Usually, these things don’t get to me. But for some reason, this one has.
So Anthony Bourdain is dead. Suicide, hotel room, 61. I feel some need to extrapolate on this, front-loading this with a lede of what he accomplished or why this is so tragic, etc etc. I have no energy for that. You can go to Facebook and see that 50,000 times.
I’m trying to figure out why this bothers me so much, and I think it’s because of when I became connected with his work. I remember exactly when and where I first picked up a copy of Kitchen Confidential. There was a book store called Coliseum Books in Columbus Circle, and I’d go there every Friday after I went to my shrink. (She’s also dead, I found out recently – lymphoma, I think.) I think I read the New Yorker article, so I picked up his book. This was back when I spent hours and hours on the subway, and was single, lived alone, had no cable TV, so I would plow through books, reading a book a day most of the time. But while I read a lot of forgettable work back then, his stuff had a real resonation for me.
My kitchen career was low-level and short-lived. A summer on the Taco Bell drive-through; a couple of months washing dishes at an old-school Italian restaurant; part of a semester doing the same at a dorm, with the very brief and slight promotion of being the dude who stocked the milk and juice bar in the front-of-house. But when Bourdain described the camaraderie, the in-the-trenches slog of working the back half of a restaurant, I immediately related. I’d never aspired to cook or even stay in the business long enough to do anything other than collect a small paycheck, but I’d spent enough Friday nights at war with the dinner rush, completely slammed with a wall of dirty pans and plates, and no way out. I got it, and it pulled me in.
Bourdain had a persona, and I think it grew much more when he became a TV personality, picking fights with other chefs, with vegetarians, with food chains. His work as that persona was good, but it’s easy to forget he was a hell of a writer, and that’s what drilled into my brain. It wasn’t that he was a good brand; he was a guy I knew, someone telling stories and shooting the shit and talking war, a war I briefly fought. There’s something about any writing about a very involved job like that – it’s the reason I probably go back and re-read Bukowski’s Post Office every other year. Bourdain had chops, but he also had the ability to figure out what to write from such a career, and to do it in a different template than all the other stodgy food books up to that point.
I think he’s also a very intertwined part of the early 00s and New York for me. I was not a foodie, and spent far more time at McDonald’s than at any French restaurant. But if I had to make a list of the things that made up the background of my time in New York from 1999 to 2007, he’d be on that short list. I used to walk home down the back alleys of south Manhattan to avoid the tourists and bustle of Broadway, the Broome to Jersey to Mulberry to Prince to Bowery route, the interior of the blocks that were grand and exquisite on the exterior, but I’d be seeing the service entrances and freight elevators. And that’s where I’d see the chefs, always smoking, always preparing for a battle that was about to start when I was heading home from the cubicles. And that always made me think of Bourdain and other chefs, and the underbelly of the city, and those folks who took the long train from Jackson Heights or Hoboken to cut up fish or wash dishes for minimum wage in a city where bankers earned millions of bonuses in the W years.
It’s weird because I feel like I knew Bourdain, although I didn’t. When I stop and think about it, I think, wait, did I know him? Like did I meet him at a signing, or have a friend of a friend that worked with him, or run into him at some point? I didn’t, but it feels like it, because his writing got so in my head. I don’t have a connection to the TV host who jetted to France to eat oysters with someone famous in the food world. I mean, good for him that he got the money and the opportunity, and it’s fun to binge-watch on Netflix, but that’s not what did it for me. He somehow burned into the background of my brain, and that’s why his death bothers me.
There’s also the usual thing I do, where I look at him at 61, and me at 47, and I’ve wasted a lot of time on 401K calculator sites that all tell me I have to keep this optempo going for another twenty years, and I feel like I want to retire in 20 weeks, and who knows when I’ll even get started with this writing thing in earnest. He broke big because he wrote what he knew and he wrote as a person, and I’m so burned out and sick of writing what I write. So I keep thinking, well maybe next week I’ll reinvent myself, and do everything different. But the clock is ticking, and when someone goes, it puts that in perspective.
I’m not going to go into the why of how he did it, or if this is some epidemic, or if prescription drugs played a part, or what 800 number you should call, or any of that shit. You’ve probably seen it a million times already this morning. Just like how I couldn’t think of a snappy paragraph to open this, I don’t have one to close it. Just wanted to get down my thoughts now, because it seems like I never get to do that anymore.