For a few years in his incontinent youth, Anthony Bourdain attended Vassar College. Situated in a depressed Hudson Valley city called Poughkeepsie, Vassar was once the finishing school for America’s finest women. Jackie Kennedy went there; you get the picture. In the seventies, the administration decided to keep with the times and let men in.
The shriek of protest from Park Avenue was sadly unheeded and in came the maelstrom of seedy, intellectually diminished, sexually depraved jackals that were Vassar’s first men. Bourdain was amongst these pioneers. They descended upon the female inhabitants like a Mongol horde, caused the school to plummet like a rock in national rankings and brought with them an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases so severe, it caused a run on penicillin at the school infirmary.
But the decision had been made, and the administration had to live with it. They did all they could to hide the year-round Bacchanal that soon rivalled Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in sheer perversity, from parents and donors. In the meantime, the word was out and every prep school “n’er do well” under the delusion he was Gaius Caligula reincarnated applied to Vassar. The assaults, drug possessions and other random acts of idiocy they committed were continually brushed under the carpet. So it was only with a Herculean affront to decency that Bourdain succeeded in getting himself kicked off campus. When asked the details of the incident he revealed the involvement of angry lesbians and firearms.
Herein is the incredible coincidence. I explained that my own exile from the same school two decades later involved those same combustible components. I got kicked off Vassar campus thanks to an incident involving an air gun, an African exchange student, and a group of angry Apartheid-protesting lesbians. The girls had decided to barricade the path to the administration building by joining hands in a symbolic chain of vicarious grief. They would only unclench their sweaty palms to shake their fists at members of the faculty that collectively represented “The Man.”
The girls sang ‘I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City’ with gusto and before them they paraded an African exchange student named Pianim, like a martyred victim of Western Economic Imperialism. Ironically Pianim, who had attended Phillips Exeter Boarding School, was studying finance in the hope of one day perpetuating the said Western Economic Imperialism upon his own people.
Later, he admitted to letting himself be used in the hopes of “getting over” on the white women. When he learned of their same gender preferences he was sincerely appalled.
To our mutual misfortune, the girls’ protest crossed a stretch of path beneath my window. It was Sunday morning, I had a hangover, and they wouldn’t stop singing, “I ain’t gonna play… su-uu-un city.” Even worse they start to shimmy in that truly abhorrent way only white women singing to Stevie Wonder can.
The BB gun leapt into my hand. I swear. And before I knew it I had emptied a clip into the Alpha female’s posterior. Of Hispanic persuasion, she comically screamed out “Ai Chingala,” while clutching her full rump. “Cheerio. Nice shot,” remarked Pianim as if I had eagled the sixth hole at Pebble Beach. But I hadn’t. I had shot an angry lesbian in the ass and there was hell to pay.
The ensuing college court trial was swift and full of Kafkaesque absurdity. Pianim who had appointed himself my legal council, surreptitiously sipped scotch and pounded his manicured fist on his transcripts of the Claus Von Bulow trial while demanding monetary compensation for our psychic lesions caused by watching the white women shimmy to Stevie Wonder. Rightly, I was banished from campus for a year. But the lesbians were not satisfied. They wanted blood.
Once cornered, I had to let the head lesbian shoot me in the ass with my own air gun in a moment of shameful Old Testament retribution. “Ai Chingala”, indeed.
I related this incident to Bourdain and he chuckled. “Vassar Boy,” he added knowingly. Having been one, he knew that we were historically predisposed to such random acts of idiocy. As he writes, “I graduated high school a year early so I could chase the object of my desire to Vassar College. The less said about that part of my life the better, believe me. Essentially I treated the world as my ashtray… I was a spoiled, miserable, narcissistic, self-destructive and thoughtless young lout badly in need of a good ass kicking.”
In contrast to the achievement-oriented women Vassar produces, it also belches forth men who are classic American fuck-ups. Part of this stems from us receiving too much positive reinforcement by our female classmates who are morally, intellectually and physically our superiors. They tolerate our asinine attempts to be poets, musicians and philosophers because they are our captive audiences. They sleep with us and become our girlfriends for lack of a better choice save “playing for the pink team”, which is evidently not an unattractive option.
Upon graduation these same women are eager to jumpstart their lives and finally date men worthy of them. Conversely, we Vassar Boys with our delusions of grandeur are ill prepared to face our own mediocrity. Accordingly, a Vassar alumnus made a film called Kicking and Screaming, which chronicles the typical Vassar boy’s unwillingness to face the real world. Even more typically this film was a mediocre achievement. With the exception of my gay roommate who is now the head of public relations for an international magazine, the majority of us are still “man-children”, drunk on the fantasy of becoming literature, film or music heavyweights. We are men in our mid-thirties, still in love with the long faded idyll of our college years. And, when faced with the harsh reality of an even harsher world, Vassar Boys cave in to pressure and give up. Anthony Bourdain, however, is an obvious exception to this rule.
Once jettisoned from cooking school, Bourdain zip-lined into the New York City of the seventies. This was a time when Alphabet City was still dangerous and the kings of the lower east side were the New York Dolls and Bourdain’s own beloved Ramones. From the seventies, Bourdain plied his trade as a line chef then a head chef while kicking heroin addiction, methadone addiction, and extracting himself from dangerous interludes with certain “mobbed up” individuals.
It is Bourdain’s passion for food that has kept him unerringly on course for the last 20 years. If his first book Kitchen Confidential was an angry autobiographical rant, on par his friend Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight, then his second book A Cook’s Tour is about a man coming to terms with himself. Through his culinary tour Bourdain discovers an ability to feel empathy for others and he learns to appreciate his life and celebrate the food that sustains it on so many levels. A Cook’s Tour cleverly uses Bourdain’s journey to discover “where food comes from” to chart his personal growth as a member of the human race.
A telling example of this is when Bo
urdain travels to Vietnam. He describes one Madame Ngoc as a woman who has been through far more shit than he could imagine. She tells him. “I love everybody. You must give love… You love people, they love you back.”
Far from the “thoughtless young lout,” as he describes himself in Kitchen Confidential, A Cook’s Tour brims with the reflections of a man very much in touch with the realities of being battle and scared by conflict. Perhaps Bourdain appreciates the beauty of a country that has lived through so much violence because it reminds him of himself. If Bourdain was a country he would be Vietnam – war torn, been to hell and back, yet has never lost its joy for life. After all, what is more representative of a man who cherishes life than one who makes the food necessary to sustain it?
So through it all, like the name of his hero Dee Dee Ramone’s album, Bourdain was indeed Too Tough to Die. What he has in spades is perseverance. His true love – other than his wife who he refers to with self-deprecating endearment, “She’s a saint. It’s a miracle she stuck with me through all my shit.” – will always be food. You can see it in his face and his hands. The way he decimates a steaming, roe-dripping hunk of crab, in the way he unceremoniously rips into whelks and slathers them with chilli sauce, in the way his weathered face breaks into a smile as taste washes over his palate.
Food, the discovery and embracing of the life it gives, is his passion. In the moment after the meal, quite unexpectedly, he exudes stillness. He is reminiscent of the old cowboys I knew in Montana that sat in their pickups in quiet appreciation of dusk. Or maybe he’s like Doc Holiday, a gunslinger happy to live through another day. In the night, the tallest man in Singapore puts flame to a Lark, sips his beer and exhales in contentment.
I ask him a question. “Who would you clear a table at Les Halles (his restaurant) for? Johnny Thunders or Richard Hell?”
“Johnny Thunders,” he replies.
Then adds sadly. “Of course Johnny Thunders is dead… Just like Dee Dee.”
And though he loves Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone, Bourdain says it with gratitude that he is still alive, well and perhaps the finest of the Vassar Boys.
The final lines in A Cook’s Tour describe how Bourdain feels as he leaves Vietnam. “I’m leaving Vietnam already, and yet I’m yearning for it already. I grab a stack of damp dong off my nightstand, get dressed and head for the market. There’s a lot I haven’t tried. I’m still here, I tell myself. I’m still here.”