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The Night Of: August 20, 1994

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a pre-Chronicles tale adapted from the journals of Brent Shepherd
The place: a coffeehouse called Insomnia Café, on North High Street in Columbus, Ohio, across from the university, with décor that I described as “sterile … with metal-topped butcher’s-counter tables and artsy, architectural-metal chairs. They served me a giant cappuccino that may have been brewed in hell and express delivered — it stripped the nerves off my tongue and still hasn’t cooled down some 30 minutes later. …

“There’s a huge American flag on one wall that may have been stolen from a Perkins restaurant. At any minute I expect George C. Scott to stand up over there and tell us not to let the bastards get us down.”

The time: Our story begins in earnest around 11:15 p.m.

I had decided I wouldn’t stick around long because I had an earlier-than-normal (for me) flight to catch the next morning, but I ordered an Italian soda and turned my attention to the book I had brought with me. Across the room, a lumpy, dirty but comfortable-looking garage-sale sofa was vacated by the trio of girls who had occupied it since my arrival, so I made my move.

I had read only a few pages when the guy whose picture appears next to the word dreg in the dictionary sat down in the chair opposite me with a mug of steaming-hot tea. He wore abused work boots, some kind of fatigue pants with cargo pockets, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket, even though the temperature was 80+ degrees in Columbus that day. He was attempting something like dreadlocks with his hair, which had aluminum-can pull tabs tied to the ends. (Don’t ask. I was hoping you’d tell me.) He had a sparse and stringy excuse for a beard, dirty teeth, and a glazed expression that extended from his eyes to his whole face. He looked like he had bathed once or twice that calendar year and had maybe been released from jail as recently as that morning on someone’s recognizance other than his own.

He took from his fatigue pockets a rolled-up graphic novel that was as ratty, stained and disheveled as he was. He unrolled it, opened it and read as he fiddled with his teabag. Occasionally he would mumble some question about the café to me as though I were a local.

He asked if Insomnia had a chess board. I told him I didn’t know. He asked if I’d be up for a game if he were able to find one. I said sure, why not. Much to my eventual chagrin, he found a board and pieces and we were all set to play.

I tried, somewhat successfully, to feign concentration while we played and thus kept conversation to a minimum. I spoke to him only when spoken to, which was difficult enough given his slurred speech. Nonetheless, he found things to talk about, asking me still more questions about Insomnia Café which I was unable to answer. Only much later in the proceedings did I venture to explain that I was from Kansas City and therefore not intimate with my surroundings, if for no other reason than to assure him that I was merely ignorant, not an imbecile. I chose to let my chess strategies speak for the imbecile in me.

To this point, I have neglected to mention one important feature of my opponent’s costume, a prop, if you will: the knife tucked into his belt.

Apparently no one in Insomnia minded that this most unsavory character was walking around with a knife handle in conspicuous view. You’d have to be Ray Charles not to notice this detail. Then again, probably everyone figured he could do more harm to himself than to anyone else, because of the way he wore it, the blade pointing straight down toward his genitals. (I have no idea whether he was wearing a sheath of some kind in his pants and was really in no hurry to ask. I didn’t want to know him that well.)

This detail is important because early in our chess game we were approached by a trio of his friends, the leader of which was a perhaps more unsavory-looking punk with a carelessly groomed green mohawk, nose rings, a leather jacket and — you guessed it — a knife handle sticking out of his pants, also aimed precariously toward his genitals. (At this point, I wondered whether this was perhaps a local characteristic that I hadn’t been hipped to yet, and I glanced around the room to see if anyone else was wearing a knife in their crotch.) The mohawk punk’s knife had an elegantly curved silver handle, obvious without being glaringly shiny.

At one point in the conversation, the mohawk punk blurted out, “Oh, dude — I got a new knife.”

“Do you have it with you?” asked the dreg. “Let’s see it.”

At which point the mohawk punk grabbed the buffed silver handle and withdrew his new weapon to reveal …

“Aw, man — that’s a steak knife,” cried the dreg. Indeed, it was a steak knife that may have been lifted from a Shoney’s or a Ponderosa or some such place.

“Yeah,” spat the mohawk punk defensively, brandishing the knife. “But I could still fuck someone up with it.”

“But it’s a steak knife,” repeated the dreg.

The girl who had arrived with the mohawk punk spoke up then, something to the effect of, “You’re probably gonna end up stabbing yourself with that thing,” thus prompting the mohawk punk to threaten her with the excision of a certain part of her own genitalia. The girl seemed undaunted, but as the mohawk punk repeated his threat a few times, I imagined myself getting tangled up in violence among complete strangers. The girl wasn’t very attractive, but it seemed to me she could certainly do better for herself than present company. In any event, the steak knife was eventually resheathed (yikes!), and the trio bade their farewell.

The dreg and I resumed our chess game, which lumbered on toward closing time.

At perhaps 1:30 a.m. another of his derelict friends approached the table. This one was older, at least in his late 30s, unshaven and largely toothless in a hockey player sort of way, wearing thick-lensed horn-rimmed glasses. They greeted each other amiably, without wielding cutlery, and talked while the dreg and I played.

“Hey, look what I got,” the dreg said, producing the disheveled graphic novel from his fatigue pocket.

“Cool,” said the derelict, apparently recognizing it as subject matter in which they shared a common interest. He began to page through it. “When did you get this?”

“Today,” replied the dreg. I almost couldn’t conceal my surprise. This ragged, stained, shredded stack of pages had possibly been a crisp new periodical as recently as 12 hours ago. Maybe I care about printed material a little too much.

A digression: Earlier that evening, when I overtook the sofa, the group before me hadn’t picked up after themselves when they left. The table, nothing more than some particle board suspended by two milk crates, still held a mug, a cup and saucer, and a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea that was still about one-fifth full. The dreg and I had sat the glassware aside to make room for the chess board, but at some point during our game, he reached for the iced-tea bottle.

“Is this yours?” he asked.

“No.” I shook my head.

“Mmm,” he grunted in acknowledgement, then proceeded to top off his own still-steaming mug of tea with the bottle’s contents. “I’ve gotta cool this shit down. It’s too hot to drink.”

I was (probably visibly) appalled, thinking, You have no idea who might have backwashed into that bottle before you came along. Then I caught myself and imagined that, if the girl who’d left it behind returned to witness the spectacle, she would’ve been more grossed-out by the concept than the dreg would ever be.

Anyway: Closing time was drawing near, and the dreg and I were in a standoff. I knew we had to wrap up the game quickly, so I started playing kamikaze chess, trying to make things happen and force one of us to win or lose the game. Insomnia employees urged us to finish but were gracious enough to put up with us. I went after the dreg’s king.

The derelict became more actively involved and actually made the dreg’s final five or six moves until they were able to checkmate me (or I allowed myself to be checkmated). There wasn’t much fanfare. I bade an unceremonious (and probably unnoticed) farewell and vacated the premises.

It was 2:10 a.m. So much for getting to bed early.

At 3 a.m., back at my hotel, I called to request a 7 a.m. wake-up call. The night manager didn’t seem to find the request unusual.


Written by Shepcat

November 27, 2016 at 6:58 pm

Posted in Life, Travel

Alaska in My Rearview Mirror

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Adriane has posted on her gallery the crème de la crème of the 1,085 photos she took during our voyage through Alaska’s Inside Passage. In addition to Adriane’s, a great many cameras were deployed among the 70 (!) members of the extended Varley family who embarked along with us.1 Even as I type this, memory cards are being downloaded, CDs are being burned and inboxes are filling up all across Wyoming and to points continental, so I don’t know how many hundreds upon thousands I have still to look through, but Adriane’s travelogue of 205 images should give you a pretty good impression of our trip.

For those of you who don’t believe pictures really tell the whole story, I’ve got your thousand words — and then some — right here:

  • First off, I appreciate that rain and gloom aren’t everybody else’s preferred brand of vodka, so if you ever plan an Alaskan cruise of your own, you might aim for June, when, I’m told, it is much sunnier and drier there than during our August cruise. The weather seemed to be better during our time aboard the ship than it was in any of the towns where we docked.
  • Aboard a freestyle cruise, you can wander into the cafeteria or grill just about any time of day and eat for free. It’s convenient, and it’s one less thing to be charged for aboard the ship, but it’s like dining at Ellis Island, circa 1901, and even the food that has just been put out has already been warming under lights behind the scenes for God-knows-how-long.2To really enjoy dining aboard the ship, make reservations at one of the ship’s many specialty restaurants, grit your teeth and pay the cover charge. The quality of the meal, the service and the ambience will be superior in every regard; the cover charge actually ends up being less than you’d pay for dinner at a comparable downtown restaurant on land; and you will buy at least a brief reprieve from bellying up to the trough, elbow-to-ribcage with the ordinaries.
  • Our stateroom included two twin beds, plus a trundle under one and an upper fold-down berth mounted to the wall, indicating that, in theory, you could squeeze four people into one interior stateroom. I don’t even want to think about what that means for the crew members living below deck.3
  • Pretty much from the moment one boards the cruise ship, one gets the impression that the entire operation was devised as an elaborate ploy to sell jewelry to a captive audience. Our first afternoon, we were handed fliers and raffle tickets for a jewelry showing being presented in the Grand Atrium that very evening. Representatives from various jewelry concerns seemed to have tables set up there on a rotating basis. Going ashore on rainy days, we spied a number of our fellow travelers walking under complimentary umbrellas bearing the logo of a certain diamond wholesaler. And whenever we disembarked to explore the various ports in which we had docked, the first two blocks of the business district we encountered immediately upon entering town consisted of dozens of jewelry stores standing shoulder to shoulder — diamonds, gold, tanzanite, opal, what-have-you — with perhaps the occasional furrier thrown in for variety. Once we navigated beyond those first two blocks, we could finally see where the life of the town itself began, with cafés and five-and-dimes and booksellers and hardware stores.
  • I would advise against anyone under the age of 25 ever going on a cruise. No matter how many diversions and entertainments the crew takes pains to create, shipboard life is not geared to the average adolescent attention span.For example, on about Day Five of the cruise, Adriane and I were hanging out in the Internet Café, which overlooks the Grand Atrium from Deck 9. Down on Deck 7, some bored, bratty 11-year-olds took over the main stage with an impromptu stomp show, performing a well-choreographed version of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” If they had stopped there and evaporated to other parts of the ship, it might have been OK — the little brats weren’t half bad, and the ringleader actually knew all the lyrics of a song released at least two decades before he was even spawned. But the adults assembled in the atrium had to go and encourage the little bastards with cheers and applause, so they kept coming back with more songs, one after the other, steadily declining in organization, synchronization, rhythm and memorized lyrics. After a while we just wanted to strangle the ringleader and leave his limp little body on the stage just to send a message to the others (and their parents), and Adriane declared that she refuses to reproduce with me unless I can persuade her that our offspring won’t be little demon spawn like the unsupervised hellions on our cruise.

    Over the final couple of days, we noticed that everyone aged 13 and below had gradually sought each other out and formed little roving gangs that trolled the decks looking for action. Any longer and we might have tried to incite them to rumble with each other, a tiny maritime production of West Side Story staged for our own amusement and possibly resulting in the occasional little brat being tossed overboard.

    That doesn’t mean that annoyance has an age limit, though. One night in the Red Lion Pub, heretofore the only bar on the ship in which one might enjoy a quiet drink, some high school prodigy sat himself down at the pub’s out-of-tune upright piano, playing and singing first Tom Petty’s “Listen to Her Heart,” then Barenaked Ladies’ “Shoebox.” That would have been fine — he wasn’t half bad, either — but the overindulgent adults he was with kept encouraging the conceited little jagoff to play another and another, and each was louder and more concussive than the one before it, until he was pounding the keys as if to turn them to dust, and the peace and quietude that had once dwelled in the Red Lion was but a fading memory.

    At that point I seriously wished I could find the little “We Will Rock You” brat so I could swing him by the ankles and beat the pub piano kid with him.

  • On another occasion at the Red Lion, though — that same night? did we actually outlast the teen troubadour and his mollycoddling parents? — I looked up from our table, and sitting there at the corner of the bar was a dead ringer for Ernest Hemingway. Picture this incarnationof the late-in-life Papa — the same squinty, twinkling eyes but with closer-trimmed white hair and beard. I didn’t want to pester the man, because he probably gets it all the time, but he totally could have blown away the field at the annual look-alike contest down in Key West.
  • Speaking of Hemingway, on our return road trip Adriane and I crashed late Saturday night (early Sunday morning, really) in Meridian, Idaho, at the most atrocious excuse for a Motel 6 either of us has ever experienced. (Adriane’s online review, which she intends to scatter throughout the Internet on every available travel website, is submitted for your perusal at the top of this page.) That was the second time I’ve spent the night in Idaho, and all I’m sayin’ is that, based on my experiences so far, I’m beginning to understand why Hemingway ate the barrel of a shotgun there. If Idaho wants me ever to come back, they’re gonna have to woo me and throw in some pretty serious amenities.
  • The crew member who impressed me most was the maitre d’ at Cagney’s Steakhouse, an elegant, tuxedoed black gentleman (I believe he was Trinidadian or Bahamian) named Basil Jumpp.During our dinner there, four or five guys with drinks in their hands, led by some swaggering, thick-necked steroid case like a side of beef stuffed into a T-shirt, ambled into the steakhouse, clearly without a reservation but exuding an air of, “Yeah, this looks like a place we could take over for the evening.”

    Basil approached this landing party as coolly as though he were shooing away a fly and very quietly persuaded them that these were not the ’droids they were looking for. His manner and expression all business, Basil exuded so much quiet authority during this simple exchange that you’d have thought he was aiming a gun at the steroid case’s heart. Clumsily they retreated out of the steakhouse.

    At which point Basil turned to our table, and with a sudden smile of pure honey, asked how we were enjoying our meal. He engaged us for the next few minutes with ease and charm, as if the previous incident had never happened.

    If you told me Basil had once headed the security detail for the Trinidadian prime minister or a Bahamian shipping magnate, I wouldn’t even blink.

  • As we docked and disembarked in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, the ship was greeted by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer in full Dudley Do-Right regalia. This particular officer was straight out of Central Casting, too — tall, broad shouldered and square jawed, with a thick, perfectly groomed brush of auburn mustache. People were lining up to have their picture taken with him, to which he gamely submitted for a good hour or so before everyone had disembarked and gotten it out of their systems.My comrade Phil, who hails from Ontario, informs me that RCMP officers wear the full uniform now only for ceremonial occasions, although I used to joke with him that I was going to make it my mission to get them back in the uniform again full time. Because honestly, is there a more iconic image of law enforcement anywhere in the world than the red serge tunic, the jodhpurs, the jackboots and the flat-brimmed Stetson? If you were engaged in the commission of a crime, would you not just soil yourself seeing a troop of Canadian Mounties ride up on horseback?
  • Before we passed through Customs to be greeted by the Mountie, however, we found our path down the gangplank blocked by a photographer and a crew member dressed in a giant plush otter costume.Spotting them up ahead, Adriane released my hand and said, “Walk in front of me,” and as we approached single file, we each head-faked and juked the otter like wide receivers trying to slip open-field tackles.

    That evening in the ship’s picture gallery, one would find photos of slower, less agile tourists grimacing anxiously as they squirmed in the otter’s grasp.

  • Prince Rupert itself depressed us mightily, although we’re willing to concede that perhaps we didn’t travel far enough toward the downtown area during our exploration. The shopping mall there was so squalid and bleak, though, that it sapped us of our will to continue onward.We retreated then to the Cow Bay area near our mooring and settled in among the locals at a charming little waterfront dive called Breakers Pub, where we ordered beers and dinner and sat at the bar watching the Olympics on the CBC.4

    My one complaint was that the CBC aired the men’s 100m sprints out of order, so that we actually watched first the semifinal in which the injured Tyson Gay came up short and was eliminated, then the preliminary heat that Gay won running away, giving us the impression that he had somehow been allowed to advance on a technicality. That small trifle aside, I believe that, if I lived there for a month, Canadian television could totally win me over with its little quirks and differences. (I’m particularly intrigued by a news-and-interview program there called The Hour, which I’m going to start checking out online.)

    At any rate, we got to watch Michael Phelps win his sixth gold medal and set his sixth world record of the Beijing games, swimming in the 200m individual medley. We were seated at the bar beside an engaging young Hungarian whose countryman László Cseh was Phelps’ main competition in the race, but our new friend professed to be a big Phelps fan, so it was hard to discern for whom he had the strongest rooting interest. (This was the race in which Phelps led Cseh by five hundredths of a second at the second turn, then managed to gain a full second in both the third and fourth laps, finally winning the race by 2.25 seconds, with Cseh holding on for the silver.)

    The following evening before dinner we assembled the full contingent of Team Varley for an official group photo on the last night of the cruise. As we converged on a Deck 7 stairwell near the midship elevators to pose for the photo, Adriane and I looked up to discover that the photographer was our Hungarian friend from the evening before.

    In the final analysis, shipboard life is a 50-50 proposition. For every plus, there’s a minus. For every pleasant experience, there’s another that seems custom designed to press against your rawest nerve, specifically enhanced for your personal social discomfort.

    It’s not that sea travel is necessarily awful; it simply requires one to be on one’s guard at all times, reading the room the way a Secret Service agent watches crowds and rope lines. It’s up to you to gauge your own comfort level against the temperature and temperament of your surroundings at any given moment, carefully calibrating the yin and yang of annoyance and avoidance, embracing and evading, engagement and estrangement — the volume of each inversely proportionate to its opposite number, the desired balance a reflection of each individual traveler. Given how much money one invests in such a vacation, though, it seems one shouldn’t have to put so damned much thought and effort into it.

    Then again, perhaps that’s precisely what the cruise lines are counting on: keeping you off balance and preoccupied as they look for ways to separate you from still more of your disposable income. Meanwhile, they seem to err on the side of providing the same experience for all their travelers, assuming that everybody wants to play bingo and sing karaoke and pose and mug and grin like an idiot for every camera that they shove in one’s face instead of allowing that some of us came about our disposable income because we’ve been rewarded for living lives of quiet dignity and grace, and we might like our vacations to be a reflection of such.

    Clearly that was too much to hope for. I’ll just have to prepare accordingly the next time I embark on a sea cruise.

    Which means packing a canister of mace in my shaving kit.




    1 “Varley” referring chiefly to Ed and RaeDell, the couple whose 50th anniversary we had all convened to celebrate on our cruise. Our party also included Johnsons, Skinners, Morrises, Bertonceljs, McCulleys, Baldwins, Jacksons, Hartleys, Vassers and a lone Shepherd. As I may have overlooked one or three other surnames, I’m sure Adriane will help me complete the passenger manifest upon her review.

    2 Case in point: Adriane and I would take walks at night to the rear of the ship on Deck 7, where we could steal a few moments alone and stand at the rail watching the wake of the ship as it frothed and foamed behind us and appeared to chase the ship, licking at the hull like flicking white tongues. Whenever we rounded the starboard aft corner of the ship, usually between 9:30 and 11 p.m., we swore we could smell the aroma of warm french toast wafting through the exhaust vents there.

    3 Sometimes late at night, if one happens to be walking on deck, one totally expects to look down and see hundreds of oars pushing through the water in unison.

    4 That evening marked our only chance to do so, as the ship’s television system limited us to CNN and ESPN as our only news sources. Therefore our knowledge of the Olympics was limited to whatever updates and results crawled across the ticker at the bottom of the screen during other broadcasts.

Written by Shepcat

August 25, 2008 at 3:54 pm

Posted in Travel

The Fortress of Solitude

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APPROACHING PRINCE RUPERT, B.C. — Get ready to heave, Felix.

If anyone was going to toss their own chum over the side of the ship, Thursday morning was the time to do it. I awoke to the extreme teetering and rolling of the Norwegian Star upon the open sea off the Canadian coast, buffeted and bullied about by Force 4 winds and 4- to 8-foot swells, both of which the Navigator’s Log channel on our stateroom television charitably referred to as “moderate.” Meanwhile, the bulkheads creaked, the sliding glass door of our shower banged like the screen door on a Mississippi porch, and the bathroom rocked as though I were standing on a board perched atop a ball, making a routine morning trip to the toilet seem more like a circus act.

Probably we’ve been spoiled by this voyage so far, because until now little about the ship’s attitude has been remarkable.

Other aspects of the trip, however, have been quite remarkable indeed.

For example, just after I posted here the other day, I strode out to the deck and saw a glacier. A no-kidding, honest-to-God, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die glacier. Someday Adriane and I will tell our children about what we saw and how it felt and what it meant, then we’ll all sit down and cry.1

We approached the Dawes Glacier by entering a narrow inlet littered with small icebergs2 — scattered here and there at first but rather like navigating a glacial minefield the farther we cruised into the inlet. The water here is a milky jade green because of the granite silt that is ground from the mountainside by the shifting of the ice and rocks then deposited into the bays below by cascades of glacial ice melt that pour down from the tops of the mountains and the glaciers themselves.

From some large bergs there protruded large chunks of rock that they had torn from the mountainside — literally from between a rock and a hard place — as they worked loose and tumbled into the frigid waters below. One of the larger bergs, past which the Star cruised very closely on our starboard side, was flattened out a bit on its white top, with a thick layer of blue ice beneath it that seemed eerily illuminated from within. It could have served as a scale model of Superman’s fortress of solitude.

The Dawes Glacier demonstrates the kind of grinding I’m talking about on an epic scale, with two parallel, S-shaped black veins running from the top of the glacier down to the bay. These lines show where the Dawes was formed by three glaciers colliding and grinding together over millions of years until they fit perfectly together like puzzle pieces between the mountains.

The town of Skagway, Alaska — “Gateway to the Gold Rush” — whose streets we walked on Wednesday, is laid out on a perfect grid at the base of just such a glacial creation, laid out so flat and precise in the valley between bay and mountains that you could play Scrabble on it.

We assumed that it was another of those little towns that hated the breathing guts of every bag-toting, cap-wearing, tchotchke-shopping tourist that infested it, but Valerie, our guide on the Skagway streetcar tour, assured us that the citizenry looks forward to our return from the end of September, when cruise season ends and winter rolls in, until May, when warm weather brings the cruise ships back into port. The town’s population swells from 800 to 2,300 during the summer months as the gift, apparel and jewelry shops reopen and the tourist trade booms anew. On a day like Wednesday, with four big cruise ships docked in the harbor, there are between 9,000 and 11,000 of us pumping our dollars into the local economy as the locals give us a wide berth.

Notwithstanding their apparent goodwill, however, Adriane and I allowed ourselves to hate certain tourists on behalf of the Skagwegians.3

Bade farewell by a trio of seals who popped their heads out of the water near our anchorage as we boarded the ship, we departed Skagway for an evening spent watching the shoreline from portside windows, first at dinner, then in a small, quiet room off the forward Spinnaker Lounge where we assembled for drinks until the curtain of night fell and we retired to our quarters.

One view looks pretty much just like the next out here, running together in a seamless, wallpaperlike continuum — the endless blanket of lush green pines, patched with granite and shale and interrupted by narrow white cascades that bisect it like pulled threads; the frequent snowy peaks and occasional glacial ice caps; the slivers of shoreline and narrow spits of land marked by lighted buoys or even small lighthouses; the dense profusions of low-lying clouds and the merest pale wisps of candy-floss fog that seem to have been applied not arbitrarily along a beach here, above a stand of trees there — but it’s virtually impossible to take your eyes off any of it.

Because one never knows whether one may return someday or whether these wonders will have vanished from the face of the earth by the time one does.

In a gift shop yesterday I saw a magnet depicting the late Kurt Vonnegut alongside his quote, “We could have saved the earth, but we were too cheap to do anything about it.”

Based on what I’ve seen here, I hope he was wrong on that one point.




1 Adriane, with camera poised, will occasionally tell me to look out to sea as if I’m contemplating my own or our collective mortality — yours and mine — and while it’s become one of our in-jokes on this voyage, it’s hard not to imagine the concept writ large for our survival when you’re staring out at an actual freaking glacier.

2 Entering the inlet is a piece of cake, relatively speaking. Because our forward progress was blocked at one end by the glacier itself, getting out involved a deft bit of maneuvering similar to performing a driveway right turnabout, except with a 1,000-foot-long ship instead of a Volkswagen Jetta. After going about as far into the channel as we could, the pilot kicked our propellers into reverse, turning us to starboard as we inched backward (impeding somewhat the exit of a much smaller craft as we did so).

At one point, we were perpendicular to the opposite shorelines, and because from our forward perch we could see only the one directly ahead of us, it was not hard to imagine the scene in which Austin Powers wedges a utility cart between the walls of a narrow corridor. The ship, however, seemed to turn as though it were on a central pivot, and soon enough we had performed a neat 180 and were headed out the way we came in.

3 I kid you not: that’s the actual collective noun by which the citizens of Skagway refer to themselves.

Written by Shepcat

August 14, 2008 at 1:28 pm

Posted in Travel

The Last Great Green, Gray, Wet Frontier

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DEPARTING JUNEAU, ALASKA — Adriane and I are on Day 4 of our Alaskan cruise aboard NCL’s Norwegian Star, and to those among you who have never been to Seattle but suspect it must be miserable because of what you’ve heard about its average annual rainfall, I have this to say about that:

Quit your bitching.

Monday we spent a lovely, rain-drenched day walking the streets of Ketchikan, Alaska, noted to be the fourth wettest spot in the world, with an average annual rainfall of about 20 feet.

That’s not a typo: 20 feet of rain.

Again: Quit your bitching.

The upside to all that rain is all the green. As opposed to the Rockies and Uintas in Adriane’s Wyoming (to say nothing of the golden billiard table that is my Kansas), here there are no treelines above which rise great rocky peaks. Wherever you look, the pines grow all the way up mountainsides to the very summits, presenting massive outcroppings of lush green reaching all the way up to the sky (when you can see the peaks through all the fog and low-lying clouds).

While the rain has so far spoiled our plans for a kayak adventure, we’ve nonetheless enjoyed walking about in it, exploring Ketchikan and Juneau, even as we pity the poor locals for having to put up with tourists like us. (Well, not us, exactly, but them — the dazed vacationing masses, the strolling, purposeless proles with whom we’re cruising aboard this massive floating brick and those populating the three or four other floating bricks that dock simultaneously alongside ours from port to port.)

Modern sea travel has much to recommend it. Adriane and I find that our interior stateroom is more than spacious enough to accommodate both movement and storage, and we’re traveling quite comfortably together without falling over our luggage and each other. Before I departed for the voyage, my mother remarked, “Well, you’re about to find out how well the two of you can live together,” but we needn’t have fretted the possibility of living elbow-to-cheek for seven days, nor of stepping on each other’s last nerve. Whether we’ve passed the first litmus test of couplehood or are merely still smitten with each other we can’t say for sure.

Even with all the teeming humanity aboard the ship, Adriane and I have managed to steal quiet, romantic moments in the unlikeliest of places, including a forward prow on the very public Deck 13, where we stood facing into the wind Saturday and Sunday evenings seemingly with the entire front of the ship to ourselves, except for the odd interloper. Perhaps because we haven’t been particularly interested in the onboard entertainment, we’ve capitalized on the occasional vacancies afforded by everyone packing into the Spinnaker Lounge for bingo and karaoke or the nightly performances in the Stardust Theatre.

To wit, one must allow that onboard entertainment is developed to suit the homogeneous tastes and watered-down sensibilities of the typical cruise masses — said demographic skewing a great deal older and squarer than Adriane and myself — upon whom it is then forced with the sort of unctuous charm offensive for which I have little patience.

Sunday afternoon we wandered accidentally into a bingo event presided over by the kind of aggressively cheerful former collegiate yell leader to whom I generally take an instant disliking.1 Except that this guy, who referred to the assembled vacationers as “Star family,” was so over-the-top that I wanted to hurt him. The first time he spoke, I wanted merely to punch him in the face, but as he continued to rally the bingo crowd in attendance, I found myself wanting to inflict grievous bodily harm upon him. Slowly. Last night, Adriane and I were walking out of the only quiet pub on the ship when we passed him in the Grand Atrium. He greeted us with as much guileless joie de vivre at 11 p.m. as he had possessed during the 4 p.m. bingo session, and I had to quicken our step lest I should take advantage of such close-range target acquisition.

Sunday night at dinner, we were serenaded by a woman singing in the piano bar beneath our Asian restaurant. She started off promisingly enough, although she was too obviously attempting to render the standards exactly as previously recorded by Diana Krall, and switched occasionally to acoustic guitar. Later, though, she launched into the most depressing prolonged medley of songs I’ve ever heard performed at one time — “Send in the Clowns,” “Dust in the Wind,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” “Angel”2 and on and on until I was certain that the onboard suicide rate would spike sometime in the next 24 hours.

The rest of the musical entertainment is provided by capable but mirthless Filipino combos whose “Moon River” count, as of this writing, is three.

The coffee aboard the Norwegian Star, I cannot stress enough, is ass.

I am happy to note, however, that if Ketchikan and Juneau are any indication, Alaska is littered with fantastic local chain and independent coffeehouses and kiosks. I’ve resolved to have juice with my breakfast and hold out for coffee until we disembark for our daily adventures in town.

How a big cruise line like Norwegian has not caught on by now that, next to water, coffee is the most critical element on the planet — and not just for me, I like to believe, but the very lifeblood of its entire clientele — is beyond me.

Notwithstanding the coffee, the onboard dining experience has its high and low points, which distinction one must spend the first few days of the cruise figuring out for oneself. We think we’ve got a grip on it by now — breakfast in the Market Café being consistently the best of all possible meals here and the perfect start to our days of walking — but there are still moments when we wander unprepared into a maelstrom of unsupervised foot traffic amid an attempt at organized food service that simply cannot be choreographed under such conditions. The effect is rather like watching a Western Union courier attempt to deliver a telegram in the middle of Grand Central Station without using the loudspeaker, and one pities the service staff for having to work a restaurant whose primary walkway also happens to be one of the main public thoroughfares of the ship. For this, I’m sure they’d like to string up the ship’s architects from the nearest yardarm.

For every underwhelming dining experience, however, there is one like we had last night in the ship’s steakhouse. Between the six of us at dinner, I believe we ordered the most representative cross-section of the menu possible, with the exception of one duplicated dessert, and had not a single complaint among us. A virtually flawless meal that bought enough goodwill on behalf of the ship’s other restaurants to excuse the next couple of meals gone somehow awry.

And something always seems to go or to be a little south of ideal, whether it’s the suspiciously cheerful Filipino servers (so many on this ship alone that the streets of Manila must be as empty and silent as a graveyard right now) or the grinning ship’s photographer who shows up at your table at the precise moment after you’ve shoved a forkful of salad in your maw (or worse, the server who spies your camera on the table and volunteers to shoot an entire portrait set of your evening meal) or the missed connection on some or other course you ordered (we’ve had about three items show up in place of something else or go unserved altogether). We try to roll with the punches because, after all, we’re on vacation, but we’re also paying through the nose for the privilege, so occasionally one would like to see one’s appetizer arrive before the entrée.

I’ll say this: it’s a clean ship. Perhaps a little too clean — somewhere between Disneyland clean, with wait and bus staff swooping in to whisk away plates as soon as you’re finished in the Market Café, and Berlin 1936 clean, with crew members standing by with spray bottles of hand sanitizer every time you enter one of the public dining halls or return to the ship from a day in town. (This in addition to the ubiquitous legions of hand-sanitizer dispensers standing at attention throughout the ship, the frequent use of which is adamantly encouraged by our hosts and hostesses.) I can appreciate the spirit behind the cruise line’s commitment to a germ-free environment, but from where I’m sitting I can almost see the tipping point at which Norwegian is unwittingly developing its own strain of sanitizer-resistant maritime bacteria.

In the meantime, at least, I feel somewhat safe from an unforeseen outbreak of something that may or may not be brewing, bubbling and breeding in one of the ship’s pools or hot tubs even as I type this.

More to follow, perhaps, as our adventure continues…




1 Think Peter MacNicol and Christine Baranski as the camp counselors in Addams Family Values. Now add mescaline. Shake.

2 I’m dead serious. I only wish I could be making up that set list.

Written by Shepcat

August 12, 2008 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Travel

Chance Encounters in the Blogo- and Assorted Other Spheres

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I left a little late for the airport. Then I took the wrong exit and ended up completely circling LAX on unfamiliar surface roads, nearly getting lost in a city I lived in for eight-plus years. I arrived breathlessly at the Avis lot and was charged some exorbitant fee for not having had time to gas up the Le Sabre before returning it. Avis shuttled me to the terminal as the clock continued to tick. I endured the hassle and indignity of removing my shoes at Checkpoint Charlie, balancing like a flamingo as I stood in the queue, then having to lace them up again 30 seconds later. I went too far into the terminal and had to backtrack to my gate. Upon my arrival there, I discovered that Flight 756 was experiencing a slight delay.


Collapsing in a chair and seeking consolation from Donald Fagen on my iPod, I heard a hello and looked up from my book to see the friendly smile of the lovely and charming Marymuses, fresh from her own West Coast vacation and returning to K.C. on the same flight. In addition to her estimable blogging and photography talents, I discovered Mary to be a sudoku savant, watching her complete seven puzzles during the course of our flight, little bits of yellow eraser flying every which way. She downplayed the difficulty level of the puzzles, but from where I sat it was like watching Rain Man count cards in Vegas.

At the end of my harrowing airport run, Mary’s company was such an unexpected delight that I’m considering publishing my itineraries here from now on in case any of the rest of you want to surprise me at the gate sometime.

Written by Shepcat

March 20, 2006 at 1:33 pm

Be Alert. Look Official.

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On the eve of Jeff and Dorothy’s wedding, I was summoned into service as a guest book attendant, and I was happy and honored to participate in the joyous occasion. Along with Dorothy’s close friend Annie, I directed guests to sign in and to obtain their table assignments as they entered the hall. As a mark of my role in the wedding party, I was given a boutonniere, which Annie pinned expertly to my lapel.

Later in the evening, I had excused myself to the men’s room and was returning to the reception when another guest approached me and attempted to hand me a numbered plastic tag. It seems that my dress, my demeanor, and my boutonniere signaled to this woman that I was a member of the club staff, if not in fact the coat check attendant she was seeking at that moment.

Sometimes it’s a curse to be this ruthlessly efficient.

Written by Shepcat

March 19, 2006 at 10:36 am

Posted in Life, Los Angeles, Travel

Vodka for Breakfast

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And Guinness before noon.

The things one can get away with at tournament time. (Better late than never.)

Written by Shepcat

March 18, 2006 at 1:52 pm

Posted in Life, Los Angeles, Sports, Travel

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