Just Bill and the Mister

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 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….

January 21, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — bknister @ 6:57 am
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The next seven postings present a travel piece I wrote in 1990.

After what’s happened in Haiti, it seems callous to talk about frivolous things, especially cruising in the Caribbean.  But other than condole with the Haitian man who works at the tennis courts where I play, and write a check to a relief agency, there’s not much I can do. 


 Cruise ships are very old hat now; they had long ceased being exotic even in 1990.  But I think something of the less acidic flavor of that era comes through, down to my choice of cruise reading.  Imagine a garden-variety Democrat—not a journalist or a politician– freely choosing to read anything whatever these days about Ronald Reagan.  I did so twenty years ago, and that seems amazing to me, now. 

 There are also politically incorrect aspects to the piece.  You’re not supposed to talk about people being beautiful anymore—that’s Lookism.  And it’s no longer acceptable to talk in terms of national or regional character.  That’s Profiling.  I suppose it’s even sexist to still use feminine pronouns when referring to ships.  Ah well.  Here’s what I wrote, warts and all.       

                     REVENGE OF THE TUITION BANKRUPTS #1

On this particular Monday morning, the mid-winter grind at last does you in.  You’ve arrived at that nadir of personal resources no amount of reason or common sense can salvage.  Like the midnight-blue morning and failed backyard outside, you look defeated in the kitchen window.

The dark a.m. commute works like road salt, corroding everything.  Waiting for a traffic light, the one timed so long you can actually feel your life slipping away, you turn to watch the woman waiting next to you.  Alone in her own grimy car, she’s deep in debate.  Her mouth is working, then stops as she listen to her phantom companion.  Now she makes another point, finger jabbing at the windshield.  You see this all the time, but this morning it gets to you. 

The day that follows fits perfectly.

On your drive home, at a different traffic light you happen to glance at a service station.  A person half your age is doing most of the stylistic things about his generation you most dislike.  Someone else is pumping his gas while he preens for traffic, overcoat and suit coat off, standing next to his Lexus in the wintry air so all can see his sharpie’s red suspenders.  Look at him yammering into his cell phone, poised with one arm over the open door.  Very take-charge, very New Order.

Home, you find your wife in the kitchen, still in her coat.  “We need a proctologist in our office,” she says as she opens a piece of mail.  “He’d feel right at home.” 

The mailing is from the gold-plated college our younger daughter attends.  “This is the bill for next term,” your wife tells you.  “Let’s do something to mark the occasion.  At this moment, all our money is gone and so are the children.  Here we are.”

Penniless and alone, you both face the frostbelt evening.  After dinner, you scan the travel section of Sunday’s paper.  The following morning, you are on the phone, looking for an exit point.

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