Author Archive for: David Simon

Annapolis

08 Jul
July 8, 2018

Fifteen years as a newspaperman taught me a few select things. One is this:

It is the god-given right of every American to resent or even hate his local newspaper. Indeed, it is our birthright to hate any and every news organization, print or broadcast. It is not certain that you will avail yourself of that right, or that you will invoke it consistently if you do, but it is there for you whenever life doesn’t go the way you want.

Your hometown newspaper will highlight your most embarrassing utterance at the PTA hearing or detail your company’s bankruptcy, just as it will at some point ignore your daughter’s performance in the school play or miss the zoning hearing at which a porn shop is dropped a block and a half from your son’s middle school. It will herald some political views you abhor and denigrate some politicians you wish to cheer. It will spell your name incorrectly when you are named the Rotarian of the Year and dox you with precision when you are cuffed and processed for driving drunk.

A good newspaper has no real friends and some fixed and certain enemies — namely those who wish to operate without the critique or attention of others. And these are the givens even in a healthy national culture, with a politically mature leadership and norms of governance that discourage the worst fascist impulses.

But now, Trump.

If you think that a great mass of Americans aren’t content to cheer the destruction of open speech or the mechanisms of dissent at this very moment, if you think there is still an abiding reservoir of Mill and Voltaire and Jefferson on which we can draw, then suffer the social media commentary in the wake of Annapolis. Between they-had-it-coming sneers and what-did-they-expect critiques of media performance, the consensus among this president’s supporters has also congealed around the most delicate and ridiculous decouplings of Trump’s fascistic performance from its inevitable outcome:

“He was only attacking Fake News.”

No, the President of the United States was attacking a host of national media organizations by name — so many and so often over the past year that it was in effect an attack on the mainstream media as a whole. And by declaring the very product of so many institutions to be fraudulent and a great national danger, the president was creating a scenario in which any attempt to strike at the product or its creators could be handily elevated to the mantle of patriotism and heroism by extremists willing to do so.

“The shooter had a longstanding beef with the newspaper.”

Yes, he did. For seven years, the man who would shoot up the Annapolis Capital-Gazette’s newsroom bickered over the coverage he had received online and in court. Yet what is also evidenced is that his escalation to violence came at a point after Donald Trump, lost in his own grievances and impulses, used the presidential podium to declare bluntly and openly that journalists and the falsehoods they deliver were the greatest peril to the nation. Chronology makes Donald Trump’s demagoguery more complicit in Annapolis, not less so.

“The gunman was deranged.”

No kidding. And every reporter who ever did the job has stood at the newsroom mailbox or opened his emails to discover that a shallow, but permanent sedimentary layer of mental illness, pathological resentment and disordered thinking undercoats the readership or viewership of every news organization. They’re out there. And what they vent and threaten rarely has any grounding in the necessary or ethical parameters of journalism. Hell, it rarely has any grounding in basic sanity. Professional journalists toss the crazed hate mail and dodge the screamers on the phone extensions and continue to report and file. They shrug it off as a matter of weekly routine. What else, after all, can they do, other than hope that the space between someone’s rage and derangement and any resulting gunfire is not narrowed by political leaders declaring that journalists are the people’s biggest enemy and the greatest threat to the republic?

But no such luck. Donald Trump gleefully delivers the same vitriol to the unhinged supporter as to those grounded or discerning. Of course the gunman had his own grudges. Of course he was deranged. It is ever thus. What other cohort embarks time and again on mass murder? Trump’s declarations of who the great national villains are will reach all ears. And only a self-absorbed fool or an indifferent sociopath would stand behind the presidential seal and tar the press as enemies of the people and not expect an Annapolis, or two, or three, to occur. Trump is not merely one or the other, but clearly, a lethal composite of both.

“Plenty of U.S. Presidents have criticized the press.” 

But not like this. Not ever with these words. And not with so little regard for the very role of a free press in a republic. A president’s pulpit is vast, constant and immediate. And the grown-ups who have served in that high office understand the importance of their every utterance; they guard against their own excesses and impulses as best they can. They do their damnedest to sound and act presidential, which is to say they conduct themselves as if they were leading not a partisan mob in search of a political pogrom, but instead the whole of a nation in which a free press itself is the only non-governmental occupation enshrined in the founding documents. Until now, a U.S. President might criticize the press coverage of a given issue; he might even deign to critique a particular narrative offered by a particular news outlet; he might piss and moan and do so from the presidential podium.  But never to this moment has a president declared the institution of an adversarial press — a component of democratic governance that Jefferson, for all his combat with a young nation’s newspapers, called more essential to the people’s commonweal than even the mechanisms of government itself —  to be enemy of the American people. That’s fresh. And fascist on its face.

“If this was about Trump, it wouldn’t be the Annapolis newspaper. It would be CNN or the New York Times.”

My god, look at the last contortions required to exempt Donald Trump from any complicity in the violent deaths of working journalists. Rather than admit the transitive power of Trump’s attacks on an independent and adversarial press reaches every news organization and finds the ears of the most disgruntled and deranged consumers — wherever they may reside and whatever prior grievance makes them receptive to violence — those defending this horrifying performance by an American president are fighting a rear-guard action in which Trump must first name the specific media outlet — and then people must immediately be slain there — before we dare reckon with the cost of his demagoguery.

Presumably, if someone marches into the newsroom of CNN or the Washington Post tomorrow and begins a fresh massacre, we will hear from apologists who will note that Trump, in the days after Annapolis, delivered a brief statement that no one should be killed doing their jobs: Absolution in a single, half-assed tweet for more than year of rancid provocation.

Yet all of these arguments and rationalizations — vacant and dishonest as they are — now float through our political ether. They have been launched by some professional commentators for whom partisan maneuver now prevails over all norms of governance, or even the survival of the republic itself. And they have been launched as well by the armies of bots, trolls and rabid ideologues who genuinely believe an American experiment can function with dead journalists and with only those ideas and opinions that our leader shall approve or believe. Or more credibly in the case of the foreign-launched bot diaspora embedded in our social media, they correctly believe that their own national interests will be advanced by gutting the American experiment on precisely these terms.

My guess is that Donald Trump will barely pause before the next displeasing news report, or the one after, returns him to another foaming ragefest at a free press that simply will not anoint him or acknowledge his great qualities and victories. Even after these slayings of reporters and editors at their desks in Annapolis, Donald Trump and his surrogates will continue to assert that Fake News is the greatest threat to America and that our journalists are the greatest enemies of the American people. For them and their purposes, the road to fascism will be held open, willfully and strategically so. This is no miscalculation. This is a campaign. Watch.

*    *    *

As if to mock the viciousness of Trump’s assault on journalism, the dead in Annapolis are beautifully representative of what is so abiding and honorable about the simple act of going to see or learn things, coming back to a keyboard, and in a limited window of time, trying to accurately relate what is known.

These dead can scarcely be caricatured by fascist demagoguery.  They were not the bloated, talking heads of the national news cycle; they were not Beltway-wrapped insiders traipsing into West Wing briefings with credentials in a dangle around their necks. The dead at the Capital Gazette were, by every account, the quiet and careful footsoldiers in a daily war to simply find out enough about what might be happening in Annapolis and central Maryland — be it local court decisions, police blotter items, legislative coverage, school board politics, high school and college sports, or community events — and then get it into print or up on a website.

Two were friends.

Rob Hiaasen, who worked for years with my wife in the features section of the Baltimore Sun, was a deft and delicate voice, crafting stories that delivered ordinary and extraordinary people both. His byline was always an invitation to travel to some part of my city and spend time encountering life on a scale that other reporters recognized as precisely human. He was a pro, with a light common touch to his copy and an eye for the common man to be so honored with that gift. Personally, the memory that keeps biting me is Rob accompanying my wife — though this was years before Laura Lippman and I dated — to a coffee shop across Calvert Street from the Sun newsroom to toast with lattes the sale of her first novel. For me, having published a book, the ritual was simply a chance to encourage another Sun scribe who had grabbed at the brass ring. But Rob showed so much pride in his colleague that you would have thought Laura’s first manuscript was his own. He was beaming.

John MacNamara was a friend from days shared putting out a college newspaper, the University of Maryland Diamondback, where John covered basketball and football. His first love stayed sports reporting and he was, among other duties, still covering UM athletics for the Capital Gazette when he was killed. In a newsroom of ranting undergraduates, he was the most humble and genuinely sincere creature to ever endure a copy edit. What I think I will always remember is glimpsing the quiet pain on John’s face when Pete Bielski, the sports editor, had dummied too few column inches for a basketball photo, so that the choice was either cutting off Buck Williams’ legs in mid-jump shot or cutting four inches of Mac’s game story. I swear, I think John cut his own copy before doing violence to the image of Williams delivering from the top of the key.

These are the people I see when I think of the president declaring time and again for the villainy of journalists, or when I read the online screeds of his followers and devotees validating or excusing the insanity, stepping sideways from the pathetic spectacle of a United States President using his bully pulpit to, well, bully the free press of a republic.  It is a reach to claim — and so I have not — that Donald Trump contemplated all of what was to come when he began his prolonged campaign against the American press. I don’t think he imagined the blow landing on Rob Hiaasen or John McNamara or the other committed journalists murdered with them, or that the violence would explode at a community-based newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, or even that the reckoning for his adversaries in the press would be so lethal. I don’t think Donald Trump imagines very much at all. But premeditation is scarcely required for a verdict of gross negligence — for me to say, deliberately and dispassionately, that this empty, soulless man, in his unfitness for the high office, in his petty rancor and heedless verbiage, purposely created a climate that helped to murder my friends.

That he will never reflect on his role or the context and nuance of his personal responsibility is certain. The man thinks, speaks and acts simply and crudely, and always in his own self interest. He is at every moment feral, ever seeking satisfaction and avoiding pain: Much of nation’s press has not validated him. It has criticized him forcefully and willfully. Furious and wounded, he fires back not merely at the critics but the very idea that anyone anywhere has the right or responsibility to ever treat him so. And the dead men and women in Annapolis are merely collateral to that. They are not important to the only outcomes that matter to Donald Trump, his close allies, or — most grievous of all — to a great mass of Americans who actually believe that a free and unfettered press is what actually ails this tottering republic. This is not only Trump, or the hangers-on gathered around his throne; this is us, too, undeserving of this democracy, its constant cost, and its fixed responsibilities.

What leaves me today with little hope is not the ignorant, hollow man at the center of this guttural descent into fascism. Donald Trump, it is now clear, can’t help but be what he has always been. Never mind a presidential moment or two, this man can’t even rise to the level of civic responsibility to which we once held the average adult citizen. Nor is this even about the enabling, sycophantic party in power, which would rather gorge on tax cuts and Supreme Court seats than address the rot now coursing through every putrifying limb of our body politic. Massed capital long ago purchased the Republican Party in full; there is no longer pretending every last shard of conscience or patriotism wasn’t included in the sale. No, this is about, us — too many of us who still think ourselves to be men and women worthy of a republic yet can sit compliant for what is now happening.

A citizen of the United States.

Who in the hell is that guy? What the hell is he thinking? How in the name of every rightful profanity I can summon are so many Americans trading their entire political birthright for porridge this foul? What do they think is coming when they rally to an authoritarian’s self-serving maneuver and cheer loudly at the idea that a free press is their biggest enemy? What do they think they win when a gunman marches into an American newsroom and executes five journalists at random? Cash money? More racial privilege? A new burst of freedom?

If the cynicism, partisan apologia and indifference that follows Annapolis is any indication, we are not going to remain even a flawed democratic experiment for very much longer. Not when a significant number of us are both incapable of exercising citizenship in such a sophisticated form of self-governance as a republic and undeserving of the benefits of such. Too many will know democracy only when it is gone. And if the journalists are dead or cowed, then some of us will find a fresh American hell without a single moment of reckoning.

 

 

Fare thee well, scrotelicks.

03 Jul
July 3, 2018

Once again — and this time with some expectation — I find myself banned from Twitter by virtue of an algorithm that protects, whether by willful intent or by incandescent stupidity, all manner of slander and brutality while policing only deserved insult. On this, perhaps my final go-round with the platform, the offense is as intended: I have, in my very critique of the Twitter rules, insulted its CEO, Jack Dorsey. I told him, in slightly more creative language, to drop dead.  Yes. I told him to take a long walk off a short pier, or grow like an onion with his head in the ground, or go jump out of a plane without a parachute. But in my particular case, I used the Yiddishkeit of my grandfather. I told him to die of boils.

That’s it.  That’s what I did.

And I will confess I find it harder and harder to believe that Mr. Dorsey or the others engaged in regulating speech on his horror-show of a platform are unaware that their detached and dystopic vision of what is responsible speech and what is in fact crippling to our republic is not a solution. Having given us Twitter, they are in this moment, ruinous to its best purposes. They are ignoring the abuses of truth and the willful spread of disinformation by prevaricating trolls and anonymous bots and instead planting their flag against mere insult.

It is a rigged game. And a dishonorable one.

As employed, the Twitter algorithms result in the most vile, rancid and fraudulent provocations and claims  — “You’re a Jew. Go back to Israel or find an oven,” “Women at the border are criminals and their children should be confiscated,” “Anthony Bourdain was murdered by the Deep State,” “Trump never called journalists enemies of the American people” — being granted a de facto equivalence with the responsible attempts to combat the disinformation. What results is the standardized 1935 dynamic  in which the most untethered facsist claims or affronts — the Big Lies, as Goebbels dubbed them — can exist on the same footing as the reply. (“No, it is false and unfair to say that Jews are parasites who drink the blood of Christian babies…”) 

When the worst of what is allowed to live on Twitter can only be parried with contradiction or denial — with self-defeating threads of thoughtful, dry evidence — then it grants, to very real effect, the the worst trash a premised credibility. No, the proper response is to call this shit by its true name, and the purveyors of such by their true names, and then block their accounts — neither allowing slanders and lies to stand unmolested, nor granting them the validity of serious debate. In doing so consistently, we might all work as pathfinders through the social media minefield, marking every hazard for the rest of the platoon.

But for its part, Twitter finds too much profit in the slander — almost all of it by anonymous posters. It stands ready to manicure the decorum only on its platform, while employing standards that allow all manner of fraudulent content to remain intact. At this late point, it is hard not to argue that the  rhetorical framework of the entire platform — as disastrous as it is  — is by design. This seems to be what you shitmuzzles want.

The supposedly offensive remark that ends me is highlighted in bold below. Hilariously, it is embedded in the original thread of complaint I posted to Twitter upon my return from their gulag a couple weeks ago. For the obvious reason that it constitutes neither harassment nor a threat, and is not even a credible example of someone seriously hoping actual harm on anyone, I’m not going to delete the tweet as demanded. The rhetoric is justified entirely.  And so, I can assume, this decision ends my time on Twitter:

1) @jack @twitter, @TwitterSupport: Still waiting for a cogent explanation of why the common rhetoric of telling assholes to drop dead is prohibited on your shithole platform. But allowing said assholes to slander women who have had children kidnapped is fine by you…

2) Still waiting, @jack, for an explanation of how telling assholes who slander 14-year-old Holocaust survivors they should drop dead is impermissible, but the slander is allowed to repeat itself for months on end on Twitter.

3) Still waiting, you fuckmooks, for a human intellect to engage me directly and forthrightly about the fact that I was obliged to remove posts that I can in every way defend in order to even register a complaint or appeal of a suspension.

4) Still waiting for you to either restore those posts or provide any response to your conduct, which includes barring me from commenting on the death of friend, while some shit-troll remains on Twitter unmolested, declaring – unevidenced – that the death was a political murder.

5) I’ve given you two patient weeks, @jack, to engage in any coherent, honorable and intellectually honest way with the substance of my appeal of a 01110011101-brained conceptualization of rhetoric that honors slander and falsehood but cannot somehow abide mere insult. Nothing.

6) The fact is, your algorithms and your ethos here are just fecal. And when the history of this awful American epoch is written, the tone-deaf abdication of fundamental ethics by social media platforms will be an overlay to the disaster. You are failing us all miserably.

7) And what is evident, @jack, is that while the giants of our digital revolution are masters of the universe when it comes to the technical challenges of the information age, they are — by and large — moral midgets when it comes to the ethics and responsibilities of speech.

8) And, oh yeah, no need to hide behind your horseshit cowardice that privacy concerns prevent you from discussing or defending in detail Twitter’s actions with regard to this extant overreach by your algorithmic submoronity. I hereby relinquish any expectation of said privacy…

9) I’d be delighted to debate and discuss this abject failure by Twitter openly with any representative of this soulless platform provided an actual human can be engaged. But I have no expectations, @jack. The remote gutlessness of this one-sided dynamic is no bug, but a feature.

10) So, die of boils, @jack. Yup. There it is. The sum total of my crime against Twitter. I’ve told you to drop dead, as I told libelers and liars to drop dead. You can say that constitutes a threat, but that would be empty and embarrassing. I hold no dominion over life & death.

11) Just as I lack possession of any biological agent that could cause a venereal rash to settle in the throat of a lying fuckmook who is saying that a woman who has had her child kidnapped is a criminal who deserves that fate. These are not threats, you gutless wonder…

12)…they are insults. As I am insulting you now for providing a continued platform for trolls and bots who peddle this shit, or the notion that teenaged Holocaust survivors can be libeled, or that my friend Tony Bourdain was murdered to advance the politics of the alt-right…

13) I have not encouraged anyone to violence, or doxxed anyone, or suggested any act of human intervention against anyone. Nor can you claim that I have harassed a single troll or bot; I fire one and block the motherfuckers. Hardly the stuff of harassment, @jack.

14) Yet, this is where you draw the line? Really? @jack, @twitter, @twittersupport. Please reinstate my removed tweets. And if that is too much for you beshitted hypocrites, then shut down my account and run screaming into the night because, well, dead you mooks oughta drop.

15) But let the record show, I waited a full two weeks after my suspension, and a week after my reinstatement, to give you hollow fuckstumbles a chance to engage fairly with the appeal that I forwarded to you as directed. Nothing. Nada. Not a word back. Fuck all y’all.

To conclude, I never received a single reply either online or to the provided telephone number from anyone at Twitter. This is all just useless yelling into Jack Dorsey’s shallow money trench where, to paraphrase Hunter Thompson, good men die like dogs while slanderers, liars and bots run free.

It’s been fun, you scrotes.

Peace,

David Simon

 

 

 

Tony

11 Jun
June 11, 2018

I was still on the sofa at four in the afternoon, still half-dressed, when I decided that my life could not be complete if I did not somehow become friends with Anthony Bourdain. My son, then a young teenager, also in his underwear, was as inert and transfixed as I was. We were both locked into the ninth or tenth consecutive hour of a Labor Day weekend marathon of Bourdain’s cultural-journey-through-food breakthrough show, “No Reservations.”

I remember the exact moment, the exact image:

The long, lanky, exquisitely sad-faced visage of a road-worn Bourdain sitting on broken pavement in a South American alley – Buenos Aires or maybe Montevideo, there is no way to be sure when twenty episodes are consumed at once — his back to a stone wall, arms crossed above his knees, watching children play at rag-tag soccer with a deflated ball. And with the older men, he is sharing Siete y Tres, the backstreet concoction of cheap red wine and Coca-Cola. And all this imagery with his narration — his exquisite writing so weighted with love for other worlds and their peoples – just washing over another delicate moment.

“This guy is so fucking real,” I remember telling my son.

“This guy,” Ethan replied, correcting me, “might be the absolute coolest person on the entire planet.”

Still prostrate before the Travel Channel two hours later, I was located by my more culturally literate wife who informed me not only that my discovery of Tony Bourdain’s greatness was belated – the man was already a phenomenon in the world of cuisine — but also that we had met and enjoyed part of an evening with him at a crime-writing convention in England some years before. Freshly boosted by the success of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain had been trying his hand at crime fiction – a master storyteller still sampling forms before simply inventing the documentarian oeuvre for which he was perfection itself.

On that night in Manchester, Bourdain compassed us both and immediately apologized for the poor treatment he had given Baltimore in his writing:  “Forgive me. What I remember of Baltimore is that I was an addict at that point and I had the hardest time finding heroin there.”

Defending our city as best one can, we both assured him that this was no fair reflection on Baltimore. It merely marked him as the most incompetent heroin addict on record.

“That guy?” I remembered. “He was grand.”

“You really, really need to read Kitchen Confidential,” she told me.

And I did.  And from that moment forward my primary mission for all of that autumn was to hang out and eat and drink and become friends with this Anthony Bourdain fellow.

*           *           *

In the end, I cold-called him.  And I don’t actually remember what I said in the opening seventeen-paragraph ramble of desperate exposition that followed his simple, “Hello.”

I know only that I was talking at standard front-stoop reporter-interrogative speed, which is to say at enough revolutions-per-minute so there are no pauses long enough for the subject-victim to say “no comment” or “I have to go” or  “how did you get this address, you sick parasitic bastard” before slamming the door in your face. I just kept talking until I ran out of stupid justifications for having bothered him.

The stupidest of which was, perhaps, this:

“I make television shows and I’ve got a show order from HBO for a post-Katrina drama in New Orleans that features a chef trying to make a go of it after the flood. And, Mister Bourdain, while I love great food, I’m perfectly ignorant of how it actually comes to be.  In other words, I like driving cars fast and I have no idea what’s under the hood of one. Would it be possible to buy you a meal and pick your brain?”

It was Laura who came up with that lie. And it was a lie, however plausible it sounded in the moment, or however true it ultimately became. At the time that I approached Tony about helping us with Treme, I wasn’t actually thinking about the task of writing Jannette DeSautel or her culinary adventures. I hadn’t focused much on that arc or on what Bourdain could do with it.  No, I just wanted a bromance.

We met at Sushi Yasuda on 43rd Street near Grand Central, with Laura carrying a pen and notebook to maintain the fraud of a work meeting. Every now and then she would write something down, but really my wife was just as smitten.

And, of course, he was as he seemed on all those hours of television:  Warm, engaged, curious, all of it glossed with a veneer of self-mockery that you understood was well practiced, yet nonetheless genuine. He wore life’s mistakes as a badge and laughed at the improbability of his newfound cultural iconography. He said he felt like he was now racing through life in a stolen car, checking the rearview, but incredibly, somehow, there were no misery lights yet coming for him.  And me, the police reporter from Baltimore with an HBO production deal, heard the absolute honesty and wonder in that.

A lot of people will tell you that on meeting Tony – despite how extraordinary a being he was – they somehow felt as if they’d known him for years.  In part, this was the natural result of having so much of his wit and intellect bleed across our television screens. But just as elemental, I believe, was the man’s almost unlimited capacity for empathy, for feeling the lives and loves and hopes of others. He listened as few listen. And when he spoke, it was often to deliver some precise personal recollection that was an echo or simile on what was still in his ear. He abhorred a non sequitur; for him, human communication — much like his core ideas about food and travel and being – was about finding the sacred middle between people.

I am someone who can’t do two things at once.  At one point during that lunch, while struggling to talk coherently about a culinary arc in Treme that I hadn’t actually thought much about prior to meeting Bourdain, I made the error of filling my soy cup with sake. Being exceedingly polite on this first meeting, Tony said nothing. Later, walking back across town, I replayed that submoronic moment to my wife, who laughed and made it so much worse by noting that Bourdain himself had savored Naomichi Yasuda’s fare without soy sauce at all. As one does when the fish is so transcendently fresh.

Oh Christ. Fuck me.

Months later, when we gathered for the first time in New Orleans to begin the actual work, I joked that given my lunchtime performance, we were lucky to have him deigning to help us write the DeSautel storyline.

“You were a complete barbarian,” he assured me. “Fortunately, Naomichi didn’t visit our table or I would have had to disavow you and all your works publicly.”

He was always that funny – either dry in his rhetorical savagery, or over-the-top hyperbolic in his foaming rage at vegetarians or micro-beer experts or elitist social or political orders.  Everything built to a moment of careful, thoughtful wit. He often spoke as well as he wrote, and given the stylistic command of his prose work, this is saying something. I know a lot of writers. Only a few of us speak as we write. Shit, on a bad day, we can’t even write as we are supposed to write.  Tony was never arch or florid; his comic exaggerations and rhetorical provocations were always somehow perfectly measured.  He said what he meant and he meant what he said and he landed all of it. As a conversationalist, he simply delivered, moment to moment.

I could spend days explaining how perfectly his written scenes for Treme serviced Janette Desautel and her journey – and more importantly, how carefully and honestly he traversed the wounded, shoulder-chipped post-Katrina moodiness and pride of the New Orleans culinary world. The scenes were fresh butter. They need only be trimmed to fit in the expanse of fifty-eight minute episodes, and even then, what we had to consign to the cutting-room floor was entirely worthy. It died heedlessly, for space only.

His first scene of a kitchen at work crested gracefully in this moment:  The worthy Kim Dickens as DeSautel, her restaurant finally reopened, plating a shrimp-and-grits entrée crowned by a crusted brown-red prawn, bug-eyes and antennae upward, praying to whatever deity governs such transcendent perfection.

“Take a picture of that shit,” she tells her waitress with pride and an insider’s voice of a cook in command of her kitchen.

From that line of dialogue forward, we had no fear for the arc – neither in its direction, nor its execution.   For four seasons, in the writers’ room and on the page, Tony guided and wrote us all the way home.

*            *            *

Tellingly, what Tony wanted to say with the story arc in Treme was precisely the theme he was pursuing in his own work: Move, go, journey, address the new and different, acknowledge the vast distance and all of the epic social and cultural pluralism and then — at the same time — celebrate the commonality of being human as well.

Despite the hermetic tendencies of New Orleans itself when it comes to culture — all the more exacerbated and heightened by the genuine feeling of civic siege that existed there after Katrina – Bourdain insisted that creative and personal growth is, for all us, dependent on encounters with The Other, on a journey from the known and comfortable to the alien and disorienting. It was Tony who argued that once her own restaurant faltered, DeSautel should journey to a volatile culinary capital and be tossed about in Goldlilocks fashion as a line cook in various New York kitchens – this one too hot for her, that one too cool – until she lands in a place where new lessons and experiences begin to permeate. Then and only then should she return home, marry the new to the known, and be more than she would be otherwise. That’s what he argued successfully in our drama. That’s what he argued successfully in his world journeys on television.

He was precise when he told Barack Obama that he wished more Americans had passports. And indeed, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the portion of our republic that hasn’t ventured abroad is the deadweight now dragging us into national mediocrity, insisting that all points of the compass save ours lack basic liberties, or don’t exalt human values, or don’t eat, drink, cure the sick, proscribe violence or educate fools with greater efficacy than we do in this fading realm. They won’t go there. They won’t dare. Yet they already know how exceptional America is and how miserable and frightening the rest of the world must surely be.

Go, move, see, feel, eat – grow.  The Church of Bourdain was founded not merely on the ever-more-vulnerable national credo that all Americans are created equal, but on the much more ambitious insistence that this declaration might be applied wherever you wandered and with whomsoever you cooked or shared a meal.  He remains, for many of us, the American that we wish ourselves to be in the world’s sight. To have him widely displayed as our countryman, open to and caring about the rest of the world, and being so amid our current political degradation — this was ever more important and heroic. To lose him now, amid so many fear-mongering, xenophobic tantrums by those engaged in our misrule, is hideous and grievous.

But make no mistake: It wasn’t love of food that led Bourdain to the embrace of a shared human experience, of a world merely hiding its great commonalities behind vast and obvious culinary variations. It was the other way around. Tony was intensely political, a man always aware of those at the margins, or those who seem never to be reached by wealth or status or recognition.

When he came to Baltimore for an episode, he eschewed the usual subjects of crab cakes and oyster shuckers and instead willfully crossed to the other side of the city to highlight the palate of black Baltimore – the pit beef stands and the fried lake trout joints (not trout, and damn sure not from no lake) — that are a staple in the parts of town that never show up in Baltimore Magazine’s listings of great dining experiences. Some locals were livid at the obvious omissions; many others, long ignored, took real delight.

And it was the same everywhere. He did not journey to Louisiana to dart from one white tablecloth to another among the established New Orleans eateries. Instead, he was in search of the best pho however far out Chef Menteur Highway it happened. Or even further afield, he was hours to the west at an Opelousas campground boucherie where keepers of the Cajun cultural flame battled through a 98-degree day to disassemble an entire pig at fifteen separate stations and make all of it disappear in gastronomic ways that no Royal Street restauranteur could ever fathom.

Always, wherever he went, Bourdain hunted the street food and the street people and the street parade. Once, after a day of storyboarding on Treme, my wife and I took him to a well-regarded high-end restaurant downtown and immediately, regardless of the fare itself, I knew I had erred. He’d had this experience too many times before – shit, as the chef at Les Halles, he’d delivered this experience night after night. We would have been better going on a crosstown challenge for the best roast beef po boy. Instead of pursuing much of his entrée, Bourdain asked wistfully if he could have our then-baby daughter on his knee; his own child was then three; he missed holding an infant more than he needed another plate of sweetbreads.

Yes, Tony was political in every respect; telling his stories from the left, always with an eye on inclusion, always positioned against the empty sneer of American exceptionalism, always ready to turn his gaze on anyone uncounted or ignored. At the same time, it wasn’t necessary to hew to a perfectly progressive line to break bread with the man. Journalistically, he gathered his material with an open mind, never making the basic act of humans bonding over a meal contingent on anyone’s place on the political spectrum. He could eat barbecue and shoot automatic weapons with Ted Nugent if it said something he thought relevant about the terrain in which he was traveling.

In the same spirit, I don’t think he chose his chef friends — or any of his friends — based on their political sensibilities dovetailing his own, or even on the quality and authority of their cuisine. Instead, looking sideways at the great diaspora of people I know who admired and loved Tony Bourdain, what seems most clear is how little bullshit there is. The icons of the kitchen with whom he most clearly connected, and whom he brought to Treme – Colicchio, Ripert, Dufresne, Chang – are, for all their standing and talent, remarkably devoid of cant and flummery. For Bourdain, a man of commanding and exceptional wit and talent, the greatest and most honorable fight was to stand with ordinary men – whether a New York busboy or a vendor on a Ho Chi Minh City streetcorner, a production assistant in his crew or a fan who recognized him on a subway platform. I loved him for this. It was, perhaps, the most important predicate to the great achievement of his journalism: Wherever you go, whoever you meet – there we are, all of us, so different and so much the same. And he chose, I think, his close friends in some part for their talent, but in greater part for their ability, regardless of that talent, to be themselves with all others, in all other spaces.

So I am sure, as I tell you this next story, that he surely did not blame his best friend, Eric Ripert, for serving the most exquisite meal to Henry Kissinger at Le Bernadin – the one that took place only a few tables from myself, my wife and a copse of other writer friends. Yes indeed, there he is, firm in my memory: Hunched-troll Kissinger, curved into his seat at a four-top, dancing his little spoon across the layers of Ripert’s legendary dessert egg – only a hundred plated a night for select customers – talking political science to his crisp, waspish dinner companions, the backwards consonants of his accent grating against my ears: “Vell, it is not really so hard to zee…”

The next day, when I email Bourdain a full-throated tale of this encounter, ripe with all my stunted and thwarted fury, he will forgive Eric, who lives life in a genuine construct of Buddhist thoughtfulness, disconnected from the brutalities and judgments of a political world. Eric, he will assure me, will know little of Kissinger or his works, and is wholly innocent of knowingly feeding America’s greatest living war criminal a dessert fit for prophets and angels. Indeed, I already know as much is true from the surprise on Ripert’s face when the chef came to visit our table, minutes after Kissinger had paid his bill and departed, and I sputtered out shards of raving Wikipedia entries on Chile, East Timor and Cambodia.

Okay, I reply in another email, so Ripert is innocent. But me? I knew. I could have done something. I could have summoned Aldo, the master sommelier, and asked him for the most expensive bottle of Chilean red on the wine list. I could have had the bottle quickly decanted, taken a sip for myself, and then marched over to Henry Kissinger’s table and poured it over the bastard’s head: “Compliments of Senor Allende, you ratfucking murderer.”

I waited on absolution.

Nothing. So I wrote again, offering the obvious reason for my inaction:

“But alas, we were all guests of the chef and this happened in his full dining room. Thus do manners make cowards of us all.”

A minute or two passed until Tony emailed me two words only:

“You pussy.”

*         *         *

Here’s the other thing:  He knew everything,

I don’t mean he knew everything about food or cuisine or travel or even world culture. I mean that for having come up in kitchens, without the formality of too much higher education, Tony Bourdain was simply a brilliant autodidact. He read voraciously and widely. He read things that were relevant to his work and he read things because he simply wanted to know everything a man could possibly know about a given subject. I don’t mean he read the canon for literature and enough non-fiction to be current or relevant at parties, I mean he read the obscure, often turgid stuff that academics wade into when they want to know the last fucking detail about something. As he was about so many things, he was obsessive about what could be learned and known.

After Treme, the project in which my production team held the most hope was a careful history of the CIA from the end of World War II through to the inevitable blowback of 9-11, examining in detail America’s postwar foreign policy footprint in the world. As we began to contemplate the staffing of that writing room, Ed Burns & I brought on espionage novelists such as Dan Fesperman and began to engage in discussions with the likes of Alan Furst and Joe Kanon. Names that made sense.

Bourdain, however, pulled me up once he got wind of the project.

“I can write that stuff.”

I humored him. You’re a great writer, Tony, a fucking natural with drama as it turns out. But for this room we’re looking for a particular level of expertise…

“Yeah, of course,” he said. “I have that.”

I began to query him politely on basic stuff: Angelton and the Italian elections, Haney and the Korean fiasco, Philby and Istanbul…

“Though, of course, never mind Philby,” he interrupted, at one point, “by then the Americans had been entirely compromised by their taking on Gehlen and his crew.”

“And what, Mr. No Reservations, do you know about Reinhard Gehlen?”

He looked at me for a moment, genuinely disappointed in my lack of faith.

“I can read a fucking book. Same as the rest of you fucks.”

And he had. Every history, every memoir, every cache of made-public government files that we had been chasing in the months of preparation to write our pilot scripts and show bible – all of it had already been acquired and read by Tony Bourdain. I told him he was in, and then hurried back to Baltimore to assure Ed Burns we had a live one on our hands.

“The food guy?”

“Ed, he knows this stuff. All of it. Cold.”

Ed, a vegan, was entirely dubious. “That guy doesn’t even get nutrition and world hunger issues right.”

I could only giggle and look forward to a green light on the series and several years of Ed Burns and Tony Bourdain yelling at each other across a Baltimore writing room over the nature and purpose of pork itself, never mind the Bay of Pigs. Problem was the green light never came.

For years, ever since the end of Treme, I’d been updating Tony on a nibble from this network or that, raising his hopes for a moment, then delivering bad news the next. A year ago, we had some belief that the BBC was going to pick the project up. But no go.

Six months ago, in December, I found myself in New York doing a charity gig with Tony for the PEN writer’s group. There were always charity gigs with Tony. Some were public, and some, as we are now learning, was Bourdain making things happen without anyone knowing, without ever playing it for pride or gain. We hadn’t been in the same city for months so we went hard at the bar even before the affair began and then we kept right on going throughout, eventually making good our escape to Desmond’s, a joint just a block up from where Bourdain used to cook. He had the home field advantage, but I tried to stay with him drink for drink. A few regulars from the old days greeted him as if it was just another after-shift respite from Les Halles. A couple of fresher faces asked for photographs. He accommodated all politely, dutifully, and in the case of a few remembered faces, warmly.

For us, there was fresh talk that the U.K.’s Channel 4 might take a chance on the CIA project if we could further enhance the role of British Intelligence in the narrative.  The problem was that postwar Berlin, which featured heavily in our pilot, had been done to death already at the Le Carre-saturated BBC.

“Until we figure out how to do this without leaning on the Berlin station part of the story, all the Brits are going to be leery,” I explained.

He took that in and relayed his own status. He was bone weary at the moment, but nonetheless, he was going to re-up with CNN and continue wandering and eating and telling stories for at least another few years.

“Are you getting tired?”

“I am. But I don’t know that I can stop. I can’t sit still. I know this.”

Then he talked about the ongoing battles with Harvey Weinstein, about his girlfriend and her public stand, about the cost of it and his pride in her. His tone was of someone who had been through a grinder, but who was now certain that Weinstein and all of his lawyers and private investigators and threats would be vanquished.

“Asia,” he said of his girlfriend, “is incredible.”

We had one too many. I was ready to sleep. We stood in the cold on Park Avenue South a little while longer, then hugged, which always seemed a ridiculous gesture with Bourdain, whose height made you feel as though you were embracing a cathedral. He was flying somewhere absurd in the morning. He still had to pack.

“Travel safe,” I said, which sounded dumb even as I said it. Yup. Me, waving away Tony fucking Bourdain with a platitude about how to travel.

The next day, of course, I would get on Twitter to tease him, to brag about drinking Tony Bourdain under the table at one of his own haunts. He would reply and concede defeat, but we both knew it was a lie. By then, I had swallowed two Tylenol and three Advil and I was drinking straight Coca-Cola for breakfast. Meanwhile there was already an email waiting for me in my inbox:

“Been thinking about the Berlin problem. Might consider other crucibles of the Cold War with great character inspirations:

Vint Laurence and Tony Po in Laos.

John Stockwell in Angola.

Operation JM/Wave in Miami.

Howard Hunt and David Atlee Phillips in Guatemala Arbenz campaign.

Lucien Conein in pre-war Vietnam.

Yuri Nosenko in custody.

T.”

I read that and wondered how the fuck how. Motherfucker was as drunk as I was, and between all the travel and the Weinstein battle, so much more tired. Yet he was already in the air somewhere – I couldn’t even remember what he had told me – heading to some other godforsaken time zone.  Now, today, it’s tempting for me to seize on the drinking and the weariness and the offhand remark that he couldn’t stop making those journeys and extrapolate some portentious meaning. But I know that I’d be lying to myself and grafting insight on a moment only in retrospect. No, I went to work that next day hungover but sated with smart talk, good drink, savage jokes, the hug goodbye, and the memory of my friend crossing the avenue, heading for the subway, then disappearing down the hole.

*       *       *

Bourdain

08 Jun
June 8, 2018

I am trying to find words for my friend. I will post something here later if they ever come. For now, just know how much Tony Bourdain — for all his wit and sharp edges, for all his grandiose and larger-than-life persona — was a genuinely good man and careful colleague. And that doesn’t begin to express how empty the world feels this morning.

 

***

Also, I have been banned from Twitter, and as I am at this moment indifferent to removing the tweets they insist are violative of their rules, it is unclear when I will return to that framework.  So I’m hoping that if I post anything remotely meaningful about Tony, others will do me the favor of linking it beyond this digital cul de sac.

Suffice to say that while you can arrive on Twitter and disseminate the untethered and anti-human opinion that mothers who have their children kidnapped and held incommunicado from them at the American border are criminals — and both mother and child deserve that fate — or that 14-year-old boys who survive the Holocaust are guilty of betraying fellow Jews when there is no evidence of such, you CANNOT wish that the people who traffic in such vile shit should crawl off and die of a fulminant venereal rash. Slander is cool, brutality is acceptable. But the hyperbolic and comic hope that a just god might smite the slanderer or brutalizer with a deadly skin disorder is somehow beyond the pale.

Die of boils, @jack.

Seriously.  As far as I’m concerned, your standards in this instance are exactly indicative of why social media — and Twitter specifically — is complicit in transforming our national agora into a haven for lies, disinformation and the politics of totalitarian extremity. The real profanity and disease on the internet is untouched, while you police decorum.

 

Interview in Spain with regard to the proposed Abraham Lincoln Battalion project.

16 Apr
April 16, 2018

Asked some questions by Spanish journalist Toni Garcia, I replied in writing. Some respondents have replied to me with various translations of my answers that do not entirely comport with the language that I used or the facts I intended to convey.  I’m not suggesting any willful intent by Mr. Garcia to simplify or deconstruct my own words, only that perhaps translation is sometimes problematic. So to be clear I am going leave the entire text of my replies right here:

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