Studies show that no one really wants to hear about your vacation. I understand and agree, and that will guide what follows this week. Namely, if you had a vacation, I don’t want to hear about it. Mine, of course, I assume to be a source of boundless interest.
Here’s the problem: nothing happened. So how can I possibly sustain five full Bleats about a voyage that was smooth and uneventful?
Like this: concentrate on the vessel, which was a world unto itself. Oh, and there was one thing that happened. See if you can spot it.
It's Sunday night and I am exhausted, but I wrote part of this on the plane. Sharper and crisper tomorrow.
Now to begin.
It’s been a time.
The story, which has no plot, as most things don’t, began on Friday morning a long time ago. In Fargo. I bid my dad goodbye and headed out on this stretch of road, heading back from Fargo. Cold, bleak, raw, November Fargo. Snow in the dead furrows, bare trees, a world bereft.
It was a long drive on the backroads but it keeps the mind keen; if I’d taken the freeway I would have fallen asleep in an hour and ended up in the ditch. Got home, had dinner with the family, and then said goodbye to daughter, who was off on a sleepover. Everything was just all over the place.
Twenty-four hours later:
Flew to Florida, obviously, Ubered to the hotel. Original 50s bones still evident in the motel layout and the lava stone; 80s redesign that gave the place a leftover Miami Vice vibe. The spaces seemed like stage settings for living out some preconception of Florida, where you sit around behind walls of amber-hued smoked windows or stroll grand palm-lined walkways and think “I am in Florida.” But it’s interesting.
I hiked across the big Shaw bridge to Walgreens to get the usual things I’d forgotten. You always forget something. Dang! Brought the needles and gauze and lighter and rubber hose, but completely forgot the spoon. So it’s off to the store. This being the fourth such departure from this port, I know the area, a little, so when someone came over and asked if I was from here I wanted to say “I’m walking across a mile-long bridge in a tourist district. Conjure for yourself the likely answer,” but if she had to know she must be in need of something, and I could direct her to a cafe, a vendor of intoxicating spirits, a restaurant, and the like. So I said I’m not, but I know the area somewhat, and how might I be of assistance?
She needed to know where a particular hotel was, and I got out my phone and found the place on the other side of the bridge plus another mile. She thanked me, and I said since I was headed that way, we had no choice but to chat or suffer in uncomfortable silence. (Explained I was in that hotel, bound for that ship over there, leaving in 90 minutes, not a masher, and so on.) She was . . . a travel agent. Who couldn’t find her hotel and didn’t have a smartphone, which seemed apt, somehow. But a charming person to walk along with, and she was in town for CRUISEFEST or something. The industry rolled out its new ideas to the travel agents. The new idea seems to be thrill rides on ships. I’ve no doubt that in fifteen years there will be a rollercoaster that threads along the side of the ship and plunges into the sea. I’m almost angry there isn’t one already. C’mon.
As we stood around in the lobby waiting for the buses, my phone rang. My wife. Had I arranged for snow removal? I had, but it had been verbal; why? Because eight inches of snow was en route. Don't worry hon. It's been handled.
(whip out laptop call up snow removal service double-check send email close laptop thinking: I will forget about this very soon, and possibly return home to ire.)
The buses came. The previous day's travel, the evening banquet, the Ricochet meetup at a bar somewhere, the late-night conversation, the morning walk, the pack, the bag-schlep - all wiped clean by the new objective. It's about to begin again.
The last trip began in an unsettled mood and was interesting and had many bright spots, he said with an unconvincing attempt at conviction, but overall it had a grey, weary feel. This one?
Well, it’s grey.
But the mood is not. Here we go.
It took almost 30 minutes to travel the 15 blocks to the ship. Why? Because 5,000 people were attempting to drive to a ship? No. Because a van driver who, one presumes, had plied this estuary before, this being his vocation, did not have the proper papers to satisfy security. You’d think there was one solution: make him turn around and leave. Apparently there was also the sit at the gate and argue for 20 minutes option. The authorities at the security gate were unconcerned with the effect this had on thousands of people wishing to board the three ships in the harbor, because it is not their job to make sure people get on ships. It is their job to look at a piece of paper and raise a crossing guard. Or not.
I should note that it was raining torrents, and had been raining most of the day. The forecast for the next day: rain. While sitting on the bus in line I checked each of the ports for the rest of the week: rain. Drat. Drat in excelsis. I've been looking forward to this for months, the last blast of warmth before the freeze takes hold, the capstone to a wonderful year. I see empty pool decks and people wandering around the common areas with a great cloud of useless resentment roiling over their heads.
When I was waiting to get on board I got a text from RL that said simply “This ship is insane.” (Note for coming week: RL is Rob Long, JP is John Podhoretz, etc. If you care you can figure it out, so it doesn’t sound like I’m namedropping. I am, but I don’t want to sound like it, partly because putting everyone on a ship does not make them equals in talent and stature.) They were sitting in a tapas restaurant and I was invited to join them. Fat chance, I thought. With five thousand people to absorb, the terminal lines would be soup-kitchen-in-defeated-Berlin long.
Ten minutes after I got off the bus I was on the ship. Now. That's the first fun moment on a new vessel; you usually end up in the atrium, or what they have in the way of the atrium genre, and you get giddy with the pleasures of exploring the ship. Your world immediately contracts to the dimensions of the ship. Or would, if you were on a normal boat. When you board the Allure you enter a two-story shopping mall.
The effect of the mall is to stun you, hard and fast. To upend your expectations, make every previous experience shrink in shame, and make you think they've just shown you the best they have. It's only later, when you discover public spaces even more spectacular, that you feel awed by the unreality of it all.
Later I'd hear people say “it’s not a ship, its' a theme park!” But a theme-park version of a ship would be much more . . . shippy. Thick ropes, arr-matey men with anchor tattoos, brine whipping in your face because the promenade deck is three decks above the waterline, not 13. The deck would sway.
In order to get the true ship experience you probably have to go to a theme park.
Found my room quickly; well-appointed, compact, in mint condition. Met RL, JY, and JP, in a tapas joint off Central Park. (Yes, Central Park. We’ll get to that.) Half an hour later we’re all sitting around schmoozing and talking and gnoshing on very good food, each of us lost in a big leather chair, and the idea that I was on ship was nowhere in my mind. Absent: the great nautical emotion: we will be underway soon! The voyage is about to begin! When you’re sitting in a clubby little room, luxuriously appointed, seeing people stroll past the window by the trees and shrubs, there’s none of that.
This is not a ship, I thought. This is an perambulating principality. This is a suburban retail / residential complex towed out to sea.
That's Central Park. And this is Central Park:
The globular fixures throb with different colors, depending on the time of day. It's just like Central Park, if you spent time on your back letting the peyote take hold. Everyone made the joke about 70s night on the ship, when the park had muggers. Yes, but they washed their hands first. Har!
In other words: this is not an ordinary ship. This is a billion dollars' worth of fantasy.
Let us cast off. (Bit rough; edited it with my fingers on the plane.)
Tomorrow: the great rain; why no one in the world should have pitied us for a moment; hyperlapsing the enormity; the State Department warning. In other words, somethng close to action.