Su Lum: Slumming
November 25, 2009
Constrictions on the first two cruises I took were the set dinner hours – 5:45 for early seating and 8 for late seating. We barely squeaked into early seating the first time and were stuck with the brutal late seating on the second cruise but, on this recent cruise, my friend Hilary and I were offered – and jumped at – the option of “Open Seating.”
This meant that we could go to dinner any time between 5:30 and 9 and would be seated with different passengers every night at tables for four to eight people, rather than being stuck at the same shared table, at the appointed time, for the duration of the trip.
Socialization with strangers was at the bottom of my list of priorities, but dinner in the dining room was at the top. Think Little Nell every night, free (well, you know, “included”). By the end of the trip I was looking forward to dinner to see who we’d meet next.
Our first dinner-mates were Pauline and Herb, a couple in their 80s, he a retired yard manager for the railroad, with his own scooter (“I’ll race you!”), she, originally from England, an ex-travel agent. They have traveled all over the world together, have been married for 64 years and are clearly in love. They met when Herb was in the Navy during World War II (“I picked him up,” she said) and are now living on the edge of the Everglades in Florida.
Pauline is an inveterate gambler – we’d run into them later at the casino and Bingo games, dressed in matching T-shirts. I was so ignorant about Bingo I tore out the free squares, had to get a new ticket and won the jackpot, $107, an irony that didn’t get past Pauline.
They both had health problems and plenty of horror stories; tiny Pauline extolled the benefits of the scooter over the wheelchair she had been pushing (“Watch out,” she warned, “the elevator doors will close on you!”). She carried an enlarged map of the ship’s decks, with all of the bathrooms marked with Xs.
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Later we were seated with a 93-year-old woman, dressed to the nines, who was on her 67th cruise and whose travel-mate had dropped dead at the dinner table on her cruise before this one, causing a cruise hiatus for a few years. “Now I’ll tell YOU a story,” she’d say, and launch into another of many. One was of a white lady alone in the elevator when a large black man got on. As the doors closed, the man said, “Hit the floor,” and the lady fell to the floor begging for her life. Turned out he had asked her to hit the “four” button on the elevator. “That was Audie Murphy’s bodyguard,” she said, laughing at the absurdity.
A retired couple had gone to a special training school to learn how to drive 18-wheelers, and drove them cross-county for more than a year, taking turns sleeping in the bunk behind the front seat. I was rapt, having always wanted to hoist myself into an 18-wheeler (but not Drive one!). Now they live in a Florida retirement community of 70,000 and love it.
I am no good at the art of small talk, which, at its best, reveals information and secrets that make chance encounters exciting rather than superficial. Hilary is proficient at it, and so it was that we learned, before the appetizer course was over, that two women at our table were nuns from Boston, celebrating 50 years of service!
Whoa! One was 68, having entered the nunnery right out of high school when she was 18. The other was 78, who had been a big-time show dancer in her past life, had been engaged to be married (“He wasn’t my first boyfriend”) but, after giving herself a year to think it over carefully, threw it over to become a nun. “I never looked back,” she said.
When the meal was finished, they were determined to take the rest of their bottle of wine back to their room. We left, Hilary and the nuns in front, I scootering behind, all stopping to take pictures.
The picture I will never forget is one that wasn’t taken, of the older nun dancing down the long hallway, the wine bottle held aloft in her right hand, dancing. And I mean DANCING, doing complicated dance steps down the narrow, carpeted hall – shades of a past that wasn’t in the cards.