My last day working on a cruise ship
June 08, 2006
The alarm kept beeping. It was another morning, like every other morning. A good night's sleep has always been a prized commodity, but on the ship it was merely a dream.
"Jamie, get up," I said. "One more write up and you're fired. Get up, go to work, and let Ashley and I go back to sleep."
She gave an unintelligible grunt in return. Ashley would lose it if that alarm went off again. Then I'd get to start my day with a screaming match. Maybe if Jamie wasn't up all night frolicking about she might find it easier to wake up in the wee hours.
I stared at the ceiling less than two feet from my nose and sighed. This was my fourth week aboard the cruise ship that circled the Hawaiian waters like a fat, lazy shark. I had entered this vocation with the lofty ideal of living aboard a floating city, working as a bartender as part of a crew exemplifying responsibility and dedication—a utopia of rules, regulations and professional decorum set beneath a tropical sun.
Things weren't going as planned.
I threw back the curtain and jumped from my bunk, landing in the narrow walkway. Jamie was still snoring. Fifteen minutes later I was out the door to collect the bar waiters allotted to assist me with morning stores, the ship's term for stocking the bar with required inventory.
I trudged down the long hallway that snaked through the crew cabins, giving the most cheerful good mornings I could muster to any who caught my zombie-like gaze. Most did not return my greeting.
I passed the garbage sorting room, its sickly-sweet smell saturating my senses with nausea. Up the stairs and through the crew mess, I found that they'd stopped serving breakfast. What a surprise.
"This is not the Love Boat," the job recruiter had told me in the fluorescent-lit room an eternity ago. "This is a job. It's hard work, long hours. Don't go into this believing you're boarding a pleasure cruise, I cannot stress that enough. Living and working on a ship are some of the most difficult things to acclimate yourself to. But it's not all bad; there are also plenty of rewards for your efforts."
Rewards like a 60 percent off discount for friends and family beginning at date of hire; free shore excursions that normally cost passengers anywhere from $40 to $200 per person; plenty of time to go ashore and explore uncharted territory.
Nothing I had been told was true. Well, except for the part about the hard work.
The friends and family discount didn't go into effect until after your second five-month contract. Shore excursions were offered but they certainly weren't free, just discounted slightly. And they were only available if there was an open space.
And having a block of time long enough to attempt the experience was a myth in itself. At least it was for me and those I called friends onboard, though I always saw crew going ashore with beach towels in hand and wondered how they wrangled the time off.
No one was at the food and beverage office when I got there. After a few minutes two of my five groggily sauntered by.
"Hey, uh, where you guys going?" I asked.
"To smoke," one said. "We'll be back in a second."
"Um, no," I said. "We only have an hour and a half to get the entire inventory and bring it up to the bar before drill. We need to get started. Anyone know where my other three are?"
"Alright, let's go and see if they're waiting downstairs," I finally said. Walking through the ship, a wry smiled passed over my lips as I recalled the assistant bar manager's reprimand to me the night before.
"This isn't the military," he said. "You need to try to treat people with more respect. They're people, just like you and me."
My ears had burned in humiliation. Had he known how much I let those lazy cretins get away with in a given day, his rebuke would have come from quite the opposite direction. We reached the storeroom and discovered one more waiter lounging outside.
"Alright, now we've got three out of five," I said. "My other two?"
They shrugged their shoulders. Okay, so I asked about our cart. Someone said it had been stolen.
Eventually I was able to borrow a cart, and we went off to Deck 13 to get to work. We had only 15 minutes until a regularly scheduled lifeboat drill to get it all put away and get the cart returned. Interestingly enough, there we found my missing two waiters, lounging on deck and chatting idly with my bar partner.
"Hi guys," I said, unsuccessfully hiding my irritation. "In case you didn't notice all those bottles and kegs, we had stores this morning. Did you forget?"
"Oh, our alarm didn't go off," one of the waiters said. "We're roommates, you know, so neither one of us got up."
How ironic. But before I could utter the sarcastic comment, the sharp whistle blasts for the lifeboat drill began, commanding us to rush to our pre-assigned stations. One of the first to arrive at my station, I began passing out life jackets.
That was pretty much all I did, save for lining up and waiting for my safety number to be called. Supposedly missing a drill was grounds for termination, but I knew many crewmembers that had missed a drill yet still remained onboard.
For an hour I stood, fidgeting in that cumbersome life jacket as roll was called over and over. After that we waited while fire and lifeboat teams practiced their routines.
As I waited, I started to think. Many crewmembers were paranoid, thinking officers were out to get them. I didn't think that way about my treatment, but I had ample reason to be suspicious.
One morning I had awoken with a sore throat. During my off time I skipped breakfast to visit the ship's doctor. Skipping a meal instead of visiting during working hours was a big sacrifice on my part but I wanted my supervisors to know I truly was ill, not just trying to blow off a shift.
The doctor prescribed me antibiotics and said to take them with food four times a day. That was preposterous—how was I to get in four meals a day?
Not his problem, he said. So I talked to the head bartender, but it wasn't his problem, either. Never mind that I had accrued this ailment as a direct result of being forced, by his order, to wipe down tables in the rain.
I had no choice, so I ended up leaving my station without permission to hurry down to the mess to eat so I could take my medication. Alas, the mess had already closed and would not reopen until dinner, which I was scheduled to work through. In any case, the next day I got a write-up. I didn't dispute it.
Finally the dismissal bell sounded, signaling the end of the lifeboat drill. If I hurried to put my safety card away I might be able to grab lunch before work. So I rushed to my cabin, where I found Jamie yelling, accusing either Ashley or myself of unplugging her alarm clock in an attempt to get her fired.
"Jamie, no one's sabotaging you but you," I said. "I'm over arguing with you about every little thing and your smelly, moldy feet. Once again, we're almost out of bleach for the shower to keep your infectious fungus from spreading. Your alarm clock woke me up at least five times this morning. You were just snoring too loud to hear it, get over it."
I stomped out, close to tears. I couldn't stomach the idea of going into work for a full nine hours without a break.
Heading to the lunch line, I tried to compose myself with my boyfriend Jesse. He had just returned from emergency leave to go to his grandmother's funeral—the ship had rejected my request to join him.
"What's wrong, baby?" he asked
"Oh, remember how I always said I feared the day when we both felt like being irresponsible at the same time?" I said.
"Well, I think today's the day. Want to leave?"
"You mean, the ship?"
There was a brief moment of silence while I looked at his face and prayed for discernment. Then he smiled.
"Yeah, I do." He said. "Let's go." MTW
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