I met Bobby Dee twenty-four years ago in Boca Raton. He was a Line Chef at the Lotus Blossom which, at that time, was Boca’s only Thai restaurant and one of southern Florida’s best. A white guy cooking noodles and stir fry? That’s what I thought too.
It was a favorite story that Bobby loved to tell, usually over a Tequila straight up with a twist. Here’s the short version: Bobby signed up for six-year hitch in the Air Force after high school. See the world on Uncle Sam the recruiter said. He saw it – Lubbock, Texas; Camden, New Jersey; Macon, Georgia – the finest of America’s wonderlands. But he ended his Air Force hitch at a small base outside of Bangkok. He fell in love with the country – the people were great, the food wonderful and you could live pretty darn good on not too many dollars. He decided to stay.
He talked the Air Force into discharging him in Thailand. He had become friends with an expat named Jerome Reynolds and moved in with him. It wasn’t hard finding a job washing dishes at Bangkok’s swanky Yan Wawa restaurant. Jerome spent the next ten years acquiring Asian calligraphy art and Bobbi moved from the restaurant’s wash room to line chef. That’s when they decided to move back to the states. Jerome opened an oriental art gallery in North Palm; the owner of Yan Wawa knew the sous chef at Lotus Blossom where Bobby ended up running the stir line for the weekend dinner shift.
Bobby and I were introduced at one of Jerome’s art gallery openings. By then, Jerome was making a killing in the calligraphy business – he had zero competition in southern Florida, just at the time Asian art collecting became de rigueur for America’s wealthy, most of whom had a winter home on the strip of coast between West Palm Beach and Boca Raton.
Bobby was a great story teller, a big baseball fan and made fiery hot Kua Kling. He worked most weekends so we went to Marlin day games every chance we got. The Marlins were as bad then as they are now which gave Bobby and I plenty of time to swap tales and sip warm Pabst Blue Ribbon.
As the early aughts began to dodder, Jerome became disenchanted with the calligraphy business in Florida. By the end of the decade, there were a dozen galleries along the Gold Coast plying champagne and Beluga to New York old money or Texas crude ingénues as they fawned over million dollar Yaun piss pots.
In 2011, Jerome and Bobby pulled up stakes and moved to LA. Jerome said though the city teemed with Asian art dealers there even more Asian art buyers – the pickins were good. Jerome bought a condo in West Hollywood (naturally), opened at glitzy gallery on Wilshire and Bobby got another chef job at the Bamboo Rickshaw, a huge touristy Thai restaurant in Hollywood.
Bobby also stopped drinking. He lost his license on a DIU and his boss told him he could pack up his knives if he turned up drunk again. That sobered him up. Plus Jerome had become sick. Seriously sick. Like leukemia sick. So Bobby joined AA and Jerome started chemo. They both struggled, but after two years Bobby was dry and Jerome cancer free.
I travelled to art auctions in LA every couple of years. Jerome loved WEHO and loved showing off all its garish glamour and ritzy restaurants. WEHO made Miami look like an Amish cross-road in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Bobby and I took in both Angles or Dodger games, whoever was in town and playing a day game. He still loved to tell his stories as the innings languished between pitches but now he drank coke and shelled peanuts.
Jerome died in January 2019. He was cremated. Bobby had a memorial service for him that February which I flew in for. Jerome and Bobby had hundreds for friends in LA and they all showed up for the service. Jerome always said he belonged to the frizzbetarian faith so in that spirit, Bobby rented the Etage in WEHO and wrapped the whole place in silver bunting, giant candelabra and a hundred strobe lights.
The formal service was short. A dozen people came up to the stage with some story about Jerome this or Jerome that. It was sad and tender. Bobby spoke at the end. His remarks were very brief. “Goodbye to my best friend, my lover, the best part of me that can never die.” Then he pointed to stage left and shouted “bring in the band.”
The band came in, platters of food came out, and three bars scattered around the room poured out drinks. I left fairly smashed. This was the way Jerome would want to go – a bunch of gay friends dressed to the gills, a loud rumba band, and everybody presumably talking about him.
I only spoke with Bobby for a few minutes; he was swamped as person after person relived a piece of Jerome’s life. Red eyed and woozy tired, he drank soda all night.
I called Bobby last Monday. It was his birthday. His life had moved onto a new routine – Kundalini yoga, volunteer work at the North Hollywood drop in center, and still cooking at the Rickshaw. The condo was up for sale – Bobby couldn’t afford the monthly fees plus it wasn’t home anymore. He was planning to get a small apartment in another part of WEHO.
Nobody answered the phone. I called again late Tuesday morning. A woman named Sarah answered the phone. Sarah worked at the Rickshaw too, ran the bar and hostess table. Bobby was dead. He had started drinking again a month ago and it kept getting worse and worse. They found him Sunday night on the stairwell going up to the condo. His blood alcohol level was .24. The rest of the tests weren’t back yet. There would be an autopsy tomorrow.