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Serenade Of The Seas: Part Five

By Scott Gordon

Last of a series.

To get to breakfast in the Windjammer, I walk up one flight of stairs and turn a corner. As soon as I'm around the corner, the perky photographer from Day One's dinner springs at me bearing a life preserver labeled "JUNEAU" and yaps out some eager photo-command. I laugh her off and walk past another photographer who's working with a guy in an eagle suit. After you get through the morning's small gauntlet of photo ops, and in fact any time you enter one of the ship's restaurant spaces, you hit an appetizing wave of Purell scent. Two automatic Purell dispensers flank every doorway, and one attendant stands by them all day, gently urging people to sanitize their hands. Purell is fucking gross, but I want people to keep buying me drinks after the great flu pandemic, so I step up. The dispensers always give you a gratuitous blob of the stuff. I've developed a habit of just sticking one finger out into the sensor; the friendly Latin American lady who's always tending the Windjammer entrance has come to enjoy watching me do this.

  • Part One: Into The Well Of Cheese
  • Part Two: Douchey young people
  • Part Three: Hump-busters
  • Part Four: Skagway scams
  • I believe vacation is giving me too much time to think. My activity today, the "Glacier View Bike And Brew," will at least bring some peaceful moments as our group cycles through Juneau to the Mendenhall Glacier viewing center. More blue ice, more dirt. In the van on the way to the bikes, I realize part of my group is the LBJ-Ken Lay Fan Club, as I have secretly named a group of three domesticated wisecrackers from Houston. The oldest one is in the "gas and oil" business; the other two are his son and son-in-law. The first question the in-law asks our bike-tour guide is, "What' the average house price in Juneau?"

    Later, after we've gotten a buzz from free samples at Juneau's Alaskan craft brewery, we pile back into the van and the son proceeds to ramble on about a project he wants to do in his garage. This is what these guys talk about while they're drunk, mind you. Despite anything I might say about them, they're among the most cordial people I have met on the cruise so far, calling folks by name and spreading around an easy-flowing sense of warmth and invitation. On the way back, they also keep talking about the "Red Dog Saloon," a bar in downtown Juneau. "Gonna get dropped off at the Red Dog Saloon," one says as the van heads back in that direction. I think they just like saying "Red Dog Saloon," full of big crusty vowels for their Houston accents to dip to. I'm tempted to come along and join them at the bar, just for the sake of observation, but I decide against it. Instead, I end up in another building, where I find a dumpling shop called Pel'Meni that's just like Madison's now-closed Pel'Meni, bubbling pots and old records and crummy atmosphere and all. As the peace of the overcast woods wears off, depression comes back, and I start thinking maybe I should've bought that hoodie with a beer holder on the front at the Alaskan gift shop.

    I can't really chalk up my violent mood swings today to the monotonous weirdness of being on the ship. Tacky stimuli doesn't do this to people; people do this to themselves because they learned some twisted thought patterns as their minds develop. Still, keeping up activity makes it better, and if you're not careful, "being on vacation" can simply break down into a state of helplessness. You spend, you wander, you take photos, take videos, let the scenery pave you over. Maybe even eat at a buffet for a whole week. This is the Great Relax, and as much as it's supposed to get you away from your troubles, it can also leave you dangling over them.

    The Great Relax brings you into contact with only the most spartan and mild idealisms - preserving landmarks for our enjoyment, quality for our enjoyment, service for our enjoyment. Sure, the Serenade gives people many opportunities to donate to the Make A Wish foundation, but what's really at the heart of enjoyment? If you want to exercise, read, take this little spot of time to improve yourself somehow, you can, but you've got to take the initiative, and anything else would seem frivolous. You have to get the money to get there, arrange the vacation, and show up, but after that it's give-up time. You're getting away, but not necessarily recovering the best in yourself. You may in fact be sagging more fully than ever into your weaknesses and your uncertainties. Hit any tourist-trap shop, any cruise ship, any hotel, and you can see the lack of pride with which people carry themselves. At least a dozen times this week, my family and I have waited for an elevator for a good five minutes, because we had to pass up several full ones. The stairs are just as crowded, of course. There's less traffic flow here on vacation than on the most congested highways in America.

    Hell, you can even give up on the vacation and check back with work at any time. The Serenade comes equipped with a kickin' 1995-worthy array of Internet access options. I swipe my room key at a PC terminal to pay $28 for 90 minutes of web time on sluggish Internet Explorer. The ship has wi-fi at the same rate, but has of course decided to treat my Mac like a leper. (Stoners running coffee shops across the land have figured out how to hook up all comers, Mac and PC, but the crew of a hulking international marine vessel is still struggling with it.) It's not so much the cost or even the limited access, it's seeing an instance where the crew and the ship themselves seem kind of helpless.


    We disembark tomorrow morning. This is our last full day on this ship. I have just heard, for the last time, the cruise director's voice gleefully thundering through the Well Of Cheese: "IIIIIT'S BINGO TIME!" We perform the slow, sad ritual of packing up, and we've got one more hectic dinner to look forward to. Then Vancouver for another day, then home.

    We took a tour of the bridge today. A little whiteboard inside counted some 2,000 passengers on our cruise. I guess we're all used to having that many people around without sensing an actual community anyway, right? Today I looked down into the Well to see a guy juggling a vodka bottle and a cocktail mixer. People were watching him from all the balconies. I'm glad my family aren't really suckers for such demonstrations. My little brother's watching Wall-E again, and I realize the Axiom is basically a mix of Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and, above all, cruise ship. Someone involved in that movie has been on one of these things (perhaps on Disney's own cruise line) and studied close.

    In what I regard as the trip's grand finale, we finally get to see just how deeply and needlessly our dinner servers are made to suffer. During tonight's meal, they have been forced to participate in a "musical number" that is dubbed both a "tribute to the nations of the world" and an expression of how much they've enjoyed serving us. They gather on the dining room's grand staircase, and, aided (I think) by a pre-recorded backing and vocal track, sing some ridiculous song to the tune of "Hey, Look Me Over" from the musical Wildcat. If this is what you have to give people just because they spent money on something, what's going to happen to real human warmth and affection? Give me the cocky, sales-polished friendliness of the LBJ-Ken Lay Fan Club, or even the boisterous "honey"-seeker of Day One anytime. At least they aren't forced to be desperately innocuous. But our servers are, and all you can do is offer your thanks and hope they'll detect some sympathy in it. There's no room in their well-trained mannerisms for a knowing wink or grin that says, "Yeah, just you and me, partner, we know it's all a bit silly, but we'll get through it." Maybe they're strong enough that the tireless service routine doesn't cut into their actual personalities. Not that I'll get a chance to take any of these people aside and find out. I feel helpless again, and that's why the Great Relax will always leave me a little anxious.


    Comments welcome.


    Posted on July 17, 2009

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