I'm reading Insomniac City
, the Bill Hayes memoir about life in New York with his partner, the neurologist Oliver Sacks. After I reread Awakenings
a while ago, happydork
directed me to this lovely excerpt
in the Observer, and then soupytwist
gave me the book with the note that "it's like you would write, only if you were a gay man in New York".
I am not a gay man in New York but I see the resemblance:"Worse, really, was the L, which I'd take home from Oliver's on the West Side. Not the train itself, which was fast and frequent, but what it represented. In that direction, the L is packed with people on their way to Brooklyn, whether going home or out partying. They always seemed hip and gay (in the original sense of the word) and young, whereas I felt like an old man being taken away from where he really wanted to be.
I feel guilty now that I projected my unhappiness on the subways. The L, and the 4/5? They did right by me, getting me home and to work on time and safely, and each brought its share of discoveries."
Hayes loves cities, the anomie and connection of them, and also the way they hold their own microcosm in mass transit. (He says, mass transit
, and I think: golden age SF, that magic gilded modernity. When people say public transport
I think of quiet country stations and Yes, I remember Adlestrop
. Different, but the same human topology.) And it's a beautiful, beautiful book. Textured by grief, but full of defiance, a willingness to see beautiful things. I think I see queerness in that, the theoretical version? The notion that queerness is some vanguard avant-garde, so we approach it through anti-capitalism and rejecting the sexual status quo, but it advances beyond us, so we are never truly queer. I'm not sure if I could uncritically subscribe to queer theory, or even critically understand it - my mind and/or education never feel like they're up to it - but this I like: that it is queer to reject the mainstream pessimism of the left. You queer the text by daring to find some reason not to give up and die.
And then of course it's a straightforwardly queer book, too. A queer writer, a queer life, a queer city, set out in bitesize vignettes and photography. Everything in it is something Hayes has noticed, something he's chosen to notice, about Sacks and about New York: a smokestack, a fisherman on the subway, a conversation with a stranger waiting for a moving truck, an army of skateboarders on Fourth Avenue. I have been unmedicated for two weeks now and settled to a scratchy, dimmed, distractible baseline. Everyone - GP and therapist and friends - says, one day at a time
, rather than rage against the light; which for me doesn't come easily. But I happen to be reading this book as London shifts to summer, which isn't right, because London isn't New York. You don't buy air conditioners in London, or wait until next time for the favourite outfit. I always think it's like a kid playing dress up - look at us, constitutionally raincoated, looking for the window keys, in the dresses we never wear, with the little self-conscious bottles of water on the Tube. It's twenty-six degrees today but it might not be ever again. Some of my colleagues have dug out salwar kameez; a girl I know wore a paisley hijab and tried to put her face in a frappuccino. Meds withdrawal has dialled my hypersensitivity up to eleven but there's something in noticing every small sensory thing: passing perfume, a girl humming, with two different decorated Converse and a Wonder Woman t-shirt; the scent of rotting rubbish (which - I'm sorry - takes me to New York again, the Lower East Side when I lived upstate, and last summer - Hamilton, Pride, and gelato). You may as well notice these things whether or not the world is burning. You might as well live. Also from Insomniac City
:"I once said to someone that one doesn't come to New York for beauty.
I said that's what Paris, or Iceland, is for.
I said one comes to New York to live in New York, with all its noise and trash and rats in the subway and taxicabs stuck in crosstown traffic jams.
I didn't know what the hell I was talking about.
If there could be a chip implemented to track one's vocabulary, as miles logged are counted with those fitness bands people go around wearing, I'm sure
beautiful would be in my top-ten most-used words. I am always saying that that's beautiful or this is beautiful. The thing is, beauty comes in unbeautiful ways here."
Last week in post next week; also, an intake appointment for psychiatric care; and my departmental privilege day. Not sure if I can write on it, or at all. But we shall see.