Been Workin' on the Love Boat
This was first published in "The San Francisco Bay Guardian" -- January, 1985.
Royal Viking Sky, Venezia, only a short walk from St. Mark's . . .
Lis looked dour. At first I didn't notice: I was caught up in being back on the Cote d'Azur, once the scene of fine dalliances of my youngest manhood, and in being now part of an adventure in which the simple sight of a ship could make my body tingle.
"Doesn't it make you excited just to look at it?" I bubbled, waving at the vision. Her answer: a cynical laugh. "Well, maybe to you it's beautiful."
Of course I was excited. Not much more
than a year before, I'd been just another struggling sideman trumpeter
and aspiring bandleader in San Francisco, when I'd gotten a surprise
call: Wanna take a band or two and go to CHINA? Throw in Hawaii, Japan,
Hong Kong, a few months breather, then five months as musical director
on one of the world's premier luxury liners, visit the Caribbean, Scandinavia,
Russia and countless ports in the Mediterranean, even the Black Sea?
Sail from Yaltah to Gibraltah with the idle rich, playing music with
your friends? Well, whyyy not? So with my hot little sextet and trio,
I set out for those storybook lands. I spent free hours scrambling up
the Great Wall, gorging myself on Beijing duck, exploring Shanghai by
bicycle . . . the following summer scuba-diving in Malta, wandering
entranced through the art treasures of Venice and the ruins at Knossos,
changing dollars for rubles on the black market in Odessa (for such
transgression my trombonist was strip-searched in Leningrad on the Fourth
of July), lollygagging on the beaches at Torremolinos and Rhodes, and
roaring around the hills of Corfu and Crete on a Honda 125. Endlessly,
it seemed, there were overnights in places like Bordeaux, where we visited
Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in the morning and the underground cathedral
at St. Emilion in the afternoon. Or it might be Tangier, and shopping
for a caftan in the bazaar.
Though the common fantasy of a cruise ship job is of an escape from reality, in fact there is less escape from work problems than on land: you can't leave, because you live there, too. Interpersonal difficulties are intensified by conditions approaching those of a minimum-security prison: cramped quarters, shared bathrooms, regimentation, restricted exercise area. And, please, no complaints about sexism or racism. Those are built into the Law, and if you can't stand the heat, someone will help you out of the kitchen, maybe at the next port and with no ticket home. Fascist fer sure. This is what was bothering my friend Lis. What was better about her boyfriend that he was able to use the pool and have veal piccata on a shiny platter? No wonder I was so smug. Shame on me.
"Hey, Pete, man, I hear yer goin' on
the Love Boat! Haw, haw, haw!" And when I got back, it was "Haw, haw,
how was the Love Boat?" from even my more refined friends, so strong
is the power of that folk myth. I had actually never seen that mindless
soap before my trip, so when I got back I forced myself to sit through
a few episodes: The "Love Boat" show (filmed, by the way, on P&0 Line,
not Royal Viking) is a caricature of the real thing, but does have an
odd ring of truth to it.
The duties of the "real life" Royal Viking cruise staff, whose job it was to keep the passengers cheerfully occupied at sea, also brought out a uniform shallowness of character. Overeager smiles were pasted on, formulaic language used, difficulties and disagreements were glossed over-publicly, anyway. Prime pastimes were "Trivial Pursuit," bingo and "The Newlywed Game" (in a version retooled for older couples). The entertainment policy was generally to appeal to the ' lowest common denominator" of taste. Joey, one assistant cruise director I worked with, expressed it this way: "Before people go on cruises they screw off the tops of their heads, then take their brains out and stash them in the bottom drawer till they get home again." Joey's big public moment came on "welcome night" of each cruise, when he would call some unsuspecting buffoons out of the audience to play a fifth-grade-ish game in which they slapped styrofoam "straw" hats on each other's heads. And the new cruisers (many of them repeaters, seeing this for the nth time) always responded with belly laughs.
Perhaps, then, the TV show's connection
with real life at sea was that it appealed to the same mentality as
the actual cruise staff did, and most people who went on cruises were
the same sort who liked the show. The longer I watched, the more sense
that made. We once did a Louis Prima-style show that Joey, in a fatherly
way, told me was too sophisticated for them. "Next time wear the funny
hats and start out with "The Saints Go Marching in," he advised. "That's
what they wanna see." After playing "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" twice by request
in one cocktail set, I decided I agreed with him. My new opinion was
reinforced by things I saw away from the dance floor. Questions such
as "Do these stairs go up or down? or "What time is the midnight buffet?"
All this foolishness more amused than
annoyed me. I was doing fine and had only to think of the beaches of
Mykonos tomorrow or the chance to take one more look at the inside of
St. Mark's. These things were indeed the stuff of fantasy, even of substance,
and I'd actually found some real love on our "Love Boat." I had had
many old thoughts and feelings reawakened, precious ones I'd thought
lost for good. And at the end of it all, I was going to be able to take
a six-week vacation in Asia. Hey now, I should have been completely
Typically, one night I thought I'd clear my head of murk and mire by visiting a crew party on the aft deck. As I came down the stairs, "The Memos," a new wave incarnation of my very own society dance band, were blasting away with some serious B-52s. Bearded Viking types were stumbling over empty bottles of Frydenlund and dancing spastically with their countrywomen, bouncing and sliding on the deck, which was awash with spray and spilled gloegg. A pock-faced Portuguese was threatening to throw an American twice his size overboard. Dear, jolly Birgit was barging through the crush of pleasure-seekers with beers for the band. Lis didn't see me. She was flirting rather primitively with some yo-yo passenger from Corpus Christi who'd followed her down from the bar, obviously uninformed about Norwegian Law, which says that can't happen. Bill's guitar was screaming when suddenly there was a gust of cold wind, and a real heap of spray doused the dancers. A few ran for cover, but the momentum of the majority was strong, and they kept right on dancing, maybe because it was nearly 1 AM and everyone wanted to get some last kicks in before the Law decreed an end to this grand debauch.
There was a certain grandeur to this madness: These folks really had a lot of steam to let off. Most of them could never have a full day off, and waiters and the like had almost no shore time. Imagine going to Athens or Venice and not being able to get off the ship. That was probably why Dieter, over there, had pulled the bratwurst out of the party food and was ostentatiously holding it in front of his fly. And I'd come down here to clear my head?
So we sailed out to the sun, till we
found a sea of green, And a life of ease? Yes, it was a little easy
compared to most of the other "damn things" that have graced my life.
So what if the gig had problems? That's why it was a gig and not a vacation.
* * * * * *
"So, 'how was it on the Love Boat? Did you have a good time?" they keep on asking. And, "What do you think?" I shoot right back.