It was only towards the end of his life, when his memoir, On the Move, was published, that the neurologist Oliver Sacks publicly came out as gay. He had been reluctant to do so, he reported, because of the effect his mother’s devastating response to being told that her 18-year-old son preferred boys to girls had had on him: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.”
In 2008, shortly after his 75th birthday, having been celibate for 35 years and having never had a proper relationship, Sacks finally fell in love with author and photographer Bill Hayes, who was 30 years his junior.
Sacks had written to congratulate Hayes on his forthcoming book about Henry Gray, of Gray’s Anatomy fame. They exchanged letters and soon after, coincidentally, Hayes moved to New York from San Francisco, following the sudden death of his partner.
Hayes and Sacks soon became friends, then lovers, and Hayes eventually moved into the same apartment block as Sacks on Christopher Street in the West Village, where the pair remained blissfully happy together until Sacks’s death from cancer in 2015.
This memoir is really a eulogy to Sacks, to New York and to its inhabitants. It is also a wonderfully tender and touching portrait of the love and happiness two people were lucky enough to find together.
Hayes has rendered all this through a series of colourful vignettes interspersed with black-and-white photographs. He tells us about travelling on the subway. He prefers standing to sitting, and would never doze or read as “to do so would be to miss some astonishing sights”. He has random encounters with passers-by and homeless people on the streets.
He strikes up conversations with taxi drivers, shopkeepers and café owners and as an incurable insomniac — insomnia being the subject of his first book, Sleep Demons — frequently wanders the city at night.
Impulsively, he gatecrashes a party in a surf shop which has spilt out onto the street. “Why not? I opened the door and slipped in.” He is clearly a bit of a chancer.
Wherever he goes he carries a pocket-sized digital Canon camera. He asks people who look “interesting or attractive or unusual or, perhaps, utterly ordinary” if he can take their picture, and they usually agree.
The most touching images in the book, however, are not of strangers but of Sacks, whom he calls “O”, who was “brilliant, sweet, modest and handsome”, who wore swimming goggles when opening a bottle of champagne for the first time in his life “just in case”; who put clean coffee mugs and glasses to keep the dirty pots and pans company in a half-full dishwasher; who found the sight of him dropping a carton of cherry tomatoes on the floor “so pretty” he asked him to do it again; who would add artificial sweetener to wine if it tasted too sour; who liked debating the difference between happiness and pleasure — an extraordinary man who was curious about everything.
At one point Hayes cooks dinner for the two of them and asks himself if this is the happiest he’s ever been. “I kept doing what I was doing, making dinner, sort of testing the feeling; O was talking all the while; and I thought, ‘Yes, yes it is true’.”
Bill Hayes will discuss Insomniac City at the Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design, 16-17 Greek Street, W1 on April 4 at 6.45pm (howtoacademy.com)
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