Fran was a blinding 1,000-watt lightbulb in a candelabra of 50-watters. In any crowd she stood out very bright, distinguished, and unavoidably fashionable. Fran dressed to the nines to be noticed, ensuring she was at or near the center of attention at any table and gathering.
Carrie and I met Fran on our first cruise ship vacation. Friends had invited us to join them on a fancy cruise line they liked and soon we were headed down to the Panama Canal on a Crystal Cruises vessel.
Crystal marketed itself as a demure luxury brand. A cruise line for those with high tastes and expectations. Indeed, it was a very nice, albeit older ship, restored with a good facelift. In truth, it did attract well-to-do folks, generally older folks, often restored with facelifts, some good lifts, some bad… Indeed, there were a lot of things lifted on that Crystal ship.
Carrie and I were still youngish then, so we, (especially she) stood out from the largely 70-something crowd. We were also brand new to “cruising,” so we also stood out for our sometimes youthfully “uncouth” errors of conduct.
Crystal maintained a distinguished dress code, especially at dinners. Each cruise calendared two “black tie” formal events, mandating guests dress like attending the Prom or Cinderella’s Grand Ball. Thus, prior to departure I made a mandatory stop at the Lyons Avenue formal wear shop and rented me a tuxedo, having never purchased one in my adult life so far, and with scant chances of ever needing one after this cruise.
Yes, perhaps I was uncouth.
So, I rented the tux and with the tux came a rented “fancy” shirt along with an also-rented electric blue tie. Not a tuxedo bow tie, but a regular long tie, save for the stunning electric blue color hiding a little dirty secret: The tie was fake. It was a zip-up. You zipped it open, stuck it over your head and around your neck, and zipped it up tight. Perfect for the uncouth tux-renting masses who never learned to formally dress themselves. And wow, did that rented tux with the rented electric blue tie have me looking good at 55! “Clothes,” I learned, “make the man.”
The first formal dinner had us sharing the table with unknown guests. We scored big time, with cruise director Bob. “Cruise Bob” as he was known, had been leading such cruises for two decades and even published books. What a hoot, and source of fun and entertainment. But far outshining even Cruise Bob was Fran, who made her dramatic solo entrance in a truly gorgeous flowing gown, and diamonds to die for.
Fran had big hair, a big bright smile, and big diamonds that lit up everything. We learned this was Fran’s 90th cruise, and soon she would make the Crystal Cruise 100 cruise club! Fran knew every inch of the ship. Fran knew everyone working on the ship. She knew many of the folks cruising on that ship. And this was how Fran was going to spend the rest of her days… floating the oceans in style, every need attended to, while making grand entrances and memories as the years floated by.
The wine flowed with the ocean waves, with stories and wit shared across the table. Fran’s husband had died three years back, leaving her very well to do with a Florida mini mansion she generally avoided and two kids she treated the same. This ship was Fran’s life and she loved it.
But after long stories of Fran’s opulent life and wine pours that were also long, I dropped the bomb on Fran and Cruise Bob: My tux was RENTED. RENTED! And worse, my radiant blue tie was fake, used a zipper, and I dramatically unzipped and rezipped the thing to prove my point.
Fran was aghast. Visibly shaken. An interloper had crashed her table and that interloper was me! Things quieted down after that public act of indecency and our prior buoyant conversation turned chilly. Soon, Fran begged us goodnight and she went her way, and we went ours and we thought that was pretty much the end of Fran for us.
And it was, until about two years later when, with the same friends, again on a Crystal ship, we again bumped into Fran in the dining room. Fran was all smiles and we quickly made plans for a small group dinner. Fran was a joy and we laughed and laughed at that once-awkward moment with the electric blue fake tie… It was a night to remember.
A little older, a little wiser, Fran opened up to new people. A little older and a little less uncouth, I learned to behave myself and accept new friends. That last dinner with Fran was a high point not to be repeated: Crystal Cruises went bankrupt during COVID. Like many in hospitality industries — hotels, restaurants and cruise lines — only the deepest pocketed made it through to something akin to “business as usual.”
Investors eventually bought Crystal Cruises and their two old ships. Emails are now cascading, announcing new upgrades, grand openings, and special grand opening deals.
I read Crystal’s announcement to Carrie.
“I wonder what ever happened to Fran during COVID?” she immediately replied.
Fran must have gotten those last 10 cruises done before COVID shut the whole thing down. But what then? Fran was a COVID risk. She had to isolate for safety. Her beloved way of life went bankrupt. Maybe she returned to her mini mansion to wait it out. Perhaps she developed a new hobby or lifestyle. COVID flipped Fran’s life upside down and we never heard from her or of her again… COVID turned most of our lives over. Most have lost contact with significant numbers of old friends. We’ve even lost track of family, as socializing habits have changed, and we’ve remained more isolated.
It’s a new year and finally time to reach back out. Time to get out the address book and call folks who’ve been too long forgotten. Time to look up and catch up. It’s time to take our lives off hold and renew lost friendships — for everyone’s good.
May 2023 be the year of renewed friendships. That’s a New Year’s resolution we can all achieve.
Maybe I’ll even hunt down Fran and retell that funny story of the blue fake tie and we’ll all have another good, hard laugh.
Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.