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The Circus

Running away to join it

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Jesus God, what was I thinking? First, let me just say that my last ocean cruise officially qualified as a quasi-nice experience, even though my cabin was a lightless hovel that had less space than an Iraqi spider hole. But who cares when you practically have the rest of the ship to yourself, as all the other passengers amounted to nothing more than a few ancient piles of mummy dust coated in sunblock, each of them easily outdistanced in the daily race to the food trough.

And cheap! Damn, that cruise was cheap. I bought it as part of a post-9/11 panic sale, when everyone was certain cruise ships were bound to be the next Taliban target. To entice customers, the cruise industry was practically passing out free tickets through your car window at traffic intersections. In all, I figure that cruise cost less than a handful of narcotics sold by the dealers down the street where I lived, and in exchange I got to loll around in the middle of the ocean on a lounge chair listening to calypso music and forgetting, for seven solid days, that back home I lived in a neighborhood that transformed into a crack-whore circus as soon as the sun went down. It was heaven.

But the fun is over. People are now hardened to the whole al-Qaeda agenda, and figure if they're gonna get bombed by terrorists, they might as well be bombed on booze in the middle of the Caribbean when it happens. Plus, there is something about the month of July, too. In the cruise world, the month of July must be cheap-ass idiot, two-for-one coupon, sink-the-boat-with-your-barf month. I swear, the entire ship was packed with pudgy, drunk honeymooners, skinny, drunk teenagers, their oblivious, drunk parents and pissed-off, tip-deprived, Romanian-mumbling crew members. The only thing this cruise had in common with my last was the price, because damn, it was cheap.

But it turns out there's a difference between desperate-for-business cheap and going-for-gravy cheap. In the former, they're happy to see your tightwad ass, and in the latter, they've already made their quota and you could choke on a chicken bone in the middle of the mezzanine for all they care. The crowd would simply trample you unnoticed until your flesh melded with the terrazzo floor tiles.

THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE reminded me, oddly, of Las Vegas, which can be a crap shoot, too. Back when Vegas aspired to be nothing more than a tacky, neon-encrusted shit smear in the middle of the desert, I must say it was a lot of fun, like watching a free circus. My mother used to take me on junkets downtown, where I once saw a lady bum pull up her skirt and piss right there on the sidewalk in front of Glitter Gulch. Back then, the pit bosses used to allow kids in the casinos, too, and I stood at my mother's elbow while she played blackjack, smoked menthols and ordered free beer from a cocktail waitress dressed in feathers and satin.

Once we even found an Asian lady bawling in the bathroom because her fiancé had gambled away all their wedding money, she said, so my mother gave her a cup of nickels, which I could not believe. My mother was usually as crusty as a hermit crab when it came to sympathy. I once got my skull broke open by a neighborhood boy who threw a brick at my head, and my mother still made me empty the dishwasher after dinner that night. But it turned out she could be touched after all, and not because she believed a single word that woman said.

"That girl is part of the circus," my mother told me after we left the lady in the bathroom and emerged from the darkness of the casino to be blinded by the light of the afternoon sun. "It's probably just a matter of time before she's pissing on the sidewalk herself."

Years later on a layover, I tried to check out the buffet at the big, blow-ass new Bellagio to see what all the fucking fuss was about. The couple in front of me was tan-skinned, tooth-bleached and complaining loudly about the crowd. I cracked wise with them and said something that should have immediately clued them into my standing as a smarmy, cynical outsider, but they just looked at me like I was part of the problem. "I am never coming back here," one said to the other.

What rhinoplasty-picking idiots, I thought. This is Vegas, where whoring is legal, booze is free and the streets are full of people clutching cups of nickels. If you're not here to see the circus, then you're here to be part of it. Anyone who doesn't know that is a way huger loser than any public-pissing hobo could ever be, I swear to Jesus Christ.

On the cruise last week, it all came to a head for me in the elevator lobby of the ship's "grand atrium." It was very loud and very late, and people were packed around me, laughing and clutching plates from the Mexican midnight buffet. I rolled my eyes, because it seemed that every single drunk-ass idiot on the ship all of a sudden converged to this one spot just to jostle me around. I swear to Jesus Christ, I thought, I am never -- oops, careful to steady my plate -- I am never coming back here.

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories and Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."


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