Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer If They Could See Me Now

By Jim Hanas

APRIL 20, 1998:  All right people, let’s listen up. This is serious.”

I’ve been on board for less than an hour and already I’ve found somebody I don’t like. Nobody likes him. I asked. It’s the lifeboat drill, and all passengers are out on the astro-turfed deck in orange life jackets receiving orders and anecdotal worst-case scenarios from some pretty boy with a hammer jaw and wrap-around Ray-Bans. For whatever reason, I named him Dean. He just looks like a Dean.

“Now if you have to jump into the water from this deck, you must pull your life jacket down with both hands,” he barks, seeming a little testy about having to put up with all us land-lubbers. “Because from this height, it will rise up when you hit the water and damage your spine.”

The next time I saw Dean, he was wearing a garish, poofy-sleeved outfit and grinding his way through a way-the-hell-off-Broadway tribute to the Miami Sound Machine. Cruises, I would find out, are strange like that.

When my editor told me we’d been offered a berth on the Rock 103 Wake Up Crew’s 10th Anniversary Caribbean Cruise and asked if I wanted to go, it wasn’t a tough call. I never listen to the Wake Up Crew, but, then again, I never go on cruises either. Little did I know what I’d gotten myself into.

Commodore Cruise Lines’ S.S. Enchanted Isle was launched in 1958, which I understand is getting up there for a cruise ship. Let’s just say that the furniture in my cabin would have gone well with one of Rob and Laura Petrie’s famous misunderstandings. The ship’s on the small side, too, as everyone remarked from the time we left port in New Orleans alongside a behemoth from some other line. Commodore seems a little self-conscious about it, to tell the truth, and even the crew seems to suffer from an inferiority complex. During an ice-sculpture demonstration, someone from the cruise director’s staff rattled off numbers about how much food was consumed aboard the Enchanted Isle each week. Because of the odd math, I only remember the number of eggs: 2,400 dozen. Passengers looked at each other proudly before being told that for a Carnival cruise ship, of course, that number would have to be multiplied by three. The disappointment was understandable.

Eating is a big part of any cruise, and there are many activities – like the ice-sculpture demo – centered around gorging yourself or just thinking about gorging yourself. As everyone I talked to agreed, the food aboard the Enchanted Isle is pretty iffy, except for the hamburgers grilled poolside each afternoon, which are pretty darn good. Shoneyfied cuisine notwithstanding, the dinner hour is an elaborate play, decked out in the well-known trappings of culinary luxury: flames and pepper-grinders. There actually aren’t as many flames as you might expect. They’re confined to two nights when all the waiters and busboys dance around the dining room to blaring music with flaming cakes balanced on their heads.

The pepper-grinders, on the other hand, are a constant presence. They will grind pepper on chocolate cheesecake if you let them, and – after getting tired of saying no – you probably will. How ground pepper took on the power to make ordinary food super-fancy is a mystery, although it seems to work like a charm, since a man at a nearby table took the time to photograph his wife’s pepper-buried surf-and-turf for posterity. For all I know, of course, he was collecting evidence.

Every cruise is a little dif-ferent, depending on who is on board. On this particular run, there seemed to be three sorts of people, although I’m sure there were newlyweds and couples on their anniversary in the mix who kept to their romantic selves and didn’t make themselves conspicuous. Fans and associates of the Wake Up Crew made up almost a quarter of the passengers. Some were advertisers and others had paid to come along to celebrate the Crew’s anniversary, with a portion of their fares going to the morning show’s ongoing fund-raising efforts for the Ronald McDonald House.

Another small, although highly visible, group consisted of a barely chaperoned expedition from a high school somewhere in Alabama. They were the ones who would stand up periodically on karaoke nights, pump their fists in the air, and scream, “You Go, Alabama!”

Then there were the old-timers, the cruise pros who knew all the ins and outs. They were the ones who would stand up periodically during performances by the Ray Kennedy Entertainers (Dean’s troupe), pump their fists in the air, and scream, “Down in front!” Maybe they know who Ray Kennedy is, but I never found out.

I saw the most of the Wake Up cruisers, particularly early in the morning when they were broadcasting live from the ship (with tinny results, I found out when I got back). The Crew’s supporters were all very nice people, some of whom might read this paper, and many of whom I saw blow skeet after skeet clean out of the air with shotgun fire, even after many cocktails. I love those guys. Really. I was on the show a few times and asked what my “angle” was. As should be plain by now, I wasn’t lying when I said I didn’t have one.

Nevertheless, because of my tenuous association with Rock 103 – or, more likely, by mistake – I was invited to the captain’s table for dinner one night. If my calculations are correct – and there aren’t any occasions for tabling with the captain I have overlooked – this is an honor reserved for between 84 and 112 passengers out of 850. Of course, many of the cruisers had been on the ship before. There was one elderly gentleman who had been on the ship for three weeks, just going around and around. He had probably eaten at the captain’s table before, as had many of the return voyagers. So, maybe it wasn’t so much of an honor.

Captain Thorn – or Jens, as I like to call him – is from northern Germany and he looks it. He’s in his mid-fifties, at a guess, and has what can only be described as baked-in good looks. He has a drape of yellowish, wicker-dry hair on his head and his face is rough and tanned like a saddle. When he smiles, his thin lips part to reveal two rows of exactly white teeth. And his smile is always the same.

I know this because there are photographers on the ship – rogue English photographers – whose job it is to take your picture at crucial commemorative points during the course of your wonderful cruise vacation. Like a wedding album, a week-long cruise includes certain standard shots: getting on the boat, getting off the boat, getting dressy, getting close to an Elvis impersonator. Anyway, they have to shoot “the book,” before you’re allowed to go home, and that includes the big photo-op with the captain. In the trade of cruise photography, the shot must be one of the easiest – even easier than the straight “dressy” shot of which it is a variation, since the latter involves a couple who, given the circumstances, may not be getting along too well.

The hardest shot, by the way, has to be the much-loved pirate shot taken while disembarking in the Caymans. It’s tough, but it’s easier if you’ve got a solid contributor at the pirate position. The pirate’s job is difficult because the suddenly freed passengers are eager to get to the beaches and duty-free liquors and European perfumes, and are in no mood for standing still. So the guy who’s pirating has to dash around in the crowd and sneak up behind unsuspecting tourists, slip an arm over their shoulder, brandish his red-stained aluminum sabre menacingly, and muster a sneery scowl onto his charcoal-smeared face. All of this while the photogs spend rolls like they’re covering a prison riot. I was privileged to see what seemed to be a particularly expert display of pirating. He darted through the crowd, weaving and lurking, getting into position, and moving onto the next victim almost faster than the shutter. Back and forth he sliced through confused and docile cruisers, blade gleaming, a terrible “Aaargh” poised on his lips. Few were spared. By comparison, the captain’s shot is a still-life.

And it looks like a still-life too, which is how I know the captain’s smile is always the same. Each evening, the photographers take all the pictures they’ve taken of you and line a hallway with them for all to see. You’re supposed to pick out the ones of you and have them happily charged to your on-board account. The day the captain’s photos are displayed, however, is vaguely creepy – almost as creepy as the occasional shots of Commodore Cudley, a giant-bear mascot in a navy outfit who tucks children in at night, or more likely, frightens them into a sleeplike stupor. In all of the captain’ photos, Jens’ face hardly changes at all. He’s shaking hands in some, extending an arm in others, but his face is exactly the same: lips slightly parted, head slightly tilted, thoroughly naval.

I have a picture of myself sitting at the captain’s table, and he doesn’t look quite the same, somehow, probably because it turned out he didn’t know who the hell I was or what the hell I was doing at his table.

“Zo you are wit ze casino company?” he asked as I took my seat. The woman who accompanies him to keep guests from mauling him tried to cover, saying she had written it down wrong and introducing me as someone who was somehow associated with a radio station in Memphis. That held his interest for about a second before he spent the rest of the meal talking to his general contractor – sitting to my left – about building an addition onto his ranch in central Florida.

Fortunately, food is only part of the cruise experience, and when you get snubbed by the captain you can at least have a drink. Aside from the dining room, there is only one common room on the ship that doesn’t have a bar. That’s the “library,” and I never saw anyone go in there. The piano bar, the pool bar, the bistro bar, the casino bar, the disco bar. You never have to be far from a bar, especially since each sends out swarms of waiters and waitresses to drum up business. Whether it’s a crowd-control technique or a way of keeping motion sickness to a minimum, you must always have a drink in your hand. They even make up drinks – risky mish-mashes of rum, fruit juice, triple-sec, and whatever else – to serve up in neon plastic “souvenir” cups, and keep you coming back for more. And then there are the traditional activities associated with drinking: the drinking contest, the karaoke nights, and, as I’ve mentioned, daily skeet shooting.

But these – along with the ventriloquist (sporting the black shirt, white pants, and pink tie counter-fashion of the trade) and the comedian who looked like Emmitt Smith who dragged me on stage to make sport of my no-ass extra white-bread dancing style – are merely diversions of shipboard living. You have to go ashore from time to time lest the shutter-bugs run out of opportunities.

Out of New Orleans, the Enchanted Isle stops in Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Jamaica. Cozumel, off the Mexican coast, is sort of a tropical tourist strip-mall, a one-stop for all manner of trinkets, knick-knacks, throws, wraps, and duty-free tequila. Its most popular attraction seems to be Carlos ’n Charlie’s, a college bar gone mad where the main draw is a device – powered by obscure physical laws – that allows your waiter to blow liquor right down your throat. This urgent form of bartending must be somehow illegal in the U.S., because the place was packed, even in the middle of the afternoon, with folks keen not to miss their big chance to be nursed into an alcoholic coma. Needless to say, many of the high-schoolers from the Heart of Dixie needed a little help to their cabins after Cozumel. You Go, Alabama!

I’ve heard that the money-laundering is good in the Caymans, but I didn’t get a chance to try it out. I didn’t get to go to Stingray City either, which everyone says is the don’t-you-dare-miss-it attraction of the Caribbean circuit. It’s a snorkeling trip to an area where the stingrays have become so accustomed to tourists that you can feed them by hand or, if you prefer, haggle with them over their large, and quite convincing, selection of imitation Louis Vuitton handbags. Unfortunately, that excursion was all booked up.

Seven Mile Beach, however, is the nicest stretch of beach I’ve ever seen. The water is clearer than most swimming pools and the sky is just as blue. Lying in the sun there after wading into the surf is about as balanced as your body’s competing temperatures will ever be, and the closest grown-up humans can hope to come to returning to the womb.

Jamaica, on the other hand, is the most fast-paced of the ports, despite its ya-mon hemp-cured reputation, perhaps because a lot of people actually live there, or maybe just because the line drops you at a waterside bar called Margaritaville. It has a deejay and a water-slide and lots of drunken, sexually suggestive competitions involving bananas and drinking straws. Sadly, they don’t appear to have the proper equipment for blowing liquor into you, but that’s more than made up for by a huddle of cabbies waiting by the door to drive you around so you can haggle over a hunk of hashish the size of a Rubik’s Cube. You don’t have to buy it. It’s just a service they provide.

After Jamaica, it’s two days back to port, and it can be challenging, although on-board events kick into overdrive to distract you from the fact that you’d just like to go home now, thank you.

The highlight of those last two days at sea is none other than that fabled staple of the cruise industry, The Midnight Buffet. That’s where it all pays off and where it all comes into focus. Eating at midnight is bad, we know, because it gives you terrible dreams. So, what better time to let the gluttony fly and confirm for yourself and everyone that this cruise thing truly is “the life.” A lot of cruise lines lay out lavish spreads nightly, complete with swans hacked out of ice and roses chipped out of radishes. On the Enchanted Isle, they only pull out the stops on Thursday nights. The impending Buffet was the topic of excited conversation most of the day, and there was a period before midnight set aside for passengers to take keepsake snapshots of the blessings they were about to receive.

Foolishly, I underestimated the significance of the event and didn’t arrive until 10 minutes before it was to begin. The lobby outside the dining room was packed, although I was able to squeeze my way through the crowd to get a pre-gorge peek. What I saw disturbed me.

And not just because the room was packed and flash-bulbs were popping like firecrackers as a long line of people snaked among the tables, documenting every last single dish. There was that. But for me, what did it was the little man made of zucchini and carrots riding the roast pig with his twin, harpoon in hand, slumped over a cold fish nearby; and the replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Venus de Milo fashioned out of good old bad-for-you butter; and the sinister game hen propped up, like the ventriloquist’s dummy, on a pineapple with a lemon for a prosthetic head. My nightmares have been filled with these things ever since, and I don’t think eating at midnight has much to do with it.

It’s pretty tempting to view these semi-luxurious swerves around the Caribbean as the ugliest of ugly Americanisms, as pale imitations of a luxury that once stood for something, if only for elitism and gross economic inequality. Many times after meeting Capt. Jens and scrutinizing his photographs, I imagined him storming around the bridge, bellowing at the hotel staff: “Ze Americans are stupid. Treet zem zat vay.”

But on the last night of the cruise, the night after The Buffet, I found out who the ugly American really was. The last night is tip night, or better, envelope night. Gratuities don’t really live up to their name on a cruise, since their circulation is strictly regimented. The night before, a set of envelopes appears in your cabin. A title is rubber-stamped haphazardly on each. There’s one for the cabin-steward, the waiter, the busboy, and the headwaiter – in this case, a tall Jamaican man whom I met some time during the salad on the first night and didn’t see again until he came to pick up his envelope.

And it is just an envelope. Except for the guide on top of the television spelling out how much you should put in each envelope per day and per passenger – placed there, one guesses, to keep both bumpkins and junketeers like myself from stiffing the help – there is no mention of money. A 15 percent gratuity is added to each drink you order, but after your fourth vodka and tonic that whole thing becomes known as “the price.” Talk of actual money is so rare that our cabin-steward, JoJo from Manila, thanked us, in all seriousness, “for the envelope.”

Given that the whole exchange has become so shrouded, mechanical, and neatly disembodied, you would think there would just be a big box, maybe near the casino, where you could dump all your good tidings for later, hidden distribution. But each envelope must be delivered by hand. Well, not JoJo’s. His can be left in the cabin, even under a pile of wet bathing suits, and he will find it. But the rest have to be taken to the final night’s dinner and cordially presented to the deserving parties. Should be a piece of cake. All day, envelopes were flying around the deck from puffy, sun-burned passengers to the bar-maids who had “taken really good care of them.”

But I was worried and even a little resentful, particularly toward the Jamaican headwaiter, whom I suspected should have – according to policy – come around at least one more time during the week. But more than that, I felt resentful at having to express gratitude as though I meant it, even for a second. That’s when I realized what sweet revenge envelope night is, what a cunning snare for hypocrisy. Here, these people had followed me around for seven days straight with fruity drinks, ashtrays, and an almost oppressive pleasantness, but I couldn’t bring myself to do the same even for the length of a handshake. Now there’s some ugliness for you, and the way you really pay for these cruises in more ways than one.

When our waiter came over at the end of the meal, I knew it was time. He made small talk about what a great week it had been and about how we sure would miss that fresh-ground pepper when we got back home. As he was talking, I had done my best to slide his envelope to the edge of the table in front of him, so close that his apron almost brushed it when he got to the part about the pepper.

Finally, I gave up. I shook his hand, seized the envelope, and with the biggest smile I could muster, I thrust it toward him.

“Thank you, sir,” he said as he slid the envelope into his inside coat pocket and walked away with a cordial grin that seems to me now all but superhuman.

It’s from that moment, it seems to me, that the restorative value of a cruise flows. That’s the thing that sends you back to regular life with renewed vision and resolve.

On the back of the final edition of “What’s Up,” the little newsletter that tells you what activities are planned each day, there is a fond farewell from Capt. Jens. “All gud sings eventually draw to a cloz and ze best friends do part,” I can hear him saying through his eternal smile. Below that, “Goodbye” is written in more than half a dozen languages. “Au Revoir, So Long, Shalom …” And below that are a series of crude clip-art scenes depicting the drudgery that is your everyday life. There’s a man reading a bill that goes clear to the floor, a woman standing on a scale, and an office worker sweating, or maybe crying, in the shadow of a tower of paperwork.

“We’ll be thinking of you at home …” reads the caption, pausing so you can scan through the scenes and pick the one that best goes with the particular anguish of your own day-to-day life. “… so hurry back soon!”

But as our waiter walked away, grinning, with a stack of envelopes in his breast pocket, the towering paperwork and the endless bill started looking pretty good. After all, your life may be miserable, but it beats hell out of having to wait on your miserable ass.

Life is sweet.

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