala, to a trio of residents in anesthesiology at NYU Medical Center, who all had COVID, sitting on a stoop, to the clerk at a local liquor store, who signs Hayes’ credit card in an amusing fashion. These are “New York moments,” and “How We Live Now” is full of similar enchanting stories. Hayes recounts having an illicit drink at a restaurant with the owner, Joe, when he swings by to pick up a food order. He hears a story from a friend who was kindly offered a tissue by a passing car, and he describes the response by his neighbor and doorman to prevent a naked man outside their building from being hit by a car or put in jail.
What emerges in these and other scenes is solidarity and humanity. Hayes is kind to a teacher from Philadelphia who inadvertently calls him. He gives money to Raheem, a homeless man he knows. And he reaches out and renews friendships.
A thread throughout “How We Live Now” is about chances taken and regrets for things not done. This provides the book’s most poignant, salient theme. Hayes describes taking a photo of a man he met on a subway, pre-COVID. The stranger tells Hayes he agreed to pose, “Because I never do things like this.” Hayes’ book offers hope that we can experience such random, pleasurable moments of connection again soon.