The author, perhaps too smugly contemplating his apparent good fortune

I've Been Workin' on the Love Boat
by Peter Montalbano

This was first published in "The San Francisco Bay Guardian" -- January, 1985.

Royal Viking Sky, Venezia, only a short walk from St. Mark's . . .

     There we were in the tender, sluicing back across the ultramarine Rade de Villefranche. Ahead was the ship, swept stem to stern with a stripe of royal blue. High above, the red sea eagle crest of Royal Viking Line stood out just far enough from the smokestack to cast a shadow. To me it was a vision of beauty as it shone in the springtime sun. To my left was Lis, my Danish bonne amie, and we were surrounded by a chattering gaggle of crew members, most returning for the evening shift, with a scattering of disoriented passengers who hadn't signed up for a tour.

     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.

    Days at sea, I could wake to a swim, have lobster from the buffet, later listen to a lecture on the gods of the Vikings. After work in the evening, visit the "midnight buffet," and go below to crash with pleasant dreams of the next day's sojourn in, perhaps, the flower gardens of Funchal, flower of the Madeira wine land. Through it all playing music for a living. Well . . . music of a sort: "businessman's bounce," waltzes and cha-chas. No matter it wasn't exciting, it kept the chops up, and every now and again along would come something wild like the all-night jazz gig we played at Oslo's "Jazz Alive." And, behold, I, who had rejected the "establishment" for so long, only to be shut out for years, when at last I knocked on its door, had become-o yuppie rapture-a corporate employee with a good position. How do you make it as a musician in America? You leave.
Villefranche, just outside Nice. Beautiful? You bet.
     It did seem I had it made. The Royal Viking Sea, my floating home, had the physical setup of a five-star hotel and then some: rooms for 700, two swimming pools, a casino, movie theater, library, hairdresser and gym, paddle tennis and basketball courts, and four lounges with music. I got to rub shoulders and even interact musically with such greats as vibist Gary Burton, world-renowned violinists Anna and Ida Kavafian, and Victor Borge, who once did an impromptu "opening. act" for my own band's show. I had a single cabin with bath; my working hours were short and other time was mostly my own, with diversions galore and lots of friends to play with.
     However, my playmates, who were mostly regular crew, didn't have it nearly so good. While passengers on the Royal Viking Sea normally stay on for two weeks at the most, the 400 or so crew members have contracts for four or Five months. The highly international crew, which is about evenly divided between men and women, sails under the Norwegian flag and is subject to a regime known in crew argot as "Norwegian Law."
     Basic "Norwegian Law," which falls hardest on the lowest, is very simple. It might be stated: "You vill obey dey rools and dere vill be giffen no excuses." Of course there are corollaries. These are constantly changing and appear usually in the form of memos from the office of the hotel manager, which is why even the cruise director refers to that. luminary as the "Hot Man." All crew are expected to check the bulletin boards daily to see who has to stop using the elevators or stop wearing checkered socks to work. Crew food is fuel, pure and simple: a lot of meat loaf and spaghetti. Free time? Generally, the less money you make, the less freedom you have, including free port time.
     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.
     At first it was hard to pinpoint what in it reminded me of ship life. It wasn't the collection of pat little dramas whose loose ends could all be tied up within one weekend cruise. No, our clientele consisted mostly of middle-aged to elderly couples or widowed ladies whose humdrum lives in Florida or Texas simply continued humdrum aboard the ship. One old woman went on five straight two-week cruises, hardly leaving the ship in port and spending most days doing needlepoint in the reception lounge.
     So what was it, then? After some thought, I decided the connection must be in the show's flat, one-dimensional portrayal of the cutesy little cruise director, jolly bartender, bumbling purser, shy but handsome doctor and stern but fair captain, who provide a comfortably predictable framework for the bland interactions that pass for the stuff of romance and comedy.

    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?" were common.
     At dinner, where it was my job to entertain tablemates with scintillating wit and flawless culture, I discovered that for all the bottles of Chateau Cantenac-Brown and Lynch-Bages, caviar and fjord salmon offered them, the tastes of a goodly number of my charges were quite pedestrian. Once I got a group I called (to myself only) "the Five nuns," because they moved in union with a common spirit and were detached from sensual pleasure. All five used thousand island dressing, drank soft drinks and eschewed the fancy continental dishes in favor of good ol' American roast beef or turkey. Conversation was a challenge: If it wasn't about rheumatism or poor room service, there were often awkward silences. Some folks didn't seem to even want to talk, but sat glumly smoking. Several times I got tables with old Texans whose wives would call me "honey" and pinch me if they could, but the worst part of those situations was that I had to watch my mouth about Reagan & Co. I once made the mistake of getting drawn into. a discussion on Central America with J.T. Bowers ("Investment, Dallas," explained his card). Luckily I had to leave early for work that night.

     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 content.
     Dissatisfaction, though, springs eternal, even in a preprogrammed paradise, which is why I can't easily give an answer to the question everyone asks: "Did you have a good time?" If, as Averell Harriman is often quoted as saying, life can be defined as "one damn thing after another," then, in at least some sense, our "dream cruise" was just another "damn thing." Though I wouldn't trade that experience for almost any other I can think of, there was as much misery even in my own privileged life as in most other jobs I've had. Much of this derived from the huge amounts of money floating around, bringing out the high expectations of the ones paying to be there and the nervousness of our high-paid execs.
     Also, the air was Filled with proletarian resentment felt by those who weren't making as much money but were working the hardest. I sometimes felt like the jelly part of a jelly sandwich, squished between my guys and the theoretically unimpeachable oligarchy of the ship. My sidemen were underpaid and harassed by arbitrary rules. The night club trio, who often worked five- or six-hour nights, were not allowed to take breaks in the room they were playing to, but had to disappear back into the pantry. To enforce this, the "Hot Man" would come nightly to the club, sit in back chain-smoking and getting ever drunker while waiting for the boys to break the "rools." If they didn't, he occasionally made up an excuse to push them around. once even physically assaulting the pianist. But more often he would keep his thoughts to himself until the next day, when the bulletin board would sprout a new memo with new rules and pointed threats. This was the "Love Boat?"
     For a while I had to minister to a bassist who was drinking himself into a stupor on the job because of a dying love affair 10,000 miles away. I had to weather storms of resentment over mistakes in scheduling because everyone figured I was making way too much money to make mistakes. My conscience would start needling me, saying they were probably right and why wasn't I more together, anyway? I had trouble with my boss, too. He would rarely give straight answers, often lying to me for some reason I never did figure out. Two of the four captains I served under were objects of widespread fear and derision among underlings. And those old Texas ladies would simply not stop trying to pinch me.
     Well, even the worst seems light at this distance. But by the third month, it was starting to feel like one damn thing after another. Or maybe just the same damn thing on extended play.

     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.

one a them crazy crew parties . . .

     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.
     On one of the last days of the trip, I was trying to gather my thoughts on all these complexities and write them down in a definitive way. I was still tired from the night before, and I had a rehearsal coming up in an hour. As I was grasping for what seemed would be the deepest of insights, there was a knock on the door. Was it Phil, with another of his manic-depressive alcoholic paranoid delusions of artistic righteousness-cum-inferiority? Or Rob, wondering if his overtime pay had come in? Ah, sweet solitude! Why didn't I have time to think in peace? But there was the door again. Oh; well. Forget about the insight.

     When I opened up, there was Lis, dressed in her neat little Royal Viking outfit. Call me kinky, but I have a thing for women in uniform. And her smile was anything but cynical this time. Mischievous, maybe. "Room service," she said. "Well, it's about time," I answered, drawing her in and shutting the door.

* * * * * *

"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.