Nancy Bourdain: “He would hurt himself just to get some money, Super Smart, Super Funny” The Teenage Years

CHRISTOPHER BOURDAIN: Tony and I really just didn’t hang out together as teenagers. We were into very different things. He hung out with a mostly older pack of friends, so already in ninth grade, he was in with friends in eleventh, twelfth grade, and he was gone a lot. But we got along well, and I think we always had, in our house, especially my dad and Tony and me, we had a very similar sense of humor. We were very much into the foibles and weaknesses of society, and people in general. And we respected each other, I think. We were a typical sixties household, you know: Dad went to work every day on the bus, Mom cooked dinner. Our mom, being a well-read person, very into culture, and who had married a guy whose mom was French, she was very interested in learning French cooking, and trying to impress with her French cooking. And it was right around that time, of course, when Julia Child first came along, and like so many women in this country, our mom got fully on board. When we had guests, she’d break out the Julia Child cookbook and make some nice stuff. I would have said, “Oh, Mom’s a good cook,” but what she was missing was, she had no spontaneity at all. It was formulaic. She could follow a recipe well, but she had no creativity. If you just gave her some ingredients and said, “Make a nice thing,” I think she would have fallen apart. She’d have no idea. Our dad got into the game when we were teenagers, because our mom, I think, was just starting to get tired of being the housewife doing all the cooking. It was around the time when Chinese cookbooks started showing up, and Szechuan food appeared. When we were really young, the only kind of Chinese food you could have was Cantonese, and then suddenly Szechuan food became the rage, in the seventies. We were one of the first families we knew with a wok. Our dad got the book An Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking; it was one of the early biggies.

NANCY BOURDAIN, WIFE (1985–2005): When did I meet Tony? I don’t really remember. We did go to high school together. Back then, it was the Englewood School for Boys and the Dwight School for Girls. Everybody knew each other. Of course, I was in love, like you are in high school, with somebody else.

SAM GOLDMAN, FRIEND: Nancy and I were high school sweethearts.

JEFF FORMOSA, FRIEND: I met Tony in 1969, at the Englewood School for Boys, and we became fast friends. When I first met him, he was little; he was a shrimp. SAM GOLDMAN: He was tiny. He and [his brother] Chris, they were little kids, and then they had growing spurts. I remember we used to jam him up in the luggage racks of long-distance buses, because he was that small.

NANCY BOURDAIN: He was shorter than I was. I think I must have been fifteen, so he must have been fourteen. He was a little kid, and he could tuck and roll really well. But he was very funny. And we had this big wall in the soccer field, and he would tell upperclassmen, “I’ll go jump. I’ll fall off that wall for a couple of bucks.” He would get money for falling off a wall. One summer, he completely grew. It was incredible, like a kitten or something, you know? SAM GOLDMAN: He was super smart, super funny. He was new to the school, and he needed to get into a clique, so he weaseled his way into ours, which wasn’t very hard. We were New Jersey teenagers; we never really went anywhere, but we drove around and smoked hash and hung out and ate.

JEFF FORMOSA: We were inseparable. We’d ride bicycles behind my house, in front of his house. His mom would drive us to Bruce Lee movies. Gladys had a very good nose, and she always knew what we were up to.

CHRISTOPHER BOURDAIN: I did wonder for a time, Why does Tony always seem to be in trouble? I was aware that he was using some drugs. I didn’t know to what extent. I mean, nobody had a major problem, even then, with weed. I think he was trying just about anything and everything that came along in those days.

GLADYS BOURDAIN: He was a difficult teenager, not a great student. He wasn’t the kind of teenager who ran away. He just wanted to be everywhere, but he was home for dinner every night. When Woodstock happened, I know he wished he could be there, but he wasn’t. He was too young. I think he must have been fourteen.

CHRISTOPHER BOURDAIN: There was a lot of conflict between Tony and our parents, especially our mom. Our dad hated conflict, and he usually ran from arguments, because he just wanted everybody to be happy, like, “Why can’t we all just get along, and listen to our music, and have a nice meal?” Our mom was always more argumentative and frustrated with her lot in life. When people weren’t doing what she thought was right, she would initiate arguments. Tony was into a lot of stuff that she disliked. I mean, he was into drugs, and he was hanging out with the “wrong” people. He wasn’t doing terrible things, but he wasn’t doing as well as she would have liked, and he seemed to disrespect the system. So they argued a lot. Sometimes our mom would sort of drag our dad to the table, so he’d sit there and do the bobblehead thing and say, “Yes, dear. Tony, listen to what your mother’s saying.” He would be kind of forced uncomfortably to sit in the same room, and to agree with my mom. But I don’t even know if he did, honestly.

JEFF FORMOSA: You know, Tony’s speech, it all came from comic books. And it was infectious the way he spoke, his attitude. At school, you didn’t get your ass kicked, you’d “eat shoe.” That was his talent: he made everything sound better than it really was. He made you want to be there. When we hung out at each other’s houses, Tony would sit around and draw. I’d play the drums. We’d listen to music, try to get drugs, whatever we could get our hands on. A friend came back from boarding school and we took our first hit of acid and went to a swimming party. Tony had an endless stream of records, from when his dad worked in the music business. His dad is where he got his zaniness from. His mom is where he got his sneer.

CHRISTOPHER BOURDAIN: Our dad was never particularly career successful. He lost his job several times, in our childhood and teenage years. I never really quite got the story there, but I suspect he was so not into corporate politics and weaseling your way up the corporate ladder. He just liked his classical music, and he liked reading biographies and history books, and knowing immense amounts of interesting shit, and never ever wanted to kowtow. The only two big company jobs he had, one was at a company that’s no longer around, called London Records. And he worked at Columbia Records, which later became CBS Records, and then later Sony Music. But he worked at a record store, and he worked at a stereo store, and was unemployed for quite long periods, and didn’t seem to feel a burning urgency. So we never had the money that those around us had. It was compounded, optically, by the fact that we were going to this private school, and were surrounded with people so much wealthier than us. Several of them had a second house somewhere. They would go to Florida on spring vacation; they would go to Europe a lot. I mean, we had been super lucky and had gone there as kids twice, but, you know, these other families got to travel a lot. In the brief couple of years where they had money, our parents did a huge house upgrade, a really nice kitchen, two nice new bathrooms upstairs. They turned the attic into a master bedroom suite. So they got that done, but then they kind of ran out of money, and the front hall, where all our guests came into the house, was never finished. It had this chandelier, but they had never quite hooked the wires up right, so it had this dangling-wire thing. And the steps were unfinished wood that had been painted years and years before—black, scuffed wooden steps with a broken banister. That was what our guests saw, you know, coming into the house, and then you turned left, and you saw this really nice, brand-new kitchen. It was weird. They both spent stupid money they didn’t have. And honestly, I think she was worse at it than him, but he was no good. Five thousand dollars would come into their hands, and somehow they would spend ten. We have money for one nice vacation, so let’s take two. They would be going out to the opera and dinner, when my school was saying, “You’re four months late with the tuition.” That was our story, and I’m sure Tony felt that to a degree. I know I felt it a lot. I don’t think Tony ever had the delightful experience, at age fourteen, of opening the door after school, and there was a debt collector, delivering some collection notice related to my orthodontist. I don’t know how conscious Tony was of the gory details like that. He knew there was a sham going on, and that they never had as much money as they portrayed. But I don’t know if he ever got down in the weeds that way. If you lived in a suburb in those days, you could knock on people’s doors and offer to mow their lawn, you know, for a dollar. Tony did a paper route, mowed some lawns, babysat for people around the block, people who knew us. And then he got this job as a bicycle messenger in Manhattan. Back then, advertising agencies on Madison Avenue had cans of film that needed to be physically developed, in a vat of chemicals somewhere, usually over near Twelfth Avenue or in Tribeca. So there were all of these messengers bringing stuff around Manhattan on bicycles—legal documents, film for the ad agencies, and it paid well, and you’d have these crazy kids like Tony, who was seventeen, bicycling around Midtown traffic in the middle of the day, trying to rush a can of film from Madison Avenue to Twelfth Avenue. And he would tell these stories of grabbing on to the back of a bus, kind of getting a ride for a few blocks, stuff that would completely freak our mom out.

SAM GOLDMAN: I was at Boston University; Nancy and Tony were still back in high school. Jeff [Formosa] called me and said, “I got bad news for you: your best girl and your best friend are—” and I just started laughing, because I was in bed with [another girl] at the time, so I got over that really fast. It never was a thing with Tony. NANCY BOURDAIN: We did start dating in high school. I look back and I think, none of us had it that bad, OK? None of us kids had it bad. But, of course, it was, “We gotta get out of this place.” In your senior year, once you had the [college acceptance] letter, you could take your last trimester off, if you learned something. So that was Tony’s thing. Like, “I just want to get out of here, too.”

CHRISTOPHER BOURDAIN: Tony graduated from high school one year earlier than normal. He took some summer classes, managed to scrape up enough credits, got himself out after eleventh grade. And mainly the agenda was, he wanted to be with Nancy, who had gone to Vassar, so he went to Vassar.

SAM GOLDMAN: Tony was a couple of years behind me, but somehow, he managed to graduate from prep school a year early. I think they wanted to get rid of him.

CHRISTOPHER BOURDAIN: The French trips, the childhood trips, those are the ones Tony mostly talked about; he would have been ten and then eleven, and I was seven and eight. But I think, for both of us, the more memorable trip was the one we did in 1973, after our father’s aunt died and did the unfortunate favor of leaving her house to our family. Our parents realized pretty quick they had to sell it. The inheritance tax in those days was 65 percent of the estate. They had to get it ready for sale, so Tony and my mom and I went over for pretty much the entire summer. I was thirteen or fourteen, and Tony therefore would have been seventeen. We would occasionally dodge out and do stuff together. We got into a couple of the same books. We didn’t have a big supply, and once you ran out of your English-language books, you couldn’t find many around in this place. We had brought this big, fat book, which I still have at home, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, and we both read it. And we were doing work, we were painting the house, and we put in a full indoor bathroom, just to get it ready to sell. And it was also memorable, because I think it was the first time we realized—we were alone with our mom for six weeks, and Tony was at the peak of his “I want out of here” phase, and our mom was heading into her “I’m unhappy with my life” years, and so she was acting out a lot that summer, and would get mad about wacky stuff. It was the first time when Tony and I realized, Oh my god, there is something wrong with this woman. I mean, she is really, really unhappy, and she’s maybe gonna go off the deep end. It was really the first time that we’d seen it in such intense doses, at close hand, because we were all together, all day for six weeks, for the first time in a long time. And we would talk with each other, out of hearing from her, and we were not particularly kind with some of the things we said that summer. We were very happy when our dad finally showed up, and we could start to get a little pressure relieved, and do some fun things as a family.

Our dad was the type of person, he wasn’t a saint, but he was the type of person who liked quirky people. He liked people who had something unusual about them, and he liked people who were into unusual things. He had a couple of friends—one of them was a guy who worked for a very high-end loudspeaker company, and the guy collected fire engines. He lived in Katonah, New York, and he had a big property, and he always had three or four fire engines, just sitting around on his lawn, and fire engine parts, and firehouse equipment on shelves in the house. Dad loved people like that. It was like, Whatever you’re into, as long as you’re into something. He was just a very special man. I had the constant impression that somehow our dad knew everything about everything. He just knew so much, but he was never in your face about it, he was never show-offy, ever. I was into trains for a while, and Tony was really, really into art and drawing, growing up, and took a lot of art classes, and our dad loved that. He had a hysterical sense of humor. Tony’s sense of humor came from our dad, but got sharper. Our dad never had a nasty edge to his sense of humor; it was always satiric, spoofing, but gentle. He was just nice. He never hurt anybody, he was never mean to anybody. And we just thought he was great. He was never a particular success, never made a lot of money, but we really just loved him a lot. And our mom was much more the other way. She didn’t like quirky and odd, and didn’t like most friends of our dad’s, and she was much more judgmental, and always made very, very clear what her judgment was. Just very, very different personalities. I mean, they loved a lot of the same things, they loved movies, they loved music, they loved kind of the same kinds of restaurants, they loved travel, so many things in common, but then they had this fundamental difference in life attitude, and approaching disagreements.

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