“Excuse me? My sign-on sheet has a mistake on it.”
It is not yet 8 a.m. and I’m blinking desperately at the stranger holding my passport in one hand and a leashed, drug-sniffing dog in the other.
“My date of birth is wrong?” I continue. “It says I’m 45. And also that I’m a man from Tampa.”
Taking his blank stare as an invitation to keep talking, I explain, “It’s just, I’m 25 and from Chicago. And also not a man.”
He takes the sheet, annoyed, and makes a series of illegible scribbles: “Just sign it. Welcome aboard.”
It is from these humble beginnings that I, Carley Moseley, née a girl from New Jersey, now a middle-aged silver fox from Tampa, become the proud resident of a 5,000 passenger cruise ship.
Even from the outside, my new home is a behemoth of a vessel. Flags, lights, a rock wall, and a lot more flags complement the painted hull, an ill-begotten love child of Tommy Bahama and a pack of melted Tropical Skittles. A ropes course and four water slides crown this sweet, sweet maiden of the sea, giving it an air of “that girl in seventh grade who was trying too hard to look older and probably hooked up with a bunch of sophomores” in the gentle, raking light of New York’s morning.
I maintain an air of professionalism even in the face of this monolithic perma-vacation suite. Turning to my producer, I muster a casual, “Cruise ships are like… really dumb—right?” He laughs, either because he half agrees or because he’s already planning on firing me. Who knows?
Armed with little more than my duffel bag and the dwindling confidence that my sign-on sheet will be corrected, I board the ship, and start my four and a half month contract as a comedian/free-style cruise-er.
“Free-style cruisin(g)” (read: “free-style croozin’”) is a vacation model born of the Outback Steakhouse school of thought. There are no rules (just right) and there’s a ton of red meat and dip available at all times. For free-style passengers, there are no pesky table assignments to get between you and your third serving of seafood penne (good luck eating just two! It is delicious!); there are no strictly regimented schedules to keep you from crisping in the sun until you’ve reached your goal of “baseball-glove brown”; and there are no “social mores” or “laws against indecent exposure” to prevent you from wearing a pair of underwear as a bathing suit and going into the buffet barefoot and topless (international waters have never looked so good!).
For free-style crew members, the definition of “free-style” is slightly less fluid, and is regimented by a sometimes benevolent, sometimes Draconian, but always very snappily dressed fake navy.
But I digress!
Living on a cruise ship is a lot like what you’re picturing, in that whatever you’re picturing is probably happening somewhere on a cruise ship. It’s really great, pretty bizarre, and there are lots of drunk tourists (who are also really great and pretty bizarre). Combine these three factors in varying quantities, and you’ve painted a fairly accurate picture of my life between March and late July of this year.
When my contract began, I split my time between performing and getting very, very lost. In passenger areas, the ship is beautiful; in crew areas, the hallways are a series of shape-shifting, labyrinthine mine-shafts, drafted up in a world where Frank Lloyd Wright and MC Escher got drunk together and designed the arterials of a cruise ship. Everything is efficient, and streamlined, and fits right in its place. But everything also looks the same, and industrial, oatmeal colored hallways loop back into each other in an impossible perpetuity.
It became clear early on that I could either sit alone in my windowless cabin penning the sequel to The Yellow Wallpaper, or be a master of my own destiny and become an explorer. Dressed in my finest sweatsuit and throwing caution to the recycled air pumped constantly through the vents, I began to map the ship.
Like most things in life, a “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach seemed most apt. Did I want to follow the carpenter down a hallway that smelled like cardboard and fish? Or did I want to trust my luck and take the elevator marked “Garbage only”?
For a while, regardless what decision I made, I seemed to always end up bursting into the casino. Inching my way between smoke clouds and Rascal Scooters, I would find the conveniently located duty free shop, which was not far from the noodle bar. From here, I could stumble blindly past several games of All-You-Can-Spend Bingo and cocktail specials to end up in another, smaller duty free shop, which was pretty close to the nightclub. Note: this is not to be confused with the teen nightclub, which is up a few floors near the outdoor nightclub, and is identifiable only by its signature scent of ketchup and lust. While I don’t think I was legally allowed to spend time there, the place had some very comfy chairs. Can’t a girl just curl up and read?!
There was also an Irish Pub, a raw bar, an ice bar, a martini bar, a tiny bowling alley, a moderately-sized pool, several normal-sized Jacuzzis, and even an air hockey table. (Air hockey tables are an arbiter of all things true and good in this world.) Where girls become men, other men get rapidly emasculated by said girl, and Boyz II Men underscore the whole night. Reader, I lived in a paradise arcade.
When not mapping the ship, I did my best to maintain a level of normalcy. This was sometimes difficult when living on a paradise-bound cruise ship whose itinerary was repeated in a weekly, Groundhog Day-esque cycle. However, with over 5,000 people confined to one spot, a social life was nearly inescapable. In any other world this would’ve been difficult because of my previously mentioned commitment to sweatsuits, but alas—the cruise life is a forgiving one.
You can’t live on a cruise ship and not meet some very, very interesting people. For all its weird decadence and sometimes confusing code of laws, the ship was comprised of a lot of really, really great people working really, really hard. A lot of them were also really, really fit.
It is no secret that comedians aren’t necessarily known for being like… in peak physical shape. Some are, but it’s always a little jarring when you first see it. We aren’t cast for being babes who can sing and dance and look good in anything from a giant hair metal wig to a pseudo-jungle leotard. That’s what every other performer on the ship was for.
They were a herd of beautiful, svelte, chiseled angels who glided effortlessly through the ship; I was a shoddily dressed vagrant best suited to understudy Gavroche in a community theater production of Les Mis. I have seen these people quite literally juggle other humans with their legs (is there a term for this?) on the same night that I was feeling pretty cool for making a joke about 185 Bill Clintons walking into a bar.
Crushing inadequacies aside, tagging along with a bunch of performers was really great. We hung out, saw each other’s shows, and led normal social lives that happened to be cruise-themed. Typical conversations ranged from, “Are Tarzan and Dora hooking up?” to, “Someone farted in the middle of the finale and I almost blacked out,” to, “Some dude in the front row threw up in a bucket in the middle of my solo, so I shot him with glitter confetti.” Water cooler conversation.
As someone still new to this profession, it’s been rare in my experience to have anything resembling job security. This can be pretty stressful, and in my case manifests itself in feeling anxious as hell a lot of the time. Being able to do this job while surrounded by people who were equally excited about their setup and while not having to explain myself or what I was doing, was very, very cool.
Passengers often asked what the most memorable part of living on a cruise ship was. It is a very close tie between “the sensation of eating vegetables while knowing my body would almost instantly reject them” and “the people.”
It was a weird and fantastic hunk of time in which I got to do consistently fun, good, interesting work next to people who took the best care of me. For that, I am so grateful, and consider myself the luckiest damn guy in Tampa.
Carley Moseley is a Chicago-based writer and performer. She loves her family a lot, and writes unrequited postcards to her friend, Julie, here.
Photo via Texas713/Flickr