Moshe Z. Marvit

I Killed on the Carnival Funship

Moshe Z. Marvit

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If limousines are valued by the space they consume for few people, then the motorcoach was the ultimate in luxury travel. The ship sent a motorcoach to pick me up and drop me off at the boat. It was an entire bus, just for me, so even though I could only take up two seats, it felt extravagant.

As we pulled through the parking lot and into the disembarking lane, the driver announced that there is a difference between a boat and a ship. “You can put a boat on a ship, but you can’t put a ship on a boat.” He paused to let that reality sink in. “And,” he transitioned seamlessly, “there is a difference between a bus and a motorcoach. A bus is only a few tons, while a motorcoach like this one is over 22,000 pounds. And you’ll notice that in the back we have a bathroom.” He pointed to the rear of the bus, using the refractory implications of the rear view mirror. I looked by turning my head. “It’s locked because it’s broken. But that bus,” he said as he parked the motorcoach, pointing to a field of buses, “doesn’t even have a bathroom.”

I wanted to know more.

After the driver handed me my luggage, I made a joke to keep the conversation going. It’s what I had to contribute. The joke was suitable; I’d used it before, and received laughs on many of those instances. He smiled politely and then excused himself so he could secure the motorcoach.

“Unlike a bus, a motorcoach must be secured upon arrival.”

***

If you’re not expecting to have fun, the routine of getting on the cruise ship is easy. All of the people stationed at each corner to usher you through, perform security checks, and fluff you up with promises of romance and Orkas, recognize that you don’t need explanation. Every passenger’s lanyarded card is color-coded with meaning, and when you flash your grey card, everyone lets you through without explanation or excitement. Grey means that you’re a veteran and you’d been in the shit.

The first order of business on the boat is congregating to your muster station, where you’ll have to go in case of an emergency. You walk the perimeter, along with the thousands of others walking in both directions looking for their spots, until you find your floor and level. Then you stand as others walk past you, some depositing themselves beside you, in front of you, until it feels like no more can fit. Then the people behind you shuffle back and space opens up. And more fill the space.

I once overheard a passenger tell no one in particular during the muster process that if we were all cells, our muster station activity would illustrate Galen’s theory of blood circulation and humors. I always thought there might be a joke in there, but it eluded me. History has shown that no one thinks Galen is funny.

You wait for the instructions to begin, and standing cramped along the side of the boat you realize what it really means that there are five thousand people aboard. You see the obesity, the walking problems, the age and unruliness of the fellow passengers. Another passenger in the muster process once relayed the fact that the word “myriad” came from the Greek for “ten thousand,” and that was considered the optimal size for a city in Ancient Greece.

Our city would not stand a chance. You stand and stare at your small lifeboat in case of emergency, and you realize that there is no way that everyone could fit, even under the best of circumstances. And the first wave of terror sets in. It happens to everyone all at once, the tension rippling through the muster body as a muscle spasm. Everyone tightens and the inches become feet and somehow space opens up. And somehow the awkward elbows and love handles of your fellow passengers touching you, cradling you on all sides, was better than the void of inches that now exists between you.

Before you can comprehend the terror, the presentation begins. It always begins with a joke because everyone scabs. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have gathered here today to witness and celebrate the union of this man and this woman...”

“I’m just kidding,” the centralized speaker system explains. And the group exhales. “But seriously, we want to run through some very important safety features that will save your life in case of emergency.” The speakers shut off, and the crew member in front of us takes over. Ours is named Vaclav, and his nametag indicates that he is from Poland. “Hi folks. In front of you, is an SX575 multi lifeboat, with a catamaran hull. It’s the most technologically advanced rescue boat out there. This puppy cannot be sunk.”

One veteran in the muster crowd replies loudly into the air, “Why didn’t they just make the cruiseship like that?” It’s his schtick, and it’s cheap. He had the timing just right and everyone chuckles. I knew it was coming; someone always says it. I’m always tempted, but it’s an amateur’s joke.

The instructions continue by telling us to have fun, but always remember this spot in case of an emergency situation. And the emergency situations are myriad, from the external threats of a storm at sea or collision with another object, to the internal threats of plumbing and electrical malfunctions or widespread diarrhea. In a floating walled city of five thousand residents and no citizens, any minor problem can quickly spread. A passenger once explained to me that the words “epidemic” and “pandemic” both come from the Greek. “Epidemic” means “among the people,” while “pandemic” means “all the people.” Even after his explanation, I never remember which is the good one.

The tone for the cruise ship is set. It’s about fun, but never forget that this entire enterprise is untenable. Eat and drink heartily, but make sure that some part of you is prepared for the unpreparable. Lose yourself in the magic, but always know where you are in relation to your muster station. Meet others and make lifelong friends, but keep open the option that you may have to fight your new friend for a scarce resource that comes with a sinking ship. The overt desire to have the time of your life, while also being reminded of the acute terror of life is the standup comedian’s ideal balance of emotions. The audience wants to laugh, because they need to have fun in order to forget about the horror that may await us all.

***

The first day on the boat is a half-day. After dropping off the bags in the rooms and realizing that they are far too small to do anything in an upright or standing position, everyone rushes to find their spots. Where you sit in the beginning determines your place in the ship’s social order. People move throughout the cruise, but they try to trade up, with one half of the couple staying at the current seat, while the other half scouts out what might be better. It’s a delicate dance, because normal forms of communication do not work on the boat. Everyone comes up with their own signals to communicate whether to stay put or move. At any given moment, each person is occupying two spaces at once—where they were and where they’re going. They are like atoms—a quantum mechanics of ship-living.

I thought often of a bit on the Adventures of Atom and Eve, but I couldn’t get it to be funny. There’s no good place in a joke for an explanation of physics.

Most people crowd to the decks as the ship sets sail. They go to the edge of the Lido Deck, so they are close to the buffet and the view. Or they go to the upper pool deck in front or back, so they can watch the start of the journey while wet. Or they go to the highest outdoor bar, so they can toast the first movement of the ship.

The casino has no windows because the first rule of the casino, of not allowing light to provide a hint of time, trumps the first rule of the ship, of putting a window everywhere. I get comped $100 in chips per cruise, and the unexpected rocking of the boat when it breaks from the dock seems lucky. Or accidental, which is another name for luck.

In the casino, there were only a few of us. Each person gets one and only one instance of eye contact.

I grabbed a ginger ale—also comped within limits specified in my contract and encoded into the black stripe on my lanyard—and went to a blackjack table with one other person. The man and I gave the mutual glances, then down. I had twenty red chips and he had dozens of black, blue, and yellow ones. He had a system; I could tell. I also had a system. I memorized the odds of each hand, and played exactly by the book. Then, if I found myself at 30% of my starting amount, I would go to the roulette table and bet $15 on 1-12 and $15 on 13-24, so I had a 66% chance of winning 133% of my money. I do that twice, then back to blackjack. My goal at the casino is to make $200. It’s impossible to get rich at the casino, but if you make $200 and walk away, that’s not bad for an hour’s work.

I made my forty chips, which added to the initial twenty, is too much to hold in the hand. I made it in under an hour and cashed out. The other man lost everything; looked like $8,000 or more. I gave him one more look before I left, with lips tight and cheeks squinting my eyes. He was like a baby raccoon who just lost his innocence and is about to become a scavenger.

***

I have two sets each night for three nights, before I get dropped off in Juneau, and a fresh comedian is picked up for the ride home. The 7:15 set is “family friendly,” which means that it’s for the kids on the ship. I have two possible openings for the early set, and I never know until the final moment which one I’ll choose. I’m not permitted to swear to the kids or drink on the boat—it’s in my contract—so I sympathize with them in their resistance to boat rules, without disparaging the Corporation or any of its subsidiaries and affiliates. The children are always ready to laugh with an adult fellow traveler. The children are always ready to laugh. So neither opening really matters because neither is really funny.

I wait all day for 7:15 to come and go with no one noticing me, and then at 7 pm on my way to the theater, someone stops me to say that they thought a joke I did once was very funny.

I begin.

“Good evening, and sorry I’m late. No matter how many times I’m on a cruise ship, I can never get the timing right. And being a cruise comic, it’s all about timing, right?” The joke lands flat with the children. “I’m a little tired because I stayed up late last night. I decided to hang out on the boat ‘after dark,’ thinking that that’s when the adult fun begins. But it’s all kids. It’s like Lord of the Flies out there at night. [chuckles] I guess the adult parties are in the cabins. But I don’t want to talk about that now. [a beat] I’ll be talking about that at the 9 o’clock adult show. [chuckles]

“So I’m not allowed to drink on the boat. [a pause] But I guess you guys wouldn’t know what that’s like. So I have to find other things to occupy my time. And that is a lot of time to fill, because when I’m not on this ship, I drink a lot. [sip of club soda with lime, raised eyebrows, a pause, and chuckles—all simultaneously]  

“I’ve become a bit of an explorer on this boat, traveling through every hallway and every room. Did you know that there’s a chapel on the boat? So, even at sea your parents can drag you to Church on Sunday. [chuckles] Luckily, I found another hidden room that your parents would never visit. So you can hide there on Sunday morning—[a beat]—it’s called the gym. [long pause, big laughs]

“But seriously, it seems like your parents are keeping busy. That must be why they tire out so quickly and retire to their cabins after 7. [nervous chuckles. A pause.] You know, because they’re old. What did you think I was talking about? [a beat] Remember, this is the all-ages show, so let’s keep it clean. Yeah, I’m looking at you [point to a teenage girl in the audience]; you were laughing a little too hard at that last joke for what I meant. [laughs] Obviously your mind went into international waters. [big laughs]

“So, after 7, you kids run this ship. I went out last night looking for a bit of fun and—close your ears parents. That’s right put your hands up to your ears—I think I saw all of you out there. [chuckles. Point to one of the older kids in the audience, maybe 15] You were dancing it up at the disco near the Lido Deck. Does your girlfriend know that you’re that flexible? [chuckles. Look back and forth between the dancing boy and the randy teenage girl; raise an eyebrow; sip; she is now his girlfriend.] Somehow I remember you having one leg behind your back, while hopping on the other. I couldn’t tell if you were doing a new form of karate or dancing. [chuckles] Either way, you my friend have earned your black belt. [a pause, and laughs]

“But the disco felt a little weird for me to be at. The last dance I learned was while Reagan was in office, and it was a little something called the “Hokey Pokey.” [chuckles] You know the one. You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out. Then something something, before you shake it all about. [chuckles. A beat] I was never good at it. So I don’t think I could do your karate dances. At least not without more instruction from my sensai, Splinter. [chuckles. Every generation of kids from 1985 on has grown up with at least one Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles movie, so the reference is universal. And universal referents get laughs, even when they’re not funny.]

“So I went to the aft of the ship. That’s the front, right? Maybe it’s the bow, or starboard. I can never get these nautical terms right. The other day I asked where the nearest jib was, thinking that meant bathroom, and ended up in the basement. [chuckles] Did you know this ship had a basement? It’s called the “bilge” in pirate-speak, and it’s where they keep the passengers that are too cheap to pay for a window. [chuckles. Every passenger is middle class on a vacation that approximates their vision of the lives of the upper class, so class humor is gold. Even when it’s not funny.]

“On the aft of the boat, in the area marked ‘21 and over’, I don’t think I saw anyone there at night that is over 15. [nervous chuckles] Except that one guy with the mustache and headphones. You know the guy I’m talking about, right? [a beat] I think he’s the same guy that I’ve seen at the roller rink and ice rink, skating alone backwards, listening to Phil Collins. But he’s really good, doing spins and flips. He could do the karate dance. [chuckles] But don’t dance with him, kids. [more chuckles] Seriously, parents, don’t let your kids dance with him. [big laughs]

“You guys take over the aft, and I’m not going to lie, it scared me a little...”

Thirty-seven more minutes until I’ve described the entire boat.

“Hey, you all have been a great audience. If you see me out there tonight, come over and say hi. Buy me a ginger ale. Remember, we’re all in this together.” [applause]

After the first set, I’m exposed. For a brief few minutes—twenty tops—everyone knows who I am and I can’t get out of the room without looking each of them in the eyes. All I want after the first set is to shower before I have to get a second wind. As I leave, I see the predator from the casino pacing at the entrance. He’s hungry.

***

The bathrooms on the ship are designed as if they were prototypes for a bathroom of the future from when the World’s Fair was watched by the world. They are a futuristic matte blue-green, perfect in their angles and features, and it is the one place on the ship that you can feel safe. No one is watching you; no one can get to you; and no disease can infect you while in the shower. It fits perfectly into my general theory of effective recycling, which I tell people is the seed of a comedy bit, so they’ll listen. But it’s really serious. People smile politely because it’s not a good joke. But I know that it’s a great description of the boat, and one day I will write the essay.

You exit the shower into a world of soft towels. In addition to the multiple towels and terry cloth robes in each cabin, the staff leaves towels twisted into the shape of animals after each of the four daily visits to your room. It is a cute way of reminding you that you are being watched and your belongings are being looked through when you are not watching. But it’s to keep you safe, from disease and all the hauntings of the floating city. Once I entered my room during one of these visits and accidentally interrupted the valet while he was assembling a towel whale—apparently the most difficult of all towel animals. He forgot to finish and left me a towel vagina, with a pronounced labia majora. Neither I nor the valet touched her for the rest of the cruise.

I wrote some towel vagina material, but my contract doesn’t allow me to make masturbation jokes, unless they are in the adult show and fall within the exceptions of subtle to moderate innuendo or double entendre, or in the kid’s show and are of unintentional entendres. If such unintended instances arise, I may be asked to sign a sworn affidavit to that effect.

***

I have some Manic Grandma materials as well—about the crazy person that must of designed the boat—but I fear it would interfere with the non-disparagement clause in my contract.

***

When they introduce me for the adult audience, they always mention that I once opened for Jerry Seinfeld and was scheduled for an appearance for the Tonight Show. I have a dream of going on stage and giving a monologue that sets the story straight. I played a set before Seinfeld, along with three other comedians. And I was on a list of possible fallbacks for the Tonight Show, but didn’t get the call. Now both the failure and missed opportunity have become the indelible bulk of my bio. On the boat, I might get nervous laughter with an angry self-deprecating monologue. In some ways it’s better to get silence than nervous laughter, but there’s no such thing as silence on the boat.

I launch into my adult material quickly. My second set is always faster because on the other side of this set a television in a small moving room awaits me. And after 10 pm, on the boat’s channel, I can watch the repeating forty-five-minute montage of video footage from the day. Fifteen second clips of people sitting and eating, talking and eating, dancing and drinking, and always waving to the camera, set to originally composed keyboard tracks, are squeezed into a TV-show of sorts. At some of the scenes, I remember. I was there, at a different angle, and without the keyboard. The nighttime cruise channel is the closest thing to a dream that has ever been produced. Both in content and imbued with deep meaning, the mini-movies are a cradle that allows me to sleep. As soon as I can finish with the adults, the warm twangy cradle awaits.

***

The adult show is my book of central theories.

I talk about the theory of the “man-prize.”

I explain the theory that “the garbage-man always stinks.” Class material always kills.

I talk about sex opaquely.

I do a brief bit where I get racy, both sexually and ethnically. Blacks and Mexicans are always fair game. I call out any black or Mexican couples in the crowd. Mixed couples can be laughed at. Never Jews.

Then I close with a long story mocking the cleaning crew. I feel most bad about that last bit.

***

I then repeat for two more nights on the open ocean, with slight variation.

***

Halfway through the cruise, past the receding glaciers and open beauty of the southwest passage waterways, my trip ends in Juneau. The disembarking passengers have daypacks, daybags, fanny gear, and I am exposed with my unwieldy duffel. I’ve shown up overdressed to this dance and I’m exposed. I can’t pretend that I’m just leaving for the day like everyone else, and people feel compelled to express audible disappointment and explain that they’ll miss me. We spent evenings together, and my catered fare felt like it was made just for them. In the moment, I think they’re being truthful.

Like a blood infusion, the boat will pick up another comedian in Juneau for the remainder of the trip. The second comedian is usually younger, more excited, an up-and-comer filled with vigor and life. He proves my theory that the second erection is always harder.

I used to work the second leg of the cruise, and I’d arrive in Juneau a few days early and let the nervousness of the journey ahead excite me and push me forward. I always try to spot the second-leg comedian when I disembark. I could give him the lowdown of this boat and her passengers, their likes and dislikes, their individual quirks. “How’s her audience?” he would ask, pointing at them as they spilled out onto Juneau’s shores. And I would tell him. I would then look towards the city’s contours and respond in kind, “And her?” And he would relay the highlights of half-completed adventures and small escapes that lie in wait. Like two furriers crossing paths at a trading post, we would find purpose in each other’s stories. In one satisfying exchange.

But the first rule of transfusion is that you can’t mix the blood outside the body.

It would make no sense for the second-leg comedian to get on the boat now, when the great mass was pushing off, when he still had a few more hours inside Juneau. But I always look.

***

Juneau is filled with facts. They are oft repeated and impossible to verify, because they don’t matter. Juneau was founded as a fur and flesh trading post one month before the start of the Civil War after an Inuit princess showed an explorer the passage into the valley. There are legendary moose and bears that have the names of men, and stories of gods. You are told about Oscar who used to walk along Main Street, getting drunk off fermented fruit, copulated with trucks, and would pass out proudly at the intersection. And no one would touch him, because even though he was a moose, he was Oscar. He had a name and a persona and public dignity.

And Leo, the grizzly who knocked a fish monger into the bay for his barrel of salmon. No one knows the monger’s name.

The bar Randy’s off Glacier Street is named for the rattlesnake, Randolph, who once occupied the grounds. The bartender-owner killed Randolph in an epic fight involving a shovel, an axe, a pulaski, and a sledgehammer. “That fucker just wouldn’t die” is carved above the top shelf whiskeys.

A tall gesticulating man with impressive fingers sat in the dark at one end of the bar. He dressed in a long suit with a red tie that draws the eyes. I recognized him by his limbs and extremities. He told stories with digits and a goateed mouth.

“The Amazing Isaac…As I live and breathe.” I felt immediately ashamed at the self-introduction. Perhaps he didn’t hear. Perhaps he didn’t notice.

“Hello Jacob,” Isaac turned his top half. “Is that your ship at the harbor?”

“Yeah, I’m the big one. I was the big one. Now I’m here for a while. What are you doing here?”

“I’m working on my Ta-Da List,” Isaac said, doing piano fingers with his long fingers towards a spiral notebook splayed on the bar.

“Yeah, that’s funny,” Jacob said, meaning it. “What is that? Your list of tricks?” Jacob hoped the condescension landed. “I have a list of jokes. I call it my ‘Ha-Ha List.” That was garbage, Jacob thought. [A pause.] “Do you have a show coming up?”

“Yes. I’ve got a show tonight at the theatre,” with fireball fingers pointing up at the sky or at the mountain, “The big one.” Isaac motioned with a wand-finger to the bartender for another. “You should come.” He did not point at me.

“I’ll try to.” Jacob lied. “But I’ve got to go. I’ll let you be.”

Jacob walked up the steps to Randy’s Comforts. The first floor was a bar named for a rattlesnake; the second was a brothel named for the beds.

Jacob knocked on door 207, one of three, and thought of something witty to remark to the person inside. A large woman named Gina opened the door. Before he could say anything, “Jacob,” she said, with apparent enthusiasm. “What brings you to town?”

“I’m waylaid. So I thought I’d stop by, say hello.”

Jacob once squinted between Gina’s legs at a peculiar angle and swear he saw a walrus.

Gina closed the door behind Jacob. For seventy-five dollars, she danced for fifteen minutes, and then wrapped herself around him for up to fifteen minutes, and then lay beside him naked for fifteen minutes. Jacob had once calculated how much he makes on the boat per minute. Three nights, six sets, forty-five minutes apiece for sixteen hundred dollars; plus various comps and free room and board, which would have otherwise been an expense. He earned over six dollars per minute.

Those were millionaire’s wages, he wrote on the scrap of paper after doing the math on one occasion.

Gina charged him about a dollar fifty per minute, so what he did was more important than sex, more pleasurable than the dance, the wrap, and the cuddle. Plus, she paid her own room and board at Randy’s.

He wondered if Isaac had ever hired Gina, with his long fingers.

“Gina, do you mind if I open the blinds, so I can watch the sun set while you dance?” Jacob imagined the shadows and the movements. The sun would disappear slowly behind the big mountain, whose name he did not know, changing shape and intensity the whole way down. The street lights along Main and Glacier would gently replace the sleeping of the light. The whole thing would be worth it.

She exposed the windows with a sharp explosion. But the sun never set behind her. They faced south. And, besides, it was summer in Alaska.


Moshe Z. Marvit


Moshe Z. Marvit is a think tank fellow based in the United States. He writes fiction and non-fiction, some of which has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, and elsewhere.