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The Weekend Shift

Lost At Sea

Eve Troeh

Megan Kellie

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Megan Kellie by the cruise ship
(Courtesy of Megan Kellie)
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This weekend, seven cruise ships are leaving from U.S. ports. Megan Kellie is on one of them. She's a comedy writer and performer in Los Angeles. Earlier this year, she spent three months entertaining people on a cruise ship from L.A. to Mexico as part of an improv comedy troupe. We asked Megan to give us a sense of what it's like to live and work in a place where it's always the weekend.

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A table of hard-partying 50-somethings is yelling at me. "Hey it's the blow-up doll! It's the blow-up doll!"

The night before, I played a blow-up sex doll on stage as part of a comedy show. Someone else wrote the part. I hate it. I have to contort my cheeks into something gross and stand still, like a mute sex widget, for three minutes. The 50-somethings at the table love it. They're thrilled to see me again. "Do the face! Do the face!" They say.

I'd been offered cruise ship gigs many times. I always had a reason to turn them down. After all, I live in L.A. Things are happening! But all of a sudden nothing was happening. I was temping at an office, and my social life seemed to revolve around my friends' babies. So let's go on a cruise!

About 3000 passengers board the ship each week. They sign a contract. Among other things, they swear that they have not had sudden vomiting or diarrhea in the past 24 hours. Cruise ships can be petri dishes for disease. Hand sanitizer is everywhere.

We float out to sea, led by a nice, large Swedish captain. People line up at the buffet. Pour coffee, wolf down eggs Benedict. The captain talks about the Norwalk virus, a potentially fatal bug that's spread by dirty hands. Ah, that's what the contract was about. "If you have an accident, you womit," he says, "or you see someone else has womited... call reception...tell them about the womit." No one stops eating. No one ever stops eating.

Day Two and Three of the cruise are sea days. They are mostly the same: Eat as much as possible. Dessert in triplicate. Waste time.

Day Four: We stop in Acapulco. Guys in fake mustaches, sombreros and bright ponchos pose with passengers for "Welcome to Mexico!" photos. They don't realize these are two Filipino guys from the ship's jazz band, in costume.

Me and some other actors go off to the local square, aiming for something non-touristy. The trees are beautiful and old. The square is old. We're the only people from the ship. Then it gets aggressively non-touristy. Quite a few locals are drunk or asleep. A short indigenous woman in no shoes has an exposed breast and a baby attached to it. She waves cheap souvenirs in our faces. We say, "No, Gracias." She looks at us with disgust. The poverty is upsetting. I get back to the ship.

Back on board, the bars are full. They are aggressively decorated, like theme parks: Asian! Irish! Sinatra! I go to the crew bar, in a separate part of the ship. No passengers allowed.
The crew has a weird caste system. We're in the "Entertainer" caste. We get rooms like the passengers. We can eat in the restaurants. We can get as drunk as we want, and drinks cost a dollar in the crew bar.

Beneath us is everyone else. That's about 1000 people, most from poorer countries. The waiters, cooks, room stewards, casino people, engineers and on and on. They can't use passenger elevators, or eat in the restaurants. They'll get left at the next port if they fail a Breathalyzer test. They have to stay below deck in tiny beige rooms with roommates, their names printed and slid into metal frames on the doors like filing cabinets.

I make friend with the tiny dancers - tiny because they get weighed every week. The girl who is my height is expected to be the weight I was as a freshman in high school. Guilt sets in, in addition to monotony.

Suddenly it's the last night of the cruise. At this point, passengers seem creepy. Everyone looks obese. All of these warehoused anonymous people are having this prepackaged anonymous vacation. Even some of them are sick of it.

On the way to my cabin, I see a middle-aged couple. They don't notice me coming down the hallway. The woman's hair and makeup are fresh. The couple looks pleased and vaguely shy, like they're doing something very special. They both wear their version of elegant. She's got on low heels and a sparkly dress that covers her upper arms, like hundreds of other passengers. He's nondescript in glasses and a suit with a red tie, like hundreds of other passengers.

They talk quietly as the door clicks shut. "You got your purse?" "Yeah." "Room key?" He pats his coat pocket. He says, "You look beautiful," and she says, "Thank you." He gently touches her lower back and they hold hands. They're so happy. It's proof that these anonymous people love each other. And I wish I were one of them.

The next day, the cruise ends. All the passengers leave. They are free. They make their way to cars, go back to lives where they cook for themselves, use their cellphones and their legs. I have to be back on board in a few hours for a new batch of passengers. Oh they will love the blow-up doll.

More stories from our The Weekend Shift series

Comments

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  • By M Gray

    From Brunswick, ME, 10/14/2008

    Thank you so much for giving us the link to Wallace's short on a cruise!

    By Rich Talarico

    From Studio City, CA, 09/23/2008

    Excellent story Eve. Great job Megan.

    By Eve Troeh

    09/21/2008

    The song is from the score to Little Miss Sunshine.

    By Jeff French

    09/21/2008

    The author mentioned at the end of the story was David Foster Wallace. Harper's has put his short story on cruise ships here:

    http://www.harpers.org/media/pdf/dfw/HarpersMagazine-1996-01-0007859.pdf

    By Derek Theriault

    From Portland, ME, 09/21/2008

    I'm wonderin what song was playing in the story at the end when Megan see's the couple kissing and realizes they are in love? The song is so beautiful, I'd love to find out where it comes from. Thanks.

    By Moe Moellering

    From St Louis, MO, 09/20/2008

    *Could someone please tell me the name of the author and the story about hating cruises? It was mentioned by the moderator after the story "Lost at Sea". *My 18 y/o son and i went on a cruise last summer to Alaska. We were miserable. He was miserable and therefore made sure I was miserable. I finally wound up attending AA meetings on the ship so I could be with people who would be nice to me. I hated the ship experience. It did sort of feel like it was designed for spoiled Americans (terrible generalization)and the subservience of the mostly Asian men who served us impeccably was difficult. It sort of felt like slavery although i know it wasn't. It was very uncomfortable for me.

    By Suzanne Bartholemy

    From Costa Mesa, CA, 09/20/2008

    I found your cruise musings greatly entertaining. I recently had the packaged experience as well. I am intrigued about the "lifestyle" of the staff. I would have enjoyed seeing more pics, especially of the living quarters and staff bar. I guess there is probably a contract you had to sign that prevented you from exposing the true conditions beneath the decks.

    By Paul Motter

    From Phoenix, AZ, 09/19/2008

    Yes, you are expressing the ennui that sets in when you are working on a cruise ship that repeats the same itinerary over & over. It is a good life, not very stimulating intellectually.

    I also worked on cruise ships for about two years. Now I write about them. My web site, cruisemates.com, is one of the top online cruise guides. We have an active message board for people like you (under people/crewmembers )

    I worked as a stage manager, so I was also always out amongst the people, and ate with them as well.

    But out of my two years, I only spent three months on a ship that repeated the same itinerary over and over. The rest of the time I was seeing the world, from Tahiti to Norway. I have now been almost everywehere on ships.

    They are great vacations. And they are great places to work, especially for the foreigners (Filipino) who come from countries with low annual incomes. For Americans, I highly recommend getting in a cruise ship where you see the world. The money is decent, but the lifestyle is half of the compensation.

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