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I Was a Cruise Ship Bartender

on 03/04/14 at 4:15 pm

Booze News


Photo: Andrew Hetherington

Photo: Andrew Hetherington

On staff—temporarily—aboard the Celebrity Reflection, Bruno Maddox discovers the secrets and hard-won wisdom of the modern barman at sea.

The wind is a factor when you’re tending bar on top of a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Blowing from the east you have the region’s famous “trade winds,” honored in the name of a thousand tin-roofed beachfront rum shacks, in the curve of every palm tree from Vieques to the tip of St. Kitts. When the new, huge, white Celebrity Reflection is under way, moreover, as it usually is at night, getting its 12 feet per gallon through the glamorous black water, you may also have as many as 24 knots of Newtonian headwind blowing back at you from the bow and getting shredded by the ship’s exterior into subsidiary winds, each of which—if you’re working the atmospheric Sunset Bar, all the way aft on Deck 15—will then swoop in to yank at your standard-issue Pool Shirt, or try to make off with your napkins.

We’ve got napkins like rice, of course, back in the pantry, so it’s not like you’d get banana if one went mamagaio…sorry—cruise crew lingo. I’m saying we have napkins in abundance so you probably won’t get in trouble if one goes missing. But later on, in the perfect darkness of your windowless cabin below decks, listening to the guiltless rise and fall of your sleeping roommate’s breath, you would feel that you’d gotten banana anyway. Ever so slightly like modern surgery, modern cruise-ship bartending is founded on an absolute commitment to cleanliness and precision. The ship’s cocktail napkins, to us, coexist with the ship’s passengers and crew and all its contents in the mental category of Things Not to Be Lost Overboard, and if we see anything at all make a dash for the glass-paneled safety balustrade, even the paper sheath of a drinking straw, we’re going to drop what we’re doing and pelt after it, slurping silently over the decks in our Keuka SureGrip® rubber deck shoes.

Isaac never did much pelting, it bears pointing out. For 10 seasons and two feature-length specials on ABC’s Love Boat, Ted Lange played barman Isaac Washington as an effervescent young man o’erbrimming with restless, upbeat energy, very little of which he brought to bear on the performance of his actual duties. Whether in the Acapulco Lounge by day or up in his beloved Starlight Bar by the light of the stars, wine oozed from Isaac’s bottles at the speed of cold honey. On the rare occasion he shook a cocktail, it sounded like Fauré’s Requiem played on the maracas.

Do we begrudge Isaac that easier life—we who are his descendants, we whom he did create? We do not. Nor do we curse Isaac’s name for how windy it is up here—though it is technically all his fault, cruising having ballooned over The Love Boat’s run from a niche pursuit of the upper middle classes to a multibillion-dollar national obsession, whose towering megaships now stand so high above the ocean that their upper decks are littered with asteroids and space hardware every morning and raked by a perpetual, napkin-hungry gale.

No, if we fault Isaac for anything, it’s simply for not being here anymore. During our fleeting and infrequent moments of downtime—standing with a thumb on the button of the Island-Oasis shaver-blender, say, watching it extrude the gooey coils of your Baileys Banana Vanilla Thrilla—it’s impossible not to wonder what the man who still personifies this job would make of what it’s become: whether Isaac would even recognize what we do today, or whether all the changes there have been would overwhelm him, snatching up the napkins of his mind and bearing them irretrievably overboard.