Parts Unknown

Celebrity deaths often make a splash in the media — we see a wave of obituaries, proportional in size to the degree of cultural impact these figures had, and then the wave crashes and the tide ebbs. The news of their passing is displaced with other, more sensational celebrity news about someone’s dramatic weight loss or gain, a debate on ‘who wore it best,’ or the latest wedding or divorce.

Until the death of Anthony Bourdain, the only people whose deaths I remember where I was and what I was doing when it happened were Michael Jackson (in New York City, on an escalator at Topshop) and Princess Diana (at the Jersey Shore, sitting on my parents’ bed and watching TV). I remember being crestfallen when Robin Williams had died, but don’t recall where I was or what I was doing.

I found out Bourdain had died when I was getting out of the gym on Friday morning and was texting a friend of mine. When I said I felt nearly dead from a workout, he made some sort of “too soon” joke that involved Bourdain, to which I responded something to the effect of, “Wait, what? Did he die?”

I briefly speculated on whether it was drugs or something else that led to his suicide. Later on, it would be revealed that he’d been heavily drinking the night before. I went on with my day, but as my newsfeed filled up with articles eulogizing Bourdain, it was hard to not open and take a look at all the ways in which this man’s legacy was being documented.

Three pieces of his legacy stood out to me, likely because I see them as part of my greater raison d’etre or nebulous sense of future and purpose:

  1. His power as a medium for storytelling, especially when it came to standing up for people and cultures that are taken for granted or otherwise overlooked: “he gave faces and names to the people who cooked it, telling their stories in a way that humanized the people struggling through some of the most dire situations in the world.” Especially in the current political climate, Bourdain’s ability to put aside the usual preconceptions and non-judgmentally explore the worlds, beliefs, and cuisines of others, whether in West Virginia or the West Indies was rare, inspiring, and hard to match. Bourdain, with all his chef’s precision, consistently served up well rounded stories, complete with the sweet notes, sour moments, and bitter truths. Some choice lines of his that stand out to me are at the bottom of this post.
  2. His advocacy for women in a world where powerful and culpable men in the entertainment and food industry shirked blame or responsibility in the wake of the #MeToo movement. I’d attribute some of the strength of his voice in #MeToo to his relationship with Asia Argento, but so would he: as he called out in his interview with Trevor Noah: “I’d like to say that I was only enlightened in some way or I’m an activist or virtuous, but in fact, I have to be honest with myself. I met one extraordinary woman with an extraordinary and painful story, who introduced me to a lot of other women with extraordinary stories and suddenly it was personal.” Regardless the reason, he spoke out and spoke loud, and not just because the hashtag was trending.
  3. His fight with addiction and depression — and in jiu-jitsu. I know that Bourdain had been open about his drug problems and that to work in the food industry is to constantly find yourself at risk of becoming addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, or something else. From reading some of Bourdain’s writing on his past lives in kitchens, having close friends who have been in the food industry, and having had my own experiences on and off the line, the food business is truly a physically and mentally-bruising business. I haven’t found somewhere that he came out and said it explicitly, but I believe training jiu-jitsu was part of his way of dealing with addiction, perhaps a healthier addiction than others he’d suffered throughout his life. I’ve written on this a little on my two posts on training jiu-jitsu, but it’s the one thing that gives me temporary but reliable relief from my own demons. Fighting promotes my sanity, and I am convinced it had the same effect for Bourdain. If nothing else, I, too, share the future “hav[ing] my ass kicked everywhere in the world.

I expected my feelings would be the same about Anthony Bourdain as they were about the multitude of other celebrity deaths: intense at the moment I learned about them, but fading. Almost a month later, I’m still gobsmacked by the loss.

The more I learn about him, the more I want to know, and the more, painfully, I feel like I can relate: We both grew up in Northern New Jersey. We went to the same high school. We both worked with food. We both did things in entertainment and storytelling. We both struggled with depression and addiction. We both did jiu-jitsu to the point of obsession.

While I don’t wish to meet the same end, I would be proud if we shared something else in common by the time my own time comes: what the New Yorker said about Bourdain: that I built my career on telling the truth.

It remains to be seen for me whether he, too, will fade in my memory, like these other celebrity deaths. So long as I do jiu-jitsu, grapple with my own mental health, and chase such a career based on telling the truth, I don’t think he will.

R.I.P. Bourdain

~~~

*Some notes

  1. How American is Puerto Rico? How American do they want to be?And how does the rest of America feel about Puerto Rico? How much responsibility are we willing to take for their aspirations, their well-being, their basic rights as humans, as citizens? The answer to that last question appears to be: not much.”
  2. I am intensely grateful for the kindness, hospitality, and patience the people of West Virginia showed to this ignorant rube from New York City who arrived with so many of the usual preconceptions, only to have them turned on their head.”
  3. “We love Mexican people — as we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children.”