On November 11, CNN aired the final new episode of Parts Unknown that Anthony Bourdain’s crew could finish without him. Remaining in limbo is unseen footage from a shoot in May in Florence that Bourdain did with then-girlfriend Asia Argento. CNN has said it will not air whatever film was captured in the Alsace region of France with Eric Ripert during the week leading up to Bourdain’s suicide in June.
Tony’s final wander through the Lower East Side of Manhattan was given kaleidoscopic effects that may have mimicked the mental downward spiral he was trying to conceal. The visit aptly brought his life full circle by showing his stomping grounds of the 1970s and ‘80s, when he was a young heroin addict who thought he had no future.
Once fame found Bourdain, and particularly when he became a father at age 50, we watched him reject, one by one, the trappings of that former life: his thumb ring, his earring, his leather jacket and smoking.
But in the end, he was heavily smoking Marlboro Reds again, and the last leather jacket he chose looked as weathered and worn as the man himself had become.
I confess that I had mostly never heard of the musicians, artists, writers and poets Tony met and reminisced with. I’m only about two years older than he, but I must have been living on a different planet, although decades ago I got a taste of his origins.
My family was transferred to New Jersey in 1969 and I became a freshman at Freehold High School, about 50 miles south of Leonia, where Tony would have been in 7th grade. Had we met then, he probably would have scared the shit out of me. I was still reading Little Women, but found myself surrounded by tough kids who smoked pot, had sex and terrorized the teachers.
We moved again when I was a sophomore and I blocked out my year of living dangerously in Freehold, but it would all come rushing back whenever I saw Bourdain talk about his disaffected youth.
The ZPZ cinematographers really captured the LES’s cigarette butts, garbage, graffiti, abandoned shopping carts — a landscape Bourdain could wax nostalgic about. Spinning and blurry video, close-ups of dolls with dead eyes and dirty bare feet, and talk of rats completed the picture. Did I see some man about to bite off a mouse’s head?
From that squalor, thanks to the power of his writing, Bourdain’s world evolved into a $13,000-a-month 64th-floor apartment with river views at Columbus Circle.
Finally, forget the bone marrow or sushi Tony always cited as last-meal preferences. The last meal of his TV career was plain eggs boiled by artist John Lurie in his apartment. It must have been when Tony admired and bought Lurie’s painting, “The sky is falling. I’m learning to live with it.”
The LES episode was filmed in April 2018. That’s when Tony paid Jimmy Bennett $200,000 to make Bennett drop his claim that Argento had raped him when he was under the age of consent.
During the final montage of frantically swirling graphics, I wondered if that’s what Tony saw in his last moment. The accompanying music was Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” and if you listened carefully, you could hear Tony’s 11-year-old daughter Ariane singing along.
If Bourdain had lived to polish the episode, I have no doubt his narrative would have pulled it all together, making the gritty Lower East Side the natural spot for young Tony to hone his tastes in music and art. But without his reassuring voiceover, seeing his sad-eyed, now-haggard face just highlighted for me the dreadfulness of seeing Anthony Bourdain’s hard-won ascent to bestselling author and revered world traveler end in oblivion in a lonely French hotel room.