Parts Unknown

It was 0745 Friday when I got the news that Antony Bourdain killed himself. Even though Central Time is an hour earlier, I couldn’t think of anyone to call but my dad. We’ve both read all his books, we’ve both been fans of the TV shows, and I broke the news to him. He told me it was awfully early for a cook to be up. I said that I was asleep until the news dinged on my phone (I get alerts from Apple News aggregator). I went back to sleep as visions of old No Reservations and Parts Unknown episodes played in my head.

As it got closer to service, at first I didn’t want to go. I just wanted to stay in bed and mourn. But then I realized that there was no better homage to Chef than getting my ass into the kitchen, mourning with everyone else. The weird thing is that everything was normal. I’m not sure my coworkers had ever seen him, and I couldn’t have explained the concept of my grief in Spanish if I tried. “Triste y llorando” (sad and crying) were the actions, but not the reasons. They didn’t know how hard he fought for them. I am not sure whether my coworkers are illegal immigrants or not, and don’t care. What I do care is that whether their immigration is legal or not, Tony fought for them. In Kitchen Confidential, he said that there was nothing better than a Salvadoran line cook. He believed that illegal or not, immigration was key to the melting pot of culture, even if they were on the line at Les Halles, exclusively French food, because it wasn’t always about the line- it was about eating where they eat or having them cook authentic dishes from their homes.

All locations of Les Halles are closed now, but in New York, the building is still there. People are crowding the doors with flowers and memorials. The DC location of Les Halles closed in 2008, so I never made it. But Tony wouldn’t have been there, anyway. If he had, he would have introduced me to the real chefs- the Central and South American sous chefs (assistants to the executive chef) who really run the place. I know this because he did this on an episode of No Reservations, where he exposed the real manpower of the restaurant in New York.

Everyone knew something was up with me, because I was not the usual “Bob Esponja” I normally am. Thankfully, someone else closed for me, and I was home by 11:30. That gave me plenty of time to sleep off depression and anxiety, for which I feel no urge to kill myself in turn, it’s just that grief is its own situational depression, especially if it dogs you in other areas of your life and you just happen to hear something terrible.

I have an old, old picture of Argo and I couldn’t help but stare at it last night. The reason I did this is that she did something for me that is different than the traditional wisdom of “reach out,” although she did plenty of that, too. She reminded me that I had power in the situation, and I wasn’t using it. It’s so important for friends to remind you that you are loved, but what worked for me is reminding me that I was not powerless. I had agency. I had the ability to help myself. It was a strident, pull yourself up from your bootstraps, no crying in baseball kind of love. I can’t help but think it might have worked on Tony as well, because if there’s anything that Tony appreciated, it was no bullshit conversations.

Because often what happens is that when you are really down in the shit, you forget that you have the ability to dig yourself out of a hole, and someone reminded me that I was more powerful than my illness. That my illness was not my personality, and my personality was not my illness.

I have a feeling that the only reason it worked is that we were low-key fighting at the time, and the cortisol from it gave me an “I’ll show her” attitude. Cortisol gave me the short-lived strength I needed to get myself to a hospital, where I collapsed once I realized someone else was in charge now, and I could stop being strong. So, even if those words were designed to say “I’m tired of your crap,” that’s not what came across. What came across is “this is the only way I know how to help you, which is hopefully kick your ass into next week so you provide yourself with options instead of relying on others to do it for you.” I remember that the nurses were going to take my phone in two minutes, and in those two minutes, I took the time to send Argo a voicemail by attaching it to an e-mail, thanking her and telling her that I’d indeed checked myself into a hospital. I was so scared, and the voice mail reflected that. Because it’s stored on my Google Drive, I’ve listened to it since, my voice rushed and a different pitch because of fear that I wouldn’t get the voice mail done in time and even though I wanted help, asking for it was tantamount to a black mark on my employment history, especially in DC, where in terms of working with databases, you generally need Secret and Top Secret clearances- not because the work itself is hard, but because of the information you could possibly run across. I will not say hospitalization was a bad move, or short-sighted, just that it is unlikely that I’ll be able to get said clearance. My only move, should I get a job like that, is to disclose everything up front so that the government doesn’t find it on its own.

So, in short, I understand Tony’s demons. I understand what it’s like to go to that place, to feel like earth would be better off without you so that you are not a burden on your family and loved ones as they watch the roller coaster of your emotions, completely helpless in the process.

The thing about depression is that talk rarely works. Checking in on your friends is key, but unless you’re the type friend that is glued to them at the hip and you’ve been through a depressive scare with them before, they don’t want to be seen. I could be honest with Argo because she’d already seen how bad it gets. To everyone else, I was “fine.” If you’re not in the inner circle, it’s hard to fight your way in. It also helped that she was not in my inner circle physically, because the wall of anonymity across the miles allowed me to write the truth into the night, open and vulnerable in a way that I couldn’t be daily. Without ever seeing me in three dimensions, it allowed for the stranger on a train feeling that allowed me to communicate just as I was. Angry at the world, confused, needing her love, counsel, protection, and all the things mothers do. I am not extrapolating this into Argo acting as my mother in this situation, only that mothers love differently than everyone else. They have experience at carrying a cub through the mountains in their mouths, and no problem with tough love as it’s required.

If you are in the inner circle of someone who struggles with depression, don’t ask how you can help. It is too much energy for the person to try and figure it out on their own. Show up with trash bags and an offer to do the laundry. Get them out of their hole, because the likelihood is that they’ve stopped taking care of themselves when nothing matters, anyway.

If you are not in the inner circle, they won’t let you see that gigantic mess, anyway. Don’t say, “I’m here if you need me.” We don’t have the energy to return a phone call, and we don’t want to talk about it. As much as we’ll hate you for it, knock on the door or text and say, “I don’t care what you look like, I don’t care what your house looks like, I’m coming over in ten minutes. We’ll figure it out.” Don’t worry. We’ll be home. Some of us can make it to work, some of us can’t, but when all social commitments fall by the wayside, it isn’t that we don’t care. We don’t have enough energy to leave the house. Or interact, in any way, at all. Even if the text goes unanswered, there’s your indication that it’s even more important to ring the doorbell, and hope that they live with someone else who’s willing to come downstairs and open the door.

But this entry is not about turning Tony’s tragedy into my own story, it is about empathy and sympathy. I feel like I understand more than someone who’s never felt what depression and anxiety can do. It always knows the very best lies to use against you, like the planet still spinning for your family if you’re gone. It is truly my mother’s death that convinced me suicide was never, would never be the answer, because I got to see the planet turn upside down, never the same, as it never will be again for Eric Ripert.

If there’s anyone I feel truly sorry for in this garbage dump of a situation, it’s Tony’s best friend, Eric Ripert, who had the awful job of finding him hanging from the belt of a bathrobe. When people say their hearts go out to his loved ones, I wish they would say his name specifically.

We often try to make sense of the senseless. Maybe his addiction came back. Maybe he never pictured himself as an old person. Maybe he wanted to go out on top, rather than withering away. Maybe he’d just received some incredibly bad health news. But that’s just spitballing and the truth died with him. As far as the news has reported, there was no note, unusual for a suicide…. but my hope is that there is some explanation, some note, and the reason it hasn’t been reported is out of privacy, the press is allowing Eric, his girlfriend, and his daughter to read it first.

As a member of the service industry, even though my restaurant wasn’t ensconced in grief, save the pallor I put on the place, I imagine that there were thousands of others bogged down, serving covers as fast as they could not because they felt truly capable in their grief, but because it’s what Tony would have wanted.

As my friend Drew so eloquently put it:

Great service chef. You clocked out, now get your shift drink and head on home. We got you covered.

Where heaven is Parts Unknown, and you need No Reservations.

13 thoughts on “Parts Unknown

      1. Yes. He deserved that. I know him as a Chef and a traveler, didn’t really watched any of his shows, a couple of episodes maybe, what I remember about him is the one time he visited my country, he was very simple and not complaining, he tried some of the traditional dishes in the Philippines. What an honor to have him connect with our culture.

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      2. That’s one of my favorite episodes!!! To see where I live, there’s a Parts Unknown (CNN) episode on Washington, DC. Tony’s entire outlook on life was just to experience everything he could, and to fit in with the locals so he could eat what they ate, not the richest of the rich. To him, that wasn’t cooking. Cooking was taking the food no one else wanted and raising it to perfection.

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      3. Yes. He simply had this different aura about him, he was honest, he wasn’t shy or afraid to speak his mind. I watched an episode that he did, in Beirut, that was brave. Really brave.

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      4. I live with a Lebanese family, and they were glued to the edge of their seats during the whole series (two episodes, I think?). Some of Beirut was what they knew and missed. The violence was just more than they could take. The other episode of Parts Unknown that really surprised and delighted me was Tehran. Yes, there were people shouting “Death to America,” but overwhelmingly the people were friendly to Tony and the cameraman wherever he went, because Persian culture is all about hospitality. The “Death to America” Iranians were a small minority in the face of incredible welcome and love for a TV show that would show them as they are and not what America believes about them.

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      5. He showed the other side of the world, inside the war, inside the monstrosity of being human. I can’t believe a guy like him hid so much hurt, he simply just couldn’t take any of it anymore and so he chose to just end it. Sad.

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  1. It’s amazing the loss we feel of someone we didn’t even know, although we felt like we knew him when we watched and read his work. What he did for exposing different cultures, closing gaps, and opening eyes (and ears) may never be replaced. I find myself feeling tremendous sadness for Eric also, as I can’t imagine the myriad of emotions and the things he can’t unsee that will follow him forever.

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    1. The thing is, though, Tony was so open and transparent that in a way, we did know him. There wasn’t a public persona and a private one. Through his writing, he showed his demons well. That doesn’t mean they went away.

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