by Akim Reinhardt
I think I'm supposed to call it a ship. I get confused about these things. All I know for sure is that we're headed south.
I used to be tough when it came to winter. Not like strap-on-some-snow-shoes-and-hunt-a-walrus-with-a-harpoon tough, but tough enough that a five month season in Nebraska or Michigan didn't bother me. That, however, was then.
I've lived in Maryland since 2001. It's made me soft. When I first showed up, I thought to myself: These people are pathetic. Complaining about their mild, mid-Atlantic winter that lasts all of ten weeks. Can't drive worth a damn in the snow. Losers.
And I do still make fun of them for their shitty winter driving and their weird snow amnesia; every year when it snows for the first time (and it snows almost every year), there's a collective gasp of horror and frenzied panic, as if they've never seen the white before. Two inches, they close all the schools and pillage the supermarket. But by the time it dumps eight inches in late February, they're acting like seasoned pros, talking about how this one's easier to shovel than the last one because the snow's not as wet. Every year, the same thing, evolving in two months from snow virgins to grizzled winter vets. Strangest fuckin' thing I've ever seen.
I think mocking them for stuff like that is the right thing to do. But the truth is, after fourteen years, I'm soft too. It gets below 50F, I start to shiver. I recently told that to a native New Yorker who transplanted to Minnesota. He didn't respond. It was over the phone, so I couldn't see his facial expression. Couldn't tell if he wanted to strangle me or if he was just silently crying to himself.
I'm not proud of having turned weak when it comes to the cold, but I'm not ashamed either. Fuck it. I'm skinny and I don't like being cold. And so one question has dogged me for several years now, vis a vis winter:
How can I get warm on the cheap?
I'd been toying with that question for a few years, but last winter broke me. I didn't want to endure it again. The 2013-2014 season was a tough one throughout the East. From Maine to Arkansas, whatever passes for your normal winter, it was colder and longer than that.
In Baltimore that meant winter was three and a half months instead of two and a half. It meant frequent bouts with temperatures in the twenties and teens. It was so bad, I wrote about it here. Wasted your time, dear readers, with my drivel about how it was so goddamn cold, and for so long, that it was the first Maryland winter to ever remind me of a Michigan winter.
Fuck that. I'm soft. I'm weak. I want out. Don't wanna write about winter anymore. I just wanna be warm.
How can I do it on the cheap? As I looked into it, the same answer to that question kept popping up.
Get on a big boat and sail south to the Caribbean.
I'm not the kind of person who wants to take a cruise. You don't know me, but I know myself, and I'm not that kind of person. Especially not in this here modern world where just about any leisure activity designed for thousands of middle class people is corporatized, homogenized, and watered down to the point that it all kinda seems the same. The formula's pretty well known at this point. Spend half a billion dollars or so on something that'll make people ooh and ahh. Then, while they're craning their necks and pointing, overcharge by about 1000% for any ingestibles or tchotchkes you can pawn off on them.
A sporting event, a concert, even a big Vegas hotel once you strip away all the weird Vegas shit. It's all kinda the same. Lots of white people shuffling around in flip flops and t-shirts, sucking down overpriced drinks, overpaying for incredibly salty food, talking about sports or TV or the pre-packaged local exotica, gawking at one thing or another, and getting fleeced by the entertainment corporation at nearly every turn.
I'm not the kind of person to really enjoy that. I don't even own any flip flops. A cruise? Sounds like nothing more than a seaworthy suburban retirement community for pensioners of all ages. I have zero interest.
But fuck it, I tell myself. I don't care. It's not about having a good time. It's not about doing anything interesting with anyone interesting. It's about one thing and one thing only: get some fuckin' sunshine rays on my skinny white ass and warm me the fuck up for long and cheap.
For $950 bucks you're gone for ten days. That includes your room on the ship. That includes all the incredibly salty food you can eat. That includes pre-paying tips to most of the exploited service workers. And the big boat even leaves out of Baltimore, a 15 minute drive from my house.
Shit. Sign me up. Let's do this.
There's a lot that can be said about a floating village of several thousand people bobbing through the Atlantic at about 30 miles per hour. Too much, perhaps. But the first thing that comes to mind, as I acclimate to life on the big boat, is dog shows.
Once upon a time there were elites and commoners and not much in between. But with the advent of the industrial revolution, big business corporations, urbanization, global conquest, and international commerce, Europe and the United States witnessed the rise of a new middle class. During the 19th century, merchants and eventually managers, bureaucrats, and the like carved out a new socio-economic niche for themselves.
The new middle class certainly weren't rich. Rather, despite their strident striving, grand aspirations, and frequent delusions, any sober economic analysis shows the middle classes were (and still are) much closer to the poorer classes than the millionaire robber barons and such. But perhaps that's exactly why the new white collar folk were so hell bent on distancing themselves from the poor, treating them like the embarrassing relations who show up unannounced and spoil the carefully planned party.
The best way to ensure they wouldn't be confused with the poor, many new middle class people reckoned, was by actively aping the rich. Sometimes this was easy. Save up some money for a nice set of china and flatware, and then follow arcane rules about how to use them. But sometimes passing for rich was all but impossible, and efforts to do so were laughable
Like dog shows.
Wealthy aristocrats had land. They had commoners to work that land and tend to the animals for them. And from this they derived various forms of prestige and leisure time activities, like showing off their prized animals. Here, let's have a fair, and you can all admire my large and sturdy cow. Isn't she pretty? Yes, agreed. Now give her a ribbon. A blue one, if you would.
But when you're middle class? No, you don't own much land, and you certainly don't have any blue ribbon cattle. But you can have some dogs if you like. Those are within your means. Let's groom them and show them off like the rich people do. And presto! You get eyebrow archingly bizarre shit like kennel club dog shows.
That's what the big boat reminds me of at first.
The clientele is decidedly middle class, mostly of the midd-middle and upper-middle varieties. These are retirees living on savings and a pension, not some gaudy inheritance. These are couples and families in the very high five digit or very low six digit income salary range, not millionaire Wall Street financiers or corporate honchos. You get the feeling that no one on this boat has a second or third home, because if they did, they wouldn't be here.
So they are here, experiencing some extremely diluted version of a Titanic-era luxury liner. But just as a snotty-nosed shih-tzu will never be a white face Hereford despite whatever airs the kennel club puts on, the truly shitty food they serve up in this boat's formal dining room will never be anything but that, despite the reasonably fine attire attire worn by the patrons or the exceptional service provided by the even better dressed staff.
It's a floating dog show.
Speaking of the staff, they are of course the central piece to any breezy class analysis we might like to indulge in.
That was the editorial “we,” though given the topic, perhaps it should be the royal “we.”
Anyway, I'm not here to provide some dumbed down, dogmatic Marxist interpretation of what's going down on the big boat. I don't know what kind of lives the workers here have or what they think of their jobs, whether they're happy to have them for the right reasons or the sad reasons, or whether they're just resentful and occasionally reconstitute the powdered mashed potatoes with their urine.
That being said, however, you have to have social blinders on not to be taken at least somewhat aback by the fact that the clientele looks to be at least 90% white Americans (the remainder mostly Asian and Asian American), and the servant class is overwhelmingly foreign workers, with a clear majority of them not white, although there are also some Eastern Europeans; most every service worker wears a name tag that says where they're from.
Of course it makes sense that an international cruise line would have an international labor pool. However, within it there is also an obvious pecking order. The white workers (including many Americans) are in the higher middle class positions, such as the cruise director, the piano bar singer, and the guy who gives you a truly curious lecture about art history and then tries to sell you a bunch of paintings at an auction.
Above them are those men in uniforms (I've seen one woman among them so far), nearly all of them white, who presumably give all the orders. This includes the captain, who at the opening night reception, stood atop the grand staircase like a naval Santa Clause as people lined up to have their picture taken with him.
The people who clean your room and serve your food and perform various odd tasks around the boat? None of them from the developed world and none of them white, so far as I can tell.
And in this respect, once again the big boat is very much like any other form of large scale, corporate leisure time activity. It's a disturbing commentary on the state of the world for, oh, the last half-a-millennium or so. It may preclude me from ever doing this again. It's never very far from my mind and it colors my perceptions of everything.
I wonder how many of the thousands of other patrons on the boat think about. I suspect very few. Even when they're on the islands, where the hustle gets gritty.
On Christmas Eve a friend passed a long a piece of gossip after I told her I was going on a cruise. She said that executives she met from a particular cruise line, which shall remain nameless, refer to their clientele as “the newlywed, the nearly dead, and the overfed.”
It's funny. It looks to be mostly true. And of course it's unfair, snobby, and the worst kind of cynicism.
After two days aboard the big boat, most of the people seem to be perfectly nice. They come across as working stiffs and retirees looking to get their little slice of the good life. Like the guy I met in the hot tub.
He's from near Buffalo, New York. He takes his family on a cruise once every five years. They save up the money and go. He drove all the way down to Baltimore. Normally a six and a half hour drive, because of the weather it was closer to ten
A nice enough fella. Talked a little too much, not very interesting. What came out of his mouth was very predictable. Like most people I've met here, he wasn't terribly inventive, creative, or daring. Or at least that's what I gathered from ten minutes of idle chatter in a hot tub, which means I'm a smug, overeducated, judgmental prick.
So despite all the disturbing socio-economics on this boat, and they are disturbing, on some level I'm disinclined to begrudge these people their moment of low rent luxury. And I certainly don't want to mock them for not being as bourgeoise as my upper middle class friends who take sabbaticals in Europe, who regularly dine in the East Coast's best restaurants, or who refer to the New York-London trans-Atlantic metropole as NyLon. That stuff has its paw prints all over our ongoing exploitation of the developing world just as much as the big boat does.
Anyway, it's not these cruisers' fault that the world sucks. They're not the big fish. They're not the politicians and CEOs who perpetuate this global system of inequity and profit from it. They're just the regular people who happen to be from an irregularly wealthy empire. They're the farmers and centurions of Rome. They're the small tradesmen and yeomanry of Imperial England. They're the guy who drives his family more than nine hours in the snow so they can get a little sunshine, eat Olive Garden quality food, sip a drink with an umbrella in it, and get a sniff of the good life before they turn back to ashes and dust.
We left late Tuesday afternoon. By Thursday, I'm up top on the big boat, lounging poolside. It's 72 and sunny. Back home it's 12. I've decided that it would be fitting, on many levels, if I were to stand upon the deck of this big boat and have a big banner drop down behind me that says Mission Accomplished.
I am shallow and fragile and, like the rest of humanity, ultimately disappointing. And anyone who tells you Southern California has perfect weather hasn't been to the Caribbean.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com.