Friday, June 8, 2018

Anthony Bourdain

A lot of people don't know that Anthony Bourdain was a Chowhound regular back in the late 90s, just before his first book came out. He showed up blasting with self-promotion. We politely asked him to stop, and he politely agreed to knock it off...and did. No problem. He eventually split, along with a small circle of malcontents who felt I was too uptight in how I ran the community (everyone loves a moderated discussion but nobody likes to be moderated; it's like smokers requesting no-smoking hotel rooms - 'cuz they smell better - and then smoking in them).

I didn't hear from him until years later, when I was invited to appear on his "No Reservations" show. I declined, and was glad I had when I discovered that it was an episode about "food bloggers" (I'd written/cowritten nine books and columns for Newsweek, Newsday, and many more), where I'd have appeared in a roundtable discussion with those very same malcontents. Shudder.

In the early 2000s, I was recruited by a publishing legend who wanted to pluck me from my Chowhound mire, rescue me from the insanely awful (but lucrative) music gigs I'd resorted to to keep my lights on, and make me a national sensation. If I'd say the word, I'd have a multi-book contract and frequent mass media appearances. I turned it down, as I wasn't prepared to close or neglect Chowhound. Very shortly afterward, the same fellow signed Bourdain.

Not exactly treasured memories. But through it all, Bourdain himself was always nice to me. I was snarled at by a lot of people back in the day while I killed myself throwing a great free party for a million strangers on zero budget via my indefatigable adrenal glands. But in every exchange I've ever had with him - sometimes telling him things he didn't particularly want to hear - he was unfailingly polite, and respected the fact that I - a near stranger - was a human being with feelings. That doesn't sound like much, but when you've managed a million people on the Internet you really notice when someone acts surprisingly.

That guy you saw on the screen, who was sarcastic and brashly negative, was apparently almost incapable of disrespect. You might have picked this up from his programs, perhaps not realizing he was the same even with cameras packed away. To be sure, he could hurl criticism and bile-filled invective. Ask his nemeses like Rachel Ray! But that's a different thing. Amid the slow grind of the day to day, as he interacted in his various circles, a person was always a full person to him.

That's rare. I myself didn't grow up in an environment where folks behaved like that. I've since been reforming myself, but it's a work in progress, and it's hard. The usual technique is to tamp down one's disrespectfulness beneath a veneer of corporate politesse, but that's the ultimate dehumanization; forcing interlocutors to engage with you as if with a voice mail prompt. But Bourdain was genuine and respectful with everyone, even when he reached a position where he sure as hell didn't need to be.

This isn't something I've seen pointed out about him, and, to me, it was even more impressive than his fast wit. And it was especially remarkable considering that he was a person who was so admittedly unhappy, and so full of oft-confessed demons. That sort of internal landscape isn't normally a springboard for deeply-committed humanism. It is with utmost respect that I observe that Anthony Bourdain played his best possible hand with the cards he was dealt.

"A Surprisingly Uplifting Examination of Suicide"


Display Name said...

This is beautiful. I await your further comments Jim

PZ said...

Jim, I've by now read fifty memorial notes about Bourdain by people who crossed paths with him; this is the best one, gracious and perceptive. Thank you for it. pz

PZ said...

Post my comment! best, pz

James Leff said...

Sorry, peter! Every once in a while I discover some pile of unmoderated comments that Google never notified me about!

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