A girlfriend and I recently did an online test to discover which kind of sleep animal chronotype (personal biological clock) – we are. She is a bear – from what I understand bears are, on the whole, pretty good and solid sleepers. I am a dolphin and our sleep characteristics tend towards the insomniac variety as we skim the surface of sleep, our eyes and ears always on the look-out for predators. The good news about being a dolphin is that it seems to be linked to a high level of creativity and intelligence; Dickens, Shakespeare and Sir Richard Branson are dolphins according to Dr Michael Breus. That adds up – we know that Dickens was a nocturnal wanderer.
“Dickens was a solitary walker. He often set off alone at night and sometimes stayed out until morning. In this way he came to know the whole of London.” (From The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin).
Another writer I have recently discovered who has all the signs of being a sleep skimmer is Bill Hayes, author of Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me. What a joy it was to accompany Bill, a frequent contributor to the New York Times, on his night-time perambulations round New York.
To set the scene, Bill came to NYC in 2009 with a one-way ticket and no plan as to how things would work out. Grieving the sudden death of his partner, he had moved from San Francisco. A life-long insomniac, he wanders the streets of New York talking to, and photographing, the colourful characters he meets from Sam in the newsstand to an edgy, young skateboarder high on drugs, young lovers, cab drivers, a go-go boy, street artists, a homeless crack addict, an urban poet and many more. Some he captures on camera and others in exquisitely written vignettes, extracting the beauty in all of them, delving briefly but deeply into their lives and finding a connection, making sense of who they are. He brings to life the New York streetscape through the sights, sounds, smells and rhythm of a city that never sleeps.
“Sometimes I’d sit in the kitchen in the dark and gaze out at the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. Such a beautiful pair, so impeccably dressed, he in his boxy suit, every night a different hue, and she, an arm’s length away, in her filigreed skirt the colour of the moon”.
“The comical kerplunk over and over of cabs on Eighth hitting a metal plate on the avenue.”
But the heart of the book is actually about love. Hayes falls in love again, and it all starts with letter writing. Dr Oliver Sacks, the late neurologist and writer, (of The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat fame) writes to Hayes apologising for forgetting to write a blurb for Hay’s book, The Anatomist. That kicks off a correspondence and, in due course, they meet in New York.
What makes Hayes’ and Sacks’ love story so delightful and charming is that, on paper and at first glance, it seems so unlikely. I can’t imagine that the world of internet dating would have ever brought them together! Although both insomniacs, Hayes is 48 and has been around the block in more ways than one, had lots of lovers, casual and otherwise. Sacks is 75 and falls in love for the first time at a period in his life when the ageing process is beginning to manifest and his health to fail. He approaches the relationship with child-like innocence:
Hayes tells us: “After I kiss him for a long time, exploring his mouth and lips, with my tongue, he has a look of utter surprise on his face, eyes still closed. “Is that what kissing is, or is that something you invented?””
And when Hayes shows Sacks how to pop a champagne cork, Sacks wears his swimming goggles, just in case. Hayes likes to be verbal in bed but Sacks is becoming hard of hearing and so they dissolve into giggles about ‘Deaf Sex’. Extracts from their conversations, titled Notes from a Journal, are interspersed with Hayes’ musings about life on the streets of New York.
O: “Oh, oh, oh…!:
I: “What was that for?”
O: “I found your fifth rib.”
In the middle of the night. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” whispers O.
We get an intimate glimpse of Sacks and the brilliance of his mind – as he explains the difference between organic and non-organic chemistry, Hayes admits he doesn’t ever expect to understand half of what he is saying – and his quirky habits: he likes things in fives; he habitually announces each item of clothing before putting it on; measures the temperature of his bath (106 degrees deemed perfect); and talks of Kierkegaard, Jesus and smoked trout in the same sentence.
Sacks has hip trouble, his eye sight is failing and in, 2015, he learns that the cancer he had nine years earlier has recurred and spread to his liver which is “riddled like Swiss cheese with tumours.”
Hayes explains – and there is so much love in this – “I help him get ready for bed – “de-sock” him, fill his water bottle, bring him his sleeping tablets, make sure he has something to read.”
I: “What else can I do for you?”
As the cancer takes hold and Sacks can no longer read, Hayes reads to him.
“I love it. I love reading to you,” I tell him. “I feel very close to you.”
He nods: “It becomes another form of intimacy.”
Insomniac City is one of the most beautiful and heart-warming books I have read in a while. It restores my faith that love can happen at any age or stage of life and can tolerate the quirks, idiosyncrasies, foibles and habits that we all acquire along the way. Just what I needed after my, albeit short-lived, trials with internet dating. See my recent post: The Start-Up Entrepreneur, the University Researcher and the IT Specialist.
O: ‘It’s really a question of mutuality isn’t it?”
I: “Love? Are you talking about love?”