Parked in my driveway with my face resting on the steering wheel, to the casual passerby I probably looked like the “after” in an Ambien ad. I was listening so intently to the radio that I had my face mashed as close to the speaker as it could get. It was an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air between Terry Gross and comedian W. Kamau Bell. The two were talking about the recently deceased punk rocker of the culinary world, Anthony Bourdain. Just hearing Bourdain’s name made my guts twist.
I was a Bourdain fan and one of millions who never had the privilege of knowing him, but, also like millions of people, felt I did know him. That’s one of the many weird byproducts of fame and notoriety. People feel they have some kinship with you that’s earned after staring at you for hours on the screen or from the lip of a concert stage. Several years ago, my best friend and I saw Cyndi Lauper in concert. From somewhere in the back of an orchestra, a woman kept crying out: “I LOOOVVEEEE YOU CYNDIIIIII!! WOOO HOOOO! LOOOVVEE YOU!!!” It’s a good thing she added the “woo hoo” or else the other 800 people in the theater might have begun to doubt her sincerity. Cyndi tolerated it for about 30 seconds before she shouted back: “Yeah, you love me, you love me. Honey, you don’t even know me, okay? I might be the biggest bitch you ever met. You don’t know me. You love me. Yeah, sure, okay then.” The crowd erupted. The meaty security guards lumbered toward the woman’s general vicinity. We all privately wished we could claim Cyndi Lauper as our very best bitchy friend.
We like to believe that we could know these celebrities or, more accurately, if they got to know us they would realize just what hey have been missing out on by leaving behind the world of the “regulars:” shopping for groceries, fighting with your Internet provider, thwarting the petty tyranny of that one co-worker who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to put clam chowder in the break room microwave. We could be the friends who know the real person; we could be the people in their lives that ground them, we say to ourselves, feeling noble and not what we really feel—envious and tired of working at our desks catching the funky drift of clam chowder all afternoon.
Bourdain cut his culinary teeth on the grease traps and fryolators of Provincetown, Massachusetts. That along with his generally grizzled, charmingly ornery disposition made him feel like a true Masshole—gruff, likable, and the kind of guy you definitely want on your side in the Southie bar when the inevitable punches start flying. I think a lot of us considered him one of our own, which made his passing that much more leveling.
“I didn’t know him,” said Bell to Terry Gross. “I was getting to know him.” Bell’s show, The United Shades of America, airs on CNN as did Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. The two had crossed paths and struck up the loose beginnings of a friendship, even filming a short segment together when the two happened to be in Africa at the same time. Terry Gross began asking Bell various questions about their relationship, poking the bee hive that is the “why.” It’s the irresistible hot fudge sundae you want to sample even though you know it’s going to leave you with a sugar headache. In most cases, we’re only asking the “why” for our self-preservation:
Did you hear Joan died?
No! That’s terrible, how?
She was on one of her ten-mile morning runs and got mauled by a bear!
Awful! Privately: note to self, cancel the personal trainer and move to Hong Kong.
“Whys” are pointless, but that didn’t stop me from shoving my face even closer to the radio when Gross asked Bell, “Did you have any indication that he might take his life?” I rolled my eyes. C’mon Terry Gross. Be better. What did she expect Bell to say? “Oh absolutely! We talked about it all the time when we weren’t swapping grilled salmon recipes and trading notes on the best places to stay in Morocco.” There was a pause. Bell spoke slowly and thoughtfully. He clarified, again, that he and Bourdain were not friends, they were becoming friends. He did not know the man intimately or even remotely well. There was another pause. Bourdain, said Bell, seemed like “a heavy-hearted dude.” He could tell there was a depth to whatever it was Bourdain carried with him, a weight permanently fitted to his core. Bell said that he knows plenty of people like Bourdain, who hold onto things with a ferocity that fossilizes the pain, hurt, trauma, that roots profound feelings of sadness.
I sucked in a bit of stale car air and let the rest of the conversation drift over me. Heavy-hearted. That Bruce Springsteen “Hungry Heart” tune slithered across my brain: “everybody’s got a heav-heav-heavy heart!” If you’re going to be a little walking wounded, you might at least have a punchy theme song. Because in that moment I felt the sigh of recognition like a breeze lifting a sail. I could suddenly put my finger on the many days when I felt like I was walking through the world dragging a boat anchor behind me because I couldn’t get over ancient personal history or let go of past wrongs or be content to just swallow the enormous, overwhelming injustices and tragedies I’m reminded are happening in real time every time I hop online. Some days it’s as if I’m filling my pockets with stones and then wondering why my ass is literally dragging on the ground. And I thought I was a freak.
I thought I was too sensitive.
I thought I was weak.
I thought I was spoiled and ungrateful.
I thought I must be doing prayer wrong to feel this way.
I thought I was failing at rocking those positive mantras—Be Best! more like Feel Worse!
I thought I was broken, irreparably so.
Harsh. Then again, I think relentless self-criticism comes with the territory.
I had apparently heard what I needed. I shut off the car and got out feeling relieved. Nothing had changed, but everything was different. I had a place to put the scrap heap of a lot of uneasy emotions that is just part of my design. I don’t think it puts me as a disadvantage, it certainly didn’t put Bourdain on lesser footing, despite how his life tragically ended. He opened himself up to extraordinary cultural experiences, not all of them like the convivial clinking of beers with President Obama. He witnessed untold aspects of societies and people all over this planet in their full range of beauty and despair. His capacity to feel and absorb deeply made it possible for him to walk the world with gravity and to let the rest of us follow along. I still don’t know Anthony Bourdain, but because of him, I now know something about myself. Burden or gift—a heavy heart can be both. I’m counting on it.