“…a walk through this beautiful world”
[On Suicide, Bourdain, & Other Things]
I am intimately familiar with suicide. In the past three years I’ve lost a friend I loved dearly, a poet, to suicide. My cousin’s son, who played with my own son in my backyard and was just eleven years old, took his own life. Before that my sister took her own life. My daughter’s best friend, a sixteen year old, took her own life. And in my turbulent youth, I too tried to take my own life. In the interest of time I won’t talk about all of my beloveds, but let me disabuse you of thinking this essay is some form of celebrity worship. I know the reality and I know the numbers.
I also know that the biggest rate increase in American teen suicides is among black/POC teenagers.
When celebrities commit suicide or overdose on drugs the media beats us over the head with insincere narratives. This eclipses the struggles of everyday people dealing with depression, drug addiction, and mental illness. And yet, that doesn’t mean we won’t miss the musicians, writers, and other creative talents who used their gifts to bring us joy.
I want to talk to you about Bourdain and about suicide. I want to talk about it. To me Anthony Bourdain wasn’t really a celebrity. He lived as a traveler, a poet, and a malcontent with a desire to see everyone looking to do good in the world, do that good, unencumbered. Bourdain, by his own admission, a recovering addict, stated in an interview with Fast Company that he knew early on the difference between himself and those addicts who saw no value in their lives. The difference, he claimed, was in his vanity. Somehow, when he looked in the mirror he saw someone worth saving. He’s that dude who pulls it together and leaves us in wonder. Because we know he’s been to the knife’s edge. We can see it in his eyes, and hear it in his cynicism. Bourdain wasn’t big on the idea of everybody being happy all the time, or content. He knew that couldn’t be reality and he gleefully bashed hipsters and gentrification for that very reason.
He handled Parts Unknown like an independent filmmaker creating a new film every week. He was a chef and like me, he loved to cook for the people he loved. He was an everyman and one of us: us — that small percentage of the world (black, white, whatever) that gets it. We understand that we’re living in an oligarchy controlled by capitalism, and that all the isms, phobias, religions, and economic systems its control mechanisms. And because of this, I feel abandoned. I have some fucking nerve. I know. Believe me, I know. A man took his own life; a daughter, a mother, a lover, an ex-wife, and countless friends and fans survive him. And yet, I feel abandoned. Like I lost a compatriot in the struggle.
I’ll admit right now to something many of us minorities are guilty of: we love us some woke white folks. We’re quick to “invite them to the cookout,” as the saying goes. I suppose Bourdain is one of those woke white folks even though he hated being labeled as “woke.” Shit, he’d probably do some of the cooking at the cookout. His privilege gave him a platform and he used that platform to advocate for others as best he could (there are limitations to white wokeness we know this). The dude went everywhere, sat down with anyone, and ate everything. Of Marseille, France, Bourdain said:
A fair number of French will tell you in unguarded moments, that ‘Marseille is not France,’ and what they mean by that is that it’s too Arab, too Italian, too Corsican — too mixed up with foreignness to be truly and adequately French. But anybody who knows me knows that’s exactly the kind of mixed up gene pool I like to swim in and eat in. It is a glorious stew of a city, smelling of Middle Eastern spices and garlic and saffron, and the sea.
On his pre-Hurricane Maria trip to Puerto Rico, at a dinner table surrounded by Boricuas committed to reclaiming their homeland, Bourdain and his guests discussed what’s really going on between America and La Isla del Encanto. Bourdain asked:
Why would a bank front 70 plus billion dollars into an economy that had been in decline for quite some time? Did they ever really have any reasonable expectation of getting their money back? Or was this just a cheap way of buying a country?
Bourdain’s Puerto Rican hosts answer yes in unison. The singer-songwriter Alfonso “Tito” Auger emphatically rings an imaginary bell as if Bourdain had both asked and answered the million-dollar question.
Bourdain lived a life most people would envy, yet he fell into that number: 26.5 out of every 100,00 white men commit suicide. The hope, insight, and pleasure he presented to us on a weekly basis were not enough. Whatever kept me coming back every Sunday night, that got me through the week and that took its place on a short list of things that bring me joy; my children, my career, poetry and writing, whatever fuel he passed on to me and to his countless viewers by just being Anthony Bourdain, was not enough. Therein lies the mystery of suicide. Another confession: I watch reruns of Parts Unknown trying to solve the mystery of why Anthony Bourdain killed himself. I comb the dialogue for anything cryptic. There have been many moments this season and there have been moments in his books. I think of a few passages from “The Rich Eat Differently Than You and Me,” a chapter in his book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook:
I was holed up in the Caribbean about midway through a really bad time. My first marriage had just ended and I was, to say the least at loose ends. By “loose ends” I mean aimless and regularly suicidal…The roads were notoriously badly maintained, twisting and poorly graded…And yet, every night I pushed myself to go faster and faster…Here was the fun part: after making it past the more heavily trafficked roads of the Dutch side…I would follow the road until it began to twist alongside the cliff’s edges approaching the French side. Here, I’d really step on the gas…For a second or two each night, for a distance of a few feet, I’d let my life hang in the balance, because, depending entirely on what song came on the radio next, I’d decide to either jerk the wheel at the appropriate moment, continuing, however recklessly, to careen homeward — or simply straighten the fucker out and shoot over the edge into the sea.
I audibly ask, “Anthony. Why bruh?” What a shitty thing to do on my part. The truth is the pendulum swings, things change, and occasionally, we come out the other side. During the “Prime Cuts Season 10” episode, an episode which recaps all that season’s travels, the director presents Bourdain with a question from a fan: Is it worth it? Bourdain answered:
I have a good life. I have the dream job. I have the best job in the world. There is a price to be paid when your dreams come true. Is it worth it? Yes. If it wasn’t worth it I wouldn’t do it. So yes, I guess the answer is yes. It is worth it.
Once an episode, or once every few episodes, we get the camera shot of Anthony’s back as he takes in a landscape: the Caribbean sea in Puerto Rico, the Arabian desert in Oman, the Si Phan Don in Laos. These are dramatic shots juxtaposing man with nature. On the surface they present man in awe of the living world or simply enjoying it. Beneath the surface, the place where Bourdain always wanted to be, they are cinematic interpretations of literary themes, revealing among other things, moments of loneliness. I wonder if Bourdain suffered from the overview effect. I first learned about the overview effect from a short film titled Angelfish. Author Frank White in his book bearing the same name, coined the term:
The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void,” shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere.
Sailors like Bernard Moitessier, and countless explorers and mountain climbers also felt the effect. The realization that the world is so insignificant when compared to the cosmos, and that humanity is so fragile when compared to nature is humbling. Realizing this over and over must be a staggering experience. Living with such a realization, when the majority of the world is consumed by its petty differences, must also be lonely.
It is paradoxical how easy it is to be lonely in a crowd, in the arms of your lover, in the presence of family and friends. There are people who hide it well. The reality is we’re all lonely as fuck because America is all about individualism. I think it was James Baldwin who said American individualism makes you hate everybody in a quiet and desperate way. Bourdain had definitely seen the other side. Many of the countries and American states he visited struggled with extreme poverty, inequality, and social problems. If his highs — dinner with Chef Paul Bocuse, lunch with President Obama, getting inked by Japanese tattoo artist Takashi Matsuba — were as high as they looked to us, then the lows had to feel especially low; if you’re susceptible to depression this is a cruel pendulum.
The day my daughter’s best friend committed suicide is seared into my brain. To protect her and her family’s privacy, we’ll call her Jane. The details of that day remain as clear to me as if it happened yesterday, and so does her face. It was overcast and humid. I was dropping off my daughter at a high school pep rally. I parked, and walked my daughter up to the double doors to check everything out. Her friends were waiting for her, and they started to walk inside. I noticed Jane was far off, alone with her phone gripped tightly in both hands. I waved to her. She walked over. I asked her what was wrong. She said, “Nothing.” She said it so casually, so don’t-bother-me-dude-I’m-young-you’re-old. And I understood that, but I pressed her anyway because I had this weird feeling in my gut. In the end, she said nothing and that was it. I let her walk away. It was mid-morning on a Saturday.
I drove to Essex County College in Newark to teach my Intro to Literature course. We read “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. At the end of class one of my students began talking to me about family problems, and how some of the dynamics in the story mirrored her own life. She spoke for an hour. I mostly just listened and offered encouragement where I could. We laughed, she cried, and afterwards she expressed her gratitude to me for listening. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you hardly spoke.” She said. And then she added, “I appreciate you.” I’ve been saying those very words to people ever since, “I appreciate you,” the power of those simple words.
My biggest regret from that day is that I didn’t take the energy from my talk with the student to follow up with Jane. Or maybe in the deepest parts of me, I regretted that Jane hadn’t talked to me for an hour and felt better, and ultimately not killed her self. The universe gives us day-to-day life in weird ways like this. It gives, or to be more accurate shows us hope, and in the same breath, drops steaming hot realities in our laps that makes us despair. And the brink, that rubbery breaking point that appears unannounced every so often, isn’t the danger we perceive it to be. It is not being jolted by the danger of the danger, not pulsing with the adrenalin, and not feeling much of anything that is deadly. When we enter that numbness we are in the void.
Once upon a time I worked as assistant director of graduate admissions at a university. On a non-descript day the phone rang and on the other end of the line — esther louise. No, that is not a typo. esther preferred her name be spelled in lowercase letters and I’m going to honor that here, and always. She had a lot of questions about the master of fine arts program in poetry and I patiently answered each one. I was also a student in the program, so I was able to giver her insider information. esther’s most pressing question was, “Are you sure there’s room for an old lady like me in your program?” I replied that I knew we had a place for her because I’d seen the student body. I’m so glad she believed me. She took to the program immediately. During her first semester, on the night of the student reading, when students were to present an original poem written during the residency, esther floored us with a poem about the dogwoods of her childhood in South Carolina, and the love and teachings of her grandmother.
We became fast friends, going to readings together, exchanging poems, and sometimes, at those readings, sharing gossip about writers we did and didn’t know. When she moved from Brooklyn to the Bronx I went and lent a helping hand. In my eyes, I did what a friend should do, be present. Strangely enough it was snowing off and on that day. Mild flurries, nothing major. esther spoke about the gentrification encroaching on the neighborhood, “But,” knowing that I’m Dominican, she said, “there’s a Dominican restaurant up the street and around the corner.” Although she didn’t hold too much with the menu, she treated me to stewed goat with rice and red beans. We continued our friendship and would continue it, I thought, for many more years.
I’m terrible at math but I love to hear experts argue about the role of time in the universe. I see time as a constant. Meaning that it is what it is. However, when we get caught up with living our lives, time becomes a whip-bearing taskmaster. It is then that time closes in around us, making us feel claustrophobic, and harried. Time can isolate us in the void, disconnecting us from what’s important. If we’re not careful, the way we perceive what’s happening in our lives, in relation to the way we perceive the time we have to deal with it; can disconnect us from normal existence.
The way we think about time in our daily lives can deceive us into losing touch with beloved friends. I lost touch with esther for almost three months. I’d been juggling projects and one day I read one of esther’s status updates on Facebook. The mood emoji expressed “feeling optimistic.” It hit me that at that particular point in time, I did not know what was going on in my friend’s life, what she might need from me — if anything, or if I was in a position to help. I resolved to call her and make sure she was okay. In the meantime I replied to her Facebook post. A few days went by and I hadn’t called. Thinking back now I’m sure the illusory phrase, “I’m too busy,” flashed through my mind. Then I received a phone call, I can’t remember now who it was that told me, the person on the other end of the line told me that esther louise had taken her own life. Here arose another shock, another trauma, and another ripple in the soul.
Experts claim you can’t go backwards in time; at least, not yet. That fact, however, doesn’t prevent me from wishing I could go back, and make that phone call.
I was texting and emailing back and forth with my friend Ann about Bourdain’s suicide. That night I dreamt I was in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu dojo. The dojo was crowded and people sat or walked around, some wearing gi (a martial arts uniform), and others in tee shirts and shorts. I had no idea what they were doing but I know they weren’t training. For whatever reason I was hemming and hawing over I could attend classes three nights a week. In the waking world I’m a Japanese jiu-jitsu practitioner. A man gave me a white gi and white belt, and then led me up some stairs to a mat. Anthony Bourdain was waiting for me on the mat and we “rolled.” Rolling is the practice of wrestling for position and submission in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It looks like two people aggressively “hugging-it-out” on the floor, but it is an intense physical chess match with one person trying to make the other submit.
Bourdain was a solid blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It is important to note that it takes about two years to earn a blue belt. He came in first place at the 2016 New York Spring International Open IBJJF Jiu-Jitsu Championship. You can imagine my surprise then when I put him in a leg lock and he tapped out (I mean it was a dream). My face felt hot. Part of me was embarrassed I won. We hugged and clasped hands. He looked me dead in the eyes and said, “My spirit’s not right,” and walked away. I woke up thinking about that Hanoi episode, when Bourdain sat down to lunch with President Obama. At the end of the meal he asked the question on everyone’s mind. Trump was escalating his campaign rhetoric and spewing a new and more shocking statement every day. President Obama sat there, in his characteristically open and hopeful manner. Bourdain asked: “Is everything going to be okay?”
My own plan seemed flawless. In my mind I pictured everyone who claimed to love me crying, miserable, and full of remorse. I chose the most beautiful place in the ghetto I called home. A large park with trees, basketball courts and soccer fields, picnic areas, and bright stadium lights. The park, situated a few blocks from the housing projects, always had people coming and going. Eventually someone would stumble on my lifeless body, and the Shakespearian tragedy I’d plotted would be set in motion. This was textbook suicidal ideation.
Snow fell softly that evening. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and swallowed four bottles of pills. I didn’t even look to see what I was swallowing. After, I looked around the apartment, peeked my head into my mother’s and then my sister’s bedrooms. No one acknowledged or noticed me, and I took this as a slight, as justification for my actions. I quietly walked out, went to the park, and lay down on a park bench. As snow flurries landed all around me I opened my mouth to catch them. Sleep crept in from the edges. Snowflakes slid down my throat like the pills I’d swallowed. I regretted my decision. In my haze I thought to pray, so I did.
Somehow I woke up at my mother’s front door, my sister slapping me in the face and trying to get me up from my knees. During the recovery I couldn’t remember what I’d prayed for, only that the words “never again” featured prominently.
The art of lingering over the table after a meal and spending time together is called Sobremesa. This beautiful activity can consist of solving the world’s problems over after dinner drinks, or it can also be something as simple as quietly enjoying fullness together. Bourdain invited us to countless meals and countless moments of sobremesa. In the recent Hong Kong episode his meal with photographer Simon Go is priceless. Go is chronicling the disappearance of Hong Kong’s independent shops, and he reminisces about dumpling, a thick piece of bread slathered in butter and deep-fried in a pan. Go’s mother used to make it for him as a boy. When his mother and grandmother passed away, the dish died with them. Until one day, when his aunt attempted to make it for him. One taste brought tears to his eyes and the memories came flooding back. Go became visibly emotional and his eyes welled up with tears. That’s sobremesa and Parts Unknown.
Bourdain’s virtuosity exists in presenting to us, as is, what food means to people, and how it makes us all human. Perhaps this is why the opening and closing scenes of that same episode are haunting: Bourdain sitting alone, meditative, and writing in his notebook. Again, the classic Parts Unknown solo shot. We could read Bourdain’s monologue as a confession of love for Asia Argento, but as is often the case with Bourdain, he juxtaposes this confession with a brutal truth:
Chapter 1: To fall in love with Asia is one thing. To fall in love in Asia is another. Both have happened to me. The star ferry to Kowloon at night, the lights of Hong Kong behind me, it’s a gift, a dream, a curse. The best thing, the happiest thing, yet also the loneliest thing in the world.
At the end of the episode he walks through a crowd; they’re on their phones recording the mélange of colors that is Hong Kong’s skyline at night. The people are looking up at the grand image on their phones, as if the skyline in front of them was being broadcast from somewhere far away. This closing scene, a poetic expression, captures what 21st century loneliness looks like.
Choosing a favorite episode of Parts Unknown is almost impossible. If I had to list a possibility, “Japan with Masa,” is up there. The epigraph, spoken in Japanese, is an ars poetica on the restless creative spirit:
I think I need more momentum. Power. That’s why I’m creating all the time. I have a little bit of a crazy side. That’s why I keep moving. I keep doing something. I can’t sit still in the same place. I have to move. And still, I am learning.
Again, on the surface, the words are representative of Bourdain’s spirit, as I know it from his show, his interviews, and his books. However, the lyrics from the Parts Unknown theme song express Bourdain’s cynicism and his eye for brutal realism:
I took a walk through this beautiful world
I felt the rain on my shoulders
I took a walk through this beautiful world
I felt the rain getting colder
Poet, translator and essayist Roberto Carlos Garcia is a self-described “sancocho […] of provisions from the Harlem Renaissance, the Spanish Poets of 1929, the Black Arts Movement, the Nuyorican School, and the Modernists.” Garcia is rigorously interrogative of himself and the world around him, conveying “nakedness of emotion, intent, and experience.” He writes extensively about the Afro-Latinx and Afro-diasporic experience. His second poetry collection, black / Maybe, is available from Willow Books. And is first collection, Melancolía, is available from Červená Barva Press. His poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in The Root, Those People, Rigorous, Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, and elsewhere.
He is founder of the cooperative press Get Fresh Books, LLC.
A native New Yorker, Roberto holds an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.