Review by Phil Gambone
The Gay & Lesbian Review, January/February 2017
AT AGE 48, brokenhearted over the death of his partner, Bill Hayes moved to New York City in order to reinvent himself. “I had simply reached a point in my life where I had to get away from San Francisco—and all the memories it held—and start fresh.” During that first fresh-start summer, Hayes began seeing a few other men. Among them was Oliver Sacks, the world-famous writer and neurologist, who had earlier written to say he had enjoyed reading Hayes’ book The Anatomist (2007). Dates with O, as Hayes refers to Sacks in this engaging, poignant memoir, were completely different. Instead of movies or new restaurants or Broadway shows, they visited the Museum of Natural History, where Sacks told him the stories behind the discovery of every single element. During long walks in the botanical garden in the Bronx, he would expatiate on every species of fern.
Hayes says that Sacks, who was 28 years his senior, was the most unusual person he had ever known. “Before long I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him.” Hayes soon learned that Sacks had not only never been in a relationship but had never come out publicly as a gay man. “He’d never shared his life before.”
That changed in 2015 with the publication of Sacks’ memoir On the Move: A Life (Knopf), where the octogenarian finally revealed his homosexuality. Even so, Sacks said very little about their relationship. Thus Hayes’ book will be all the more welcomed by fans of Sacks for the intimate portrait he paints of the polymath scientist in love. “I’ve suddenly realized what you mean to me,” Sacks tells Hayes a year or so into their relationship. “You create the need which you fill, the hunger you sate. Like Jesus. And Kierkegaard. And smoked trout.”
Hayes intersperses his narrative with pages from a journal that Sacks had encouraged him to keep, and with photos he took of New Yorkers he encountered on the streets. This amalgamation—memoir, journal, and photographs—makes for a rich, kaleidoscopic book, full of the vibrant energy that Hayes came to love in his newly adopted “Insomniac City.” “Sometimes it will be difficult and you’ll question why you ever moved here,” he writes in his journal. “But New York will always answer you.”
The book is as much Hayes’ love letter to New York as it is a love letter to Sacks: “Life here is a John Cage score,” he declares, “dissonance made eloquent.” That dissonant eloquence is everywhere: in a skateboard park, where a boy named Cube gives him a lesson in Skateboarding 101; in a late-night taxi where the cabbie tells him, “You’re like a psychiatrist in this job. Tourists talk”; or in the tiny apartment—“extraordinarily packed,” but with “no whiff of madness, of decrepitude”—of Ilona, a woman who has lived there for 56 years. As a thank you for Hayes’ having taken her photo, Ilona sits him down and makes a drawing of his eye. When she shows him the finished product, Hayes is astonished: “I could see my whole face in that one part of my body. I could see myself.” They toast each other with shots of vodka served in blue glasses twice the size of a thimble.
Hayes’ delight in meeting and striking up conversations with strangers is unquenchable: he talks to a 25-year-old go-go boy with a “glorious body” who tells him about his belief in polyamorous relationships and shows him the dog tags he wears around his neck with the names of the couple he’s currently seeing. “They’re sort of like my dads.” Another day he meets a taxi driver from Sri Lanka who solemnly tells him that he has never had sex. “You’re going to love it,” Hayes tells him. “It’s amazing.” Then there’s Ali, a smoke shop manager, whom Hayes hangs out with quite often. During Hurricane Sandy, Ali, looking like an oracle, keeps the shop open with a few well-placed candles. “It requires a certain kind of unconditional love to love living here,” Hayes notes. “But New York repays you in time in memorable encounters, at the very least.”
Hayes intersperses these vignettes of New York with stories about his life with Sacks. He beautifully captures the life of a man who had three passions: thinking, writing, and their relationship. Their time together was marked by quiet, everyday pleasures, like rooftop dinners overlooking a Manhattan sunset, moments “when the world seems to shed all shyness and display every possible permutation of beauty.”
Hayes confesses that he often did not understand half of what Oliver said. He is candid about the differences between them: “There is so much in that head of his,” he remarks. “I may not know nearly as much as O knows, I am not as brilliant, but I feel a lot, so much, and some of this has rubbed off onto him and some of his knowledge has rubbed off onto me. We are like two dogs rubbing our scents onto one another.”
Six years into their relationship, in the winter of 2015, Sacks received “some tough news”: an uveal melanoma that he had fought nine years earlier had metastasized to his liver, which was now “riddled like Swiss cheese.” He was given six to eighteen months. Sacks decided that in the time left he wanted to write, think, read, swim, see friends, travel, and “be with Billy.” Those remaining months became an intensely creative time for both men. Hayes took photographs constantly—“everyday, hundreds sometimes.” Sacks worked on new essays nonstop. When reading became too difficult, Hayes read to him. “It becomes another form of intimacy,” Sacks told him.
Sacks died that summer, leaving Hayes “heartbroken but at peace.” Later, when he considered going on without Oliver, and without the city he had come to love, it became “too painful to contemplate.” And yet Hayes knows that he will go on: “Every day we may wake up and say, What’s the point? Why go on? And there is really only one answer: To be alive.” His graceful, life-affirming memoir bears witness to the notion that there are “countless degrees of aliveness,” and that it is our business to be alert to all of them every day that we are blessed to be here.
– Phil Gambone, Dec. 31, 2016