So most of my summer wasn’t all that exciting. I taught at a private school in rural Massachusetts, and mostly I just went to the pool and told annoying kids to shut up. But one weekend I went into Boston, and a friend and I cruised around on a boat fifty miles off the shore. The boat was a casino boat; fifty miles plus off the coastline is international waters, so you’re allowed to do whatever you want because I guess the world isn’t allowed to have laws or something. Anyway, it was the most surreal experience of my life – and ultimately the most strangely upsetting, too – except for the time I saw gargoyles at night and almost died a hundred times (long story).
It all got started when I was in Boston on a Friday night with my friend Cleighton and my other friend from high school called us and said we should go to her gig that night. This other friend’s name is Carley, and she went to Berklee College of Music. She’s really pretty and great and we wanted to see her play, but Cleighton was just too tired. So she said, “That’s fine, just come to my show on Sunday, I’m playing on a casino boat called Horizon’s Edge.” Cool, I told her, See you then! Then I punched Cleighton in the arm because I wanted to see her that night, not Sunday.
The night we cruised was VIP night, and before leaving I texted Carley and asked, “Is there a dress code?” thinking that VIP meant sports coat and Cool Water. She texted back saying “Um, no,” because as I learned shortly after we arrived, at Horizon’s Edge the average hairdo is somewhere between perm and mullet, and the average leg covering is a knee’s length away from pure jean shorts. On discovering this I apologized to Cleighton for punching him the night before, because the social underworld of Horizon’s Edge initially struck me as laughably bizarre. Later I changed my mind, but at the moment I was all snickers and chuckles.
Carley met Cleighton and me outside the boat at about 6 p.m.. The boat leaves at half past, but get there early – parking’s a bitch! Also, Carley was able to walk us straight past the ticket booth, around the metal detector, and past two armed guards. I guess if you know the pretty girl who sings in the band, they grant you VVIP status, which means you probably don’t have a buck knife strapped to your ankle. Or maybe it was just the denim that reached to my ankles.
We walked to the top deck of the boat where the band plays and I stubbed my toe on the stairs. Not like, ‘OMG, ouch!’ stubbed my toe, but more like a ‘cracked my big toenail in half and bled everywhere’ kind of deal. Three different people who didn’t even work on the boat rushed off to find a member of the ‘Marine Crew’ – how nice! After waiting around awkwardly for ten minutes, I ordered a beer. Then I finished the beer. Then I waited awkwardly some more. Then I went off in search of the mysterious Marine Crew myself, and I quickly found a tall, busty, not very naval-looking girl wearing a sailor cap. She gave me five band aids, then eye-fucked the shit out of me. (Later, when I saw the three different people who first went to find me help, they all insisted that they’d been searching in vain for aid until that very moment.)
After grabbing a complimentary but crusty hot dog and watching them play a few songs, Carley introduced Cleighton and me to the Johnny Ray Band. They’re a cover band, and they go a little something like this:
Johnny Ray: the lead singer and band leader. He wore a black silk shirt printed with purple and yellow palm trees, and he also wore slick black reflective sunglasses (think Joe Satriani). He had a firm handshake and this goofy kid smile, even though he was about forty. Right after our meeting, he said, “That’s obscene,” pointing at the hot dog I was about to put in my mouth.
Andy: the lead guitarist. He sported a cut-off button down shirt, but after becoming drenched in sweat, he swapped the cut-off for an enormous Miles Davis T-shirt. Andy was a skinny guy, and he fucking knew how to shred axe.
Mike: the bassist. Mike had on jean shorts and a red polo shirt, and he had a big bushy mustache and even bigger spectacles. He was pretty chubby too—overall, sort of reminiscent of a high school chemistry teacher. The only way I can reconcile this image with the fact that guys in rock bands are supposed to be cool is that Mike is about twenty years ahead of his time; in the future, when we all overweight and wearing jean shorts, Mike will just casually nod and be like, “I told you so.”
Left-Eye: the drummer. He is insane. I can kind of imagine him swearing he was christened Left-Eye before “that bitch in TLC” was, then going on to defend himself against accusations of insensitivity on being reminded that Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes died a horrible death in a car crash five years ago.
Carley: My friend! She sings backup vocals with Mr. Ray and plays rhythm guitar. Whereas all other band members are pushing forty or more, bright eyed Carley is but twenty one. This is definitely pretty weird.
The band got back on stage, and for the first time I noticed the rock. Not the band’s rock – they mostly just played shitty songs like that one where Michelle Branch and Santana team up – but the rock of the boat. I tried really hard to sit up straight but still I could feel my upper body rocking back and forth. I tried to focus my eyes on something, on anything at all, and for the first time I noticed that most things on the boat were seventy year old people. But why would old people want to listen to rock and roll? And that’s when it dawned on me that the band’s sole purpose was to make loud, distracting noises until the casino opened. No matter what kind of noises, so long as they transitioned well with the horns and honks and buzzes of the slot machines and the hoots and hollers of the newly rich. While so far I’d been having a good time, a good time is not what the folks on Horizon’s Edge were there for. They were there to win.
The music wasn’t enough to prepare me for the casino itself. Not only were the flashing lights and shrieks and dings and whistles spazzing out in all their nauseating excess, but the casino was on the bottom deck without any windows; the rocking of the boat now felt like being on the top floor of a swaying skyscraper. Then there was the woman who kept hitting JACKPOT on her slot machine and shrieking with joy, only to start groaning and hitting the woman sitting next to her on finding out that the machine’s incessant whine announced a win of just forty dollars. And then there were the two women sitting at the roulette table with a mountain of chips, burning through cigarettes almost as fast as they burned through their savings. And then I got a headache, walked to the top deck, drank a beer, and ate something that tasted like ballast brine.
My mood had already taken a turn for the worse, but my happy-ship really started sinking once we reentered U.S. waters. The gambling stopped and the Johnny Ray Band got back on stage — another 50 miles of celebratory rock for the lucky few, and distorted catharses for everybody else. An ex-stripper/hooker named Barbara (B: “But you can call me Babs, honey”; To self: Babs? Really?) repeatedly asked me to dance. After I repeatedly turned her down, she secured a dance with Arthur, the ninety-year-old man (no fucking joke) who danced the entire hour and a half trip back to harbor, never with any less than four women grinding in his general direction at the same time. Meanwhile I shot the shit with blonde Elaine and brunette Dolores, wives of Andy and Mike, who told me about the nude hot tub party the night before and the time the band played a gig on a yacht and got so drunk they passed out on deck (Left-Eye “got some serious fucking ass,” though).
Then I thought about the plastic lace tablecloths at dinner and the shitty buffet, and I realized I really wanted to leave. I was exhausted and feeling like crap; so much old age and addiction and nausea piled on top of the thought that Carley endured this every night. The whole thing certainly wasn’t the great big laugh it used to be.
After a raffle for terry cloth robes, Allman Brothers tickets, and a 25 dollar gift certificate to the local culinary hotspot, the boat docked. Cleighton and I said bye to Carley and the band, and then we finally headed back to Boston – actually to Waban, a fairly wealthy suburb fifteen minutes outside the city – around 1 a.m. Driving in the dark through Lynn, MA, the city that the Horizon’s Edge calls home, is one of the more depressing things I can think of right now. The doorsteps of the houses were literally two feet from the highway. Lots of buildings were beat to crap and falling down. The factories were the same way, and I doubt anyone even uses them anymore. We passed just one well-kempt, nice looking building, and it was the liquor store.
I curled up in a big clean bed that night and slept well and forgot about the whole joke turned travesty. But a couple days later I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and the one thing that kept coming to mind when I thought back to my night on the Horizon’s Edge casino boat was the men’s bathroom on the top deck. First off, it’s right next to where the band plays so it’s fucking loud in there. Second, aiming my pee into a toilet bowl on a boat that’s on the high seas is not a game I like to play. Third, the floor is covered in pee (see “Second”). Finally, the whole room is just bland off-white and when you wash your hands you think, “Oh my god, where is this water coming from?” All in all, then, it’s a pretty shitty bathroom experience. But there’s this one thing I liked: a framed painting, behind glass, of the view from some beautiful mansion’s stucco patio which looks right out onto the ocean with white sands and sailboats.
Now, a pitiful contrast like that is exactly the type of thing that would’ve depressed the hell out of me when I was about sixteen, along with things like the ducks in Central Park and the splendidly happy mentally retarded man who was sent to pick the bathroom lock in my hotel room (true story). But I’m old enough now to realize that that painting in the bathroom represents infinite hope. The people on the boat put that painting in the bathroom for the same reason they named their ship Horizon’s Edge; by definition you can’t even ever reach the horizon’s edge. Just as the 65-year-old man in the piss stained bathroom is never going to gamble his pension into that beautiful view. But even if the horizon is always off in the distance, you can bet your ass we’re going to try our damndest to get there, because off in the distance lie some beautiful things. Like the sun, and a way out of this hell hole.