“Like an express train going through a tunnel.”
That’s how my grandfather, Reuben Hopkins, described the sound of the German shell that screamed by his lookout post 100 years ago during World War I. The action he was seeing was not in the fields of France, but atop the Life Saving Station in Orleans. The artillery was from a U-Boat that had attacked a tug and its barges three miles off Nauset Beach. It was a parting shot at the station before the sub disappeared under the waves.
For decades, I’ve taken visiting friends to the historical marker at the stairs at Nauset Heights that commemorates this event in July 1918, and told various versions of this story. I’ve done the same within arms reach of Liam’s on Nauset Beach and on the cliff at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham.
My father kept a copy of the local newspaper article from 1968 when he gave his talk as president of the Orleans Historical Society during the 50th anniversary. But I can’t even remember when I first heard this story. Certainly before Grandpa died in 1974. Probably during one of my mother’s great summertime dinners parties. Food and stories with good company. There was always plenty of each. I certainly aspired to continue that tradition.
So it wasn’t a great mental leap for me, while taking a quick jaunt over to that overlook recently, that I thought about the master of the craft. Anthony Bourdain would have been so at home sitting at my mom’s table, between the Chatham A’s players who boarded at our house and worked at Pates, the physical therapy students working summers at my mom’s practice, and my brother and sisters. To be honest, I am almost surprised he never ended up at our house one summer when he was washing dishes in Provincetown.
The depth of grief over his passing seems to have really surprised people. Beloved is not too strong a word. Since “Kitchen Confidential” came out less than two decades ago, Bourdain grew only richer and more flavorful with time, like a pot of clam chowder left on a low simmer. Through books, lectures and four television series, he taught Americans how to travel.
I remember in 2008 sitting down with Matt Griffin and watching an episode of “No Reservations.” It was a minute-by-minute analysis of shots, a deconstruction of an entire installment to figure out why this was working. As I said to people at WGBH a year later when introducing our adventure travel history series Hit and Run History, “If had I told you 10 years ago that heterosexual American men would be racing home to watch a cooking show, you would have said I was nuts.” Role model is the proper term.
He never addressed the camera. He talked to his local contact, or the crew. It was very casual, very knowledgeable, interested and cool. The viewer wasn’t a special guest being catered to, but rather tagging along to see and do and try something authentically local, wherever in the world Bourdain was headed. It is no wonder so many other shows on the Travel Channel, Discovery and the History Channel quickly dispensed with the runway model hosts and looked for guides who brought personality and some knowledge to the job.
And while he had come to instant writing success sideways – a cook whose first article got picked from the slush pile at the New Yorker, which then led to a book contract in a week – Bourdain had staying power. Truly, authentic was the word I kept hearing last week about him. My social media feed at one point was 100 percent about him, with many friends giving firsthand accounts of meeting him, interviewing him.
It would be easy to picture the opinionated and acerbic world traveler as a tough person to work with. Instead, I read that “Tony would light up any room he walked into.” Mutual friends recounted his great generosity. His advocacy for diversity in his own productions and the #metoo movement lent a credible voice. When Anthony Bourdain called you out, you knew he wasn’t grandstanding. He has actually seen all the dirty underside of American society.
And with his final act, Bourdain drew attention to mental illness and depression. The luckiest man in the world, living the dream of most of the country, could not find lasting happiness. He was in the middle of working on his show, not isolated or feeling professional failure. He had a young daughter he clearly doted on and adored. Yet it is hard to dismiss the possible impact of photos of his romantic partner, Asia Argento, canoodling with a French reporter in the days before his death (Rose McGowan’s assertions that the two had an open relationship notwithstanding).
For a man of great appetites and passions and sincerity of feeling, having written about suicidal feelings following the end of his first marriage, it would not have been too surprising that a broken heart might be the thing to bring him down.
We are coming to grips with the man’s influence. The unexpected passing of David Bowie and Prince felt similar. But he connected on a human, not artistic level, and we are different for having known him. I know the best way to honor his legacy is by traveling, eating, making new friends in unlikely places, and laughing over all the stories.