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You can win $100! – Test your sports knowledge and LAUGH!
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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My grandmother is 92. She has spent the last 37 years in Tucson, Arizona, trying to remember why she agreed to move there in the first place. In reality, she knows it was to spend more time around her grandchildren, exhaust her retirement in a peaceful community with plenty of golf courses for her late husband to play and to relish the clean, crisp desert air that draws so many retirees from colder, more polluted climates. However, now at 92, she just wishes she had never left New Jersey.
Whatever the case, New Jersey was a long time ago. And now, for the first time in her life, she is reaching an age when she is losing her motor skills and abilities to function on a daily level, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Still, she manages to make us laugh daily. To my family’s amusement, she has kept herself satiated these past three or four years with a voracious diet of nitrate-rich foods, like Oscar Meyer hot dogs, Kraft singles and garlic bologna. Whenever my brother or sister confront her about her less-than-healthy food consumption, she always responds with the same comment:
“What – do I wanna live to be 120? It’s ENOUGH already!”
I always suggest to my grandmother that as long as she is at it, she should take up smoking or heavy drinking, to which she responds, “Ehh, I’d forget where I left my cigarette and burn the house down.”
Born in 1922, Florence Lazar (Who would not let me reveal her middle name – which she hates), has always been the sharpest woman I have ever known. Quick, hilarious and witty, she turned her unique view of the world into a way of life that my entire family has admired for as long as we can remember. As recently as 2011, she was starring in a web series my brother and I put together called “NJ LADY” based on her hilarious commentary on the world that has changed so much around her. She riffed on Justin Bieber’s voice, thumbed through an old photo album telling us who was “dead” and who had affairs with girls in their offices and she even tried medical marijuana. Had her life served her differently, she would have been a Betty White-type of performer. (See marijuana ep below!)
It is only now, at 92, that she has started closing the curtain on an otherwise adventurous and charming life, somehow forgetting things that took place mere moments earlier or even where she might be at any given time. It is why she has gladly volunteered to splurge on weekly beach house rentals for her family every summer for the past five years, as long as one thing is made clear: Someone has to fly out to Tucson and drive her and her overweight lap dog “Lucky” to California for the celebration. After all, flying has become too much of a burden, and the dog, more importantly, must have a comfortable seat if it is to ever travel across state lines.
My mother often books these annual trips for our family at my grandma’s request. Usually, after seeing the price of the beach house rental, my mother will ask my grandma if she is sure about dropping such a large amount of money. My grandmother’s response?
“Who cares, I’m only spending your inheritance!”
Earlier this year, my mother phoned me about coming out to Tucson to drive my grandmother out for our weekly family summertime beach vacation in Malibu. Always willing to travel through the desert, I volunteered my services and in July, flew out to meet my grandmother and mom for the nearly eight-hour jaunt through the cacti and blue skies that separate my home state with my adopted one. There was only one issue: My grandma didn’t want to drive all the way through to California. After all, ‘Lucky’ needed a break to run around, do his business and get a good night’s sleep. Plus, some room service (My grandma’s favorite thing in the world) was definitely going to be necessary following a long drive. Going all the way to L.A. was out… That meant my mother, grandma and I needed a place to stay. I started searching online. At first, I recommended a $93 dollar-a-night Motel 8 I found in Blythe, California, situated directly on the border of Arizona and California.
However, my grandmother had other plans.
“I want to stay in Palm Springs.”
My first thought was to find a kitschy, Sinatra-like desert oasis in Palm Springs for all of us to crash in before making it out to the Pacific Ocean the following day. I even looked into the fanciest hotels online, but couldn’t get behind $350 dollar Friday night rates for queen-sized bedrooms that didn’t even allow pets. In fact, a lot of places were not pet-friendly or were booked for some weekend party happening in town, so my mother and I eventually decided to get a room at a small, renovated former Howard Johnson at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. I had read about it before, and had heard that it was, ‘cute.’ Still, the price was somewhat affordable and the rooms looked cozy. So, my mom, 92-year-old grandmother and myself decided to book a room on a Friday night at the trendy hipster flophouse known as the ACE HOTEL.
I had no idea what to expect. At $230 a night, I was hoping for a classy, somewhat peaceful confine full of working professionals and possibly a “Rat Pack” tribute concert in the Sammy Davis, jr. Hall at 9:00 p.m. Instead, it was the exact opposite.
My grandmother’s first shriek of terror occurred when I couldn’t find a handicapped parking spot near the check in. She does have a handicap parking pass, mainly as a way to alleviate the 15-minute shuffle she makes to a doorway, but this afternoon, there were no spots available. A Red SUV happened to be parked in the lone handicapped spot that afternoon and carried a vanity license plate reading “I SPIN.” I suddenly found myself praying that it didn’t belong to some DJ setting up his pre-programmed music for a set in the bar that evening. When I saw a 20-something blonde guy with short sides and a backward black Mitchell and Ness OKC Thunder hat, I knew he was, in fact, the entertainment for the evening.
As I helped my grandmother across the parking lot, I took it to myself to yell out at the wannabe Tiesto for his mercenary act of swiping the only handicapped spot in the hotel.
“Thanks for parking in the handicap spot, guy,” I yelled.
Perhaps my grandmother’s presence was what made him shudder for a second, but in my mind he was not apologetic, just shocked to see a senior citizen check into the hotel. He had a look on his face that we were breaking the unwritten Friday night rules of the Ace Hotel stating that nobody over 40 was allowed inside.
“Oh, my bad man… didn’t know you were, ya know, with an old lady,” he said.
“Yeah, thanks brother,” I snarled.
Even though I hated him for the comment, he was right. Most of the packs of hotel guests walking around the grounds looked to be about 25-30 and in great shape. Many had committed to body-covering tattoos and strange piercings and even though it was only 3:00 in the afternoon, numerous amounts of open containers. In fact, everyone was shirtless and partying. If you analyzed the crew I was rolling with, I had my 68-year-old aging hippie of a mother, my 92-year-old grandma and me, who at 39 was still the third oldest person at the hotel that evening. It would only get worse.
During check in, the young girl working the front desk presented us with three pink VIP Poolside wristbands that would guarantee we could skip the line and get into the raging party that went on until 2:00 in the morning that night. I put my wristband on, as did my mom. I gave the other one to my grandma, hoping for a funny, ironic photograph, but she just tucked it in her purse.
“What is this, a hospital bracelet?” She said. “Did somebody have a heart attack?”
After receiving a terribly sophomoric explanation of the hotel layout, I gathered the luggage from the car and dragged it around the bend and up the flight of stairs to the second floor room we had been assigned. My grandmother was horror-struck that there was no elevator.
“Where are we, a military base?” My grandma asked as we settled into our room full of funky artwork and an old vinyl record player. I recalled the episode of Portlandia when they check into the fictional “Deuce Hotel” and the obnoxiously hip staff hand the guests turntables and vintage typewriters. Still, somewhat intrigued by a night away from my own family, I was looking forward to throwing on a swimsuit and hitting the pool for a few beers before eating.
And then my grandma decided that we should have dinner at 5:00. At first, this idea seemed fine since we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. The reality check came five minutes later, when I realized that we were the only three people in the restaurant.
And then the 23-year-old waitress opened with, “Are you guys here for lunch or dinner?”
“What do you think we’re here for?” my grandma responded.
“Well, about 10 people just left breakfast, so I have no idea,” she said.
“Who eats breakfast at 9:00 at night?” My grandma said.
“Grandma, it’s 5:03,” I said.
“Do they have hot dogs?” My grandma asked.
They didn’t. Instead, we all ordered red wine and chicken with potatoes. To the Ace Hotel’s credit, the restaurant, which resembled an old rotted out Denny’s that Sonny Bono probably nursed a hangover or two in, was delicious.
“Welp, it’s 6, I’m ready for bed,” my grandma said.
“Mom, it’s 6!” My mother said. “You don’t go to bed this early at home!”
“Lucky needs to make,” my grandma explained. “Zach, walk Lucky for me, make sure he makes.”
I escorted my grandmother upstairs, and took Lucky for a walk. I decided to check out the hotel, which was actually a pretty incredible and alluring place. I strolled past a swimming pool full of drunken weekend partyers waist deep in 80-degree water and margaritas. I passed a random acoustic guitar in the lobby where a guy who looked like a band member from MGMT strummed an acoustic cover of the band Fun’s “We Are Young” for an adoring crowd of beauties straight out of the Ace Hotel brochure. I overheard a bachelor party dressed like characters from Fletch discuss how hot the UCSB girls were they met at the pool. It made me feel young and old at the same time. Young, because I still felt like I could hang with these people as if it were 1996 and I was at some party hotel in Europe, but mainly old because I guaranteed that I was the only man at the hotel that night who was traveling with a woman in her 90’s and who had a Propecia prescription.
“The dog has made,” I announced as I re-entered the hotel room where my grandma was already snuggled up in the covers, ready for bed. She thanked me and turned over, summoning Lucky up to her arms for their nightly bedtime routine.
“C’mon Luck,” she said. On cue, Lucky jumped on the bed and licked her face. My mom and I smiled before watching as my grandma slowly drifted off into sleep. We looked at the clock. It was 7:02.
“Let’s go sell her VIP wristband,” I said to my mom.
“Let’s at least go explore the hotel and have a glass of wine,” my mom said.
The bar next to the hotel pool was crawling with casualties of the afternoon. Sunburns, yawns and weary eyes accompanied the faces of the patrons who had spent the past six hours wading in the water hoping for some miraculous Penthouse letter to present itself. Others had changed into jeans and more comfortable clothes for the evening festivities, which, as predicted, include the “DJ STYLINGS” of the same dildo who had taken up the valet parking spot from my grandmother earlier in the day.
I overheard some guys drinking at the bar exclaim, “This DJ is sick, he plays everything.”
My mom and I talked to some strangers and took notes that the two bartenders seemed to continuously skip over us in favor of younger, hotter clientele clad in bikinis and bandanas. I snarked to my mother that, “you’d think they would serve one of us who actually look like we may have jobs.”
That garnered a severe stare-down from the Gosling-wannabe behind the bar who then poured us two shots of bottom shelf tequila.
“On the house,” he said.
My mom and I both tipped him a dollar and took the shots outside where we both promptly tossed them into the pool.
Returning back to the room, we found my grandmother packing her things, preparing to depart the Ace Hotel altogether.
“What time are we leaving,” She asked.
“Not until tomorrow,” I told her. “It’s only 11:30.”
“You know, Grandpa and I once stayed in a hotel like this, full of nudity and all these people shaking their you know what’s,” she said. “Back in Florida. Bunch of idiots if you ask me. Zach, can you call room service and see if they have any garlic bologna?”
“I called earlier, grandma, they don’t.”
“What kind of place are we staying in anyway? Who ever heard of such a place that doesn’t serve hot dogs or garlic bologna?”
“Mom, we’re not at the circus,” my mother said.
Finally, my grandmother and mom went to bed and I decided to take one last round of the bar scene adjacent to the pool. I mainly stayed to myself, avoiding any unnecessary conversation with the Fireball-swilling patrons dancing to Jason DeRulo. After another 9-dollar beer, I made my way upstairs, folding a 27-dollar bar tab for three beers into my wallet and harboring a feeling that perhaps my grandma was correct…
“Bunch of idiots if you ask me.”
The continuous partying and noise echoing from the room downstairs was enough for my grandmother to lodge a formal complaint against the Ace Hotel, which led to an extremely uncomfortable late-night phone call between my mother and the front desk. Ultimately, as my family is often able to do, we scored 50 dollars off of our bill and a free breakfast, which included toast and coffee that was delivered to the room by a waiter who looked like he was rattling off the final twitches of a cocaine bender.
The money we saved led us to the Cabazon Outlet stores just five miles outside of Palm Springs, where my grandmother bought essentially the same purse at three different stores as my mother tried hard to stop her from spending any more cash. As my grandma shrugged her off and tossed her loot into the mechanized wheelchair we had picked up in the parking garage, she mumbled under her breath a familiar phrase that was beginning to discomfit my mom:
“Who cares, I’m just spending your inheritance.”
As we continued on through the Cabazon Outlet stores, my mom and I looked at each other as if there was nothing we could do about the situation. It was only then that my grandma entered a Michael Kors outlet for yet another look at another purse and uttered the following request:
“Zach, walk Lucky for me, be sure he makes.”
I took Lucky out into the parking lot and stared down the road at the San Jacinto Mountains overlooking the Ace Hotel. I doubted they would ever play host to anyone over 90 again. They would certainly never host my grandmother again. As the dog did his business, I reached into my grandmother’s purse for a plastic bag to pick it up with. It was only then that I came across the unused pink wristband that allowed all access to the Ace Hotel pool area for the entire afternoon.
I approached a crew of young women, impossibly sexy and in their early 20’s, giddily perusing the outlets for brand name discounts. I found the cutest and sexiest one, made eye contact with her and pressed the pink wristband in her hand. Feeling pretty good about the move, I hustled Lucky back into the shopping area, imagining how the crew of hot girls must be feeling to have a handsome man like me give their gorgeous leader a VIP all day bracelet to the Ace Hotel.
Instead, as I walked away, I overheard one of them comment under her breath: