9.19 Bourdain

You tell yourself that you don’t know this person. You tell yourself that he’s a celebrity. That it doesn’t matter. Sure, you’re sad for the people they left behind and hope they are doing okay. You heard the news, the news cycle moves on, and you get on with your day.

I just couldn’t let go of this.

Almost twenty years ago, I moved to Toronto to go to university. I was living on my own, meeting new people, and being exposed to exciting experiences. One of my new friends, an actor, lent me a book circulating at the time. Dogeared and cover bent to shit, this was how we used to learn about new things. Someone passing you a book in their dorm room after a night out at the bars. That cool professor putting Cormac McCarthy on the reading list.

My friend worked in a restaurant and the book he lent me was Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. I never worked a restaurant job, but I remember being hooked from the first page. A relentless voice spoke to me from those pages. Bourdain said many times since that he wrote Kitchen Confidential for other people in the restaurant and service industry. He laser-focused on that audience, thinking he could entertain this niche crowd. The success of the book came from the attitude of focusing on this audience and fuck all the rest. Hey, it took me a long time to actually understand that there is truth in the cliche of the more specific you make it, the more universal it becomes.

Bourdain kept popping up over the years. I kept reading his books and watching his television programs. I don’t have a TV, but whenever I’d go and visit my mom, you could almost always count on back-to-back episodes on CNN, and we’d inevitably find ourselves watching them, and more importantly, discussing them.

I know a lot of people feel this way, but watching Bourdain was like watching a version of myself doing all of the things I wish I could do. Or, the things I used to do. I don’t do them as much as I used to, and I should really figure that out. The travelling, of course. Being in new places and having your neurons firing on all cylinders at the world around you. I used to be able to go on one or two trips a year. Used to. Anyway.

Bourdain had been able to weave perfectly his writing and creative voice into exactly the right kind of vehicle. The early shows were good, but I felt he was in a constant state of evolution. Each show was a stepping stone along the way, experimenting, trying to get to a place where he felt comfortable. The seemingly unwavering pursuit to be around smart people who are doing interesting things. It wasn’t just about the food. Sure, there was plenty of it. But, more so, there was a respect for people who create, who experiment, and who unabashedly be themselves. The confidence Bourdain seemed to have in his opinions and attitude. He was, in short, inspiring on a few different levels.

People hide parts of them well. Bourdain had talked about his depression sporadically. Sure, he could have a curmudgeon demeanor, but that was all part of his charm. There was always a darkness to him, an edge. I guess it went deeper than we all knew. What I kept thinking about is when people decide to take their own life, what made them take that extra step? He’s written about suicide before, but there was always something stopping him. I’m sure during his drug-infused states as a young man he thought of it. Why now? What was it that happened now that changed it from ideation to action?

Two things here resonate with me. First, one thing I’ve learned is how much I compartmentalize different aspects of my personality. We all do this to a certain extent. I was very good at showing work colleagues one side, family another, and friends yet another. When I got depressed or felt shame about my feelings, I was able to disappear, or at least, only show the people I wanted to show. Really, it was an illusion of control.

The other thing is suicide. Although to be completely honest, I have not really put too much thought into this, I have a thought that occurs about once a week that would be my version of this. I imagine what would happen if I just disappeared. Not kill myself, just disappear. Get on a plane today, randomly pick a destination, preferably one that was warm. Take a job that earns me enough to eat and just be anonymous. In this fantasy, I have a belief that everyone in my life would be better off without me around. That I am some kind of burden that they are tolerating, and who just needs to go away for everyone’s life to get better.

You know, whenever a celebrity dies, I always hate how everyone had to bring it back to themselves. For example, they’ll tell you about that one time they ran into so and so at a restaurant, or whatever. People making a tragedy about them. Well, I just did the exact same thing. I set out to write about how much of an inspiration Bourdain was to me, but everything I wrote about him kept making me reflect on my own life, my own choices, where I am right now.

Maybe part of the idea is that when someone like Bourdain dies, and in such an unexpected way (at least to the public), it shocks those that the person had connected with. Actually, I found myself reading all kinds of stories and experiences that people had with Bourdain, both of the celebrity and non-celebrity kind. It was reading about a legacy being solidified in real time. It was a final way he inspired. He wanted to uncover the shared humanity in us, and unfortunately, with his death, he once again did that for one last time.

Paul Dore