On Sunday, November 23, 2009, the author embarked on an eight-night, nine-day, round-trip leisure cruise from New York City to the Bahamas aboard the Carnival Dream, at the time the largest and most technologically advanced ship in the Carnival fleet.
Where to begin? Is the world big enough for two essays about cruise vacations written by middle-class, late-30s white guys? To channel Lloyd Bentsen talking to Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate, “I’ve read David Foster Wallace. I admire David Foster Wallace. David Foster Wallace was a great writer. Sir, you are no David Foster Wallace.” So why am I writing this? For my sanity. And because I can’t seem to help it.
Plus, DFW wrote his essay — “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (originally published under the title “Shipping Out”)— in 1995. That’s over two decades ago. And he patronized (in more ways than one) a different cruise line. And just as someone who has never eaten really good lobster or prime rib might mistake the stringy lobster and gummy prime rib aboard the Carnival Dream for quality fare, someone who has never read DFW’s piece might enjoy mine. This analogy breaks down in terms of portion size (DFW offering up Carnival-worthy helpings of humor, insight, self-deprecation, detail and general reportage compared to my meager plating). But maybe, with the right audience, that could work to my advantage.
Day 1 – Sunday
Before every vacation I convince myself I’m getting sick. A mild scratchiness accosts my throat. My temples warm with what must be an impending fever. Then, two nights prior to sailing, they start. The nightmares. Which, to be honest, is too strong a word. It’s the dream I originally had during my second cruise (I’ve been on six), this vague anxiety that I am depriving myself of the best part, that I’ve slept through all the excitement, that I haven’t spent enough time on a deck chair napping and reading and not thinking or finally thinking about the big things, that the days are flying by too quickly, that the cruise is almost over and I’ve blown it, that I haven’t accomplished any of the things I wanted to — just like the rest of my life. (FOMO trumps YOLO in my personal vernacular.)
I pack on Sunday morning and for the first time experience some mental turmoil about the trip. A solo cruise — what’s that all about? There’s definitely some guilt at work here. My roommate, Matthew, is dealing with two sick parents. I’m leaving my art director partner at the ad agency where we work to present a huge assignment without me. Shouldn’t I be using my precious vacation to travel somewhere more culturally enriching? Is my underlying objective to confirm the double entendre “cruising” implies? Just in case it is, I compile my very best outfits, high style for the high seas, hopefully placing me in the upper echelon of cruisers on board the Carnival Dream, sartorially speaking. (This will prove much easier than anticipated — more on that later.)
My garment bag near to bursting, I also manage to squeeze in a CamelBak hydration system filled with one liter of Bacardi Silver Rum and one liter of Malibu Coconut Rum. I’d spent the past few days researching ways to smuggle booze aboard cruise ships, and this was the best option I could come up with given my time frame. For the uninitiated, most cruises are all-you-can-eat (and then some) and do offer unlimited coffee, tea, and sickly sweet fruit juice from cafeteria-style dispensers. Alcohol, however, is pay as you go, as are name-brand soft drinks. Over the course of nine days and eight nights, this can lead to a significant bar tab. Factor in the automatic 15% gratuity and the fact that you pay for everything with your room key (which acts as a “Sail & Sign” card) and the potential to run up hundreds of dollars in liquid debt is as easy as saying, “Another banana daiquiri, please.” The Rum Runner Cruise Kit by Easy Traveler seems to be the most popular smuggling option, proven time and again to thwart the X-ray machines that scan each piece of luggage taken on board. But since I’d left this vital piece of planning until the last minute, I had no time to order my kit from amazon.com ($29.95, average customer rating: 4.6stars) and so had to improvise.
Packing attended to, I don my tackiest floral print shirt, a 100% rayon short-sleeve button down by the esteemed clothier Pineapple Connection, primarily blue and white frothing surf accented with giant red and orange hibiscus flowers, tanned surfer dudes, thatch huts, palm trees and sail boats — a stain-disguising garment if there ever were one.
Already in frugal mode, I decide to skip the $30-plus cab fare from Brooklyn to the port on the West Side of Manhattan and opt for the subway instead. The second I board the train I realize I have miscalculated. Outside the context of the cruising universe, I look ridiculous, an observation not lost on my fellow straphangers. No matter. This is but one more minor annoyance en route to what I’ve convinced myself will be the trip of a lifetime.
I emerge above ground at Times Square looking like the very model of a cliched, clueless tourist — unwieldy luggage, ridiculous shirt, ripe for a mugging. It’s another 10 or 15 blocks to the Hudson River. I’m sweaty, flustered and bereft of the New York street savvy I’ve honed during my four years here, so I hail a cab and tell my good man to deposit me at Pier 69. Realizing I am a prime candidate for being shown the scenic route, I keep a close eye on the driver and pepper my speech with inane chatter like “How about those fuckin’ Yankees. Can you believe it?” — even though the baseball season ended weeks ago. He smiles and nods and takes me where I want to go with minimal twists and turns.
Behold the Carnival Dream, a gleaming white behemoth, fifty stories tall if she’s a foot. And oh the humanity, a reverse commute of the tired, wretched, soon-to-be-huddled masses yearning to be free. Disorganization is rampant. I was expecting ensigns and pursers and first mateys in starched white uniforms to dispossess me of my luggage in a Busby Berkley style routine. Instead, burly men who appear to have no affiliation with Carnival Cruise Lines are urging me to hand over my bag. Now why would I fall for a ploy like that? Nice try, buddy. And you too, pal. And yet, look at all of these other suckers relinquishing their Samsonites without a moment’s hesitation. I hope you like the clothes on your backs, because that’s all you’re going to have at your disposal after your luggage ends up in a New Jersey warehouse, being rifled through by low-level mafia goons. Poor saps.
Picture, if you will, a vast hall, narrower than an airplane hangar, but longer — like a couple of football fields long. This is where I will spend the next two hours waiting to board, trying to stay out of the airspace of coughing parents holding sniffling babies.
After crossing my fingers and relinquishing my garment bag (the one carrying the CamelBak) to “official” personnel, I am given two sheets of paper. The first is my boarding designation: Zone 28. I look around and see that everyone else is holding numbers lower than 28. Turns out I will be one of the last 10 people to embark. In a town known for rushing, chasing after taxis, sprinting city blocks for meetings, last-minute deals brokered before the closing bell, missed trains, missed connections, missed opportunities, it turns out that a cruise is one of the few things for which people will show up early.
The second piece of paper is a health form all passengers are required to fill out. “Do you have a cough, fever, congestion?” it asks. Yes, sort of, not really. It’s psychosomatic, you see — pre-vacation hypochondria. I decide to fib. And then I realize that everyone is going to fib. No one is going to jeopardize their vacation. It is, after all, November in New York City, the height of flu season. Everyone is smuggling germs on board, including me. I happen to be smuggling two liters of rum as well.
The next two hours pass more quickly than expected. The crowd in the hangar dissipates in batches of a couple hundred at a time. Kids roam and gambol. Parched passengers-to-be sip complimentary water and syrupy lemonade from plastic decanters. The sun starts to set, glinting off the U.S.S. Intrepid parked one pier over, supporting a variety of fighter jets of various vintage, yet positively dwarfed by the wedding cake verticality of the Carnival Dream. Inevitably (for I have come to trust that they will not forget about us, the unlucky stragglers of Zone 28) my number is called.
We descend via escalator, one level closer to sea level, through a superfluous maze of elasti-ban switchbacks, out of the hangar proper and onto a gangplank, a somewhat disappointing 10-foot stretch of aluminum handrails and rubberized walkway, past uniformed greeters eking out by-now listless salutations and into an elevator bank the scale of which one might more likely expect in a Times Square hotel. We are on board. We are still docked but I allow myself a moment of preemptive exultation. I am cruising.
The stragglers waiting for elevators look like a chatty bunch, eager to establish some on-board camaraderie, so I decide to take the stairs. It’s my first introduction to the ship’s decor, and it does not disappoint in its polychromatic enthusiasm. The color scheme is Star Trek meets Skittles. The carpet is from the Timothy Leary Convention Center collection. One piece of artwork I pass on my ascent — a photo-realistic montage — features a giant cat riding a rainbow. As I may have mentioned, I’ve been on six cruises, five on Carnival, and this aesthetic seems par for the course. But that doesn’t make it any less startling.
I find my stateroom — #8371 — a process that will become second nature sometime on Thursday. Getting a cabin all to oneself requires paying double. If there is a way to travel solo but share a room — some sort of roommate-matching program like dorm assignments freshman year in college — I am unaware of it. This may seem an extravagant splurge, but I justify it as money well-spent based on the outside chance that I could bring a lady back for some seaborne canoodling. The room is nice, cozy, well-organized. The balcony is dinky, claustrophobic and floats above a passenger deck encircling the ship two floors below. I could have saved a few hundred dollars opting for an inside stateroom or merely an ocean view, but I’m a sucker for the upgrade. Besides, the balcony means surefire privacy with all the benefits of sun, saltwater breeze, and sneaky homemade rum cocktails should a desirable deckchair not present itself up top.
Suddenly it hits me that my Zone 28 status has deprived me of a good two hours of all-inclusive eating and a possible free glass of champagne. So I grab my camera and scurry heavenward. As I hustle down the hallway I notice that mine is one of the few rooms without luggage waiting outside its door. A wave of paranoia hits. Has my contraband been confiscated? Am I in danger of being kicked off the ship? Is this a jailable offense? I figure that if I lay low until we’re safely at sea, I’ll at least make it to Cape Canaveral, our first stop. One thing is for sure: I’m in desperate need of a Mai Tai.
Up on deck the New York cityscape twinkles, bathed in the remnants of the recent sunset. I spot a waiter toting a tray of pink cocktails in plastic hourglasses accessorized with the requisite fruit kebab and rush over to make the first of 44 uses of my Sail & Sign card. $7.50 plus $0.63 tax plus a built-in 15% gratuity (in this case $1.13) for a grand total of $9.26. Not a deal but not exactly high-seas robbery either. I spy two ladies holding matching drinks and ask what they think. They give the kind of effusive, slurred replies that let me know I am a few rounds behind.
The ship executes an expert three-point turn and we are off. I aim my camera east toward the New York night and start clicking madly, trying to preserve this moment in the service of some future moment rather than just enjoying it as it happens. I feel the urge to text and share, to trumpet my departure to landlubbers, to gloat over my independence as we head south out of the harbor. So long, Empire State Building. Au revoir, Madame Liberty. G’day, Guvnah’s Island. Arrivederci, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Onward into the flat black night, ever advancing, ever receding. A laser light show begins around the Lido Deck pool. I go exploring.
When it comes to cruising — or any sort of travel for that matter — half of the fun is getting my bearings. I am not unique in this regard. Countless travel writers have commented on the joys of getting lost in a foreign locale. A cruise ship is a lot like a floating city and certain parts of it are decidedly foreign. (More on that later.) As it is getting close to dinner time, I don’t wander very far — just around the adults only deck, where I will spend most of my sunbathing/reading/boozing time in the coming days. It is occupied by neat rows of articulated lounge chairs, canopied rattan love seats built to shield wind and sun and provide a hint of privacy. The upholstery in these sex cocoons looks as though it could be hosed down in a bio-hazardous pinch. Some of the more relaxed passengers will validate this notion, fueled by a libidinous blend of sunshine, cocoa butter body oil, an unending supply of Jacqueline’s Karamel Ladies (the cruise’s signature “Dream Cocktail”), not to mention the permissiveness that that “Adults Only Deck” implies.
Like most hotels, the ship’s corridors are adorned with signs denoting which cabins fall in the vicinity. After a few wrong turns I find my corridor and discover that my bag is waiting for me. A tiny explosion of relief mixed with criminal happiness detonates inside me as I enter my room and unpack. The CamelBak has survived, in tact, its bladder full to bursting, so I enjoy a celebratory suckle at its rubberized teat. This trip is one of the few times I have packed well for a vacation. Every article of clothing is polyamorous, eager to partner with at least two others. It is an orgy of solid colors, simple V-neck T-shirts happy to hang loose with board shorts or class things up underneath a sport coat paired with khakis. I will soon discover that this level of style will be fruitless (in terms of attracting romantic attention) and the exception (as 90% of the passengers will take the out offered by the “formal nights optional” footnote in the ship’s daily guide).
I haven’t done much research into this, but dining arrangements appear to be an intentional point of differentiation across the various cruise lines. Norwegian, I believe, promotes a “free dining” plan where you show up during a two- or three-hour window set aside for each meal and are given whichever table the maître d’ deems appropriate. Royal Caribbean has begun introducing themed restaurants (the steakhouse, the sushi palace, the Italian bistro, etc.), each with its own reservation system — just like on land! (Royal Caribbean has taken this thinking too far, in my opinion, incorporating food courts and other mall-like appurtenances into its ships’ designs.) Fancy pants operations like the Cunard line, where passengers still wear tuxedos and gowns, have begun featuring celebrity chefs — or at least treating their regular chefs as if they were celebrities by naming on-board restaurants after them. It is my understanding that all of the major cruise lines offer buffet dining pretty much around the clock, as well as complimentary room service, which DFW breaks down to such a fantastic degree that I won’t even mention it again.
For dinner, Carnival offers its guests a choice between early (6:30 p.m.) and late (8:30 p.m.) dining, my assumption being that early dining is the preferred option for parents traveling with young children and looking to narcotize them (the kids) with heavy food so that they (the parents) can hit the night club, casino, or theater while their progeny sleep soundly back in the room. I opt for late dining and am assigned to an eight-top on the second level in the back of the Scarlet Restaurant (practically identical in layout and decor to the Crimson Restaurant on the other end of the ship, further enhancing the Dream’s ability to disorient). I am the only person at the table. I check my watch: 8:45 p.m. Back on land, I have no trouble dining alone. I’m as comfortable solo at the bar as I am being the only person at a table for two. I’ve mastered the art of tuning out the sympathetic tones of waitstaff and sidelong glances of fellow diners who assume (sometimes correctly) that I’ve been stood up.
That said, being surrounded by seven empty chairs is a bit much. Cornelia, my Romanian head waitress, makes me feel as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. She is lovely — not a classic beauty, but with a kindness about her eyes, an easy smile and an accent that makes me want to be her under waiter. That role falls literally to Stevan from Lithuania, who will keep me flush with rolls, butter and ice water.
Cornelia and I establish an immediate rapport. She recommends dishes, most of which she will later admit to never having tried. Instead her reviews are based on passenger feedback consolidated across her six years working in the industry. I feign a distaste for the rampant gluttony of cruise dining which she dismisses with a wave of her hand. She encourages me to order as much as I want and then some. If I am torn between two dishes then I should have both, no question. She doesn’t have to twist my arm. I opt for the ribs (good in a Golden Corral kind of way) and the tilapia (dry, accompanied by rubbery carrots). I also order a nice glass of Cabernet from Waranya, my table’s shy, Thai cocktail waitress.
We dine to ’80s power ballads. Halfway through the tilapia, company arrives. Two bridge-and-tunnel couples breeze in and plop down at the opposite end of the table without so much as a nod in my direction. They are followed by Travis, who sits down across from me. Travis is handsome and awkward in the manner of Rick Morehouse, the James Brown-impersonating “project” (played by Clayton Rohner) taken on by Terry Griffith, the male-impersonating journalism student (played by Joyce Hyser) in the 1985 movie Just One of the Guys. I am disappointed to discover that Travis, too, is cruising solo. It is the same feeling I get whenever I’m told by a new acquaintance that I remind them of someone else. Originality is elusive. And Travis is a bit of a twat. An experimental physicist by schooling — undergrad at Cal Tech, Ph.D. from Berkeley — he tells me he has shifted gears, enlisting his estimable brain power in the service of formulating financial algorithms for some hedge fund. He has trouble making sustained eye contact. He’s doing the NASA tour in Cape Canaveral (natch). His brother is an actor who also beta tests DVD commentaries (“Kill Me” and “Alvin & the Chipmunks” are among his credits). And his father is a mystery writer whose main character is a retired Texas Ranger. (Travis tells me that the book with “Armadillo” in the title is supposed to be the best. I secretly hope it’s called “Armadillo by Morning.”) Travis eats quickly and leaves, cultivating an air that he has better places to be than dining with another dude. Good riddance. I order a double espresso, try and sip it casually, but end up slamming it and hightailing it out of there, in search of something at least as cool as whatever Travis is up to. Not before saying my goodbyes to Cornelia of course.
Travis and I are not alone in our aloneness. It turns out our table is the Island of Misfit Boys. Over the course of the trip, two other solo cruisers — Jamie and Steve — make appearances at dinner, hellbent on cramping my style. Jamie works in real estate, but with a marketing focus. He tells me he went to the day one singles mixer and was the only person there. (Is that worse than dining alone at an eight-top?) Steve is from New Jersey. He’s in his mid 30s and goes on a cruise by himself every year, which makes me a definitive pretender to the throne. He tells me he met his girlfriend on a cruise. (This news gives me some pause. As much as I like solitude, a cruise does seem like an ideal vacation for bringing along a girlfriend. Hedonism squared.) Steve lets the cruise itself determine his modus operandi. Sometimes he meets lots of people (he’s still in touch with 30 or 40 folks he’s met at sea); other times he stays in his room and watches movies. Both Jamie and Steve are on Deck One with portholes, not Deck Eight with a balcony (like me). You know, because you’re getting charged double.
I wander into the Encore! Theater (the exclamation point presumptuous at best and, in my mind, better off as a question mark), armed with a Long Island Iced Tea purchased from the pop-up bar at the entrance. Staying lubricated on a cruise isn’t difficult, that’s for sure. What follows is 45 minutes of garden-variety variety show fare: emcee, singers, dancers, crowd interaction, stage patter, polite applause. I nurse my drink for the duration and emerge sufficiently entertained and borderline drunk. I get the urge to breathe in some fresh air and climb the four flights back to the Lido Deck where the Patriots/Colts game is playing on the Jumbotron above the pool. Most of the deck chairs are occupied by bodies bundled in plaid, woolen blankets. I score one of the few remaining spots in the last row and hunker down to watch Pats coach Bill Belichick make an uncharacteristic blunder and blow the game. I have no dog in the fight, but I don’t mind seeing smart people pull the occasional boner.
Swaying slightly (is it the Long Island Iced Tea, the sea, or me?), I find my way to the Caliente Disco and get my lurk on. This large, depressing venue features a horseshoe of booths and stand-up tables surrounding a sunken stage, brightly lit and sparsely populated. I like to dance. I enjoy insinuating myself into the middle of a sweaty throng, closing my eyes and cutting loose. But on this night the conditions aren’t quite right. There are a few couples giving it the old college try but the caliber of moves is, not to mince words, pitiful. I can get pretty competitive when I’ve been drinking and I know that I would literally and figuratively dance circles around these bozos. So I head to bed instead, a little drunk, a little nauseous, with a little diarrhea churning in my engine room.
Day 2 – Monday
The difficulty with a nine-day cruise is that what at first feels like all the time in the world quickly turns to no time at all. It’s like having five Saturdays in a row followed by four Sundays. Or one Saturday and eight Sundays, if you’re as predisposed to anxiety as I am.
Day two, our first full day at sea (with landfall not occurring until the following morning) seems like a throwaway, a practice day, one that can be slept through, wanked around with, squandered in a rum-fueled delirium. This realization (or recalculation) hits me as the alarm on my watch goes off at 6:30 a.m. My pre-sleep plan was to be in the gym by 7:00 a.m., break off some sort of epic treadmill/weight circuit combo, sweat out last night’s toxins in the sauna, shower, then enjoy a sit-down breakfast in one of the dining rooms. (The sit-down breakfast has eluded me on all previous cruises and has been the stuff of many a pre- and post-cruise bad dream. The sit-down breakfast has come to symbolize wasted time, my dissipating youth and any number of opportunities knocked.) However, a tossy-turny night’s sleep coupled with early morning bowel distress keeps me in the cabin until 9:00. I check my energy reserves, find they are not entirely depleted, and so head to the Cloud 9 gymnasium. There are about 10 other people working out, the fittest of whom I will later realize are members of the Dream’s officer crew. I manage a brisk four-mile run followed by an upper body workout on the machines (just in case I’ll be taking my shirt off later in the day). An Asian man asks me if I work in the gym. This does more for my self-confidence than getting ogled by a female passenger (which is as yet forthcoming).
I challenge anyone who takes a cruise to not spend any money once they are on board. The cost of passage covers your most basic needs in extravagant fashion. There is more food available to you than you could ever possibly eat. Your cabin is restored to model-home perfection every time you leave. (Another topic DFW breaks down on an atomic scale.) And there are so many entertainment possibilities, boredom really shouldn’t an option. I soon discover that relaxation isn’t either. At least not for me. At least not on that blissed-out, cellular level I associate with hammocks on desert islands. Everything I do or don’t do on board the Carnival Dream is accompanied by a low-grade anxiety that somewhere else on the ship fun or relaxation or release is being had on a larger scale by a better-looking crowd of people. It’s like everyday in New York, but with fresher air.
The source of these niggling fears is “Carnival Capers,” the 7 x 11 inch bi-fold brochure slid under my door every morning by my cabin steward. Subtitled “Your daily guide to FUN,” it is chock-a-block with the day’s activities, broken down into 15-minute increments. If that proves too daunting or unwieldy, there is also a double-sided, detachable 3 x 11 inch summary titled “Today-At-A-Glance” featuring activities on one side and food and drink on the other. A sample day includes Tai Chi, Stretch Class, Daily Puzzle Challenge, Spinning, Lido Deck Trivia Fun, Mini Golf Tournament, Laser Tag Fun Adventure Game, Karaoke Party, What’s My Line?, Interactive Fun Trivia, Motown Dance Party, Pink Floyd / Rush Laser Show, Modern Art Masters, Uncensored Adult Comedy, and the Carnival Fun Hop. I have to admire their restraint with the word “Fun.” Like a good little Carnival Dreamer, I start every day by reading the Carnival Capers cover to cover, starring can’t-miss events in blue ink. I would say that 90% of the time I am away from my cabin, I will have either the full Capers or the tear-out version on my person, and will check whichever every seven minutes (at least).
While all of the activities above are available at no extra charge, they pale next to all the ways the Carnival brass have come up with to further monetize the cruising experience. And I am a sucker for quite a few of them. Most of my supplemental outlays will take place at the Cloud 9 Spa, the first being a $125 facial I sign up for after my morning workout. I have had one other facial in my life, also aboard a Carnival Cruise ship, an experience that left me with a tight, matte complexion for the first time in my adult life. The treatment is scheduled for 3:15 that afternoon, an anchor point around which I begin planning my day.
Back at my cabin I shower, dress quickly, and rush to catch the tail end of the Late Risers Breakfast buffet in the Taste of Nations restaurant, which ends at noon. I fill a plate with wet scrambled eggs, generic waffles, bloated sausages, and what appear to be potatoes. I eat as much as I can, suffering as I am from the dual afflictions of eyes-bigger-than-stomach gluttony and clean-my-plate guilt, the former a pandemic on the Carnival Dream against which there is no inoculation (other than ironclad willpower), the latter a condition which I alone endure, as evidenced by the trays of half-eaten food littering the table tops around me. These are whisked away by the highly efficient restaurant staff, most of whom appear to be of Indonesian, Malaysian, Filipino and Thai origin. I form a rather obvious theory that sit-down meals are better than buffet fare and that buffet fare gets less appetizing the later it is in the service. This conclusion will be disproved multiple times in the coming days, though CamelBak rum may be a contributing factor.
Ten minutes later I am back at the Scarlet Restaurant. Hobbits would love to cruise, as the day can be viewed as an unbroken string of meals, separated only by the slightest traverses from deck to deck, venue to venue, aft to stern. Or, were one to set up shop in the buffet area of, say, the Taste of Nations, one could conceivably eat around the clock and never consume the same dish twice. I am a sucker for the “full experience” and so am excited by the possibilities of the Scarlet Restaurant’s midday offerings. That is until the female maître d’ seats me at a table for four, where I fill the only remaining seat. She must think I want to make friends. Across from me sit two women in their late 50s, to my right a 60-something man. I nod and smile and mumble a quick hello then let the peer groupers enjoy their conversation as I occupy myself with the view and the collection of DFW essays I’ve brought with me. After a spell I notice another vessel off our port side — a barge or tanker of some sort— and blurt out “Where did that come from?” My tablemates pretend to be impressed by my discovery, which I follow up with a query about what distinguishes a “boat” from a “ship,” you know, like, size-wise. The man to my right explains it thusly: a boat can fit on a ship. I thank him, perform a “how about that” lower lip extension, and utter not a single word more the rest of the meal.
Next up is my free 2 p.m. Detox Seminar in the Cloud 9 Spa’s aerobics room, now filled with neat rows of 30 or so folding chairs, about a third of them occupied. The seminar is led by a fit, efficient Irishman named Aidan. His accent is scrumptious and certainly helps sweeten his sales pitch. The tenets are simple. (There’s a hint of “I’ve dumbed this down for you Yankees” in Aidan’s tone — more kind than insulting.) Coffee is bad — real bad — thanks to its eight different dangerous chemicals. Shampoo, deodorant, sunscreen — all potentially carcinogenic due to sneaky levels of formaldehyde, aluminum, and silicone hidden within. Water filters like Brita take out harmful particles but leave behind the real culprits: invisible chemicals like chlorine and fluoride. As for aspartame, you might as well be mainlining Drano. And the number one cause of all disease in the world (per Aidan)? Prescription drugs.
So we’re all pretty much just festering fleshy death sacks. Well, not all of us. There’s one person in the room who eats whatever he wants, never lacks energy, has three bowel movements a day, and sleeps like a baby leprechaun. The potty talk seems to come out of the blue but is apparently a prime indicator. One poop in 24 hours is not regular. At least three poops a day is what we should be aiming for. (My parents’ cocker spaniel averages six, so hats off to you, Patches.) Aidan tells us that “Death begins in the colon,” (which he pronounces “CO-lawn”) and follows that up with “You are what you do not excrete.” It turns out that flatulence, while still a big kick for me, is the result of rotting food trapped in the intestinal tract due to an inefficient digestive system. And it’s better to have a bad diet and a good system than it is to have a good diet and a bad system. And the best way Aidan knows to jumpstart a good system is that magic word: detox. This is where shit stops being free real fast. And I fall for it, hook, line and sphincter.
According to Aidan, there are four ways our bodies naturally remove toxins: Perspiration, Urination, Respiration and Elimination, forming the handy mnemonic PURE. But when we’ve spent so many years polluting and poisoning ourselves, there comes a time when we must introduce outside forces to catalyze the healing process. Not medications, which are the ultimate enemy and the #1 cause of disease, but all-natural stuff. Enter the $35 Biochemical Assessment and $600 six-month Elemis Liver Cleanse. I make a 6:00 p.m. appointment for the former and begin talking myself into the absolute necessity of the latter.
My head fairly swimming with vows to adopt a rigorously healthy lifestyle (post-cruise, of course), I walk down the hall for my “Time for Men Facial” with Debbie of the flawless complexion, a mid-twenties beauty hailing all the way from Lucerne, Switzerland. The facial is actually a package deal combining an Indian head massage (I never surmise what makes it Indian), a neck and shoulder massage, and a deep cleanse facial. I ask Debbie if I have chosen well and she looks at me in that European if-that’s-what-you-want-stop-being-a-baby-and-take-responsibility-you’re-a-grown-man way.
It’s a good experience — for the most part. It would be petty to grouse about an attractive, foreign woman touching my bare skin in what could almost be construed as a sensual manner. Except that I’ve always had trouble relaxing in these situations. It’s the same issue that pops up in massages and haircuts, not to mention the odd mani-pedi I’ve received over the years. I feel the need to engage the attending service provider in conversation. There are a few possible explanations for this. 1) Guilt — Being pampered elicits a feeling of superiority which spawns an equal and opposite desire to rectify the perceived inequality, a task I decide is best accomplished through conversation, thereby robbing me of the much sought-after “blissed out” state and drawing my service provider’s attention away from my giant pores, oily skin, callouses, hang nails, split ends, knotted muscles or whatever they’ve dedicated their professional lives to ameliorating. It’s a lose-lose. 2) A journalistic streak — I am inquisitive by nature and find service people fascinating, especially if they are from a country different than my own, even more so when they have chosen to work on a cruise ship. 3) Misplaced politeness — If someone asks me a question, I tend to answer as efficiently as possible and then extend a follow-up question to show that I am not so self-involved as to be incurious about my fellow man. This has led to a tattooed hairdresser in Austin dishing about the huge bill her husband had run up for a variety of Internet porn sites, mostly of the “barely legal” genre; a masseuse in Costa Rica unburdening herself about the financial straights she was in trying to support her young daughter as a single mom; a Russian barber in the East Village of New York City describing the extortion and violence he encounters each time he visits his family in the motherland. 4) A wish to be different and/or memorable — Seeing the other guests of the Cloud 9 Spa getting waxed, exfoliated, dyed, buffed, blown out, acupunctured, rolfed, kneaded, and denuded on my way to Debbie’s station, I may have experienced a slight twinge of desire to make an impression, to rise above the state of drooling, pampered zombie, and this may have been inspired by … 5) Sexual attraction — Did I mention Debbie’s perfect skin? I did, yes, but did I also let you in on her après-ski rosy cheeks, cocoa eyes, and marshmallow lips? A facial is a pretty intimate event, especially on board a cruise ship. One heavier-than-anticipated swell, one unexpected tilt, and we’re making out. That’s just the way it goes.
The point is that when I am paying, a certain amount of tuning out is my prerogative and one I’d like to exercise more often. To her credit, Debbie maintains a highly professional focus and keeps her sharing far more dermal than subcutaneous. And, like a classic Swiss Miss, she remains neutral to my charms.
With the procedure complete I know what’s coming next. The upsell. Doesn’t your skin feel great? Why yes, yes it does, like it came straight from the factory. Wouldn’t you like it to feel like that everyday? Well, Debbie, I’d be a fool not to, now wouldn’t I? The products you’re currently using don’t work this well, do they? As a matter of fact they don’t. Do you know why? I’m guessing because they aren’t made by Elemis and don’t cost hundreds of dollars. And so Debbie, whose lower lip is now pouting and eyes are now sparkling and accent is now asserting itself and chest is now puffing out beneath her pink smock, all to a tasteful yet appreciable and well-choreographed degree, suggests — merely suggests — that I would derive significant benefit from the Elemis Smooth Apricot Toner ($33), Elemis Energy Skin Scrub ($46), Elemis Daily Wash ($47), Elemis Creme Control ($61) and Elemis Night Creme ($148). And I am helpless to disagree. Debbie’s so pleased that we have reached this cosmetological accord that she throws in a $20 discount, which I promptly return to her in the form of a tip. She informs me that the products will be delivered to my stateroom and promises to call and walk me through their optimal application. Grand total for the entire experience: $434.00. That is a lot of money. By the time I leave the Cloud 9 Spa, I’m on cloud 3 and falling.
I go back to the cabin to admire my new face, take a few pulls off the CamelBak, and do some mental accounting out on my balcony. I try on different personas. First up is The Bon Vivant, for whom money is a self-regenerating resource from which to derive as much pleasure as possible. Next I assume the role of The Ascetic, ready to renounce all worldly possessions and live a life of austerity and self-denial. (Two sides of the same coin, those.) Finally I inhabit The Deserving Professional — a hard-working ad man who has earned his time in the sun and a few reasonable extravagances. This will work. This I can live with for the next week or so. The rum helps.
As a sort of test drive, I roam the ship, comparing the relative comfort of identical deck chairs, prodding a listless bartender to make me a piña colada, admiring Eastern European waitresses, searching out the least populated hot tub, sampling a few rolls at the Wasabi Sushi Bar, absorbing the relentless cacophony of the casino, sidling up to a railing at the back of the ship, leveling my gaze against the horizon, letting my eyes go soft and blurry in the whorls of the Dream’s wake, marveling at how anonymous, alone, unbeholden and irresponsible at that very moment I am. Apropos of nothing I wonder if my name would be considered exotic in a foreign country. The nametags of the staff I’ve encountered so far shuffle before my eyes: Cornelia, Waranya, Aidan, Inyoman, Everhard, Stanislova, Galya, Dia. I make a mental note to give the children I will likely never have good names, sturdy names, memorable names.
Speaking of names, I’m still not 100% sure what to call my room steward. He is either Ahmed or Achmed but could also be Ahmad. This is, in many ways, the most intimate relationship between passenger and staff and I wish that he and I developed more of a rapport during our time together. On my first cruise — when I was 15, a family vacation celebrating my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary — our steward was Roland, a sweet, sunny chap from some Caribbean nation who introduced himself by singing the theme song to the television show “Rawhide,” replacing the “rolling, rolling, rolling” of the chorus with his name. Ahmed is much more unassuming, which is fine by me. The best branding ditty I can come up with on his behalf is “World without end, Ahmed, Ahmed.” That seems like a lot to live up to.
Despite our lack of connection, I have no complaints about Ahmed’s performance. He possesses the fairy-like ability to put my room in perfect order without ever being caught in the act. He makes a military-caliber bed and keeps me flush with fresh towels, clean drinking glasses, and Elemis toiletries. He’s also a whiz at transforming towels into animals. That’s kind of Carnival’s thing, similar to restaurants making napkins into fans or sculpting aluminum foil swans for doggie bags. It’s a nice touch, if completely superfluous. I unravel the first night’s pig in the hopes of divining the technique involved, but this has the unintended effect of leaving me frustrated and sad — like popping a balloon. So I start collecting them, creating a menagerie on my seldom-used sofa: a frog, a really flat turtle, what looks like an anteater (but what I later learn from the Carnival TV channel is actually a brontosaurus). On the last night they all disappear, replaced by a lone walrus.
Snapping out of my railing reverie, I remember it’s almost time for my 6:00 p.m. Body Comp Analysis with Aidan. Aidan is from Limerick, Ireland, and it turns out he was a semi-professional basketball player in a former life (a point guard from the looks of him). He’s a natural charmer, clearly in good shape and quite passionate about helping people lead healthier lives, yet either oblivious or inured to the irony of attempting to do so on a floating 24-hour buffet.
He performs the analysis using a few well-placed electrodes and a small beige device. (For those scoring at home, it’s the Model 310e V8.0.) I provide my height (75 inches) and weight (175 lbs. and climbing), which Aidan enters via standard alphanumeric keyboard. In a matter of minutes (perhaps padded by Aidan for dramatic effect), my results are spit out in an adjoining room on a flimsy rectangle of paper curiously similar in size, shape and typography to the bar receipts I have falling out of my pockets. (I scan the readout and am relieved to find no sign of a 15% gratuity.) What I do find are percent body fat, fat body weight, lean body weight, basal metabolic rate, and total body water, all well within acceptable levels, per Aidan. My bio-resistance registers as 468 ohms, but I never find out what that means. (This tidbit may or may not end up on my OkCupid profile.)
This is all good news and perhaps not too surprising. A month prior I ran the Chicago Marathon in a respectable time. Back in my terra firma life I drink plenty of water throughout the day. I can take or leave coffee. And I don’t smoke. I prepare to rise, shake Aidan’s hand (athlete to athlete) and go back to my rum, er, room. But then he asks me about my diet. And my alcohol consumption. And I know that I’m in trouble. Ten drinks or more a week? I’d say this is pretty standard. And 10 drinks a night happens more often than I’d care to admit, though the physical consequences are more dire these days, and the regret more acute. Aidan winces a bit when I mention the dearth of fresh fruits and vegetables and preponderance of frozen dinners in my diet. His look says there is work to be done — and money to be spent. Only if I’m into it, of course. Only if I think my body is worth it and my liver deserves better. By this point I am eating out of Aidan’s well-toned hands, and those hands happen to be holding the Elemis (again with the Elemis) six-month liver detoxification program: one month of Vitality pills and Caloric Metabolism pills, one month of Silhouette pills, one month of Deep Drainage pills, then do it all over again. (When I say “pills” what I really mean are “all-natural proprietary blends of herbs, vitamins and algae wrapped in rice paper.”)
Aidan informs me that I can just opt for one cycle, but that would be like doing half a sit-up. A look of skepticism crosses my face — a look Aidan has seen before and knows how to counter. He tells me it takes the liver 180 days to be completely flushed and rejuvenated and if I do it now, I won’t have to worry about it again for another four to five years — sort of like weatherizing your pipes. That’s plenty good for me. It’s close enough to the new year to be resolute about a healthy liver. Of course, while I’m at it, I might need to add fiscal responsibility. The grand total for the Elemis six-month liver detox plus body comp analysis plus $20 tip for dear Aidan is … $671.00. But really, can you put a price tag on good health? Apparently.
Feeling lighter in all the wrong places (pocketbook, head), I decide to put a real hurting on the Carnival Corporation at dinner. I order three entrees and all available appetizers and desserts. I eat some of most, none of some, and all of few. Cornelia doesn’t even bat an eyelash. She has seen this type of behavior before and is impervious to it. I have two companions at table — a couple, by my sidelong glance at them — but they choose the opposite end of the eight-top, demonstrating the good sense to give me and my concentrically emanating dishes a wide berth. To my right, at a cozy table for two set against the window, a stocky androgyne with “GROOVE” shaved into both sides of his/her head sits with his/her wife/girlfriend. They hold hands and coo sweetly, feeding each other from shared plates. Waranya returns at meal’s end peddling digestifs. I opt for a sambuca and skip the espresso, remembering what Aidan said about coffee’s chemical content. This is a double-cheeseburger-with-a-Diet-Coke type of distinction, the kind I often make without even a glimmer of awareness. Besides, full-on healthy living awaits in the new year. For now I’m navigating the murky waters of total self-indulgence while trying to learn enough to undo its deleterious effects … someday.
Things kick up a notch or three for the 10:30 p.m. “Motown Review” in the Encore! Theater. And it’s damned impressive, a solid hour of non-stop singing and dancing and live orchestration. I suspect there might be a sort of bitchy insider insult reserved for those who come up short at Broadway tryouts or Juilliard auditions: “You might want to try a cruise ship.” But here’s the thing: the house band is excellent and the dancers are all top-notch. Nobody’s phoning it in. It may not be Broadway but there is obvious joy on the faces, in the voices, and coursing through the bodies of these young, attractive men and women as they work the stage. Sure, it’s a pretty foolproof arrangement: a crowd of well-fed, well-lit, hyperbolically relaxed patrons and a drum-tight, high-energy show strung together using some of the most well-recognized and well-loved tunes in the American songbook. It’s a recipe for, well, fun! (with the exclamation mark fully justified in this instance). There’s a lot to be said for giving the people what they want while also pointing out that what they want can be (and should be) of a pretty high caliber.
It’s been a full day and I have very little left in the tank. A quick lap of the casino and a cursory glance into the disco fail to inspire me to go looking for trouble. So I head back to the cabin and call it a night.
Day 3 – Tuesday
Depression sets in. The open-seating breakfast is to blame. The maître d’ again thinks I want to meet people. It must be something she interprets from the index finger I raise as I approach her station — indicative of both getting her attention and the number of people in my party. She must think, “He is a finger in search of a hand!” when in fact I intend the index finger to send a different message, namely, “Look, I have emancipated myself from those other fingers. Help me keep it that way.”
I am seated with seven other people — three couples and an elderly gentleman to my left with a hearing aid and a lisp. The couple across from me are differently-abled. He is gap-toothed and loquacious, but in an antic way. She is pinch-faced, wearing a surprisingly low-cut blouse, and seemingly capable of only a single mimetic utterance, a sort of “Eeeahh” that steps on the heels of whatever was last said, matching it in pitch and tone with a hint of laughter thrown in. It’s quite musical, really.
The senior to my left asks where I am from. When I say Brooklyn, he shouts “You lost your baseball team!” in that way that people making small talk will blurt the first synaptic firing. (I know of no one back home still mourning the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles over 50 years ago.) I smile and nod and order eggs Benedict and French toast with a side of sausage. My theory that meals served in the dining room are superior to the buffet does not survive this breakfast. The hollandaise sauce on my eggs Benedict is like blond LEGO man hair. The egg yolks are the color and consistency of candy corn. The Canadian bacon is an insult to pigs of every nationality. The French toast is flat and served sans powdered sugar. The sausage fares the best, a pair of classic Jimmy Dean-style links that I dip in my syrup and eat fast — like, really fast — my desire to flee this table, this restaurant, this ship(?) suddenly overwhelming. I bid the table adieu. The older fellow extends a slick, shiny, flipper-like left hand that I grasp awkwardly with my right. He prophecies that we’ll see each other around the “shlip.” I make a beeline for the nearest Purell dispenser, aggrieved by all of the empty tables, perfect for a party of one. I vow that lunch will go differently.
Late morning passes breezily on deck in the aft starboard corner of the ship. A man clad in overalls and armed with a brush and bucket of white paint — the Rust Hunter — is stalking his prey, searching out spots of railing tarnished by salty spray. Our man proves a damn sight less thorough than DFW’s Third Worlder. I consider pulling the old “You missed a spot” line — which from my lounge-chair vantage point I could zing him with no less than seven times. But I don’t really want paint fumes harshing my mellow and so am happy to see him half-ass his way off toward the shuffle board courts. I nap.
At lunch I return to the dining room and ask to sit alone. This works. It works! I am seated by myself at a booth for four. The table sits atop a thick silver cylinder, forcing me to sit in the middle of the bench seat and straddle it. If there were four people sitting here, everyone would be riding side-saddle. The waiter is surprised by my lack of companionship. He doesn’t know about Steve and Jamie. I am unique again! And I am rewarded with a delicious meal: chilled apple curry soup, baby back ribs, fish and chips, and a moist slab of chocolate cake. While the food is very good, the company is fantastic.
What to do now? A quick glance at the day’s “Carnival Capers” reveals a bingo tournament in the Encore! Theater. I buy an oil can of Fosters beer on the way and then shell out $20 total for three bingo cards. The atmosphere is strangely thrilling. Unlike the games of chance going on in the casino, a bingo victory is a very public, spotlit affair. (Imagine if every blackjack win was accompanied by shouting, leaping up, and running directly to the cashier window to collect your payout.) I don’t win but feel a pleasant charge from the beer and the game. I decide to stay put in the Encore! for the “award-winning rope magic” of Andrea, a Croat who sounds like Borat and is dressed like he’s attending a prom for gymnasts. The act consists of impossible knots smoothed out with the pass of a hand, lengths of rope subdividing and reattaching like claymation earthworms, and the old rope boner trick. The man is genuinely good and I am suitably wowed. Why fight it?
The bingo has given me the gambling bug and so I take my cold streak to the $5 blackjack table in the casino and immediately lose $20 in four hands. On the last hand I double down like a pro and strike out like a chump. Ka-ching! Carnival continues the gentle fleecing of one of its most willing victims. Over the PA system the captain announces that our sister ship, the Carnival Pride, has come into viewing range off the port side and so I climb a few flights of stairs up to the Lido deck, where I am greeted with all of the blue sky, sunshine, and ocean air anyone could ever want, all of it complimentary.
The Dream and Pride perform a languorous pas de deux, taking turns pulling ahead then dropping back, a flirty display of curves and angles and churning wakes accompanied by call-and-response blasts of the horn. I spend half an hour trying to snap a selfie of the Pride (approximately 500 yards away and in perspective about the size of a foot-long submarine sandwich) being swallowed by my open mouth. I never get it right and nearly blind myself in the process, such is the strength of the afternoon sun as it sparks and splinters off the ocean and the Dream’s geometry. One deck below I encounter a fellow gawker. A cruising aesthete, she informs me that the Dream is four or five decks taller than the Pride and bigger than the Titanic. She has been on seven Carnival cruises, all on different ships. I ask her how the Dream compares and she says that “once they get the kinks worked out, it will be among the best.” (She doesn’t specify what those kinks might be.) Her word for the Dream is “luxury” — it has more adults-only areas, making it easier to find a secluded spot to pass a few aimless hours. In parting, she mentions that she always loses weight on cruises — “from all of the walking around.” (She’s a big lady.)
The hours before dinner pass without much fanfare. I stop in at the Wasabi Station for an afternoon sushi tasting and then return to the Encore! Theater to endure a buff hypnotist who compensates for a grating personality and terrible showmanship by being a complete and utter fraud. I duck out, change into my workout clothes and storm the gym, hoping to burn off some calories and work up an appetite before dinner. Three days of overindulgence have already taken their toll. I manage a few heavy-legged miles on the treadmill but have no endurance. A contingent of the Dream’s most attractive female staffers fills the gym, but this turns out to be more depressing than anything else. After all, it’s not like I’m going to chat any of them up. And vice versa.
At dinner no one else assigned to my table shows up. It feels a bit like being the lone outcast at a middle school lunch table. Or being quarantined. Cornelia, bless her heart, makes no mention of the situation and sets about filling the table with enough food to occupy all eight place settings. Waranya keeps me flush with wine, sambuca and coffee. I do my best to scarf it all down as casually as possible. If my fellow passengers find my situation odd, they don’t show it. Is it defensible to want solitude at breakfast and lunch but to allow for a little companionship at the evening meal? Is it irrational, inconsistent, insane? These are the thoughts I bring with me to bed, the three towers of NASA’s Cape Canaveral glowing off in the distance outside my stateroom window.
Day 4 – Wednesday
I wake up and immediately vow to not spend any money. No gambling, no cocktails, no shore excursions, no $3.95 bottled water in my cabin. Which will be hard, considering that the Carnival corporation makes spending money so effortless and devoid of consequence, a concern for dry-landers — not carefree me.
Port Canaveral is Carnival’s home base as well as the gateway to Disney World, Epcot Center, Universal Studios and a few other theme parks of my youth. But it’s still the contiguous continental United States. It’s still domestic. And so I opt to stay on board and enjoy the floating resort that is the Carnival Dream with about 50% fewer passengers getting in my way. (I’d hoped more would go ashore, but apparently I am not the only frugal, Florida-indifferent cruiser on board, not by a long shot.)
Once again in cellular range, I spend the morning on my iPhone checking email and texting while also cultivating my first pre-noon buzz on smuggled rum. It feels good. Out on my balcony, watching passengers mill about on land before being whisked away to rollercoasters and waterslides, I feel like Evita and start waving to the hoi polloi with a cupped hand. By staying on board, I have essentially given myself an extra sea day, and I decide to dispense with it in as loose and leisurely a way as possible. Free roaming. Haphazard dining. Minimal perusing of the “Carnival Capers.” Napping at the drop of a yawn. Plus many many trips back to the cabin for rum.
I am like a newborn baby, eating, sleeping, and eliminating whenever the mood strikes. I hit up the Tandoori station for lunch and it is delicious. I doze on a lounge chair in my favorite quadrant of the Lido deck. I don my swim trunks for the first time and spend nearly an hour in one of the outdoor whirlpools, drifting in and out of consciousness. A round of putt putt. More rum. A nap in my cabin. A long shower.
It occurs to me that I am not doing a very good job of selling the cruising experience, that I have fallen into the same critical mindset that DFW adopted for his essay. Reading his while taking notes for my own is bittersweet in extremis, on as many levels as the Dream has decks. He is someone I never met and only discovered posthumously but that I miss and admire in equal measure. He’s very honest about himself and the people he encounters. He feels deeply. In that regard, maybe his response to the world was understandable. Again, I don’t count myself anywhere near his league either as a thinker or a writer. But it’s sort of fun discovering subjects detailed in his piece that I was planning to write about ahead of time. And no, there’s no way I can prove they occurred to me before reading his version — you’ll just have to trust me. I can only hope there will be a few stones left unturned before my trip ends. Will the different cruise lines be enough? (He sailed with Celebrity.) My penchant for parentheticals over his for footnotes? I can’t call it.
He makes direct reference to Carnival twice in his essay. The first time he refers to it as the “Wal-Mart of the cruise industry.” (Ouch.) The second he digs a little deeper, noting that “In port, Carnival Megaships tend to stay sort of at a distance from other cruise ships, and my sense is that the other ships think this is just as well. The Carnival ships have masses of 20-ish looking people hanging off the rails and seem at this distance to throb slightly, like a hi-fi’s woofer. The rumors about Carnival 7NCs [7-Night Caribbean cruises] are legion, one such rumor being that their cruises are kind of like floating meat-market bars and that their ships bob with a conspicuous carnal squeakatasqueakata at night.” If only, Dave. If only.
DFW is all about the details and this forces me to train my eye more closely on life aboard the Dream. Consider, if you will, every operational toilet paper roll on board, the lead square of which gets folded into a triangle — like the point of an arrow — during every bathroom cleaning. The same goes for the top tissue in every tissue box. It does make for slightly easier grasping, but I don’t recall having had difficulty with either in the past. I am curious if the toilet paper will be allowed to run out or even get into the red zone — those last few sheets that won’t even stand up to a nose blowing. There is, I’ll admit, something inherently un-luxurious about an emaciated roll of toilet paper. I fear that, rather than being discarded, these terminal rolls are what the staff are forced to use, a corollary to the likely apocryphal story about a major airline removing one olive from its martini service and saving trillions of dollars a year. I picture the cardboard tubes littering staff cabins like spent shotgun cartridges, desperate hands rooting through the piles, looking for a scrap of white paper like a junkie trying to find a good needle in a pile of compromised syringes. Cutting corners does not seem like part of the cruise industry’s mandate, but in this economy ….
Aping DFW’s style is both unintentional and unavoidable. But I have to keep reminding myself that I am here by choice, not on assignment. That I like cruising, in spite of all of the obvious and well-documented reasons not to. None of my New York friends have any interest in going on a cruise and I have never tried to change their minds. They seem too entrenched, convinced that a predilection for cruising is something you’re born with — like webbed feet.
Still, I feel obligated to state my case.
Imagine going on a vacation to New York City, checking into your hotel on the Hudson River, and finding everything you need waiting for you. Your room, while small, is organized to perfection. The bed is immensely comfortable and the view is spectacular and you start to wonder what all that stuff was that you left at home and how nice it would be if it all permanently disappeared. In spite of a deep, almost metaphysical desire to live out your remaining years in this room, you force yourself to venture back out into the world. In the process, you discover that the hotel bar is super cheesy, but in a fun way, and that the hotel gym is actually pretty sweet and up-to-date, and that the spa, while pricey, has a couple of things you’d like to try. And the walk between all these nifty amenities takes you out into blue sky and sunshine and a breeze scented with brine and an spritzed with atomizer’s worth of sea spray. And while the food at the hotel’s restaurants isn’t amazing, it’s pretty good and it’s available around the clock and it’s all-you-can-eat and all-inclusive. And every once in a while you find something that’s really quite reliable and tasty — like the Indian food at the Tandoori Buffet and the chicken fingers at the grill. And while the drinks aren’t cheap, you get to enjoy them al fresco on the roof of your hotel while laying down. There’s no dress code, for the most part, so flip flops and shorts and your favorite old concert shirt will do quite nicely. Or you can spend your entire stay wearing your swimsuit, occasionally covered up with the plush terry cloth robe provided in your room. This, too, is your prerogative.
And did I mention that your hotel moves? In addition to housing you and feeding you and entertaining you, it is transporting you — you and your fellow guests and all of your collective stuff — across vast expanses of ocean. And you can dance and sing and frolic and fornicate the entire time that is happening. (There are no “Fasten Seatbelt” signs to obey here.) A deep, primordial hum emanates from some powerful, hidden engine that you will never see, resonating throughout the ship and in your bones in a manner that could reasonably be described as womb-like. Before you know it all you can see is the horizon, with ocean in every direction and not a cloud in the sky to use as a reference point. And one morning you wake up to discover that the architectural behemoth you checked into in New York has somehow relocated itself to Nassau in the Bahamas. And isn’t that a neat trick. And this hotel is staffed by a cohort of 70 different nationalities speaking 65 different languages, all mostly attractive, mostly young, mostly polite, only slightly jaded people who recognize the mostly ridiculous nature of the whole venture, but are going with it anyway.
Even if you live in a particularly happening neighborhood in a particularly lively city — with a gym around the corner and a coffee shop two doors down and a bar a couple of streets over — a cruise ship has you beat, at least in terms of proximity. In the space of an hour on a cruise you can work out, get a massage, stuff yourself to the gills, sing karaoke, take a few trips down a water slide, soak in a whirlpool, nap outdoors at the drop of a hat (a pastime once reserved for vagrants and derelicts), and tap into your inner Caligula. It’s like 10 of the world’s most hedonistic city blocks, stacked vertically, suspended in space, and surrounded by water, drifting like some hypnotic, ineluctable people mover across the ocean. At least that’s how I think about it.
Before I know it I’m late for dinner. The Dream is back to full capacity. Mouse ears dot the heads of children. Day-trippers display the hangdog weariness that comes from a day of gyroscopic mechanized amusement. Dinner passes in a blur. Jamie appears at the table, then disappears just as quickly . At meal’s end, all of the waitstaff perform a loosely choreographed routine as “Dancing in the Streets” plays over the ship’s speakers. It’s nice, their smiles genuine and contagious, their camaraderie real.
Day 5 – Thursday
I sleep through my 6:00 a.m. alarm and instead rise at 7:00. I could easily sleep three more hours but there is exploring to be done. After three straight days aboard the Dream, today I go ashore.
Despite yesterday’s breakfast of stewed prunes, things are not going well in the old GI tract. Still, I exit the cabin at 8:36 a.m. — the earliest of the trip so far — and head to breakfast.
I request a table to myself but am denied by the hostess in a polite but firm manner. I am seated at a table with two 40-something couples, a 60-something couple, and Ken, a retired law professor from John Jay College in New York. Ken happens to be celebrating his 47th wedding anniversary. His wife, he tells me, is wheelchair-bound, in less than stellar health, and sleeping in on this particular morning. Ken is a nice man. He says to the table, “Unlike a lot of guys, I actually liked being a father.” He uses the past tense, perhaps to indicate that he feels his fathering duties are behind him. And maybe they are.
There’s still no word from Debbie about my face wash or the instructions on how to use it. She said she’d call. This is very un-Swiss of her. Maybe that’s something that just sort of happens after an extended period of employment on a cruise ship — you start to lose your own nationality and become a citizen of the Carnival Corporation. I decide to pay her a visit at the spa. When I arrive I’m told she’s not there — either that or the front desk is covering for her. These Carnivalians really stick together.
We arrive in Nassau just as I get back to my cabin and my goodness is the port beautiful. From my balcony I watch mesmerized as the Dream’s rotors churn milky blue swirls of water into sudden spirals of turquoise and sandy brown. The ship is escorted into port by no less than six tugboats, all spraying water and doing doughnuts in the harbor for no discernible reason. Horns blast — theirs, ours. I have to think this is more than just showing off. Something is being communicated, but I can’t for figure out what. The Dream executes a nimble pivot and then pulls in backwards, much to the delight of the crowd assembled on the decks of the Carnival Pride, already docked off our port side.
Off in the distance sits Atlantis, the site of my shore excursion. Maybe you’ve seen the commercials. Atlantis was originally a Donald Trump and Merv Griffin property, giving some idea of its understated tastefulness. It looks like Las Vegas and Sea World had a baby that washed ashore fully grown on the beaches of Nassau. The most expensive suite is $25,000 a night, with a minimum four-night stay. (Michael Jackson was a regular.) More modest accommodations go for around $369 a night.
I don trunks, flip flops and a T-shirt and load my backpack with sunblock, sunglasses, my DFW essay collection, and a wide-brimmed hat. I consider bringing along my bladder full of rum, but think better of it. Why drink for free when you can drop $20 on a resort piña colada? At the very least maybe I’ll be helping the local economy.
Upon disembarking the ship I am handed a coupon for a “FREE 1-Ct Midnight Sapphire” by a member of the Carnival staff. What strange collusion is this? I love loose gemstones as much as the next guy, but I’m pretty sure this is a catch-laden offer and wonder how many of the Dream’s passengers will be seduced into visiting Venetian Jewelers (of St. Maarten, Nassau, St. Thomas, and San Juan) and upgrading their sapphire “to a 14KT Gold Pendant or Ring” or to trading it in for “$100** Good as Cash on Sophia Fiori Jewelry.” (**Not redeemable for cash.)
Waiting for the minibus that will take us the half mile to Atlantis, I overhear a man in his late 20s holding forth about a swingers cruise he has booked for the spring. “Clothing optional. Tits and ass everywhere. It’s gonna be awesome!” I am tempted to ask if the dress code applies to the dining rooms as well. I anticipate a reply somewhere along the line of “Who the fuck cares,” so I demur. Personally I don’t want to look at hot dogs and lunch meat while I’m eating my filet mignon.
My visit to Atlantis was advertised as a five-hour excursion, beginning at 12:30 p.m. However, we don’t get to the resort until 1:30 p.m. due to traffic and general grab-assery. After a brief orientation from the tour guide and instructions to meet back at the entrance at 5:00 p.m., we are released into paradise. My day-pass includes access to the casino, aquarium and beaches of Atlantis, along with a voucher for lunch. Feeling a bit peckish, I head to one of the beach snack bars and order a basket of conch fritters, which turn out to be like the Double-Stuff Oreos version of fried calamari.
The sand is white and warm. The water is clear and inviting. Waves roll in, given extra momentum by the jet skis ripping back and forth along the shore. A couple of tables away, two Jamaican gigolos are vying for the attention of a voluptuous blonde American whose white bikini fights valiantly to conceal the few square inches of skin not already spilling out into the daylight. She has brought her Louis Vuitton handbag with her to the beach and it hangs in the crook of her arm. It’s hard to tell which contents the gigolos are more interested in: those in the bag or those in the bikini. Studies have shown that one of the few exceptions to the “hedonic treadmill” (the psychological tendency to acclimatize to pleasure and therefore require ever-increasing doses) are breast implants. Apparently the bloom never falls off a nice set of store-bought boobies. The woman starts to stroll down the beach, casually sipping an umbrella drink while enjoying the attentions of her dueling suitors.
The Atlantis Aquarium — or “Marine Habitat,” as they call it — is damned impressive. Per the Atlantis website, “over 20,000 deep reef and pelagic fish” can be found behind the thick glass walls, navigating ruins representing “the tunnels and thoroughfares of the lost continent.” I see piranhas, jellyfish, eels, manta rays, barracudas, and sharks, not to mention groupers the size of a legless cow sliced lengthwise down the middle, and just as appealing. My heart usually aches for animals in captivity, but these fish really do seem to have it made. It feels more like an exclusive gated community than an aquarium — all needs attended to, predators cordoned off in their own subdivisions, plus a steady stream of gawking humans to people-watch if the whole Atlantis theme ever gets stale.
Back out in the sunshine I briefly consider the $50 upgrade to visit the Aquaventure Water Park — that is until I see a 300-plus-lb. man nearly paralyze himself on the Leap of Faith waterslide, skimming across the water like a skipping stone and flying heels and tailbone first (at speed) into the concrete steps leading out of the exit pool. How he walked away unscathed — and laughing — is a mystery. But that he did so was much to the relief of the two lifeguards on duty.
The water park ruled out, I am left to spend my remaining hours at the beach, the signature expanse of real estate that surrounds Paradise Island, and not a bad last resort at all. The sun hangs low in the late afternoon sky, ducking behind the occasional cloud and the multi-tiered towers of the Atlantis hotel. Still, I don’t take my chances. As a fair-skinned, freckly sort whose father has had a couple of minor bouts of skin cancer, I know it’s best to protect myself.
For me the human desire for companionship asserts itself most strongly during the application of sunscreen. In my experience, if you’re attempting to do it without assistance, it’s best to find a full-length mirror and set aside at least 30 minutes. Take it body part by body part. Add a dollop every two to three inches and don’t start rubbing it in until the territory in question is completely polka-dotted, ensuring no patch of skin goes undefended. Spots often missed: earlobes, the backs of knees, the tops of feet, and that patch of skin in the middle of the back we all think we have given a sufficient reach around. (Billion-dollar idea: an automated sunscreen applicator that works the way spray tanning booths do. You walk in, close your eyes and mouth, extend your arms and legs like Michelangelo’s Vitruvian Man, and in three seconds receive an even, all-over coating of cancer protection.)
I do my best with the slathering and then spend 30 lazy, meditative minutes floating in the warm, waist-deep water of the cove. There are only a few other guests in the vicinity. An Asian couple coax their infant son into the shallows to his wild delight. If I am ever going to be struck by the thunderbolt realization of happiness, this seems as good a time as any. I do that thing where I imagine the Google maps view of my life, flipping to a satellite perspective, hovering just above my current position then zooming way out until I am just a dot on the earth’s surface. All of the other dots I know — family and friends in Texas, friends and coworkers in New York — light up as well, connecting lines back to me. There’s something I like very much about this vantage point, the longer those threads back to the people I know, the more alive I feel.
Snapping back to street-level view, I towel off and wander over to the other side of the resort where the actual Atlantis guests are staying. I’m not sure this is permitted for a cruise ship interloper like myself. The bartender at the outdoor pavilion gives me a disdainful glare as I order a mojito, but he’s light on patrons and if I’m foolish enough to drop $25 on a pre-mixed frozen Rum Runner, what difference does it make?
I take my drink and stroll through an area called Cain at the Cove, described by a plaque near the entrance as “an adults only ultra-pool with an outdoor gaming pavilion and 20 private cabanas.” Though sparsely populated at the moment, I can picture the scene to come. Fire pits, a DJ loosening his wrists spinning nondescript house music, bottle service, women in wispy dresses over bikinis, men in unbuttoned linen shirts and mandals, everyone rocking sunglasses after sunset. This is nowhere I want to be. Besides, it’s getting late and the minibus is leaving soon.
Day 6 – Friday
From the ship, Freeport is a bit of an eyesore, an industrial wasteland of shipping containers, rusting cranes and scrub brush. I’m sure there are nice parts. If the shore excursion list is to be trusted, there are places to golf, swim with dolphins, sail, ride Harleys, snorkel, shop, and stare down at the ocean floor through glass bottom boats. None of this interests me a whit. A quick perusal of the “Carnival Capers” reveals absolutely nothing I feel inclined to do on the ship, either. And I can’t tell you how liberating this is.
I break off five miles on the treadmill at the gym. I skip the sauna, skip breakfast, shower, sunblock up and hit my favorite aft starboard deck for 30 minutes of sun worship. Then it’s time to put a hurting on the pasta bar. I see a woman at a nearby table go on a lemonade run. By the time she gets back (a mere 20 seconds later), her half-full plate of spaghetti has been whisked away by one of the restaurant’s many overzealous bus boys. She looks sequentially flummoxed, pissed, and impressed. She sets down her lemonade and goes off to prepare a new plate of pasta. I don’t wait to see if the lemonade is there when she gets back. (I briefly consider taking it myself.)
After lunch I stake out a spot in the shade underneath the stairs leading to the waterslides — my second favorite lounging and reading spot. I position myself on my deckchair so that the ship’s railing and the horizon are plumb and use this as a gauge for just how much the ship is rocking. I order a margarita from Galya, the lovely Bulgarian waitress. I wait a good hour to order my second drink, this time a piña colada. My chemistry with Galya is nonexistent. (Maybe I should have hit the weights instead of the treadmill.) I do manage to get her to teach me how to say “thank you” in Bulgarian, a phonetic approximation being “bloggo dairy yuh.”
Though full-on drunkenness is proving elusive, I muster the nerve to finally tackle the waterslides. I ask a middle-aged woman two recliners over, “If someone who isn’t me fiddles with my stuff, would you mind hitting them with your purse?” Maybe I am drunk after all. A chubby fellow on the stairs leading up to the Twister and Drainpipe gives his belly a loving one-two pat as he ascends, like it’s a buddy he’s spending the day with. Both slides are excellent and I ride them each three times, giving the right of way whenever possible to the youngsters scurrying about.
All of this fun-having reignites my appetite so I go make merry at the buffet. I set my plate down at one of the outdoor tables near the pool and, while keeping a watchful eye on my meal, order a Fosters from the South African barkeep.
At 5:00 p.m. the Dream sails out of Freeport. I consider going back to my room to watch Duplicity, the Clive Owen / Julia Roberts flick that’s been playing on repeat throughout the cruise. Instead I double down on sushi and sake at the Wasabi Sushi Bar, then head to the casino and quickly lose $20 at video poker and $20 more at roulette, which is kind of fun. A friend back in New York told me to bet $5 on the number 24, which hits once when I have it cornered. This leads to a frisson of excitement and a modest payout, but the luck doesn’t last.
Back in the cabin I catch the last half of Duplicity and change for dinner, upgrading to slacks, a no-longer crisp button-down shirt, and my seersucker blazer. My cheeks radiate a warm blush from sun and sake. The mirror reflects a person deep in the throes of First World debauchery. We exchange a knowing wink.
At dinner I once again have the entire table to myself. My rapport with Cornelia and Waranya is now off the charts. Cornelia dutifully invites me to the midnight buffet, which she will be working, and I dutifully accept. I take my snifter of sambuca back to the room and lie down. I really want to call it a night. Doing nothing has worn me out. But there is more nothing to be done. And so I rally.
The Carnival Fun Hop & Deck Party is in full swing. It’s the Red Team (staterooms with odd numbers) versus the Blue Team (staterooms with even numbers) in some sort of competition for “bragging rights,” but which really seems more like an exercise in crowd control. I head to the Caliente Dance Club where my stalwart Red comrades are showing real commitment dancing the YMCA, the Time Warp, and the Cupid Shuffle. Confident that the Red Team has it in the bag, I find Cornelia at her station in the buffet. We make polite but awkward small talk and she teaches me how to say “sleep well” in Romanian. And then I do as she says.
Day 7 – Saturday
Against all odds, I obey my 5:45 a.m. alarm and pop out of bed feeling lucid and fresh. I don the plush Carnival bathrobe hanging in the closet and step out onto the balcony to watch the sunrise. The ship is quiet, save for the murmur of waves and wake. It feels good to air out the old grapes underneath my robe and I stand there savoring the pleasant updraft while watching the sun’s slow, variegated ascent. I’ve seen far more sunsets than sunrises in my time but I think I prefer the latter. There’s an optimism to sunrises, like a battery charging to full strength.
I dress and head to the spa in search of some quality time in the steam room. But it’s not steaming. Which leaves me steaming. So I go get huge in the gym instead. I mean severely muscularized to obscene proportions. Triceps shredded. Biceps the size of softballs. Veins pumped up and near to bursting. Peczapoppin’. Aidan would be proud.
About an hour later I check back in the steam room and all systems are go. In the locker room I undress, wrap a towel modestly around my waist and settle in for a good sweat. I have the place all to myself, that is until a portly gentleman comes in and plops down about three feet away. This is too close for comfort but not close enough to be overtly creepy. That is until he unwraps his towel and lets his wang dangle. I’m mentally committed to 15 minutes so I close my eyes and try to block out the shvitzing shvantz to my left. After seven minutes, the man leaves. (If you can’t stand the heat ….) But he returns shortly thereafter. I zen out again. About 14 minutes into my 15-minute session, my neighbor reaches for and begins to stroke (yes, stroke) the salami. Maybe I’m flattering myself. Maybe this is harmless, physician-mandated behavior — like touching one’s toes, but different. Had I missed something in the day’s Carnival Capers? “7:00 a.m. — 8:00 a.m. Dueling Banjos in the Men’s Steam Room.” Whatever the case I don’t stick around to find out. The steam room is dead to me.
Hustling, I shower, get dressed, and slip out the back door. As mentioned before, the Dream is a labyrinth, and nowhere is this more true than in the spa, where doors seem to appear and disappear at random. This particular egress leads to an unexpected jackpot: the coed sauna! It’s compact and beautiful, an L-shaped red cedar bench built flush against cedar walls opposite a floor-to-ceiling window looking out onto the water. This is by far the best discovery of the trip. No one seems to know about it, though there’s a chance a woman might walk in and, overcome by the heat and my charisma, lose her mind and ravage me — a little karmic scale-balancing after the steam room episode. (This does not happen.)
I scarf down a small bowl of fruit salad and a danish, then squeeze in a half hour of sun worship on Deck 11. This might be my last shot at a tan for a good five months, so I allow my pasty limbs and torso to drink in the vitamin D. Feeling the warming sun and cooling breeze simultaneously is the tactile equivalent of kettle corn — savory and sweet in equal measure. I manage to slip beneath the flimsiest veneer of sleep, that gauzy state of semi-consciousness where light and sound still filter through, diffuse and dreamy. I am a puppy in a sunbeam. Then it’s time to dress for brunch.
Innovation is a part of business, whether inspired or not. We can debate the relative merits of Pepsi Clear, New Coke, and whatever the latest cheese-in-crust mutation from Pizza Hut might be, but for me brunch is always a good idea — and Carnival’s take feels worthy of the brand’s attention. The Carnival Capers bills it thusly: “Prefer a more formal lunch option? You are invited to our complimentary champagne brunch.” As many experiments go, the kinks need working out. We are greeted by a sweaty, B.O.-ringed maître d’ pouring mimosas and going light on the champagne. I am seated at a table for six already containing two couples, good company all the way around. It takes at least 15 minutes to have our orders taken by the lovely but harried Stanislava. But the in-between time is filled by the up-close magic of Aaron, a goateed giant of a man who succeeds at mystifying the gentleman across from me to the point of annoyance. I guess some people just don’t like being fooled, even for fun.
The younger couple is a wealth of cruising knowledge. With a little prompting, the blonde wife happily holds forth. In her opinion, Norwegian is on the low end of the spectrum regarding food quality, entertainment quality, amenities, and overall experience. Similar to my father’s directive to never buy a car the first year it comes out, she advises never going on a ship during its first year of operation — too many hiccups. From an upkeep perspective, ships get cosmetic makeovers about every four years: new carpet, a fresh coat of paint, all done in dry dock. Every 10 years they receive a massive refurbishing, which may include lengthening and heightening, accomplished by slicing the ship in half width-wise, inserting cabins into the lower levels like LEGO blocks, converting pool decks into cabin decks, then layering new pool decks and waterslides and basketball courts and mini golf courses and climbing walls on top of that. Royal Caribbean’s newest vessel has been getting a lot of chatter for its insane size and ridiculous amenities, and it’s had three accidents just trying to leave port. I wonder to myself whether this isn’t all leading toward making passengers forget they are even on a ship to begin with.
The older couple are Eugene (“call me Gene”) and Edith (“Edie, please dear”) Foladerre. They’ve been married for 54 years and this is their tenth cruise. Gene has a voice like marshmallows, tonsillitis, and gravy. Edie is as small and delicate as a fallen leaf. Gene’s father, a Jew from Poland, came to America by himself at the age of 11. Gene grew up across from the Polo Grounds, played stickball with Willie Mays as a kid, and went to high school with Tiny Tim. He served in Korea, had KP duty on the transport from San Francisco to Japan, and later became a Mason.
These details of a life well-lived spill out in a manner lean and efficient, pared down, I imagine, from multiple re-tellings and the perfect length for pre-meal introductions. It’s a tough act to follow, but when it’s my turn to share, Gene punches up my CV with some nice color commentary. To my admission of working in advertising he says, “Good thing you don’t write for that Letterman. Milton Berle was the same way in my day. He was a pig.” When I say that I’m single, he shoots back with, “So you’ve never been married? No wonder you’re smiling.” Only then do I realize that I am.
Edie was born in Germany, left when she was four, and arrived in America 30 days after Kristallnacht. I tell her I’m glad she made it. “I am, too,” she replies without hesitation. She went to City College and Baruch College in New York City where she studied accounting and was the only woman in the program. Her mother wanted her to be a teacher but, as Edie puts it, “I always had a way with numbers and thought accounting was something I would enjoy.” On the first day of class the professor told her, “Accounting is a field for men only.” She stayed. He gave her a D. Four years later her younger sister followed in her footsteps. “Same class. Same professor. But this time, no speech. She got an A.”
Edie bought her first house for $25,500 and sold it 40 years later for $425,000. Not to be outdone by her husband’s brushes with fame, she worked with the tennis star Althea Gibson in what I assume was an accounting capacity, though where the Foladerres are concerned, it’s best not to make assumptions. Edie says she loves to dance but also confesses to being a diabetic and a smoker. Or, as she puts it, “I’m bad.” The couple have one son — an AT&T employee for 26 years — and one granddaughter, currently studying languages at Bard College. “She’s really smart, very pretty,” Edie divulges with a sly grin. “How old are you?” “Too old. I’m 37,” I reply. “What? You look 27, maybe younger.” I like these two very much.
After brunch there is more drinking and mingling to be done. Some time during the previous night, a white-gloved emissary (I’m assuming) slid an envelope under my cabin door. It was an invitation to The Return Cruisers Cocktail Hour, an event so exclusive that it does not show up in the day’s itinerary. Becoming a four-time Carnival passenger was not something I ever set out to do. As I mentioned earlier, my first cruise was for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. The ship sailed from Florida to the Bahamas and back, though I can’t recall the exact ports-of-call. I was in high school at the time and thrilled to be able to range and roam with no real adult supervision. The ship was a playground, maze, and amusement park all in one and my older sister and I — in a rare détente — had a blast hanging out together, watching movies in the ship’s theater, reading side-by-side on deck chairs, sponging up unhealthy amounts of sunshine , and drinking virgin daiquiris while daring each other to order the real thing (international waters, and all). I have very specific — though likely distorted — sensory recall of a snorkeling excursion in some Bahamian port. Swimming out from the beach about 20 yards, I remember floating on my side, suspended in the ocean’s embrace like a raisin in a jello mold. The water’s visibility was endless and I held my breath and bobbed there effortlessly, staring out past the fish and reef and jet ski wakes and sailboat hulls, feeling my hair and swim trunks ripple in rhythm with the waves.
My other two cruises on Carnival were far less civilized, so much so that they blur together. A pack of alpha males (plus me), all in our mid-twenties. Limousine service to the port. Closing down the disco every night. A drowned passenger (no one in our group) swallowed up by the riptides of Mazatlán. Carlos & Charlie’s. Señor Frog’s. Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo bar, empty and depressing on an afternoon visit. Random hook-ups. Terrible snorkeling in murky water. Europeans in banana hammocks. Bragging rights for the highest bar tab. The most cigarettes I’ve ever smoked at a stretch. Tonsillitis when I returned home. A proverbial hot mess.
But enough nostalgia. Back at the cocktail hour, everyone is decked out in their finest, myself included. Carlo, the Dream’s diminutive Italian captain, makes an appearance in his finest dress whites and is fawned over by high-heeled American women who look tempted to pick him up and burp him. There is free booze and no skimping on the pours. The Dream Band plays — and well. I am made to feel special. Like a mammoth drive or long, successful birdie putt on the 18th hole after an otherwise mediocre round of golf, the event leaves me with a good feeling about Carnival as a company and gets me thinking about where I might let them spirit me next. Or maybe that’s the martini talking. According to the couple next to me, they used to give away a free cruise at the Repeat Cruisers Happy Hour. Tonight they give away dinner for two at the Dream’s Chef’s Art Steakhouse — a $60 value.
At dinner I ask Cornelia a question that has been nagging me since I came on board, namely why Americans don’t work on cruise ships. The only American staffer I’m aware of on the Dream is Todd, the cruise director, and I certainly wouldn’t mind if we expatriated him. Cornelia tells me that Norwegian tried it once — an all-American crew, sailing to Hawaii from Los Angeles. It was a near mutiny. Simply put, the Yanks couldn’t hack it. They weren’t prepared for the 12-hour days, tight quarters, and prohibitions against fraternizing on deck. Maybe they were expecting 15-minute smoke breaks every hour and lots of commingling with the customers. The reality is much starker. Cornelia tells me that all non-officers sleep two to a cabin, likely an interior unit with no window — somewhere between a college dorm room and a prison cell with an en suite. Twin beds. Pot luck. And staff assigned to lower decks aren’t allowed to venture out into the fresh air, save for the few free hours available when cruises get turned over — old passengers leaving, new ones massing down below.
When Flo Rida’s “Apple Bottom Jeans” comes on over the restaurant’s PA, Cornelia doesn’t dance along with the other waitstaff. She said she had a “bad experience” once and refuses to elaborate. She also refuses to give me a cigarette when I ask for one at the end of dinner — and that’s really all you need to know about Cornelia, though I will happily share more. She loves smoking, gets great pleasure from it, and smokes with her father when she visits home. But she knows how unhealthy it is and won’t play any part in helping me (an admitted casual smoker) get addicted. She has an easily dislocated right shoulder and so has to prop up trays on her left side. She’s trying to see if she can room with her brother when they both switch ships. And she just so happens to be engaged to a Turkish waiter named Mehmet who works in the Crimson restaurant. They’ve been dating for five years and only on this, the second to last night, does her engagement ring materialize. (Is this possible?) They will get married in Romania in May and will eventually settle down in a coastal town in Turkey where there are lots of hotels and restaurants and, hence, lots of places to find work. I wonder if waiting tables on a cruise ship looks good on a resume and imagine it must. What job in the service industry could show more dedication, work ethic, patience, stamina, and ability to put up with customers at their most entitled? The last thing she says to me before I excuse myself is, “Love people, not things. Use things, not people.” Maybe this will sink in later.
Thanks to wine and sambuca delivered by Waranya, I decide to keep the party going. It is, after all, Saturday night and a little extra buzz vibrates the air, as if the passengers can feel the cruise coming to an end and aren’t yet ready. I make a quick pass through the casino. The electronic Texas Hold ’Em poker table is full and ringed with spectators. Everyone is in high spirits. Travis, the experimental physicist turned hedge fund programmer, is one of the players. I watch as he goes all in with pocket queens, only to get run off the table by a lady with three eights. My heart swells with schadenfreude. To the disco!
There are 200 or so people inside watching a Michael Jackson video compilation. Maybe four patrons are dancing. The rest are milling about, nursing drinks at stand-up tables or folded into the velvety banquettes that line the walls. I want to be starting something. I want to dance, to swell the ranks of the four brave souls. A woman with Down syndrome storms the floor and is absolutely owning it. I briefly wonder if “Boogie Down Syndrome” is a good name for a rap metal band (KRS One of Boogie Down Productions rhyming over monster riffs supplied by System of a Down) but I quickly decide it’s in poor taste — the name and rap metal in general. A few more dancers enter the fray but I just can’t seem to work up the nerve. I keep telling myself, “Next song, next song,” but it doesn’t happen. Gradually the dance floor fills. I see Steve of the tribal tattoo (and girlfriend back home) grinding with a woman. I make a vow that if they play “Rock Your Body” by Justin Timberlake, I will rock my body and many others. Three minutes later I break my promise. “It Takes Two” by Rob Bass and DJ EZ-Rock comes on — a song I have never not danced to — and I still have lead feet. Nada. Bupkis. It’s tequila time.
I start with one shot of Hornitos. I wait 10 minutes then have another. Immediately after slamming down the second I order a third, as three tequila shots feels luckier than two, numerologically speaking. I prop myself up against one of the standing tables and wait. Time passes, tunes thump, the dance floor swells and thins, swells and thins. Even though these people are all strangers to me, my self-consciousness is at an all-time high, my inhibitions somehow winning out over the alcohol. But because alcohol has never let me down before (in this regard), I order two more Hornitos shots from the same unfazed female bartender — five being a way more practical count than four — and gulp them in quick succession. The effect is immediate and pronounced.
And just like that I am dancing. I can’t tell you the song that is playing or how many people I bump into or drinks I spill on the way to the dance floor but I am smack dab in the middle of the crush, gliding and lurching about, my full repertoire of moves on display in the hopes of catching the fancy of the female Dream officers who apparently have the night off, sleek Nordic blondes testing the tensile strength of the seams of their dress whites. I couples dance with a definitive cougar, doing my best to translate a Texas two step (my strength) into a salsa (hers). She puts up with me for one song and disappears. And that’s when things get cockeyed.
I bum a cigarette from one of the crew ladies, last about three puffs, then stub it out. It tastes awful and ratchets my vertigo up to 11. I eavesdrop on their conversation and hear one of the women say, “She showed up a half hour late to work and they breathalyzed her. She’s probably going to get fired.” Would I be disciplined enough to comport myself soberly as an employee in this environment? My current condition would indicate no. I decide I need more movement and less thought. Back on the dance floor another blonde materializes, a passenger whose name I think I hear is Lisa. She’s cute and showing off her décolletage. We also couples dance but Lisa tries to lead, rotates in the wrong direction when I spin her, and holds on when she should let go. I persevere. My brain shuts down all verbal functions, reassigning faculties to the motor centers in an effort to keep me upright. For the most part, it works.
At some point I head back to the bar for another Hornitos shot and accidentally end up with a double, meaning the equivalent of two shots in one glass. I start to protest but rationalize that seven shots will be luckier than six and so into my body it goes. I swerve through the crowd and do my best to communicate to Lisa that I’m going to the bathroom and will be right back. When I return from relieving myself, she— like my public usefulness — is long gone. I vaguely recall a trip to the Promenade Deck for some fresh air. Did I spy our sister ship off the port side, dangling somewhere between the black sky and the even blacker sea? I can’t be sure. What I am sure of is that I pass out on the floor of my cabin fully clothed.
Day 8 – Sunday
Calling my hangover a hangover is like calling the Carnival Dream a boat — it is inaccurate and the error is an order of magnitude. The most obvious question is why, why, why a grown man of 37 would do this to himself, effectively (very effectively) ruining the last day of his vacation. I have no satisfactory answer and this absence of rebuttal will lead me to reconsider my relationship with alcohol (and the odd cigarette) for a long time to come.
No gym, no sauna, no waterslides, no buffet. In my condition, the only thing I feel up to is stumbling through one of the last unexplored corners of the Dream, and also one of the most curious: the Art Gallery on Deck 5. This strange room had caught my attention multiple times but always failed to register as anything more than a mirage. For one thing, there was never anyone inside, just a well-dressed woman sitting at a table near the entrance who always looked equal parts sophisticated and bored. For another (and I may be in the minority here), I don’t equate cruises with fine art, especially given the aesthetic the Dream’s designers assembled. But I’m willing to be proved wrong. Maybe there are people out there who go on cruises expressly to snag Bahamian sapphires on the cheap and score fine art at lightning auctions.
Is this the minor leagues of the art world, like I’ve conjectured the cruise circuit might be considered for singers, dancers, and musicians? I don’t know. And I don’t know much about art either. Although, as the saying goes, I do know what I like — and I don’t like any of what I see here, despite attempts to convince me otherwise. First are the names of the artists themselves, which all sound invented for maximum referentiality. The program lists almost 100: Itzchak Tarkay, Romero Britto, Fanch Ledan, Simon Bull, Linda Le Kinff, Thomas Kinkade, Yacov Agam, Anatole Krasnyansky, Jean-Claude Picot, Duaív (just Duaív), Destino (just Destino), Donna Summer (really?), Jan Balet, Emile Bellet, Marko Mavrovich, Slava Brodinsky, and Pablo Picasso. I do a double take, expecting on second read to see Pedro Picasso or Pablo Pizarro, but it is the master himself, his name printed beside a thumbnail image of black, brown and cream squiggles, a painting he would likely toss overboard if he could. Second is the effusive praise that’s been broadcast on the Dream’s television channel. As the esteemed Morris Shapiro puts it, “Agam blows me away. He is the master of kinetic art and the most important artist living in our time.” The Carnival Capers continues the theme, proclaiming “The psychedelic movement of the 1960s was characterized by political rallies, the Beatles, and artwork by Peter Max. Known as ‘America’s Painter Laureate,’ Max’s work was embraced by millions as the artistic interpretation of the values of their generation.”
The auction is presided over by the shadowy Park West Gallery, whose 40/40 customer satisfaction guarantee “allows you to return any work purchased from Park West for up to 40 days.” Forty days to come to your senses? That’s pretty generous, except that I don’t think anyone with any sense would buy any of this stuff to begin with. Unless maybe they’d had seven tequila shots the night before. Only one way to find out.
About 20 passengers attend, most, I’m assuming, for the complimentary champagne. We are encouraged to browse the gallery, strolling among oil paintings of Disney characters, spiral staircases climbing out of checkered floors, soft-focus landscapes, still lifes of darts resting against wine bottles, garish harlequins, loose-limbed women in repose — the kind of art you might find in Radisson lobbies … or on cruise ships. I overhear one gentleman say, “I have three Mendelevs, but I don’t have that one. That’s why I put my sticker on it.” I scan the program and find an artist named Igor Medvedev and assume that’s who he’s talking about. Mendelev is close enough for me. Besides, if you can tell a Le Kinff from a Tarkay, I’ll give you a Yablonski.
Eventually we takes our seats. Today’s event is being emceed by an unctuous young South African I’ll call Wooter. He fires up the projector and launches into a perfunctory PowerPoint presentation titled “What Makes Art Valuable.” Wooter is quick with a catchphrase. He tells us that one of the most important things he learned in business school is to “always use someone else’s money before you use your own.”
Wooter does his best to pimp the Park West stable of artists, mostly by mentioning them in the same breath as artists we might actually have heard of. “Igor Medvedev is a master serigrapher. Andy Warhol used serigraphy, more commonly known as silk screening …. Yakov Agam invented the Agamagram. He has a permanent room in the Pompidou Center in Paris which more people visit than view the Mona Lisa …. Emile Bellet is a master lithographer, a technique where you draw directly onto a limestone slab. Marc Chagall loved the medium …. Peter Max has been the official artist of the Super Bowl and Grammys five times each. He’s world-famous for his Statue of Liberty pop art …. Tarkay is considered the greatest figurative artist of our generation. He’s a very hugely well-known artist.”
I scan the room. Empty champagne glasses lie toppled over beneath chairs. Attendees fidget and murmur. Wooter is losing us and he knows it. So he cuts off the PowerPoint and tries a new tack. “Put your hand up if you want a free artwork!” The gallery staff come around and hand something to the five or so folks with outstretched arms. Are they vouchers? Numbered prints? Certificates of authenticity? Nope, they are applications for the Park West Collectors Card (APR 29.99%, minimum interest charge of $2). The “free artwork” is promised to arrive in the mail with the credit card. Wooter collects the completed forms, shuffles them, selects one, and awards one lucky soul a Park West-branded lunchbox, coffee mug, note pad, and mouse pad, each revealed from behind his podium with a “but wait, there’s more!” flourish.
Enough foreplay. It’s time for the lightning auction to begin. If the air isn’t exactly crackling with electricity, the crowd is at least alert and upright. The auction is a three-man operation, but it’s Wooter’s show. In the left front corner of the room, one assistant assembles a stack of about 10 framed “artworks,” lined up facing away from the audience. In the center of the room stands a large easel. A second assistant waits in the wings on the right. Assistant One flips over the art and props it on the easel. Wooter does a quick bit of shilling, scans the crowd for bids, then closes with the time-honored “Going once …” countdown and gavel slam. Assistant Two then removes the item, and the whole thing starts again. Whether a piece sells or gets remaindered, the procedure is exactly the same. Flip, show, shill, scan, count, slam, gone.
This is clearly not a Fanch Ledan crowd. Mr. Ledan’s Miami Vice-like “interiorscapes” look like where Patrick Nagel’s art deco ’80s ladies might have returned home to after aerobics class. Five Ledan lithographs go up for auction, starting out at $4,500 each. By the later rounds, Wooter is trying to unload a three-Ledan set for $378 total. (“Three makes you a collector,” intones Wooter enthusiastically.) But the audience remains unmoved. A “one-of-a-kind” field of poppies by painter Michael Milken priced at $5,450 is similarly ignored. The same goes for a $15,000 Peter Max print of the Statue of Liberty.
When the dust settles, the couple behind me has purchased two small Slavor Berdinsky paintings of the Tuscan countryside for $1,000 each and seems quite happy about it. Wooter thanks us for our time, mentions that the gallery will be open for just a few more hours, and reminds us that “the only art you regret is the art you don’t collect.” I perform a quick internal scan. I am racked with something, but I’m quite sure it isn’t regret. It’s alcohol poisoning.
Up on deck the weather has turned from sunny and warm to gray and cold. A sullen mist lingers near the rearmost swimming pool. Some passengers swaddle themselves in beach towels and cinch tight the hoods on their sweatshirts and windbreakers. Others curl up in lounge chairs and read Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. The cruise is coming to an end and a collective melancholy is descending.
I return to my cabin and find my Elemis face cleansers waiting for me. The accompanying apology/love letter from Debbie must have gotten lost in transit. I spend the hours before dinner packing and watching the Dream’s television channel, which is playing back the trip’s highlights on a loop for maximum “in case you missed it” enjoyment. There is a limbo line and a hairy chest competition, country line dancing lessons and a singalong in the piano bar, a liquor raffle and plenty of hearty waves from families returning aboard after shore excursions.
Dinner is cheery but subdued. All around the restaurant passengers and waitstaff hug and pose for pictures together. I ask Cornelia for her email addresses and she obliges. We get Stevan the under waiter to take our photo with my phone. The maître d’ makes an announcement over the PA system thanking us for choosing Carnival Cruise Lines and wishing us a safe and speedy return home in the morning. During one of Cornelia’s many trips to the kitchen, I sneak out.
Day 9 – Monday
For me, one of the most enticing aspects of taking a cruise that terminated in New York was the opportunity to retrace the final leg of the journey European immigrants made coming into New York harbor hundreds of years ago. But I sleep through it. I’m not too crushed. There’s really not a whole lot of geography to marvel at along the New Jersey coast at 5:00 a.m. (It’s not like coming upon the White Cliffs of Dover.) I’d seen the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on our way out of town and could approximate how it looked on our return — simply swap out the purple glow of dusk for the dreary haze of morning and play it back in reverse. Besides, the real show-stopper is the New York City skyline, and that’s not something you have to board a cruise ship to catch — a free trip on the Staten Island Ferry will do nicely.
I awake to find my Sail & Sign Statement waiting under my door. Grand total: $1600. I have spent as much money on board as I paid for the cruise itself. $350 on booze. $80 on bingo. $85 on my lone shore excursion. And about $1085 at the spa. Gratuity is included according to rates “suggested” by the financial masterminds at American Express, but is adjustable up or down. I sign off on the suggested amount and give the cabin one last appraisal. My plush white robe hangs alone in the closet. I leave the closet door cracked just enough to create a sightline between the robe and the towel walrus slumped over on the sofa.
Self-assist debarkation starts at 6:15 a.m. My feet hit the sidewalk along Manhattan’s West Side Highway around 6:45. I began the cruise with diarrhea and disembark constipated. My digestive system, like the rest of my body, has swung wildly from one extreme to another over the last week and change. It will be, I imagine, quite some time before I reestablish equilibrium.
In less than a day’s time the Dream’s galleys, restaurants, and bars will be restocked and a new batch of passengers will assemble and swarm, parasites invading an expectant host. Too spent to brave the subway, I hail a cab for the long, expensive ride back to Brooklyn. As the Dream shrinks in the taxi’s rearview mirror, I picture Cornelia on one of the upper decks, smoking a cigarette in the chilly New York air and thinking of a not-too-distant future, married to Mehmet, living and working in a Turkish resort town, solid ground under her feet, the Bosphorus twinkling in the distance, dotted with sailboats, small yachts, the occasional dinner cruise, and not a single Carnival megaship in sight.
Despite my best efforts to talk myself out of cruising, it still holds a strong appeal. Alaska, the fjords of Norway, the islands of French Polynesia, a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2 — a straight shot, nothing but sea days and the perhaps unsettling feeling of really and truly being in the middle of an ocean. Maybe even a trip around the world. On the Dream I overheard some chatter about a well-off retiree who had sold all of his possessions and was living out the rest of his days as a passenger on the Carnival fleet, transferring ships and rerouting his itinerary as the mood struck. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous.
Cruising isn’t cool. It’s indulgent, ecologically irresponsible, and potentially dangerous as the infamous “poop cruise” of the Carnival Triumph (during which passengers were stuck at sea for almost a week without working plumbing), the rampant norovirus outbreaks across multiple cruise lines, and the sinking of the Italian liner Costa Concordia (which capsized off the coast of Tuscany, killing 32 people) attest. Cruising is for families, blue-collar hedonists, senior citizens, the Rascal-bound morbidly obese — and, apparently, me.
Since my time on the Dream I have been on two other cruises: an eight-day Caribbean voyage from NYC to Puerto Rico on the Carnival Splendor and a 20-day trip around the Mediterranean on Holland America’s MS Noordam. Twenty days is a long time to cruise, and the point was to get it out of my system — which I did, for a little while. A friend recently posted an Instagram of him holding an umbrella drink aboard a Carnival ship bound for Mexico and it looked like great fun.
I have kept in touch with the acupuncturist from the Noordam on Facebook as she has crossed the Atlantic, toured the Caribbean, sailed down the eastern coast of South America, traced back up the other side, and passed through the locks of the Panama Canal. Eventually she turned up in New York, thousands of miles away from where we first met without ever having taken to the skies or traversed land. That in itself is pretty remarkable.
My favorite cruising memory is one I can’t seem to pin to a particular voyage or part of the world. It might be a dubious amalgamation — some sort of revisionist daydream — but I’m fairly certain I’ve experienced it more than once. It goes like this. I am alone on the uppermost deck of the ship. The sun is setting. The sea is calm. The world is a beautiful and gentle place. Time is running short. Oh please let me linger a moment more.