The Voyage of the S.S. Rhinovirus

The Queen Mary 2

The Queen Mary 2

In order to get a better understanding of the nature of transatlantic travel for my book, Dead Wake, my wife and I decided to take a voyage on the Queen Mary 2 from New York to Southampton, England. The ship departed the Brooklyn cruise terminal precisely on my birthday, and promptly sailed into a Force 10 gale. This was fun. I am Scandinavian by heritage—in my case, a weird and trouble-inducing blend of Norwegian and Swedish—and as a consequence I get a kick out of moaning winds, and horse-main froth flying off the tops of waves, and frigid air, with 25 degrees F. being my optimal operating temperature.

What I did not expect, however, was the extent to which I would have to confront a far more pervasive threat to comfort aboard, which was a cold virus that began Tarzaning from passenger to passenger during the first 48 hours of the voyage, spread in part, I suspect, by a concierge on Deck 9 who looked as if someone had dripped red food-coloring into each of her eyes. Thus began the voyage of the S. S. Rhinovirus.

It started out pleasantly enough. The ship was gorgeous and exceptionally stable, built expressly for transatlantic travel. The gale caused little discomfort, except to those souls who tend to become ill even in slow-moving motor vehicles, and for them the voyage must have been pure hell. I cannot say this with any certainty, however, because they stayed in their staterooms doing what seasick people do, and did not show up for the first morning’s breakfast, when I delightedly consumed smoked-haddock in butter and lemon, followed by a cigar. I am joking about the cigar.

The hardiest souls began walking the deck almost immediately, despite winds that forced closure of the windward deck doors, lest people be blown into the scrambled eggs at the King’s Court buffet. The few passengers on the deck moved with determination, their faces locked in Bridge-Over-the-River-Kwai grimaces, comb-overs gone wild and swinging free like kelp in a storm-roiled cove. Inside, passengers with flatline affect sat at card tables with nothing before them, no books, not even playing cards, staring into the middle distance. Conventional time receded, the 24-hour clock forgotten and replaced not by Greenwich Mean Time, but by Cunard Meal Time. Passengers marked their days by breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, and snack, though as the cunning quickly observed, food was in fact available at all times. “Oh yes love,” I heard one female passenger say to another, “the buffet is always open.”

We were 48 hours into the voyage when a strange sound began to suffuse the ship, in particular its common areas and bars, my favorite of which was the Commodore Lounge, which straddles the forward end of the ninth deck. This is where I spent a good deal of my time, writing in my journal and drinking things in stemmed glasses. The first day it was a place of calm and quiet. Groupings of low armchairs upholstered in white leather provided a perfect view of the gale fuming outside as the ship plowed forward somewhere south of Nova Scotia.

By the end of that second day, the atmosphere in the lounge changed. Here and there a passenger sneezed. You would think this late in the history of the world people would know that it is important to cover a sneeze by sneezing into the crooks of their elbows. A video that played over and over on the televisions in our rooms before departure featured a stern-faced physician who provided a visual lesson in how to do so. But here in the Commodore Lounge it seemed as though a competition were underway, like one of those Scottish tree-tossing events, to see who could project globs of cold virus the farthest. “Right, not bad, laddie. Now let a real man give it a try.”

By the third day, the sneezing was complemented by coughing. Now the nature of the competition shifted, the apparent goal being to see who could hack things up in the longest continuous sequence. This was joined by assorted nasal extrusions and a loud sucking sound, like air inhaled through Jello. People moved in snorting packs. It was as if the ship had been hijacked by an ancient tribe of hill people who communicated only with coughs and throat clearings, punctuated now and then by periods of lucid English, as when the pugnacious little American at an adjacent table, wearing a striped suit and red open-collared shirt, told his wife over dinner, “Don’t try to change my personality. I’ve had the same personality for 84 fucking years.”

On the third day, my wife caught the cold. By now it had become a proper noun, The Cold. In French, Le Rhume. In Italian, Il Raffredore. My wife gives herself up to illness in the way a man might give himself up to a dominatrix. Soon after joining the growing tribe of hackers and snorters, she eagerly took the next step, and began coughing. In fact, her cold was significantly worse than an ordinary cold, and may have been a form of influenza, for the flu shot administered that season was found, belatedly, to be effective only about a quarter of the time. I was sympathetic, but I avoided her, yes, like the plague.

My day became a ceaseless struggle to avoid The Cold, which in my mind’s eye became an assassin out to get me. It seemed at times as though I was the only person on the ship who was not sick. I was its last remaining target. I was Jason Bourne, on the run. Or Kevin McCarthy in that film about seed pods and vacant-eyed people who were not Fox News watchers, but looked it, because they had been taken over by an alien presence that was just as effective at wiping minds clear of coherent thought.

I washed and Purelled my hands at every opportunity, and there were many opportunities, because automatic Purelling stations stood at the entrances to all the ship’s dining rooms, theaters, and bars. You held your hand under the canister and it ejaculated alcohol-infused green gel into your palm. I spent a good deal of time walking the decks rubbing my hands like some sinister villain while waiting for the alcohol film to evaporate. I took seriously the stern-faced physician’s admonishment to use the bathroom in my stateroom and not the public lavatories. When I did use the lavatories, rather than climb nine floors to my deck, I took to heart the signs on the walls that said you were to exit using a paper towel to turn the door handle. (And by the way, the stern-faced physician on the video recommended that we dry our hands with paper towel, not with an air blower, because blowers could spread infection.) I took zinc, sprayed Flonase, and drank Manhattans, on the theory that bourbon, vermouth, and maraschino cherries were effective at killing ambient germs. One night, while safely out of sight of my wife, I gargled with Makers Mark whiskey. I felt stupid and did not do it again.

If someone walking ahead of me in a corridor sneezed or coughed, I turned and walked the other way, holding my breath, until the invisible whale-spume of virus had a chance to dissipate. I avoided the elevators, which served as rhino-viral incubators, owing to the necessity of touching buttons already pushed by scores of hacking, coughing, nose-wiping travelers who had been in the elevator before me.

If only I had known the secret of cold avoidance at the time—a secret revealed to me a month later by the driver of a town car in Sanibel, Fla., as he drove me from the airport to my hotel for a speaking engagement.

Here was a kindred spirit. He was in his fifties and wore a white short-sleeve shirt, gray slacks, and wire-framed glasses. At first glance he looked like Harry Truman, though I think his name was Ed. He had white teeth; his town car was white. I did not see his shoes and belt. In the course of a rambling airport-transfer kind of conversation, about weather, roads, alligators, hurricanes, alligators, traffic, causeway bridges, and more alligators, I mentioned that I’d just come back from a voyage on the Queen Mary 2 and somehow had managed to avoid catching a cold even though everyone else on the ship, including my wife, had gotten the virus.

“I don’t get colds,” he said, catching my gaze in his rearview mirror. His teeth flashed. “I haven’t had a cold in ten years. Do you want to know why?”

He sprays his car with Lysol and keeps a supply of hospital masks in his glove compartment, as he made sure to show me at the next traffic light. He uses baby wipes to disinfect his steering wheel and door handles and anything that a passenger was likely to touch. “Once I had a woman in the seat right behind me. Oh she was sick. Sniffling, sneezing, blowing her nose, dripping everywhere. I opened the windows. She says ‘no, it’s too cold, I’ve got chills.’ So I turned the vents to fresh air. I told her to please move to the other end of the seat, and aimed the vents at her. I always use the vents with fresh outside air, and I aim them back like this.”

He adjusted the vents until a breeze filled my corner of the back seat.

He had a strategy for cruise ships, which he now explained to me. He always brings a supply of surgical masks, hand sanitizer, and a zinc vitamin supplement. “I take a mask and I cut off the straps and I put it in my pocket. And if I’m ever in an elevator, I hold it over my face like this.”

He cupped his hand over his face. His wife does not like it when he does this, he told me. She complains that people will think it is weird.

“I told her, ‘what do I care what people think; I’ll never see them again. If they think anything, they’ll think that I’m the one with a cold.’”

On one cruise his wife got a cold on the first day. “So I called the steward,” he told me. “You know how you have these big beds that are actually made up of two beds put together? I told him to separate the beds and make them up so that our heads were at opposite ends. I didn’t get sick.”

He grinned. “You know the secret?” He mentioned the name of a nasal spray that apparently exhausts a plume of zinc into your nose. “The minute I start feeling like I’m getting a cold, I use it. Next day, I’m fine. What it does, zinc, it stops the virus from reproducing. You get less virus, so it never gets to where you have a cold. I never get sick.”

We stopped in front of my hotel. He opened the trunk and lifted out my bag. We exchanged hearty handshakes. “I never get sick,” he said again.

I looked at our enmeshed hands. “But suppose I have a cold?” I said. I didn’t, but, sometimes I just like being a jerk.

You might,” he grinned, “But I don’t.”

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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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