Years ago, too many years to count, an editor for The New Yorker contacted me with a story assignment. It seems that cruise ships and ocean liners employ a small staff of middle-aged men they call “gentleman greeters.” The job requires you own a tuxedo and can dance at least three steps of at least five standard ballroom dances, and the main duty of these men is to dance with the sizable surplus of female passengers.1
Thanks to a friend, I’d taken lessons. The Lindy Hop craze was in full craze, and every Sunday, Portland’s Crystal Ballroom looked like V-J Day. My Cha-cha was decent, although my Foxtrot was stiff and jerky.2 My Rhumba3 was excellent, as was my West Coast Swing, and my Waltz, Charleston, and Tango rocked.4 In a pinch I can dance a mean L.A. Hustle.5
This was a golden age of off-beat travel writing. If you’ve read the David Foster Wallace piece “Ticket to the Fair”6 you’ve felt the feel of the time. A New Yorker editor had been in touch with the Cunard Line, and everyone came across as genuinely stoked about me bunking in a crew cabin with three other men who each owned his own tux and could dance three steps of five ballroom dances. Find me any topic that turns real human intimacy into a commodity, and I’m onboard. Cross The Love Boat with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and mix in Gloria Steinem’s memoir about how much her feet hurt as a Playboy Bunny in A Bunny’s Tale, and this looked to be my ticket to writing big-name features.
In my tuxedo, writing sardonic notes between tangos and cha-chas, I’d be Sebastian Unger. I’d be Jon Krakauer.7