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One of the most extraordinary encounters in my sailing career was on my first cruise as Cruise Sales Manager aboard the Sagafjord. I hosted a table in the dining room and we had a wonderful group of eight that made dinner each evening a delightful affair. However, one couple left the ship after only four days, leaving a vacancy at the table. My friend, Shirley Zuffinetti, informed me there was a young woman, who wanted to join us, but Shirley asked me to please not allow it - she just couldn't eat at the same table with Rita.

I assured her I would decline when the maitre'd asked me about adding Rita, but to my dismay, when we came to dinner that evening, there was Rita, proudly sitting at my table. We never quite could figure out why she wanted to be part of our group. It wasn't as though she was exactly a social butterfly. We asked her name and where she was from (so far so good), but when we asked what she did for a living she replied, "I work with numbers, but I'm on vacation and I don't want to talk about it!"

Rita's eating habits were peculiar. She started dinner with breads, chomping them down like a chipmunk, leaving crumbs scattered around her place. She followed with appetizers, soups, and main courses (no, the "s" on each of those words is not a typo!). For dessert she would have a serving bowl from the buffet, filled with chopped fruit and she would eat it all. She finished with one or two cakes of Camembert or Brie cheeses, accompanied again by various crackers.

Breakfast was remarkable. She would have a full breakfast in the dining room, then proceed to the Lido Cafe out on deck and have another. You could always tell where Rita had eaten on deck. She loved mangoes and before she was finished, there was a stack of 5 or 6 mango shells, remnants of her vociferous appetite.

Was she heavy? No! Skinny as a rail! However, she did confide to us in one of her weaker moments, that she used to weigh over 350 pounds. The process in between will always be left to our imagination, but we definitely had our ideas.

We celebrated Thanksgiving with traditional turkey dinner. All at the table ordered turkey, except Rita, who was seated at my left. The waiter served the turkey, platter service, and I was the last to be served. When Rita saw that there was still a piece of meat on the platter when the waiter finished, she asked if she could have it. The waiter of course said yes, but before he could give it to her, she reached onto the platter and took the meat with her fingers and placed it on her plate. The waiter was shocked, but tried to hide it. I diplomatically said, "Rita, why don't you let him serve you?"

French dinner was the ultimate. The bus boy, Edmundo, brought a tray of garlic toast and made the mistake of starting with Rita. Rita saw the garlic toast and said, "Oh! Garlic toast! I love garlic toast! I want the whole tray. Just put the whole thing right here," as she patted the table next to her plate. Edmundo was supposed to serve all of us with that platter, but the guest is always right, so he started to set it down. From across the table I looked up to see what was happening and suggested Rita take a few now, and when she's finished, she can have some more (novel concept). No, she didn't want to have the bus boy running back and forth, though she really meant she didn't want to wait for more, once she devoured whatever he gave her. She never liked waiting between courses and she wasn't about to wait for more garlic toast. I pointed out that it is Edmundo's job to serve us and he would be happy to do so. She said, "No, that's not fair to him, so just put them all in a big bowl and put them right here. I want them all!" I said, "Rita!" She replied, "If I don't get them I will scream!" At that point I became a little sterner and said, "Rita, let him serve you." Rita was most agitated. She shook her finger at me, and in a voice that could be heard by half the dining room exclaimed, "I was told when I came on this cruise that I could have anything I want, as much as I want, whenever I want, and that's exactly what I intend to do, so SCREW YOU!"

I summoned amazing self-control and ignoring her, said to the bus boy, "Edmundo, put some in a bowl for her and when she's finished you may bring her some more. There was an embarrassed pause as I tried to decide what tack to take next, but the drama took on a life of its own.

Let me introduce some of the other guests before I continue. Bob and Marilyn were a young couple from California. Bob was a travel agent (of great self-importance) and Marilyn was a flight attendant. They were traveling with Bob's mother and stepfather, June and Ralph. The four of them enjoyed their drinks before dinner, and to this point June had been pretty oblivious to Rita's aberrational behavior. However, on this particular night, she was sitting next to Rita and observed the whole thing. So after the exchange of words, June said to Rita, "The staff here are meant to serve us. That's why we come on ships - for the wonderful service." Rita replied, "Mind your own business, you old bitty!"

If it was uncomfortable at the table before, it was positively chilly now. I tried to change the subject and tell some stories, but my mind has blocked out most of the rest of that dinner. I had to leave dinner a little early for an appointment, and later found out the drama was not over.

After I left, Marilyn announced, "Rita, you are no longer welcome at our table. You have insulted my mother-in-law, you have been rude to me, and I speak for all the guests at the table - You are no longer welcome here." Rita said, "I don't care, I'm not leaving!"

Meet Pansy Livingston. Pansy was a lovely lady from Atlanta, Georgia and now she spoke up, "Excuse me. You're not speaking for everyone at the table. She's been rude to me too, but I just don't think one passenger has the right to tell another passenger, "You're not welcome at our table!" So Rita asked, "What did I do? What did I say?" The other guests proceeded to tell her one by one what she had said or done to them. She just replied, "Really?"

Ladies and Gentlemen, we had a problem on our hands. The "foursome" was so upset they were not going to come to dinner again as long as that (!) was there and Rita was not leaving. The next day I had a talk with Rita and reminded her how she hated waiting between courses for the rest of us slow-eaters to finish. I suggested she might want to consider coming in at 7:00 pm as soon as the dining room opened. That way she could have all her courses one after another without waiting. She thought that was a great idea, so the next evening at 8:15, Shirley, Pansy and I entered to find Rita on coffee. Rita left shortly thereafter, and the three of us waited awhile for the foursome, but finally ordered and began eating. At 8.55 pm, five minutes before the restaurant closes, in stomped the foursome, very drunk and in a foul mood. We didn't stay for their whole dinner, but I assured them that with the new arrangement they wouldn't have to sit with Rita. I thought I was Solomon, and could only hope we would have no major blowups before the end of the cruise. Hope springs eternal, but it was not meant to be.

For the last episode you need to understand Shirley. Shirley and I had already been on several cruises together from my tour office days and had become good friends. She had been married to an abusive alcoholic for 42 years and finally had enough. Earlier that year she just left her home in California and moved to Florida, no separation, no divorce, just left. Shirley also had a phobia about germs. She could not tolerate anyone drinking out of her glass or eating anything off her plate. However, we were good enough friends I would do it occasionally just to tease her.

One of the last nights at dinner, I was next to Shirley and stole a bite of vegetables off her plate. She started giggling, so of course, the rest of the group wanted to know what was so funny. We tried to shrug them off, but they insisted, so we explained Shirley's quirk. Rita demanded, "What's the difference between that and kissing?" Shirley, not knowing when to keep her mouth shut, responded, "Oh, I never kiss with my mouth open." Rita shrieked, "What? You never kiss with your mouth open?" Shirley wanted to slide under the table and turned a thousand shades of red. Rita, not to be put off, insisted, "Well, do you or don't you kiss with your mouth open?" Shirley mumbled, "No, never. I wouldn't think of it." Rita fairly yelled, "Well, no wonder your husband left you!"

The last day of the cruise Rita came to me and said, "You know, I've been thinking. Do you suppose if I come on another cruise I could have a table by myself?" Although that's not something we would normally guarantee, I assured her we would accommodate her somehow. I actually had the home office add to her passenger profile, that she must be given a table for one - even if it were out on deck or in a lifeboat!

  Kent Kauffman, February 2004

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