You may have heard by now of the death – by apparent suicide – of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain:
Three years ago I posted about how he had been visiting Beirut. I enjoyed his programs when I saw them on occasion. However, I will be honest and say I was never a huge fan of the now late Mr. Bourdain.
There was something not quite “right” about him and I could never put my finger on what bothered me when I watched him. However, I realize now what it was. The way too often he carried himself reminded me too much of another New Yorker I knew and loved.
That someone was my other uncle. I’ve not written much about him here. I never portrayed him in any of my novels either because he died youngish and although he lived well into my twenties I never knew him nearly as well as my godfather, my other uncle, the writer, who lived until 2015.
Much as Mr. Bourdain, that other uncle abused drugs in his younger years, including the same heroin. Mr. Bourdain declared he had kicked the addiction. In comparison, my uncle was never able to do what Mr. Bourdain supposedly did; he struggled with that addiction even in the intervals he had fought to stay “clean,” for even after you “stop” using heroin, he once warned me, you always remember that feeling.
We watched how the craving for heroin followed him, ate him up, and gnawed at his soul. Even while working to “stay clean,” he might still seek a “legal” high; I remember hearing him once say, “Mix Methadone with _________ and it’s just like the real stuff.” He could be “a chemist,” my mother once scoffed. “My brother could figure out how to get high on an aspirin, a lampshade, and iced tea.”
He died only age 48 of heart failure in early 1994. He was back to using heroin yet again. I don’t know what the solution is. Throwing people in jail for using drugs is not the right answer; no one like him deserves prison. Yet based on what I saw neither do I think comparing drugs to cigarettes or booze is on target either. I’m also struck with a sense of disquiet about the argument that marijuana is “harmless”: my uncle started with pot at age 12, getting it from some guy who one day didn’t have any pot, but, eh, he had this other stuff that was lots “better”… that turned out to be heroin.
Heroin will sear you in a way nothing else does. If you thought taking a drag on that cigarette or having a drink of red wine would kill you five minutes later, you wouldn’t do either; but a drug addict will do that heroin and not care. The “high” is more important than existence itself. “You never meet a 40 year old heroin addict,” my uncle once told me, which is why he had said (yet again) he was determined to clean himself up.
He saw an ugly, brutal side of life I never did: New York City drug rehabilitation centers; he’d slept alongside other “druggies” on the streets; he even experienced the inside of jail cells (fortunately only briefly). Everyone tried to help. Both of my grandparents wore themselves out seeking to support him. He couldn’t keep the jobs my grandfather, my other uncle (his older brother), and others helped get him. Twice that I know of, my aunt came home from work to find much of their furniture gone: he had sold what he could to buy drugs. My parents stepped in to pay their rent more than once when they couldn’t – because he had emptied the bank account and not told my aunt. My aunt also threw him out several times, but always took him back; she loved him dearly despite his demons. Widowed in only her forties, she never married again. She died in early 2017 and they are interred side by side in a New York City mausoleum. At last, they both have peace.
But his life with us all was certainly far from being all horrors. He was also decent and caring and was always great with us kids. Finally he ended up working as a drug rehab counselor – the longest job he ever held – and was proud of being able to help some younger people perhaps avoid what had happened to him.
And when my uncle was “clean,” he was sharp-witted and often wonderful fun. In his youth, in the late 1950s, having just been with my future aunt to a nearby cinema known for “editing” films in order to get in more showings daily, in a joke my family never forgot my mom shared that after he came home he had deadpan told my grandparents: “We went to see Ben Hur. They cut out the chariot race.” Later in life he could even make some light of his addiction: “They tried to put me under [for gall bladder surgery] and I told them when they put the needle in they’d need a lot stronger sh-t than that.” He would ring our house, and I was living at home, and because he sounded so much like my other uncle, over the phone he would tease me: “I’m not saying who I am, nephew. You don’t know which of us this is, do you?” He was also a master of the put down. “The best way to listen to Bob Dylan,” he once disparaged the singer to me, “is while you’re stoned.”
Also like so many others, and like Mr. Bourdain, often he shot off his mouth. In this comment I saw from Mr. Bourdain, I can “hear” my late uncle similarly blowing off the questioner and not giving a sh-t what anyone else might have thought. WARNING: it contains an obscenity:
Many of us would have thought much the same thing there as Mr. Bourdain did (I would have), but probably framed our verbal response in more measured terms. Like Mr. Bourdain, my uncle could be arrogant, snide, swaggering, and glibly sure he was always the most insightful person in the room while the rest of us were naive and living in a bubble. Those who saw the world another way were “clowns,” and just didn’t understand what “the real world” is like. There was the time I heard him laugh, “You can tell psychologists f-cking anything and have fun with them.”
The ups and downs of his personality and his troubles became part of our extended family’s lives. I vividly remember once answering the door at age 14, a few months after my grandfather had died, and there was my uncle, his hair cut to military-cropped short, and wearing contact lenses instead of the dark-lensed glasses he normally wore that had also obscured his eyes. (He had poor eyesight from childhood and in school had been made “fun of” by classmates for wearing thick glasses; the family always wondered what negative impact that treatment had had on his outlook.) Having driven out alone to see us after another stint in rehab, appearing relaxed and “normal” in a way I believed I had never seen him, he greeted me:
“How ya doing, Bob? Did you do well on your exams? Is your mom home?”
We prayed that my grandfather’s death would finally lead him to “clean up” permanently. Because there were all of those nasty other earlier times. Listening unseen from my bedroom upstairs as a kid – as kids do – while he once argued with my mom (while my dad was not home), I recall him blurting out something like this:
“I’ve seen s-it you can’t imagine, sister. This street’s like a g-damn suburban fantasy. You know what, f-ck you and your Brady Bunch f-cking life.”
Which is what, seeing that tweet, led me finally to tie my uncle to Mr. Bourdain. Mom let him have it right back in reply: with both barrels. I don’t recall her exact words, but her knocking his head off and he could get out that f-cking door and never come back, were parts of it… and within seconds I heard my uncle meekly apologize.
My other uncle whom I’ve written so much about had been a NYC detective and then a novelist. His younger brother was a heroin addict. Don’t think our family never got the incredible irony of it all.
And their sister, my now late mother, was the middle child.
Perhaps, like another restless soul, Ernest Hemingway, Mr. Bourdain sought to stay active as a means to keep his “demons” under wraps? And perhaps his displaying noteworthy kindness and compassion at times was another way to battle with his “demons”?
While spending over half of every year traveling and meandering around “exotic” locales taking in “the human condition” and doing “cool” stuff as Mr. Bourdain did may have seemed “glamorous,” in practical terms that also means lots of time behind the scenes just waiting around. Often you are alone in impersonal hotels also alone with your thoughts, and perhaps also therefore alone with your “demons.” That reality cannot have been healthy for his mental state.
People who “devoured” Mr. Bourdain’s eating/travel programs and interacted with him even briefly are sharing all sorts of happy memories of him, and rightly so. We also see numerous calls in media and on social media to talk to someone if you feel depressed and suicidal (designer Kate Spade having days before also killed herself), and not to give up. “Call a hotline!” they declare. “People care!”
Of course we all care, but if you have had experiences such as my family has had (and yours may have had too), you learn that there are those times that nothing can be done by others to stop self-destruction. We don’t know precisely what Mr. Bourdain’s “last straw” may have been. Whatever it was when he was alone in that Strasbourg hotel room, something terrible – depression, drugs, some combination, or who knows – inside him that neither he nor anyone else could “reach” had finally just become too much for him to cope with any longer and he saw only one means of escape.
It was as a drug counselor my uncle discovered that a woman with whom he had shared a needle had recently died of AIDS and he feared as a result he might be HIV positive at least. That was probably what led him back to heroin and into another spiral downwards, this time for the last time. He had not deliberately killed himself, but given the drugs-caused havoc his body had endured since he’d been a teenager, he might as well have: my aunt came home from work and found him dead on the living room floor, their young dog laying on his body.