Putting It Out
I was in the coach car of an Amtrak train headed west. In my buried-down-soul there were beatnik possibilities but in my head there was a hangover throb of dehydration and a resoluteness not to be sick in the onboard lavatory.
In the duffle I’d smushed into the overhead rack there were enough clothes for a week, a bottle of red wine with an origami duck on the label, a baseball glove, three books of poetry by Czeslaw Mislosz, Phillip Levine, and Kathi Aguero, a notebook in which I’d only scribbled a few large-print proverbs while I was smoking some dope, and other things. Socks probably, underpants, a DVD history of professional wrestling I wanted to watch with my girlfriend’s son. Sundries. And a sweat-stained Red Sox cap I bought in 2001, when I graduated high school, rekindled my love of baseball, divorced the St. Louis Cardinals and swore a lifetime allegiance to the worst team in baseball not based in Chicago.
I’d boarded in St. Louis at the Gateway Station downtown. Kansas City, where my partner Lisa lived, was a six-hour jostle down the track. Aboard the train there were electrical outlets and free Wi-Fi, though the coverage was spotty on account of how deep into the woods and bluffs of central Missouri the line sometimes wound.
I tried to sleep from the time we slogged out of home until the station-stop at Washington, where Trump-Pence signs were still firmly staked in the front yards of houses and where Old Glory was muraled on brick buildings. I tried to sleep and I couldn’t so I tried to read; my brain was a ball of rubber bands bouncing off my skull sides. With reading and sleeping out of the question, I connected my phone to the Amtrak internet and tried to listen to music. Even the tracks I’d downloaded from Spotify wouldn’t play, with precious few exceptions. Eventually I found a cover of Third Eye Blind’s “How’s it Going to Be” that would play consistently. It was spare, haunting, a totally-acoustic rendering by Jack and White. I put it on loop and listened until I wasn’t listening anymore.
I think it was Robert Bly who wrote men often find their most poignant poetry inside of loneliness. I found myself feeling a loneliness on that train. A loneliness with mass, volume and atomic weight. A loneliness with a calendar date.
Anthony Michael Bourdain died on June 8, 2018. My father died on June 15, 2007. For a whole week and then a few days I mourned for these men. I put them away after that. Death is supposed to be final. In some cultures you don’t speak the name of a dead person after seven days. Death is a respite for the deceased, or so it’s theorized. I wanted Anthony Bourdain to rest well but I was getting stirrings of pissed-offness toward my father. I was starting to dislike him, to want to hug him, to miss the smell of his Kelly-green aftershave, to think about the way he’d give me a bedtime benediction of God and Daddy will watch over you this night instead of reading me a story. I was starting to think about Dad’s grind of working full-time at the post office and part-time as a security officer at a hotel. I was starting to wonder if he’d really had the money when he bought me an electric guitar and an iPod for the same Christmas. I was starting to think about my mother and myself and how we might’ve been to blame and how we. How we.
The engineer came over the public-address system and said there was a delay up ahead. He explained: Amtrak shares this line with the Union Pacific Railroad and the UPR in their boundless mercy sometimes demands passenger trains make way for heifers, coal and the accoutrements of democracy. He didn’t say that. I made that up. But the PA system did announce we were lucky to share track with the Union Pacific and happy to make way for her.
We had a few more delays. Once around Sedalia, another time around Warrensburg. I didn’t care, I was contentedly miserable in my body. My nausea was subsiding and I even nodded off a few times using my backpack as a pillow on the tray table in front of me.
By the time we got to Independence I was ready to be done with the train. Kansas City Union Station is, on a slow day, about thirty minutes past the town Harry Truman was born in. I started texting Lisa:
Pulling into the last stop before you. Miss you.
Slowing into Independence, won’t be long now.
I’m sweating like a motherfucker and the a/c on this train won’t run while we’re sitting still. Can’t wait to get chugging toward you!
While I was napping, someone had boarded and taken up residence in the seat in front of me. They’d decided to recline said seat, leaving no room for setting up my laptop and trying to do any work. I slid out of my seat and took my backpack to the dining car. There were plenty of empty tables, so I sat at one and set up shop. I opened my machine and started to freewrite about Bourdain, my old man, how hard it was to quit smoking, the rain in Spain and the plain on which it fell in the main. I was choking on something I wanted to say.
“How’s it Going to Be” is a sad song and it only gets sadder when you wallow in its subliminality for several hours. How’s it gonna be, the song asks, when you don’t know me? When I’m not around? When you find out there was nothing between you and me?
I was in tears before I could process that we were moving backward. The train, I mean, the train was physically in reverse. Some kind of mechanical issue was rerouting us along Union Pacific’s otherwise-freight-only tracks. We’d be at least forty minutes late getting into K.C. I took out one of my earbuds and asked the conductor at the cash register if he had any coffee brewed. He didn’t. I put my earbud back in and kept crying. Soon the scenery was a flashback to things I thought I’d been through and left behind: the car dealership with the inflatable dinosaur in its lot, the day my father killed himself, the look on Lisa’s face when she told me Bourdain was dead, the billowing and blustering of grass in a field that could have been and could still become a cemetery, the pain in Lisa’s mouth when she told me Bourdain killed himself, too.
I was sobbing and looking out the window when the train began to slide forward again. I hoped progress would make me happier or at least not so glum, but I was without recourse; I just kept crying.
I forgot I was wearing my hat in the dining car. I’d forgotten about baseball altogether, in truth.
A boy and his mother came into the car for a hot dog, a premade salad, a couple sodas and a beer. On their way past, the kid seemed to look at me but not see me. On their way out, the kid had me and the faded red calligraphic ‘B’ on my cap fixed in his sights. My face was swollen, my voice phlegmy, everything about me adjective-modified and undesirable.
The little boy stopped, looked right at me, and said:
“Don’t cry. You’re going to win the World Series.”
And he toddled away into what I hope was a happiness unknown to most people.
“You’re goddamn right we’re gonna win,” I said to his echo. “You’re goddamn right.”
I texted Lisa that I had a story for her when I finally got to town.
Can’t wait, she answered.
I opened a new document and began to type.
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has died at 61.
That’s the headline. There are going to be more, I know, with their attendant variations on the theme of reporting a fact. Some will be pithy incomplete character studies:
Bad-boy chef dies at 61.
Culinary rebel dead at 61.
Tv food star and recovering addict dies suddenlyat 61.
All of these capture a fractional fraction of what’s really gone down: Anthony Bourdain, a chef, TV personality, essayist, novelist, father, ex-husband, boyfriend, philanthropist, curmudgeon, drunk, former junkie, tattoo collector, depression sufferer, haunted soul, spoken word artist, inspiration to millions of hipster home cooks and snowflake liberals, traveler, and total fucking mystery committed suicide by hanging himself.
That’s not all, either. I’m not immune to catching only the gist of who is living and what is happening and what their death might mean.
Others won’t be headlines, per se, but Facebook statuses, Tweets, and Instagram posts:
OMG, R.I.P. Anthony, you beautiful man! #neverforget #noreservations #allthethingstheinternetsayswhenyoudieandwerefamous
Totally gutted at the passing of @AnthonyBourdain. You’ll be missed!
[Photo of the Deceased] captioned My hero.
The social media shitstorm is the most insipid of all the fragmented memorial barrages. It begs the question of whether reality and TV are divergent, convergent, consubstantial, convivial, or something else entirely. Begs the questions of whether we can ever know anyone else and whether we should endeavor to try from so great a distance as across the gulf of renown.
Eventually it happens. They all stop obsessing about Bourdain’s age and the chronological closeness of his death to Kate Spade’s. They stop obsessing about the countless hours they intend to spend watching and rewatching Bourdain’s food shows. They turn their attention, as I knew and feared they would, to suicide as an entity. They generalize and pontificate, turn omniscient and didactic. My favorite one is an Instagram post from a pogonophilia group:
[Generic picture frame with a yellow ribbon pinned to the lower-left corner]
SUICIDE IS NOT A DISEASE OR A CRIME!
DON’T JUDGE WHAT YOU CAN’T POSSIBLY UNDERSTAND!
It stops being a non-comprehensive study of one man’s passing and becomes a propagandist ignoramus symposium on public health. Everyone seems to channel Schopenhauer and say a person’s life is theirs and if they choose to end it that’s fair play.
Quit: phonetically, kwit; verb: to leave a place, usually permanently; to resign employment; to give up.
Suicide is quitting, whether we attach judgment to that word or we don’t.
When I quit watching No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain was drinking less but couldn’t give up the smokes. I get this; when I was twenty-one my grandmother died of a rare blood cancer that’s a second-cousin of leukemia and it scared me into a frenzied desire to give up cigarettes ASAP. Cold turkey was too painful, physically and emotionally. I smoked because I enjoyed it but also because I was hooked. Nicotine withdrawal made me furious—my road rage was worse, my left jab was better, my self-hatred was doubled, and my patience got halved. Nicotine gum was effective but tasted like feces crusted with black pepper and the directions for use required knowing, more or less, when you’d be craving a smoke. Lozenges were an option that came in black cherry or spearmint. Both burned my tongue; the cherry variety gave me unpredictable flatulence and the spearmints skipped the foreplay and made me shit like mad. Hypnotism was too close to voodoo for me to even consider. There are almost as many ways to quit smoking as there are to commit suicide.
It was the patch that finally helped me unhook. There were two different nicotine patches to start out on: 2mg if you smoked your first cigarette more than a half-hour after waking up; 4mg if you smoked within the first half-hour. I remember wishing there was a 5 or 6mg option for people like me who lit up within the first thirty seconds of their day. The patches didn’t stick very well to my arm so I bought a roll of athletic tape and strapped the fuckers on. I found myself also slapping my left bicep throughout the day not only to make sure the patch was still there but to hopefully jar loose a little extra chemical goodness.
From these first ones I graduated to a second-phase dose that was not only weaker but physically smaller. I still taped it to my arm and swatted it like the bottom of a ketchup bottle to get every last dollop, but I noticed twinges of wanting to cheat from time to time. And cheat I did.
The first time I forgot to wear a patch I thought I could tough it out; one day cold-turkey, no problem. False. I was upset, anyway, from a fight with a girl I thought I wanted to marry. Coupled with bad traffic on my freeway commute and a fresh wave of withdrawal, I was fucked. I bought a pack of Camels from the cigarette machine in the employee smoking lounge and burned three before I knew what had happened. I smoked four more before the day was out, but that was it. I put my patch on the next day and was back on the wagon for three months. After that booze, anxiety, boredom, and the naïve, Nick Adams-esque certainty that I would never die derailed my attempts to give up the habit.
Those who quit smoking and those who die by suicide generally try several times before they succeed.
Suicide and quitting tobacco have another thing in common: the hotline.
In Missouri the number to call when you wanna quit smoking is 1-800-QUIT-NOW. (It might be the same nationwide; I’ve never called it or quit smoking in another state.)
In Missouri the number to call when you want to quit being alive is 1-800-356-5395. (It’s the same over 25 counties, but it doesn’t cover St. Louis City, where I live. The coverage area that includes St. Louis City doesn’t have a number listed on Suicide.org) The National Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK. I’ve never called either number.
So there are hotlines for when you want to stop smoking and when you want to kill yourself. Fundamental differences: the person on the other end of the former fiberoptic lifeline wants you to stop smoking because they don’t want you to die and the person on the other end of the latter lifeline doesn’t want you to kill yourself because they don’t want you to die. Not on their shift, anyhow. This goes for both operators.
Object seems the same: Preserve life.
Smoking and Suicide both have a stigma. They’re bad. Unclean. Socially unacceptable.
My grandmother died of polycythemia vera. It’s a cancer that causes your body to make too many blood cells and therefore turn your blood into sludge that puts pressure on your brain and causes dementia and, eventually, death. She was skeletal by the time she left us but she was also a funny old woman. She’d forget my name and remember it, then forget it again. She’d smile at me while she tried to recollect how it was that I was related to her. I’d come into her room and hoist her body out of the bed while my mother changed the sheets, wiped my grandmother’s ass and nether regions, and pray for a few more days with her mom. We called my grandmother Maw. Maw would grin at me as I cradled her in my arms and made her promise I hadn’t hurt her in the process of lifting her up and that we’d see one another tomorrow.
She was 82 when she died.
Cancer is what kills us if nothing else gets us first, or so my doctor tells me.
People who consider or complete suicide are a diverse demographic There are those who talk about it incessantly but never do it, like those who swear they’ll quit smoking every New Year’s Eve but don’t. There are those who try, but don’t succeed, like me. I tried slitting my wrists a few times but could never take the pain or the sight of all that blood. Like my buddy Omar who sat in his garage with a pistol in his mouth but couldn’t pull the trigger. Like innumerable people who have gotten drunk and driven away from their homes with no intention to return but who come back, park, and crawl into bed willing to wake up at least one more time. Quitting life and quitting smoking have a resolute commonality: You have to really want to do it.
For Bourdain, it was the rope-and-tree. He hung himself. He didn’t actually use a rope and a tree; that’s a metaphor. Unlike other cessation methods there are a bunch of ways to hang yourself. Kate Spade used a scarf. My cousin Stanley used his prison-issued bedsheet. All of them really wanted to quit. They all wanted, more than the alternative, to die. For my father it was three decades of sleep apnea, a quarter-million-dollars in debt, one last fight with my mother and a pistol in the mouth. That’s how Pop quit. It seems, now, neither more nor less reasonable than it did eleven years ago. I am on a train today, Westbound. There is sun on the grass and grey-white horses eating said grass. There is agony and ecstasy everywhere. There is also an abundance of nothing.
Why anyone quits their habit, whether it’s smoking or breathing, is a matter of semantics. Everybody thinks it’ll be better when they stop. So they try.
Anthony Bourdain is dead. My father is dead. My cousin Stan and Kate Spade are dead. That was their choice. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in ten years and I am still alive. That is my choice.
Rectitude. We attach it to choosing life.
William Styron’s memoir of depression paints a portrait of the decision-making process in a light very few of us see, at least on the page. He sympathizes with those who, as he calls it, self-destruct. I am not here to judge but to mourn. I am not here to mourn but to testify.
The day Anthony Bourdain hung himself I was sleeping. The day I found out he had hung himself I could not sleep. This much is true.
I don’t know how many times or in how many ways Bourdain tried to quit. I don’t know his reasons. But I know he wanted to quit badly enough that he did. I was angry when I learned of his death. And sad. I wept for his daughter, his girlfriend, myself, my buddy Hawk who calls Bourdain a visionary, and my mother who is nearly inconsolable every time anyone dies by their own hand. I watched tributes on YouTube and on TV. I read articles about the ways in which Bourdain had touched lives. I waited for the toxicology report to be made public, much as I waited for my father’s autopsy report.
I can’t hate Anthony Bourdain. I can’t hate my father. How can I hate suicide?
This is the question I take to bed: how to respond to the answerless.
There are more ways to kill yourself than there are to quit smoking. Maybe because smoking will kill you eventually anyway.
Just like living will.
Game 5 of the 2018 World Series. Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel is throwing smoke. I’m half-lit on yard beer and I’m yelling at the TV in my living room.
“C’mon, Kimbrel! You big sexy ginger! Blow it by him!”
Eleven years ago I was doing this same thing, more or less, only Jonathan Papelbon was pitching for the Sox that night. I was similarly intoxicated, similarly vocal, still tensed-up and wearing the first Boston ballcap I ever owned.
The year my father shot himself, the Red Sox won the World Series.
The year Anthony Bourdain hung himself, the Red Sox won the World Series.
Nobody warned me Dad and my favorite celebrity chef were going to die young and by choice. But that kid on the train, the minor prophet with the big eyes, he told me the Sox would win it all. I would’ve hated him if he’d been wrong. I can find it in me to believe that much.
Andy Smart lives in St. Louis, MO and is a candidate for his MFA in the Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. His essays appear in the anthologies Show Me All Your Scars (In Fact Books) and Come Shining: Essays and Poems on Writing in a Dark Time (Kelson Books). His poetry has appeared in Two Thirds North and Red Fez, and is forthcoming in Lily Poetry Review.