At a quarter to five in the morning, our phones lit up. We were awake; my husband had just used my phone to turn the sound of rain on over the speakers in this place where it does not rain. But the bright glow of a text lit up the room like a beacon. I rolled over to turn it off and saw that it was my sister-in-law writing to say that Anthony Bourdain had died. Via, apparently, suicide.
“Maybe he wasn’t depressed. Maybe he was just diagnosed with a disease he didn’t want to fight.” And lose.
I spoke those words into the darkness, and wanted — still want — to believe them. We had read his books and watched his shows. All of them, as he moved from the Travel Channel to the Food Network to CNN. When we had no money to travel, in the slow-to-recover Midwest after the economic collapse, we circumvented the globe vicariously through his shows. We saved episodes about certain areas for when the weather, or our lives, or our pantries were particularly morose. We deliberately expanded the range of what we ate, and our knowledge of the places it came from, expressly through his work. Occasionally we’d cave to a Netflix related-show recommendation, or when visiting someone with cable, see what ran next on TV after his show ended — but neither of us stuck around for long. As I am sure everyone will make abundantly clear in the coming days, it wasn’t just the food or even the travel that attracted you to Bourdain’s shows, but the perspective he brought to each. That of the one-time salty chef of Kitchen Confidential, sure, but also of someone old enough to have outgrown that affected badass persona into someone more nuanced, compassionate and, in some ways, gentle.
Both of us have always, consciously or not, looked for role models in that kind of person. We are both the oldest children in our families, with no permanent older fixture — a cousin, a friend — from whom to seek advice or perspective. I more than my husband (probably due to a better track record of finding people worth believing in) actively seek out the writings and advice of people, usually men, at least ten years older than me. For good or ill, it’s easier, for me, to relate to the concerns they are willing to put into words than those being spoken by women. And then there is always the knowledge that I “could have used” an older brother. A brother old enough to be my father, frequently with a youthful history of drug abuse and/or depression, is not, I’m sure, the brother many parents would choose for their kids. Certainly mine wouldn’t have. But what I was saying the other day when reading the last of the Neapolitan novels remains true: seeing this darkness seep out of the veins of people and swallow them isn’t something it’s possible to escape. The seeing of it. But however much my melodramatic youthful self may have wished it at times, that’s not an avenue open to me. Nor, I hope obviously, am I advocating some sort of depression-tourism by soaking oneself in literature and music and other media produced by people capable of going to dark places, as some kind of vicarious sob-fest.
What I am saying, though, is that what they learn is worth knowing. Especially when life doesn’t make it easy to obtain that information any other way.
Most men of Bourdain’s vintage don’t care about marginalized populations. They aren’t able to look at some of the shit kids get up to and recognize themselves in that and leave it alone. If they travel the world they shit on what they find. Third-world this and backwards that. Or, conversely, they deify it. Hold it up as the shimmering paragon toward which everyone else should aspire (and which culture every male should mine for a wife, is typically where that conversation goes, more times than I have the remotest interest in tallying), and compare to which all other cultures pale. Nuance is not common coin among white men in their 50s or 60s. They tend to be assholes.
Bourdain wasn’t. He didn’t do those things. He was perfectly capable of being wry, sarcastic and even bitter about a place or its politics, but its people? He didn’t shit on them. Even when — as I thought darkly during some of his American city episodes, focusing on places who voted red and would continue to do so — they deserved it. He brought his experience and his, yes, fatigue of a certain way of living (be that young and underslept and drugged-up, or rich and languid and overfed — he’d seen all of it) to every place he went, every person he interviewed, and he spoke through that fatigue and found something and someone — so many someones — worth knowing on the other side of it. That is why we kept coming back to him, in whatever medium. That’s why I seek out the perspectives of people like him. It’s not that I can speak to having pondered suicide while on a bender on a cliff road in Jamaica. It’s that those who turned around, who didn’t drive that car over the edge, did it for reasons I want to make sure I find too. Because even if I’m not on that precipice now, or even have a history of teetering, not knowing what made them stay means you may be puttering along on convictions that have all the consistency of toilet paper, when you really need to call on them.
Also, his food knowledge was amazing. We cook from his cookbook all the time.
I hate that he’s dead. I want to believe it wasn’t depression. Obviously, yes, if it was, token attention will be paid to the need for greater education and open discussion about it. But then, as after school shootings, after a few weeks people will stop caring or talking about it, and things will go back to the way they were. The way they have been.
And the way they have been seemed to have been enough for him, is what bothers me. And now, suddenly, it wasn’t. If it was a disease he didn’t want to fight — Alzheimer’s, for example — that I understand. And I like to think, if I were in a closely-related position capable of forgiving or required to forgive, that I could do so. For that.
But if it wasn’t? If it was “just” depression? That sucks. Because Bourdain and his work and his travel and his work about travel, and food, was an argument for there being light at the end of the tunnel.
And it just winked out.