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Big Things 

The weight of a writer

I now know that being a writer carries absolutely no weight when weight is what you're hoping to throw around while being abused by a cruise line. "I'm absolutely stupefied," I kept telling the guest relations people onboard, "that you'd put us in a cabin infested with bed bugs and act like it's no big thing. I'm a writer, you know."

Christ, why did I say that? The second the words left my mouth all the guff got sucked out of me. It's very rare for me to cop to being a columnist, even in my own column, as I like to think of it as an increasingly poorly kept secret. Until recently I even kept my job as a flight attendant, I put my apron on and passed out cokes all the way to Europe very weekend. "Didn't I see you on Leno?" I'd hear sometimes. It was rare, but it happened. "Yep, that was me," I'd answer. "What'll ya have?" I'd sign some books, maybe pose for a few pictures, but it didn't take long for the shimmer to fade. "'Scuse me. 'Scuse me!'" they'd be hissing by the seven-hour point over the Atlantic. "I said I wanted two creams for my coffee!"

I've never before brandished my standing as a columnist to increase my standing in a situation, and now that I have it's good to know that doing so is ineffectual, because in life you wanna know what works and what doesn't. Grant, Daniel and I all have t-shirts I found in Park City with logos that blare, "Do You Have Any Idea Who I Am?" which we used to wear proudly certain in our cesspool status on the scale of societal evolution. Grant had his on when he drove me to the airport just the other day. I'm afraid to put mine on in public these days. It would be like I bought my own cover.

"'Scuse me," I kept insisting to the guest-relations people at Holland America, "I'm astounded that you'd act like this is no big thing."

It didn't help that we looked like hell, my sister and I. We'd escaped our cabin after blindly snatching up clothes on the way out, and spent the rest of the night on wooden lounge chairs in the Crow's Nest. I was wearing nylon cargo shorts and a pajama top under a windbreaker. Cheryl had on a tie-dyed T-shirt, acid-washed jeans and a stained raincoat she picked up at a thrift store in Seattle on the way to Anchorage, all accented by the neon-pink streaks in her hair. It was little departure from how she normally looked, but still. When we returned to our room, we'd found it, and everything inside, in the process of fumigation. We didn't get our clothes back until the next morning, so if my sister decided to dress up that day by maybe borrowing some of my clothes or something, she wouldn't have been able to, and that matters, doesn't it?

"Crawling," I reiterated, and if I'd had the Ziploc we'd used to collect a sample, I would have shaken it in their defiant faces, "all over us."

My issue was not really the bugs. I understand things happen. Cheryl and I have both, back in the day, backpacked through Europe with hardly more than a buck in our pockets and a cigarette butt to rest our heads, but still we had never encountered bed bugs before -- aren't they reserved for poverty-stricken potato farmers of the early 1800s? -- yet here these guest-relations people were treating us, it seemed, as though we'd brought this plague on the boat ourselves. So no, it wasn't the bugs, it was them and the way they had of making me feel no bigger than a bug. "There's nothing more we can do," they kept saying, as if they'd done anything.

I had yet to begin shrieking, and was hoping it wouldn't get to that point, especially since they seemed to be expecting it. Here I'd already told them I was an important person, which, let's face it, if you have to say it yourself, sucks all the validity out of it. So I didn't shriek and curse. I simply said, "If it's your job to make your passengers happy, then you're failing at it. I'll give you some time to think about this, and my suggestion is that you get back to me with a suggestion on how you can improve our experience on this ship."

Lord, dignity is difficult for me. Cheryl was back up in the Crow's Nest, not caring one way or the other how things turned out. She would prefer a cabin free of pests and the five-member "Pest Management" team inside saturating everything with chemicals, but I got the feeling she would have been cool either way. We were in Alaska, surrounded by the most achingly beautiful scenery we'd ever seen. Glaciers, mountains, Northern Lights, big things, yet I couldn't get my mind off these little bugs.

"I had Kim give them a call," Cheryl said when I met up with her. Kim is our little sister, the lawyer. A short time later we were inundated with formal letters of apology and offers of recompense. So there you have it; evidently being a writer carries no weight at all when you're being abused by a cruise line, but at least being a writer with an attorney for a little sister qualifies as a big thing.

Hollis Gillespie is founder of the Shocking Real Life Writing Academy. For more information, go to www.hollisgillespie.com.

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