Author Archives: unavitavagabonda

Soporific Insomniac City by Bill Hayes

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me is a slight book, and its breeziness and lack of depth will either strike a reader as charming and flâneur-like or will be irritating in the extreme.

9781620404959What is called a memoir is actually little more than a commonplace book, including extracts of diaries, snippets of conversation, and notes taken with studied casualness and later transcribed into the text. The low point of this approach comes when Hayes describes replacing Sacks’ typewriter ribbon. Testing the new ribbon, the latter strikes random keys and types nonsense phrases, all of which Hayes dutifully reproduces in a two-page spread. It’s hard to avoid the sense that one is watching a doting mother hang her two-year-old’s incomprehensible fingerpainting in an expensive frame over the family mantle.

Throughout Insomniac City, in fact, Oliver Sacks is constantly performing Oliver Sacks for the delectation of his amanuensis Hayes; and Hayes never stops elbowing the reader to say, “Isn’t Oliver wonderful? Doesn’t he have a brilliant mind?” Anecdotes about “the great man” abound, but they remain sterile.

On his own, Hayes eccentrically tools around New York having “experiences,” offering $20 bills to homeless people and chatting with strangers, the quintessential ecotourist in other people’s existences.

The glimpses that Hayes offers into his and Sacks’ intimate relationship are tantalizing but vague, with a kind of maidenly lack of specificity that is out-of-place in a book whose entire purpose for existing is the relationship between the two men. Hayes is, after all, the reason that Sacks ended a period of celibacy that spanned more than 30 years, about which the public is evidently going to learn nothing more in this lifetime. Sacks doesn’t say much about it in his autobiography, published shortly before his death, and Hayes follows suit.

There would have been no need for pornographic detail, surely, but a bit more candor about the late-in-life relationship of two men, one of whom was nearly 40 years older than the other, would have been both useful and appropriate.

Instead, Insomniac City feels oddly and, one suspects, deliberately de-gayed to serve the needs of its high-end mainstream publisher and of its hip and urbane “New Yorker” public who are surrounded by gay people but really don’t want to talk about them all that much.

Hayes is too in love with his own beautiful little phrases to focus on substance, and, apart from noting that the prose is ornate, a reader might be forgiven for wondering why so much air has been pumped into the spaces between the words.

In the end, Insomniac City feels very much like “Oliver Sacks: The Souvenir Program,” pretty, superficial, and forgettable.

Trump Announces Program for Black History Month

  • Al Jolson Commemorative Blackface Competition
  • Book signing by Rachel Dolezal
  • A demonstration of African-American cooking by Paula Deen
  • Showing of Driving Miss Daisy in the White House screening room (invitation only)
  • Black English, A Precious Legacy: Justin Bieber recounts the exciting story behind his invention of the word “crunk.”
  • A panel discussion of “Post-Racial America” featuring Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and former US Representative Allen West
  • TED Talk on African American heroes: That guy who invented peanut butter
  • A Festival of African-American Musical Contributions: Alternating Program. Wednesday & Friday evenings – A Vanilla Ice Retrospective. Thursday and Saturday evenings – The Queen of Soul (Celine Dion sings Aretha’s greatest hits)
  • Touch My Hair! Teams of traveling stylists will set up booths along the Mall to provide makeovers and tips: dreads, weaves, braids, twists, cornrows and more for white people hair!
  • Celebrating Black Literary Representation: Guest lecture by Lionel Shriver
  • Special Kennedy Center performance by the cast of Hidden Fences

Carmichael, California & Roseburg, Oregon – Days 10-12

Tomorrow, the epic journey—from nearly the most southeasterly point in the contiguous forty-eight to nearly the most northwesterly—comes to an end. I arrive in Seattle on the shortest day of the year, which means the days will only get longer going forward. And that’s some kind of, like, good omen, right? Besides, I know that whole thing about the sun going down at 4:19pm is just a norwester’s insider joke. Because that can’t really happen, right? Ha, ha. Good one, Seattellians.

Anyway, other than showing you this cool picture of Mt. Shasta all covered with snow …


… I thought this would be a good occasion to lay some of my Wisdom of the Road and Long-Distance Travel Axioms on you.

  • At the very first gas station you see after you leave the one where you filled up your tank, the gas will be cheaper.
  • If you can choose a smoking or non smoking room in a motel and you can choose what size bed you get, why can’t you choose whether or not to have a full length mirror? There’s a reason I don’t have those in my house.
  • No complimentary breakfast in any motel has never received a compliment and the name is, in fact, the earliest known example of post-truth in American culture.
  • In the south, the number of liquor stores is directly proportional to the number of Baptist churches.
  • I understand that Texas would like to be known as the “Lone Star State,” but the only nickname that truly makes sense is the “Road Kill State.” That there are any deer left in its entire 268,581 square miles is no thanks to the people who drive the state’s highways. Let’s not even talk about the armadillo.
  • There comes a time in every road trip when there is only one thing that will make you feel better, and that thing is Doritos.
  • I’ve already discussed the problem of Keeping Track Of Where Things Are. What I’ve realized is that this task requires a second passenger whose job is to do nothing else. If your car is like my car, however, there is no room for this person, so you will have to strap him or her to the roof.
  • The best slogan I came across anywhere on the road was in Louisiana, where it was painted on the sloping metal roof of a barn: “Root hog or die.” It reminds me of one of the first folk sayings I ever learned in Italian: “Campa cavallo che l’erba cresce.” It’s still one of my favorites, and it doesn’t have a direct translation. Well, I mean, the concept is easy enough to describe: A starving horse cannot eat until the grass grows out again, but the wait is long, the outcome is uncertain, and there’s a good chance he won’t last long enough to see it happen; in the meantime, if he’s smart, the horse had better figure out some other way to survive. It’s not precisely parallel, but “Root, hog, or die!” strikes me as close in spirit.
  • I know they are hard-working men and women with a job that takes a heavy toll on their bodies and their families. I know they are the salt of the earth. I know we depend upon their labor for the products we consume, for our food, and for who knows what else….But I’m still going to say it: big-rig truckers are lousy fucking drivers. They monopolize the road, they always drive too close to the center line, they are terrifying on curves (which they always take super-wide, as if they were completely alone) and, most irritatingly, they love to play a game with other truckers in which they pass one another in s-u-p-e-r-s-l-o-w-m-o-t-i-o-n, flooring their semis to reach the lightning speed of 57 because they can’t stand another minute of being behind that slowpoke trucker who is only going 55. Meanwhile, those of us who would really like to be going the legal speed limit of 70 have formed a convoy twenty-seven cars deep while we wait for you dicks to pull back into the right lane. I’ll say to you what Obama said to Putin: Cut it out.

Fresno, California – Day 9

Photos only tonight — I’m too pooped to prose.

The Mojave Desert from Kelbaker Road.

The Mojave Desert from Kelbaker Road


The Kelso Dunes

The Kelso Dunes


The Dead Airplane Graveyard near Barstow, California


California trying to look like New Zealand

California trying to look like New Zealand


Wind farm, California Highway 58 West

Wind farm, California Highway 58 West


Needles, CA – Day 8

Roadside-vendor fry bread and tamales may not be enough to build a life around, but they’re a nice thing to come across on any given day.

Especially this one, which began before dawn in Canyon De Chelly. Though I was awake and rarin’ to go, the rain poured down until well after 8am. I bided my time, waiting out the rain and drinking something that bore a certain resemblance to coffee from the Keurig capsule machine in my room at the Thunderbird Lodge (which, except for the coffee, I highly recommend. Oh, and except for the cafeteria; don’t eat in the cafeteria).

When I finally did venture out, it was 40°F (about 4.5°C) with a furious wind that waited until you came into the open, then jumped out and tried to gut you. I visited the three lookout points on the North Rim drive but the cold kept me from lingering.


I thought the wind, rain, and cold would discourage the lookout-point vendor men and it seemed to—except for one, who, I was amused to note, had memorized the same spiel as all the ones I had met yesterday (it starts off with, “My mother/grandmother lives down there in the canyon….”). Remembering yesterday’s crows, I stopped to look at what he had laid out on the folded white sheet spread across the hood of his car: a series of paintings on rocks featuring Kokopelli, bears, baskets of corn….

It was one of those moments when you know it’s going to be nearly impossible for either one of you to escape your roles. He’s the tore-up-looking Navajo kid illegally selling dubious “native” art (there are signs at every lookout: NO VENDING) off the hood of the car it looked like he slept in. I’m the tourist guy who, though I may not be rich, have more money to throw around than he does. Plus, I can leave. Though I would genuinely be interested in native art, I find the canned stories about the deep spiritual meaning of some pretty bad rock paintings to be as depressing as they are irritating. From his perspective, what was I doing there if I wasn’t looking for Indian flavor, which he was offering?

So … I’m sorry. I’m sorry I don’t want to buy anything. I’m sorry your life is a mess. I’m sorry for the genocide and the rez and the shit schools and how fucked you are. I’m sorry for everything, really.

But all I said was thank you.


I started back down 191, and for the rest of the day, the heavens seemed determined to hurl whatever they could at the earth. The wind increased in intensity as I headed south to meet up with I-40 near Winslow, Arizona, at which point the car was being smacked so hard by the wind that it felt like someone trying to tip a cow. Only white knuckles on the wheel kept me in a straight line. I escaped from Winslow, moving west at 75 mph, just as an immense dust storm was blowing in from the east.


The wind kept up until I’d passed Flagstaff, then gave way to rain, nearly continuous and sometimes blinding, pausing only for the occasional fog bank, all the way to Needles, where it still sounds like a hurricane outside. There is no sign of Spike.