6/27/2018
Present tense

I was one of those people who went straight to their bookshelves - although mine isn't really one - as soon as we learned of the death of Anthony Bourdain. I have one of his books, although it's not the one others are likely to have. I made a conscious decision years ago to buy his compilation of essays for magazines (with, at the end, some fiction thrown in), thinking it would be more helpful to me.

I haven't finished the book. It coincided with the time when I decided to drop everything - well, not everything, but I put a hold on my book queue and my television shows, a hiatus that is somehow still in place two and a half years later. I did not have a ready quote to cite in tribute, so I spent some time riffling through the pages, hoping for something, anything, to pop out. In hindsight, I shouldn't have put that much effort into making a meaningful part of the conversation. I mean, nobody would notice. There was a lot going on.

I am six seasons behind on Parts Unknown. That also fell victim to the hiatus. I'm perhaps the only person in this urban agglomeration to not have seen that episode on the Philippines, the episode where Tony (can I call him that, too?) ate at a Jollibee. After his death, I still haven't. There are other, more pressing things to be done.

But his death meant tributes across television, and I caught the Discovery Channel running a Parts Unknown marathon - and it's one of the episodes I haven't seen. I was home alone and I had little left to do on a holiday, so might as well.

I like Parts Unknown more than No Reservations. His writing isn't any different, but there just seems to be more breathing room on the newer show. Maybe it's because it's on CNN, which means the constraints of being just a show about food and travel are formally thrown out of the window. There's more freedom to go wild, to go cinematic, to channel all those obscure cultural references, still in service of the story that is being told, only now the canvas feels wider and more urgent. I caught the last third of the Okinawa episode and one of Tony's questions felt incisive in a way more journalists could only dream of: "would you prefer Chinese tourists or American Marines?"

With a hesitant chuckle, his guide conceded her preference for the latter.

On the weekend of his death many pointed towards another episode of the show, centered in Hanoi, particularly that moment here Tony has noodles and beer with Barack Obama. Undoubtedly, I thought when that episode first aired, that's a get. The president of the United States, at an almost street-side eatery! Imagine the logistics of that. Imagine securing the restaurant and vetting the other diners. Imagine being one of the other diners at that moment. How do you act like nothing unusual is going on? There's a camera, and you're in shot, and just a couple of feet or so is the president of the United States! But then, I am not at all intimate with how the Vietnamese see the leader of the country that intervened, arguably disastrously, in their civil war.

Imagine being the owner of that restaurant, realizing at that moment that history is being made right in front of your eyes, and when the dust has settled, commemorating that moment is all down to you. As you decide to enclose the entire table, complete with the utensils they used and the bottles of beer they drank in, you must have thought that you will have one less table in your restaurant, which means one less customer (or two, or four) you can serve at a given time. Whatever. You do it anyway.

I didn't realize I was watching that very episode on television until Barack showed up. I must have lingered on the pork knuckle noodles, if I remember it correctly, and the woman - the very blunt woman - making them. The abuse you get, Tony said, is a small price to pay for delicious food. My mouth watered a bit, I'll admit.

A lot has happened in the two yeas since that episode first aired, of course. Barack is now a former president. Tony, as much as this stings, is now a former documentary filmmaker. But, while watching their exchange on reaching out versus shutting yourself in, I realized that the questions we faced then are the questions we still face now, perhaps a little more urgent this time around, depending on where in the political and social spectrum you are. In my case, I am also seeing this for the first time. This isn't new, but this is new to me.

When I was studying film, our beloved Sir Doy gave us one top about writing about films. "Always use the present tense," he said. "Everything that happens on screen happens in the present tense."

As I watched that exchange over pho and beer on television, at that very moment - if you want to be really dramatic about it - Tony and Barack are talking in the present tense. Barack is president. Tony is alive. And when people return to that episode on their screens, whether voluntarily or by chance, it all happens all over again. In the present tense. All that outpouring of love. In the present tense. Even if you firmly believed, in your present tense, that you didn't deserve it, that you didn't get it. I guess that's the appeal of death for some. It's not just the end of suffering. It allows one to finally get the love, the appreciation, he'd not see otherwise, for whatever reason.

And your responses...

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