I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s essay on taking a luxury cruise through the Caribbean, “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise.”
For anyone who has ever been on a cruise through the Caribbean and has experienced the strange sensation of being simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by most of one’s fellow shipmates (as well as the nagging uneasiness regarding the fact that you are on the same cruise as these people), this essay is laugh-out-loud, pee-your-pants funny. If you haven’t been on one of these cruises, it’s still probably funny, but maybe not as much.
The essay is quite long and DFW manages to sustain the funniness throughout, not an easy task. My favorite part so far is when he describes the toilet:
… But all this is still small potatoes compared with 1009′s fascinating and potentially malevolent toilet. A harmonious concordance of elegant form and vigorous function, flanked by rolls of tissue so soft as to be without perforates for tearing…
The toilet’s flush produces a brief but traumatizing sound, a kind of held high-B gargle, as of some gastric disturbance on a cosmic scale. Along with this sound comes a suction so awesomely powerful that it’s both scary and strangely comforting: your waste seems less removed than hurled from you, and with a velocity that lets you feel as though the waste is going to end up someplace so far away that it will have become an abstraction, a kind of existential sewage-treatment system.
DFW continues in a footnote:
The Nadir‘s Vacuum Sewage System begins after a while to hold such a fascination for me that I end up going hat in hand back to Hotel Manager Dermatitis to ask once again for access to the ship’s nether parts… Even behind his mirrored sunglasses I can tell that Mr. Dermatitis is severely upset about my interest in sewage, and he denies my request to eyeball the V.S.S. with a complex defensiveness that I can’t even begin to chart out here…
Such is my own embarrassment and hatred of Mr. Dermatitis by this time that I begin to feel that if the Hotel Manager really does think I’m some kind of investigative journalist with a hard-on for shark dangers and sewage scandals, then he might think it would be worth the risk to have me harmed in some way. And, through a set of neurotic connections I won’t even try to defend, I, for about a day and a half, begin to fear that the Nadir‘s Greek episcopate will somehow contrive to use the incredibly potent and forceful 1009 toilet itself for the assassination—that they’ll, I don’t know, like somehow lubricate the bowl and up the suction to where not just my waste but I myself will be sucked down through the seat’s opening and hurled into some kind of abstract septic exile.
For me, this perfectly captures the sheer terror I used to feel when I had to use an airplane toilet. The loud noise, the incredible force with which excrement is sucked out of the bowl, the constant fear that I myself might be caught within the toilet’s awesome power… I used to try to wait until the flight was over rather than use the toilet, not an easy task with an eight year’s old bladder, and when I absolutely had to go to the bathroom, I had a very serious process to stave off the fear. Go to the bathroom, close the lid to the toilet, wash my hands, and then in the same second that I opened the door, I would flush the toilet and run out there and back to my seat.
Childhood fears leave such a strong impression, but for some reason it never even crossed my mind to tell my parents. It would be funny to know now what they would have said then; it will be even more interesting when I have my own kids someday and get to see them in action from an adult’s perspective.
If you want to read DFW’s “Shipping Out” yourself, Harper’s Magazine has it available as a PDF online. Find it here: http://www.harpers.org/media/pdf/dfw/HarpersMagazine-1996-01-0007859.pdf