This is the second part of a story. The first part can be read here.
I stared at the notebook that lay open before me. My hand was already tightening up; a result of holding my pen in a death grip. Whenever the words start flowing, all I can do is hold on for dear life and see where we end up. I set my pen down and picked up my smoldering cigar. The tip glowed red hot as I inhaled, then faded while I blew a smoke ring. It slowly rose in the still air and hovered above my head like a halo, but I didn’t notice. I was already writing.
The problem was, I needed a watch
One of the benefits of going on a cruise is that you can buy certain items tax-free when they’re bought and sold on international waters. So, when our daily schedule informed us that there was going to be a drawing for a gift card to the ship’s jewelry shop, Leah and I decided to go check it out.
We arrived five minutes before the drawing was scheduled to happen, and already the store had descended into chaos. A Carnival employee had hooked up a karaoke machine in a corner of the store and stood on a crate to address the crowd. He was doing his best to whip our fellow passengers into frenzy.
“Ladies and gentlemen, these are name-brand watches at discount prices! You will never see deals like these again! You don’t want to go back home with nothing to show for it, do you? You’re on vacation! It doesn’t count! Just ask your cashier to charge your account and you can wear it out of the store today! As an added bonus, we have designer watches for ten dollars! Only ten dollars! Buy two, and get a third free! This is the only day these prices will be so low! Do not miss out!”
What you need to understand, is that we were on a Carnival cruise. In terms of cruise lines, Carnival is known for being on the slightly more affordable end of the spectrum. They offer cruises at prices that make it possible for some families to go on a fancy vacation who otherwise may not be able to. As a result, more than most other cruise lines, their main demographic are families that are soundly situated in the middle class… They’ve got some debt, sure, but they’ve got decent enough jobs to keep a roof over their heads and their families fed.
So, imagine you’re one of these families. You scrimp and save enough money to go on a nice vacation, and the minute you arrive it begins. You are told at every moment, in every way (some explicit, others less so), that in order to have a good time, in order for your vacation to be a success, you need to spend more money, above and beyond what you already paid just for the privilege of riding on the big boat.
What bothered me the most was how well it worked.
The employee with the microphone kept talking without ever taking a breath. As he spoke, another employee walked over to a table that had been covered with a cloth. Like a magician showing us the big reveal, he whipped the cloth off the tale and there sat row upon row of ten dollar watches. The crowd descended upon it like locusts to a field. People were yelling at one another to move, a bombastic elderly Spanish woman hip-checked a young girl out of the way and the crowd filled in around her.
More out of curiosity than pressing desire, Leah and I managed to fight our way over to the table. Every watch there was generic, lightweight plastic with the kind of hard rubber strap that will eventually crack and tear. I can’t imagine the ship paid more than a dollar or two for them, so at ten dollars they were almost entirely profit. The crowd didn’t seem to mind. They had been worked into such a frothy mess that the table was barren in less than an hour.
After our inspection confirmed there was nothing there we needed, a watch in an actual display case caught my eye. I asked the closest employee how much it cost.
“Oh, that’s a magnificent piece. We have a fantastic special running right now, it’s only eleven-hundred dollars. If you apply for and use the on-board credit card to pay for it, you can have it today and don’t even have to make a payment until next February.”
I passed, but felt a wave of pity for the person that got so caught up in having a good time on vacation that buying that watch felt like a good idea.
Putting it together
And so there I was, in the cigar lounge trying to rectify the things I had seen that day. That morning I had seen Baby Jaden and his family selling necklaces for three dollars each just to survive. That evening I had seen normal, hard working people go feral for the opportunity to purchase overpriced watches. I wondered how many of my fellow passengers would have behaved differently if they had seen the side of Belize that Leah and I had. I couldn’t fathom a person who could see how difficult life is for so many other people, and then feel anything but desperate gratitude for their own lot in life.
My train of thought jumped the tracks at that moment, and I found myself thinking of Donald Miller and the Storyline conference. If we want to live a great story, our purpose is clear: “Save Many Lives”. Those last three words have been echoing throughout my head and my soul ever since as I tried to figure out what that meant for me.
And then, with no warning, with no fanfare, I knew what Saving Many Lives meant. In one instant, my head and my heart suddenly inhabited an idea that was both my own, and Not My Own.
I would go to the ignored. I would sit with the broken, the hurt, and the homeless. Armed with a recording device, I would ask them to tell me their story. What was their childhood like? How did they end up on the streets? What’s the difference between a good day and a bad day?
I would give a voice and an identity to the filthy faces we avert our eyes from. I would give them an opportunity to speak, to tell us exactly who they are. Their stories will remind us that we’re all human. That we’re all just a few catastrophes away from sleeping in an alley. They would remind us to be grateful. I would introduce Baby Jaden to the passengers on our boat. I would –fifteen miles to the looooooooove shack!
and suddenly, I heard a voice
I frowned. The cigar lounge shared a wall with a larger room that was housing late-night karaoke. My studious silence and the thin layer of drywall was no match against the drunken Fred Schneider impression. I tried to block it out it so I could get back to wallowing in self-congratulatory excess, but it was no use. There was no ignoring the Love Shack.
Only slightly embittered, I found myself thinking about karaoke. Leah and I had discussed it the night prior, and unanimously declared it to be a stupid waste of time. Who wants to spend an evening listening to crappy renditions of crappy music? How drunk did you have to be for that to feel like a worthwhile endeavor?
But then, something happened. Through the wall, I could hear Drunk Fred go through his big finish. It was off key, out of tune, and terrible. And the crowd went nuts. Even louder than his flamboyant impression, was the raucous applause he received. I was struck by a thought: What if karaoke is about more than crappy music? What if it’s about people having the courage to be authentic with one another? Regardless of whether or not they’re talented, what if it’s about sharing something with a group of people? I felt my karaoke Grinch-heart grow three sizes too big, as my hand wrote down the words, “SOUL-KARAOKE”.
But alas, my friends, I fear the shining epiphany that followed may be better suited to another blog post. My cigar, now a stub, was getting harsh. I ground it out in my ashtray and took the rest of my drink back. For the first time since our vacation had started, I found myself growing eager to return home. It was time to get to work. Since I’ve gotten home I’ve dusted off my sound equipment and gotten in contact with KARM, the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission to discuss the possibility of creating a podcast. I’m not sure what will come of it, but I’m excited to find out.