Even though my home security system employs ninjas and sarin gas, I’m hesitant to admit I’m leaving town. So I say I'm on hiatus. Sometimes a hiatus is just a hiatus; sometimes I just need to step away from the machinery, sit outside in the gazebo with the dog at my feet, listening to the Oak Island Water Feature run dry, reading books while the cicadas drone. But sometimes I get on a plane and go someplace, and that’s what I did this time. I boarded a gigantic vessel with 3000 other souls and set sail for the Inner Passage of Alaska.
As you might imagine, I took notes.
The first day wasn’t much, since we took a late flight. Lots of running around and packing and general panic. We begin with day two: the rest of the group went to see touristy things, and I decided to walk downtown and look at buildings, because I can’t expect anyone to go on a search for old architecture. The rest of the trip will play out all week long, and if you’re wondering if there’s some sort of payoff, some great epiphany: no. On the other hand, I finally was persuaded to do Karaoke, and in the interests of total honesty and disclosure, I will post the video.
Seattle is a cool place. Literally, figuratively. I’m sure everyone else has the same reaction: hey, what a cool place. I could see living here. It’s so sunny! Then the sun goes away and the skies turn leaden and you think: oh, right, that.
We got in late – around 1 AM by our time. Strolled outside for fresh air while waiting for the bags; noted that the airport appears to have been made of concrete, grey naked unadorned concrete. Not the best material for a rainy climate. Gave the place a depressing Blade Runner quality. Took a long time to get a cab, because the roads into the airport were backed up to southern Canada: light rail construction, the driver explained. Midnight, and the roads were immobile. After an unnervingly fast drive up a rain-slicked highway, we arrived at Silver Cloud Hotel by the lake. (Silver Clouds, I believe, are the ones that have rain, so you can’t say you’re not warned.) Didn’t get enough sleep, because there was a municipal vehicle outside the hotel pumping sewage out of the ground. Or putting it in. Can’t say.
Saturday morning I took a walk downtown. I passed one block which was not occupied by new condo construction. Odd. I hope they’ll address that quickly enough. As usual, I looked for signs of the olde times, and found a few:
An abandoned laundry. The sign's pure early 60s, but the building itself is a fine example of 20s commercal Beaux-Arts. (More here.) A block away:
It’s the Seattle Times building, which looked like the StarTribune's little cousin. Very severe. Great details flanked the deep gloomy door:
And I can vouch for the swiftness of the security guards: start taking pictures, and they’re outside giving you the hairy eyeball in about 2 minutes. I explained everything, badged the guard just to show I was in the Brotherhood Of Newspaperpeople, and moved along.
Downtown was interesting; bigger than I expected. Robust and successful. I wish I’d spent another nine hours. Found a ghost sign:
Found a Moderne office block with designs that proved a point I'd never really considered: not all geometric abstract pre-war architectural ornament is good. I mean, this doesn't make sense.
I like it anyway.
After an hour's exporation - abetted by the google maps feature on my iPhone - I headed back to the hotel, wishing I'd seen more. But in a way it didn't matter. I’d seen it all in a dream the night before. Really. I was walking around downtown Seattle with Jasper Dog, and everything looked like the 40s and 50s, full of great old signs. It was like heaven, except it was raining. Everyone wore hats. Maybe that is heaven. I suppose we'll find out.
(Note: I wrote that sitting on a curb outside the hotel. After a while everyone met at the lobby, crammed our bags into a van, and set out for the docks.)
Boarding was frictionless. I think they've done this a time or two. We found our cabins, headed up for the safety drill - which Gnat did not, repeat, did not enjoy; this was her worst fear about ships: sinking. To my left was a middle-aged woman who was quietly drunk, or so I gathered from her pixillated expression of disdain when a purser attempted to herd her into the main group of psuedo-evacuees. I think I may have bumped her with the edge of my life preserver when I turned around, because she said - quietly, drunkenly - "do you realize I am next to you." Keep in mind that we were being packed together shoulder to shoulder, front to back, nose to nape. "DO YOU REALIZE I AM NEXT TO YOU," she said, her words borne aloft on a gust of gin. "I do now," I said. I think the safety instructor took her aside and painted an X on her forehead with ultraviolet light; it identified her as the one most likely to complain in the lifeboat about the hard seats.
We went inside and unpacked. After an hour I went topsides to have a cigar and watch the city slide away. But the city was already receding:
We hadn't felt the ship move at all.
Having never done this before, I was exhilarated. I suspect the same emotions attend the tenth time, and the hundredth. We were under way.
We are in the high seas now. Land is a distant memory. The Norwegian Star ploughs the trackless ocean, far from the comfort o' land -
Oh, wait, there’s land, over there. Well, it just seems like we’re far out in the briny expanse. Around noon the ship entered deeper waters, and started to behave like an actual ship, rocking back and forth ever so slightly. Given the unperturbed nature of the voyage so far, it almost seemed like a promise had been broken, somehow. Hey! What’s this? Really, the ship had felt as level as like a brick on a sidewalk, and now your inner ear was telling you something different: you’re slightly drunk. After a while I felt like I’d had six cocktails, and laid down, exhausted.
Walking around and eating is hard work, apparently. I don’t know how the Navy managed to win WW2.
It is a beautiful ship, much better than the garish photos online indicated. Immense. I'm shooting widescreen on the camera and still can't get it all in one shot. It is difficult, however, to step into the grand atrium without hearing Maureen McGovern, just as you can’t go the stern without thinking: there’s absolutely no room here to perch if she goes down by the nose.
I’m on deck outside the Blue Lagoon, which is not noted for its decoration of disturbingly young kids with bleached hair running around discovering the joys of adolescence, but instead has a 50s diner theme. Makes no sense. The Gatsby Bar towards the bow has pseudo Tamara deLempicka murals, also nice:
The banner at the top of this page is a photo of the artwork over the staircase leading down to the Gatsby / Cigar bar area. Hello, heaven. I I intend to spend some time here tonight, if I can convince anyone to forgo the floorshows. That was a slice of hell last night, I’ll tell you that. There as a comedian who did impressions: Bobcat Goldthwaite experiencing the ship’s showers for the first time, for example. That was the most recent cultural reference he made, and it went so far over the heads of all the grey potatoes lined up in the comfy seats it ricocheted off the walls and knocked a waiter flat. The comic also did some Pink Floyd jokes, and some Led Zep jokes, and ended up – strongly, I’ll give him that – with a bit that cast famous 80s movie stars in “Jaws.” That one earned him enough goodwill to erase the first part of the set and get him hearty applause; it also didn’t hurt that his bit lasted exactly as long as it took to drink a double whatever, and the “doubles” on this ship contain about six shots. (A single, the bottle just winks at the glass.) Afterwards I ran into the comic at the other end of the ship, studying a map, scowling; I asked if I could help, and he said “I’m just trying to find a place to eat.” There’s a routine, right there: the man who couldn’t find a place to eat on a cruise ship.
Back to the room. We collapsed exhausted and slept ten solid hours, then my wife got up and went running with her sister. Yes, her sister. It’s a family reunion cruise on her side – eight adults, five kids. We’re headed North! To Alaska! We go north, the trip is on . . .
And I’m working. Or will soon. Right now I’m about to sign up for the “Internet Café,” which extracts a huge amount of cash for a connection. Everything here costs something. I was under the impression that everything was included, but no - if it’s the slightest bit fun, it costs extra. The first moments on ship someone handed me a tropical drink; I thanked her, and she asked for my card. How much? Nine dollars. But you get to keep the plastic glass! I handed it back. I haven’t seen a whale yet, but if I do, I expect I will find a forty-dollar Large Mammal Observation charge on the bill.
On the other hand, the coffee’s always free, so I’m good.
It’s not warm. Not cold, freezing cold, but not warm. Nevertheless the kids hit the pool as soon as we were underway, and all the adults gathered in the bleachers to pick away at a few items from the poolside buffet while they frolicked in the salty water. The sight of the fellow passengers was quite remarkable; if you could sum it up, you’d have to say this is a boat full of small whales looking to catch sight of a larger one. Everyone waddles to and fro, slowly, panting with the effort of transporting the stored energy of previous meals to the location of the next one.
Off to the internet for a few minutes connected to the world. I wish I didn’t have to. I don’t miss it. It’s amazing how you don’t, when you can’t.