Sunday, July 31, 2011

Underbelly Of A Cruise Ship

Underbelly Of A Cruise Ship Part 1 

For a brief period (two years) of opportunistic curiosity, I worked on cruise ships, or, as I lovingly referred to them, three thousand drunks and one designated driver. I had heard it was one of the easiest ways to sit back and make a very decent buck. I had also heard it was one of the easiest ways to lose your soul. I never actively pursued it. One night, after performing in a huge theater, I was approached by the booking representative of one of the major cruise lines.

Let’s just say, for the ease and sake of my handlers here at Examiner, that it was no particular world class cruise company. If it sounds anywhere from vaguely to frighteningly familiar, you’ve been either a passenger or a colleague.

The ‘guest performer’ rank, like any other rank, has its privileges. One of the main privileges is a unique perspective on many levels (no pun... well, yeah we’ll get into that in a bit). First of all, you join  the cruise halfway into its week. You are replacing another performer who has been on the ship since the middle of the previous week, and so on, etc, ad infinitum et tu Brute. 

In a nutshell, you finish their week by performing at the Farewell Show, stay on board as that bunch of passengers leave the next day (and a new batch come on board) and then perform that night at the Welcome Aboard show. You stay until you're replaced mid-week by another guest entertainer and the whole thing starts to look like an Escher print. This way the passengers get to see two different guest performers. By the way, by ‘guest performer’ (and if you don’t know by now), I mean that I’ve paid the bills for the last thirty years making a living as a (groan, I hate telling people this) comedian.

I got to stay in the crew section, which is the one part of the ship where the crew doesn’t have to smile- and they freakin' don’t. Anywhere outside the crew section, it’s Gopher, Julie and Captain Stubing. Anywhere inside the crew section, Das Boot.
The crew is said to be comprised of some fifty five nationalities. Up  top, everybody works together in a living It’s A Small World tapestry. Down below, everybody keeps to their own countrymen. The crew cafeteria, which was just a few yards from the comedian’s quarters, was the closest thing to a prison mess hall I’d ever seen. All the different groups stick to themselves in every nook and cranny. They all stop talking long enough to look up and give you the stink eye. You are, after all, the fifty sixth nationality. You’re the guest performer for the week.
The crew’s animosity for the guest performer can be anywhere from passive to unbridled. They resent you. You are an intruder, making a lot of money for very little work, while they have to scrub toilets and adhere to a ‘ten foot rule’. The ten foot rule states that every crew member has to smile when coming within ten feet of a passenger.

They leave their dirty dishes outside your door. Don’t bother leaving the ‘do not disturb’ sign outside your door, if you even have one. They’ll steal it or reverse it just for kicks. One dancer in the onboard production company even said, “Oh, you’re the comedian? I’m going to (bodily function) on your door tonight when I get back.”

Oh, there’s another perk to your living quarters. It’s directly below the crew gymnasium. Let me rephrase that- it’s directly below the 24/7 crew gymnasium. No, let me put it this way- it’s directly below the weight room of the 24/7 crew gymnasium. 

Underbelly Of A Cruise Ship Part 2: It's Show Time!

Welcome back, my friends, to the cruise that never ends. In this installment, come take a peek behind the curtain with me, where every  sequin is stuck on with crazy glue and every seam is stapled at the last second while you’re being introduced.
Try to imagine yourself telling all your friends that being on a cruise ship is driving you nuts and that you can’t stand it. Try to imagine them telling you, “You must be nuts, you’re being paid to go on cruise ships, for heavens sake! What on earth is wrong with you!”

Okay, you really ain’t gonna take my side when I tell you that each cruise/week required me (or whoever) to work about an hour, maybe an hour and ten minutes. There were three shows to do- the aforementioned Welcome Aboard and Farewell shows and one late night ‘adult’ show.

Now, dig if you will this picture. Your part of the Welcome Aboard and Farewell shows is supposed to be fifteen, maybe twenty minutes of squeaky clean, non-controversial, non-political, non-religious yet very funny comedy for fifteen hundred to two thousand audience members, comprised of adults, senior citizens, teens, tweens, pre-adolescents, toddlers and newborns in swaddling. You’re the last act of a tight little ‘Ed Sullivan’ show, with the cruise director as Ed. He or she comes out and executes a very entertaining opening monologue (which is mostly being performed word for word by every other cruise director on every other ship) and then introduces the acts. The other acts are usually the ship’s singers and dancers doing a number and some nice European husband and wife who are in excellent physical shape and either  throw each other around or throw knives at each other. Then you come out. You can't dance, you don't have anybody to throw around and you don't have any knives.

The adult show, a day or two after the Welcome Aboard show, was a midnight solo half hour, where everybody expected you to come out of the gate swearing like a drunken pirate and regaling in all things below the waist. It was expected. Passengers who saw you night before come up to you the following day, "We're going to be at the adult show tomorrow night. You're going to be dirty, right? Dirty? Good."
Now, I am neither super dirty, nor am I super clean. I’m an adult and I make my living talking about adult things from an adult point of view. Ever see the episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk gets split into two Kirks by a transporter malfunction? One is super wimpy, the other dark and evil. Neither is the true Kirk. Know what I mean?

It took sufficient brain bending to neuter and sanitize what material could be altered into a twenty minute totally inoffensive set. Likewise, I had to dredge every scatological premise I EVER came up with to fill the late night adult half hour. Neither was me. Both were forced and half-baked. I never felt good about my performances, although many a passenger would come up to me and be very flattering. The folks from Ireland were the best.. They sensed where I was coming from, and that was with one arm tied behind my back. I have to get over to Ireland. I think I’d like it there.
Then, over the months, the cruise director department started asking for more time. The reasons varied. Some were pretty fishy. However, I wanted to show that I could be a team player, even though it was contracted how much time I was being paid to do. I would try to squeak a few more squeaky clean minutes into the set.
At this point, I should also mention the travel arrangements to the ship. Theoretically, you’re supposed to be flown to wherever the ship is going to be the next day. Since you’re joining the ship in mid-cruise, that sounds pretty cool, right? If you’re doing more than one week, which is usual, they supposedly put you up in one of the ports where you’ll be meeting your next ship, or fly you back to Miami for a few days before flying you to meet the ship. Miami, St. Thomas, Belize,  St. Maarten- lay it on me, baby.

On my very first cruise, I was to meet my very first ship in San Juan. I was flown down on Sunday night and checked into a very nice hotel that was arranged for me. I got up the next morning, checked out and, per my instructions, took a cab down to the pier to meet the ship.

No ship, the ship comes in on Tuesdays. Apparently, it always comes in on Tuesdays.

I went back to the hotel and checked back in. The hotel said that unless they heard from the cruise line, I would be responsible for the extra night. Instead of enjoying that extra night in San Juan, I spent the rest of the day burning up prepaid phone cards leaving voice mails at the cruise line transportation main office and not leaving the hotel room for fear of missing a return call. Around 6pm, I called down to the front desk and asked if they heard anything. They said, “Oh yeah, they called this afternoon. You’re all set.”

Shell-shocked, I got something to eat and watched TV, just happy to be not forking over the room rate. It never got better. There was always some insanity to the travel arrangements. Once, they actually were going to fly me all the way back to NYC (well, Newark) for a six hour lay over. I called them on that and, after some hemming and hawing, they changed the flight.

Near the end of my fling with the floating entertainment industry, some twenty months into it, I was flown from NYC to Texas to spend the night- in Texas. The next day, I was flown to another city in Texas to get on another flight to meet the ship in Cozumel, Mexico. I remember there being a terrible thunderstorm when we landed.This is one of those airports where you walk from the runway into a glorified hut. The only good part was that I never heard thunder in Spanish before. By the time I got through Cozumel customs, I barely made it to the ship some thirty minutes before they set sail.

Upon being met on the pier by the production manager, I was told that they had a new cast of dancers and singers and they’re not ready yet. So, rather than doing the Farewell Show on Saturday, they wanted to do it tonight (Thursday). None of this made sense to me, but all I could think about was that this was giving me about sixty minutes to check in, shower, dress and do a guitar check with the sound tech before they opened the doors to the theater.

Then he asked if I could do FORTY FIVE MINUTES of squeaky clean, non-controversial, non-political, non-religious yet very funny comedy for fifteen hundred to two thousand audience members, comprised of adults, senior citizens, teens, tweens, pre-adolescents, toddlers and newborns in swaddling.

I was jet-lagged, I was hotel grumpy, I was rain ragged and customs cranky. I told them maybe I could stretch to half an hour and not offend anybody. As I was waiting backstage, the cruise director/host, who was an assistant cruise director last time I was on that ship, ends his set by doing one of my songs! Either he had been doing it ever since he last saw me and forgot from who he stole it or he had gall. Correction, he had two galls- big brass ones. I went out there and just did the best I could. I’m pretty sure the stress was affecting my already half baked, now stretched out and watered down set. I'm pretty sure that's when I began to not care. 

Underbelly Of A Cruise Ship Part 3: Dancing On The Moon

“Dancing on the moon, with you in my arms.”
These are the opening words of a 1935 Max Fleischer Musical Cartoon that I used to see now and then when I was a kid. A parade of animals, one male and one female of each species, go through a chapel and get hitched. They then all continue in a bee line for a rocket ship that’s going to take them on a honeymoon on the moon.

One of the couples, some kind of mice or cats or rats or something, get separated from each other. He makes it up the gang plank, she doesn’t and the ship takes off. The rest of the cartoon is all about the happy couples on the moon and our miserable lonely groom.
That pretty much sums up my emotional state during the two years I worked on cruise ships. I wasn’t really a crew member and I wasn’t really a passenger. Some comedians have it down to a science. They have their PG13 material, they bring their golf clubs and they just spend the whole year on the ships, cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.

Some bring their significant others now and then. They have to pay to fly them down and they have to be able to not kill each other living in a eight by twelve room which is, as I mentioned before, under the 24/7 crew gymnasium. I tried many different approaches to stay sane, despite the fact that 200 lb barbells were being dropped on my ceiling all night long. I was allowed free reign up and about the passenger areas. I only ate at the big buffet/dining room and I was allowed to go to the passenger health club, both way nicer than their crew equivalents.

When you first sign on to be a guest entertainer on cruise ships, you have to sign a pile of contracts that is the thickness of a small town phone book. One of the rules you have to abide to is not to ‘socialize’ with the passengers. I was encouraged to walk around, greet people, get recognized, get my picture taken with them- but I think we know what ‘socialize’ means here.

One of the older performers told me never to enter a lady’s cabin. If she suddenly started screaming rape as soon as you crossed the threshold, the cruise line would never take my side. He said there’s people who go on cruises who look for any angle to sue. Another elder statesman also told me that call girls also take frequent ‘business trips’ on the ships. Yikes! Don't wanna catch no scurvy.

In early 2006, being on the ‘inside’, I caught wind of a news story about an American getting killed in St. Thomas when his hotel room was broken into in the middle of the night.  Of course, that kind of stuff is bad for tourism, so it didn’t make all the papers.

A few months later, I got off a ship in St. Thomas and was supposed to fly to Miami for a day or two before getting on the next ship. The counter lady at the airport was in awe of my stupidity.

“Don’t you watch CNN?” she said.

“Wha?” I countered.

“Hurricane Ernesto. All flights to Miami are cancelled.”

Wow, it would have been nice if the travel lady, the ship, anybody told me this before I got abandoned. I started calling the cruise ship travel department but, being that the travel department was in Miami, it was closed. They had an emergency 800 number on their outgoing voice message. Now, 800 numbers don’t always work in other places, you know? That particular 800 number, in St. Thomas, was the St. Thomas Maytag repairman. I kid you not.

Somehow, just to spare you the torturous hours at the airport, I learned that the Port Agent of St. Thomas could put me up in a hotel and charge it to the cruise company. Her name was Beverly. She said that she couldn’t do that because she can’t get a hold of the cruise company. I told her I’m stranded because the cruise company office is closed.

I swear this is the exchange that followed:

Beverly: You’re just going to have to find a hotel.

Me: Which hotel?

Beverly: Oh, just go to any hotel. There’s a lot of hotels.

Me: I don’t know my way around here. I don’t want to pick a bad hotel.

Beverly: They’re all the same.

Me: No, you don’t understand. I don’t want to end up in the wrong place and get killed or something.

Beverly: What, people don’t get killed in the states? You can get killed anywhere. You can get killed right there at the airport.

At this point I bit my tongue and recalled a decent hotel that was up the road from the airport. I asked about that hotel and I did get her to call them to set up a corporate rate, but I really don’t think she would have done anything had I not pressed the issue.

The first opportunity I got, I emailed that exchange to both the travel office and all I got back from her was a ‘sorry you had such a hard time’. 
Thanks, Travel Lady, now get back to work booking my next flight from JFK to LaGuardia via the North Pole.

You get to watch special crew channels on the telly when you stay in the crew section. There’s a lot of message board channels. These have a lot of morale building messages, photos of crew member of the week and photos of crew parties. There’s also an endless loop of safety videos. I seriously appreciate the extreme importance of safety on a ship, but every time the very dour captain-at-large looked into the camera and yelled, “This is exactly what happened on the Titanic!” I spit my drink through my nose.

One thing good about the crew section is that there were vending machines for really economical phone cards that apparently only work on the ship phones. You're at sea or your in another country all week. Your cell phone either doesn’t work or you’re going to get massacred with international roaming rates. I could never get the internet in the crew section to work and, when I could, I felt like I was hogging up somebody’s only chance to email their family on the other side of the world. The passenger internet access, by the way, costs thirty dollars an hour.

When you first come on board in mid-week, nobody knows who you are, which is great. After your Saturday night Farewell Show everybody knows who you are, so breakfast the next morning is a bit tricky. You literally can’t get a fork up to your mouth without somebody coming up to you and shaking your hand or patting you on the back, so I would eat Sunday breakfast real early. The passengers slept in as late as possible, having partied their last hurrah the night before and were now busily packing up and getting ready to leave. After I ate breakfast, I would then actually wander around and thank people for coming to the show.

Okay, here was a stupid and nerve racking every Sunday exercise. I was staying for another three or four days, but I had to get off the ship, go through customs and get back on the ship. There was another three thousand people in the terminal waiting to get on. This was where the pursers were supposed to come in. The pursers are the hotel staff of the ship, the front desk people. They also hated the comedians.

A purser was supposed to escort guest entertainers down the gang plank, through customs and then through some secret door where I could get right back on the ship. Unless I latched onto one of the bigger entertainers on board that week, I was always sent down a wrong hallway, ending up outside and behind the three thousand people waiting to get on.  

That night, the new bunch of passengers would be slowly settling in and, of course, they would all come to the Welcome Aboard show. Whether I have a great set or not, these people would all know who I was for the next four days.

I tried not succumbing to the hedonistic cornucopia of food. I would work out at the passenger gym for an hour before each meal. I ate only vegetables, fruit, protein, fish, chicken and oatmeal but, by the end of the week, I still felt like hell. The last nights of a run, usually the Tuesday and Wednesday after being on the ships for two or three weeks, were spent in my room in a  fetal position, with mountains of giant chocolate chip cookies.

The big buffet/dining room, while being a feeding frenzy during daylight, classes it up a notch in the evening with ambient lighting, waiters and wine stewards. That is, of course, unless you walk in by yourself. Then you only get the ambient lighting. Again, I can't say I was being ignored because I was the comedian. In their defense, they might just insult and avoid any person who's sitting alone. They practically lean across your table to dotingly fall over a couple who came in after you. One waiter actually stuck his behind between my face and fork while bending over to stroke the couple at the next table for a big tip. Again, I kid you not.

I tried convincing myself that I was being a lump on a log and that I should get out and take part in all the ports of call. I hate shopping and I’m not a bring-back-souvenir kind of guy, which is all that walking distance from the pier pretty much provides. “Okay,” I told myself, “You like the beach. Go check out all the beaches out there, dummy!”

Well, all the beaches within walking distance of the ship are usually rocky little dumps in the shadow of the ships (they dock in herds), lapped with rainbow colored water, swirling with ship fuel. The good beaches are all on the other side of wherever you are, and they cost money to get there.

Okay, I still wasn’t going to be a grump. I shelled out sixty, maybe seventy bucks for a trip to the beach the next morning. We were all supposed to meet on the pier the next morning, and we all did- some thirty couples and me. Then the tour guy told us to make a double line, so I looked even dumber standing halfway down this two by two queue without a playmate. I was going to stick it out, though.

A light rain began to fall as we stood in our ridiculous line, waiting for the bus. We were assured that a light rain falls every morning on that side of the island. The other side, where we were going, was fine. However, he said, if anybody wanted a refund, no problem.
“Check, please!”
I was not about to go dancing on the moon.