“Not the Way We Expected This Show To End”: A Love Letter to Anthony BourdainPhoto: Screenshot via Travel Channel TV Features Anthony Bourdain
No. Not the way we expected this show to end.
So, I was in a hotel room in Amherst, Mass. The window overlooked the Olmstead-deigned town common where I had, fifteen years before, seen a man wrapped in an American flag and doused in gasoline open a Zippo. Amherst wasn’t a comfortable place for me. It was a place I associated with assault, and suicide, and feeling trapped. So I turned on the TV to kill some time.
I saw you, but this didn’t look like cheeky, pork-overdosing, vegetarian-bashing, Alice Waters-mocking No Reservations. People were sobbing. There were bodies on stretchers and Marines holding half-naked babies. You turned to camera, the tail of your shirt flapping in a misty-gray sea breeze. “Not the way we expected this show to end, huh?”
It was 2006 and parts of Beirut were in cinders in the background.
I don’t know about you, because you seemed to get the magical opportunity to get to know a lot of your heroes, and get the career you wanted in spite of yourself (and specifically also because of yourself). You loved the Ramones and they loved you back. You got Dan Halpern to back your books when my agent wouldn’t even submit to him. If you pissed off a TV network there was always another one lining up to take you on. But maybe you were like me, too. Maybe you had certain intimate relationships with people who were technically strangers. Don’t know about you, but on the list of “people I’m in love with but don’t actually know” there have been four who had “TV personality” on their business card. Three were charismatic actors who played charming yet troubled fringe-type characters. The other was you.
Chefs are a lot like writers—indeed, some of the best are writers, and not just people whose names appear on cookbooks. You know this. You were one of them. To be successful at either craft, we must master both isolation and audience, control and submission, and we have to be able to communicate sensory information in a way that both reassures and challenges people or it doesn’t work. You need a hell of an assertive ego but you also need to be able to let it go. You need to be able to hear criticism without losing your voice, deal with indifference without losing your nerve, accept rejection without losing your sense of validity, and cope with adulation without losing your soul. People like us sometimes suffer deeply in pursuit of that balance. We have a tendency to feel alone, and sometimes most alone when surrounded by admirers. In fact, we’re so acculturated to defending ourselves from rejection, indifference, impostor syndromes and incredibly punishing superegos that we’re more comfortable in riot gear than we are in a room full of fans. Some very sensitive folks develop particularly thorny, combative exteriors. And if we decide it has become too exhausting to continue dealing with that, people never stop being stunned and often remarkably angry. I admit it: I do not understand that response. Someone, for whatever deeply intimate reasons, rejects the entire mortal coil and people manage to make it about them. It’s baffling.
You’re in Amherst—no, I’m in Amherst. You’re walking through Beirut. You’re talking to your local fixer, who confirms in a heavy accent that though yes, now is a good time for Lebanon, even in the Civil War it was a party town. Everyone kept the music loud and the drinks flowing. “We didn’t go into the shadows,” he says. “If we’re going to die, let’s die happy.” He takes you to a casual lunch spot and orders meze and local arak, noting that what’s great about the drink is that you can sit around drinking it all day and night and feel nothing. “Then you stand up and… whoosh!”
But you’re not standing up yet. You’re doing your thing, asking a lot of questions even about the stuff you know, because you know enough to know your answers might not be the answers of the person you’re talking to. You’re getting some great foodie-softcore shots of hummus drenched in hot olive oil and tzatziki dripping off a roasted “pizza” of bulgur and minced lamb and making me wonder, not for the first time, how you manage to stay that thin with the amount of food and booze you put away on location. You do not yet know it, but that afternoon, Lebanese citizens will be hooting and waving flags in the streets over the kidnapping and / or murder of seven Israelis. And within 24 hours you, TV-chef-traveloguing-bon-vivant-with-a-side-of-misanthrope, will be in the middle of a war. And the recipe will have to be abandoned.
“Little things save your life,” you say in voiceover, noting that since you were a famous chef, the kitchen staff of the swanky hotel where you were on lockdown with “a birds-eye view of the war” were happy to let you in and set you loose. In chaos, writers use words to try and wring some kind of order from things. Chefs chop herbs and onions. Repetition—a rhyme scheme, a string of prayer beads, a perfect mirepoix—is a coping strategy. We’re pattern-seeking beings, so if bombs are dropping all around you, the natural place for a chef to regain a sense of control is at the head of a brigade of guys in whites. So there you are, asking a sous-chef for string, boning a leg of lamb, smashing heads of garlic. It’s the only tangibly productive thing you can do, so you do it. And it feels good.
It’s little things that stand out for me from that episode. That green shirt you were wearing that first day was untucked and the breeze was making it flap open below the bottom button, so it kept flashing this little triangle of exposed skin, like an arrow that started over the fly of your jeans and aimed itself at the middle of your ribcage. It was an accident, the wind, but it seemed like some kind of weird semaphore. Mostly it’s your face, craggy, a little smoke-damaged, a little sunburned. While the bombs are dropping and you’re trapped in a high-end hotel waiting for a chance to get out. The look when you have to acknowledge that people like you do get out. It isn’t fear; you don’t look afraid. You look guilty. You look sheepish. You are keenly aware that you are watching a war from an unpleasantly close but crucial remove. It wasn’t your war. It wasn’t real for you, even when shit got real. And you knew it. And it was depressing, and slightly embarrassing, to find yourself in the out-of-depth position of being something much more difficult than the tourist you loathed being. You were not a war correspondent, and you knew it. But there you were and it wasn’t like you could pretend you weren’t. So you had to try and say something about a situation where there are really no words. No wonder you seemed so relieved to be able to defect to the hotel kitchen and start heating sauté pans. That would have been your safe zone in any conflict. Anywhere in the world, you could find order in a restaurant kitchen. Order, and authenticity. I think authenticity meant a great deal more to you than order ever did, which must have made it a hell of a mixed bag to have two careers predicated on a certain amount of giving the people what they want.
The Greeks inscribed “Know thyself” over the lintel of the temple of Apollo and the Greeks got a lot of stuff right—like philosophy, and proportion, and baklava. But what the inscription leaves out is the addendum Dante placed at the entrance to Hell: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” What always stood out to me about you or at least your public persona was a keen degree of self-awareness, and by keen I mean freshly-whetted carbon steel. You knew who you were, and real self-awareness is very often painful. For some, it’s calming, yes. But for some people it oscillates between transcendent and intolerable until one of those two things wins the last round. Then you stand up and… whoosh.
At the center of every piece of fiction I have ever written, there is someone who dies by suicide. I think the lone exception is the novel I wrote that was partly inspired by your TV trajectory (the one my agent refused to submit to Dan; I don’t think he’s fond of her). There’s always a gun, a bottle of pills, something. There’s always the catastrophically disaffected protester with the lighter and the flag on the town common; there’s always some iteration of my high school boyfriend or some avatar of the me whose riot gear isn’t intact. More than one well-intended pal has suggested how it’s sad how I never “got over” that guy leaving me for a bullet to the medulla oblongata and most of the time I even laugh when I say, “I’d consider myself a failure as a human being if I ever got over that.” These are invariably the same people who are stunned that I don’t donate to suicide prevention charities. You of all people, they say. Look: It’s not that I don’t think people who are suicidal and don’t want to be shouldn’t have access to help. They should. Unequivocally. But having been through this a couple of times, I find myself a bit disaffected by the overwhelming percentage of people who think it’s always a preventable tragedy. It’s not always preventable, and while at one level it is always a tragedy, it’s not more tragic than my friend who died of cancer or my friend who was murdered or my friend who crashed his car by accident. Death is tragic, at least for the people who loved you. For the one who dies, it’s not totally possible to categorize. Did you want to be stopped? I can’t know. I doubt anyone truly does. I do know you were a grown man and had lived a lot. A lot.
Of course, since last Friday I have seen my social media feeds burgeon with conspiracy theories (some of the people who “know” your death was not a suicide had never even heard of you before but believe there is clearly a connection with Kate Spade. Others heard that you might be “telling unsavory truths.” I sent one of those dudes a thesaurus). More numerous than the tinfoil-hat foot soldiers have been the Supreme Court of Public Opinion nitwits who have crawled out of the woodwork to denounce you as “selfish.” (People with minor children shouldn’t be allowed to die! I made a note to let my friend with Stage 4 cancer know that.) The biggest faction are the Armchair Diagnosticians Club members who post prevention hotline numbers and bemoan our feeble, inadequate understanding of depression, the upshot being that you could have avoided this, Tony, had you simply had more resources. (Really? Someone who survived heroin addiction, multiple divorces and a long TV career didn’t know help was available?) No one wants to accept that sometimes people are in the throes of a psychotic break but that probably far more often they just might have decided they were done with this shit. And that demanding they stick it out, stay here and suffer so other people don’t have to, might actually be what’s criminally selfish.
Just because you spent a lot of time in my living room doesn’t mean I knew you. It only felt like I did. We met twice in real life and those two handshakes really probably only made an impression on me. So I don’t feel OK about deciding what you were dealing with, suffering from, or whatever. Maybe you were depressed. Maybe you weren’t in a particularly bad place; that’s the piece no one wants to accept, ever, about anyone. There is such a thing as a calm and measured decision to leave the party while everyone is still having fun. There is such a thing as “If we’re going to die, let’s die happy.” There’s such a thing as, say, getting a terrible diagnosis and electing not to impoverish and traumatize your loved ones for agonizing years. I’m not saying any of that was you: I’m saying that even those closest to you probably don’t know for sure, and those who didn’t might not be especially entitled to hold forth on it. Some things are fundamentally mysterious and I’m not sure anything is more fundamentally mysterious than death, whether we choose it or wait for it to choose us.
You began the Beirut episode with the end of the shoot, because that was obviously the only way to handle it. Sometimes the past has to become the present and vice versa; sometimes we begin with an ending. Maybe not “sometimes.” Maybe it’s always like that. Tony, a lot of people are crushed that you’re gone, including many, perhaps millions, who never even met you, but felt as if they had. That is the power of authenticity. You get to keep that, whatever happened and wherever you are. There are worse legacies.
You once noted that behind the freakshow-level controlling monster at the helm of a chef’s brigade there is an essentially submissive person dying not to be in charge, that deep down the chef’s quest was for abandon, not control. I wish I could remember the episode, the context, but I don’t—I just remember you rolling your eyes and throwing your chin back and saying “Just… just do me!” Tony: Kitchen Confidential got my attention. Your ambling, shell-kicking walk across a French beach in A Cook’s Tour made me understand food TV was about to make a quantum leap. A hung-over binge-marathon of No Reservations one New Year’s Day gave me this idea for a satirical novel about an introverted Irish guy who becomes the principal videographer for a profligate, abusive narcissist chef-from-hell who’s making an embarrassing knockoff of your show (keyword: inauthenticity) and the first thing my bowled-over agent wanted to know is what it was like as a woman working in food TV: She didn’t believe me when I said I never had. You once trounced my ex at a Commonwealth Club event for asking you a snide question and I cheered inwardly.
But it was the belly-showing, wriggling way you begged the sensuous, experiential universe to Do You that fixated me. There was a deep lust for being overwhelmed, swept away and stripped of control that I don’t think you could have faked. It blew my hair back, though I wasn’t sure why at the time. Yeah, it was sexy. (Really sexy.) But I think I also saw a glimpse of something else. And it was related to the giddy look in my high school boyfriend’s eyes the last time he said goodbye to me, and it was related to the man on the Amherst town common that day in 1991. It was about the desire to be subsumed, to get out of your head for once and all. I knew what that was about. Part of us always does.
In your parting voiceover commentary as the Marines take you out of Lebanon, you say, “In the few years I’d started to travel this world I’d found myself changing… and I’d begun to think…. That the human animal was perhaps a better and nicer species than I’d once thought. I’d begun to believe that the dinner table was the great leveler, where [people] could find, at least for a time, common ground. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe the world’s not like that at all. Maybe in the real world, the one without cameras… the good and the bad together are all crushed under the same terrible wheel. I hope, I really hope, I’m wrong about that.”
No, it’s not how anyone expected this show to end, Tony. But when is it?
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.