LONG BEACH, California
33° N, 118° W
I measure a dive on the spectrum of depravity… Oft times, there is nothing more depraved than the restless spirits you encounter at the hotel bar.A.F. Rumph
The Observation Bar is stylized in equal parts nautical, art deco and cosmic dread; nautical because this is a bar on a ship; art deco because this is an old fucking ship; cosmic dread because this is the RMS Queen Mary and terror tremors through her steel. The Queen Mary was once a regal transatlantic ocean liner and the best passage between Europe and the Americas before the rise of commercial airlines and their roasted nuts. The Queen Mary would be recommissioned during World War II, acting as a troop transport nicknamed “the Grey Ghost”; she was so elusive Hitler offered the Iron Cross to any U-Boat captain who could sink her. The Queen Mary survived World War II and, like many Nazi survivors, would retire in the Americas. In 1967, the Queen Mary became permanently moored in Long Beach; eternally damned to Southern California.
As far as the dread… wait until after midnight and dial zero from one of the ship’s phones. What you will hear once the phone connects is the operator, pausing to take a breath, preparing himself for the worst, before speaking, “Hello, front desk”.
After dusk, after the museum has closed, after the restaurant dessert cart has made its last stroll, after the tourists and historians have left, only the hotel bar – the former 1st Class Lounge retrofitted into a contemporary drinking establishment, the Observation Bar – is active with life. There is a pervasive dread and it is apparent on the face of all: the lingering tourist, with her camera out to snap at the slightest suggestion of paranormal activity; the staff, trying to make it another night without another encounter with the beyond; the overnight guests, trying to drink enough liquid courage to give them the strength to return to the darkness of their room; the maniacal laughter in the painted faces of the dancers in the jubilee painting looming over the bar. The Queen Mary is a high class destination, but the ship itself is sinking in Long Beach port sludge. The Observation Bar may not be a dive, but the visitor cannot help the feeling of hopeless descent.
“I don’t know if the wine helps…” a woman says aloud from the barstool beside mine. She’s an eastern seaboard executive in a corporate pantsuit with after-hour sneakers in lieu of heels; her high-priced color dye-job is betrayed by graying temples and her breath is tinged with martini olives, cheap coffee and… yes, I believe Maalox. I’ve noticed in the mirrored reflection behind the bar her face twitches whenever she looks away from her email account. She begs attention, “Or could the wine hurt? …I mean, with sleep?” I’m not here to sleep, I grumble nearly incoherently, sliding my drink closer to me, responding to the woman with less than a sideways glance. A bartender plays savior to the forsaken, swooping in as if to anoint Jesus’s feet with a bottle of Pinot Grigio, refilling the corporate exec’s glass and insisting, “When it comes to alcohol, I find it helps with just about everything.” The corporate exec reaches her hand out to clamp onto the woman serving her wine to implore, “Yes, but have you seen… things?”
I excuse myself to the lavatory. I suppose this is technically still a ship, even if she doesn’t float, so it is to the head ahead I head to. It is a nice reprieve, but the silence buzzes in the bathroom. The ship vibrates and in the quietest quarters you can hear the hum; 3 different pitches of subtle rattling. The metallic song within the lavatory reminds me of the desolation waiting in my hotel room. Have I seen things? No. Well… The first night, my toiletries were emptied into my sink. Maybe the ship rolled in stormy seas, I thought, covering my head with a pillow. Except, I realized in the morning, the Queen Mary is a fixture; she is not under the influence of currents, tides, waves or fluidic influence of any kind. Perhaps San Andreas quaked a little plate tectonic fart, enough to expunge my toothbrush and aftershave; but no… no seismic activity of note. During my stay aboard the damned Queen, I learned to zip up my toiletries. And I learned to unplug the television to ensure it doesn’t power-on at 3 am. And I learned to not make sense of the motley darkness moving as vapor at the foot of my bed when the lights were out. And I have learned to drink a few whiskeys, cover my head with blankets and sleep until daylight before relieving my bladder.
At last Sunday’s brunch buffet, a self-confessed medium and dabbler of all things occult told me as she scooped scalloped potatoes onto a plate beside a bran muffin and a lava flow of cheesy grit, “This boat is like a floating Gettysburg. The psychical energy is insane! It is like reading three novels at once.” Except we’re not afloat, I told her. We are on a boat, but it might as well be a waterfront Holiday Inn. “Tomato, tomato…” she shrugged as she licked syrup from her fingertips.
I return from the head to the bar with the intent of ordering another Brown Derby; when in California, drink California whiskey cocktails, I always sez. Before I turn the corner, I already hear the voice of the dip-shitted, turtle-necked, faux-captain. This actor who dresses up as a Victorian-era ship captain to greet guests at the front desk has a tendency to have a couple after-work drinks at the Observation Bar before his gig emceeing “trivia night” at karaoke bars on shore. Last Tuesday, as a Midwestern husband was busy on his phone, the corresponding Midwestern wife was advanced upon by the yappy faux-captain, who refused to break character. I listened, sipping the house specialty gin gimlet, as “Captain Chester Fox” told the Midwestern wife about the infamously abandoned 1st Class swimming pool 2 levels down, which has been empty for decades and yet wet footprints can be seen leading away from the pool to the locker rooms. The distracted wife was enthralled and hesitated only briefly before accepting Captain Chester Fox’s invitation to the R Deck for a private tour as the husband toiled on his phone.
A couple nights later, Captain Chester Fox is at it again, charming the Maalox-breathed eastern seaboard exec with dramatic talk about atmospheric pressure and wind out of the northeast as if he could manage to pilot anything more than a canoe across a Jacuzzi. He goes on to mention it is his job to be able to recognize proper buoyancy and guess what? Captain Chester Fox doesn’t wait for an answer before nodding at the corporate exec’s blouse, “You’ve got buoyancy.” She coughs up an olive and happily insists, he the “captain”, is just downright awful. Captain Chester Fox, having lured her out into the open, descends for the kill, “I am sure there are gentlemen sailors out there” he tells her, “but if you like your seamen a little salty, I am your captain!”
I searched my pocket for a ballpoint pen – anything pointy – to stick into the fucker’s eye.
Captain Chester Fox looks up from his bar-rail prey to smile at the newcomer, only to recognize me. His smile fades. On Monday, he greeted me in the lobby with an outstretched hand, “Hey, what’s crackin’, Kraken?” and on Wednesday afterhours at the Observation Bar, he nudged me at the bar, “You know the problem with feminists… they still insist being first off a sinking boat!” Every attempt of his to connect with me was met with stoic indifference. I provided the dude nothing but my best Gallic ennui: half-raised eye lids, stagnant scowl, sniff of disapproval.
At the sound of the unsightly Captain Chester Fox, I should turn back. I can’t. The only thing between me and returning to my disturbing-as-fuck hotel room was another Brown Derby. The vitamin C of the grapefruit splash would do me good, I figure… what with scurvy, etcetera.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said a first rate intelligence includes the ability to function with opposing ideas in your head. I took this to mean I had 2nd rate intelligence, at best, as I cannot simultaneously chew gum and walk without choking and then tripping or tripping and then choking. Living aboard the Queen Mary has posed a new quandary for me: how can I be skeptical of the afterlife and still find myself with an absolute dread for the anomalous creepy-shit I continuously encounter on this ship? Do I believe the ship is haunting me or recreating painful memories of its past with me? Fuck no! And absolutely maybe. For now, I would rather be tortured by the presence of the faux-captain than return to brave whatever lurks in the pipes, in the air vents, in the electrical currents, in the shadows and under the mattress of my hotel room on this ship of the damned without a good & proper whiskey drunk.
“One more Brown Derby!” I tell the barkeep as I sit as far away from the captain as I can.