He Was One of Us

Time-travel dramedy SPEED OF LIFE makes its Texas Premiere with Other Worlds Orbiter on Wednesday, August 28th (7:30pm) at Galaxy Highland Theatre. Tickets available now!

To be completely honest, I am a softie. A big ol’ mush pile. I cry at movies, television funerals, weddings, all of it. That being said, I rarely feel much when I hear of a celebrity death. I’m not the type of person who gets invested in the lives of the rich and famous - I feel more for characters than those who play them, or more for music than those who make it. My reaction when hearing of a celebrity death is typically “Oh. Well that’s a shame.” And then Anthony Bourdain killed himself.

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I have worked in the service industry for most of my life, in some form or another. My first job was picking strawberries at 13 years old for comic book money. I baled hay on dairy farms and got my first non-farm job at Burger King when I was 17. I’ve worked in pizza shops, cafes, theater eateries, crap chain restaurants, elevated concept diners, dive bars, and cocktail bars. I’ve done it for more than 25 years, and I still make my money serving drinks to strangers. The service industry is, as Bourdain put it, a refuge for misfits. It’s for those of us who don’t really fit anywhere in the regular world. It’s an industry full of failures, rejects, drunks, drug addicts, storytellers, party hounds, loudmouths, naive young dreamers and surly, cynical vets. It’s for those of us who can’t find a home anywhere else, and where the bonds of friendship turn to family. The work is hard, tiring, thankless and brutal. 16 hour days, on your feet, no breaks in a hot kitchen or behind a crowded bar dealing with hundreds of order tickets that need to be finished as quickly as possible and perfect EVERY TIME, or screamed at by drunk, irate strangers who think you’re beneath them. There’s a bond that those of us who have done this work share. Even, and almost especially, strangers. A shared trauma. Anthony Bourdain knew this and felt this. He was never a celebrity. He was more than another idiot Emeril Lagasse or Guy Fieri. He was one of us.

Anthony Bourdain wrote the article that would eventually become Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly after he published a few short fiction stories and a couple of books, neither of which made much of an impact. He was post-40 and had resigned himself to industry, feeling very much the failure he had always dreaded becoming. On a whim, he wrote “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” which started the next phase of his life. From there he went on to an amazing career as a travel writer, culminating in PARTS UNKNOWN for CNN. But with all that fame, Bourdain never forgot who he was and where he came from. He was still, amazingly, one of us.

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Anthony Bourdain not only represented success, he represented getting out. He had gone from toiling away underappreciated in kitchens to flexing his artistic muscles for a living. Sure he had success as a chef, but now, he had the coolest job in the world. Travelling across the globe, experiencing the food, drink, culture, highs and lows of everyone from the famous chefs of France, to working class West Virginians. A chance to experience the wonders of the world, and getting paid to do it! All of us in the industry, or at least most of us, at some point, wanted to be Anthony Bourdain. I know I did. Or, quite frankly, I still do.

But there was a melancholy to Anthony Bourdain. An undertone of sadness and loneliness that permeated his work. After knowing what happened, going back to those last few seasons of PARTS UNKNOWN makes it seem obvious. The weight of the world is pressing down on him. The spread of capitalism’s worst traits, the commodification of any and everything, the exploitation of the environment and the indigenous peoples. The last bits of unspoiled beauty sprouting McDonald’s and Starbucks. The onslaught of the Monoculture. He saw all of this, and he just grew tired.

Anthony Bourdain spent much of his life trying to find a place where he fit in. He was welcomed into families, shown ancient traditions, and shared the lives of so many cultures across the world, but always as an outsider. Anthony Bourdain never found his home, and eventually gave up searching.

When I heard, I was sad, but I got it. I understood on a very basic level. I have felt the same way many times in my life, and I have thought about exiting on my own terms. There is a certain poetry to choosing to leave before they can kick you out. A defiance, an unwillingness to do what they tell you. Anthony Bourdain never did anything the way he was supposed to. He was a true misfit, a man conscious of his own flaws, and modest about his very real talent. For me, he will never be a celebrity. He’ll always just be one of us.