A middle-aged man moves to a new city to restart his life, gets to know an old man named Oliver, and after only a few months realizes that he has fallen in love with both the new city and the old man. Not a remarkable story, unless that city is New York and Oliver is the neurologist and writer (played by Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings), Oliver Sacks. Each man is surprised by the other: Sacks has never been in a relationship before and has not come out as a gay man, and Hayes is not looking for love, let alone with a seventy-seven-year-old. Both Hayes and Sacks are insomniacs; Sacks’s solution is Xanax, but Hayes prefers to wander around New York at night taking photos and talking to strangers. Hayes writes about his ramblings and his life with Sacks in Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me (Bloomsbury) and includes some of his photos.
My favourite sections of the book are short jottings from Hayes’s journal that paint an intimate picture of a quirky, endlessly curious Sacks who still looks at things with childlike wonder and who often thinks about the elements in the periodic table. Hayes moves into an apartment a few floors above Sacks and the two share a quiet domestic life of cooking, reading poetry, looking things up in dictionaries, sharing bathwater (not at the same time) and drinking wine on the rooftop patio of their building. Even as he is dying of cancer, Sacks continues to write, and near the end he tells Hayes: “I love writing but it is really thinking I love—that rush of thoughts—new connections in the brain being made.” It was a pleasure to read this simple and beautiful love story, but later I realized that I had also been given a glimpse of what it would be like to be a man: to be able to walk around a city alone and at night, strike up conversations with crack addicts and other random dudes or explore a dark warehouse/artist’s studio full of junk—all without being harassed or feeling (and being) unsafe.