In the very last episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain crafts a heartbreaking love letter to a lost era of New York City. It's an era in the 1970s Bourdain remembers with a fondness and a yearning that belies grim scenes of young men battling the police in the streets along with stories of drugs and disease.
Such grim scenes overlaid with such intense narration could be discordant in a food show, but I totally get it: that discombobulation coupled with a sense of eternal nostalgia for New York, a nostalgia that can pop up even as you're stepping into the everchanging river of that exact city's streets, is what it is to love New York. It's the fairy tale and the ferocity together. It's the contrast of dirt and dreams. It's that whiff of Chanel on a rich tourist overpowered by the eternal stench of urine. It's angry hormones mixed with open grins. Like Bourdain, I have also loved and lost New York. When Anthony turns to Richard Hell or or maybe it was John Lurie, at any rate one of the episode's stellar blasts from the past, and asks him, "Will it never be the same?" I understood exactly what Bourdain meant, and I wished his friend had lied to him the way I lie to my daughter about Santa Claus. Bourdain looked that open-faced, hangdog, and vulnerable.
I met a handful of those still-living '70s legends when I modeled in a New York Dolls comeback music video, although my point of nostalgic entry for '70s New York City is more Patti Smith's later novels and memoirs than Richard Hell's harsh, haunting vocals. The toxic masculinity of that time feels more off-putting to me than romantic. When we shot the video, the ever-present groupies on set were a little depressing. Sylvain Sylvain could have been my grandfather, but the woman accompanying him shot me daggers every time he complimented my curves. (This was not a #MeToo moment. He seemed fragile, harmless, and a little silly. I shrugged off the compliments, and felt mostly sadness for the middle-aged woman who hadn't learned yet what it was to love and be loved by a man or that she deserved more than a roving eye.) Nevertheless, groupies and egos aside, David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain possessed a ragged, glamorous regalness that bespoke a whole fabulous bygone era for sure.
The episode left me overall with more questions than answers: did the corporatization of NYC contribute to Bourdain’s depression or was he already depressed when he began work on this episode? Without a doubt, Bourdain's last LES episode is one helluva depressing take on NYC. I mean, everyone who loves NYC knows that it's an often unrequited love or at least can be a dangerous love affair with a fickle, beautiful, unstable genius of an entity. The episode also felt the most naive but heart-wrenching of any of Bourdain’s takes on any of the spots he graced with his presence on the planet.
Didn't anyone ever tell Bourdain you can't go home again? I remember the first time I visited NYC after I'd left. Like Bourdain, my old stomping ground was the East Village. It had only been two years, but already I was an outsider looking into a window chock full of poetry. (I attended a reading of my friend Safia Jama's work at the KGB Bar where I sat with her husband, musician Vincent Cross, and brilliant up-and-coming poet Cynthia Manick.) Afterwards, my husband and I tooled around a newish bookstore on First Ave and found a place to eat supper in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant so new and fancy it felt more like we should be browsing for heirlooms. Another friend, a real estate agent, later informed me my tiny, walkup East Village apartment, one that was too small to fit a couch or a full-sized kitchen, was now going for more than 4 grand.
In some ways, the most poignant moment of the last Parts Unknown episode for me is the sadness Bourdain expresses as he shares how his whole expensive building is mostly empty investment apartments for overseas money. Bourdain had been priced into a new, emptier New York City lifestyle, but I'd been priced out of my own home. I don't know what contributed to his suicide exactly, but this episode made it feel as if he was longing for a different kind of glamor than his success had given him. He wanted the heart and excitement of his heroin days, even with all its poverty and sickness and danger. He wanted to feel alive again.
Glamour is an old Scots word meaning "enchantment" or "magic". New York City makes its own magic and sometimes it bestows flashes of that upon a lucky inhabitant or two. My season of New York City magic lasted from 2007-2014. Bourdain's was the 70s. I was lucky enough to know, even as it was happening, that I needed to savor it. I never felt entitled to my magic, and I knew from my misspent youth being deeply unpopular and reading all the books that you can't go home again, and even if you could, you wouldn't want to. I have two children now, and I wouldn't want a haughty, selfish, self-seeking nymph (pictured above) caring for them. It was good to be selfish for a season, though, and self-seeking. Very few women ever get to be, and I pick being popular in New York over being popular in school any day. I was lucky to have had that opportunity. Neither rivers, glamor, nor New York City are stagnant, and that's why all are real magic. Real magic is dangerously unstable as anyone who's read Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthseas trilogy or Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic or Jo Walton's Hugo-winning Among Others or Harry Potter or meddled with it in real life knows. And I can tell you better than Bourdain can: if ever New York loves you that way, don't take it for granted and don't expect it to last forever. It won't. New York moves on, and so should you.
Maybe if I'd been as successful as Bourdain, I wouldn't have been able to let go, reform, reshape, and move on either. We have to create ourselves anew if we want to be fully present in our lives.We have to keep swimming or risk drowning in the past. New York taught me that, too. I cried more than once since watching that episode of Parts Unknown, and I think that's why I cried as much for myself as for Bourdain.
I don't know the exact reason Boudain died, but I know Bourdain couldn't do what he had to do to change. He couldn't let go. He couldn't start again. His voice was beautiful, and I can see why he didn't let it go, but I miss that voice. I'm sad it belongs to the past now, too, just like my New York City belongs only for me now, vanished otherwise from this world, to be resurrected only in my dreams and maybe in a story or a poem or a blog post here or there...