Bourdain.


Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell.

 

It has been a tearfully confounding few days for those who imagined a life of elation for that man privileged to travel and eat anywhere in the world, to dine in places high and low, to taste cuisines in remote outposts, and consume foods prepared by experts in professional kitchens, or cooked on stoves by mothers in Ghana, Sicily, Ukraine, Bali, Uruguay and Northern New Mexico.

Why did he, of all lucky mortals, choose to strangle himself in a hotel bathroom at the five-star Le Chambard in Kayserberg, France?

 


Once a fuck up, a drugged, sad, angry rebel from New Jersey working in restaurant kitchens, he somehow strapped himself down at a typewriter in his early 40s, cigarette in mouth, coffee at hand, and composed a brilliantly inventive memoir exposing the death, filth, corruption, blood and cruelty turning out fine cuisine. “Kitchen Confidential” became a best seller and a 44-year-old loser was suddenly the toast of New York and the hero of truth tellers around the world.

In our early 21stCentury Bourdain was the healer, the traveller, the sage, the explorer, the courageous adventurer who called bullshit on all liars as he saw them, those phonies who dance on the Food Network sets and perform like The Rockettes as they whip up Key Lime Pie for a studio audience clapping on cue.

Later, he acted as our elder statesman, visiting those places around the world despised and feared by people who knew nothing of them: Lebanon, Palestine, Iran and Russia. His every meal was more than an exploration of cuisine; he conducted discursive, penetrating, eviscerating discussions of why and how nations and individuals do what they do in food, war, love and politics.

He stood up for women degraded by sexual assault and gender inequality. And called out others who would deny injured females palliative justice.

Sometimes his articulation and verboseness became exhausting, his face, sunken and tired; his body long limbed, tattooed, tanned and tired. And he was always drinking something.

Yet somehow he was allowed, by the networks that employed him, to get buzzed on camera, for in those late hours when alcohol magically connects words to ideas and liberates men from self-imposed constraints, Bourdain flourished, every sense of his intellect and wit was lit by fire, and the camera captured it.

His life as we projected it off our own, was a mirror of baby boomer fantasy, travelling from drugs and rock and roll, divorce and shitty jobs into the universe of eternal fame, free travel, the ability to express himself on paper, on camera, to go anywhere in the world. And eat dinner with Barack Obama in Vietnam, the last destination wrapping up that pinnacle of American shame, repackaged as a television event of healing and camaraderie with the black American President in our former enemy’s capital of Hanoi.

Seemingly every insurmountable obstacle of hate: race, religion, gender, or war was solvable over a bowl of pho or a plate of tacos.

He took up Ju Jitsu, and at 60 was lean and defined. Book publishers and publicists, agents and advertisers saw him as the perfect imperfect. He was the star of CNN but somehow his own man.

And then at 61, like Hemingway, Bourdain did as Hemingway did and killed himself.

In those last five minutes of his life, alone, near the toilet, Bourdain murdered Bourdain, a dastardly tragic, unjust, undeserved death; and a malevolent attack on the entire human race who was joined to him in an unofficial, but widely accepted compact of love and mutual understanding.

His suicide robbed us of that satisfaction that there is greater meaning to life, to grow to understand by venturing out into the unknown.

Now we are back to nihilism, that nothingness of despair, that poison of philosophy whose only known antidote is survival, carrying on, living under any condition to stay alive, confronting the urge to end it all by persisting to the very end.

The Retraction From Life


Weaker, yet still alive, still able to speak, Louise M. Hurvitz was in her wheelchair, in the sunshine near the glistening Marina boats, when she told me she wanted to eat a steak.

That was on Monday, August 18th. She ate a hamburger that night, and a slice of pizza on Tuesday night. She was 8 months into her Stage 4 lung and bone cancer.

Nurse Linda said she was looking great.

Then on Wednesday she began to call for her sister “Millie”. She was up all night, and then asleep all day by morphine and Lorazepam. In periods of wakefulness, her glazed eyes no longer looked at me, but out into nothing.

She was no longer able to speak. I went every other day to see her, knowing she was entering death.

A blue booklet left by hospice, Gone From My Sight, explained how the bedridden dying walked out of life. We noted her symptoms mirrored in the book.

The late afternoon sun was bright in her bedroom on Friday, August 22nd. She screamed that her head hurt, her back hurt, everything hurt. She wanted me to shut all the drapes. I abided and put the room in darkness. Foreshadowing.

She was in her last days. Nurse Bertha said if she ate she would stay alive. And then on Friday, August 29th, Labor Day weekend, hospice came and said, “no more food or water”. She was given 72 hours.

All weekend were the pleasures of Los Angeles, the beach and the beer, the walks along Abbot Kinney, the barbecues, I partook of some haunted by an upcoming phone call.

And then on Sunday, August 31st at 11:30 PM we were called and told she was breathing irregularly. We got in the car and rushed down to the apartment. My brother and sister-in-law were at her bedside. A nurse helplessly held the nasal end of the oxygen tube against her open mouth.

She was gray faced.

She was gasping for breath.

I replaced the nasal oxygen with a whole nose/mouth mask. Nurse Linda arrived. The hospice nurse came. It was about 2am and we did not know how long she would live. Exhausted we left. And an hour later I was in bed when my brother called.

“I hate to tell you this but Mom has passed.”

All the fighting for her life, all the medications, the food, the physical therapy, the chemotherapy, the consultations with UCLA medical doctors, the cat scans and the other radiology, the organic smoothies packed with nutrients; all the equipment, the oxygen, the ointments; everything done to keep her alive and going. Done.

Her body was pronounced dead by a doctor. The cremation company came to the apartment to wrap up and remove her.


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We held a home service for her, almost a week later, on Saturday, September 5th.

Andreas Samson, my friend who writes Up in the Valley, attended and wrote a touching description of the bittersweet “party”.

There was food and drink, old photos on the flat screen television, a Spotify soundtrack of her beloved music (Frank Sinatra, the Fifth Dimension, Herb Alpert). Relatives who had never seen her sick, showed up to pay their respects.

And her life was presented selectively, with an emphasis on the young, beautiful, vivacious, pranking, intelligent, subversive sorority girl and network executive.

She, who died at 80, mothered a retarded boy, took care of an epileptic and ill husband, worried and fretted over children, finances, nightly meals, laundry and cleaning, her daily travails were wiped away or spoken of in one sentence salutes at our remembrance.

For 52 years, I had grown up and grown old with her. I knew her love and her craziness, her exasperating circular questions, her sparkling memory for names, faces, and events.

She, who drank vodka and grapefruit juice, and later switched to red wine, was probably an alcoholic. She was full of shame over events she had no power over, castigating and punishing herself.

But she fought hard to protect and to nurture, and daring to venture out of Lincolnwood, IL, moving to suburban NJ where she set up a new life with her family at 47, exploring Manhattan, New England and the East Coast with the curiosity and passion of a young woman starting out life.

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She sold airplanes with a male friend, a pilot and airplane broker who lead a life outside of norms, a man who was later convicted of stealing money from his customers. He flew Louise and our family, often, to Albany, Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, Manahawkin Airport, Miami, East Hampton, Nantucket, Block Island, all around the Eastern Seaboard. American life was seen from 8,000 feet, little houses and little lives across the vast expanse.

She went into the city to see plays with my father, to walk neighborhoods, to buy groceries at Fairway, see exhibitions at the Metropolitan, attend concerts and events at Lincoln Center.

She read the NY Times and Bergen Record voraciously, keeping herself informed on culture and politics. The papers piled up in wet and musty mountains stacked in the garage.

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She loved her new home in the woods, a place where the windows were always open and the rooms smelled of rain and leaves and florid humidity. In the spring, summer and early fall, the back deck, suspended on the second story of the house, was her outdoor space, a place of reading, eating, entertaining and midnight conversations by candlelight.


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She lost my father after his long and agonizing brain disease, an illness that took 4 years to progress, rendering him an invalid.

But after he died, in her apartment in the Marina, she became a devoted grandmother and somehow earned the respect and awe of children who had once only seen sadness and burden in her exhausted eyes.

She was valiant onto the end; never giving into death, never acknowledging that life was less than the entirety. An iron dome of denial was her shield.

She was more than she ever admitted to being. She was magnificent in her life force, in her refusal to die, in her love for life.

 

 

 

 

Exit Grace.


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1955 Chicago Hurvitz, originally uploaded by Here in Van Nuys.

The 20th Century died 11 years ago, and now some of my most beloved family from that epoch, are dying, fading off, and exiting. And I hardly had a chance to get acquainted.

Born two years after the Versailles Treaty ended WWI, before Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, before penicillin, direct dial telephone, credit cards, air-conditioning, television and the discovery of the planet Pluto, Harold Hurvitz (1921-2011) was the eldest of three born to Harry and Fanny Hurvitz, who were also the parents of Frances Cohen (1923) and my father Sol (1932-2009).

Harold’s life, biographically and chronologically, encompassed engineering, WWII, husband-hood and father-hood and the building of a successful, multi-generational heating and air-conditioning company that outfitted the many steel and glass buildings anchored low and towering high in the City of Big Shoulders.

Tall, blue-eyed, sharp, intelligent, and possessed of a calm fortitude and self-assurance befitting a man who knew his place in the world, Uncle Harold was for years the gold standard in our family for character, kindness and an inability to be disloyal.

He was married, in 1943, to a woman he had already known for perhaps a decade, (Aunt) Evey. They lived on the South Side, in those intact Jewish neighborhoods of apartment houses, synagogues, delis and social clubs. Those were the days, of Benny Goodman and Drexel Avenue, Hyde Park and Maxwell Street, of black cows and red meat, shvartzes and Chinamen, Inland Steel and the Outer Drive, the Union Stockyards, Soldier’s Field, Irv Kupcinet, the Chicago Daily News, Dad’s Root Beer and Jack Brickhouse.

After the war, Harold and Evey had three kids: Adrienne, Michael and Bruce, and these three went on, under the benevolent leadership and example of their father and mother, to create families of their own, made up of people who have mostly worked to build prosperity, build family connections and create a unity and purpose for life.

How I imagine I fit into my own family, and how my father imagined he fit into his family are curiously and strongly connected to the life of Harold Hurvitz.

I found, after my father died in 2009, that I was more cautious about the mythology of autobiography. A human being creates his own story, and he adheres to it, whether true or false. Let three children come out of the same womb, and each child will have his own version of family life and how well he was raised.

The death of Uncle Harold is strange, strange because his tenure on Earth was so long, and his presence, like the columns holding up the Parthenon: structural and eternal, resistant and real.

My own relationship to Uncle Harold was fashioned by the mythologies and stories filtered to me through my parents who thought Harold and Evey and their progeny had it made…..

They were going on a cruise. They were getting married. They just had a baby. Simi and Mickey, Evey and Harold, the two Mikes, the two Sues. It was a drum-roll of hearing about family through the stories of other people, rather than experiencing them yourself. And through many years, my father, in NJ, spoke on the phone with his brother through artful dissonance and polite chit-chat.

The good news that emanated from the golf course, from Rancho Mirage and Lake Shore Drive, from Deerfield and Highland Park….the stories that I heard, were stories of laughter and success, of camaraderie and closeness, procreation and prosperity illuminated by the floodlights of the Palmolive Building, orchestrated by a band playing in the Drake Hotel, for the majesty of a candlelit apartment in a high-rise, accompanied by many well wishers and lots of food.

In every photo: baby-faced boys and well-fed girls, golf courses and cruise ships, summer camp, yarmulkes, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, Water Tower Place and Frango Mints, Scottsdale, Boca Raton; Filet Mignon, and chopped liver; enormous platters of cold cuts on silver trays. This is how it seemed. And one never knew the tedious, back-breaking and time-consuming labor that built it all inside a windowless warehouse somewhere north of Touhy.

And sometimes the image of Harold’s family stood in opposition to the hard times we had in our smaller family of Sol. I had thought, maybe unfairly, that my own father minimized himself and aggrandized his older brother, to his own detriment. But my father relished his own artistic and independent streak. And he was not the first-born, but raised to idolize and respect and look up to the first- born.

My father had epilepsy, difficulty earning a living, back problems and a disabled child. And finally he succumbed, quite early, to a degenerative cerebral illness that robbed him of the ability to speak and walk. But if he were alive, he would tell me not to write any of this and just to remember that he was a good father and a good husband.

After my father died, I went out to Rancho Mirage and visited Uncle Harold, 11 years older than my father, but still alive and smiling. He was attached to his own plastic oxygen tube . And wheeled, by a home care aide, around a vaulted ceiling desert ranch house where he and Aunt Evey had spent thirty summers, and were now confined year around.

Uncle Harold said he was “an anomaly” because he had almost died earlier that year. He said he believed mostly in “blind dumb luck”.

And luckily, he was born a Jew, not in Poland or Germany, but Chicago; and luckily he met a woman he loved and stayed with for seven decades; and luckily he had great children who venerated and adored their father; and luckily he lived to see and touch and kiss grand-children and great-grandchildren.

And despite his time spent in the West, Harold, like my father Sol, was a Chicagoan, raised to think that if you just worked hard, thought logically, did the right thing, told the truth, you might just succeed.

He had absorbed the ethos of Chicago, a self-confident city of fighters and survivors, given to powerful winds and brutal snowstorms, blinding rain and suffocating summers, violent crime and astonishing wealth, yet boisterously productive, practical, energetic and hopeful.

Harold managed to endure and to leave to the rest of us, a lesson that success is not about mastering the latest technology, but by living according to those codes of honor that never die.

And family….above all… The Family. It stands supreme, and is there for those who are weak or falling down, and for those who are strong and on their way up, young and naïve, old and wise, middle-aged and stressed out. They all have a place in this family.  And they must not forget that they are not alone.

My Father’s Wallet


My father died April 13, 2009.
Since that day, I have kept his wallet inside a white ceramic vase on a square table next to my bed.

To hold another person’s wallet, without their consent, even when they are dead, seems a violation.

And what possession is more personal than a wallet?

Like the expired man, his wallet contains expired credit cards.

I read the business cards stuffed into the wallet pockets.

One card is The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, NJ where I saw him on the morning of October 14, 2006 after I flew into Newark on a red eye from LA. He had suffered some sort of a small stroke. And I cried at his bedside.

A Department of Veterans Affairs ID, created only a few months before he died.

A card from a Speech Pathologist who would help him pronounce words at age 75 that he once could say without practice.

He was a painter and took art lessons at The Ridgewood Art Institute. A green paper card, frayed at the edges, was valid through August 31, 2007.

AARP, Medicare, Costco, American Express, AAA, Master Card and Visa: the cards of a modern living American male. Pieces of plastic to insure, to protect, to provide, to make credit for any activity on Earth.

In his last week of life, I remember he was breathing with difficulty as he sat on a bar stool bench, at the kitchen counter in his apartment, going over his taxes, which were due in mid-April.

He was fatally and incurably ill and knew he would die from this inexplicable illness called Multi-System Atrophy.

But he was no different than any of us in his belief that he would continue to live.

My father’s wallet still seems to belong to a living person. And no amount of time or loss can diminish it.