By Tom Robotham
When CNN announced the launch of its new streaming service, I immediately subscribed—primarily because, at $2.99 a month, it offered an inexpensive way of bingeing on Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain’s enormously popular travel show. I was disappointed, in turn, when news broke that the service would be scrapped—but I did manage to watch a bunch of my favorite episodes, and it was a potent emotional experience.
Now, nearly four years after Bourdain took his own life, I find myself reflecting on the reasons he continues to speak to me so deeply.
When I first heard about Parts Unknown, I didn’t have much interest. For one thing, I don’t care all that much about food. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve enjoyed many fine meals. But most of the time, I eat for sustenance, not for sensory pleasure. Moreover, while I love traveling, I’ve never had much interest in travel shows; they’re pleasant enough to look at but generally offer little more than factoids about popular tourist attractions.
In spite of this, I gave Bourdain’s show a chance, and, to my surprise, I was immediately hooked.
One reason for this, I think, is that he was almost exactly my age—born on June 25, 1956, just four days before I entered the world. It didn’t hurt that he was also a fellow New York native. In so many ways, he seemed like a guy I could have grown up with. But it didn’t stop there. I was intrigued that he had a serious interest in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, which I studied intensively for several years. Then, of course, there was his love of music, which seemed as important to him as food. And while he obviously loved food a lot more than I do, he was by no means a snob in that regard. I was especially charmed by an episode in which he sang the praises of a Waffle House.
Most of all, though, I was struck by the beauty of his writing. His voiceover reflections on the many places he visited were essentially essays, which is my favorite genre of prose—especially when they get personal, as his did increasingly in the show’s later seasons.
Like any great collection of personal essays, these commentaries—taken together— reveal the full range Bourdain’s sensibilities, from childlike joy and an insatiable hunger for understanding to good humor, a willingness to reveal his vulnerability, a tendency to get irritated and, of course, a streak of melancholy that sometimes veered into despair.
I RELATE TO ALL OF THAT, very much including the despair. I was reminded of this, in particular, when someone on Facebook posted a Bourdain quote about enjoying life’s small pleasures and someone else commented, “Obviously he didn’t.”
That, of course, reflects a grossly simplistic notion about depression. While it does hound some people unrelentingly, it has been, for me, something that’s always there but usually manageable. Certainly, it hasn’t excluded the capacity for profound delight in the beauties of this world—especially the beauty of meaningful conversation, which Bourdain clearly relished. Alas, you never know when despair is going to hit, and like a wave that catches you off guard at the beach, knock you on your ass and make you feel as if you’re going to drown.
Obviously, no one can know what Bourdain felt like in the moments before he ended it all, but that’s my sense—that the lightness of being, to use Milan Kundera’s phrase,
which had once led Bourdain to seek the fleeting comforts of heroin, and which he’d subsequently held at bay with food, drink, martial arts, and adventure, seemed unbearable in a particularly dark moment of his life.
That I can relate to all of this may explain the appeal of my favorite episodes. We tend to think of Bourdain’s series as a chronicle of world travel, and there’s a lot of that, to be sure. His very first episode—on Myanmar—is among his best, and I’m also very fond of the one on San Sebastian, particularly because I’m fascinated by Basque culture. (Hence, that beret I wear, which was made by a Basque company.) That said, the episodes which speak to me the most are domestic—the ones on Detroit, the Jersey Shore, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Tellingly, each of them is about loss. And yet, there’s a strong expression of hope, especially in the one about Detroit. It is arguably the most visually stunning of all the episodes, which is ironic, given that so much of its focus is on urban decay and abandonment. But Bourdain emphasizes the spirit of renewal brought by new pioneers who have seen opportunities amidst the ruins.
There is a greater tinge of sadness in the one on New Jersey, probably because it was more personal to Bourdain, who grew up in a suburb near the George Washington Bridge and spent a lot of time “down the Shore,” as New Yorkers and northern Jersey folks alike refer to the beaches. The saddest segment deals with Atlantic City, that once-glamorous-resort-town that fell on hard times and was then raped by Trump and other predators.
Again, I can relate, having spent a lot of time at the Shore, from Asbury Park to Atlantic City, from childhood through my twenties. It’s a beautiful state, but much maligned and/or caricatured, and it was so typical of Bourdain to take it on as a subject. Like many other episodes, it is committed to shattering stereotypes and stands squarely in the corner of the underdog.
THE ONE ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE—the last one he completed before his suicide—is by far the most wistful and melancholy. Indeed, as I watched it the first time it aired, I felt Bourdain’s palpable sadness mixed with nostalgia.
“This is a show about a very special place, a very special time and some very special people,” he says early on.
The very special time is the early 1970s through the early ‘80s, and the very special people are the musicians and artists who turned an impoverished section of the city into a bohemian mecca.
Interestingly, there’s hardly any mention of food. The only one that stands out for me is when he orders an Egg Cream, a distinctive and delicious New York beverage that contains neither eggs nor cream. Just hearing the words brings back memories for me as strongly as Madeleines did for Proust.
Bourdain in this episode is more focused on the music scene—especially when interviewing Deborah Harry—and the art scene.
“Is there a danger in over-romanticizing that time and place?” he asks at one point, and the implied conclusion is, yes—a point reinforced by Johnny Thunders’ “You can’t put your arm around a memory,” played as part of the soundtrack.
New York in that era was a milieu in which I came of age as well, and I have fond memories of CBGB, the Mud Club and the loft scene, although I tended to gravitate more toward the West Village jazz and folk clubs than the East Village punk scene. Now, both neighborhoods are suffering a different kind of blight—that of corporate takeover and off-the-charts gentrification, which has priced out all but the wealthy and sucked the soul out of these one-time-havens of creativity.
“It’s over,” one old-timer puts it bluntly to Bourdain.
I can’t help thinking that this, too, contributed to Bourdain’s sense of sadness—not just his personal demons and the pain of perceived betrayal by his girlfriend, but the corporate soullessness that is spreading across much of the globe and crushing the cultural vitality that he so adored.
For my part, though, I still have hope. And that is why I love the series so much. Most episodes express hope at the end, albeit with cautiousness. That quality is perhaps best summed up in the episode on Jersey, where he speaks with someone about the possibility of renewal.
“I hope I’m here to see it,” Bourdain says.
I sure wish he still was—for regardless of whether large-scale renewal ever comes, he brought light into this world, consistently displayed empathy—which is sorely lacking in our times—and reminded us that as bad as things get there is still so much beauty to be found.
Tom Robotham welcomes feedback at [email protected]