“Shipping Out”, by David Foster Wallace

On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise (An Excerpt)
I have now seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2,100 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as "Mon" in three different nations. I have seen 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced. I have (very briefly) joined a conga line.

I have seen a lot of really big white ships. I have seen schools of little fish with fins that glow. I have seen and smelled all 245 cats inside the Ernest Hemingway residence in Key West, Florida. I now know the difference between straight bingo and Prize-O. I have seen fluorescent luggage and fluorescent sunglasses and fluorescent pince-nez and over twenty different makes of rubber thong. I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters and watched a woman in silver lame projectile-vomit inside a glass elevator. I have pointed rhythmically at the ceiling to the two-tour beat of the same disco music I hated pointing at the ceiling to in 1977.

I have learned that there are actually intensities of blue beyond very bright blue. I have eaten more and classier food than I've ever eaten, and done this during a week when I've also learned the difference between "rolling" in heavy seas and "pitching" in heavy seas. I have heard a professional cruise-ship comedian tell folks, without irony, "But seriously." I have seen fuchsia pantsuits and pink sport coats and maroon-and-purple warm-ups and white loafers worn without socks. I have seen professional blackjack dealers so lovely they make you want to clutch your chest. I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the ship's Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the trapshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is. I now know the precise mixocological difference between a Slippery Nipple and a Fuzzy Navel. I have, in one week, been the object of over 1,500 professional smiles. I have burned and peeled twice. I have met Cruise Staff with the monikers "Mojo Mike," "Cocopuff," and "Dave the Bingo Boy."

I have felt the full clothy weight of a subtropical sky. I have jumped a dozen times at the shattering, flatulence-of-the-gods-like sound of a cruise ship's horn. I have absorbed the basics of mah-jongg and learned how to secure a life jacket over a tuxedo. I have dickered over trinkets with malnourished children. I have learned what it is to become afraid of one's own cabin toilet. I have now heard—and am powerless to describe—reggae elevator music.

I now know the maximum cruising speed of a cruise ship in knots (though I never did get clear on just what a knot is). I have heard people in deck chairs say in all earnestness that it's the humidity rather than the heat. I have seen every type of erythema, pre-melanomic lesion, liver spot, eczema, wart, papular cyst, pot belly, femoral cellulite, varicosity, collagen and silicone enhancement, bad tint, hair transplants that have not taken—i.e., I have seen nearly naked a lot of people I would prefer not to have seen nearly naked. I have acquired and nurtured a potentially lifelong grudge against the ship's hotel manager (whose name was Mr. Dermatis and whom I now and henceforth christen Mr. Dermatitis[1]), an almost reverent respect for my table's waiter, and a searing crush on my cabin steward, Petra, she of the dimples and broad candid brow, who always wore a nurse's starched and rustling whites and smelled of the cedary Norwegian disinfectant she swabbed bathrooms down with, and who cleaned my cabin within a centimeter of its life at least ten times a day but could never be caught in the actual act of cleaning—a figure of magical and abiding charm, and well worth a postcard all her own.

I now know every conceivable rationale for somebody spending more than $3,000 to go on a Caribbean cruise. To be specific: voluntarily and for pay, I underwent a 7-Night Caribbean (7NC) Cruise on board the m.v. Zenith (which no way could resist immediately rechristening the m.v. Nadir), a 47,255-ton ship owned by Celebrity Cruises, Inc., one of the twenty-odd cruise lines that operate out of south Florida and specialize in "Megaships," the floating wedding cakes with occupancies in four figures and engines the size of branch banks.[2] The vessel and facilities were, from what I now understand of the industry's standards, absolutely top-hole. The food was beyond belief, the service unimpeachable, the shore excursions and shipboard activities organized for maximal stimulation down to the tiniest detail. The ship was so clean and white it looked boiled. The western Caribbean's blue varied between baby-blanket and fluorescent; likewise the sky. Temperatures were uterine. The very sun itself seemed preset for our comfort. The crew-to-passenger ratio was 1.2 to 2. It was a Luxury Cruise.

All of the Megalines offer the same basic product—not a service or a set of services but more like a feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stressless indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of senility and condescension that's marketed under configurations of the verb "to pamper." This verb positively studs the Megalines' various brochures: " ... as you've never been pampered before," " ... to pamper yourself in our Jacuzzis and saunas," "Let us pamper you," "Pamper yourself in the warm zephyrs of the Bahamas." The fact hat adult Americans tend to associate the word "pamper" with a certain other consumer product is not an accident, I think, and the connotation is not lost on the mass-market Megalines and their advertisers.


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[1] Somewhere he'd gotten the impression that I was an investigative journalist and wouldn't let me see the galley, bridge or staff decks, or interview any of the crew in an on-the-record way, and he wore sunglasses indoors, and epaulets, and kept talking on the phone for long stretches of time in Greek when I was in his office after I'd skipped the karaoke semifinals in the Rendez-Vous Lounge to make a special appointment to see him, and I wish him ill.


[2] Of the Megalines out of south Florida there's also Commodore, Costa, Majesty, Regal, Dolphin, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Renaissance, Royal Cruise Line, Holland America, Cunard, Norwegian Cruise Line, Crystal, and Regency Cruises. Plus the Wal-Mart of the cruise industry, Carnival, which the other lines refer to sometimes as "Carnivore." The present market's various niches—Singles, Old People, Theme, Special Interest, Corporate, Party, Family, Mass-Market, Luxury, Absurd Luxury, Grotesque Luxury—have all pretty much been carved and staked out and are now competed for viciously. The 7NC Megaship cruiser is a genre of ship all its own, like the destroyer. The ships tend to be designed in America, built in Germany, registered out of Liberia, and both captained and owned, for the most part, by Scandinavians and Greeks, which is kind of interesting, since these are the same peoples who have dominated sea travel pretty much forever. Celebrity Cruises is owned by the Chandris Group; the X on their three ships' smokestacks isn't an X but a Greek chi, for Chandris, a Greek shipping family so ancient and powerful they apparently regarded Onassis as a punk.
Source: Harper's Magazine, Foundation, January 1996
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