Confessions of a cruise ship showband guitarist
By Steve Wisnoski AKA Kingfreeze
Hello, once more this is Kingfreeze with stories from the road. My saga this time starts from an e-mail 2 weeks ago from an old employer, Carnival cruise lines.
I spent about 7 years trying to juggle cruise contracts with Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise lines between lucrative touring productions, and trying to maintain some sort of sane home-life. It has been a year and a half since my last cruise contract. The company apparently has an immediate need for experienced show-band rhythm section players and was soliciting musicians who had completed successful contracts in the past. The e-mail asked if I was interested in subbing on the MS Victory for 2 weeks, the office already knows that a long term contract for me is out of the question, been there, done that.
With a light student load in April at the music store I teach, and no casuals in the 2 week period requested, I asked permission to accept the contract and the store owner, an old friend, granted me this request. The store’s manager then rescheduled my students to other teachers in the store for the 2 week period. Sending an e-mail back to the company asking the sub wage, the response was $100 more a week than I had received on a regular contract and I found this to be an acceptable compensation for what I knew would be an ordeal.
Shortly later that day, I received an e-mail from the Carnival office with a plane ticket to Miami, Fl., and a copy of my medical papers. These I printed out and sealed in an envelope carefully printing my crew number on the front. The ship does a 1 week cruise to San Juan, Puerto Rico, St. Marrten, St. Thomas, then 2 long sea days back to Miami whereupon the ship proceeds on another 1 week cruise to Ocho Rios, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel, Mexico.
A one week or longer cruise is much simpler than a ship that does 3 and 4 day cruises. The latter has 2 boat drills a week, and the chaos of 3,000 people disembarking, and the new cruisers embarking all on the same day, a daunting task.
I packed my guitar carefully, surrounding the body of the guitar with my socks and underwear in preparation to check them aboard the airline. Also, this gives me the secret pleasure of knowing the people that will be searching my belongings, will also have to handle my underwear. I open my pull along suitcase, and as always, my male cat jumps inside as I turn my back for get clothing to load. I close the lid leaving a crack there, and run my finger along the edge of the lid giving ultimate kitty pleasure, could be a lizard you never know.
After several scratches and the suitcase bouncing about like luggage from the movie “The Exorcist”, the cat bores of this game and retreats to the kitchen for a little snack. Only now am I allowed to pack.
For only 2 weeks, I throw in a couple of pairs of jeans and shorts, some t-shirts, a pair of dress shoes and a tuxedo, along with my gig bag. The undergarments already are packed into the guitar case awaiting airport scrutiny.
About 6 p.m. I ingest 1 mg. Xanax to put me to sleep as I must depart my home at 3:45 AM to catch a 6:15 AM flight out of San Antonio, which is now an hour and a half from my new home deep in the Texas hill country. My wife and I take the early drive, and she leaves me at the curb of the departing flight area still dressed in her pajamas.
The flight to Miami was a good one, this early on a Sunday the plane was little more than half full and I had the luxury of having 3 seats to myself, a rare treat. At the connecting flight in Memphis, the pickings weren’t quite as easy. I had an aisle seat, my preference, but the plane was damn near full, except across from me, 3 seats vacant. I waited until everything settled down and was in there like a dirty shirt. Another fellow asked for the window seat, fine with me, I had the aisle seat with no one next to me and that is indeed remarkable.
Arriving in Miami without incident, I await an ex-music director to pick me up at the airport; he is working on the same ship in the jazz trio in one of the lounges and out doing his home port chores that day. I happily sit outside for an hour awaiting his arrival. Smokers scurry about looking for a light for their cigarettes, now that lighters are banned on airlines, matches are a prime commodity along the doors that lead to the baggage pickup. Myself, and another fellow watch for 10 minutes for any sign of smoke…which means fire for our tobacco sticks. I notice a Jewish woman smoking across the road and pursue her in quest of fire. She obliges, I bring the precious fire back to the fireless one in the median and we smoke and talk. The ex-music director finally shows in a large dirty white car and I throw my items in frantically before some security notices that I am trying to depart the area and becomes enraged that someone would dare stop. The MD and I drive aimlessly around Miami killing time, him, prolonging the inevitable, and I, trying to escape the dreaded welcome aboard orientation. Our nation spends billions trying to help impoverished countries around the world, shit, I wonder if any of them have driven around Miami lately. Finally, we arrive at the port of Miami, and I go my way, to the gangway of the MS Victory to present my passport and medical papers to the ships security.
After x-raying my belongings and finding my name on the crew sign on documents, I am sent to the crew purser’s office. I wait to talk to a large British woman dressed in a white uniform that has me fill out a bunch of forms, again, and informs me how I have missed the orientation and need to call the ships safety officer when I finally find my cabin. I refuse to sign the contract which states my old pay rate, not the sub rate quoted. I am told to find the paymaster the following day.
I get the ving card for the cabin and am left in the chaotic hallway with my luggage, without a clue where to go. I am exhausted, and covered with sweat from the Miami heat; everyone gives conflicting directions to the cabin number 2051. Somehow, in the middle of all this, I was supposed to remember the 4 digit number to call upon arrival to the alleged cabin. An hour later, I find cabin 2051, and gratefully drag the cumbersome luggage into the tiny room, then collapse on the bunk to try to cool down.
Sometime later, I hear the other occupant of 2051 trying in vain to use his ving card to enter the room. After all these years, the damn things don’t work once someone else has one programmed, those of you that have travel experience involving motels know what I am saying. I let the stranded fellow in the room, disappointed that a stranger has arrived; he had been told the cabin would be his for a short while, but, surprise. I express sympathy for this unwelcome event and we find a place above a hall ballast to hide the ving card so both of us could gain entry at will.
Before long, the loudspeaker chimes and the cruise director announces the impending boat drill and commands that all ship personnel go to their emergency stations immediately. I hear the scurry in the hall as the ships employees grab their life-jackets and don a lime green baseball cap that shouts Carnival cruise lines on the front. The sound of people dies down as they vacate the area, then 7 short blasts and one long blast on the ships whistle and another announcement that all personnel and guests of the ship should now be at their muster stations. This is a drill in case of an emergency at sea. From here, all persons would be led to their final destination, the lifeboat to disembark the vessel if need be. The hall is quiet, finally, one long blast from the ship ends the drill and the sound of crew begins to fill the halls once more. I have been spared this today because of missing the orientation and issued a boat drill card with my muster information on it.
However, must attend an entertainment staff meeting involving about 200 people in the show lounge whereupon the cruise director alternately scolds and rewards the staff, depending on the situation. After about 30 minutes, he runs out of stuff to say and ends the meeting. 6 o'clock brings dinner in the mess hall, I as staff can use the staff mess hall, much nicer than the crew mess hall. Table cloths and pitchers of water adorn the tables in the industrialized environment. There are portholes along the wall to actually see the ocean. The cooks on the ship work long and hard supplying 3 meals, plus a midnight buffet for crew and staff. There are many choices on the menu, and a buffet of the featured dishes of the moment. Some of the foods are unrecognizable, or downright repulsive to the average American. Things such as, crudités, fried smelt (which resembles the bait used to catch the real fish and resembles whole fried okra from a distance), spaghetti con funghi, beouette (beats me). There are some good items, a salad bar; the steaks one night were very good, steamed rice, an assortment of industrial type vegetables, hamburgers, hot dogs, eggs to order on demand. Staff gets waiters, crew doesn't. There is always a variety of cakes which are always very good.
After my meal, I saunter into the small crew bar which adjoins the crew mess to smoke a cigarette. There is a large transient in the wall and I sit and watch the crew mess like a movie from my seat in the crew bar. Filipino's, Indonesians, Romanian’s, Croatian’s, and many other people of different nationalities dressed in a wide array of service oriented uniforms eat and talk. The sound of a room full of people speaking 20 different languages is like that long orchestral passage in the middle of "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles on the Sgt. Peppers album. A young man from Jakarta sits on the stool next to me and engages in conversation in surprising good English. Still, I talk in my typical ship dialect and just speak the main words and leave the other stuff, jargon, and phrases out of the conversation. We talk of George Bush, the Tsunami, and his home town. He smiles frequently and offers me an Indonesian cigarette, I gratefully accept and it tasted like cloves and other things, not too bad.
My musical director is a tall, handsome, Canadian fellow that plays soprano sax. He graciously talks me through the spiel for tonight’s welcome aboard show. Then, takes me to a little room where we look for the new uniform shirts, we find the shirts and I am awarded 3, and a necktie that smells like a fish, he is immediately deemed Dr. Fish tie. As the week progressed, everyone in the orchestra becomes Dr. Fish tie and the phrase "Dr, Fish tie I presume" is a common one. He seems very pleased to have a rhythm section player; they had gone through several cruises with no piano or guitar, hence the reason for the call at my home.
A 10 piece orchestra, a bunch of saxes, and people playing holey things, bass, drums, we trudge through the preliminary dance set and I give them my most sophisticated voicing’s. Several times, I am passed solo's , to test my ability, after this test, I can look forward to no more solo's. The guy's with the holey things all want this honor and all try to sound like "Bird", however, sometimes sounds more like duck. They are a very good band altogether, the drummer very tight and knowledgeable, the bass competent, and the horns playing the sectionals together and with authority. After the dance set, the musician’s suspicious looks towards me vanish as apparently I had passed the "test", they are happy to have someone create harmony whilst they flail away on the shiny instruments in a monophonic war.
Still, I am used to being an accompanist, someone who lays down the changes while everybody else beats their brains out to try to impress themselves, the audience, and...Fellow band members. I play as supportive a role as possible; this is a huge part of the show bands guitar chair responsibility. Make other's sound good, give them a solid foundation to noodle over, sometimes it feels a bit frustrating but you just count, 1 dollar, 2 dollars, etc. Even so, the rhythm work in this situation is demanding enough, it makes it own statement and I do my best, not the best but my best.
The welcome aboard show comes right after the dance set and begins with "Anchor's away", and segues into a variety of pop tunes with punches and transitions, a male and female singer lead this extravaganza from the stage surrounded by a lot of gangly looking girl's and guys with sparkly stuff and feathers.
The orchestra follows a laser disc playing and are fed the tempos and transitions via a "click track". Headphones are wore and a click transmits the tempo's and occasionally a guy with a New York accent comes through the headphones and spews "and 3 and four and.........off", dictating accelerando's and ritardando’s. The combination of the laser disc and the orchestra in these scenarios can create a powerful sound, I try to play a little differently than the recorded guitar on the comp parts, and do your best to match him during signature riffs and orchestral passages. With musicians coming and going, these tracks are essential to maintain a uniformity to the production shows, and if the orchestra is really tight, the audio engineer has the option of floating in or out whatever he sees fit, sometimes the track is turned off if he feel's real confidence. The MD hands me a print out demanding my presence at the 1st orientation meeting of the week at 8:00 am the next morning, shit. I squeak through the first night and take a shower in 2051 in a bathroom of approximately 13 square feet, throw on my crappy white trash outfit of a t-shirt, kaki shorts and flip flops, and make my way up 3 decks via staircase to the staff bar for beer and frivolity. I enter the door to looks of astonishment from the assemblage as to this invader, a table of Italian officers drinking "Grappa", a really nasty tasting Italian clear liquor, and Pelligrino water, give me a very mean glare like some sort of junior mafia. Croatian electronica noise permeates the air, and I have broken no rules since I have come from the crew area and not crossed into sacred guest areas on my way to the bar. Doing so dressed like I was would get me into hot water and probably a trip to the staff captain. I get 3 Red Stripe beers @ $1.25 US each and sit in the back of the lounge alone, no one approaches and I approach no one. After 30 minutes of the disco noise thing I tire of this scenario and trudge back down the staircase and quickly fall asleep, it has been one hell of a day.
My cell alarm goes off at 7:30 and I quickly shower and dress for the dreaded orientation meeting. I enter the crew training room and am treated to an hour and a half of information I have viewed 2 dozen times. Geared for people in the guest service positions, I listen while a middle aged Latin woman tells a room of bored onlookers how we should brush our teeth, comb our hair, pick up heavy objects, and not use the phrase "no problem". We view a 5 minute video called "There is a problem with no problem"; it is cheesy to the point of comedy and the high point of the meeting. At the end of the meeting we are to take a walk around the ship and I am informed I must go back to 2051 and change out of the blue jeans I am wearing as they are taboo in the guest areas. I plead with the woman as I have to play a Dixieland set on deck 5 and have been to this orientation many times and will be on the ship only 2 weeks. She retorts, “Oh, then you didn't have to attend this meeting, but you must attend tomorrow's meeting, very important". I thank her and leave trying not to curse under my breath; this time could have used to look at the evenings production show. I dress for the guest areas and find my way to the Ionian lounge. The evening before the MD was talking of me moving the amp, a heavy Fender twin reverb, out of the cramped orchestra stage and moved up 2 decks a halfway across the ship for this Dixie congregation. I relate to him how the jazz duo I work with at home I plug into one of the channels of a small PA. Like the one in the Ionian lounge. He agrees with this and spares me the arduous task of moving the amp first up, then back down to accommodate the 1 hour set. Thank goodness for small favors. The set goes well; I play mostly major and minor chords in my well worn guit-banjo style to a handful of charts. A guest approaches me at the end of the set and in a southern drawl says, "Shit, that sounded like an eeelectric banjo", I thank him and wish him a good cruise. I make my way back to 2051 where I look at charts from the evenings production show "Livin in the USA" for about an hour, I am still very tired and pass out until the alarm announces time to play the show. I don black dress slacks, black shoes and socks, the carnival uniform shirt, and the fish tie. I play where I feel comfortable and lay out where I don't. I squeak by for the evening, basically sight reading the show. The 2nd show that evening was a little smoother and afterward I return to 2051 and take off the nasty fish tie and outfit and stay in to watch a movie on my laptop, "Up in smoke" by Cheech and Chong. I turn it off halfway, too tired to continue.
The cell goes off again at 7:30 AM. Again I do the routine and arrive at the "black and red seas" lounge for a safety orientation and carefully sign the roster which snitches on me if I don't make the meeting in turn incurring the wrath of the safety officer. 2 hours of important information such as the difference between black and gray water, what colored bins holds which kind of garbage in the recycling area, don't throw anything in the ocean, and many other exciting topics. Again, none of this has anything to do with my position, but is the result of a probation imposed by the US government on the cruise lines due to pollution violations. At 5 0'clock PM, the orchestra rehearses 3 charts, a montuna, a tango, and a cha-cha, in preparation for a Latin juggler performing the variety show that evening. The show opened with a really bad comedian we played on with a disco version of "The Godfather" movie theme. "Is this thing on?" he asked, the trombonist groaned and pushed his nose farther into his book. The bassist farted, and then cracked his knuckles; the drummer just stared into space. We played him off the same way, then the cruise director (CD) told some worn out ship jokes and introduced the Latin juggler. We launched into a blistering fast montuna, he runs from backstage in a sparkle red waiter top, and black leotard bottom so tight you can see the hair on his legs, plus other stuff. He juggles bowling pins, then some plastic rings and other items. At the appropriate moment I play one of my funny guitar noises, the MD spends 10 minutes talking to the sound-man from the telephone onstage trying to figure out this noise that came through his monitor. Finally, when I figure out what he was doing on the phone, I confess to this terrible crime, he drops the phone on the floor and gives me a dirty look, whoops; everybody else thought it was funny.
Our day off for the week in St. Marrten. A charming Caribbean island somewhere south of Puerto Rico in the chain of islands called the Lesser Antilles. I wear my typical white trash outfit and take what is now a long walk into old town now that the new pier is built. On the edge of town, I stop in a Chinese restaurant and bar. I take a stool at the bar and a young Chinese man asks what I would like, Caribbe beer, a local brew. I nurse the bottle and slowly tear the label off as I cool down from the walk in the searing Caribbean heat and humidity. The place apparantly is run by his mother and it is not too long before a disagreement occurs between the two. An argument in Chinese escalates much to my entertainment; I always found arguments in an Asian dialect to be quite funny for some reason. I have no idea what the dispute is over, and as soon as the ruckus dies down, I continue walking into old town. I encounter a Caribbean woman with her children, dressed in schoolgirl uniforms, selling Heineken beer for $1 US on the sidewalk. I buy one and the young girl says something like "hamburger" and holds her hand out for payment. I give her a $5 bill and am promptly given change. I walk slowly down the street and spend the afternoon hitting the local casinos, slowly and deliberately playing 1 quarter at a time trying my luck at Deuces Wild video poker. The machines keep me about even all day, and later in the afternoon as I return to the ship, have played and drank all I want and spent $20.
This morning I must present myself to US custom officials at 7:00 AM, I am given my passport by the ship's official and await the signal for the new crew to line up and present them to the customs officers, my turn comes and it is stamped unremarkably and I am free to go about my business. At 11, make myself ready to step off at the port of St. Thomas. I walk amongst the shops promising the "best deal" on diamonds, tanzanite, and electronic goods. A local crew pub is across the street and I head over for a little local action. In this area is a variety of shops also, and I get a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes for $8.95 and a bottle of Bailey's Irish cream for $15. I head into the pub, huh, they have video poker also now, and I spend 2 hours using my well honed video poker skills going through $10, sitting by a bunch of local women speaking in a heavy Caribbean accent. When one hits a jackpot I display happiness for her good fortune and she grins large through her obvious dentures. I reboard the ship and am searched head to toe, and have my packages and shoes x-rayed before being allowed to board. Tonight's job is playing jazz for 3 hours in one of the lounges upstairs, the band does a very good job, the guys with the shiny holey things all take turns trying to be more clever than the former. A 23 year old piano prodigy named Joe has embarked today and displays his excellent chops, thundering up and down the grand piano with a large variety of ideas, modes, licks, scales, motif's, his playing shows a maturity beyond his years. He appears to be about 14 years old, and is from Brooklyn, N.Y. I immediately like him as we engage in small talk on the break, he goes into a Woody Allen imitation that was quite good actually and has us all in stitches.
Today is what Carnival refers to as "a fun day at sea". Tomorrow also will be a fun day at sea, as they take their sweet time and basically float the short distance from St. Thomas back to Miami. Now there's plenty of time for the "cones" to spend their money in the ships casino, and on overpriced beer, wine, and fruity rum drinks served with little plastic monkeys and umbrellas. "Cones" is a term that he crew uses for the ship's guests, no one seems to know why. All that cheap duty free liquor that was bought while in port is confiscated by the ships security as the cones embark the vessel after each port. I don't know if this is a law, or a crafty ploy invented by the cruise line to sell the overpriced drinks. The liquor is redistributed to the cones after they leave the vessel at the end of the cruise. Hence the name of this article, "new pirates of the Caribbean". I spend some 2 hours this afternoon going over tonight's production show, "Vroom". The show opens with a film of an aging hippie on a motorcycle talking about the super groups of the 60's and 70's. The Beatles, Stones, Supremes, Pink Floyd, Queen, along with some disco thrown in for good measure, Car wash, disco inferno, and others. Lights sweep the orchestra and crowd, pyrotechnics blow up at certain intervals, and again, the gangly girl's and guys in the feathers and certain period outfits gyrate throughout the show. The laser disc takes over towards the end of the show and we leave the orchestra pit and stand behind the scrim awaiting the curtain opening. I am told to stand on an orange "x" and "don't move". The scrim opens and we become part of the show, I am supposed to mimic playing the parts to the laser disc, an act which sort of embarrasses me. The stage's hydraulic lift kicks in and directly behind me is an 8 foot drop, I'm glad I was told offhand by the trombonist not to move, I had no idea. Overall, I liked the show very much, it was fun to play and was a good arrangement, also it was simple to learn, only a few really twisted parts to focus my attention on. After the show, I am handed a print out of an e-mail sent to the MD that I am to take the safety test tomorrow. By missing the orientation the following week I thought I could weasel out of this for this 2 week period, but no. The test is at 2:30 PM and I must brush up on the information to pass this test regarding safety procedures, and steps to be taken in case of fire, medical emergency, or if someone falls overboard. A story amongst crew from several years ago still endures, a drunken ex-marine fell off a cruise ship in the middle of the night 7 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico and swam back to shore. Unbelievable, he was lucky the current was on his side, swimming on the Puerto Rican trench, the deepest ocean in the world.
I wake and stumble down the staircase for coffee, another fun day at sea. I return to my cabin afterwards to refresh my memory on the safety procedures. I locate the book which is in the bottom drawer of every crew cabin, emergency phone numbers on the ship, location of extra life jackets, how to operate a fire and water tight door, what different colored signs mean, how many life boats and life rafts the ship has, their location, ECT. I report to the staff bar to take the test at 2:30 PM. 2 Italian safety officers address the 50 people and show a video, where I am I can neither see nor hear it at the back of the gathering. We line up to receive the test paper and I knock mine out in about 5 minutes and stand in line to take the verbal test. The crowd grows restless and the level of conversation rises, which irritates the Italian safety officer. He rises like Mussolini on amphetamines, "You a all shut fuck up or everyone go vessel familiarization again and take fucking test again next Saturday". Then stands and stares at the crowd in his most twisted officer stare he can muster. The young Phillipino in front of me fails the test and must take the paper to his superior for more yelling. The officer stares intently at me and begins to ask certain questions, I know most, the one's I don't I just confess ignorance, honesty is the best policy in this situation, he doesn't like to be fooled. I pass the test and I am done with all orientation and safety meetings. The orchestra rehearses at 5:00 PM for a show by one of the Platter's. It is an easy R&B show and we are done in 40 minutes, the 2 shows that evening go well, and I get some beer from the staff bar and retire to my cabin for a movie on my laptop.
The phone rings and I am extended an invitation by the ex-MD to cruise Miami once more. We debark at 9:35, on of the "windows" offered. Windows are half hour increments offering opportunity to debark the ship for the day, if you miss one by one minute, you must wait for the next, usually an hour. I am sent back to acquire my driver’s license, and then am told I must wear the crew ID clipped to my shirt. I had not been given the plastic loop thing to achieve this so the security takes mercy on me and lends me one. I put my cigarettes, which has my driver’s license, credit card, plus some cash, on top of a large white cabinet to affix the ID to my lapel. The pack falls to the bottom of the large locked metal cabinet, who ever heard of a cabinet with no top. I plead with the security to open the cabinet; he says to come back later as he has no key. I am freaking out and on the verge of a panic attack, I tell the ex-MD to give me a boost to try to retrieve the lost pack. We beseech him once more and he uses a walkie talkie to call someone, inside of a minute, a grinning Asian man in a pair of red overalls appears from behind a curtain and swiftly opens the cabinet to reveal the precious cargo. I thank him profusely and we debark. We enter the large dirty white car, a little dirtier than last week, and roar through the streets of Miami. The ex-MD makes a series of stops at book stores and supermarkets, I stay in the car and make phone calls and just enjoy my freedom. Later, back on the ship, the scenario starts all over again, under my door has been slipped a boat drill card, and I must participate or face the wrath of Mussolini. There are people whose responsibility is to see if you are at your designated place for the boat drill, so there is no way around it. The announcement starts, and I wear the lime green hat and life vest in search of my muster station. We are positioned outside, and the vest and hat are hot, the crew faces an impatient crowd, ready for some cruise ship fun. 30 minutes later, after we demonstrate how to wear the damn jackets and listen to some more announcements, one long blast from the ships whistle marks the end of the drill. Everybody scatters.
2 long “fun days” at sea, I hardly leave the cabin. I spend my time looking at the production show scores, sleeping, and watching DVD’s on my laptop. The saxophonist from the orchestra is in the cabin next door and has 2 laptops that he spends his time making bootleg copies of movies for sale for $7 each. I show him my collection and we trade, he gets to copy mine, I get to borrow his. This evening, we have a guest artist that sings R&B arrangements; she does some Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick. We go through a short rehearsal at 5 PM, the show was easy and fun, the crowd seemed to like her. Backstage, I notice on the entertainment bulletin board that I am to be on port manning duty for the entire week.
Surprise!!! Port manning is a little extra duty added after 9/11 which means you must turn in your ID, which is what you use to debark the ship in ports, to stay on the ship to assist the guests in case the ship blows up or something. Other cruise lines don’t impose this rule. One of the reasons I had come on this journey, was to revisit a beer and ganja shack about 3 miles from the pier in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. An old Rasta woman, who is famous amongst cruising musicians, run’s the business along with her son. I shall leave her nameless. I am devastated; I beg the ex-MD with the dirty white car to cover for me this week, exchanging his ID for mine before we arrive in Cozumel, Mexico, a day off. He, being agoraphobic, obliges me and I fall to the floor in thanks, the dreaded port manning duty I shall be spared.
Wednesday morning, I awake in port in Cozumel. I follow my old routine, go down to the mess for coffee and a bagel, don my white trash outfit, and head off the ship where the duty free shop is. I purchase 4 cartons of foreign cigarettes for $20 a carton that sell for $5-7 a pack in the US. Once I secure these back in my cabin, I again punch the ID card in the security’s computer and take the long walk towards downtown. As usual, I am swamped by taxi drivers wanting business driving fares downtown, I flash my crew ID at them and say “crew, crew”, which would separate me from the cones. They get their revenge and I am honked at all throughout my hour and a half walk to downtown as they pass by with the cones. I visit a local’s bar in the old neighborhood away from the tourist areas, a bar I used to visit every day off in Cozumel. I haven’t been there in sometime and the owner was nice to me every time I visited. This day he wasn’t there and a local attaches his self to me, my good amigo, shit. He try’s to be engaging in his broken English, and I try to smile and buy him several beers. I like this time to be mine to drink and reflect, and enjoy time alone away from the ship. His conversation continues to drift again and again how difficult things are for him and his 5 kids. Setting me up for a big tip to my good amigo for making my day special. He speaks to the fidgety teenagers that are tending the bar and I can speak just enough Spanish to know they are trying to set me up. I excuse myself to the bathroom and vamoose out the back to the small local bar around the corner. The bar is pretty full, and people stare at me in an unfriendly manner. I finish one beer and leave, walking about 15 minutes to reach the tourist area. I catch a cab back to the ship; I have no desire to visit Cozumel again.
Thursday morning I wake up and it is obvious I have caught a nasty virus. Every contract I have ever done is fraught with respiratory and intestinal viruses, and is a part of doing business. Some viruses even get cute names from the crew like “the Carnival cough”. I can hardly leave the bunk, the ship is docked off Grand Cayman and it is a tender port, you must wait in line until one of the small boats takes you ashore. I spend the day in the little cabin and drag myself up that night to play the production shows. My ears are full of fluid and I have a bad case of vertigo, I finish the shows and go back to bed.
Friday, Ocho Rio, Jamaica, still too sick to move much. I sit on the edge of the bunk trying to make it to the mess hall to get some coffee. I finally shuffle down to deck “0” and am stopped by an Indian security guard who makes some kind of issue over me not wearing my name tag. After 5 minutes of a very confusing conversation he tires and moves on. I am puzzled why this is an issue as I am not in a guest area and shouldn’t have to wear a name tag. Later that day, I find out the new policy is you have to wear the thing every time you leave the cabin, something I didn’t know and something the security guard was unable to convey in plain English. I get my coffee and again go back to the cabin, too ill to debark and visit the little Jamaican shack. This evening, our job is to play jazz in the Ionian lounge, I make it to the lounge and play changes while the guys with the shiny holey things embark in another monophonic war. I sit on the edge of the chair doing my best, the room spins, and I can’t hear very well with my ears full of fluid. I am glad this little contract is closing.
Another “fun day” at sea as the new pirate ship makes it’s way back to Miami to dispense of the old cones, and acquire fresh new cones with credit cards not yet maxxed out. This evening we play the second production show, one at 8:00, another at 10:00. I hurriedly pack after the show and try to sleep; I am to present myself to debark at 6:45 AM Sunday morning. I awake and make my way to the crew disembarkation meeting and fill out a customs form, not mentioning the 4 cartons of cigarettes I carefully lined the bottom of the suitcase with. Finally, we are led to the customs area and one ass of a man in a US customs uniform barks orders at us, some of these people have spent 9 months on this ship and do not deserve this final insult. He knows we have no recourse but to endure his inane ramblings, frankly, he was just plain stupid and obviously has deep personal problems. The officer I spoke with was courteous and stamped my papers and I was free. I left the terminal, feeling a huge relief. The company couldn’t get reservations this Sunday for Joe, the pianist, or I, and we were given e-ticket printouts for Monday flights, and hotel reservations with meal vouchers. Joe and I split a cab to the hotel and I stayed in there most of the day.
Miami International airport was bustling as usual that Monday and the Continental flight was packed, the seating layout on these particular planes was the most cramped I have ever seen. The travel was extremely uncomfortable, but I was happy to be away from the whole situation. I arrived back to San Antonio International airport and felt jubilant walking out after collecting my bags, a rush of accomplishment as I usually felt after these contracts at this particular time. The crew members of these ships all have one common goal, get the money and get out. I am fortunate, at least I enjoy what I do, I like the shows but the lifestyle and confusion is what is taxing. The boredom of the sea days seems to last a very long time. Being a substitute is more difficult than being on a regular contract. A lot happens in a short period of time, and by the time it feels normal, you’re off the ship. These orchestras are a good way to develop some chops in ways you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do on land, in this way it is a very good thing. But you pay a high price for that skill. Some people stay on for long periods of time, and I have done some of these. Cooking, driving and other daily tasks feel very unusual after a long contract, and when you hit land, you start all over again. It is a cycle, come home, run out of money, and go back out. This time, I have seen enough. The cruise industry is expanding, but they are having trouble keeping qualified musicians, eventually, they probably will have all the entertainment on laser disc. It’s cheaper, and more reliable. Thanks to the Braxton Hicks Orchestra, Kris Killingsworth for his friendship, and of course, the ex-MD with the dirty white car.
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