What's Tony Thinking

Grace on the World’s Largest Cruise Ship


The Atlantic magazine fronted the cost of a suite ($19K) for writer Gary Shteyngart to make the maiden voyage on the world’s largest cruise ship, “Icon of the Seas.” It was a one week cruise on the newest of the “Royal Caribbean” fleet.

The “Icon of the Seas” can accommodate 7,600 passengers, but for the initial voyage there was a 5,000 passenger limit. Why? A shake-down cruise? Or maybe the limit made it more “exclusive”? Turns out, there’s a lot on cruise ships that preys on, or maybe caters to, the human desire to be a step-up on the neighbors, to gain “exclusive” access. Having a skyscraper of decks helps.

Shteyngart landed a “suite” on deck 11. Sounds sweet, but turns out it was far from the real suites, up on decks 16 and 17. That was officially known as “Suite Neighborhood.” In “Suite Neighborhood,” $75,000 would get you a multi-floor suite, plus a slide for fun transit between floors — at least when going down.

Shteyngart, who described himself as “small and ethnic” (his parents are Russian and Israeli) made steady efforts to connect with his fellow passengers, including acquiring a popular NYC t-shirt that read, “Daddy’s Little Meatball.” He thought it might be a good conversation starter. Turns out he should have been wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of a SEC football team.

Still, he managed on his first night to meet and hang out with a couple he dubbed “The Rands.” So named because, when Shteyngart shared he was a writer, the man said, “Ayn Rand is my favorite author.” Then, while saying, “I don’t want to talk politics,” Mr. Rand opined, “They’re going to eighty-six Biden and put Michelle in.” His colloquy with the Rands was interrupted by a couple he described as, “scary,” “bent psychos out of Cormac McCarthy novel.”

All was not lost as Shteyngart did find company with a group of ladies from NYC bobbing like manatees in an infinity pool with its “swim-up bar.” Probably the world’s largest swim-up bar.

Status is, apparently, a big part of the experience in the world of cruisers. “Now I understand something else,” writes Shteyngart, “the whole thing is a cult. And like most cults it can’t help but mirror the endless American fight for status.

“Like Keith Raniere’s NXIVM, where different colored sashes were given out to connote rank among Raniere’s branded acolytes, there is endless competition among Pinnacles, Suites, Diamond-Plusers, and facing-the-mall, no-balcony SeaPass Card peasants, not to mention the many distinctions within each category. The more you cruise the higher your status.”

Given all this you would expect a writer for the high-brow Atlantic, to look down his nose at his fellow passengers and the whole sub-culture of cruising. I was ready for that. Maybe even eager . . .

For I too have been on a cruise . . . once. I was a speaker for a clergy group, a couple hundred folks, enjoying their annual, post-Christmas get-away. It turned out it was cheaper for them to get on that cruise ship than to go to a hotel, at least that was their excuse. So there we were. There I was, on board a cruise ship departing Orlando one January for a four day cruise. Along with 4,000 other people. I had no idea that cruise ships included shopping malls, clubs, theaters and of course water slides!

We were assigned a different auditorium for each of my talks, as if to suggest they really didn’t know what to do with us. On the last morning, I led Sunday worship in what was, by night, the ship’s disco. The disco ball was still spinning for church. A new liturgical innovation! As the service went on other passengers, not of our group, wandered in and sat down. I’m pretty sure they were hungover. Heck, I may have been hungover.

I was particularly impressed with how the cruise ship did drinks, i.e. alcoholic beverages. At a passenger’s every turn, a smiling, young staff member flourished a tray of colorful cocktails. You could be forgiven for thinking they were free, as if you were at a gala of some sort or a wedding reception.

But no, we passengers each had a wrist band with a number code. As deftly as they handled the tray of drinks, the staff followed it with the flourish of their e-reader, taking your number almost without you noticing. On the morning of the last day, bills for alcohol were slipped beneath each cabin door. I swear I heard one person after another hit the floor when confronted with a bill for drinks that probably exceeded their monthly mortgage payment.

So I was expecting Shteyngart to look down his nose on the whole world of “cruising.” But he didn’t. He regarded his fellow passengers with curiosity and compassion, even when one referred to him, as he passed by, as “that freak.”

Concluding his essay, he wrote, “It is . . . unseemly to write about the kind of people who go on cruises. Our country does not provide the education and upbringing that allow its citizens an interior life. For the creative class to point fingers at the large, breasty gentlemen adrift in tortilla-chip-laden pools of water is to gather a sour harvest of low-hanging fruit.”

I was touched, if also rebuked, by his compassion. Brought to mind Jesus, who upon seeing “a great crowd, had compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mark 6: 34) Ours too is a world of sheep without a shepherd.

In the cruise ship sub-culture where so much is about status, points and pecking order, Shteyngart offered something different: a word of grace for his fellows at sea, which in a way is all of us cruisers and non-cruisers alike.


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