The Boston Phoenix
December 16 - 23, 1999

[Out There]

Cruise control

A supposedly fun thing I would absolutely do again

by Michelle Chihara

On Sunday, November 7, I felt something I had never, ever felt before: I longed to hear Elton John. I mean, really ached for it. "Candle in the Wind." "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues." Hell, I would have taken "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."

I blame this on the cruise.

It was my parents' idea to take a floating family vacation. They invited me; I said yes; I flew down to Florida to board the Celebrity cruise ship Mercury, fully armed with my cynicism and a bunch of mix tapes. But I had no idea what I was up against.

We hadn't even lifted anchor when the ship's band, by the outdoor pool, struck up "Hot Hot Hot!" Next, the cruise staff offered prizes to the first people to stand up and do the Macarena. That night, in the nightly
Las Vegas-style revue, a troupe of Celebrity performers jazz-danced in sequined suit jackets and top hats -- but no pants -- while they sang about "customer satisfaction."

I laughed out loud, horrified by it all. I reached for a drink, the ubiquitous Bahama Mama. Little did I know: that's exactly what they wanted me to do.

A cruise like this is carefully designed to blunt even the most pointedly skeptical sensibility. Music, food, and drink combine into a powerful opiate. There's only one gym on the Mercury, tucked into the spa. But there are three bars, plus an outdoor bar by the pool, a theater with a bar, two nightclubs with dance floors and bars, and a casino with a bar.

Every detail is geared toward ease of drink on the Mercury, down to little smoked-glass cocktail tables in front of every seat in the Celebrity theater. Staff members told me that the bars are a primary moneymaker for the cruise. The boat's motion had us all staggering slightly anyway, so it was as if we were always a little tipsy already.

Add to this a constant soundtrack. Grand Slam, the fresh-faced male a cappella group in the Tastings lounge, was the only act on the ship that I never heard doing Elton John. Otherwise, from the player piano at the head of the grand staircase to the Partida string quartet in the Grand Foyer; from the Muzak in the elevators to the Fun and Joy duo in the Rendez-Vous Square bar; from Onyx the Caribbean cover band to the beleaguered-looking musicians in the Celebrity orchestra -- all hands at some point turned to Elton John.

And Celine Dion. I thought that a cruise would avoid the Titanic song like the plague. No way. It was everywhere -- and not only that, but the Plaza Bar and Grill was decorated entirely with artistic photos of icebergs. At first, I suspected the Mercury staff of trying to send us some sort of subconscious message -- like, "Now you can die happy" -- but cruise director Jim "Boom-Boom" Cannon assured me that Titanic was simply part of "cruise mythology." Plus, he said, "there aren't that many icebergs in the Caribbean."

Like sleepaway camp, a cruise has a kind of social arc -- it starts cold with everyone as strangers, peaks when we all decide we're best friends, and peters out into a sense of loss. Boom-Boom Cannon and I agreed, as he bought me a kir royale, that this cruise gelled sometime on Wednesday evening. People like me had started to give in.

My personal downfall, however, came on Thursday night. Thursday was the "Fifties Sock Hop," and that's when my folks stayed up late. They actually made it out past midnight.

My parents almost never dance. My dad's not into it, which is kind of a sticking point with my mom. So I was happy that he was dancing, happy to have another kir royale in hand. The staff, having ditched their usual uniforms of khaki shorts and blue pinstriped shirts in favor of poodle skirts and jeans, seemed less like the scary Stepford fun police and more like twentysomethings working an easy but bizarre job. In other words, I was at my most lulled, my most vulnerable.

Now, I've always had a soft spot for older couples dancing. They have a way of fitting together -- their hands find each other's shoulders without their having to look, the softer curves of their bodies seem to take on their own comfortable grace. They don't have to watch their feet. They are unselfconscious, dancing only for the pleasure of dancing with each other. I find myself projecting my own longings for stability and certainty onto such dancers. But I had never seen my own parents in that light.

Then I caught a glimpse of them turning slowly under one of four disco balls in the Pavilion Lounge, and I caught myself choking up. I could no longer resist the swelling chord progressions. A Moment had crept up on me, like a sneaky cruise staffer holding out a Bahama Mama. My God, I thought. I have turned into such a cheeseball. But has anyone else noticed how beautiful they are?

Many bar receipts later, on the last night of the cruise, we found ourselves listening to Boom-Boom's final turn as MC. "I have a diet plan for you," he said. "Go home, and sit down at your kitchen table. Then just refuse to eat until someone lays out napkins, pours you ice water, and brings bread to your table! I promise you, you won't eat for a long, long time!"

This was intended as a joke, but to me it felt like a wake-up call for an audience spoiled into a kind of stupefied daze. I also found it enormously sad.

As I was contemplating this, the cruise staff turned on the "Celebrity" video. A crew of cameramen who had been hovering around all week had produced a montage of memorable moments -- the "Macho Man" contest; the on-board wedding. We were supposed to become nostalgic before we had even left the boat. Ha, I thought, now this I am still immune to. I didn't even recognize most of the people.

Suddenly, the music slowed down, and the camera cut to . . . my parents. There they were. A long, loving shot of my mom looking up at my dad, and then of both of them laughing, under the glow of the Pavilion Lounge's disco ball number four.

Oh, fine, I thought. I give up.

Soon after, we were spat out into the harsh reality of a Florida cab. The cab's radio started playing Christmas carols. In my mind, a jarring rush of images of snow and bustle mixed unpleasantly with the turquoise and pink of Fort Lauderdale's strip malls.

I wanted Elton John.

Michelle Chihara can be reached at

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