What Anthony Bourdain taught us

Our culture’s obsession over celebrity has always irked me, particularly the performative grief over the death of famous faces of no particular accomplishment, who nearly everyone publicly mourning them had never met. It always felt inauthentic, full of projection and some measure of selfishness, inserting oneself into a stranger’s tragedy.

But Friday morning, I was already up early, in the middle of another assignment, when I got the news about Anthony Bourdain. My mind went blank, my body froze. I had to go sit in my car, away from the world, for 20 minutes to keep from breaking down.

I never met Bourdain. We had no personal connection. As a sports writer, our paths never had much reason to cross.

But last week, I spoke with two people who knew him well. Journalists Jason and Yegi Rezaian were featured in Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” episode in Iran. Between the time they filmed the episode and when it aired, the Rezaians were imprisoned by the regime. Eventually released — Yegi after several months, Jason after 545 days — they ended up in Washington.

One of the focuses of the segment with the Rezaians was about the fact that, while Iranian women can both drive and vote, they are not allowed to watch soccer in public, at stadiums or even in restaurants. It was one of the reasons I wanted to feature the Rezaians, and Iran, for the series I’m working on for this year’s World Cup, about the immigrant communities in the Washington area and their cultural hubs, which make up the fabric of our community.

It was a story coming full circle, one that I thought Bourdain himself might appreciate. It went live on our site Thursday. I thought about tagging Bourdain in a tweet with the link to share it with him, that maybe the story would resonate with him, that it would mean something. I honestly didn’t care if he never shared it with anyone else; maybe it would let him know that his efforts had left a lasting impact.

With our city overrun with celebrations of the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup, I decided to give it a minute to breathe. I told myself: I’ll wait until the weekend.

***

Since Friday morning, I’ve seen many people talk about how they wanted to be Bourdain. He was the world’s guest. And as a guest, almost permanently, he embodied a state of gracious deference at odds with the Ugly American stereotype.

Because as much as his ability to treat everyone with respect — no matter their social status — defined him, his shows succeeded where others fell short because of his uncanny ability to find just the right set of establishments and tour guides everywhere he went to help tell the story of that place for him. He put in the leg work to get the perfect ambassadors of culture, met them on their turf, then gave them space to define their home instead of insisting his own views upon them.

But his demons were there, too, following him as he traveled, and he didn’t deign to hide them. In the very next episode of “Parts Unknown” after Iran, Bourdain went to, of all places, Massachusetts. The episode is split into two different visits. He begins in Provincetown, strolling the windswept beaches at the final curl of Cape Cod, where his life in the restaurant business — in the world of food and people — began. Feet in the sand, wind in his hair, he muses about his youth.

“It came as a rude surprise to me when I turned 30, ‘cause I always sort of figured I’d be dead by then.”

It was the kind of thing he could say and you wouldn’t think twice, because he was Anthony Bourdain.

He spent the second half of the episode in the small towns of western Mass, documenting the heroin epidemic. A recovered addict himself, Bourdain attended a support meeting, listening to others share their tales before eventually giving his own story, recalling his own despair in words that feel much less hopeful than haunted today.

“I didn’t have anyone else who could have talked me out of what I was doing … I looked in the mirror and I saw somebody worth saving, or that I wanted to at least try real hard to save.”

***

I never thought of myself as wanting to be Bourdain as much as wanting to be one of those people worth seeking, to be the guy who knows, who belongs to somewhere. One of my favorite episodes of “Parts Unknown” was one of the earliest, when Bourdain visited Detroit with veteran journalist and storyteller Charlie LeDuff as his guide.

I wanted to be Charlie LeDuff because Charlie LeDuff is awesome, but maybe more so because Anthony Bourdain knew that Charlie LeDuff was awesome, that he was the right guy to get him the view of the city he needed to show us. Driving a jet black-on-black hot rod, wearing a starch white V-neck, his hair and beard an interplay between the two shades, LeDuff floats through the rotting, overgrown parts of the city shaking hands with the residents still holding on like he’s running for congress, handing out beers to strangers.

At one point, Bourdain visits the decrepit Packard Automotive Plant, a crumbling remnant of the booming industrial age. As the camera pans slowly across the vivid imagery, he admits that we can’t look away from beautiful destruction, that we find ourselves “wallowing in ruin porn.” In truth, there’s something to be said about the way we appropriate public tragedy the same way, especially the death of celebrities.

Bourdain shows those trying to revitalize Detroit as well, through new restaurants and organic farms, and a gang of middle-aged dads who get together to mow the overgrown, unkempt parkland to keep it safe for kids. But he doesn’t oversell the idea of redemption. After a stop at a roadside barbecue stand, as he motors away with LeDuff, he leaves us with this thought.

“But it’s no longer about winning, is it? It’s about surviving.”

***

I didn’t start the World Cup Watch series with Bourdain in mind, at least not consciously. I didn’t even know about the Rezaians and their watch party until I’d already begun my research. But in spirit, the driving desire behind it was entirely in tune with everything Bourdain did in his life and career.

He tweeted more than 13,000 times and had millions of followers. But he only ever liked 58 posts. The last one, from April, was from former LA Weekly food editor Katherine Spiers.

Whether your beat is food, or sports, or anything other than the daily tragedy of our national politics, if you’re a journalist in 2018, you owe a responsibility to your readers to make sure you’re understanding and conveying the full depth of every story you report. The World Cup can’t exist absent of the geopolitical reality, of the story of refugees and immigrants. Just look at the teams themselves. Up-and-coming French star Kylian Mbappé is the son of a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother, while teammate Ousmane Dembélé’s mother is Mauritanian and Senegalese, his father from Mali.

We also can’t help but wonder what will happen next after the competition, considering Vladimir Putin rode the goodwill the Sochi Olympics brought him to launch his invasion of the Crimean Peninsula.

Every story is more than just the who, what, where and when in front of us. Few asked the “why” as subtly and as effectively as Bourdain did. If he leaves us with anything, hopefully it’s a renewed drive to do better on that front ourselves.

Professional writer, amateur chef, professional-amateur adult

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