Book Review – Insomniac City by Bill Hayes

May 29, 2017

Book review of Insomniac City

I only vaguely knew what Insomniac City was about when I bought it… the author’s love of a man (Oliver Sacks, to be exact) and his love of New York City.  I wondered if I would find enough common ground with the author, a gay man in his fifties, to connect with the book enough to finish it.  But I ended up devouring it over a long weekend.  Hayes had me captivated by the end of the first page…

“My new apartment was a virtual tree-house, a tiny top-floor walk-up at eye level with the ailanthus boughs.  There was not room for more than a desk, a chair, and a mattress.  Nor a need:  You see, the place came furnished with spectacular views of Manhattan.”

Hayes tells his story of moving from San Francisco to Manhattan to start a fresh life after the unexpected passing of his long-time partner.  Once settled into a new life in New York City, Hayes meets Oliver Sacks and falls in love.  He ends up losing Oliver too.  But Oliver, dying of cancer, knew his end was near.  So the two men enjoyed the gift of time they had left together.

I moved to Philadelphia when I was 18 and lived there for 8 years.  I wouldn’t consider it the City of Brotherly Love for a second.  It was brutally honest, thieving, and dirty.  It could chew you up and spit you out.  But at 18, I toughened up and persevered.  And the city respected me for it.  My love for the city grew and grew.  I remember so vividly the sounds and the smells from my time in Philly.  I found beauty in just about everything, even the things I probably shouldn’t have.  I’ve never felt so alive, so present, and so mindful as I did when I lived in Philly.  The day I left, I cried like a baby.  So I get it.  I get the love for the city, especially a grand city like New York.

Insomniac City is a beautiful reminder to take stock in the little things.  It’s a reminder to slow down, to pause, and to feel.  It’s a reminder that this world and the people in it are fascinating.  I dog-eared a page and returned to it when I finished the book.  The passage reads…

“One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly, no matter how fully oxygenated the blood and brain or how steadily the heart beats.  Fortunately, this is a reversible condition.  Once can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause – to memorize moments of the everyday.”

I hope I can one day return to that state of living.  And perhaps return to the city.

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