48 hours into a nine-day cruise on the Baltic Sea, I successfully traded a first season DVD of the TV show SMILF for a bottle of French wine.
About two weeks ago, my friend Dan asked me to help punch up some scripts for a new live music/theatrical show he was producing on the Lightdream Cruise Line – a ship that is the size of some small cities – with 4000 passengers aboard and over 1200 staff members… Always one for an adventure, I took the gig, fondly recalling the last time I was on a cruise back in high school… I bathed in crystal blue waters, ate unlimited five star food, seduced beautiful women and sipped tropical cocktails by the pool… I was hoping this would be the same thing.
Ehhh, not so much.
Following a 17-hour travel day, Dan, the show’s producer Mark and I boarded the ship in Brest, France. Following our long trip, I was craving a glass of red wine and some Netflix. We met our cruise liasion, Sarah, and she gave us the lay of the land…
“So where’s like, the best bar on the ship?” I asked.
“Oh honey, there’s no alcohol until we reach Copenhagen in four days,” she said.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Yep. And all the restaurants are closed. Oh, and be aware that there’s no internet or facilities open now… This is called ‘Dry Dock.’”
“And where can I jump overboard?”
As I contemplated learning how to make “toilet merlot” in my cabin, I got the rundown on what exactly “Dry-Dock” is.
“Dry-Dock” is when the ship is being refurbished, rebuilt and cleaned. For weeks, it is in a state of disrepair and thousands of contractors from over 50 countries tear up carpets, put up stages and gather for their three meals a day in the makeshift dining room. People are monitored, allowed 45 minute meal windows, told to avoid sexual contact, can be kicked off board if they have weapons or contraband and nobody is allowed off the ship once they are on…
Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s because it sounds exactly like prison.
If I was going to write a Yelp review about the makeshift dining room where we were forced to eat, I would describe it as “Just a cut below Cracker Barrel…with all the ambience of a shopping mall Red Robin.”
Still, it was our only option and Dan, Mark and I became our own little prison gang, talking under our breaths about Broadway shows and musical theater as massive Scottish, Irish and Croatian guys cursed in their own languages, swallowed gallons of coffee and made us feel like we had to kick one of their asses to establish our dominance in the jail yard…
“I guarantee you we’re the only guys in this dining room right now discussing The Greatest Showman,” Mark said.
The food was constantly recycled and turned into a “new dish” the following day. For instance, the leftover “Breaded Chicken and Peppers” from the night before suddenly showed up again the next morning in the “Breaded Chicken Veggie Scramble.” At one point, I counted four meals in a row featuring a fish called branzino.
One day in the slop line, I chatted up one particularly nice Irish pipe-fitter named Lochlin as we were served what was being passed off as “Lamb Stew.”
“Hey man – where’s the booze on this ship?” I whispered. “Somebody’s gotta have something?”
“Booze? You gotta cohme to Deck One,” he replied in a thick brogue. “We smahggled in everything… booze, dihrty mags, DVD’s.”
And just like that, my trip was saved.
“Wait – why do you have DVDs?” I inquired.
“Shite – with no intehrnet – DVD’s are our only fohrm of entertainment. They’re in high demahnd… Unless you have a thumb drive with pornahgraphy on it – that’s what everybady wants.”
He wasn’t lying. As it turns out, thumb drives with porn on them were traded among the contractors like cigarettes at Riker’s Island. If I could only download my weekly browsing history on Redtube.com, I’d be a very rich man.
“So how much are DVD’s worth?” I asked.
“Depends,” he said. “I just traded seahson one of Stranger Things for four pahcks of smokes… it was fookin’ brahlliant.”
It was then that I remembered I had a few DVD’s with me in my backpack. With any luck, I’d have something valuable on me… I also had a thumb drive that, if I recalled correctly, had Toy Story 3 on it from a family trip a few years back. I ran to my cabin to assess my stash.
In my bag, I had brought DVD’s of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Why I had this I have no idea.) Major League and Major League 2 (Research for a baseball comedy I was writing) and the first season DVD screener of the Showtime TV show SMILF – about a single mom who dates the wrong guys in Boston. It didn’t look very good, but the actress was hot. (I was sent the screener by the Emmy nominating committee, fyi).
I then checked my thumb drive, for Toy Story 3. It was gone. The only thing on it was my latest acting “demo reel.”
That night, Dan and I went downstairs to Deck One to see if we could get our hands on anything… a sip of wine, a beer… something to take away the endless jet lag and long nights of rehearsal.
Lochlin vouched for us – and the DVD’s were thrown on a table. About nine guys came and glanced at them, seeing if any of these films seemed appealing. Sadly, nobody was interested in Benjamin Button or the Major League movies.
“The Benjamin Button movie is too sad and we all fookin hate bahseball,” Lochlin informed me.
SMILF however, had some people intrigued. They wanted to know if the girl got naked, had any sex scenes, if it was funny, etc. I told them I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t watched it yet, but a small bidding war began.
One guy offered up a German porn magazine and two Heinekens. A Croatian guy said he had two packs of cigarettes and homemade Rakia – some type of homemade alcohol. Finally, Lochlin offered me a bottle of Bordeaux he had paid a Phillipino busboy 5 euros to smuggle on.
Lochlin took me to the bowels of the ship. These were the DiCaprio cabins from Titanic and the party going on down there was exactly what you think it would be. A guy was DJ-ing off a laptop, people were dancing and drinking… and there was even a guy giving makeshift haircuts using what I would refer to as my “pube clippers.”
In Lochlin’s room, he showed me how he and four other guys slept in the same room and shared a “Shoilet” – which is a combination of a shower and a toilet. I looked in the bathroom and nearly had a panic attack. These guys were living like pirates in the 1700’s but without barrels of rum, wenches and chests of gold.
He also told me the ship’s morgue was only two doors down the hall.
“The morgue?” I cringed. “For what?”
“About ten fuckers a year die on this ship,” he said. “Someone will prahbably die before we set sail tomorrow.”
I urgently prodded Lochlin to produce the wine and I swiftly stuck it in my bag. I also noticed a couple of other bottles in his room as well. With two more days until Copenhagen, I offered up my thumb drive for another one.
“OK, look my friend – I’m actually an actor – on this drive is a three minute demo reel of a bunch of TV shows and movies I’ve been in… it aint much, but maybe worth at least a glass of wine?”
“Hmmm, “he said, actually contemplating the trade. “What mowvies have you been in?”
“Uhmm… A couple Disney shows, a Jim Gaffigan movie … I dunno – nothing you’ve probably ever seen…”
“Fuck that, Ill just take SMILF.”
I handed it over to him, and with that, I had my hands on a mediocre bottle of French Bordeaux.
Dan, Mark and I savored every pour of that wine that evening. As we giddily went off to bed, hoping to finally have a decent night’s sleep, we passed three contractors casually walking from the top deck somehow holding six beers in their hands.
“Woah, what the fuck?” Dan said. “Where’d you guys get that?”
“At the contractor bar upstairs,” the guy said.
What? A contractor bar? We ran up and caught the last five minutes of a ship regulated “pop-up bar” for the workers. It had been here the whole time and nobody had told us. As it turns out, all of the ship contractors were allowed to come to this bar for a two hour drink window… It was like when the caddies are allowed an hour in the swimming pool in Caddyshack.
Beers were $1.00 and a mini bottle of wine was $1.75. Mark bought the entire bar a round for $14.50.
The following night we were back up with the contractors, who were amazed that a couple of Americans had actually gone down to Deck One and made a wine deal with a Irish guy. One guy from Warsaw informed me that I had been ripped off. He would have given me three bottles of wine for SMILF.
We finally sailed towards Copenhagen and I was reminded of how beautiful the world can be outside of Los Angeles. The contractors left and the passengers got onboard and the drinks flowed and a lot of overweight older couples explored the ship and bought things that nobody in their right mind should ever buy.
At an onboard art auction, I watched two 75-year-old women violently bid on a 72 x 36 painting of a unicorn walking through Times Square… The lucky winner paid $2875 dollars for it.
Meanwhile, the cruise sailed on. We helped establish the flow and structure of the show. After a few days, you start to learn a lot from cruise employees. Most of them are on board for nine months at a time, and many of them are running from some dark, hidden past. It’s almost like the porn industry mixed with hotel management… Which often leads to bad decisions.
Sarah explained it further.
“Everybody sleeps together at first,” she said. “But then you realize you’re gonna have to see them every day for nine months. One night you have sex, the next day you’re fighting over the last box of Frosted Flakes in the buffet.”
“So I’m guessing you’ve stopped sailing your boat in company waters?” I joked.
“No way,” she said. “I banged a sushi chef last year.”
Another thing about cruise employees is that they are obviously extremely removed from current pop culture. At one point, Sarah told me that her favorite film of the past five years was “That amazing Ben Affleck move The Accountant.”
“You have to get off this ship,” I said.
The final night of the cruise and our show was up and running. I had befriended a bunch of new people and watched the show come together. One of the stage directors actually told me that I’d make a great cruise employee as I enjoyed talking to everybody and having a good time.
“I’m flattered, man – but I gotta get back to my family,” I said.
“Oh, you’re one of them…” he said with a sense of disappointment.
I had just been “Family Shamed” by a cruise ship employee.
He apologized for the way he reacted and just said he didn’t know a lot of people who were married with children. I told him not to worry about it and we wrapped up the show for the night.
He then excused himself and went to the shoilet…
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I can vividly picture the scene taking place on a Newark, New Jersey street corner in 1922… Prohibition is hanging heavily over every boarded up bar and single family household on the block. The streets are full of the penniless, making bedding out of old jackets on the grey and crunchy dirty sidewalk snow. Children are wrapping up nightly stick ball games to return home for dinner as the streets darken with denizens of the nightlife and small time hoods…
And then suddenly, out of the darkness, trotting up in a horse-drawn buggy, appears Rabbi Levi Zalman, who is suddenly swarmed by scores of men from these homes looking to procure the finest bottle of bootleg wine they can get their hands on. Money is exchanged, prayers are said and the men race home to their families. With every sale, Rabbi Zalman mutters, “Baruch Hashem.” (Blessed be the name of the lord). When it’s all over, Rabbi Zalman rides away a very rich man…
Of course, Rabbi Levi Zalman is not a Rabbi at all. In fact, he is Jack Joseph Brauer, an out-of-work shoe peddler from East Jersey City who has just unloaded his Government-relegated weekly supply of booze for a shade over $5,000.
He is also my great-great grandfather. This was his “congregation.”
Ratified in 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution – which is America’s only Amendment to later be repealed – federally prohibited the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol. Of course, this was one of our biggest failures in our short history, and led to the golden age of organized crime, corruption and sheer madness across the country.
Doing some research (And I am not the first to report this – just giving you some background) Jewish households were allowed a certain amount of wine per household per year. To top that off, if you were a Rabbi, and you lead any type of “congregation” (12 members or more) you were allowed to get as much wine as you wanted for religious purposes at any time you desired… So guess what happened? A lot of “new Rabbis” suddenly started showed up.
“There were fake Rabbis everywhere,” my grandmother told me years ago before she died. “If you knew 12 people, that was a congregation… why do you think so many people started converting to Judaism during the 20’s? FOR BOOZE.”
So, when Jack Brauer’s shoe business got hit with hard times in the early 1920’s, he bought some religious robes, sported a fake beard and marched up to the proper Governmental distribution center and bought as much alcohol as he needed… He flipped it in two days and kicked off a successful six-year-run as the biggest “Rabbi Bootlegger” in Newark, New Jersey.
A few years later, when the American Jewish Committee began cracking down on the large number of fake Rabbi’s, my great-great grandfather Jack was NOT on the suspected fraud list. In fact, he continued to support his family until 1931, just before the Amendment was repealed. How? He had the third largest congregation in New Jersey at the time. (Even though it was 95 percent FAKE.)
Now, according to the three part documentary Prohibition by Ken Burns, other religions had these loopholes as well. In fact, Priests were ALSO able to purchase liquor for religious ceremonies. Of course, the government could actually reference records to determine if someone claiming to be a Priest actually was a Priest. But Rabbis? There was NO WAY OF TELLING WHO WAS A RABBI.
According to writer Daniel Okrent, “Rabbis were suddenly showing up everywhere. Irish Rabbis, Black Rabbis…” Nobody ever doubted their religious claims.
As is turns out, my grandmother was correct. In the 1920’s, Jewish congregations increased in membership by like, 75 percent. In short? BOOTLEG LIQUOR BUILT MODERN DAY JUDAISM. In fact, I don’t think you can reference a time in history when more NEW Jews suddenly showed up out of the woodwork to embrace Judaism in our nation’s history. No wonder we say prayers over the wine…
A few years ago, my grandmother Florence passed away. Readers of my stories should be familiar with our adventures together in her later years, which included a trip to the Ace Hotel, smoking medical marijuana and leafing through her old photo albums so she could announce who was presently, “Dead.” When she passed, it was a sad moment, and a week later, our family went through her home to get rid of old useless items…(My grandfather’s 5000 VHS tapes of classic movies) and save valuable ones… (My grandma had always claimed that she had hidden “thousands of dollars in cash” all over the house and that it was our job to find it when she died.)
Of course, knowing this, we tore open her home like Jesse Pinkman looking for hidden cash in that drug dealer’s condo in the film El Camino…
My mom and I found some money, but the “thousands of dollars” my grandma promised turned out to be something more like 220 bucks. We also uncovered a lot of jewelry and a stamp collection valued at about $39. So, if you’re the new couple that bought the place? If you ever find some ungodly wad of $100 dollar bills in a crawl space, hit me up…
Aside for a few of my grandma’s stray Vicodin, which I squirreled away in a jacket pocket, the only other item in the home that really intrigued me was my grandmother’s birth certificate. On it was listed her parent’s names and occupations – (Ruth Brauer-Kaplan – housewife. Jacob Kaplan- Dentist) – as well as her GRANDPARENT’s names and occupations… What intrigued me was the job description as reported to the state of New Jersey by JACK JOSEPH BRAUER –
His job: RABBI.
“Wow so Grandma’s story was true?” I asked my Uncle Steve who was helping my mom go through Florence’s old belongings.
“Yes indeed,” he answered.
“So was he really a Rabbi?” I asked.
“Do you know what a ‘Rabbi’ was back then?”
“I’m guessing a bootlegger?”
“It’s great getting to know your family, isn’t it?”
I went into the kitchen and poured myself a large glass of wine. I toasted my grandma on her final journey and raised my glass up to Jack Joseph Brauer – my great-great grandfather who kept so many families buzzed during the dark years of Prohibition…
Zachariah’s new song explores the corporate logo marketing travesty that all of us 90’s kids endure every time we see a Nirvana or Ramones shirt for sale in Target or Wal-Mart. Back in 1992 I had to go to the concert to buy a $30 shirt. Now the logo is on onesies.