By Holler Dweller
[I’ve run few guest posts over the years, but this essay appeared in the comments today and it’s well worth reading. I found it spot-on with what we’ve all been feeling about Anthony Bourdain’s passing, so I had to share it. Karen]
Anthony Bourdain never knew me. Certainly no one reading this knows me and I could easily be labeled a “fan,” even a distraught fan, since the tragic event of June 8. But Bourdain’s death has affected me in ways a 52-year grown woman should not be affected. Let me tell you why.
I am one of those people Anthony defended in the West Virginia episode. No, I was not in the episode. No, I am not even from West Virginia. Kentucky. Yea, I know. Kentucky is even worse in the minds of the “civilized.” Yea, I go to church. Yea, I know Bourdain didn’t. Yet, he portrayed more Christianity than what is generally sitting in the pews on Sunday morning.
He gave us respect. A rare gift in our political climate. And we respected him back. But as much as I respected and admired Bourdain, his writing, his travels, just him…and after the West Virginia episode I loved him like a family member. No matter his supposed faults or failings, I believe he was a true moral human being that cared for the lives and situations of others. This was evident. And all the more hurtful to realize that he apparently felt the kind of loneliness and despondency that bears down on generations here in the Coal Belt, the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt. In this, he certainly had much in common with us. Probably more than he knew himself. Probably more than our labelers out there care to know.
I first saw Anthony Bourdain on a No Reservations episode at probably 2 a.m., as a rerun and during my own dance with darkness. I hadn’t tried to kill myself. Entirely, anyway. But I definitely was despondent. I definitely thought about it. Then after crying myself to sleep, waking in fitful screams, muffled by the inability to get a deep breath anyway, I got up to protect my sleeping husband. I took my Buspirone and turned on the TV.
I never watched cooking shows. Why? I didn’t care to eat. Food was just one more drudgery. Why bother? There I saw this lanky guy with a humorous cockiness, but not without merit, walking around speaking in a voice that was better to me than any counselor I had heard. He wasn’t judging anyone. He was sarcastic, witty, lyrical, hilarious and bone-chillingly accurate. He sliced and diced me with words. He was basically showing me that life was in the simple…in the good. In good food. In friends and family. In life. And suddenly…all of that was…good.
I listened to reruns for four hours and fell asleep to his lyrical prose and commentary. He made me want to be a writer. To do those things. Step out of my non-comfortable zone and actually taste those tomatoes, and garlic and wine. To travel to those places. To find that life…out there.
Instead of a deep dark pit, there was a horizon and, amazingly, I could faintly see it, vicariously through him. I can still see that darkened apartment room. That flickering screen at 2 a.m. Somewhere in one of the episodes, he was walking away from the camera, he looked back over his shoulder straight at me and smiled. He was daring me to try a different life. And I felt like I might. And then. I did.
After a few devastating personal trials, I went back to school. And I kept watching him. When I felt down I watched his shows till I felt that freedom of knowing again that you can choose your reaction to the world and things around you. And just like he would later state that eating a bad hamburger caused him days of serious depression, I found that eating at a new-found place, and traveling to get there, lifted me up out of that Appalachian miry clay.
I tasted food I had never considered, coming from the poor South, and often it and the camaraderie of family and friends, transported me safely away from those long tentacles of depression. My husband, my son and I would often try out new places and rate it on whether Bourdain would like it or not.
Later, when my son begin dealing with his own crippling depression and even drug abuse, Bourdain’s travels and wit encouraged him, too. Giving him a lifelong love of cooking and food that he has always come back to. A chef’s knife, inspired by the one Bourdain writes about in Kitchen Confidential is still my Veteran son’s prized possession. At times he has awoken to his own war- induced fever dreams and…we’ve watched Bourdain at 2 a.m. together.
In the last 20 years since those black periods of my young adulthood, I not only woke up but I rose up. An Appalachian kid with mostly no hope of having much of a life, went to college on a 1.5 GPA, after being told I couldn’t. I ended up with four degrees and multiple experiences of travel and food and new friends along the way. I became a “yuge” liberal to the consternation of people who’ve known me all my life. And even when I tell them it hasn’t changed me and that they are actually closet liberals, too, they just don’t know it, they shake their heads and I…go watch reruns of a guy who gets it. He really…got it.
So, in 2016 while traveling in my big-shot, out-of-the-holler-job, I found myself in the Houston airport. My husband and I are sitting there and I look up. And I see him. He’s doing that same long-legged, lanky-arms, swinging fast-walk. And the hair. And the attitude. I poke my husband. Catch him!
My husband goes running. I am walking as fast as I can behind and I lose sight of both in that sea of forgotten travelers. Finally, I see my husband heading back. He looks sorry as he knows I really…no REALLY…wanted to meet Bourdain.
So, we watch. He watches one way, I watch the other. Like anxious parents. Or possibly crazed Beatles fans from the ‘60s. Not sure what it must have looked like. It’s funny how much you can get to know a person from watching them on TV. And how a person’s walk and manner of holding themselves will let you know who it is, even when you can’t really see them yet. Our plane boarded. I took one last look over my shoulder and we were gone.
How I wish we had caught him. I don’t know what I would have said. I wouldn’t have wanted to bother him. But I would have wanted to let him know the influence he had on my life just because of his “cooking” and “traveling” show. His work was GOOD. He was doing so much GOOD. He himself…was GOOD.
As a liberal person of faith, I would love to tell him that he was gifted by God himself. I do believe that God used that long- ago night and his influence on taking a chance and living a different life as a significant part of my own journey getting back to sanity.
If one word of our meeting could have possibly put that reciprocal flicker of hope in Bourdain’s mind at his moment of desperation, I would have run the harder and screamed the louder through that throng of people like an Appalachian church-girl would never be allowed to do. And I would have proudly proclaimed he was beloved. If only.
May you be at peace. May you have the answers you were looking for. May you somehow know the GOOD that you did for people who can never tell you. And I believe that someday we may find you…by your walk…on those loftier streets.