Two Against Alaska

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I blurted, a little too loudly, prompting Amy to remind me, in a firm yet sympatheticwhisper, that profanity outside of New York City is actually profane. She wasright to shush me, of course, but I didn't relish the thought of suppressinghalf of my vocabulary while my skull was splitting in two. My often foul-mouthedwife, being more polite than I, adjusted quite readily and with little effort.For my part, I had already consciously and carefully purged some of my favoritewords from my verbal repertoire to prepare for our upcoming vacation among theproper commoners. Gone were some of my closest lingual friends. Goodbye, "motherfucker."Goodbye, "shit." And "cunt"? You didn't even make itonto the plane.

The painarrived at the tail end of the first of two flights, nine hours total: 5:45a.m. out of Newark to Minneapolis; then Minneapolis to Anchorage. The early-morningflight had already proven rough, and our cloudtime was to be followed by a three-hourbus ride to Seward, AK, our port of departure for an eight-day cruise to Vancouveraboard the Mercury, currently the proudest tin can in the Celebrity Cruisesfleet. And what a tin can: less than two years old, weighing in at some 77,000tons, about as tall as a 70-story building on its side and carrying a crew of900 offering twice as many guests all the amenities of your better metropolitanhotels. This certainly wasn't the worst way for us to travel through America'slast wilderness.

The cruisewas a gift from her parents, Gerald and Barbara, for our one-year anniversary.The honeymoon we never had. And the devil's price to be paid for such generosity?They were coming with us. But our only obligation to them was dinner: dine withthem each evening and we'd be on our own for the rest of the trip. That,of course, turned out to be something of a misleading promise, since there'snowhere to go and nothing much to do on a fucking cruise ship. So we scheduledshore excursions at each of four stops along the way, and invited them to joinus for two of them?our gesture of affection and gratitude.

Living onthe Mercury for a week wasn't unlike a stay in a classy hotel cateringto an international clientele (though a solid 99 percent of our fellow passengerswere American, and at least half of those seemed to be from New Jersey). Thecruise planners took pains to promote a high-society atmosphere, as exhibited,for instance, by the requirement that guests attend two of the seven dinnersin formal attire and two others in semiformal, with only the first, last andone other night allowing casual dress. There were half a dozen upscale giftshops, a decent casino and eight bars that downplayed the beer and by-the-glassselection and, instead, pushed $60 bottles of wine and $100 champagne. All ofwhich we were prepared for: We'd brought suits and dresses, shiny shoesand enough surplus cash to drop on some shopping, a little gambling and a lotof champagne. What we hadn't prepared for was the talking.

We are generallyquiet and reserved among strangers in the city. We consider distance an acceptablesubstitute for kindness, and we demonstrate respect for others by respectingtheir physical and audial space. When we travel, we almost always travel alone.At home, we spend most of our spare time with each other, some of our few closefriends or, more often than not, with our dog. Yet there we were, captive ina finite, essentially closed space with some 1800 strangers. If these strangershad kept their traps shut, there'd be nothing much to tell. But, instead,they all wanted to be our friends. Whether or not we were capable of reciprocatingin kind was the jackpot question of our first day on board.

At dinneron the first night, we were surprised to find ourselves at a table with my in-lawsand four strangers. Who the fuck were these people? And why were they extendingtheir hands to us over the appetizers? Fortunately, Amy's father is morelike the other 1800 chatterboxes on board: He's a talker. He's morethan just willing?he's eager?to engage in chitchat withstrangers. We soon found that talking is one of the ship's activities,much like shuffleboard, buying duty-free booze and blowing $20 a day on bingo.Amy and I are not talkers. One of the reasons we agreed to the cruise was the promise of time alone, something of a rarity for two full-timing New Yorkers.Everyone else, though, wanted to talk. And talk some more. And then hey, whydon't we meet up for lunch tomorrow, so we can, oh, talk?

Cruise talkis weird, a mutation of small-talk indigenous to vacationeers and retirees wholive year-round in resort areas. It took me several exchanges to identify andunderstand its rhythm. The first invariably revolves around the trip to theboat: "What airline did you fly in on?"; "What connections?";and, "Isn't that jet lag just the worst?" The second conversation?there'salways a second conversation, because you sit at the same dinner tablewith the same people throughout the trip?centers around previous cruiseexperiences and the current ship's comparable amenities. (Everyone, it seemed, was a cruise veteran.) Then it's on to family, hometowns, shoreexcursions and shopping. Job talk was the trump card, reserved for familiarconversationalists, a confusing flip-flop since one's job is usually thefirst card played in Manhattan. But this was understandable, if only in hindsight:For that minority of passengers not retired, this was a vacation, and most peopleavoided discussing their real lives.
This evolutionplayed out time and again, with several different groups of people, of all agesand each from different parts of the country. For the few days, I feared myhead would explode from being filled with the same crap over and over again.Of course you came through Minneapolis; everyone on Northwest came throughMinneapolis. Yes, the bus ride was terribly long; next time, why not take AlaskanAir directly into Seward? And no, for chrissakes, I haven't quitegotten accustomed to the fucking time difference.
The NunTwins were the first of our fellow passengers to be visibly awkward with us.They also inadvertently taught us our first lesson with the stewards in thebuffet dining area (who take the ladies' trays and find seats for them):If you don't want to be seated with strangers, don't let Miguel takeyour woman's tray. The stewards' mandate, it seemed, was to forciblymix and mingle the guests. Our first time out, we drew a matching pair of 70-pluswhite-hairs wearing matching crucifixes, sitting side by side sipping decaf.They were visibly displeased with the quality of guests they'd drawn. Why,Jesus, had their morning coffee been interrupted by this 30-year-old unshavenguy with bags under his eyes and his surly Jew wife? Any one of the many pairsof bright-eyed Christian parents would've been more appropriate. Needlessto say, they didn't stay for refills.

Our firstnice conversation followed, at the next meal. (By the way, the ship's itinerarywas defined by various feedings. At no point could a guest conceivably go hungry,with each day bookended by the 7 a.m. breakfast and midnight buffet, itselfa tangential topic of dinner conversation among the more gluttonous guests.Room service was also available 24-7 for those room-bound with the much-publicizedAlaskan flu, for the lazy or for drinkers returning to their cabins in the weehours.) Richard and Rhea from Clearwater were placed next to us at lunch, muchas we had been seated with the Nun Twins. This was our second day. We'dgrown comfortable with the environment and, I think, had resigned ourselvesto the inevitability of friendliness, so when they introduced themselves, weactually took the bait and spoke throughout the meal. Apropos of having hadonly one conversation, all I know about Richard and Rhea is their hometown (Clearwater,FL), that they're leaving directly out of Vancouver and that she handlesthe jet lag better than he does. Then we went about our respective business.

Amy andI were odd ducks among most of the passengers. This is not a statement of misguidedmisfitism, but a somewhat ironic statement of fact, considering our plain-Janenesson the streets of Manhattan. Besides the basic truth that 99 percent of thepassengers were fair-haired Christians and my Semitic wife is, um, not,we were also one of only four or five pre-kid married couples. The few honeymoonerson board had, presumably, survived or divorced their first spouses: They weremuch older. The other anniversary trippers were exchanging pearls and rubies,not paper like us. There were some families, sure?at least five or sixdozen kids who ran wild in the pool area and played like all kids-turned-hooligansin any hotel in the world?but we constituted most of the middle ground. If we'd insisted on hanging out with other 20-somes, we would've endedup below deck drinking beer and playing pingpong with the staff.

Despiteour best, mostly unintentional, efforts to remain aloof, on our second day weactually made some friends during a whitewater rafting trip in Juneau. Therehad been about 50 of us on the bus?Mercury cruisers all?a fair crosssection of the passenger population: mostly sixty-plussers, some in their fifties,a few kids and us, the only reps for 28-to-30-year-olds in sight. The lead guide,a New Englander named Brian who earns his living six months at a time as a riverguide in all parts of the world, wisely put us on his raft, the only one requiringpassengers to paddle. So Bubba and Jane (Corpus Christi), Ernie, Maureen andtheir teenage daughter Kimberly (Florida) and Bruce, Sandy, their teen daughterLindsey, sister Maureen and mother Jeanne (Chicago), took on the class-3 rapids with enthusiastic vigor and met our small-talk obligations along the way.

After thetwo-hour trip, everyone met for a few 3 p.m. pints at the Red Dog Saloon, aJuneau bar catering to tourists during the day and locals at night. We'dnot only found a group of young-enough people (in spirit, if not in the books),but they also drank. And drank. We spent the next few nights either bumpinginto them and grabbing a quick one together, or actually seeking them out foreven later nights of drinking and talking. Turns out, I haven't forgottenhow to be friendly after all. Maybe it is nurture.

The nextfew days were spent alternately on boat tours and strolling around the tinytowns of Alaska's lower coastline. By the fifth day, we were passing peopleon the ship and greeting them by name. We gave the kid who took and sold theposed photographs a $10 bottle of wine in exchange for "losing" some$80 worth of pictures. (In an amazing coincidence, we ran into him at a coffeeshop in Vancouver on the afternoon after disembarkation. Turns out he'dbeen dismissed for having a bad attitude: He refused to dress up in the bearcostume and pose with passengers. The cruise line dropped him off with a tickethome to London. Leave it to us to befriend the disgruntled employees.) We had,in short, become comfortable with the ship and with our fellow passengers. We'dalso finally relaxed, slept late and stopped thinking about the office.

On the lastnight, we bid our dinner companions farewell and met up with Bruce and his brood.We drank quite a bit, taking turns with our on-ship credit cards to pick upthe rounds, and heard the interesting stories of connecting flights,jet lag, previous cruises, hometowns, families and jobs. Not the introductory,ass-sniffing obligatory snippets, but real conversations about real events.Mostly funny, some poignant, others run-of-the-mill chitchat filler, but allof them parts of the surprisingly pleasant melange of social interaction. Threehours later, we said our goodbyes to them as well and retired to our cabin.

On a cruisetwo years ago, Amy's parents sat at dinner with a mother and daughter originallyfrom Japan. They had such a great time talking and hanging around the ship thatthey'd exchanged addresses and, just this past March, they received aninvitation to the daughter's wedding in the Philippines. They sent theirregrets only because they'd already scheduled the Alaska cruise during that time. Now, even if we had offered our address to any of our new friends,I wouldn't have expected to be invited to Lindsey's or Kimberly'swedding. We might've seen some cards around the holidays, at least thisfirst year, or maybe an occasional e-mail exchange, but I doubt that we'dever have called on them if we were visiting their part of the country. It wasnice, though, for just a few days, to be?well, civilized. To enjoy politeconversation without any of the contentious, flashpoint topics like religionand politics that people seem to crave in "real" life. No one wasthere to argue; no one tried to convince anyone of anything. In our case, wewere there to relax, maybe drink a bit and look at the pretty mountains; enjoyingthe company of strangers was an unexpected bonus. And, much to my surprise,I was able to refrain from cursing in public. As soon as someone else in a privateconversation slipped in a naughty word, though, you can be sure that I tookthat as my license to cuss like a real sailor.

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