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‘Insomniac City’ recalls life with Oliver Sacks

Dr Oliver Sacks speaks at Columbia University June 3, 2009 in New York City. — AFP picDr Oliver Sacks speaks at Columbia University June 3, 2009 in New York City. — AFP picNEW YORK, Feb 9 — If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to get high with Oliver Sacks — and really, who hasn’t? — the answer is: It was fun. He was charming, formal, yet still a helpless gigglepuss; his sensorium was as giddy and overactive as you’d expect.

“I just had an astounding alteration of perception!” he once blurted to his partner, Bill Hayes, shortly after they’d gotten stoned. “I opened my eyes, and in place of my body all I could see was my feet — my comically large, flat human feet.”

Compared with Sacks’ experiences as a young neurology resident, when he indulged in far more potent substances (he once got into a lively discussion with a spider about Bertrand Russell and Frege’s Theorem), this little episode may seem tame. But it’s exciting to think that the doctor’s brainstem, even in his 80s, was still throwing off sparks.

Sacks made it his life’s work to convey what it was like to inhabit exceptional, radically different kinds of minds, whether it was that of a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome (one of the case studies in An Anthropologist on Mars) or that of the music teacher who was the title case study in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Yet it wasn’t until the publication of his 2015 autobiography, On the Move, that Sacks wrote freely about himself. Only then did he reveal that he’d fallen in love with Hayes, a writer 30 years his junior, after 3 1/2 decades of celibacy.

Hayes has now written a memoir of his own, Insomniac City. It’s a loving tribute to Sacks and to New York. He provides tender insights into living with both. But Sacks was by far the more eccentric of his two loves.

If there weren’t enough dirty dishes to fill his dishwasher, the doctor would start loading it with clean ones, just to keep them company. He insisted on wearing swim goggles the first time he opened a bottle of Champagne. He called Hayes’ iPhone a “communicator”; he had no clue who Michael Jackson was; he carried the periodic table in his wallet, where his driver’s license should have been.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” he asked Hayes one night. Shared consciousness: perhaps the ultimate fantasy of a man who tried to capture the perceptions and experiences of others.

For Hayes, being the partner of a man in his 70s (and then 80s) meant patiently tolerating the foibles of an aging body. Sacks had a bad back (sciatica) and a bum knee (replaced); he was blind in one eye from his first bout with cancer, and his vision was badly compromised in the other. (New object I learned about from reading this book: a monocular.) And he was terribly hard of hearing.

“I like to get kind of verbal in bed sometimes,” Hayes writes, “but I am finding this does not work well when you’re having sex with someone who’s practically deaf.”

Sacks would often — and earnestly — ask Hayes what he had just shouted in the heat of passion.

“Oliver!” he’d reply. “Don’t make me repeat it!”

They called it deaf sex.

Insomniac City is written in fragments and vignettes, mostly chronologically, often in the form of actual journal entries, though it includes some of the author’s poetry and photographs, too. (Hayes has written three previous books, including The Anatomist, a history of Gray’s Anatomy.) Read just 50 pages, and you’ll see easily enough how Hayes is Sacks’ logical complement. Though possessed of different temperaments, both are alive to difference, variety, the possibilities of our rangy humanity; both are avid chroniclers of our species — Sacks in his case studies, and Hayes in his character sketches of the people he meets in the street.

Hayes is a true flâneur, a man who actively engages the city with all of his senses. Partly it’s because he’s insatiably curious and has bottomless faith in people’s decency. Partly it’s because he cannot sleep. Whatever the reason, he fills Insomniac City with musings about his afternoon and evening peregrinations, in which he chats up shopkeepers, addicts, models, homeless men and poor kids in skateboard parks. There’s a sweet interlude with a go-go boy who’s almost legally blind, and another with a 95-year-old woman who once drew a picture of Tennessee Williams’ eye. Nothing delights him more than the subway, which he cannot take “without marvelling at the lottery logic that brings together a random sampling of humanity for one minute or two, testing us for kindness and compatibility.”

I adore this observation. Yet readers should be warned: Hayes’ writing can also be terribly precious. “The words go from his mouth to my ears and are carried off by the wind,” he’ll write, and your heart will sink. Then he’ll jolt you with something wonderful: “It is hard to describe how tired I am. Noises hurt a little.” Then he’ll betray you once more — “I take a shower with the sun, a bird and a squirrel watching me” — and you will start to wonder how many of these tiny tea sets you’ll have to tiptoe around. But then he’ll stun you again.

And so it goes. Around and around.

Hayes’ poetry is pedestrian, but his street photographs are not. They are frank, beautiful, bewitching — they unmask their subjects’ best and truest selves. And his account of Sacks’ final months will no doubt inspire many readers. It turns out that the man we knew in public, who faced terminal cancer with great calm and not a drop of self-pity — “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can,” he wrote in My Own Life — was just as collected in private. He read his own CT scan. He declared he didn’t want any life-prolonging therapies that would cause him too much discomfort. He retained his sense of humour.

Just after surgery, when he was rebuked by a nurse for tearing off his hospital gown (it made him uncomfortable), he cried out, “If one can’t be naked in a hospital, where can one be naked?!”

It’s best to read the final scene between Hayes and Sacks somewhere private. Though strangely, it was a much earlier scene between these two gentle men that moved me most, because it seemed, somehow, to represent the essence of love. Hayes is helping Sacks get ready for bed. He pulls off his socks, fills his water bottle, prepares his sleeping pills and finds him something to read.

“What else can I do for you?” Hayes asks.

“Exist.”

Publication notes:

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me

By Bill Hayes

Illustrated. 291 pages. Bloomsbury. US$27 (RM120). — The New York Times

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