Dear Anthony Bourdain,
You’re gone. You already knew that, but I found out this morning. I am sad and angry, and I’m writing to you when it is too late. Maybe you have a way of knowing what is in my thoughts, or maybe you’re cosmic dust. Regardless, I’m writing down what I never had a chance to say and what you will never hear because this is the reality I am left with.
You never knew the impact you had on me. I “met” you through watching A Cook’s Tour, in the days long before you swam in Top Chef-style cash. Since then I have watched, read, listened to your words and found comfort – yes, comfort – in the brutal honesty you threw around. Why? Your version of honesty wasn’t about showing the ugliness of others. Instead, you invited us to look at the honesty of yourself, including all your uncertainties, unpleasantness, awkwardness, and absurdities.
That’s some beautiful shit, man.
I know a lot of people were drawn in by the “coolness” of hard-talking swagger (although I don’t think I ever saw you really swagger – people just think they saw you swagger). But it wasn’t the Ramones t-shirts and tattoos, the fountain of alcohol, or the reckless 4-wheel driving that made you stand out. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff was fun and made for much more interesting TV than say, a meals-in-5-minutes cooking program. But it was your words that caught me, every time. You saw things and you said things, and many times you spoke what someone like me needs to hear.
You were excelling at the one thing so many people have such a hard time doing: you were living as yourself. And that means you irritated people, you ruffled feathers, you put your foot (as well as other things) in your mouth. But you didn’t stop there – you let us see how that affected you, how you made sense your fuck-ups, and how you learned so you could do better next time. And you did keep getting better – better at being you.
I need people who do this, who work to be only themselves. Most people try to be someone else. Even when the facade gets pulled away, many still try to get us to ignore the fact that they wear no clothes. Being someone else is easier; becoming yourself is the harder, less chosen path. Authenticity is difficult because it takes you into the parts truly unknown. The mirrors that flash up on that journey will sometimes reveal the nasty bits, especially when we would prefer to see greatness.
Which is why, when I encounter someone who by all reckoning shouldn’t be excelling the way you were, someone who knows their success is based on a pure second chance at life – I cling to them, because knowing someone else out there is embracing the struggle gives me some sense that I can struggle too.
I am angry at you, Anthony Bourdain (can I call you Tony, yet?). I am angry that you leave me with this, forcing me yet again to confront the existential dilemma of isolation and connection. The void you have left implies the tie I had, even though we never shared a face-to-face conversation.
I’m also angry that I have to listen to the multitude of platitudes expressed whenever someone dies in this way. I get that there are a lot of people who don’t know what to say. But eventually, you would think people would at least stop saying some of the dumb things. Are you in a better place? Who knows. I don’t even know if you would say a better place exists. Maybe you’re stuck in a perpetual line, waiting forever behind some guy trying to order a latte at McDonald’s. Did depression overtake you? Who cares. It is like suggesting this is all just a character flaw – oh look at poor tony – which really just becomes a great way to pretend the rest of us have no pain. And if depression did play a role in this – then fuck depression and everyone who thinks depression picks on a select few to inhabit. That’s bullshit all the way – especially when we live in a time when depression might be the healthiest response we’ve got to all the ridiculousness going on.
I don’t know why you did what you did. No one will ever have that answer, except you. I would like to think that if I could’ve done something to stop you, I would have, but I also know that sentiment is only meant to make me feel as though I have control over something like this. I don’t. And in some ways, neither did you.
I’m sad, Anthony Bourdain. I’m hurt that I’m now left trying to make sense of this and I won’t have your poetic ranting to provide that beacon of light in the chaotic darkness. Racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia – you called it what it was and when it got crazier, you got louder. And in those moments I knew I wasn’t nuts because at least you saw it too.
I was inspired by you, Anthony Bourdain. There were several times I used clips from your shows in my courses. I didn’t use them to gross people out or show how “weird” other cultures can be, which is where a lot of travel/food shows gets it wrong. And that’s why your work wasn’t just a travel or food show – you were doing something that I have been encouraging my students to do for years. You moved outside of what is comfortable for you and tried to step into the world of someone else. Someone you may never truly understand but you will attempt to, even if it means making a fool of yourself. You could recognize that the repulsive to you was appetizing to someone else; you knew that it wasn’t the custom that was “backward” or uncivilized, but rather you were too clumsy to get it right. You embraced what you did not know, and you allowed yourself to be affected by the people you met.
You did what hundreds of highly educated, trained, even seasoned professionals in my line of work struggle with. Some can’t even begin to approach the kind of generosity and curiosity you demonstrated just by being you. Being yourself can make a difference, and you showed us that. Damn you for taking that away from us, from me. Damn you for making me face again just how bad we can be.
Look, now I’m ranting. Do you see what you bring out in me? Do you know how much I loved the fact that you bring this out in me? Do you know how much I will miss you bringing this out in me?
I’ll close my letter by telling you one more little thing. For about 10 years, I kept having a reoccurring dream where you would appear. I don’t know what it meant because I’m not that kind of therapist. Anyway, the only other person who knew about this dream was my husband, who laughed every time it happened, prompting me to convince him that it wasn’t a sex dream. Really, it wasn’t a sex dream (I’m not that kind of therapist either). But you would just show up, and we would talk, and laugh. And I woke up, and would feel better. You made a difference to me.
See you in my dreams, Tony. And you’d better have a fucking good story to tell.