Sunday, January 5, 2020

sit down, you're rocking the boat

In the summer of 2012, Mrs. Pincus went on a cruise with her extended family. It was made very clear, by my brother-in-law, that I was not included in this trip. Just as well. The thought of going on a cruise, despite being an avid fan of The Love Boat, did not have the least bit of appeal for me. Upon my wife's return, however, I heard all about the endless food, planned activities and kitschy entertainment. I have to admit, I was slightly intrigued. So, based on Mrs. P's casino "activity" (at the time), the good folks at Harrah's Atlantic City offered us a free cruise. With a little bit of convincing, we took the offer. (The "free" part was the clincher.)

Flash forward to today, I am the veteran of eight cruises. I never imagined that we would become the people that I made fun of on our first cruise... and in such a short period of time! I still maintain that all of the cruises have basically been identical. Sure, they have been on different ships with different people and at different times of the year, the overall experience has been the same. They've all featured buffets with endless amounts of food, planned activities (like trivia contents, where on our most recent cruise, we were accused of cheating) and hokey entertainment presented by troupes of fresh-faced performers giving their all as though they were on a Broadway stage, not one rocking back and forth in the middle of the ocean.

Mrs. Pincus and I have had conversations with a number of crew members, something — believe it or not — not many passengers do. A lot cruisers treat the crew like servants, foisting angry demands upon them with a tone of of contempt. Others ignore the crew, except for waiters and bartenders. But my wife and I have had really interesting interaction with crew members while we were waiting for a trivia game to start. Most cruise ship staff hail from outside of the United States, so we have heard fascinating tales of sneaking stealthily through farmland in the Philippines to steal watermelons. We were told about tiny villages in the Middle East, where a crew member's family is the recipient of wired funds and get to see their loved one in person every six months. We learned how employment on cruise ships works (six month "contracts" with the option to renew). These stories have all brought me to the conclusion that most cruise ship staff are akin to carnies. Some of them — not all of them, but a lot of them — lean towards the transient and unseemly side of society. I can only imagine what goes on below the "passenger" decks and I imagine that it's not unlike the "steerage party" scene from Titanic. I picture crew members crammed into tiny, closet-sized rooms — drunk, dirty and sleeping with each other. Just my opinion.

On our third or fourth cruise (I honestly forget which), Mrs. P and I encountered a particular member of the entertainment staff. He stood out from the rest of the young men and women, in that he was wild and rambunctious and overly animated. On our first evening aboard, we met him in the showroom, prior to showtime. He was dancing wildly to the piped-in music. He was hugging guests and acting silly. He came over to where we were seated and made exaggerated "flirty eyes" at Mrs. P. (All in fun, of course.) He introduced himself as "Oston," explaining it was like "Boston" without the "B." Then, he turned his head as an attractive young lady walked by. He loudly remarked: "There goes my future ex-wife." (We would hear that joke countless more times thoroughout the week.) Oston was a native of Turkey and regularly reminded everyone of that fact. When hosting activities,  he would regularly mock his difficultly with non-Turkish phrasing by announcing: "Press 1 for English." We ran into Oston nearly everywhere we went on the ship — hosting trivia games, wandering around near the pool, at the buffet, in the showroom, everywhere. He walked a thin line between fun and annoying. 

At the end of the week, we thanked Oston for enhancing our vacation. However, Mrs. P and I secretly agreed that he would most likely be fired at the end of this trip. He just didn't fit in with the "Norwegian Cruises" persona. We couldn't put our finger on what exactly was the problem, but it was something.

My wife and I went on another cruise this past October. This time, we sailed on the Carnival Pride, out of the Port of Baltimore, just a two-hour drive from our suburban Philadelphia home. The Pride is a smaller ship than any of the others on which we previously sailed, and it made for a more intimate and enjoyable trip. On our first evening aboard, we spotted a familiar figure dancing wildly in the aisles of the Pride's main showroom. It was Oston and he was up to his old unmistakable tricks. We got his attention (which was tough, considering his short attention span) and he came over to us. We jogged his memory until he "sort-of" remembered us from that Norwegian cruise several years earlier. Mrs. P asked him how long he has been with Carnival. He smiled a crooked smile and proudly told us that this was his first cruise with the line. He also told us that he had briefly been employed by Royal Caribbean after leaving Norwegian.

On this same cruise, we met a quiet woman who was traveling with Flossie, her eight-year-old daughter. Flossie revealed herself to be a natural performer, as we saw her participating in a number of karaoke sessions as well as showing off her dancing skills in other audience-participation activities. And during the course of the week aboard the Pride, Flossie became enamored with Oston. She followed him from activity to activity, silently observing him with big, puppy-dog eyes. Flossie even bought a plush teddy bear, which she named "Oston," in homage to her favorite crew member. Oston seemed flattered by the youngster's extra attention, but it was hard to tell since his behavior could only be described as "off the rails." At the end of the cruise, Flossie was in tears and parting with Oston was borderline traumatic.

My wife connected on Facebook with Flossie's mother. She told Mrs. P that the ride back home (they drove back to Toronto from Baltimore) was rough, as poor Flossie cried most of the time. When she wasn't crying, she was talking about Oston. Mrs. P remained in regular contact with Flossie's mom and one day, just a week or so after our cruise, she told my wife that they booked another cruise aboard the Pride for November — just so Flossie could see Oston again.

Just prior to their November sailing, Oston emailed Flossie's mom, asking her to pick up some personal items for him. (He knew that they would be sailing.) He asked for toiletries, as well as socks, underwear and sneakers. Flossie's mother complied with all of his requests. When the date of the cruise arrived, she met up with Oston and handed over the items he asked for. He expressed his gratitude. Flossie was ecstatic at seeing Oston. The week aboard the Pride was magical for her. Oston (and all of the entertainment staff) paid special attention to the girl, sometimes affording her "co-hosting" duties at certain activities. Flossie's mom sent Mrs. P photos and videos of little Flossie dancing and singing with Oston. Her smile was huge in every shot. At the end of the week, Flossie and her mom had another tearful departure and headed back to Canada.

Then things got..... strange. 

Flossie's mom received a barrage of texts from Oston saying that he quit his job with Carnival. He was at the airport with Turkey as his destination. A lot of what Oston was saying was incoherent, either due to a language barrier or his erratic behavior. He told Flossie's mom that he has misplaced his passport and left his bags at the airport. He was staying with friends in Maryland... or Pennsylvania. He kept changing his story. In one text, he sounded "desperate" (as Flossie's mom described it) and said he felt "worthless."

Then he asked Flossie's mom for money.

Flossie's mom had, evidently, made connections with other crew aboard the Pride. They warned her to steer clear of Oston. They pegged him as a conman. They explained that he had a pattern of this behavior and he should be avoided. One of his former coworkers told Flossie's mom it would be best to end all contact with Oston right now.

Flossie's mom was confused. She saw no signs of any deceit from Oston... on either of their cruise encounters. He was enthusiastic and appeared sincere with Flossie. Sure he was a bit wild, but he interacted with Flossie like a protective older brother. But these accusations of being a con man sure seemed to be feasible. Flossie's mom was diplomatic and, most importantly, realistic. She explained to Oston that, while she would like to help, she was in no position to offer the financial support he requested.

Flossie's mom hasn't received a text from Oston since.

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