In the mid-2000s, I would see Anthony Bourdain all the time at Siberia, a cavernous dive bar in Hell’s Kitchen. It was my favorite shithole, and one of his, too. He described Siberia as “a place I often end up at the butt end of an evening,” and I encountered him on many late nights, playing Velvet Underground songs on the jukebox or chatting with the owner, Tracy, while nursing a beer. He wasn’t unfriendly, exactly, but he wasn’t gregarious, either.
For his 50th birthday in June, 2006, Bourdain’s friends wanted to throw a surprise party for him at Siberia. I was enlisted to get him there, on the pretext of a Rolling Stone interview about punk rock. His friends were supposed to gather in the basement, then pop upstairs to surprise him as soon as we’d sat down. Only they were late, and our fake interview turned into a real one. Bourdain knew his punk rock, especially New York punk rock. He was around in 1977, going to CBGBs and shooting heroin when he wasn’t working in kitchens. He’d sometimes repeat old saws about punk being an antidote to bloated arena-rock and he looked down on the disco crowd, but he also had a nuanced appreciation of the guitarist Robert Quine, which I appreciated. What came across, mostly, was his lack of romance for the era. New York was a tough place to be in ’77, and cheap nostalgia was not Anthony Bourdain’s thing.
Eventually, his friends came upstairs. Bourdain was genuinely surprised, or, at least, he seemed to be. In fact, he broke down crying. The bar was full of journalists, chefs, and authors – including Michael Ruhlman, who wrote an account of the evening full of complicated feelings as well as some sweet ones, too. Bourdain’s mom was there, beaming and proud. Bourdain was, in fact, gregarious, all smiles until the butt-end of the evening. I never saw him again.