Jackie McGlone

IF New York were a patient, it would be diagnosed with Agrypnia excitata, “a rare genetic condition characterised by insomnia, nervous energy, constant twitching, and dream enactment – an apt description of a city that never sleeps”.

It is also a place where people come to reinvent themselves, which is exactly what the American writer and photographer Bill Hayes did. He made his home in the city “of haggard buildings and bloodshot skies, of trains that never stopped running like my racing mind at night” more than eight years ago after his partner, Steve, died of cardiac arrest at the age of 43 in 2009. They had been together for 16 years. “It was hard to pick up the pieces,” Hayes confides.

“Family and friends helped but San Francisco, where I had lived since I was 24, represented just too much sadness. We had lost so many friends during the Aids epidemic and now Steve’s death, so swift, so inexplicable. I was filled with a feeling of so much loss, not feeling like I could ever move forward again.

“But New York saved my life,” says Hayes, 55, who has written a beautiful memoir, Insomniac City, about his life in the metropolis and crafted an intimate, moving, joyous portrait of life with his lover, the great neurologist and bestselling author, Oliver Sacks, who died of cancer on August 30, 2015.

The book, although bookended by two deaths, is also a profound, plangent, pleasurable love letter to life itself, written in fragments and vignettes, with some journal entries, and evocative photographs of New York strangers, from skateboarders to cab drivers, from weary people riding the subway to loners sitting on park benches reading in the middle of the night, as well as many tender images of Dr Sacks.

“I know that it sounds a little melodramatic to say New York saved me. But it did. I moved here from San Francisco because all of a sudden the life I had had came to a crashing end. But New York always answers you,” says Hayes, speaking from his apartment in the West Village building where Dr Sacks also lived, repeating words he’d scribbled on a scrap of paper he found when he began assembling notes for his book.

“New York not only answered me, it embraced me, with its big open arms and all its comedy and tragedy,” he says. Dr Sacks – the author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars – also embraced him, coming out of the closet where he had hidden for decades. It had been 35 years since he had had sex before meeting Hayes, who has written three previous critically acclaimed books, Sleep Demons, Five Quarts and The Anatomist, a history of Gray’s Anatomy. “They did well critically but not commercially. I felt burnt out and didn’t write anything for three years,” he admits.

The Anatomist brought them together. “I guess my editor was our matchmaker. She sent the proof to Dr Sacks prior to publication, hoping for a blurb. He didn’t respond – he said later that he “got distracted and forgot,” which I found charming – but some months later I received a letter from him saying he had read the book and enjoyed it.”

A correspondence began between Hayes and O, as he always refers to the good doctor. In 2008, they met in New York, lunched and lingered, talking, late into the afternoon. They discovered they had more than writing and a passion for 19th-century medical literature in common – they were both lifelong insomniacs – indeed Dr Sacks was from a family of insomniacs. “He was both very shy and quite formal – qualities I do not possess,” writes Hayes.

“I was intrigued and attracted. He was brilliant, sweet, modest, handsome, and prone to sudden, ebullient outbursts of boyish enthusiasm.” They stayed in touch and Hayes sent him photographs he had taken of bare tree limbs in Central Park, which Dr Sacks felt looked like neuroses. “I am reminded of how Nabokov compared winter trees to the nervous system of giants.”

Inevitably, Hayes was smitten. “He was pretty irresistible!” But they lived at opposite sides of the country and there was a 30-year age difference. A year later Hayes moved to New York and went to work for a non-profit organisation. The move, he insists, had nothing to do with his feelings towards Dr Sacks, although they continued to meet and they fell deeply in love. “Is this something you invented?” he asks Hayes when they kiss.

They never cohabited, living instead in separate apartments in the same building but sharing their lives and domestic arrangements. “It was a very civilised arrangement; I recommend it. O had lived this monklike existence for decades. He’d struggled with his sexuality, but devoted his life to his patients and his practice, and to his writing. He never cooked – he ate sardines from the tin. He had long given upon any sort of romantic relationship. Yet he was a sensualist.”

Indeed, in his memoir, On the Move, published when he was 81, Dr Sacks wrote: “It has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived a certain distance from life. This changed when Billy and I fell in love.”

With Hayes, Dr Sacks made up for lost time – they would climb up to the rooftop of their building and admire sunsets, swigging wine from the bottle. They got stoned together, shared hot baths, went swimming, travelled to Iceland to lunch with Bjork – a fan, although Dr Sacks had no idea who she was – and they cooked. “I almost always cooked dinner and he cleaned up. For years he had been too afraid to turn on the gas. Finally, he got acquainted with the microwave.”

Hayes also taught him how to open a bottle of champagne after Dr Sacks donned swimming goggles to open his first bottle. “We would crack open a bottle of wine every evening, have smoked salmon salad, say, which O loved, then he would read to me what he had written that day – he always wrote using a fountain pen. Our lives were joyful and joyous. O was a perpetual student. He loved swimming, he took piano lessons once a week and we went to the gym together. He delighted in everything. He would be thrilled that I’m taking piano lessons with his tutor on the 100-year-old Bechstein grand in his apartment; it belonged to O’s father.”

Did he and Dr Sacks ever fall out? “Sure! He could be infuriating. Sometimes he would drive me nuts; sometimes I drove him nuts. He could be very difficult, neurotic and eccentric. Of course we fought, squabbling when I got lost driving the car, say, because I’m emotional. O was much more cerebral and clinical.”

And what does he miss most about him?

“I miss his companionship, the dazzling conversation and the laughter. We laughed a lot. I hope I captured that in Insomniac City since we live in such depressing, despicable, shocking times. I feel there is a real need for people to connect. My neighbourhood bar, for example, is so much more crowded lately. I feel hopeful. I think we are going to see a new era of activism and resistance to [the Trump administration]. After living through the Aids crisis, I have seen the impact that protest can have on public policy. Still, I feel worried and scared every day when I open the newspaper.”

Born in Minneapolis, Hayes grew up in Spokane, Washington state, where his father bought a Coca-Cola bottling plant when Hayes, the only boy in a family of five sisters, was three-years-old. “I had an idyllic, small-town American childhood, although I knew quite early on that I was gay,” he says, adding that he’s close to his sisters, all of whom live with their families in or near Seattle.

“I just did a book tour of the West Coast and my sisters all came to my reading. It was wonderful, but I couldn’t wait to return to New York. I flew back yesterday and immediately walked from 13th Street to 57th, taking photographs. I felt I’d come home. I’m as serious about photography now as I am about my writing. I feel that the photographs in Insomniac City are a third narrative strand,” says the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in non-fiction, who has also been a visiting scholar at Rome's American Academy.

Today, Hayes says: “I was 24 when I came out as a gay man. I have chosen to live most of my life as an out gay man. It is part of my identity, my experience. O was 81 when he came out publicly in his memoir, so it’s never too late. My life has been shaped by the Aids epidemic – I worked for the San Francisco Aids Foundation – which I have written about. It was a terrifying time so my adult life has been coloured by death, many deaths – but especially two very painful deaths.”

Currently, he has put aside his fifth book, Sweat, a history of exercise – “both O and I were fascinated by bodies” – to devote time to Dr Sacks’s archive and a related film project. He is also co-editing Dr Sacks’s final book, The River of Consciousness. “It is dazzling. It will reveal another side to him. He writes a lot about his great hero, Charles Darwin, and tackles big philosophical questions. I believe that it will be seen as his best book. I am also working on a volume of my New York street photography.”

“What is the message of your book?” he’s often asked by readers. “I always reply that living with Oliver made me excited to get old. Here he was at 75 and he found love. He made being old fun, despite the many problems: cancer twice, knee replacement, then back surgery after he fell and broke his hip. He was also deaf and blind in one eye. He adapted. He had this childlike innocence, this sense of wonder, forever open to new experience, something we had in common, although we were very, very different, despite our shared love of thinking, reading, writing.

“He was so unusual, the most unusual person I have ever known. One night in bed, for instance, he said to me, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could dream together?’

“So, yes, I am heartbroken but at peace. I am still single, but living life. I enjoy new experiences. I’m not sitting in my apartment watching TV. I sleep but not enough. I manage though and if I’m wide awake I go out at 2am with my camera and delight in the city that never sleeps, a city alive at night.”

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, by Bill Hayes (Bloomsbury, £16.99).