Just Bill and the Mister

February 24, 2010


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The following night, the final dinner provides one last reenactment of Trimalchio’s banquet in Satyricon.  All the waiters have traded their uniforms for aloha shirts.  They samba through the darkened dining room with flaming dishes.

For the night’s costume party, you again suit up in the only costume you brought, the tux.  If anyone asks, you’re a waiter.

Costumes release otherwise restrained features of personality.  The posse of  four young men have appeared at odd moments during the trip, always together.  Tonight, they come out of their own closet gussied up as a pimp with three hookers.  Lots of garter-snapping and mincing in spiked heels ensues.  Everyone admires their style and costumes.  They receive loud, sustained applause during the judging in the ballroom.  The zoot-suited pimp tells everyone that he and his ladies of the evening are Italian.  During the week, everyone has grown weary of Turinese self-assertion.  Maybe it was their long flight from Europe, maybe they feel cornered.  Regardless, the two hundred Italians have not been simpatico these five days.

As if to confirm all this, for the costume party one Turinese couple has tricked out their two little girls as Playboy bunnies.  After the judging, there they are, six or seven years old and sleeping on a banquette, in a cocktail lounge off the ballroom.  Attached to their glossy heads are the rabbit ears, little tails fixed to their rumps.  Stuffed into each child’s bodice-ripper costume are grotesquely exaggerated falsies.

And so the party, trip and books are finished.  In a condition of cruise bloat and still sleepy the next morning, you say goodbye to people whose last names you never learned.  You pass down the gangplank in Port Everglades, onto a bus, into a plane.  Emerging from Metro Airport three hours later, you choose to think the frostbelt sky seems lighter, the back of winter broken.

At least all evidence of the blizzard is gone.  You drive home to stacks of mail and a scolding from the cat you left in the care of neighbors.

That Monday after work, you drive to your bank.  In the stack of mail was a bill for an overdraft fee.  This is perfectly possible, but you plan to fight it on a technicality.

When the person you are led to looks up, it’s like final closure of the cruise itself.  No, he’s not the same figure of thrusting business assertion you saw yammering into his cell phone two weeks, ago–but he is definitely one of Them.  Has the sharpie’s suit, the suspenders.  But as closure should in a happy story this too-confident bank manager half your age turns out to be rational.  Even tactful.  That is, he concedes your point and agrees to waive the overdraft fee.

A good end.  No apologies, and no regrets.  You and your wife acted on impulse and were right to it.  Now, all you have to do is convince Visa to let a few things slide into the next century.


February 18, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — bknister @ 11:27 am
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Your one shore excursion is at Cozumel, the last port of call.  The only reason you and your wife bother with it has to do with a Mexican friend back home: he might take offense if neither of you could provide some convincing details.

You wave off cabbies and walk the two miles into town.  After three days, it feels good.  The sun is hot, the water emerald and sapphire.  Dive shops and beach bars line the road.  Cool hotel entrances form stereoscopic views of the ocean at the opposite end.

But when you and your wife get to town, something is melancholy about the pastel-painted buildings.  All the people are very small, almost like children.  That, you decide, is why it’s sad to see them peddling onyx bookends, black coral and silver jewelry in the shops, leather and snakeskin junk, tee shirts.  They seem orphaned, out of place in their own place.

But that’s part of the package, why be hypocritical?  Dependence on tourism in subsistence economies is the given on which cruise ships operate.  Alvarez and the hundreds of other staff on board the Britanis do better shipping out than they ever could at home.  All the traveler can do is to tip with this is mind.

In perfect tourist fashion you end up in one of Cozumel’s seaside dives, the redundantly named franchise Carlos and Charlie’s. Open on all sides, its ceiling is a patchwork of shirts people lost or donated.  The juke box blasts, waiters who don’t look Mayan hustle drinks, including an infamous concoction made with Everclear, grain alcohol at near 200 proof. 

You drink, sweating through the afternoon with college kids from the ship.  You buy a round, they buy one.  And so forth. The day ends with a tequila sunset, in a haze of inter-generational gemutlicheit.  All of you share a cab back to the ship, singing a medley of songs, simultaneously, in several languages. 

Your wife—by no means for the first time or in all probability the last—saves the day by knowing where the two of you live on the ship.  Do you make it to dinner before coming asymmetrically to rest on some bed or other?  All such questions will need to be referred to your wife.

February 11, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — bknister @ 10:56 am
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That evening, an accurate inventory of your motives for this trip is completed during preparations for the Captain’s cocktail party. 

These preparations involve the esoterica of shirt studs and cuff links, bow tie, pants with satin stripes, funny shoes that will get you killed on any slick surface.  You bought a tuxedo five years ago, and have worn it twice since.  You think it’s wrong that your low-roller social life never requires black tie.  The ship’s nightlife, purchased for five days, will permit you to correct this problem.  You’re sure the yuppy at the traffic light owns a tux.  You are tired of awards shows on TV, and toffs on the society page, all in tuxedos.  It is not impossible that the bad day last week led to a cruise so you could wear a monkey suit.

Your wife, though, is not plagued by pretense—just a certain justified irony you detect as she stares down at your opera pumps.

“Very smart,” she says.

“What am I supposed to wear, penny loafers?

“No no, you look terrific.  You look finished.  Complete.”

A good effort.  She doesn’t need to play dress-up.  She manages to look holiday-inspired in clothes you’ve seen her wear a dozen times.  Much the best thing, considering we are now penniless.

She also manages to look much more like everyone else at the cocktail party.  Sartorially, the romantic past turns out to be just that.  Aside from the captain, a white-uniformed, hirsute Greek version of Gavin MacLeod in “The Love Boat,” only half a dozen others besides yourself are duded up.  Plus four flamboyant young men traveling very much together.

So what?  You are happy looking like an extra in a gaslight-era movie.

And with your private deck secured, the trip’s success is more or less assured.  There, you and your wife retreat morning and afternoon with your books.  For the rest of the cruise you are released to a routine of nap-‘n-read luxury.  There’s the occasional drink and turn around the deck.  And three, four or more times per day, you continue the demanding regimen aimed at determining the tensile limits of your stomach.

 You also visit the casino.

 Neither of you is a gambler, or could afford to be.  Unless you include shelling out for Miss Smartypants’ gold-plated college tuition.  Here, though, you try it.  In an atmosphere of bleeps, bells and clattering roulette marbles, you team up with Dan and Diane, the couple from Traverse City.  They show you how to play craps.  Both of them have gotten a lot of sun and it looks good on them.

But scanning the room, you notice that no one seems to be having fun.  Maybe they are, but all the faces are stony.  Jowls hang, eyes are hooded or glower.  You also notice how fast the games end.  Blackjack is dealt at a blur, players peel off the stools before anything seems to have happened.  Just as quickly others take their place.  I spot big Frank, the golfer.  He and his wife have Tupperware bowls full of coins and are feeding them into slot machines.  A three-hundred-pound man with a bowl of change is pushing a button over and over, and appears to have stopped blinking.

But, then, this is not arguably crazier than a 170-pound man traveling thousands of miles to wear a tuxedo and read about Ronald Reagan.

And there’s George, the escort-service husband.

Under the garish lights, he looks dangerously sunburned, a waif abandoned by his sick wife.  She hasn’t appeared since the first night.  Sheepishly (we haven’t missed her), we ask after Belle.  George just shakes his head: “F-geddaboudit.  Why she wants a boat trip, go figure.  This woman gets sick if I brake the car wrong.”

But on the third day, Belle appears at dinner.  Compazine, she tells us, has stopped her motion sickness.  George at her side looks happy to be liberated from himself.  We are happy for Belle.  And for Compazine.  It has done something to the speech centers of Belle’s brain.  All through dinner she half smiles at something from the distant past or future.

February 9, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — bknister @ 7:50 am
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Revealing an eerie capacity for internal displacement during sleep, the following morning you wake shamefully hungry.  Your wife is still unconscious.  So completely you almost check for vital signs. 

No, she’s just exhausted.  Showered and dressed, off you go alone to that timeless place of excess below decks—for kippers, eggs Benedict, more pastries.

Then to the sundeck.

Oddly, in the case of you and your wife, this is what you’ve paid for but  must guard against.  More than one vacation has ended with both of you packed in ice and unguents.  Later in the week, hearing cheers from a tanning competition, your wife will suggest somewhat peevishly an award for the whitest person on board.

But judging from your vantage point above the stern’s sundeck, solar collecting will be this crowd’s main concern.  Even the Christians, in Bermuda shorts and polo shirts are basking.  The Italians and Brazilians are already dark, and many are sporting shoelace swimwear.  In some instances, portions of the body have engorged the suit fore and aft.  A remarkable pride in breasts seems the only explanation for women proffering cleavage well below the waistline—in some cases, below the waterline.

Oh but there are goddesses, too.  Especially the Brazilians.  Women so anatomically breathtaking that you see one of the older Christian males pop an extra nitroglycerine under his tongue before tearing himself away for the next prayer session.

Eventually, the pulse regulates and you focus on the shoreline.  Three hundred yards to starboard is Key Best, the first port of call.  Last night you and your wife agreed to skip this one.  You watch the tenders shuttling passengers back to the ship before noon. 

Why go ashore?  You spend all your time there.  This simple discovery—that there is no reason to leave the ship—is strongly exhilarating.  You don’t have to see anything!  The two remaining ports of call are just nonstop souvenir shops.  This isn’t Europe or Africa or China—not a place where you feel obliged to use your time well.  That, you now realize, is the whole point of cruising: you aren’t going anywhere

                                                            *     *     *     *

“I first saw him as a foot, a highly polished brown cordovan wagging merrily on a hassock–”

You’ve opened Peggy Noonan’s book on her years as a speechwriter in the Reagan Whitehouse.  What I Saw at the Revolution.  Already you know you’re going to like it. The awful truth is that, as a college English teacher, most of what you read is written by freshmen and sophomores.  Truth to tell, you don’t read many freely chosen books.  The reviews of Noonan’s book convinced you to buy it for the trip.  By chance, it turns out there’s a nice congruity to your choice:  the ship’s history says the Reagans sailed on the Britanis in the Sixties.

By now, your wife has found you.  She has her own book, P.D. James’ latest.  Together, swathed against the sun and looking more like Bedouins than fun seekers, neither of you notices when the ship weighs anchor and begins its passage for the Yucatan Peninsula.

Later that day, you make a second wonderful discovery.

Two levels below the sun troops, horse-racing, bathing-beauty contest, bingo, swimming pool, strolling mariachi players and Christian gentlemen mainlining nitro, you find a deserted deck.

Fittingly, it lies outside the ship’s vacant library.  Here are rows of deck chairs, all empty save for one reader.  Visibly alarmed when she looks up from Bonfire of the Vanities, soon she understands you have no maracas, playing cards, or cassette player.  At a tactful distance you settle in under the mahogany canopy. 

An anachronism from the ship’s salad days—a deck for readers.  If the new neon-and-glass-elevator cruise ships have libraries at all, they offer videos.  Here, there is only the glister of ocean, the fanning wake and pleasing thud of turbines generating 29,000 horsepower that will steam you over the northern Caribbean.

Not exactly a “wild surmise” on seeing the Pacific for the first time (Keats thought Cortez was the first European to do this, but it was Balboa), just “our deck.” But until it gets discovered, you, your wife and the Bonfires lady have the best of possible worlds: a private cruise ship.

February 4, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — bknister @ 10:59 am

                     By bedtime, you have a better sense of the Britanis’ eight decks, bars, disco, movie theater. 

                     A printed history in your cabin details the ship’s colorful past.  Launched by Bethlehem Shipbuilding at Quincy, Massachusetts in 1931 for the Matson Line, she was originally named the SS Monterey.  The following year she made her maiden voyage from San Francisco, sailing first to Honolulu, then on to Australia.  Through the thirties, she was popular with society—Gable and Lombard sailed with her, the Rockefellers.  Like other pleasure ships, she was converted during the war for transport.  With berths installed for half the number, she carried over six thousand troops at a time: “half slept by day and the other half by night.”  In all during WW II, the Monterey steamed 328,490 miles, and transported more than 170,000 troops.

                     You like all that—a lady of a certain age with a past, not one of these latter-day floating malls.  Refitted twice since then, with a change of name, “the Britanis has become a very special relic from the romantic pre-war days of cruising.”

                     Also, during Belle’s dinner monologue, Alvarez managed to fill you in on the ship’s passengers:


                     Two hundred Turinese flew all night to Kennedy, then to Miami.  During the afternoon, in passageways and public rooms, on deck or gunning aggressively up and down the stairwells, they’ve already convinced you Alavarez’s count is short buy four or five hundred.  Some of the Turinese will be sleeping during the day.


                     About eighty of them, Alvarez said.  They, too, have come a long way to take the cruise.  All seem to have been selected from a catalog of Beautiful People.  They are seated in your dining room.  Their gorgeous clothes, the heartstopping faces of their perfect children make you wonder how such beings could want to share a strange ship with mere mortals.


                     Perhaps three hundred are travelling in a group.  All wear conventioneer badges, and as with the Brazilians they seem out of place.  Collectively, they strike you as painfully vigilant: it’s as though cruising represents an ordeal undertaken to test their resolve.  You yourself are for Christians these days: they get a bad rap from journalists, filmmakers, TV comics.  After the cartoon antics of televangelists, Christians have become cheap-shot material.

                     But what can you do?  An hour after dinner, buttoned up and sipping mineral water in the ballroom, they watch the rest of us, looking to me like tourists at a leper colony.  Everyone else is swilling huge Cerulean Blue Typhoons garnished with patio umbrellas.  Ole!

                     From ten o’clock on, the ship’s id–college students on spring break–pulses beneath the ballroom in the strobe-lit disco.  Seen from the stairwell, the students look like a single organism reacting to chemical reagents.  You and your wife are the ego one floor up, drowsily shuffling to show tunes.  You trust that the captain, the superego, is on the bridge maintaining rigorous navigational standards.

                     As you dance, now and then you look beyond your wife’s scented hair.  Framed by observation windows is black, moon-glazed water.  Just how far below all this flotsam lies the ocean floor?

                     You intend before bed to work off one or more layers of Black Forest tort.  But barely have you begun a turn around the promenade deck when you confront the midnight buffet.  Set up on the portside, trestle tables are laden with napoleons, cream puffs, tiers of meringue, all of it shining under colored lights. Once again you do your duty.  At last you and your wife stumble back down strangely narrowed passages

February 2, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — bknister @ 8:36 am
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The exit you seek comes quickly

This happens to be the week before winter break at the university where you teach.  For the next two weeks, things will also be abnormally slow in your wife’s office.  It’s almost against nature for both of you to be able to get away at the same time.

That’s why Mother Nature takes umbrage at such last-minute arrogance.  The nerve of you, signing up for a cheap cruise and putting it on Visa.  You have no right, Mother believes.  You belong here, in the rustbelt under louring skies loaded with snow, among commuter loonies, and yuppies making deals over cell phones. 

That’s why the year’s first real blizzard starts the day before you leave.

Oh but you know Mother Nature around here. William Butler Yeats, do you imagine Ireland is the only old sow that eats her farrow?  That’s why you book a hotel room at the airport for the night before your flight—haha!

                                                     *     *     *

Many sleepless hours later, the circulation is beginning to move again in your wife’s hands.  Bloodless as always with flying terror, they start to look normal in the Miami airport.  Both of you are shuffling toward the luggage carousels with other dazed escapees.  Pasty and sun-famished, you stare out at bright palms and crotons floating magically beyond the lobby windows. 

Expected!  Greeted!  Bronzed youths from the ship in canary-yellow shirts guide you to buses, see to luggage.  In minutes you see ships ahead, in the Port Everglades harbor.  You’re leaving!  In two hours you will be at sea.  Well, on your way to  the Gulf of Mexico, close enough.  No phone, fax, students, enemies, allies, auto soliloquists or office mates suited to the training needs of proctologists.  At Sea.

                                                  *     *     *

 Unpacked, having prowled the ship and gotten lost, you clean up and change clothes.  At 7:30 you succeed again in locating the Waikiki Dining Room.

This is an important moment: now you will learn whether the tip given to the maitre d’ that afternoon was sufficient to get you seated with people not being deported or in quarantine.  For five days you are going to break bread with: 

George and Belle, borough of Queens

Marie and Frank, upstate New York

Dan and Diane, Traverse City, Michigan.           

“Nice to meet you, this cabin we’re in, I don’t believe it, who’s kidding what, we’re supposed to live in a closet?”

For the next two courses, the Belle of Queens enumerates the hopeless conditions in her cabin.  The ship and the cruise we’ve all booked is strictly on the cheap, but Belle  expected a room at the Ritz.  George at her side is called on frequently for support, but not for color commentary of his own.  He provides the support with a single phrase you know will constitute his world view for the cruise: “F’geddaboudit.”

With a professional’s sense of timing, our waiter Alvarez sends the wine steward.  Soon you are toasting your table mates.  You drink deeply all through Belle’s clinically detailed account of a gallbladder operation, followed by a second critique of naval architecture.

Never mind, f’geddaboudit.  Seafood en chemise, sole meurniere, black forest tort, a brandy—hell, another brandy.  By the end of dinner you are resigned to Belle and her escort-service husband, grateful you like the others.

Especially Frank, on your right.  He and his wife are from the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York.  There is something reassuring about him, a person of graceful gestures and manner who must weigh over three hundred pounds.  He looms above your right shoulder, blotting out a quadrant of the dining room.  Eating and drinking with deft movements, he puts you in mind of a casino dealer or professional pool player.  Slipping his comments beneath or aslant  Belle’s monologue, Frank tells you he has played golf courses everywhere—Saint Andrews, Pebble Beach, Paradise Island, Maui—

Given the size of his forearm, you assume Frank plays them all at once, teeing off in the Bahamas, selecting a club for his next shot, boarding a jet for Scotland….

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