By Dana Aritonovich
“There’s so much I don’t know.”
Anthony Bourdain’s remarkable and tragic life can be summed up in this one simple sentence. He spoke these words in an early episode of Parts Unknown as he marveled at the delicacies of LA’s Koreatown.
Endlessly curious, remarkably respectful, sublimely sans judgment, and with a blatant desire to enlighten the masses about fascinating food and cultural traditions and unheard of history which we likely would never have known without his valiant efforts, Tony always went out of his way to experience everything—good and bad—that life had to offer. He had the coolest job in the world: Eating, drinking, talking, learning, and doing whatever the fuck else he wanted, and getting paid well for it.
Tony never hid his demons. In fact, he mentioned them regularly on his TV shows and in interviews, wrote about them in his brilliant books, unafraid to reveal his past and unconcerned with the opinions of others. We knew he was a little fucked up, a badass, kind of an asshole sometimes.
I too am a little fucked up, a badass, kind of an asshole sometimes. I too have a past that many judge me for. I always felt like Tony and I were kindred spirits, extremists in everything, hedonists even—especially—when it was self-destructive. He was exactly the kind of guy I dug when I was young: a smart and sexy bad boy I would try so hard and so unsuccessfully to save from himself as I worked just as hard to sabotage myself. Our relationship would have been passionate and messy, filled with unbounded lust and loud arguments and great food and gallons of booze. It would have ended badly, but years later we’d let go of all the drama and finally become friends. We would cook for each other once in a while and write blurbs for one another’s books.
Before I sobered up, I prided myself on being the drunkest and most scandalous woman anybody ever knew. Like Tony, I endeavored to indulge myself in all that the world could give me. Everything was a distraction, distractions that were killing me, physically, spiritually, and intellectually. Those distractions were also a hell of a lot of fun for a long time, and gave me lots of inspiration to write. But when I decided to get a grip on my addictions I resolved to curb even my most basic human urges as well.
Watching Tony explore the world in the years since sobriety took over my own life made me quite jealous. As I retreated to the comfort of my off-white, decades-old couch, safe and content with my new quiet and boring life, Tony was talking to ex-pats in Tangier, meeting revolutionaries in Libya, and bungee jumping in Macau. He replaced hard drugs with new, often important explorations that were at once lines to cross off his personal bucket list and intimate, compassionate glimpses of the globe most of the rest of us would never be able to witness for ourselves.
Now he’s gone.
How can we repay a man who sacrificed his safety as he walked into a war zone in Beirut and challenged his intestinal fortitude—literally and figuratively—as he dined on unwashed warthog anus in Namibia? A man who was as comfortable with Harvey Pekar and Iggy Pop as he was with Boris Nemtsov and Barack Obama? A man who praised Ferran Adrià‘s crazy Spanish science food while defending a local food reviewer’s positive take on the new Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota?
He was a flawed man, a complicated man, a sensitive man. He admittedly pursued self-destruction like others pursue their next step up the corporate ladder. Why did I make it out of the darkness while he ultimately lost his way? We may never understand exactly why he went out like he did, but I am grateful that we shared this extraordinary mortal plane for a few years. I thank him for the vicarious adventures I lived through him, the amazing food I will never have on my plate, the strange aromas that will not flow through my nostrils. Maybe letting go of a few of my fears and getting off the couch once in a while would be the best way to honor his memory. I love to cook, but I also love me some Olive Garden.
Dana Aritonovich is a freelance writer currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Cleveland State University. Her most recent work has appeared in the books Red State Blues: Stories from Midwestern Life on the Left (2018) and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City (2016). She has also contributed to Spotlight Magazine, Cool Cleveland, various poetry anthologies, and she runs several blogs. Many of her personal essays focus on music, spirituality, and food, and as a historian she has conducted research and interviews about race and popular culture.