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Last call, lights up: Rethinking life, death and the service industry through the prism of Anthony Bourdain

From a taping of “Parts Unknown Last Bite” in Las Vegas, 2013. Photo: Isaac Brekken/WireImage

I started working in the service industry over a decade ago in Los Angeles. I was sixteen and I recoiled from the thought of having to wear khaki shorts, polyester T-shirts, and slip resistant shoes. I recoiled even more when I thought of what the reception would be amongst my peers. But I felt morbidly drawn to the industry’s searing maw, so rife with water vapors, perspiration, the din of rattling pots and pans, and the fervent clamor of Spanish-speaking busboys and line cooks. And though I didn’t understand it then, I see now, with the benefit of hindsight, how much people like Anthony Bourdain helped my peers and I articulate this almost primordial fascination with an industry that is as thrilling as it is enervating.

“I love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life: the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths,” wrote Bourdain in his 1999 New Yorker essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” I do too. It is alluring in much the same way disaster is, but I did not know that I was signing up for this life, this dance, this “high-speed Balanchine collaboration,” as he so deftly called it. And to be quite frank, I didn’t want to.

Here is my truth, one that has since become a source of shame, if not for its arrogance, at least for its foolishness. I didn’t initially enter the service workforce because I was besotted with it. I thought it was a thankless, hapless industry comprised of the lazy and the luckless. I was egregiously wrong, of course, but feelings of inadequacy surfaced often, stemming as much from my own misconceptions as from those around me who had no qualms saying how mortified they would feel should they have to resign themselves to working at a restaurant or bar. Resign, they said, as though it would be akin to the final sigh of defeat, a begrudging acceptance of a life of drudgery, a life on the periphery of society where one could so easily be sneered at. Or worse, forgotten.

“Admittedly it’s a life that grinds you down,” wrote Bourdain. “Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some way dysfunctional. We’ve all chosen to turn our backs on the nine to five, on ever having a Friday or Saturday night off, on ever having a normal relationship with a non cook.”

The same can be said of anyone who works in this subculture, this one long witching hour, this forever night in which we’ve fumbled in darkness and somehow found and loved one another, only to be flung into the daylight, sleep-deprived and aching, full of bizarre stories and entirely unsure of how to recount them to others because will they even make sense? Will any of it make any sense?

Bourdain, I believe, was one of the people who was able to not only make sense of it all, but able to help others, both within the industry and outside of it, understand the far-reaching implications of its arresting surreality. This is what a great journalist does, what Bourdain, the writer, did: color hitherto undiscovered worlds and people in such a way that causes the reader to both consider and be captivated by otherness.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but he was more a presence in my life and in the lives of those around me than I knew, shaping us in ways I wasn’t even cognizant of. Mom and Dad, for instance, adored him, and I can now understand, in a more discerning way, how and why. Wide-eyed and agog, they would spend many an evening watching him tuck into distended livers, shoot the shit with rabble-rousing line cooks, and air his sociopolitical grievances with such a noble, salt of the earth gentility it was difficult to find reasons to not like him. Even if one were at complete odds with him politically, like my father, there was something about his philosophy and manner that allowed him to transcend class, party, and race, and appeal to the child in all of us, infinitely curious and filled with wonder for the manifold world around them.

For this reason, more so than his culinary prowess and his silver tongue, I admired him a great deal. But now, with the clarity that inevitably comes forth after a death, I am beginning to understand the full import of his career, his person, and his ethos. I wonder now, if he belonged to that mysterious force that sent me barreling along those paths that I instinctually felt I had to pursue, but was not entirely sure as to the reasons why. Whether or not this is the case, his death has certainly brought about a reckoning in me, forcing me to grapple with my past, and the pasts of those around me, through a prism I have not yet used.

Like Bourdain, I wanted to write myself out of the service industry. I wanted to be seen and acknowledged for what I considered to be my literary talent and not for the amount of toilsome hours I accumulated working at a restaurant or bar. Maybe Bourdain felt the same, propelled forth as much by vanity as by creative necessity. The son of a copy editor and a Columbia Records executive, he started to send unsolicited manuscripts to Joel Rose, the editor at the time of a downtown literary journal, Between C & D, and even signed up for a writing workshop led by editor Gordon Lish during the 1980s.

“It’s nice to have a voice,” he said in an interview with the Archive of American Television. And it is, nice to have a voice and nice to have people want to listen to that voice, to hear your story. But he was under no illusions concerning how he achieved notoriety and celebrity. “I did it all wrong and it worked out,” he shrugged, almost bristling at the interviewer’s question, the tinge of wistfulness in his tone leading me to wonder if he knew he should be grateful for the privilege he was endowed with, for the spotlight cast upon him, but couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable in this film of sheen that the world painted on him and the gifts that were unremittingly heaved his way.

“It was the unsavory side of professional cooking that attracted me to it in the first place,” he wrote in “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” “I wanted it all: the cuts and burns on hands and wrists, the ghoulish kitchen humor, the free food, the pilfered booze, the camaraderie that flourished within the rigid order and nerve-shattering chaos.” I read this now and wonder if that was what Bourdain wanted to get back to. If, though he was infinitely grateful for the life that was bestowed upon him, what he really desired was the anonymity of the culinary underworld. Life unfiltered and raw, camera-less and alive. That’s the funny thing about getting what you want: you finally get it and then you’re not so sure you want it anymore or who that person was that wanted it in the first place. And even more fundamentally, when does the wanting end and what is it that’s actually being sought?

Bourdain in Iran, from his Instagram feed.

In Patrick Radden Keefe’s extensive profile on him for The New Yorker, he narrates a scene in which he and Bourdain go for a ride together on a blue Vespa in Hanoi, Vietnam. “To be anonymous, another helmeted figure in the middle of a million little dramas and comedies happening on a million bikes moving through this amazing city—every second is pure joy,” he quotes Bourdain saying as they swerve through a mighty rush of vehicles, cookfire smoke and bundles of green vegetables perforating the ever-moving diorama. When Bourdain asks someone for directions back to the hotel, he’s told that they should hang a left around the lake. But when they reach the lake, Bourdain swings right. “I realized that Bourdain had deliberately taken a wrong turn,” writes Keefe. “He was courting uncertainty, trying to get lost.”

Bourdain, like so many of us, was enigmatic, paradoxical. And he saw that capacity for contradiction, for fragmentation and brokenness, in us all. He was attuned to the world’s and all of its inhabitant’s fissures. That’s what made him a humanist. That’s what made him the service industry incarnate, its troughs and its crests, serving as both a clarion call and a cautionary tale. He was someone who treated the delicacy of an unwashed rectum with the same deference as a sustainably sourced monkfish. A down on his luck, destitute immigrant with the same compassion as a bigwig filmmaker. This is the kind of symbiosis you see in hospitality, life distilled to its peak absurdity, hustlers in the same space as ambassadors, misfits brushing shoulders with the law-abiding, baseness mingling with urbanity.

“The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people – people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent,” wrote George Orwell, author of Down and Out in Paris and London, one of many books that informed Bourdain’s view of the world. This is the industry. This is the netherworld that so many of us keep hankering for, night after night, when we’re at home alone with no one to talk to, no one to listen to our stories.

At its best, it’s the late hours when the rest of the city is asleep, and you and your coworkers are drinking wine and eating one-day-past-its-shelf-life cheese, and sharing stories about the night, trying to one up one another in ludicrousness, laughing about some asshole who said men didn’t drink out of coupe glasses. And at its worst, it’s a shitty customer telling you to be more charming or your drunk boss falling down the stairs (again) or a misogynist chef throwing a teapot across the room that goes swoosh right by your head and you swear you will never step foot into a kitchen or behind a bar again. But you do. You always do. Because maybe you’re drawn to its insanity. Maybe you want to set the world to rights and fix whatever’s mercilessly plaguing it. Or maybe you just need the money. Maybe you came for the money and stayed for reasons far more wholesome, more human, than you give yourself credit for.

Bourdain, in various interviews, has talked about how he probably would have been happy as an air traffic controller. This is because he was driven by doing, by becoming, by working on so many projects he didn’t have a chance to contend with the Bourdain who was, perhaps, projectless, fearful, alone.

This fear has a name and assumes myriad shapes, ones that look, by most accounts, normal, until you get close enough to see the cracks and warps. It’s called horror vacui, the fear of empty space, and it as much an aesthetic fear as it is existential. It’s the compulsion to fill space. With people, projects, objects, whatever can be twisted into a source of distraction for what is actually tormenting you. The fear of not being good enough, the fear of being a fraud, the fear of stark, unforgiving loneliness. And you don’t have to be an acute depressive to feel it, and subsequently want to run away from it. We are all susceptible to its underpinnings. It’s the creature that bears its teeth when the ride is slowly coming to an end. When last call has finally arrived and the lights are turned up. When the people, the sounds, the possibilities retreat.

Bourdain, it seemed, led an enviable existence laden with sights and smells and tastes and feelings all made glaringly attractive not just by virtue of whatever cinematographers he employed, but by virtue of his voice. And when he took his life it sideswiped us because how could someone who was so unapologetically alive with all the trappings and fixings of contentedness not be content? How could he want to end what so many of us spend our lives vying for?

“By taking his life, I feel like he repudiated it,” said a Bourdain acolyte and friend when I asked how he felt about it all. It is true that most of us do not know to what extent Bourdain suffered. Just as he was able to see the fissures in others, he was able to see them in himself, only magnified to the nth degree and ultimately irreparable. But that is sometimes the cost of enlightenment, of humanism. You can see the beauty of the world, of humanity, in technicolor, but you can also see its inherent ephemerality. You can see its dark parts. And when you are depressed, those dark parts look gargantuan and terrifying, like those long shadows you see cast on a dead street when you’re walking home after a long shift. They stalk you and sometimes you turn your head the other way, sometimes you look at them straight on, refusing to succumb to fear. And sometimes you surrender to them long enough to take you. But the fight was still fought. Joy, however minute it may have been, was felt. And life, however strenuous it may have been, was lived.

I did not know Bourdain. I do not know anyone who did. The story and the voice I am familiar with is the one he curated for the public. The one that was refracted through film and literature and music, all of which he loved, all of which kept him fighting, I’m sure. But I see the symbiosis that defined him. I see how he shook the twin industries I belong to. And I see, through the prism of Bourdain, how vital it is to pay heed to both the dark and the light parts and to not let either negate the other because they both exist in equal measure. And they both belong to the manifold world he spent his life trying to comprehend, contribute to, and love.
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