I Was a Cruise Ship Bartender
On staff—temporarily—aboard the Celebrity Reflection, Bruno Maddox discovers the secrets and hard-won wisdom of the modern barman at sea.
The wind is a factor when you’re tending bar on top of a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Blowing from the east you have the region’s famous “trade winds,” honored in the name of a thousand tin-roofed beachfront rum shacks, in the curve of every palm tree from Vieques to the tip of St. Kitts. When the new, huge, white Celebrity Reflection is under way, moreover, as it usually is at night, getting its 12 feet per gallon through the glamorous black water, you may also have as many as 24 knots of Newtonian headwind blowing back at you from the bow and getting shredded by the ship’s exterior into subsidiary winds, each of which—if you’re working the atmospheric Sunset Bar, all the way aft on Deck 15—will then swoop in to yank at your standard-issue Pool Shirt, or try to make off with your napkins.
We’ve got napkins like rice, of course, back in the pantry, so it’s not like you’d get banana if one went mamagaio…sorry—cruise crew lingo. I’m saying we have napkins in abundance so you probably won’t get in trouble if one goes missing. But later on, in the perfect darkness of your windowless cabin below decks, listening to the guiltless rise and fall of your sleeping roommate’s breath, you would feel that you’d gotten banana anyway. Ever so slightly like modern surgery, modern cruise-ship bartending is founded on an absolute commitment to cleanliness and precision. The ship’s cocktail napkins, to us, coexist with the ship’s passengers and crew and all its contents in the mental category of Things Not to Be Lost Overboard, and if we see anything at all make a dash for the glass-paneled safety balustrade, even the paper sheath of a drinking straw, we’re going to drop what we’re doing and pelt after it, slurping silently over the decks in our Keuka SureGrip® rubber deck shoes.
Isaac never did much pelting, it bears pointing out. For 10 seasons and two feature-length specials on ABC’s Love Boat, Ted Lange played barman Isaac Washington as an effervescent young man o’erbrimming with restless, upbeat energy, very little of which he brought to bear on the performance of his actual duties. Whether in the Acapulco Lounge by day or up in his beloved Starlight Bar by the light of the stars, wine oozed from Isaac’s bottles at the speed of cold honey. On the rare occasion he shook a cocktail, it sounded like Fauré’s Requiem played on the maracas.
Do we begrudge Isaac that easier life—we who are his descendants, we whom he did create? We do not. Nor do we curse Isaac’s name for how windy it is up here—though it is technically all his fault, cruising having ballooned over The Love Boat’s run from a niche pursuit of the upper middle classes to a multibillion-dollar national obsession, whose towering megaships now stand so high above the ocean that their upper decks are littered with asteroids and space hardware every morning and raked by a perpetual, napkin-hungry gale.
No, if we fault Isaac for anything, it’s simply for not being here anymore. During our fleeting and infrequent moments of downtime—standing with a thumb on the button of the Island-Oasis shaver-blender, say, watching it extrude the gooey coils of your Baileys Banana Vanilla Thrilla—it’s impossible not to wonder what the man who still personifies this job would make of what it’s become: whether Isaac would even recognize what we do today, or whether all the changes there have been would overwhelm him, snatching up the napkins of his mind and bearing them irretrievably overboard.
There are far more of us, for one thing, here on the Celebrity Reflection than there were on the Pacific Princess, as the “Love Boat” was formally listed in its maritime documents. If we make the assumption, as we were encouraged to do, that Isaac was the only bartender on the Princess, then there are nearly 30 times as many of us here on the Reflection, staffing no fewer than 10 different bars. Your first minutes aboard the ship in Miami, hunting for your stateroom (what in Isaac’s day was called a “cabin”), you may glimpse one or two of us—counting bottles at Deck 3’s low-key Passport Bar, perhaps, or at Deck 4’s not-at-all-low-key Martini Bar, wiping down the great horseshoe of stainless steel that will, within two hours, by the miracle of thermal coupling, be covered in a thick white layer of crunchy frost—but you’ll be too distracted by the splendor of the ship and too lagégué…sorry…too frazzled from the madness of the cruise terminal to pay us much mind at this early stage. No, it’s generally only later, after the Evacuation Drill and lunch and the nap you needed to have, that you’ll come to in your stateroom, paralyzed with comfort upon a mattress of high quality, the trade winds powder-puffing your face through the French doors of your private veranda, and form the thought that it might be nice to go find some sort of “bar,” perhaps in the open air, and to be sitting at it, drinking some sort of “drink,” as the ship casts off and the world slides away.
The atmospheric Sunset Bar may not seem unduly atmospheric when you first approach it. An oval pergola ringed by glowing barstools, it presents as sleek and cheerful and future-y, the kind of bar a handheld-mobile-device tycoon might erect in his garden for his favorite daughter’s wedding reception. But as you choose a stool and straddle it, and as without a jolt or a noise a slight gap appears between ship and shore, a gap that will soon encompass everything, the atmosphere asserts itself. The Sunset Bar, you see, affords an unobstructed view of where the ship has just been, of the poignant foam of the propeller wash, churning whitely: an unobstructed view, a philosopher or sentimentalist might put it, of the Past itself....
“What can I get you?”
This is us. There we are, finally, in our standard-issue Pool Shirt. We are calisthenically busy, you’ll notice, stretching one hand to collect someone’s check as it spools from the printer, pliéing in order that with the other hand we can reach and close and latch a low refrigerator…oh, and there goes someone else’s napkin, prompting us to spring and leap and whirl and snatch it from the air. Through all these gyrations, though, like the eyes of a ballerina deep in the gyre of her pirouette, our polarized sunglasses re-find you whenever possible, awaiting your instructions.
“Oh, I think just a Corona please, or…. Actually….”
Later, when the United States of America is just a narrow dark stain on the horizon, you’ll think back to those last moments, those last moments before we reached the open water. On a long, thin, black-rock jetty stretching out into the ocean, fishermen stood with their rods in the thickening light. You saw a father hold a child’s hand as she reached, with gingerly child-shoe, for the next black boulder onto which to step, and also there were lovers, watching in huddled pairs from the rocks, arms over shoulders against the approach of dusk…. And though it was a pleasant surprise that of these liminal souls not one cast judgment upon you for being perched atop a moon-size monument to late-imperial decadence—indeed, some even waved—it wasn’t that that did it for you.
No, what did it for you was us. Maybe you boarded the Reflection with some quiet expectation that Isaac would still be here. Maybe, at the back of your mind, you hoped or feared that cruising might still carry a hokey whiff of 1970’s cheese, a Kodachrome miasma of shuffleboard and Loretta Swit. And it is us, finally, your bartenders, with our Google-like cocktail knowledge, our cool, athletic, 21st-century professionalism, who put finally those fears and hopes to rest. Whatever this is, you realize, it isn’t what it was.
Thing is, you inform yourself, looking around at the Sunset Bar, now fully atmospheric, millimetrically adjusting the rotation of the extravagant cocktail you heard yourself order, a concoction of ice cream, three different rums, and “hibiscus essence,” this is actually okay.
With the arrival of that revelation, our work is done. And has only just begun.
Which is not to suggest that we’re going to have sex with you. When Isaac shut down the Starlight Bar back in the 1970’s, there were decent odds, if you were an unattached female, that you’d presently find him tapping at your cabin door, for and/or with a “nightcap.” It didn’t always work out for Isaac, in this regard, but usually it did.
That kind of thing doesn’t happen here on the Reflection, where even the platonic sort of fraternization is rather frowned upon. To drink on duty, even after hours of pleading from a lonely guest, is a recipe for instant and massive banana, it has been established to the satisfaction of this reporter. If you’re just back from a day in St. Maarten, your skin the color of a glowing lightbulb filament, we may offer a few words of sympathy, but for us to hunch across the bar and compliment you on your pretty eyes (a favorite opening of Isaac’s) would likely bring Clint, the bar manager, gliding into view behind one of your shoulders, fixing us with his basilisk stare.
And when we’re not on duty, forget it. We’re gone. At the end of the night, when all the bars have been wiped and bleached, when the last blue leatherette cowl has been slipped, like a falconer’s hood, over the very last touch-screen panel, we barmen step back through the walls, into the windowless, whitewashed world of the crew area, and are officially mamagaio. What goes on back there—and in the infamous “Crew Bar,” located tellingly “down beneath Deck Zero”—will not find an airing in these pages. In part, yes, this is because the Crew Bar is off-limits to semi-embedded reporters, but it is mainly because, as head bartender Joseph Nackman once put it, staring off at the horizon in a worldly way, the Crew Bar is where “people are people.” Many of those people, for the record, are from Poland, Croatia, Montenegro, and the other hard-drinking nations of Eastern Europe, and if we also quickly mention that a fair proportion of them are painfully attractive trapeze artists, backup singers, yoga instructors, and salon technicians, we can perhaps just leave it there.
We can’t have sex with you, nor can we even really be your friend—at least not the way Isaac could back in the 1970’s, or the way land-based bartenders always have. The barman on land is a pillar of his community, an emotional Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War of modern life. All evening, a towel limp with sympathy over his shoulder, he walks between the wounded, dispensing drinks and palliative wisdom to the fired and the firer alike, the cheater and the cuckold, the chronically frustrated and the suddenly aging. Only when all have been stabilized and poured safely into cabs will the land-based barman amble home to his high-powered uptown girlfriend, who’s fallen asleep in her Blahniks again, and whom he rescues from a nightmare about the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
Out here we don’t really do that: all that old-soul wisdom and empathy. But you know what? It’s fine. You’re not ordering Cool Caribbeans at 10 in the morning because your woman done up and left you (or if she did, she’s probably just in the Solarium). That isn’t your fourth brandy Alexander because Mitt Romney just shuttered the steel plant. You’re on a cruise. You are At Sea, in the best possible sense. You are, as we speak, ruling the waves in an estimated $750 million, 16-deck floating pleasure dome that boasts amenities like rice, including a full-size casino, a full-size theater, a more-than-full-size fitness facility, even a full-size high-end shopping district.
And it’s as well, perhaps, that we keep our distance, you and us, for strong emotional attachments and the Sea do not always mix. Once upon a time, Isaac’s favorite singer, the elegant Roxy Blue, played by Diahann Carroll, came aboard the Pacific Princess, and after he wooed her in a brown leather suit, Isaac and Roxy enjoyed several evenings of off-camera togetherness the way people did in the 1970’s. But then it was nearly the end of the cruise, the way it is always, eventually, nearly the end of the cruise.
On Disembarkation morning, Roxy came to Isaac’s cabin (B5), and in a trouser suit of her own sat on his bed and explained how the world worked. He was just a bartender, she broke the news, and she was a superstar international recording artist. Whatever closeness they’d achieved (and Isaac, two evenings before, had called that closeness “love”), it had nothing to do with reality. “Maybe another time, another place,” said Roxy, “but this isn’t another time. This is Now.”
“Now stinks,” said Isaac bitterly, because it is sad when things end, sad when you have to say good-bye.
You’ll learn this yourself, on the haul back to Miami. The shops down in the mall will have their Final Sales, offering Last Chance Bargains. The theme of tonight’s show in the theater will be “Voyage to Remember.” Less explicitly sentimental, and all the more affecting for it, is the goofy Officers vs. Guests pool volleyball match held just past noon on that final day, up in Deck 14’s main swimming pool. Oh, what a sight it is: the ship’s once-grand and unsmiling officers, now splashing and flailing and spluttering in the sun, their epauletted dress shirts translucent with pool water…. You half expect the action to freeze and the credits to roll, as if it were a happy ending dreamed up by a Love Boat writing team, pounded out over cans of Tab in a Burbank bungalow while beyond the window, past the bobbing gold-flame honeysuckle, it’s still 1979….
We don’t feel it, though, we sons of Isaac. We don’t feel the sense of loss. For us, the perpetual imminence of another cruise does not rob us of the things we love, the way it robbed Isaac of Roxy. The things we love are on this ship, and in this life, and the perpetuity of it all just preserves them, perpetually. And if you want to know how we’re able to do this, leaving friends and family and lovers and homeland for months and years at a time…maybe that’s part of why.
On the cruise’s last night, as most of you are venting your pre-nostalgia at the Karaoke Idol competition, we’re all the way aft on Deck 15 as usual, working the Sunset. The crowd is thin, a few shirtless regulars recounting their dinners, discussing sunburn care and flip-flop maintenance, and our colleague Tugberk is taking a moment to teach us his widely admired trick of making a decorative heart out of that flaccid seven-eighths of a drinking-straw’s paper sheath that isn’t left, for the customer’s protection, to cover the drinking end of the straw.
Conditions are far from ideal for this lesson, as the competing winds take turns snatching the heart-shaped loop of paper and stretching it out into more of an oval…and now the little paper umbrella from someone’s Bahama Mama has taken flight as well, floating up into the night as if a tiny, invisible Mary Poppins had just concluded she wasn’t needed anymore.
And because we are us, we forget the heart and pelt after the umbrella, chasing it over the decks, inaudible, unstoppable, and invincible in our Keuka SureGrip® rubber deck shoes. The patent may still be pending on the Keuka’s remarkable “anti-slip” technology—according to some hard-to-believe raised lettering on the midsole—but these are international waters, and by the law of the world…of the family that we’ve created out here, the patent was granted long ago.