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Shame and fish filets: Diary of a comedian trapped in COVID cruise ship quarantine

My name is Jen Murphy and I’m a Los Angeles-based stand-up comedian who was recently hired to perform for eight nights on a cruise ship.

I know what you’re thinking: Who are these fools getting on a cruise ship at the height of a “third wave”? Entertainers who desperately need to make money! Or at least that’s my reasoning. I can’t speak for the other 1,799 people boarding that ship with me.

In the weeks leading up to the trip out of the port of Miami on New Year’s Day, I received several texts from family and friends with articles about the health dangers of boarding a ship at this time. I knew it was risky, but I am also a comedian whose workload came to a halt in March 2020 and still has not fully returned. With unemployment running out months ago and the financial burden of a $1,600-a-month, 300-square-foot studio apartment in Los Angeles, I had to take the work that was available. Despite the shady reputation that often accompanies cruise ships, they pay well for entertainment. For a majority of us who have not hit that Bill Burr level of success, we go where we can just to get paid to be on that stage.

Taking extra precautions, I got myself tested twice in the four days leading up to the departure of my red-eye flight from LAX. Both tests were negative. When I landed at the Miami airport, I headed straight to the ship, where I was tested by the onboard doctor when first boarding the ship. Once again, I was in the clear with a negative result.

The first night of the cruise I was not scheduled to perform, so with mask cover securely in place, I wandered the ship and went to check out the other performers with whom I would be spending my week at sea. After a fun show and some chit-chat with the other comedian on board, I headed to my cabin. I was extremely tired but chalked it up to the fact that I had taken a red-eye flight and not slept at all. A few hours after going to sleep, I woke up with a pounding headache and a throat drier than a 2020 prom dress.

I stayed up most of the night chugging water and calculating how many hours I had to recover from this random illness before my first performance that night. By noon the next day, I didn’t feel any better, so I decided to head back to the medical office to snag some Advil and cough drops. As soon as I walked in and declared my symptoms of a cold, I was immediately told to shelter in place. The doctor did not seem happy that I’d be joining the dozens of other sick crew members, a number that was multiplying by the day, especially since I had not even been on board for 24 hours.

Before he even got the results of my test, the doctor directed me to go back to my room and pack my bags. With a very disapproving look he said, “I’ll call you in 20 minutes.” Before leaving, he grabbed a small box and handed it to me. He said, “These are for your throat. You don’t swallow them; you just suck on them till they are gone. Don’t swallow. They aren’t going to cure it but they will temporarily make your throat feel better.” When I looked down at the box it had a picture of small red candies. Did he just describe to me how cough drops work?

I went back to my room in disbelief. I hadn’t even gotten onstage yet. Sure enough, as I was repacking all the clothes that I had hung up just a few hours before, I got the call that the test was positive and that I would be sent down to quarantine. It felt like I was going to jail for a crime I didn’t commit. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was guilty by association!

I packed up all my stuff as instructed and then sat quietly on my wooden-framed twin futon bed and waited. Two hours later, there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find three crew members. The first was a woman in full medical scrubs and a face shield, whom I quickly found out would be my escort. Behind her were two gentlemen whose job was to spray my body and suitcase down with an apparatus that looked like they had just come from chemicalizing an outdoor garden. If the COVID hadn’t affected my lungs, this disinfectant certainly did. Down the hall by the elevators were four security guards, there to ensure I properly got into the elevator.

Did they think I was going to attempt to flee in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?

As the elevator doors closed, the woman reached out and hit the button for the lowest possible floor. I wanted to scream, “No! Go up!! I can’t be taken down to the dungeon of this vessel!” As the numbers slowly descended, my anxiety level was doing just the opposite.

With a short walk down the hall, we arrived at my room. I was instructed to in no way leave the room, so much so that I was not even given a key so I had no way of getting back in. She opened the door and let me in with a smile, “You get room service, it’s great!” That was the last interaction I would have with a human being for the rest of the cruise.

Reality hit me. I’m alone in the basement of a ship in a room with no windows for the next eight days! I immediately turned on the TV to distract myself from the inevitable claustrophobia-induced panic attack that I knew I’d have to face on several occasions in the days to come. It was Sunday and I was told I would be required to quarantine alone for 10 days. I should also mention that the TV remote didn’t work, and no one would come down to fix it because they said they were “not allowed access into the quarantine area of the ship.”

I laid down and closed my eyes to take a nap. Not long after, I was jolted awake by a boisterous banging on the door immediately followed by a thunderous foreign male voice shouting, “Dinner!” I guess this is how I am getting fed now. And that was the routine, three times a day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There was no preference of food to choose from, just a large plate of food left in the hallway on a tray covered in a red plastic bag labeled “Hazardous Waste Material.” Since any form of contact was strictly prohibited, I was instructed to wait until I heard him walk away before I opened my door and crouched down to the carpet to retrieve my meal.

I was definitely sick. The first couple mornings I woke up drenched in my own sweat. Being that there would be no maid service all week for the patients, I put a bath towel down on the sheets to lay on. This was not the first time in my life that I have had to put a towel on my bed but it was the first time that it was from a fever.

Each day without fail, the resounding joyful voice of the cruise director, T.J., would come blasting out of the speaker in the ceiling announcing all the fun activities happening aboard the ship that day. Most notably, the comedy show happening every single night. Although I took all precautions before embarking on this week of work and no blame had been placed on me by my superiors (and I still received my performer’s fee), I still felt a sense of shame and disappointment every time I heard the announcement. I felt I had let down everyone involved in giving me this job and those who trusted my comedic skills. I was hired to do a job of entertaining the 1,800 people who had boarded that ship, and I didn’t once make it to the stage. I was supposed to be the “hilarious comedian they had on the cruise” that I’m sure would be a highlight of the vacation stories they would share with all their friends back home.

One of our first ports to stop was Antigua. Being that my room was at the front of the ship and on the very ground floor, I was just in line with the ramp that gets lowered down with cables for the passengers to exit to land. As the large cables lowered down slowly, my bed shook for what felt like 20 minutes but I’m guessing was closer to 3½. I just imagined all the giddy, anxious passengers with huge smiles on their faces as they walked down the ramp to their perfect day of sunny weather and paradise beaches.

I called my mother on the phone and, although she was all the way in Orange County Calif., she seemed to reflect the same excitement as one of the passengers onboard as she told me, “Oh my God, I am looking up the weather in Antigua and it is sunny and perfect today.” Thanks, Mom.

By the third night my panic and anxiety at having no fresh air had now converted into more of a personal fear of being a woman alone in a secluded room. I imagined the possibility that just one of these underground workers on the ship may know that I’m a woman trapped alone in a basement bedroom of the ship. This is not a judgment of any person who may work on the ship; it is just a rare possibility that my brain feels the need to prepare for when I’m traveling alone, no matter what the location or job type. Being that nobody would be physically checking up on me for days on end, my mind couldn’t help but imagine the worst. The only guy who might take notice of my absence would be the bearer of my food delivery, but I’m positive for COVID, so what if he thinks I’m just not picking up my meals because I am too sick to get out of bed?

Since the size of the room was just enough to fit my comfy queen-sized bed, there was really nowhere to walk except the small hallway between the room and cabin door. After about the fourth day, my legs were beginning to cramp on a daily basis from too much time spent vertically.

There is only so much distraction available when your TV only has five channels, so it wasn’t long before my brain started to get the best of me. Self-reflection can be tough, but it’s even more challenging when this sudden “silent retreat” I am suddenly on was not something I signed up for. I quickly found myself with nothing else to look at but a mirror. I am a 47-year-old single woman still struggling to build a career in L.A., and this much spare time is the ultimate recipe for disaster!

Too much time staring at social media, at all my fellow comedians who are out performing and working on land, while I am out in this floating vessel of shame and fish filets.

Where will my next hug come from? And why didn’t I spend more time in my 30s being confident instead of hiding in the corners in a cloud of worthlessness that permeated the air around me as a signal to any male who dared get in my vicinity? How many more men should I sleep with before my vagina starts to look its age? I’m way too emotionally immature to be this close to 50.

I only had one bag of peanut M&Ms in my purse as my emergency snack, which I always carry with me in case of a sudden sugar craving, and they are now being rationed out on my desktop. I can have three each day before I run out.

On the sixth day of quarantine I got a call saying that they would be sending me home in two days! A tear came to my eye. My sentence had been reduced. Thanks to the CDC announcing the news that the suggested number of days in isolation be reduced, I would be sent home when the ship docked on the eighth day. I was ecstatic. I suddenly felt a new optimism for life. I can go back to hugging people again!

On the morning the boat docked, I was up at 3 a.m. just waiting to breathe fresh air again. When it was finally time to leave my room four hours later, I looked back at the bed I had just spent eight days in and actually felt a bit of nostalgia on saying goodbye. That bed felt like my partner in a journey that, although short, deeply impacted my present life. A lot of my deep fears came to the surface throughout that week, and instead of washing them away with tears and a shot of Patrón, I sat in that bed and just rode the waves till it felt calm again. There is a great comfort in realizing I came out stronger on day eight than I was on day one.

People have asked if I would get back on a ship anytime soon. If there is a stage and an audience, then the answer is always, without hesitation, yes. As I walked down the long ramp exiting the ship, I thought I would feel overwhelmed with emotion, but in reality it was just another day of going home from a comedy gig that went the complete opposite of what I had expected, and in this profession, that seems to be the case more often then we would like. Like a chameleon, we must easily adapt to our surroundings in order to survive. And we do it all for the chance to perform.

One thing’s for sure: I’ll never look at another piece of fish without thinking of those four walls when I crossed the Atlantic twice without ever seeing anything past the shore.

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