Draw the Line

Long Line

If there’s one thing cruise ship guests hate it’s waiting in line to see a free comedy show. It fact, some guests get so mad they look like they want to hit me. Only reason they don’t is the line for beating me up is usually longer than the line for the show.

In all fairness, I can see why people on vacation wouldn’t want to wait ten minutes to see a forty-minute comedy show. These are the same people who’ll wait in a three-hour line at Six Flags for a two-minute roller coaster ride. The same people who’ll camp out on Canal Street in New Orleans at nine in the morning for a Mardi Gras parade that doesn’t start till noon and won’t reach them until four in the afternoon. The same people who’ll sleep outside an Apple Store all weekend just to buy the new iPhone even though they still haven’t figured out how to use their previous iPhone. The same people who’ll, on the first night of the cruise, spend forty-five minutes in a Free Liquor Tasting line that circles the lobby of the ship just so they can down a thimble-sized sample of Baily’s Irish Cream. So, yes, I can see why waiting ten minutes for a professional comedy show would be too much suffering for their fallen arches to endure.

There’s something about lines (or “queues,” if you’re British) that brings out the worst in people. On a nightly basis I observe grown adults cut the line, save spots for friends, nit-pick about who was standing where, push and shove, scream and shout, and then become verbally abusive (or “get all Parliamentary,” if you’re British) with me or my assistants when confronted about their behavior. Other guests will refuse to join the line altogether and try to start their own line at the exit of the comedy club, refusing to move as they’re trampled by a stampede of 600 departing guests in search of free pizza and ice cream. It’s nights like that that make me wish there were more icebergs in the Caribbean.

Some of my superiors believe that turning a blind eye to such childish behavior falls under the heading of Good Customer Service. I do not. I believe that when passengers pay for a cruise they are paying to travel on the ship, paying to sleep on the ship, paying to eat on the ship, and paying to enjoy the free live entertainment offered on the ship. They are not paying for the right to interfere with our operation, supplant our policies with their own, defy or disrespect our team members or infringe upon the fun of their fellow guests through rude, selfish or discourteous behavior. For that we charge extra.

In my opinion, passengers are called “guests” for a reason: the ship is our home and they are just visiting. In my cruise line’s opinion, however, passengers should be considered “part of the family.” Fine. But if you ask me, that’s even more of a reason for us to call guests on their crap. I’d love to see our more problematic passengers try to pull the same shenanigans in the home of a close relative and see what happens. Try telling their Aunt Clara and Uncle Eugene how to run their household, spill food on their furniture, leave dirty dishes on their stairs, make noise at all hours of the night outside their bedroom door and speak rudely or disrespectfully to them or their cousins and they’ll find themselves at a Motel 6 faster than they can say, “It may be your house but it’s my vacation.”

I love my job and I love my ship. I also love the vast majority of guests who cruise with us week after week. So, please come sail with us soon. I’ll do my part to make sure you have the best cruise ever. But, to echo something we’ve all heard our fathers say a million times while growing up: If you cruise under my roof, you cruise under my rules.

Got a problem with that? Get in line.

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Refugee Rhapsody

cuban flag

Last cruise, we rescued 40 Cuban refugees in a small, rickety watercraft which had been adrift at sea for over two weeks. We fed them, clothed them, and gave them medical attention. They’re now proud members of our Housekeeping Department.

Just kidding. The bean counters in Miami would never authorize the extra uniforms.

We tried offloading our unexpected guests in Montego Bay, Jamaica, but they took one look around and said, “Screw this dump—take us back to Cuba!”

That’s exactly what happened, too. Three days after the rescue, our Captain announced we’d been ordered to turn over our Cuban visitors to the U.S. Coast Guard in International waters via vessel transfer. According to U.S. law, Cuban refugees who reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay in the country. Those who are intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba. Can you imagine being rescued after 15 days at sea with little food and water and no cover from the elements only to be told you were being sent back?

CUBANS:

Help us!!

CRUISE SHIP:

We will bring you aboard!!

CUBANS:

Yay!!

CRUISE SHIP:

We will feed, clothe and take care of you!!

CUBANS:

Yay!!

CRUISE SHIP:

Then alert the United States Coast Guard!!

CUBANS:

Yay!!

CRUISE SHIP:

Who will then return you to Cuba!!

CUBANS:

Say what?! Um, sorry to have bothered you, but we’re OK now. Actually, the combination of sun and salt water is quite good for our skin. So you folks go ahead and continue on to Jamaica—sorry to interrupt your cruise. So what if our engine died two weeks ago and we’ve been drifting without food and water for hundreds of nautical miles? We’re in no hurry to get anywhere. It’s not like we have work in the morning. Besides, we have plenty of sandals to eat and urine to drink. We’re sure your ship is nice and all but we think we’ll stay here on this disintegrating ark of plywood and two by fours and take our chances with the freaking sharks! Hasta la vista, baby!

It’s a bittersweet feeling to know that you’ve saved somebody’s life only to return them to a life they so desperately wanted to escape. And that’s how most of us crew members felt for the first day after the rescue. But by day two we were like, “Where the hell is the Coast Guard?! We want our crew bar and crew Internet lounge (where the refugees were billeted) back!”

Although it’s natural for human nature to creep back in after the adrenaline of a crisis wears off, this doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the rescue. It was quite a dramatic event. Once our cruise director made the announcement that the nighttime rescue was in progress, hundreds of crew members and guests crowded onto what we call the Lanai Deck to watch the little boat packed with waving and shouting Cubans bob up and down in the rough sea, the laser- bright beam of our ship’s searchlight making it look like a scene from a movie. We all cheered as the Captain, using our thrusters, positioned the ship so that the refugees’ boat gently kissed our starboard side as Security opened the gangway doors on Riviera Deck. Guests applauded in relief when they saw the refugees being led out of the boat onto our ship. What they didn’t see were all the overworked crew members who tried to escape into the boat:

“Let me out of here—If I have to make one more towel animal for a demanding and unappreciative American guest I’m going to kill myself! Cuba, here I come!”

If you were to work on a cruise ship for one day, it wouldn’t take you long to see how silly and self-involved some guests can be. Last cruise, some guests actually went down to Guest Services and complained that, since we interrupted their vacation in order to rescue Cuban refugees, they should be monetarily compensated. They felt that we had endangered their lives by bringing “potential Somali pirates” aboard and therefore they felt entitled to a free cruise.

First of all, maritime law commands us to assist any vessel in distress and to embark its passengers if that vessel is no longer seaworthy. Secondly, how exactly do 40 dehydrated Cubans pose a danger to 4,500 drunken Saints fans from New Orleans? Thirdly, we’re  several thousand miles away from the coast of Somalia. Besides, even if Somali pirates were to board our ship, we’d put them to work immediately:

SOMALI PIRATES:

We are Somali pirates! Take us to the Bridge!

HOUSEKEEPING MANAGER:

No—you’re going to swab Lido Deck just like the schedule says! So put down those rifles and grab a mop, you lazy bastards, before I put my big Guatemalan foot up your skinny African asses!

SOMALI PIRATES:

Oh, did we say Somali pirates? We meant to say Cuban refugees—take us to the crew bar instead!

I’ll tell you how we should have compensated these people: we should have kicked them into the Cubans’ rickety piece-of-crap boat and then told them to drift aimlessly without food and water until another cruise line stops to pick them up: “I’m sure just about every cruise line will pass you eventually, so take your pick!”

With any luck, the Cuban Coast Guard would pick them up and return them to Idiot Island.

Ship for Brains

jerks

Although Cruise Critic reviews can tell you which ship offers the best bang for your buck, one thing they can’t tell you is what your fellow passengers will be like on any given cruise. Pick the wrong sailing date with the wrong guest demographic and your vacation can go from Cape Canaveral to “Cape Fear” faster than you can say, “Here comes Honey Boo-Boo!”

Even if you book the most poorly reviewed ship in the fleet, the biggest negative surprise of your cruise will be what troublemakers some of your fellow cruisers can be. Those tan lines above their feet? That’s where the house arrest ankle bracelets used to be.

Although TV commercials always make cruising look like a care-free adventure, take it from me:

  • No matter how luxurious your stateroom may be, you won’t get any rest if your quarrelsome neighbors sound like they’re auditioning for “The Jerry Springer Show” on their balcony every night.
  • No matter how incredible the food and service in the dining room may be, you’re not going to enjoy dinner if the family next to you lets their sugar-addled rug rats run around the table, screeching their heads off as if taping a telethon for Planned Parenthood.
  • No matter how efficient and understanding the pursers at Guest Services may be, you’ll never get to the front of the line if 20 members of the same Idiots Anonymous chapter “didn’t know I had to pay for them items in my mini-bar!”
  • No matter how funny the comedians in the ship’s comedy club may be, you can’t enjoy the show if the trailer-park CPAs behind you are fighting over the check, trying to figure out who the hell ordered a drink called “gratuity.”

Sure, everyone has to put up with troublesome neighbors at home or work alongside first-class boneheads in the office; you expect that. What you don’t expect is to pay thousands of dollars to embark upon the vacation of a lifetime only to have it ruined by a handful of inconsiderate knuckleheads whose foster parents never taught them how to behave in public. Expect loud drunks to swear repeatedly in front of your children. Expect giggling morons to drop ice on you from the upper decks. Expect thoughtless jerks to light up cigars in the hot tub. Expect complete idiots to leave their empty coffee mugs in the middle of the stairs so your mother-in-law can fall and break her hip. Expect selfish pigs to swipe the last four slices of banana cream pie from the buffet without asking if you or one of your kids would like one. (OK, you can expect me  to do that, too.)

Bottom line, if you think you’re getting away from the Real World by going on a cruise, you’re wrong. Thanks to an abundance of affordable fares on the Internet, the same blockheads who make your life miserable on land are going to follow you up the gangway, dragging their knuckles behind them. They will cut in line in front of you at the buffet, chat loudly during production shows, and hog a big block of deck chairs for relatives who are never showing up—all the while being totally oblivious to how uncomfortable they’re making you feel or how badly they’re intimidating your children.

These days, cruise lines are doing whatever they can to fill every ship to capacity. The more empty cabins, the more money they lose and the harder it will be for them to keep their prices down. Unfortunately, reduced fares and on-board credit incentives mean more people who’ve had their campers repossessed are trading camping for cruising, meaning more people to heatedly debate the verisimilitude of Pro Wrestling right behind you while you’re trying to enjoy a romantic sunset with your special someone.

Fortunately, the majority of people you’ll meet on your cruise will be friendly, helpful and entertaining. You might even make a few new friends for life. In fact, the number of nice people you’ll meet will allow you to suffer the fools more gladly and, more than likely, encourage you to book another cruise right away.

But as for the imbeciles, nitwits and pinheads? Remember, it’s not a crime to push somebody overboard as long as nobody sees you do it. Besides, that won’t be the first time somebody’s “gotten away with murder” while cruising.

Have Tank Top, Will Travel

Tank Top

When packing for a cruise, don’t forget something nice to wear on Elegant Night. If you don’t own a tuxedo or evening gown, a tank top or sweat pants will do just fine. Just make sure they’re clean.  It is Elegant Night, after all.

Elegant Night isn’t what it used to be. Dressing up is optional now because my cruise line doesn’t want to alienate the lucrative “Duck Dynasty” demo by forcing them to wear anything that needs to be ironed. From a business standpoint that makes perfect sense: disgruntled guests spend less money so why risk upsetting a high roller who won’t even splurge on a pair of ten-dollar dress slacks at T.J. Maxx?

Before making Elegant Night more convenient for the sartorially challenged we need to ask ourselves,  “What kind of nighttime atmosphere do we want to promote on our ships? An elegant atmosphere where guests can delight in looking their very best for a couple of hours?  Or a relaxed atmosphere where guests can enjoy a refined seven-course meal in swim suits and flip-flops? Do we want guests to feel like they’re on a luxurious ocean liner in the Caribbean or at a KOA in Jacksonville?”

I think you know the answer: Viva Trailer Park Chic!

Oddly, my cruise line seems to care more about the wants and needs of our less sophisticated first-time cruisers than those of our more urbane repeat guests. Unfortunately, the more we coddle the common herd, the more we disrespect our classier customers who are more appreciative, more cooperative, and tend to spend more money on board. But because classier guests tend to bitch less, we’ve started to tailor our policies to the complaints and grievances of a few flip-flop philistines who, for example, feel discriminated against because “them treadmills in the guest gym ain’t got no ashtrays.” If I tell some shirtless biker with a giant flaming skull tattoo on his chest that he can’t enter my comedy club before donning the “Who Farted?” tank top he has slung over his shoulder like a Captain Trailer Park cape, he wheels his pimped-out Rascal Scooter down to Guest Services and threatens to have his entire Hell’s Angels chapter boycott the cruise line. Consequently, my cruise director is forced to give in and tell the guest that, because we truly value the patronage of a part-time drug mule who bought this cruise at the last minute on CheapAssCruises.com thanks to the $200 settlement he got on “Judge Judy,” that giant flaming skull tattoo on his chest does indeed count as a shirt.

“But, Boss,” I’ll say, “What about all the wealthy Platinum and Diamond members sitting next to him in their tuxedos and evening gowns, wearing looks of disgust and astonishment on their faces?”

“Well, if they’re so wealthy, how come they can’t afford a nice tank top for Elegant Night?”

Children of the All-You-Can-Eat Corn

children-of-the-corn

If your main reason for going on a cruise is to get away from your kids for a week, make sure you pick the right week. If you go during summer vacation, winter holidays or spring break, you’ll be trading your kids for other people’s kids. And after watching them charge around the ship with no supervision, knocking over old ladies with walkers, crashing into waiters balancing huge trays of nine-dollar drinks, and cannon balling pool water onto your Kindle, you’ll wish you had brought your kids along just so they can throw these little Grandsons of Anarchy a beating.

Although most ships have one or more kids’ clubs that keep the little angels occupied during the day, the nighttime is when they grow their fangs and sprout their demon wings. If you’ve cruised before, you may have observed them in the hallways, on the stairwells or in the elevator lobbies well past midnight:  Gangs of preteens roaming the ship like prepubescent marauders–laughing and shouting, blasting Miley Cyrus on their iPhones without headphones, riding the elevators up and down for no reason, and just plain annoying the hell out of anyone unlucky enough not to own a tranquilizer gun with a laser sight. Sure, you can call Security, but Security will always say the same thing: “Sorry, sir, but we asked those kids if they were causing trouble and they said, ‘No’.”

Although teenagers and preteens can be loud and obnoxious, a disapproving stare is usually enough to settle them down. It’s the little kids with no “off” switches that’ll drive you crazy.  Cruise at the wrong time of year and you’ll be surrounded by sugar-crazed kiddies hijacking the ship like miniature Somali pirates. Kiddies screeching in the dining room. Kiddies crying in the comedy club. Kiddies peeing in the hot tub. Kiddies looking innocently up at you with cute, excited little faces just as you’re about ready to kick them down a flight of stairs, causing you to pat them on the head and say, “Have fun, sweetheart—but be careful!” instead.

Even though I love children and am used to them wreaking havoc on the ship, my fantasies of punting them overboard never last more than a second or two. That’s how long it takes for me to imagine what I’d do to their parents, instead, should I find them. (Which is impossible because the majority of parents remove their children’s leashes at the beginning of the cruise, never to see them again until claiming them on the luggage carousel in the terminal at the end of the cruise.)

As the cousin of the parents of two wonderfully behaved youngsters who managed to enjoy their first cruise on my ship immensely while causing no trouble whatsoever, I know it’s possible for kids to have the time of their lives without ruining the cruise for adults.

Unfortunately, my cousin and her husband were fined heavily by my cruise line for their children’s exemplary behavior. Apparently, the front office feels that well-behaved kids risk ruining the fun vacation atmosphere we’re known for. That’s why every parent is supposed to receive a “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being a Complete Idiot: Cruise Ship Parenting 101” pamphlet that helps children enjoy their cruise more than the people who actually paid for it.

“Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being a Complete Idiot: Cruise Ship Parenting 101”

  1. Never know where your kids are and if they’re stampeding round the ship unattended, yelling, screaming and disturbing other passengers, do not stop them. Just because a crew member has chastised them multiple times doesn’t mean this conduct is unacceptable. In fact, get that crew member’s name because it’s been a while since we’ve made someone walk the plank.
  2. The public restrooms are for grownups, so if your kids have to pee, that’s what the “adults-only” hot tub is for.
  3. Do not ask your children to say “Please” or “Thank you” when being served in the dining room. “Honey Boo-Boo” never learned table manners so what makes your kids so special?
  4. Sit exhausted toddlers in the front row of the comedy show because the only thing comedians love more than a drunken heckler sitting two feet from the stage is a wailing three-year-old.
  5. If a show in the main theater isn’t suitable for your tiny tots, drag them along anyway. Having them play distracting computer games on a tablet or whine “Mommy, I’m bored!” for an hour straight will force the passengers seated around you to pay better attention to the show, thereby enjoying it more.
  6. Show zero respect for the ship’s property. If you catch your child doing something you would never tolerate in your own home, such as yanking down on the lever of the frozen yogurt machine until all the yogurt empties into a pile on the floor, be sure to laugh your head off and snap a photo.

So the next time you want a break from your kids, don’t go on a cruise—go to Chuck E. Cheese. It’ll be much quieter.

Cabin Fever

Cabin Fever

The second most frequent question cruise ship passengers ask the crew is, “What are your living quarters like?” (The most frequent question is, “Can you say that again—this time, in English—please?”)

Working on a cruise ship isn’t easy. You’re on the clock up to 14 hours a day, every day, for six months to a year, with few—if any—days off, all the while being whipped mercilessly by cat o’ nine tails. Fortunately, you can have all the banana nut bread you want, so the whippings are definitely worth it.

The secret to thriving in such a demanding environment is getting plenty of rest. And the secret to getting plenty of rest in a crew cabin is to die in your sleep. Because, dying in your sleep is the only way you’ll sleep for eight hours straight on a ship without being wakened by your door-slamming, belt-buckle-jangling, peeing-with-the bathroom-door-open, playing-video-games-at-all-hours-of-the-night roommate.

If you’re young and healthy like the majority of crew members, dying in your sleep might pose a bit of a challenge. No problem. Just snore your butt off and sooner or later your roommate will kill you in your sleep. Every crew bunk comes with two pillows: one for sleeping on and the other for smothering your snoring roommate.

Although sharing a tiny cabin with a complete stranger is the greatest suffering I’ve ever had to endure for my art, some crew members don’t mind at all. These are usually young people just starting their careers who aren’t bothered by noise or lack of privacy. These kids are the worst roommates you can get: because nothing bothers them, they assume nothing will bother you. These are the roommates who’ll crank the TV up to full volume at three in the morning or make long distance phone calls in staccato Spanish while standing right next to your head or decide to use their hair dryer to blow dry their laundry just as you’re falling asleep because they forgot to leave the crew bar in time to snag an open dryer in the crew laundry room.

You generally don’t get to choose your roommate. That’s the job of the crew staff administrator, who puts a lot of thought into cabin assignments by throwing darts at a dartboard.  The good news is, if you wind up bunking with someone you can’t stand, she’ll let you borrow one of her darts.

All double occupancy crew cabins feature bunk beds. Each bunk comes with a reading light, a little book shelf and a wraparound curtain that’ll provide you with complete privacy whenever your 20-year-old roommate—always the ship’s apprentice deejay—decides to throw an after-party with a half-dozen drunken friends at 4:00am after the disco closes.

The first rule of cabin etiquette is the new guy gets the top bunk. You’ll usually have to wait several months for your roommate to move out before you can take the bottom bunk, in which case you’ll want to mark your territory for your new roommate by conspicuously placing personal belongings on your bunk such as your laptop or barbed wire.

Another pain in the butt is we have to store our luggage in our cabins. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a cabin with a big spacious corner ( two feet by four feet), where there’s plenty of room for me to stack my suitcase on top of my roommate’s 10 suitcases. If I get a small cabin (six feet by eight feet), however, I’ll wind up spending 10 months with my suitcase sitting smack dab in the middle of the cabin, tripping over it in the middle of the night when I get out of bed to pee. Remember that old American Tourister TV commercial from the ’70s in which the gorilla threw a suitcase around his cage? He was just pissed he wasn’t allowed to put it in storage. (Even though that ape’s cage was larger than the typical crew cabin!)

Every month, there’s a cabin inspection to make sure you don’t have anything in your cabin you’re not supposed to, such as blenders, hot plates or privacy. They key to passing a cabin inspection is knowing when an inspection is. And the key to knowing when an inspection is writing yourself a reminder after they tell you exactly when  the inspection is. What happens is Security tells your department head when the inspection is (usually the last sea day of the month), so all you have to do is unplug your power strip, space heater, moonshine still, centrifuge for enriching weapons-grade Uranium, and hide everything ingeniously by—wait for it—putting it in one of your drawers.

Except for your pillow. That’s one deadly weapon you can leave right out in the open.

Leader of the Pack(ing)

packing-a-suitcase

It’s great to be back home in Cleveland. This is the first time I’ve seen snow in seven years. Unless you count the time I picked up the wrong suitcase in Mexico.

I’d have preferred to remain in the Caribbean for the winter, but I was arrested for throwing eggs at the ship next door and drag racing on a Rascal Scooter (the Lamborghini of mobility scooters). They were going to deport me to Canada, but they found out Cleveland was colder due to the “lake effect,” which is meteorological jargon for “freezing my nads off.”

Although six months is a relatively short contract for me, I couldn’t wait to pack my bags because the only thing more fun than living on a cruise ship for six months is figuring out how to get all my accumulated crap into one checked bag and one carry-on. It’d be easier to get Chris Christie into a Speedo.

After spending half my life traveling for a living, I have packing down to a science. Unfortunately, science was always my worst subject. But, according to Wikipedia, the first law of luggage-ology is: “Objects at rest will weigh precisely one pound over the airline’s fifty pound limit once you get to the airport.” It doesn’t matter if the only things you pack are a jock strap and a duck call, once you get to the airport your suitcase will weigh exactly fifty-one pounds, in which case you’ll be expected to pay a $100 overweight luggage fee. (Unless the airline associate feels sorry for you, in which case she’ll only charge you $125.)

Actually, it’s not that hard to pack a suitcase correctly after half a year at sea. All you have to do is follow five simple steps:

1.  Create a packing list: Make a list of everything you need to pack into the suitcase.  Leave nonessential items at the bottom of the list. That way, if you run out of space you can throw those items away, give them to your cabin mate or leave them in the charity box down in the Crew Internet Lounge. (Central American orphans can never get enough extension cords or Tom Clancy novels.) Thanks to OCD and my predilection to hoarding, my packing list was a breeze to make:

Nonessential Items:

  1. The ship.

Essential Items:

  1.  Everything else.

 2.  Separate large and small items: To pack a suitcase properly you must first make room for large items like suits, sweaters or your cabin steward (making your own bed at home sucks!). Once all large items are situated small items (like a shorter cabin steward) can be fitted into the empty corners or crevices between large items and around the edge of the suitcase.  Instead of folding the big items try rolling them up. Although this won’t save any space, it’ll leave you prepared should you decide to spend part of your vacation in either Colorado or Washington state.

3.  Make your suitcase bottom heavy: (Insert your own Kim Kardashian joke here!)

4.  Pack socks and underwear last: Don’t pack socks and underwear with the rest of your clothes because they’ll take up too much space. And don’t wash them either. Instead, once you’ve packed your suitcase, slip your smelly socks and crusty underwear into the flap of the suitcase so they’ll fall out easily and put an abrupt end to any Customs or TSA inspections.

5.  Ship home non-clothing items: It’s easy for crew members to accumulate lots of books, DVDs and souvenirs such as that wooden figure of Justin Bieber riding a donkey you bought in Cozumel after one too many Coronas—stuff you won’t need as soon as you get home but don’t want to leave on the ship because where else are you going to find a wooden figure of a donkey being ridden by a jackass? Shipping this stuff home is usually less expensive than paying for an extra or overweight suitcase. (If you ship your cabin steward make sure to leave a snack in the box.)

Well, that’s all the time I have for now. I’ve been home for a whole week now and I should probably get unpacked.