Posted: August 13, 2014
A decade is a long time and if you are young and hardworking and have any smarts at all you can really make things happen and get ahead. For me, that did not happen until the 1990’s.
For the 1980’s I worked the cruise ships – always in the kitchen. For the most part, they were the big cruise lines. The joy of working for the big operators is that it’s a bit like being in the military. They tell you what to do, they feed you, house you and give you a bit of money. Even on my time off, I didn’t really have a home base. I would share with other shipmates a furnished apartment where I had nothing but my backpack I had brought from the ship. One of my Kiwi shipmates had been working the cruise ships for about eight years and had a tattoo on her bum that summarized the whole program:
WORK, PARTY, SLEEP, REPEAT
I really did not understand what my life had become. Only if I had a toothache would I get my teeth looked at. If I had an illness I would see the ship doctor. Otherwise, my life could be summarized in that young woman’s tattoo and I literally and figuratively cruised along with a bad diet, way too much booze, and what I realize now, no real focus. I would visit my parents a couple times a year, well sometimes only once a year, and my grandmother in Brittany at least twice a year but sometimes more often.
The vibe on the cruise ship was also a bit over the top. Most of us had some level of addiction – drugs, alcohol, gaming, sex, food, risk-taking. If you have read Anthony Bourdain’s expose on the restaurant kitchen culture in Kitchen Confidential, you will have some sense of the manic, drugged up world of the kitchen staff in a lot of restaurants in those days. But the people in Bourdain’s book all got to go home at night, not still hang out with the same people they had been with all day. The bully you were living in fear of would be there at night and at that point with a few drinks in him. Women who were being sexually harassed during the day would be expected to be around these same weasels at night.
The only positive part to that was the rough justice that was liberally dished out for the worst of the jerks who would be bugging the girls. The walk-in freezers had a lock on them and while it would take a few lads to do it, throwing in the worst offender for a bit of time would usually reform not only him but others who were perfecting their bad behaviour as well. And of course, the stories were then repeated of various people who had lost toes and fingers to frostbite when left in the freezer a little too long. YIKES.
The addiction part was not solved as easily. Today most of the cruise lines recognize addiction and mental health issues and have programs and support. Today as well with so many well educated, talented young people looking for work the percentage of new hires who are pretty “damaged” already is lower I think. But in the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s – it was a crazy environment, and the line between addiction and not was whether you could get your shift finished.
Many cracked. After a news story was published about our cruise line in a major, respected magazine with an image of a number of staff members washing a deck while others were handing guests towels came out with the caption Happy Workers Going About Their Day, about a dozen of my co-workers had T-shirts made with Happy Addicts Going About Their Day on them. Two were fired, and the rest of the T-shirts were confiscated.
In 1988 I was sufficiently concerned about one friend that on a break between cruises I took a free course in Miami on “Helping an Addicted Loved one”. The whole idea was how to cope with a partner, child, parent, sibling or co-worker who has an addiction. It was an eye-opener. In the world I was in, drinking a bottle of wine, or ten or twelve beers a day was not considered over-indulging so you can imagine how out of control some of the drinkers were. And rarely was it booze or dope alone. The magic formula for most of my friends was some combination of the two. I went to the course to learn to help a friend but realized how deep I was in myself and for a couple of years whenever I would be in Miami on a Monday night would go to a group session run by volunteers for people who had taken the course and were still grappling with someone important to them who continued to live with addiction.
The friend whose problems had triggered me going to the course was eventually fired but was hired by a competing cruise line immediately. I had hoped that he might have gotten some help but he was right back into the same situation and was not coping well. That cruise line, like most of them at the time, was trying to manage this environment that was not healthy, to say the least, and would eventually need to be cleaned up or it would take them down. Earlier I referenced the employees at the cruise line I was at being fired for having T-Shirts that said Happy Addicts Going about their Day. That story of course was repeated like wildfire in the industry and the cruise line my friend went to, in trying to get ahead of the same problems on their ships tried to make light of it and every member of staff was issued a T-Shirt that said “Work Hard, Play Hard, Don’t Fall Off The Ship”. It had a mixed response. Most staff members saw it as a lame attempt to manage a virus with a band-aid. About a month later it was viewed as a failure when a thirty-year-old member of the laundry staff jumped to his death off the ship wearing that T-shirt. I was upset for his family but relieved to learn it was not my friend.
It may sound like I was becoming a normal person and managing my own intake and partying. Unfortunately, my experience from that course, the Monday night group sessions and losing a few friends over the years had only had the effect of slowing me down enough to be alive today. I was still barely straight enough to go to work each day.
I didn’t hear from or speak to Jim and Janice all through the 1980’s. What they were doing was much more “traditional”. During that time that was a derogatory term for me. “Comfortable” fit into that category as well. Janice built her fashion business, Jim rose through the ranks working for others, and they start to buy and renovate houses on the side. They had their first child, Jade, in 1985 and their second, Jason, in 1988. Then with everything going well, Jim left his job to set up his own company with two other guys. It took a while to really get going but during this time they built a cottage, did a few more house moves and renovations and by the end of the decade they are really doing well, and the business is on a good footing and Janice had wound down her business and is home taking care of the kids.
And at new years 1989 what was I doing? Well, I don’t remember but based on how the decade had gone it’s a reasonable guess that it would have been like a decade before – with a group of fine young creatures partying like the night before.