A Review of Bill Hayes’ Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me

March 9, 2018 § 3 Comments

HAYESBy Jodie Noel Vinson

One mid-winter day, as I am walking around a frozen lake with my husband, a lifelong insomniac, we spot a muskrat. The small mammal is glassy-eyed and shuddering in deep snow with his pathetic hairless tail looped over bare toes.

He should be sleeping in a cozy burrow, but like some misguided groundhog he’s awake, looking for spring. As we stand there pitying the muskrat, I am aware that my husband’s empathy is greater than mine, stretching out beyond what I feel, like some force field of warmth and compassion beaming its way across the snow bank to the blinking creature. My husband’s years of isolated nights, I realize, have brought this confused rodent as close as kin.

I’ve seen this cross-species empathy before. And I wonder if insomniacs, nature’s enemy, always side with the underdogs who find themselves in hopeless situations, battling the relentless cycles and seasons of life, those that won’t conform to their bodies’ habits and needs, to which their bodies, in turn, refuse to succumb.

When he moves to New York City at the start of his book Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, Bill Hayes immediately recognizes his insomniac self in the “haggard buildings and bloodshot skies, in trains that never stopped running like my racing mind at night.” His unique empathy extends not only to the city as an abstract concept, but reaches the individuals who inhabit its streets, especially at night.

Hayes’ forays into the city are almost always rewarded with a smile, a nod, a conversation, or even an invitation. Just as the empathy of the insomniac springs from a sense of isolation, perhaps empathy for the outsider on the streets of New York is born out of the fact that many drawn to that city feel themselves to be one. Hayes describes leaving his restless bed and strolling through a park, surprised to find other insomniacs inhabiting benches as if they were armchairs, reading books beneath street lamps. Here Hayes finds an affinity with his fellow nocturnal wanderers, the balm of companionship taking the edge off insomnia’s acute isolation.

Hayes moved to the city after losing his partner, Steve, who passed away suddenly after going into cardiac arrest one night in their San Francisco apartment. At the time of the incident, Hayes had sank into a rare deep sleep—a chilling irony that haunts him through the wakeful nights that follow Steve’s death. But this isolation is also what draws, or drives, Hayes into deep intimacy with New York City and its residents, relationships he establishes through his camera lens. “Can I take your picture?” is a constant refrain in Hayes’ book, and the resulting photographs stare up from the page, each an open invitation for connection.

Eventually Hayes forges a relationship with a fellow insomniac, the neurologist Oliver Sacks. The book becomes a tender remembrance of a great genius who learned to fall in love for the first time at the age of seventy-five. Hayes records his memorable interactions with Sacks in the form of journal excerpts interwoven with conversations with the strangers he meets in the city’s subways and streets.

Through Hayes’ lens, Sacks is a charming, musing intellect, whose fascination with the mysteries of the brain and the natural world are trumped only by the wonder he feels as he learns to share his joy with Hayes. “Billy! Shouldn’t one be on the roof? The sun is setting!” Sacks cries over the phone at one point, precluding any greeting. “Yes, one should!” Hayes replies, and Sacks rejoins: “I will meet you there!”

Sacks’ everyday reflections, as recorded by Hayes, serve to ground the younger author’s constant search for connection in the larger questions of life’s meaning, especially as Sacks begins to face death after his liver cancer diagnosis. “I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life,” he bravely remarks to Hayes.

Sacks’ question, “How much can one enter, I wonder, another’s insides—see through their eyes, feel through their feelings? And, does one really want to…?” is answered in Hayes’ relentless empathy for strangers, and through the story of his deepening relationship with Sacks. Hayes affectionately depicts Sacks gradually learning to share his life, from lap swims to salmon, music to marijuana (the neurologist enjoys describing his vivid hallucinations whenever the two share a joint).

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” Sacks asks Hayes as their intimacy builds, and the reader can easily imagine the two insomniacs living happily together in the village Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes in chapter three of One Hundred Years of Solitude—a village plagued with communal insomnia.

Of course, the joy of infectious insomnia is that, unlike real insomnia, the inflicted are not alone. In the magical realism of Garcia Marquez’s novel, the village inhabitants walk around dreaming in a state of “hallucinated lucidity.” Not only do they see images from their subconscious come to life in their wakeful state, some, we are told, can see the images dreamed by others

While Insomniac City is inevitably book-ended by the ultimate isolation–death–the reader does not feel Hayes is alone at the end of his book. It is too easy to imagine that, after many wakeful nights without Sacks, who passed away in August 2015, the author will eventually drift off to sleep. And that, just as he begins to dream, he will hear a familiar voice crying, “I will meet you there!”

Neither does the reader feel alone while reading this book. My copy of Insomniac City was procured from my local branch of the public library. On page 65, overlaying one of Hayes’ black and white photos captioned “Just out of jail,” in which a lanky African American man looks back with relief and wonder in his eyes, a previous reader left a flower, its yellow petals pressed delicately between pages. This small offering from a stranger felt entirely fitting in this book, itself a gift to the lonely wakeful world.

Jodie Noel Vinson received her MFA in nonfiction creative writing from Emerson College, where she developed a book about her literary travels. Her essays and reviews have been published in PloughsharesCreative NonfictionGettysburg Review, Massachusetts ReviewPleiades, Nowhere Magazine, RumpusRain Taxi, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among other placesJodie lives with her husband in Seattle, where she is writing a book about insomnia.

On Writing: The Lonely Darkness vs. The Dark Alone

November 2, 2016 § 32 Comments

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Sandra Miller (photo by Miranda Loud)

By Sandra A. Miller

Who better than a sleepless writer to explain the distinction between the Lonely Darkness and the Dark Alone? Allow me, if you will.

The Lonely Darkness is tossing in bed until your useless, 800-thread-count sheets turn warm with worry and that Tylenol PM bottle—despite you swearing off sleep aids—beckons from the bathroom shelf. The Lonely Darkness is 2:38 am and dreams you can’t return to and the cruel trick of a bone-tired body and a churning mind, hopelessly bad at getting back to sleep, but effortlessly good at remembering affronts and dread diseases that run in your family.

The Lonely Darkness is every fear you’ve had since the pregnancy stick showed a plus sign. It’s teenage children. Their college applications. Your sister’s cancer. That unwritten book. The Lonely Darkness is the insomniac’s principal’s office where you are furious to have been sent yet again, while fully aware that the true punishment will come in your workday, as sleep-deprivation tortures you into stupidity. The Lonely Darkness is your epic demon.

Then there’s The Dark Alone.

The Dark Alone finds you waking up in a house hushed with the silence of a sleeping family. You peek at the clock—5:12 am—and count forward on your fingers from 11:30 pm. What? Six hours if you round up! (And you always round up.) Energized by this rare sleep achievement, you roll out of bed and reach for your sweatpants dropped on the floor the night before. You slip them on in the searing darkness of your bedroom, and, still sightless, feel around for your Rhode Island sweatshirt hanging inside the closet door. If you’re lucky, you can extract two mismatched socks from the clean laundry pile in the corner. If not, you resort to yesterday’s stretched, slightly pungent ones on top of the hamper. Sometimes you even like those better.

Finally, wasting no time, you steal out of the bedroom where your husband, who has missed maybe a dozen nights of sleep in your 21 years together, will not wake up for two more hours. Although he’s spent some time in The Lonely Darkness, he knows nothing of The Dark Alone. This is your territory.

Downstairs you rinse out the only mug you will use at this hour—the cracked purple one your kids painted a decade ago at Clay Dreams—and brew your dark roast (the beans, the heat, the cool dash of cream) that will taste better than absolutely anything else you put to your lips all day. Nearly trippy with gratitude for sleep and caffeine, you will carry your mug to your office, set it on your desk, open your computer.

And there they are, the thoughts, seeded by quiet, watered by dark roast, they grow in the fertile soil of the morning hours. They thrive in The Dark Alone, not unlike the way plants require sun. They vine and flourish. They flower. They fruit.

In the Dark Alone you may only write for one hour, but it is always the most productive hour of your day when nothing comes between you and your words. No one’s worry or radio. No cellphone. No child. In these morning hours, you will be awed by the power of your ideas to bloom, bold and vibrant on the stalk of your genius, growing in size and strength, until all at once the sun, like a burglar, breaks through the crack between shade and window pane. Still tapping away, head bent to the sound of your inner voice, you try to ignore that thin band of brightness, but then you hear an alarm clock upstairs, then another. Soon a symphony of rap and radio and shower noises ensue while you rush to hold onto what is fast slipping away.

Minutes later the light is full up, cast across the to-do list on top of your inbox. Your daughter stumbles downstairs. “We’re out of cereal!” she shouts. And your son needs a ride to early band. Your husband, who only ever wears matching neutrals, wanders into your office. “Does this tie match?” he asks.

“Perfectly,” you assure him. And with those first words, the spell is fully shattered.

“What time did you get up?” he asks.

He winces when you tell him. He doesn’t understand.

With that, you kiss him good-bye, shut your computer, and step beyond the now blurred boundary of The Dark Alone. You toast a frozen waffle for your daughter. You tell your son you’ll drive him. You check your phone. You nibble a cracker. You look at the house, the mess, the clock. The darkness hid a hundred needs, the way the light spares nothing.

Already you miss the Dark Alone, your secret place of creation. You can only hope it will be there again tomorrow.


Sandra Miller‘s essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in over 100 publications including The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, Spirituality and Health, and Glamour Magazine which produced a short film called “Wait” based on one of her personal essays. Kerry Washington starred. You can find out more at SandraAMiller.com. Or, if you happen to be up at 4am, visit her blog, www.nightmath.com, where Sandra reckons with all things nocturnal.

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