It’s 3PM in Dakar, Senegal and someone’s burning plastic. The scent comes through my fourth floor window. Opposite, I can see a man banging a bit of metal on top of a half-built house, buses honk in the near distance, a circular saw whirs out of sight. In the sky, black kites circle, while below bare-footed children play in the sandy courtyard. I close the window as one of the city’s many battered yellow taxis hobbles across the rocky track near where I live. I sit back down at the desk where I wrote a book for Anthony Bourdain and I try to remember the first time I heard his name.
It was twenty years ago, 1998, in a short story collection called Rovers Return. It was a time when I read a lot of modern Scottish literature; Gordon Legge (the greatest), Irvine Welsh (the most guttural), Janice Galloway (the most sensitive) and Alasdair Gray (the most gloriously weird). How the hell, I wondered in 1998, did a native New Yorker called Anthony Bourdain end up in among six such authors in a collection of short stories? Back then, Anthony stood out because he was the only non-Scottish, non-Irish writer in the anthology. He was the freak, the weirdo. It set the tone. From the moment I first heard of Anthony, he was an outsider.
In 2006, eight years after Rovers Return was published, Anthony contacted me. I had read Kitchen Confidential and seen some of his TV shows by then, but I wasn’t sure if this was the same man because his email address was so odd. It was like something from the 90s. It was an email address you only ever set up if you used one of those CDs that came sellotaped to the front cover of a computer magazine. No-one used an email address like that in 2006. But, the contents of the email definitely read like Anthony. And he was in Viêt Nam.
He told me that my blog about street food in Sài Gòn had helped him film his show. It was a kind gesture, I thanked him and we kept in touch. Several years later, and by now he was a global mega-star, he emailed me again. This time, he had a request. He wanted me to write a book. I told him that I didn’t think I could write a book, but he persisted and he convinced me to at least give it a go.
I’m glad he did. I feel grateful and incredibly lucky to be one member of the disparate band of writers he assembled for his imprint and to have taken an all too brief ride inside his magnificently mad carnival. Over the last few days, it’s been heartening, nay gobsmacking, to read of the many things he did to help so many people. Not to mention the millions who were influenced in a positive way by him.
I am sure that the source of a lot of his goodwill towards others stems from before that short story he published in 1998. I don’t think that he ever forgot who he was or where he came from. He never stopped being the outsider. He was drawn to the back alleys and side streets, to the freaks and weirdoes, the dispossessed, minorities, the other and he helped give them all a voice. In the process, he became everyone’s favourite outsider. Incredibly, through it all, he somehow managed to stay true to himself.
I wanted to email Anthony a month or so ago. I’d spent the best part of a year applying for jobs. I’d been longlisted, shortlisted, interviewed, but nothing had worked out. Maybe, I thought, he might know someone who might need a person like me. However, I was embarrassed to ask him and I delayed. In the end, it was a stupid thing that made me write to him.
I was stuck in traffic in Dakar. Bored, I looked at Twitter and saw his tweets. He was taking great delight in correcting the spelling and grammar of a large number of obnoxious, fascist Twitter users. It made me remember the one word he asked me to remove from the manuscript of my first book: oodles. And how we argued over the title of my book. He thought red plastic tables were more ubiquitous on the streets of Viêt Nam than blue plastic tables. I sent him the image at the top of this post to slam dunk my side of the argument. And I remembered how, on my publication day, he sent me a message to congratulate me. And he told me how he had felt on the day his first book was published. I slept with it, he said.
When I looked up from his tweets and at the car in front of me in the Dakar traffic jam, I noticed the licence plate ended in AB. I took a photo of it as it seemed serendipitous and I thought of sending it to Anthony and telling him here’s the reason why I’m writing to you today, I saw a sign… I thought he might like that kind of thing.
When I got home, I did write to him. To that same old, crusty email address of yore that he was inexplicably still using. I asked him if he knew anyone who might need someone with my skills. I need work, I said. He wrote back five minutes later, brimming with energy and enthusiasm; Of course I can help, I know just who you need to talk to. I’ll intro you right now. I knew immediately that I shouldn’t have been embarrassed to ask him all those weeks before.
Magnify that act of kindness by a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand or more and, well, you get the picture. If he could help you in any way, he would and without hesitation.
However, his most important legacy, especially in these uncertain times, will be how he encouraged millions of people to experience the world with him. To leave judgement and prejudice behind, show respect to others and be humble wherever you are. In that, he took the whole world along with him.
A year ago, on another typical, hot, dusty afternoon in Dakar I asked a Senegalese friend to watch one of Anthony’s shows. Outside in the courtyard, cooking pans clattered, goats brayed, while behind a wall a group of kids recited the Koran at a makeshift school. My friend had never heard of Anthony, but I wanted to know what she thought of how he portrayed her country. I left her to watch the show alone and when it was finished, I asked her.
“So, did he get it right?”
But, she didn’t need to answer. A huge grin broadcast her answer loud and clear.
“He definitely got it right. Yes, definitely.”
It’s a great episode. I recommend it.
Originally published at noodlepie.com