DAY THREE: AT SEA WITH BUTTER AND BACON
Never thought I’d say this, but, well, there’s Cuba again. Right over there. Lots and lots of Cuba. Easy to see how a sailor in the old days might imagine a line of low mountains from the position of clouds on the horizon, and head towards the sight, parked for land to stand upon, only to find them always as far away as they were an hour ago.
We had our safety drill this morning. Everyone showed up with their life jackets, which are only occasionally called a personal floatation device, and we were shown how to put them on. Then the keptin came on for a long and boring lecture. On the last cruise, the captain was an English fellow, and projected great elan and confidence. When you spoke of him you said “Captain” with a broad expansive vowel. This fellow is a Norwegian, somewhat dour, more of a keptin, and I do believe he was reading from a card. We were told for the 900th time not to smoke on the veranda or throw anything into the seas, presumably including ourselves. There was a warning about climbing on the railings, which I cannot imagine anyone doing for any reason at all. Perhaps if they were a spy sent on an assassination mission or some international skullduggery, but it seems more likely that some poison would work better. Also a long lecture on what to do if someone fell overboard, presumably because they’d ignored the warning about clambering on the railings. We were instructed to shout “man overboard,” which has not yet been replaced by “person inadvertently sea-immersed.” If we heard someone say this, we should call the emergency number, which is 3333. Four threes. Very intuitive. Or, if you like, two sets of double threes.
I enjoyed the sun today. Also the warmth. By noon I was convinced that I would go insane with solitude three days into the voyage, instead of seven. Went up to the Lido to get some lunch, even though breakfast was still keeping me happy – seventeen pieces of bacon, each about a foot long. Three perfect pancakes, perfect eggs, and those little pots of jams and jellies you always want to pocket and take home. The restaurant equivalent of hotel shampoos. Hey, I should save these. We might find ourselves in a jam-deficient situation some day, and I’ll say have no fear, I stole jam on a ship three years ago. It’s buried in the back for just such a day as this!
But at lunch I found old friends from the previous cruise, and that was nice. Afterwards I explored the ship some more, and found what I believe is a secret sunning area for the elite. There’s one entrance, and it says CREW ONLY. I walked through anyway, expecting klaxons. I looked around for secret elevators or hatches through which the elect would ascend to this spot, but found nothing. No one challenged me - you there! You do not have the distinctive cologne by which we recognize our economic equals! Fie, and hie ye thither, knave! Still a mystery which entrance is the official one.
Walked back to the hoi polloi pool area, where a band was playing a song called SEX BOMB. The gist seemed to be that a girl was a SEX BOMB and the singer was intent on letting her know she was his SEX BOMB.
When the song ended, the lack of reaction seemed to indicate that no one was particularly interested in this series of revelations.
Went back to the room, and thought: aren’t I supposed to be working on the novel? Sigh. Decided to walk, so I did five miles around the deck. Got the laptop, went up to the Palm Court lounge, where they were setting up for High Tea. A string quartet arrived and began to play some light classical music fit for accompanying scone ingestion. I sat down, opened up the laptop, thought:
You really want to write another book, don’t you? A different one? The one about 1979 – 1981, set in the Valli restaurant, with all your friends and stories and recollections given the sweet glaze of fiction, right? Where you win the girl and beat the bully and put down all the people who will otherwise be completely forgotten?
I looked at the blank page. And typed:
When the chimes counted three we usually had the place to ourselves. Sometimes old Dime-a-Time in B7 with only his goatish musk to keep him company; sometimes the last shift of the University janitors, stubbing out Marlboro butts in the remains of their pancakes. When the Trat was empty, Dick Haggis turned up the rock-station radio back in the kitchen, strode to the front with no particular hurry, took a can of Reddi Whip out of the pie case, and inhaled a lungful of propellant.
Then he laid down.
And that was all it took. I was off. Within 2000 words two characters had walked into the story. I’ll still pursue the other novel, but this has wonderful promise. All I need is a plot.
Okay, I just came up with a plot.
Then it was reception time. Since Formal Time didn’t start until after six, I figured I was safe with jeans and my Red Owl T-shirt. What’s that? You want to know about Formal Time? Yes. Certain nights on the ship are designated as Formal. Elegant dress for the women, although that seems a rather fluid concept, and tuxes for the men. TUXES. Okay, you can wear a dark suit. It means the place is totally penguin for the evening, something you don’t see on your basic cruise ship. When I entered the reception, though, I discovered to my dismay that everyone had penguined out already. Ran back to the room, threw on the suit, went back. Had to say a few words to pimp the upcoming speeches, then circulated and did retail hellos, getting to know everyone in the group. I love this stuff.
When it was over I grabbed a coffee, ran back to the room, went to the aft deck, fired up a small evil cigar, and wrote some fargin’ fiction. I had fifteen minutes and I pounded the keys for each one. Hah: earlier today I’d been wondering if tropical rot would confound all the objectives, and now I’m sitting in a suit and tie on the back deck of a ship in the setting sun, typing like I’m transcribing a speech by a motormouth lunatic. Ding! Six! Eat! Again!
At dinner I sat with a bright & lively group, including a fellow who built industrial warehouses. As with all these cruises: the guys over 70 are all self-made men who worked hard, made a pile, don’t boast, usually did a stint in the service and either find themselves resigned to be exactly who they’ve always been except they’re now old, or content to reap and relax. The ones who are still leaning forward and scrapping and punching are as interesting as the ones who have finally stilled the flame of ambition.
The food, as expected, was ridiculously perfect. Here, have some caviar. Why of course my good man; thank you. Then the lobster. As I said yesterday, this is a level of life I cannot afford, and it would be a hideous mistake to think one is somehow a member of this rarified stratum because your capacity for glib gum-flapping earned you a comp on SuperLuxuryWonderShip. I can only imagine that if you grow accustomed to young women from Italy or Montenegro or Malta leaning over and asking if you would like a spoonful of liquified butter on your lobster, your view of the world and your place in it changes. I did make the mistake of grinding my own pepper tonight, a sight that brought a waitperson flying across the room to offer the grinding of the pepper for me. A poll of the rest of the group at the table revealed that no one liked having the pepper ground on their behalf, or having the napkin put in their lap. There’s something infantilizing about it all.
After dinner I walked around the ship, which appears to be mostly deserted. Ships are like this after supper, and since I’m a night owl I’m accustomed to prowling the deserted corridors. But since the ship’s at 2/3rds capacity, it does lend a certain empty quality to the vessel.
Say, there’s a story: waking up on a deserted ship, heading through the trackless sea to a destination unknown –
As my daughter might say: MASSIVE EPIC SHIPBOARD INTERNET FAIL. This will be short and dull, but consider this: it’s remarkable I’m able to post from the high seas, and I admit that I did not turn my full attention to the Bleat tonight. After an extraordinary night in the cigar room a fellow in a crisp white uniform stood me a drink and a thin Cohiba, and as the conversation progressed it was revealed that he was, in essence, the Swedish Montgomery Scott. The Chief Engineer. The things I have learned about fire surpression. Well, more tomorrow, after my bridge tour. For now I only offer thin scrapings from another day on the ship. And so:
If ever you want to revisit the early days of the internet – before there was an internet, for that matter, just AOL and bulletin boards and the Usenet down there in the deep secret subbasement – get on a ship and order wifi. You can almost see the bytes arrived single file, like ants on a freshly varnished floor. We’re having difficulties out here, so this will be brief; last night it took me forever to upload, and pictures, and you can imagine, take forever. This is why I previously eschewed internet on board – it didn’t seem worth the price, and it was nice to be away from the concerns of the world.
I’m in the Bistro. It’s a great coffee bar that serves excellent espresso and cappuicino and anything else you’d want. Lots of cheese, hand diced for my delectation, most of it no doubt thrown out when they close. The big mystery: where they keep all the food. Also, the staff. I have a vision of everyone hanging from hooks as they sleep below decks, or slumped over a doss-house rope. (That, I learned once, was the poor man’s last choice for lodging – you didn’t get a bed, but leaned your body on a stout rope slung from wall to wall, arms hanging out. In the morning your wake-up call consisted of the proprietor untying the rope on one end, so your first moment of the new day consisted of your forehead hitting the floor.)
Today we arrived in the Grand Cayman, but I didn’t go ashore; been there, arrrr’d at the pirates, bought the T-shirt, and didn’t feel like swimming with sting rays. I wanted to relax and read, and so I did. Finished “9 Dragons,” which was a good story wrapped around a rich creamy center of utter implausibility, then read a few Sherlock Holmes stories. They all begin the same way, bless them. “In all my accounts of my dealings with my friend Sherlock Holmes, I have had occasion to witness the most extraordinary turns of events, most with no surfeit of deductatory ejaculations, but none was so remarkable as a case of horrifying dread that surrounded the matter of the whistling spinach.”
Ho there, an enormous ship just sailed away. When we got here today there were three huge ships in the harbor, two being twins – the Eurodam and the New Amsterdam, the latter being the vessel I had the privilege of taking passage upon at the conclusion of the previous year. Sorry, got all Watson on you there for a moment. The Dams flanked a Royal Caribbean leviathan of similar tonnage, and our little ship probably looked like a toy. Huge as the New Amsterdam was, I never felt it was too big; got the hang of it quite quickly. Have the same knowledge of this ship now – no more the hesitation on the stairs, or at the turn of a corridor. It’s just like home. Took another 5 mile walk around the deck today, then laid down for a nap – which was the signal for the bridge to crack the mike and announce everything that would be going on tonight. Because it’s such a mystery. I’ll bet there’s a salute to Broadway in the forward theater, someone playing piano in the nice snug dark bar, and karaoke in the Pulse. Remember I mentioned the Pulse, the Hip Throbbing Nightclub? Stuck my head in there last night, and sure enough: no one. The bartender stands there like the barkeep in the Overlook Hotel.
Later: back on the aft deck, which is large and usually deserted; I have it to myself when I want to bask or read or write. The Navigator is pulling away, heading west, stately and silent. No one blows a whistle when they debark. I’d like to hear that. The whistle of the Titanic was brought up, of course, and it was part of a tourist exhibit that came to town a few years back. They blew the whistle. Sent a chill skittering down your spine to think when it had been last used, and I don’t mean the previous stop in Milwaukee. According to “A Night To Remember,” they blew it the night they sank. (Of course, according to that movie, no one swore as the ship was heading down.) Speaking of which: the morning one of the Dams blew seven short and one long, which is the signal for OH CRAP, GET TO THE BOATS. It was probably a crew drill, but I got up and looked to see if the stern was hanging over the water, screws turning. No. All the ships were fine, engines running, sea churning, as they maintained their exact position in the harbor. As the captain put it on the last voyage: We were at thrusters and antipodes all day. Best way of describing a do-nothing day of utter relaxation that somehow feels full of events.
Like dessert selection.
Now we’re turning around, revolving slowly in the bay. The sun is making one last Berlioz blare as it heads offstage again, and soon it will be conversation and the inevitable 37-course supper. Probably saffron-dusted quail stuffed with gold and served on a bed of stock certificates.
Ah: I forgot. No whistle, because this line does something different. When the ship debarks it turns on the speakers all over the ship, and plays “What a Wonderful World,” sung by Louis Armstrong. You can’t help but agree.
I got into the conversation with Peter the Swedish Giorgi, the Chief Engineer, because I asked him what “antipodes and thrusters” meant.
“I have no idea,” he said. So it’s a British thing, then.
Day 5: Quick, while I have internet, a description of dinner and the dying bird
At the end of the night I went outside to the aft deck to consult with the remains of a small cigar. The whooshing wind. The plosh and shush of the ship in the seas, the shudder of the ship. All the familiar late-night sounds. And then . . . piano. Dark and insistent. Then a beat. Coming . . . from somewhere.
We’ll get to that. But first:
There was a black rag in the corner of my veranda, glossy, stirring in the breeze. Upon closer examination it turned out to be a bird. He didn’t seem happy, although what counts as happy in a bird? Some Disney grin, a cartoon note emerging from his beak, bright eyes? He didn’t have the ruffled feathers any parakeet owner associates with illness, but he seemed ill. Just sat in the little space between the metal rails, head down. Didn’t respond to sounds, or even jokes. I figured he was on the way to the great beyond – which, for a bird, would be what? They already fly. Maybe birds dream of a heaven where they walk everywhere. It would be different, anyway. You’re relieved of your wings, as opposed to getting a pair when you show up.
I told Hanna the Maid about it, and she came in to look. Made a sad face.
“Do you want me to get someone to get rid of it?” I had a vision of someone from maintenance just heaving the bird over the railing, and said no, let him be.
On the way to the lunch she asked about the bird, and I said he’s still there.
“Perhaps he is tired, Mister James,” she said. “He flew a long way to be here.”
Unless he hitched a ride at Panama. Anyway. Lunch today was a Fiesta! of Latin American food. A remarkable buffet. No one offered to help me carry my tray, which was nice, but perhaps word has got around. This morning I was heading out to the back balcony with a tray, and I had my iPad under the tray; as I walked to the automatic doors – which duly opened, so I didn’t have to manipulate a handle – a steward rushed over and attempted to take my tray. Since I’m still hale and sound, and perfectly capable of carrying my own tray, and because I had not yet had a jot of coffee, and because I get . . . feral when starving and some ancient dog-like instinct bolts up when someone tries to take my plate, I said “no, thank you.”
“Sir?” he said. He pulled on the tray again.
“No!” I said. Like I said, no coffee. Not capable of substantial conversation. But really, NO was what I meant, because for a second I believed he would take the tray away and trail behind like I was the fargin’ emperor of Byzantium on his way to move his bowels with a reduced retinue of only 16 courtiers.
Well, an ordinary day; sunny, hot. At 2 PM I had a lecture again – actually a panel discussion. Afterwards the ritual – a quick nap, then an espresso in the Bistro. Best coffee on the ship. It’s unbelievable. Supper? Why yes; glad you asked. It was French night, everything being Gallic in origins, and also Formal night, so all the menfolk are penguined and the women wearing their best dresses. A two-hour meal. Two hours. Our waiter, as usual, was a bone-dry Serb who seems to disapprove of all of your choices; once night I asked him if the pumpkin cheesecake was any good, and he made a face that said “if you must.” He explained he was Serbian and they do not each of the pumpkin. I had it just to spite him. Tonight he said the dessert included Crepes Suzette, so I had the Champs Elysee, because I figured he would think I’d get the Crepes because it’s obvious. I also had the lamb, and asked for it to not be entirely pink, and I could feel the contempt radiate: barbarian.
I exaggerate! A little. His mood is always countered by the tall – I mean six-six-and-change – German whose sole job seems to be the distribution of bread. But he’s not the main bread-bestower; that always falls to a chubby Belgian girl who’s very serious about it all, and also removes any crumbs and brings coffee and dessert-dessert. (While you’re waiting for your main dessert, she offers selections from a tray of cookies, pastilles, frosting-slathered cakes, and so on. It’s dessert within dessert.) The German wears a white jacket, which means he’s management. He leans waaaay down, thrusts forward the basket, and booms BRRRRRRRREAD? The R is rolled in a fashion that reminds you of a well-tuned two-stroke engine; it’s remarkable.
The Serb also brings bread, but it seems like another opportunity to show your bread tastes of pedestrian.
So many conversations. An old train man. A fellow whose firm makes door handles. A state engineer who built an enormous reservoir. A man who owns a restaurant and hotel. You learn a lot if you just ask questions and keep asking them; a lot of these guys are of the era where they assume no one gives a rat’s patoot about their line, but every job is interesting. Well, most. Me, I type. So I ask questions.
Back to my room after dinner. Stopped to talk to Hanna about the bird, and she said she was sure they wouldn’t just throw it overboard.
“They would put it somewhere,” she insisted. I didn’t think they would have a bird nursery on board, but it’s possible.
I went into the room, which had been turned down; took the chocolate off the pillow, put it in a drawer with the others. I wanted to get out of the monkey suit, but because it’s Formal tonight in all the public rooms I’d just have to put it back on to go downstairs for a drink. I stepped outside to check the weather – smothering humidity again. I looked down at the bird’s nook.
He was gone. Three white blotches marked his spot. Where will he go? What will he do? Will he ride the currents until he finds land, or drop exhausted in the trackless sea? Glad to see he felt better.
I stuck my head into the hall and told Hanna the bird was gone.
She seemed happy, and I suppose I am too.
Oh, the music? I went down the stairs to the Promenade Deck, thinking there might be speakers playing a midnight melody for the walkers, but that seemed unlikely. I went down to sixth, where there’s a nightclub and the Pulse lounge; perhaps I was hearing the trickles of dance music. Yes, surely, that was it – the football game, piped in by satellite, was over, and the bands were playing. I considered putting on the suit and heading down, but it was midnight. There would be three or four people in the room. No.
But it wasn’t coming from deck six. By now there was bass and drums and it was louder than anything I’d heard on the ship. Thump thump thump – I could feel it on the floor. I went down the stairs to six. It wasn’t coming from six. It was coming from Five and below. It was coming from the crew decks. It was after twelve, and there was a party down there. What I wouldn’t have given.
I’m sorry! You can carry my tray! Can I play?
DAY Whatever: The CANAL
I was in the Atlantic but now I’m in the Pacific. Life is strange that way. But if I never see the Panama Canal again it will be all right, I suppose. It’s a magnificent thing – could stand a lick of paint here and there, and time has ravaged the concrete walls from their original perfection, but it’s still an amazing undertaking. Like the skyscrapers of the 20s and 30s, it seems to have been dug by a race of giants who built great things, then passed them to us, the ants.
The numbers that mark the distance are, I believe, original:
Partly tired of the canal because I had to give a speech on it, an hour and a half of talking. This meant reading a lot, and I mean a lot, and then seeing my source material in the hands of everyone on the cruise. The morning I gave my talk there was a show on the ship’s TV narrated by the guy who wrote the definitive book on the canal. The French part of the story was the most interesting to me – a spectacular cock-up, and a scandal that shook the nation down to the cellar. (And resulted in a two-year prison term, later suspended, for Gustave Eiffel. Yes, Mr. Tower.) So I decided to give some history the main book declined to impart, used another book for source material, and went on a wild-arse James-Burke style tangent on the cultural history and meaning of electricity. Huzzah: one listener asked after the speech if I was familiar with an old TV show called “Connections.”
Word got out that we’d be entering the Canal around 6, so everyone got up at 5:45. I slept. Why? Because a crew member had told me in the cigar room that we were entering the locks at 8 AM. There’s a big difference between entering the Canal area and the Canal itself. So I arose fresh, had a brief breakfast on the veranda, then ran up on deck to view the progress.
The very, very slow progress. Quite quick considering the enormity of the task, but necessarily deliberate. The gates swing open like the ancient doors of some fabled city:
After rising through three locks, it was the great lake, studded with ships:
Such a blunt and ungainly vessel, but fascinating; there were several of this shape and dimension. They carry cars.
O the azure-blue water! Actually, it’s muddy enough to walk across:
Then we were alone, gliding almost soundlessly through the flooded basin. For eight hours – eight! – I walked from one end of the ship to the other, up and down the stairs, shooting video and stills. (Probably can do without my daily stroll around the Promenade Deck, although suppertime cheesecake is a boat anchor in my stomach right now.) The last three locks were the most satisfying, being the deepest, and the closest – you could reach out and touch the side, and touch ancient scrapes of paint where a ship perhaps had abraded the walls.
Then the enormous skyline of Panama City rose on the port side, and a great bridge soared overhead as we passed into the Pacific. Makes you feel small, and far from home. Which, of course, I am.
It was like this.
Back in the stateroom, listening to Benny Goodman on the little speakers, not watching the movie. It was a Charlie Chan on the TV tonight. All the old movies they show suffer from poorly synced sound. You hear the characters speak after their lips have stopped moving. But the movie took place on a Panama Canal crossing, so I had to give it a few minutes of my attention. Took myself down to the Cigar Room to see if I could rustle up some companionship, but everyone has turned in. Did a few rounds on the Promenade Deck, noting with pleasure that the ship has started to rock a bit. I like to feel the sea. The Pacific is advising us that the rules have changed on this side.
It’s nighttime and it’s boiling and humid. Haven’t mentioned the weather, because I don’t wish to annoy anyone shivering in the cold, but today was apparently typical for Panama: sweltering, cloudy, then rain, then sullen breezeless heat, then a lovely sunset on the other side with a Pacific breeze. Colombia was brutal, and while I wish I’d gotten off the ship, I was working on the speech, and had to content myself with views from the ship. Such as:
Berthed next to us was a cruise ship of a lesser breed. Yes, I’m spoiled. This is a ship that will bring you caviar at 2 AM. But this thing was rusty, and had no balconies. It looked hot. It looked old. (It is; googled it, and found it’s almost 30 years old.) For the entire afternoon one fellow walked around on the dock with a long wand, powerwashing off the rust. It had rowboats for lifeboats.
Then I wrote.