(photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
I met him one time, about a year and a half ago. In a Williams and Sonoma of all places. My brother surprised me, saying there was a travel writer he wanted me to meet. Anthony Bourdain was there, doing a book signing. The line snaked around the store and led to his table, where one person after another got him to sign a copy of their just-purchased book, then went around behind him and posed for their photo with him, taken by a professional photographer standing there and lining up the shots. It reminded me of a department store Santa setup.
He looked like a pro. Which is to say, he looked uncomfortable, but also like someone who knew this was important to people.
So what do you say to someone in that position? Someone who’s heard everything before? Been told he’s somebody’s hero. That he has the perfect life. That they wish they could be him. These are easy things to say to someone who creates the kind of first person, confessional art that Anthony Bourdain produced. You think you know the person, and you think you know them well
I turned down the photo (my brother snapped a few on the side). I walked up to the table and said a few things about how much I enjoyed his shows, and I said, “I appreciate what you do. And I appreciate how open you’ve been with your recovery.”
Then I told him about my mom. She was a chef. She was a traveler. And she was an addict.
And she didn’t make it.
I’m not sure he heard the first half of what I said. But he definitely heard the second half. I told him I wanted to thank him for what he was doing. As somebody who’d grown up and lived in the shadow of addiction like that. That what he’d been doing, and the way he talked about what he’d gone through had helped me, and that it meant a lot to me.
I shook his hand. “Thanks,” he said. “That means a lot to me, too.”
A drop in the bucket. You get maybe one chance in your life to meet your heroes. You want to say the right thing in that moment. What I said was good enough, and it’s the one thing I’m holding onto while I feel the loss of someone I didn’t know the same as if there was a death in the family.
I don’t know how to write this without making it about myself, and in that, I feel like I’m failing someone I admire. But I’m lost today, not in my right mind. I’ve been grieving the loss of a person who inspired me to live a better life. And I wish I could thank him for that. I wish I could thank him for a lot of things.
Of course, I’m not just talking about Anthony Bourdain when I type this. I’m also talking about my mom.
When I talk about her, I tell people I’ve known few people with that kind of charisma. I’ve met few people who could make you feel they were your friend faster, or that made you want to be their friend more. I’ve met few people who were better at anything they tried. Who were more voracious readers, or better listeners when it came to music, or had a more appreciative eye for art. Or had a deeper desire to understand things they hadn’t learned about yet.
It’s the same things I keep hearing about him.
My mother loved to make people feel at home. She learned to say hello, goodbye, and thank you in more than 30 languages, just in case the situation came up. She never forgot a birthday. Anyone’s birthday. And whenever I took and interest in a new country, she would spend a week cooking food from that part of the world.
There was a fearlessness to my mother’s curiosity, and her desire to build that in her children. It’s the same thing I saw in Bourdain. At a time when incivility and xenophobia seem to thrive, to be able to regularly lean in to compassion and understanding takes guts. To regularly cut through the fear and encourage people to try new things and meet people different than us on their level, and to do it all without judgment or hesitation, feels sort of heroic.
Like a lot of people who’ve written about him in the last 24 hours, I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain. I just felt like I did. He came into my life like a comet a couple years ago, when I was pulling myself out of a deep hole and learning how to walk again. I watched his shows and saw something in them that connected me back to the person I felt like I used to be—someone I wanted to get back—and to the person I wanted to become—a skin I hadn’t grown enough to fill. Not yet.
In pushing myself out of that hole, I thought about what I wanted to do. I thought about a life without limits, or boundaries. And of course, Bourdain’s movement appealed to me.
But the travel and the food were ancillary. What really got me was his enthusiasm. More than anything in my life, I knew that’s what I’d lost in the previous years. He had a lust for life, sure, but he also demonstrated a deep and profound pride in the accomplishments of others. More than that, in his TV work, you felt he stood in a constant space of wonder at what human beings are capable of. What they try and succeed at.
There was a romance to it, because the work was loaded with possibility. For all his gruff exterior, there was a profound sensitivity and empathy that shone through. Though Bourdain centered himself in his programs, though his personality always anchored the proceedings, the genius of his television work was how frequently he was able to give the spotlight to everyone else. His storytelling was superb, but it paled in comparison to his gift for listening and the depth of his curiosity.
You have to love the world to do that. And you have to be sensitive enough to let everything in. And sometimes the things you let in have knives. And you might build up your skin to keep those things out. But the truth is, if it’s in your nature to offer your hand, you’re never going to stop doing that, and you’re going to get burned. I’ve seen in his work that Bourdain knew how to fight, that he wasn’t afraid to use his pen to skin those that did great harm and still got invited to sit-downs at the big tables. But you don’t get an ability to do that by being cynical. You get it by believing we can be better than we’ve been.
Hope. Belief. Faith. Those who traffic in beauty and look for the divine leave themselves open to having the world pulled out from under them. It hardens some people. And it chews up others. And for many, it does both.
I know a lot of people like that. And in Anthony Bourdain’s work, I saw someone who’d brushed against that darkness and come out on the other side. I’m not going to speculate on what led him to take his own life. But I do see all the good he brought into the world before he left. I saw a man who felt lucky to be alive. Who seemed stunned by his own good fortune, and thrilled by his ability to raise the fortunes of others he met and profiled.
More than anything today, I want to thank him for that. For making me see what a life on the other side of addiction could be like. For living the life my mother tried to live, and succeeded at intermittently. And maybe that was unfair of me, to see him fulfilling that role—a role I know I should be filling. There’s a fear that comes with my heroes—that they made the world clearer to me, more full of wonder, and that I did nothing with that. If there’s a wish I have now, it’s to live a life that would make my mother proud. A life not just of travel and food and music, but a life of appreciation, enthusiasm, and joy.
We admire our heroes for doing the things we want to do, but perhaps we also give them the burden of living the lives we wish we had the fearlessness to live ourselves.
I don’t want Anthony Bourdain’s life. I want the life that he, and all my heroes, made me want to live.
And I want him back.
I want them all back.