(Imagine, courtesy and approved of by Bradley Theodore)
I have had a tough time wanting to write about the death of Anthony Bourdain. I didn’t know him. Wasn’t interviewed by him. He didn’t even know I existed on this planet. But I know he did, and he did it better than most. I’ve been waiting for a memorial to him by one of his closest friends or something of a monument, but as its been some months now, how many? It doesn’t appear to be coming. I’m flabbergasted on so many levels and that adjective nor any adjective just can’t adequately describe how sickened I am of his suicide.
His obituary in the feeds was bad enough: “In court papers filed in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court and obtained by PEOPLE on Thursday, Bourdain was worth $1.21 million despite reports of a $16 million fortune. According to the legal documents, which were first reported on by Page Six, Bourdain’s assets included $425,000 in “cash and savings,” $35,000 in a brokerage account, $250,000 in “personal property,” and $500,000 in “intangible property including royalties and residuals.”(according to People Magazine, online 7.5.18)
Anderson Cooper’s and Don Lemon’s off script commentary had such little depth of perception it told more about them, than their subject matter. It would have been better for the CNN copy editor to have treated it like a typhoon over Manhattan. We needed poetry. Sadly, all we have are 2 postage stamps, the 2 last episodes played on the air, desperately dragging along their commercial lines. Then, the agonizing repeats to come like a disjointed funeral stop and go procession–such a lousy thing to say. Kill the traffic lights, please.
He was our Hemingway in our era. This is no small statement, especially for a mostly illiterate American populace who wouldn’t know their Thomas Wolfe from their Tom Wolf or their Tennessee from Virginia.
I grew up as an English major and reader of books from Elementary School at Flower Valley Elementary School in Rockville, Maryland. We had superlative, dedicated teachers who taught not inspired, but delved into their instruction with such a way that the works, homework, and assignments inspired and opened up a world of imagination, culture, and a globe—the old kind that swiveled on a spike–not inspiration out of a cult of personality. “Wicked Words” by Ms. Cohen had us memorizing at ten or eleven: inglenook-“a place by the fire,” eviscerate, pulchritude, bildungsroman, gargantuan, mellifluous…And we were reading books like “The Big Wave” about a tsunami in China at 9 and excerpts from “The Good Earth” and in middle school, digestible novels from a guy named Saint Exupery with “First Flight” and “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton, the first paperback, about a place called Shangri-La, a hidden paradise amid the Karakorum mountain range somewhere north of a place called Peshawar, within a border country called Mongolia before there was the Mongolian Grill at the Mall.
National Geographic was an essential part of our curriculum on a weekly basis, and they were strewn about the classroom and library shelves with covers with blue hues, stampeding horses, billowing shawls, and Saharan sands. The world may have been at our doorstep on paper, but the world of the imagination was infinite. I conquered the stars, the heavens, the oceans, and met peoples who spoke in a palaver of tongues. We were brought on a journey and learned there was indeed a world outside our Wheaton Boys Club, St. Patrick’s Church, and suburban neighborhood. Only the taste, sound, and touch were muted. Anthony brought this to us alongside his travels. Our T.E. Shaw in Arabia.
Anthony brought us all there. He helped us come closer to a real world, THE real world of people, smells, textures, colors, accents, bold and hinted, savage and delicate, bizarre and common. But you all know this. He was a journeyman who didn’t transform himself but led with this teeth, his wit, his history in the culinary arts, his mouth–tongue and cheek, and glorious spirit that somehow was able to immediately connect with a culture, cuisine, and country.
His “everyman” personality allowed him to mix like water or ice among Jack, Titos, Vermouth, Kahlua or Moonshine though a litany of beers might have been a better metaphor. Who among us has this especial ability to talk to anybody of any station, race, socio economic strata, and leave with a hardy handshake, hug, or double cheeked kiss?
His ability to connect his art of the preparation and making of foods to bread breaking at a table of strangers, new acquaintances to the long meandering desert of pub crawls under the moonlight, and dimly lit corridors and alleyways of Elliot’s was astonishing:
“Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells”
I am dumbfounded. Awe struck. In shock…still.
You know the rest: “How could…But he had so much…Of all the people…Wasn’t his girl just 11? But he had everything…Why in god’s name? Why in the name of heaven!” It is a brutal, brutal loss of immense…it is a quantitative word that I can not find a number large enough as “infinity” seems too finite? Or is it a qualitative superlative that lacks justice. Either way, it would amount to a slur. Humanity is at the heart of it. It (his death, he) is a brutal, brutal loss to humanity. To us all.
We know when the segment meant the most. When he poked, described a methodology, or interjected suddenly a bold, sarcastic statement that seemed to summarize a given sequence that tied culture, people, and food all together like an Italian Beef Braciole:
“The fats ethereally suspended somehow between skin, flesh, and bone. You bite into it and a flood of flavor explodes in your brain mass.” (Asturias, Spain)
“…it was the outskirts, the margins of Rome that were interesting and beautiful, the real Rome, not the temples and monuments of a long dead empire, a place where people struggled everyday to live and to love.” (Rome, Italy)
“Rice and gravy, fried fish, ribs, stuffed turkey wings which I am all over like a heat seeking missile.” (Cajun Mardi Gras)
Ordinary people. Real people. With his brazen honesty, and that wonderful cadence of his speech. You were ready for the meter, the lilt, the riff, the jab, and the smile.
This is when I loved him most. Hemingway would finish his meticulous morning work sessions sometimes with one sentence. It was done and ready to extract from all the drafts, scrapings, musings, and exhortations, into one supremely crafted phrase that looked like it had come out of a spontaneous moment, amidst drinks, like that of an abrupt farewell. For Anthony it came, “live” right out of a lifetime of invention built from narrow kitchen galleys, on top of the dirty dishes, clacking knives, sprays of dishwater and perspiration that only a hot kitchen can bathe and simmer a human body in as a crew madly prepares a New York dinner or hot lunch. “Order Up.” The clang of that china plate against a steel ledge reverberates like music to me now, the symbols of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
The curses are coming now. Too many curse words to write. They are coming much too fast. The tears continue to well up. Fingers drying eyes. And the world moves on. The fucking world moves on.