One day in March, I went to the movies with a friend. I don’t remember what we saw. It was a lovely afternoon but it didn’t seem that meaningful.
The next day, the Washington, D.C. area went into pandemic mode. Since then, my outing with my buddy seems momentous.
Everyone, I bet, has a memory from the Before Times etched in their DNA.
As I write, a Washington Post news alert comes on my screen. The coronavirus has killed at least 1 million people worldwide, it says, “there is no end in sight.”
Yet, despite being sucker-punched by the pandemic, we keep going. “How We Live Now,” released on Aug. 25, by Bill Hayes, a New York City-based gay writer and street photographer, captures how we are going about our lives in the midst of our “new normal.” The slim volume is a time capsule and a memoir (in real time) of Hayes’ life during the pandemic.
Don’t be fooled by this book’s slimness. Its short chapters, interspersed with interludes of photos, pack a wallop of poignancy, beauty, love – even joy.
I don’t, thankfully, mean joy like a Hallmark Christmas movie. You know from the get-go that this won’t be a sappy book! It begins with an epigraph from “The Way We Live Now,” a 1986 short story by Susan Sontag. (Sontag, author of “Notes on Camp,” was the least sappy of writers.) Sontag wrote it at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The story doesn’t mention the word AIDS. Yet, it’s clear that it’s about how a group of friends feel about living in the midst of the epidemic (when no one is sure what causes AIDS).
“Of course, it was hard not to worry, everyone was worried,” Sontag writes, “but it wouldn’t do to panic…there wasn’t anything one could do except wait and hope, wait and start being careful, be careful and hope.”
Like many of us in the queer community, Hayes, 59, has been impacted by AIDS. Steve, his partner for 16 years, had AIDS. Ironically, he died from a heart attack.
After Steve’s death, Hayes rebuilt his life. He continued to write and to take photographs. When you’re as good a non-fiction writer and as evocative a photographer as Hayes, what else would you do? He moved from San Francisco, where he’d lived with Steve, to New York City. There, some years later, he met, became friends with, then fell in love with renowned gay author and neurosurgeon Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015 at age 82.
Hayes, a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, wrote “Insomniac City,” a moving memoir of his life with Sacks, his grief when Sacks dies and his transformation from an out-of-towner into a New York City denizen.
As was the case during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, people are having crushes, dating, having drinks with friends – during our COVID-19 era. Even in the face of loss, despair and death.
Hayes falls in love on the Christmas before the pandemic began with Jesse, a young guy he met playing pool in a bar. “He was tall and muscular, but it was the Santa hat he wore with exactly the right amount of irony that caught my eyes,” Hayes writes.
The two text and see each other a few times after the pandemic begins. Yet one of the last times they kissed was New Year’s Eve.
Hayes writes evocatively about everyday pandemic moments from having a drink (far apart from other patrons) at a bar to shouting your order to a clerk from outside a bookstore. His photographs vividly illustrate the difference between life in New York City before and after COVID. One eerie photo shows Eighth Avenue with no traffic.
One of the most trenchant chapters in the book is deceptively simple. It’s a list of the last time Hayes did everything from going to a movie to laughing before the pandemic. You might think, I could write this! But, you’d be wrong.
“How We Live Now” is a lively, bracing read for our time.