Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me Book Notes

A quick diversion to finish a new book that’s been popular–Bill Hayes’  Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me [public library].  It’s about living and falling in love with Oliver Sachs, life in NYC, being a person in the world, and grief and loss.  The author is very good at telling little stories and vignettes about Oliver and life in and the people of NYC.  Bill’s Oliver was a charming super nerdy and romantic old man, a Renaissance man of diverse interests and extreme curiosity, childishly innocent in some ways, and basically super endearing.  This was a short and easy read (~3 hrs), highly recommend.



On NY:

“I have come to believe that kindness is repaid in unexpected ways and that if you are lonely or bone-tired or blue, you need only come down from your perch and step outside.  New York–which is to say, New Yorkers–will take care of you.”


“It requires a certain kind of unconditional love to love living here.  But New York repays you in time in memorable encounters, at the very least.  Just remember: Ask first, don’t grab, be fair, say please and thank you, always say thank you–even if you don’t get something back right away.  You will.”


“I once met a woman who was an astronaut…She told me that the coolest thing about life in space was not the weightlessness or the incredible speed with which you travel, but the view of Earth from hundreds of miles away.  You cannot imagine how beautiful it is.  And when you’re in orbit, the sun rises sixteen times a day.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about New York.”


“I remember how Wendy once told me she loved New York so much she couldn’t bear the thought of it going on without her.  It seemed like both the saddest and the most romantic thing one could possibly say–sad because New York can never return the sentiment, and sad because it’s the kind of things aid more often about a romantic love–husband, wife, girlfriend, partner, lover.  You can’t imagine them going on without you.  But they do.  We do.  Every day, we wake up and say, What’s the point?  Why go on?  And, there is really only one answer: To be alive.”


On Loss:

From a minister: “Suffering a devastating loss is like suffering a brain injury…you walk around like a zombie.  You can’t think straight.  You feel drugged…”


Pretty language:

“The night after he died, I found that a sliver of light from a streetlamp shone through the blinds just so and cast a single yellowy tendril across his pillow.  It was the opposite of a shadow.  Which is as clear a definition I can come up with for the soul.”


When someone close to you dies (e.g. spouse), it takes about 3 years for the pain to go away.  Est. 1000 days.


“He [O] urges me to go out with friends and have some laughs.  ‘When my mother died,’ he tells me, ‘my oldest friend called up straightaway and told me three scandalously obscene jokes in a row.  I laughed uproariously, and then the tears came.’

I followed his advice.”


Pretty language:

“How I take a shower with the sun, a bird and a squirrel watching me.” (Sun bathing?)


On Oliver Sach’s living under a rock:

“O often said he had no knowledge of popular culture after 1955, and this was not an exaggeration.  He did not know popular music, rarely watched anything on TV but the news, did not enjoy contemporary fiction, and had zero interest in celebrities or fame (including his own).  He didn’t possess a computer, had never used e-mail or texted; he wrote with a fountain pen.  …there was no denying that his tastes, his habits, his ways–all were irreversibly, fixedly, not of our time.”


Before O met Bill, he hadn’t had sex in over 30 yrs–lived as a monk just focusing on work, reading, writing, and thinking.


“O: ‘I sometimes think things are not enough until they are too much.  There is no in between for me.’”


One of O’s favorite books is Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, which he re-reads often.


Romantic/charming/cute (nerd flirting!):

“We talk about a scene in Roman Elegies in which Goethe taps out hexameters on his sleeping lover’s back:

Fingertips counting in time with the sweet rhythmic breath of her slumber,’ O recites from memory.”


O: “I’ve suddenly realized what you mean to me: You create the need which you fill, the hunger you sate.  Like Jesus.  And Kierkegaard.  And smoked trout…”


“O: ‘I thought being old would be either awful or trivial, and it’s neither.’

I: ‘What makes it not awful and not trivial?’

O: ‘Aside from you, thinking and writing.’”


“There is a quiet moment and then, seemingly apropos of nothing, O says: ‘I am glad to be on planet Earth with you.  It would be much lonelier otherwise.’

I reach for his hand and hold it.

‘I, too,’ I say.”

“O: ‘I like having a confusion of agency, your hand on top of mine, unsure where my body ends and yours begins…’”


“I curl up next to him [O], an arm over his chest, a leg over his legs.  His eyes are closed, and for a moment I think he has fallen asleep, but no: ‘When you can’t tell where your body ends and the other begins, is that primal, or signs of an advanced evolution?’”


“3 A.M., walking into his room to check on him:

O: ‘How did you know…?  How did you know I’d be awake?’

‘I could hear you smile,’ I say.”


On the nerdy charm of Oliver Sacks [O-isms]:

“There are rare instances in nature of accelerated evolution.”  EX: white winged butterfly that got dirty from soot in early Industrial Age England and evolved from white to soot colored; city bird that started singing louder to be heard over city traffic sounds


“O: ‘Are you conscious of your thoughts before language embodies them?’”


“‘I hope I get a good night’s sleep and then have a rush of thoughts, as I did this morning,’ says O. ‘It is very delightful when that happens–all of them rushing to the surface, as if they have been waiting for me to become conscious of them…’”


“Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a planet where the sound of rain falling is like Bach?”–O


“O talked easily and nonstop, making his signature ‘pronouncements’, as I think of them.


For instance: suddenly saying, ‘I find I am very interest in automatism.’


I elbowed him: ‘Only Oliver Sacks would say that!’  He started laughing.  ‘Well, why not?  It’s very interesting.  It’s the signal characteristic of homeostasis!’”

[Automatism is the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention.]


“Oliver often said that but was his favorite word, a kind of etymological flip of the coin, for it allowed consideration of both sides of an argument, a topic, as well as a kind of looking-at-the-bright-side that was as much a part of his nature as his diffidence and indecisiveness.”


“Nicky looked out the window, where he saw a large, bearded man lying on the grass in the garden. ‘What were you doing?’ Nicky asked once he came indoors.

‘I was wondering what it is like to be a rose,’ replied Oliver.”


O loves the periodic table of elements.  For each birthday, he gets Billy something made with the relevant element (e.g. xenon light bulbs, iodine in a bottle).  “I do fifty push-ups twice a day while O sits at his desk and counts them out by naming the corresponding elements: ‘titanium, vanadium, chromium, manganese, iron, cobalt…’”


“‘Do you know why I love to read Nature and Science every week?’

I turned.  ‘No,’ I shook my head.  I was almost confused; this seemed such a non sequitur.

‘Surprise–I always read something that surprises me,’ he said.”


“‘I say I love writing, but really it is thinking I love–that rush of thoughts–new connections in the brain being made.  And it comes out of the blue.’ O smiled. ‘In such moments: I feel such love of the world, love of thinking…’”


Read old books.  In O’s library: Shakespeare, Borges, Burgess, Sir Thomas Browne, Darwin, etc.

From Sir Thomas Browne’s Christian Morals: “Reckon not upon long life: think every day the last, and live always beyond thy account.  He that so often surviveth his Expectation lives many Lives, and will scarce complain of the shortness of his days.  Time past is gone like a Shadow; make time to come present…”  


“But to be dead–one either is or isn’t.

The same cannot be said of aliveness, of which there are countless degrees.  One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly…Fortunately, this is a reversible condition.  One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause–to memorize moments of the everyday.”


“Looking back, every life-altering decision I’ve ever made has seemed, at first blush, misguided, misjudged, or plain foolish–and ultimately turned out to be the opposite: every seemingly wrong person I’ve fallen for, every big trip I’ve splurged on, every great apartment taken that I could not realistically afford.  And, really, what is pursuing writing but a case study in an impractical career…?”


“It can be yours.  No different from falling in love with a song, one may fall in love with a work of art and claim it as one’s own.  Ownership does not come free.  One must spend time with it; visit at different times of the day or evening; and bring to it one’s full attention.  The investment will be repaid as one discovers something new with each viewing–say, a detail in the background, a person nearly cropped from the picture frame, or a tiny patch of canvas left unpainted, deliberately so, one may assume, as if to remind you not to take all the painted parts for granted.”


On Death:

“I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life.” –Oliver Sacks


Upon finding out about his cancer diagnosis and how it had metastasized to his liver:

“He [O] said he was not interested in ‘prolonging life just for the sake of prolonging life.’  Two of his brothers had died of cancer (different forms of cancer), and both had regretted undergoing horrid chemotherapy treatments that had done nothing but ruin their last months.


‘I want to be able to write, think, read, swim, be with Billy, see friends, and maybe travel a bit, if possible.’  Oliver added that he hoped not to be in ‘ghastly pain’ or for his condition to become ‘humiliating,’ and then he fell silent.”


“But for him [O], ‘time’ meant far more: time to ‘complete’ his life on his own terms, finally coming out publicly as a gay man through his memoir, time to see the book published, time to write pieces he had wanted to write, time to get things in order, time that a sudden and unexpected death, or the slow demise of an illness such as Alzheimer’s, would not allow.”


Nunc dimittis: “the final song in a religious service.”


O spends his final months writing a lot, visiting friends, spending time with loved ones, and writing more.


After O’s passing, Billy cleans the apartment and goes back to his place: “I felt tired, grateful, peaceful, battered, sad, wise, old.  I felt like Odysseus reaching shore.”


One Reply to “Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me Book Notes”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *