Anthony Bourdain and Queer Shame
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I used to tell this story, and each time the moral conclusion would skitter off in a different direction before evaporating completely. But after Anthony Bourdain died—after Tony ended it in that hotel in Kaysersberg—the story seemed both smaller and more consequential, a droplet echoing larger and larger in my ambivalence.
It was back in 2009, when I helped Tony’s producers scout a location for an episode of No Reservations. This was in Oakland; I was the food reporter and critic for an indie paper. I’d written a cover feature on taco trucks in the Fruitvale district. Someone on Tony’s scouting team clicked into my byline.
I spent a Saturday afternoon with Chris, the episode’s fixer. I took him to half a dozen trucks where we chewed tacos and spooned up birria and I’m sure he was testing me: how I’d look on camera, if I knew what I was talking about. (“What chiles are in here?” he’d ask about the salsa and I’d say something probably half right.)
I must have failed the first part of the test, since I wasn’t asked to mic up for the taping. But I did help them find a truck: a Salvadoran tamale vendor in a narrow lot, banked against a produce market beneath a turned-up mural, a quote-unquote urban-exotic setting perfect for the Travel Channel’s eye. I asked if I could be on-set in a few weeks when Tony showed up.
That was a chaotic day, another Saturday. It took me a while to decide what to wear to meet Tony, which I admit was stupid. I was nervous. I settled on a gray sweater under a thin, blue-green zippered nylon sweatshirt.
A Bourdain visit was a point of civic pride then, an acknowledgment that where you lived mattered. Chowhounds and Eater SF site were on watch. Bourdain fanatics were driving around, trying to tail the production crew. Eater published civilian sightings or ridiculous fan speculation about where in San Francisco he was likely to show up.
As I waited on the street near the Salvadoran vendor in Oakland, Eater posted that the Bourdain crew had been spotted en route to the Bay Bridge. They were seen on the bridge.
Chris showed up and shook my hand—he’d taken his own car. he said the two production vans should be here any second. Tony was on his way. They were trying to keep out in front of the Bourdain watchers, Chris said. A mob of fans can really fuck with a taping.
One of the plain white vans swooped up; a second parked down the street. Tom, the director, radiated an edgy kind of heat, scanning the sidewalk. They’d out-gunned the paparazzi, but every minute Bourdain lingered there was a deepening risk he’d be discovered. Bourdain had a silvery presence: cropped white-gray hair coiled like a muscular terrier’s; gray-white sweater finer and slimmer than my saggy cheap one. I felt the harsh beam of afternoon assail my baldness and felt exposed.
As Tom, the cameraman, and a sound guy set up the shot, Tony chatted with me: about Alice Waters, whose public air of righteousness, as he described it, bugged him; about how much he loved San Francisco. I noticed three boys, Black kids aged thirteen, fourteen. They’d been walking past the parking lot, and I guess when they saw a camera they decided to investigate—maybe they recognized Tony from TV, maybe they didn’t. As the taping started—Tony in front of a wall in the alleylike lot, spinning some thoughts about Oakland—the kids worked their way behind him to slip into the shot. Tony noticed. Tom noticed. The camera guy slowly pivoted along with Tony to keep them out of frame. The kids crept back in. Tony turned to them.
“Guys,” he said, “this is a gay show. We’re making a GAY show, and everyone who sees it is gonna think you’re GAY.”
The kids looked confused, then offended. They slunk away. Tom got his clean take before Bourdain spoke through the truck window, asking for pupusas; before he sat down with the street food organizer I’d introduced to Chris for the camera talk. And just like that—Bourdain telling me, Keep up the good work, man, whatever that meant, exactly—they all hustled into the vans and disappeared.
But Bourdain’s device, his joke to scare away teen boys, had clipped itself to me. Had he deployed it before or was he riffing in the moment? It was a twist on fag shaming—a mechanism for humiliation, perfected long before either Bourdain or I were born. It threatened pariah status by branding a man as queer, something Bourdain had engaged smoothly, with such mastery, so much ease. Call it a joke, dismiss it as a weak moment, locker-room talk, a relic from Bourdain’s time in brutal New York kitchens.
He’s a good guy at heart, though…right? His brand is transgression…right?
Later I laughed about it. I told everyone I knew about it. Hey, Bourdain hammered these freaked-out kids with a hilarious threat. I got to boast that I was there; that I’d witnessed a legend work his charisma. A lifetime of fear, of discomfort with the queer in me, had numbed me to being the joke—I, who had made the episode’s Oakland segment possible, in return for my name flashed in the credits and a brief chat with a star.
But what was served? A conventional humanist take is Bourdain’s legacy, we eat the same, you and I—though one of us might also have to ingest a measure of shit with our shared portion.
Once, years later, when I met him for an interview, Bourdain—who was kind, and patient with my questions—made a point of telling me his uncle was gay (Bourdain knew who I was by then). It takes work to find the escape from an inherited storehouse of small, reflexive harms. It takes time, with a mind focused on finding the exits. Maybe Bourdain was too busy staying ahead of the crush of fans, the shitshow he’d staged. But how to bag up the wreckage the famous dead leave scattered. Where to dump it all, after the urgency of mourning grows cold.
In 2016, Tony agreed to sit for an interview for the occasion of his 60th birthday. The story I wrote, for the site First We Feast, opens with my self-deprecating joke about gay bottoming before pivoting to Tony.
As the story went live, I wondered why I chose a lede so unsuited to Tony, a 21st century personification of the myth of straight, cis-male ruggedness. Now I realize it was unconscious payback for that afternoon in Oakland: my happy 60th party for Tony through a queer portal no reader could avoid. I was making a gay show at last, and Anthony Bourdain was the star. •
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