Anthony Bourdain goes on a bender in the Caribbean.
I was holed up in the Caribbean about midway through a really bad time. My first marriage had just ended and I was, to say the least, at loose ends.
By “loose ends” I mean aimless and regularly suicidal. I mean that my daily routine began with me waking up around ten, smoking a joint, and going to the beach — where I’d drink myself stupid on beer, smoke a few more joints, and pass out until mid-afternoon. This to be followed by an early-evening rise, another joint, and then off to the bars, followed by the brothels. By then, usually very late at night, I’d invariably find myself staggeringly drunk — the kind of drunk where you’ve got to put a hand over one eye to see straight. On the way back from one whorehouse or another, I’d stop at the shawarma truck on the Dutch side of the island, and, as best I could, shove a meat-filled pita into my face, sauce squirting onto my shirtfront. Then, standing there in the dark parking lot, surrounded by a corona of spilled sauce, shredded lettuce, and lamb fragments, I’d fire up another joint before sliding behind the wheel of my rented 4×4, yank the top down, then peel out onto the road with a squeal of tires.
To put it plainly, I was driving drunk. Every night. There is no need to lecture me. To tell me what might have happened. That wasting my own stupid life is one thing — but that I could easily have crushed how many innocents under my wheels during that time? I know. Looking back, I break into an immediate cold sweat just thinking about it. Like a lot of things in my life, there’s no making it prettier just ’cause time’s passed. It happened. It was bad. There it is.
There was a crazy-ass little independent radio station on this particular island — or maybe they broadcasted from another nearby island. I never figured it out. But it was one of those weird, inexplicable little anomalies of expat behavior that you find from time to time if you travel enough: a tiny, one-lung radio station in the middle of nowhere. A DJ whose playlist made no damn sense at all, completely unpredictable selections ranging from the wonderfully obscure to the painfully familiar. From lost classics of garage rock, ancient cult psychobilly hits, and pre-disco funk masterpieces to the most ubiquitously mundane medley of MOR mainstays or parrothead anthems — in a flash. No warning. One second, it’s Jimmy Buffet or Loggins and Messina — the next? The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” or Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears.”
You never knew what was coming up. In the rare moments of lucidity, when I tried to imagine who the DJ might be and what his story was, I’d always picture the kid from Almost Famous, holed up, like me, in the Caribbean for reasons he’d probably rather not discuss; only in his case, he’d brought his older sister’s record collection circa 1972. I liked to imagine him out there in a dark studio, smoking weed and spinning records, seemingly at random — or, like me, according to his own, seemingly aimless, barely under control, and very dark agenda.
That’s where I was in my life: driving drunk and way too fast, across a not very well lit Caribbean island. Every night. The roads were notoriously badly maintained, twisting and poorly graded. Other drivers, particularly at that hour, were, to put it charitably, as likely to be just as drunk as I was. And yet, every night, I pushed myself to go faster and faster. Life was reduced to a barely heard joke — a video game I’d played many times before. I’d light up the joint, crank up the volume, peel out of the parking lot, and it was game on.
Here was the fun part: after making it past the more heavily trafficked roads of the Dutch side, after successfully managing to cross the unlit golf course (often over the green) and the ruins of the old resort (flying heedlessly over the speed bumps), I would follow the road until it began to twist alongside the cliffs’ edges approaching the French side. Here, I’d really step on the gas, and it was at precisely this point that I’d hand over control to my unknown DJ. For a second or two each night, for a distance of a few feet, I’d let my life hang in the balance, because, depending entirely on what song came on the radio next, I’d decide to either jerk the wheel at the appropriate moment, continuing, however recklessly, to careen homeward — or simply straighten the fucker out and shoot over the edge and into the sea.
In this way, my life could easily have ended with a badly timed playing of Loggins and Messina. On one memorable occasion, as I waited in the brief millisecond of silence between songs, foot on the gas, the cliff edge coming up at me fast, I was saved by the Chambers Brothers. I recognized the “tic-toc” metronome of “Time Has Come Today” and, at the last second, turned away from empty air, laughing and crying at the wonderfulness and absurdity of it all, diverted from what I very much felt to be my just desserts, making (momentarily) some strange and profound sense. Saving my life.
So. That’s how I was feeling that year. And that’s the kind of smart, savvy, well-considered decision-making process that was the norm for me.
Back in New York, I was living in a small, fairly grim Hell’s Kitchen walk-up apartment that smelled of garlic and red sauce from the Italian hero joint downstairs. As I’d pretty much burned down my previous life, I didn’t own much. Some clothes. A few books. A lot of Southeast Asian bric-a-brac. I was seldom there, so it didn’t seem to matter. My favorite dive bar, where I was on permanent “scholarship,” was right down the street.
I was not seeing anybody regular. I wasn’t looking for love. I wasn’t even looking for sex. I wasn’t in a frame of mind to take the initiative with anybody. Yet, if you brushed up against me in those days, I’d probably go home with you if you asked.
Business took me to England now and again, and one night, surely drunk again, sitting at the bar of a particularly disreputable “club,” waiting to meet someone from my publishers, I noticed a very beautiful woman staring at me in the mirror over my shoulder. While this was of moderate interest, it did not cause me to get off my bar stool, wink, nod, wave, or stare back. I had a pretty good sense by now of my unsuitability when it came to normal human interactions. I felt as if I’d had my thermostat removed — was without a regulator. I couldn’t be trusted to behave correctly, to react appropriately, or to even discern what normal was. Sitting there, hunched over my drink, I knew this — or sensed it — and was trying to avoid any contact with the world not based on business. But an intermediary — the woman’s friend — took matters into her own hands, suddenly at my shoulder insistent on making introductions.
The woman and I got to know each other a little — and from time to time, over the next few months, we’d see each other in England and in New York. After a while, I came to understand that she was from a very wealthy family — that she kept an apartment in New York. That she spent her days mostly traveling to runway shows and buying things with her mother. That she was of British, French, and Eastern European background, spoke four languages beautifully, was smart, viciously funny, and (at least) a little crazy — a quality I usually liked in women.
Okay. She had a problem with cocaine — something I’d moved past. And her T-shirts cost more than the monthly salaries of everybody I ever knew. But I flattered myself that I was the one guy she’d ever met who really and truly didn’t give a shit about her money or her bloodline or what kind of muddleheaded upper-class twits she moved with. With the righteousness of the clueless, I saw all that as a liability and behaved accordingly — making the comfortable assumption that when you’re that kind of wealthy and privileged, the kind her friends seemed to be, you are necessarily simple-minded, ineffectual, and generally useless.
Suffering from the delusion that I was somehow “saving” this poor little rich girl, that surely she would benefit from a week on the beach, enjoying the simple pleasures of cold beer, a hammock, and local BBQ joints, I invited her to join me in the Caribbean over the Christmas holidays.
For the last few weeks, I’d lived friendless and alone down there. In a small but very nice rented villa. The island was largely funky and downscale and charmingly dysfunctional. It was half French, half Dutch — with plenty of social problems, working poor, and a large population of locals going back many generations, meaning there was life and business outside of the tourism industry, an alternate version of the island, where one could — if one so desired — get lost, away from one’s own kind. I’d been weeks without shoes, eating every meal with my hands. Who wouldn’t love that? I thought.
She came. And for just short of a week, we had a pretty good time. We were both hitting the Havana Club a little hard, for sure, but her presence certainly improved my behavior — my nightly attempts at suicide ended — and I believed that I was good for her as well. She seemed, for a while, genuinely happy and relaxed on the island’s out-of-the-way beaches, perfectly satisfied, it appeared to me, with a routine of inexpensive johnnycake sandwiches and roadside pork ribs grilled in sawed-off fifty-five-gallon drums. She took long swims by herself, emerging from the water looking beautiful and refreshed. I thought, surely this is a good thing. Maybe we are good for each other.
We drank at sailor bars, took mid-afternoon naps, mixed rum punches with a frequency that, over time, became a little worrisome. She was damaged, I knew. Like me, I thought — flattering myself.
I identified with her distrust of the world. But as I would come to learn, hers was a kind of damage I hadn’t seen before.
From the book MEDIUM RAW: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain. Copyright © 2010 by Anthony Bourdain. Reprinted by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.