Andrew Zimmern is a chef I didn’t know about until he launched his What’s Eating America series on MSNBC three weeks ago. James Taylor is a musician who I’ve known about since he burst on the scene in 1970 at the age of 22 with Fire and Rain, which for me remains to this day as one of the most sublime “rock” songs ever recorded. This week their respective life stories converged in one of those serendipitous ways popular culture makes possible.
In the recent installment of Zimmern’s series he explored his early — near terminal — struggles with drug addiction and tied it to the surprising (for me at least) scourge of drug use in the restaurant industry. He had been on the brink of stardom in the food service business when his uncontrollable drug use brought him down and landed him — through the intervention of friends — in a rehab facility in Minnesota. The first two episodes of What’s Eating America introduced Zimmern as one of our new compassionate, crusading cohort of celebrity chefs, inspired I trust by the example of Anthony Bourdain. Episode one focused on our reliance on immigrants to feed us. Episode two focused on the threat of climate change on our food supply. I won’t demean the efforts of those first two shows by calling them liberal dream programming, though they were. Far more importantly they were acts of humanism in its purest form.
Though unfamiliar with the dominance of drugs in the restaurant business, I was well aware of its impact on the rock culture I grew up on. How could one not be given its pervasiveness in rock lyrics and rock biographies. I knew superficially about James Taylor’s struggle with addiction, but his new memoir which he recently discussed in an interview with Malcolm Gladwell covers it in rich detail. The most striking detail for me was when he seemed to reach rock bottom while pursuing a music career as a teenager in New York City. His father called from North Carolina to find how he was doing and caught him at such a pieces on the ground moment that James did exactly as he was told and stayed in his apartment until his father could drive up from the South to retrieve him. After six months of sobering up at home, he went off to seek his fortune in London, where in a sudden, near hallucinogenic interlude he managed to hook up with Peter Asher, meet the Beatles, and sign a record contract that launched his career.
As humanists, we have to love and share these stories about peoples’ triumph over their demons. They give undeniable hope…and often a model…for others in doing the same in their lives. No matter how redundant they may get, I say we can never have too many documentaries or big Hollywood movies or memoirs that support the notion that being down does not necessarily mean being out. Yet I couldn’t help but think of all the suffering people who weren’t lucky enough to have friends put them on a plane to a Minnesota rehab…or a father who would drop everything to make an 8-hour drive to save a son. How many more possible James Beard Foundation Award winners died in the AIDS epidemic? How many more possible Grammy Award winners have been lost on the streets to homelessness and mentally illness? How many of humanity’s unfortunate never make it on to a Schindler’s List for rescue and recovery?
To Andrew Zimmern’s credit, his series does not skirt this profound and perplexing question. In Portland he rides along with cops newly trained in trying to salvage lost lives rather than punish them. In New York he goes on foot with a medical case worker who gets down on the ground to be eye level with those so in need of help they can’t even reach up for it. These are acts of compassion and courage every bit as compelling as the latest gun porn to emerge out of our nation’s endless Mideast adventures. At the end of the episode Zimmern interviews Amy Klobuchar, his home state senator, who tells the story of Casey Jones, a young champion swimmer who became addicted to opioids after a hospital stay for an injury. To underscore the randomness and indiscriminate nature of such plagues, Klobuchar quotes Casey’s last words to her mom, “It’s not my fault, mom.”
One hundred and thirty people a day die from opioid addiction. How many possible Olympic Gold Medal winners are in that number? The thing about the Andrew Zimmern and James Taylor stories is that they put famous faces on the potential victims of mass deaths, which are too often defined by the numbers. The numbers miss the promise of the singular lives lost. The numbers limit the damage to those lost and miss the damage done to the many others who loved them. And the numbers can be used to hide behind and avert responsibility by those too strung out on their own narcissism to care:
What’s“I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship” — Trump explains that he doesn’t want to let people off the Grand Princess cruise ship because he doesn’t want the number of coronavirus cases in the country to go up.