OCCUPYING THE OӦSTERDAM

             The MS Oösterdam, our Holland-America cruise ship through Alaska’s Inside Passage to Glacier Bay and Juneau and back to Seattle by way of Ketchikan, Sitka, and Victoria is, at 937 feet, about the length of a naval battleship, although in common with most of its passengers it is swelled some in the waist.  Its ten decks (six of them open to the 2205 paying customers) are serviced by eight elevators, two of them glass-walled and ascending or descending on the outside of the ship.  Its Crow’s Nest Bar, spanning the width of deck ten and (of course) front-facing, sports ever-changing and gaspingly spectacular views through ten-foot windows cleverly pitched to avoid all but wind-driven rain.  Everything that should be carpeted is, the brass is polished twice daily, and all the wood glows warmly.  The ship is powered by five diesel engines plus a gas turbine for all the TV sets and radios and coffee warmers and lighting and so on.  Two electric, steerable units called ‘Azipods’ not only make it go but steer it, too.  Bow-thrusters help to maneuver in tight spaces, so we never saw a tugboat.  The Captain (or the Harbor Pilot, or whomever) can park all 82,000 tons of it at the dock with more precision that most can manage with their Range Rovers.

Holland-America began life in 1873, precisely seventy years before I did, as the Holland-America Steamship Company.  Its early business lay mostly in transporting European immigrants across the Atlantic, and by the time the rush was over, it had brought about 400,000 of the mostly strapped and distressed to the land of the free and the home of the brave.  The steamship company first undertook pleasure cruising almost as a side-business around the turn of the century, visiting places like the Holy Land and Egypt.  In 1989, Holland-America was bought by Carnival Cruise Lines (also the owner of Princess Cruise Lines) making the conglomerate easily the largest in the world.  Holland-America is now headquartered in Seattle.  At present, they operate fifteen ships worldwide and carry upwards of 700,000 passengers per year.  The Oösterdam was built in Italy in 2003.

I am plenty old enough that I no longer much try to anticipate what is to happen next, but stepping out of the cab, we seem to have stepped onto a movie set.  There were not one, but two ships as big as any I have ever been close to.  The other was a Carnival ship that departed right after us and that we played tag with all the way to Glacier Bay and back.  Each was nosed toward land, on either side of a cavernous building with, as far as I could see, pretty much symmetrical snaking lines.  It all looked like a movie set which the stars would cross, deep in a conversation whose import won’t become clear until late in the third reel.  Luggage was tagged.  Everyone went through airport-like security lines.  Passports were presented and rooms were assigned.  Luggage went away.  It was easy to imagine large steamer trunks with colorful stickers, but today, at least, the luggage looked mostly about as monochromatic as a Costco parking lot.  Clots of people followed families and lines followed lines, and suddenly, we entered the ship.

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The only color that I recall here manifested itself in purple-and-gold uniform redolent of old hotels being worn by someone who, I suppose, might only properly be described as a person-in-livery.  His job seemed to be to direct each couple or person in turn to the vaguely restroom-looking thing on a stand for a quick hand-sanitizing (this came to seem something of an obsession) and then up one of the nearby elevators, or a stairway (ours) to the proper deck and the assigned room.  Our luggage was already in our room by the time we were reunited.

The room itself – the stateroom – was on the first deck, one down from the level where we entered the ship and just past what would have been the registration desk if this were a hotel.   Four or five (always perky! – and lovely) young ladies smiled in unison each time a customer walked past.  The room was the second cheapest offered to guests on the Oösterdam; it sported a 3×4 foot window, maybe ten feet or so above the waterline.  The remainder of the guestrooms were ranged on the floors above, and all featured outside decks and cost another $400 (each, minimum) for the week.  The room was every bit of adequate, though; it was the only space I saw on the ship that was less than luxurious.  An IKEA-like sign above the towel-rack in the bathroom cautioned against trying to flush champagne bottles down the toilet, something I don’t recall ever seeing at a Holiday Inn, and something that had never occurred to me to attempt.

It may seem an odd time to bring it up, but hanging in there as Steppenwolf crooned ‘Born to be Wild’ to seven-thousand bikers thirty-five years ago late on a Saturday night along the Eel River was a kind of a peak experience.  As far as being at the right place at the right time, it set a very high bar.  And most of what led up to it, of course, was fueled by alcohol.  But that exceptionally high standard was surpassed hourly, even minute-by-minute, by the ever-pleasant and nearly ubiquitous staff of the Oösterdam.

Similar to the principle that movie theaters make their profits from popcorn and massive candy bars rather than directly from admission tickets to the movies they show, the towering magnificences that are Holland-America Line cruise ships clearly pay much of their freight, as it were, by pushing alcohol.  The Oösterdam was staffed, I later learned, by 738 people.  I’m guessing that something over half of them drew their paychecks for pushing drinks, smilingly and incessantly, on the paying customers.  Fortunately, I never came close to seeing it, but such a society must, somewhere, have a brig or a jail, someplace hidden away and never talked about, but somewhere where the cumulative effects of all the Bloody Marys and the Old Fashioneds and the dry Martinis can at least be slept off in private – somewhere on board that’s at least an approximate equivalent of a county jail.

Had ‘the Crow’s Nest’ been, say, a sports car instead of a bar, it would have been a new deep green Jag but, since it had to be a bar, it was built to take up most of the front of the ship almost at the top.  The last clause of that last sentence pretty completely displays the general sophistication of my nautical vocabulary.  Sorry.  Only the Captain and his associates had a better view from one level higher which, after all, seems only fair.  In area, it was probably about the size of the first-class departure lounge at SFO or the drunk tank in a big-city jail.  The entire room looked out through ten-foot windows on ever-changing land and seascapes.  The ceiling and the carpeting swirled in subdued and architecturally pleasing shapes in firm, but muted, colors.  The whole room was shaped like a shallow U with a round bar making its apex at the front.  Over to the right, looking forward, nested a dozen or so computers which could be Interneted for 75ȼ a minute; their rows stood beside a small library which tended toward the Masterpiece Theater-friendly literature which seemed appropriately to lean toward the sea-themed.  On the edge of this, right beside the doors to the elevators was a boutique coffee bar, which bathed the entire area surrounding with the deep and comforting aroma of roasting coffee.

Another of my fantasies might have lived up here somewhere, but didn’t.  With Holland being the country of Amsterdam, and Amsterdam having the attitude toward marijuana that Amsterdam so clearly has, I had imagined it conceivable that a little toke before dinner would probably be winked at, as it were.  I had imagined even a discreet little well-ventilated sitting room, possibly over there by the racks of magazines.  What there was instead lived in the fine print of the booking contract, the part which pointed out that illegal drugs – even medicinally prescribed illegal drugs – were, well, illegal.  Any passenger caught using them on board at any time and under any circumstances would be put off at the next port, in care of the local police.  To my mind, anyway, the euphoria emanating from the herb is nice, but it is not that nice.  The herb stayed home.

I quickly formed the habit of making my way to the Crow’s Nest two or three times a day.  With the world-class set director clearly working overtime, it was a perfect venue for contemplating the meaning of it all.  This, of course, is difficult and demanding work that is nearly always better done with a little alcohol – and besides, the hour from four-until-five was Happy Hour: two drinks for the price of one, every afternoon.  I was there for Happy Hour a couple of days after leaving Seattle.  An expensive neat bourbon in hand, another on the little table beside my cushiony chair.  Maybe a hundred other people, mostly in groups not far from the tall windows all around the large room, some visiting in muted voices, some silent.  The ship had maneuvered its graceful, but considerable, bulk pretty much to the utmost inner limit of Glacier Bay and was accomplishing a pirouette – a one-eighty – by way of exit.  Calving glaciers and an absolutely unique blue light from inside the glaciers.  Small-ish icebergs and good bourbon.

It is very difficult to hold a grudge under these circumstances, at least for me.  The first issue here was that I have always held the cruise industry in about the same light in which I have held strip-miners, rapacious loggers, invading armies, and child-pornographers, among many others, and regardless of how well the brass is polished.  For me, the cruise industry has always taken advantage of a crudely exploitive relationship with people and places wherever they go.  These are, after all, the folks who continued their holidays to Haiti shortly after the earthquakes on the grounds that local folks benefitted from the influx of money.  They are, all of them, the daily business of enormous corporations (Holland-America, Carnival, Princess, Disney, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and all the rest of them, worldwide), and as such, exist to make money.  Lots of it.  Period.

So, as it always and ever is, discovering that most of this prejudice of mine seemed no longer true was shocking.  My antennae especially expected to pick up signals of suffering from all the exploited busboys and servers and room-attendants, and all the rest who had been so thoughtfully hired to help the paying customers relax from the infinite stresses of their lives back home.  Unexpectedly, this proved to be nearly impossible, no matter how ardently I courted Dickens.

Holland-America, as it happens, operates four schools, two each in Indonesia and in the Philippines, to educate these little brown folk to cater the every taste and subtlety of the white upper middle-class’s tortured journey through life’s shopping malls and opportunities, not forgetting that ‘Would you like something to drink, Sir?’ has to be always understandable above the tasteful din.  English instruction is obviously stressed in the schools.  As far as I could tell, the folks who tended bar, for example, spoke American English more clearly and easily than those who made the beds or cleaned the china and polished the doorknobs, but they all spoke it well enough.  English facility obviously enables better jobs, at least on this particular trip to Glacier Bay, which John Muir had explored a century before from an Indian kayak.

The busboys and the bed-makers and the room cleaners all earn a bit more than eleven dollars per hour.  People who work the desks and the bars and the casino and the cocktail lounges and the theater make more.  Tips are built into the prices, so there is no cash at all onboard, a fact which leans even these days toward the surreal.  They work sometimes ten or more hours a day, seven days in most weeks, for about ten months straight.  Then Holland-America pays their way to wherever home is and, a couple of months later, their way is paid back to the ship.  The demanding schedules they are working mean that there is hardly time to spend most of their wages.  As a consequence, most send most of it to support families back home.  All this appears to be hard, and I imagine it may be exceptionally demanding, but it does not appear in any meaningful way to be exploitive.  On the other hand, I am not brown-skinned and I am neither Philippino nor Indonesian, so I clearly don’t get most of the votes here.

I am old enough, though, that even most Republicans seem willing to admit that my working days are probably over, so I should know in my gut by now that the universe is not a strictly rational place, but I seem to keep wishing it were so in spite of all the accumulating evidence to the contrary.  Working steadily on nevertheless making it so, Happy Hour happens in the Crow’s Nest bar in the midst of all this, where, as I have previously said, drinks become half price (and so, of course, you have to buy two.)  The memory of that particular afternoon is strong, as the Oösterdam slowly rotated so as to make its way out of Glacier Bay, headed for Juneau at dawn.  Calving glaciers in impressive shades of blue moved gracefully beyond the windows.

It is apparently impossible, at least for me, to remain cynical in these circumstances.  The entire paid staff and all the paying guests in attendance all broke out in Kumbaya together, making a wonderful noise.  For the tiniest of moments, far beneath noticing to most, everything was frozen in this meringue of happiness and fulfillment and happy hour drinks and spectacular scenery, and then everything went on seamlessly as before.

Winding through The New York Times’ computers toward the elevators, I made eye-contact with a guy a few years younger than me who sported the kind of handlebar mustache common in the daguerreotypes of a century ago.  Having affected a handlebar when I finally escaped graduate school decades before, I complimented him on its impeccable width and symmetry.  The constant work and attention, the bold narcissistic focus required to keep such an audacity lookin’ jaunty, had evidently made an impression that had lasted forty years.  I remember that he smiled rather distractedly, it seemed, and said something about the ladies liking it.  His name, maybe, was Michael or Andy or John or some such, and he had traveled to Glacier Bay from his home in Detroit.  He owned a company that made plastic cowlings for new cars to help them survive truck or train shipment unscathed.  Business was just fine.  After all, it had brought him here.  His stateroom was on the ninth deck, he said, just one below the bar where we stood.

Michael (or whoever) seemed a pleasant enough man, even as what might fairly be called a ‘captain of industry’.  He had the guard-hairs-at-attention presence of a hunting fox appropriate to a middle-age male cruising for women.  Or woman.  In any event, he helped me remember how very much I dislike the upper-middle class on principle.  Aside from the matter of never having been within screaming distance of being able to affording one – I was possibly the poorest of the 2,300 paying customers – the possibility of being trapped on a cruise ship full of  Michaels had itself been easily enough to keep me far away up to a couple of days ago.  And then fate had unexpectedly dumped enough money in my lap to take such a trip.

Thirty years ago, I had made a good-enough living by convincing these folks to take out another mortgage on their home so they could buy a solar hot water system.  This living was accomplished, mainly, by the kind of home visit that invariably ends with a deal if you’d be willing to sign the papers tonight.  These folks live mostly in the suburbs, and their houses are Listerine-clean.  Almost all of them own two or three bathrooms.  Two-car garages, at least, and Range Rovers or Audis or Volvos.  Guest houses and swimming pools.  Large television sets; always large television sets.  Magazines, usually, but often, no books, at least none beyond a Great Books or Britannica set on a couple of shelves placed just there to balance the mirror to look impressive above the family pictures.  They wear Orvis shirts and Ray Ban glasses. Tasteful, almost always.

To all appearances, a good many of these people mimic the levels of mental activity shown by their pets.

The largest and most consequential problem with these folks is not their frantic, gnawing need for stuff; it is neither their daunting busyness nor their overscheduled children.  It is not their virtual worship of Steve Jobs, and it is not their near-obsession with the NFL.  It is their attitude.  The awful truth turns out to be that most of them think, or seem to think, that they deserve all this.  They deserve the Beamer in the driveway and the four-foot flatscreen, the elegant floors and the gardener, and the occasional cruise.  They accept the constant attention of the little brown people with the same equanimity that they enjoy in the shimmer of the tiled floors or the soft grace of the poached salmon.  After all, we won, non?   To the farmer nursing along his meager squash and beans in Mexico or the woman at the sewing machine right under the leaking vent by the factory door in the Marianas, these folks inhabit different worlds.  And, in truth, who wouldn’t?

In any event, enough of them to populate a small town move through the public spaces on the Oösterdam with the ease of royals enjoying a stroll around the manor.  These folks are accomplished masters – men and women – at manifesting evidence of their power, no matter whether it oozes from their private elevator office or their 400 horsepower Cadillac waiting in a Seattle parking lot.  They love fancy phones, and their loafers drip elegance.  In the morning, the little brown folks serve them split-pea soup up on the Lido deck as the glaciers slide by.  They are private, you might even say wrapped up in themselves.  The seldom make eye contact, even casually.

My friend and I had lunch once in the Lido Restaurant, nine decks up, and at the very stern of the ship.  My left shoulder could touch the tall window, as three couples were seated.  As you may imagine, the view from on high was spectacular, what with the deep water churning cold to the horizon and the land fading slowly.  The wait-staff was uniformed and the champagne buckets were wheeled noiselessly.  The guy sitting across the table from me at the inside-end was one of those blowhards who must constantly puff himself up lest he disappear completely.  He was secret advisor to important people, generals, dictators, presidents, and the like.  He lived in Kansas City, and he somehow managed to finish all of his wood-smoked oysters well before he finished all of the words.  He had a few days off in the midst of constant worldwide travel.  I am not sure that his wife (well, she looked like what his wife would look like) said a word beyond her name the entire meal, all the way through the coffee.  On the other hand, it really didn’t look much like she wanted to.  I saw him again a couple of days later coming out of one of the theaters after a magician’s show, but we didn’t make eye-contact.

As I have said earlier, the ship docked at Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Victoria before returning to Seattle.  Coincidentally, it is frighteningly easy to regard almost all of contemporary life as a straightforward plot to extract all the money possible from an innocent’s pocket.  An infinitesimal percentage of the whole as they may be, the places we stopped were all freshly minted and painted machines for doing exactly this.  A startling number of the shops within easy walking distance of docking were jewelry stores and furriers, along with the ubiquitous t-shirt shops (some the size of complicated grocery stores) and cute coffee houses.  In Juneau, a reconstructed Red Dog Saloon, stuffed with loud tourists and built to look old, with flat-screen TV’s.  Short-excursion tour guides abounded in all places.  For a few hundred bucks, helicopters would whisk you to a ‘wild’ trout stream and get you back to the ship before departure.  Alternatively, you could choose dog-sledding or whale watching or wine tasting.  As far as I could tell, every departure and every arrival were accomplished exactly as scheduled.  The Ketchikan Daily News publishes a list of the ships scheduled to dock each day along with a listing of how many tourists each will put onto the sidewalks.

An hour’s poking around on Google lets me say that Holland-America seems to get a piece of the landward action from the places that advertise on the ship.  Surprisingly, I could find no evidence to support the possibility that the cruise line owns at least some of them, but I suspect that a bit more digging would expose the connection.  In all the places, the arriving ships stuffed with wallets and purses obviously financed all the sprightly paintjobs and all the metal roofs.  In any event, everything within a normal tourist’s strolling distance was, at most, no more than a few years old, but almost all, in the manner of the Red Dog Saloon, had been designed to look as though they may have welcomed prospectors.  Truly, I have visited nowhere else in Alaska, but something tells me that there are probably at least a few old and decrepit buildings scattered here and there.  This much, at least, seems clear.

The last morning, as we berthed back in Seattle, the Captain’s daily newsletter announced that our adventure of 2195 nautical miles had consumed 73,775 gallons of whatever sort of petroleum is used to fire ships’ engines, and that all on board had used about 150,000 gallons of potable water.  In a final efflorescence of (probably necessary) attention to detail, all departing customers were advised to be exactly on time at their assigned places for leaving the ship.  Capital letters warned sternly against attempting to leave even one minute early.

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