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I AM STANDING ON THE TOP DECK of a Carnival cruise ship, which has just shoved off from the Port of New Orleans, headed down the Mississippi River toward the Gulf of Mexico, and all around me, surrounding a stage erected next to the swimming pool, is a sea of 3,000 ex-teenage girls vibrating with excitement.
Any moment now the New Kids on the Block are going to appear, and then they’re not going to leave for the next four days, and we’re all going to sail to Cozumel, Mexico, and back.
I’m getting excited for the New Kids, too, which is kind of why I’m on this boat, and in that moment a woman standing next to me becomes the first of many who will ask me that question, point-blank: Why are you here?
Her name is Jo Dousling-Beck, and she is a fortysomething mother of two teenage boys who has come all the way from Australia for the cruise, and not for the first time. This is the ninth annual New Kids on the Block Cruise, and many of the women vibrating around me have been on every single one.
When she hits me with the question, it is not an interrogation. She can’t quite figure out what a 41-year-old guy is doing all alone on the New Kids on the Block Cruise. So I tell her my New Kids story, which I’m now mature enough to admit.
I spent half of my life pretending to hate the New Kids on the Block. It was more or less required. Boys did not like the New Kids; that wasn’t how it worked. Girls liked the New Kids on the Block, and boys mocked the New Kids on the Block, because that’s what boys do when they’re jealous.
I was in the seventh grade when four boys from Dorchester and one from Jamaica Plain became the Biggest Band in the World seemingly overnight, and living in Boston put me in the epicenter of what quickly became a global mania. The girls in my school lost their minds. They had New Kids T-shirts and New Kids pillowcases and New Kids buttons on their Esprit bags, and they stood at their lockers spraying Aqua Net on their huge hair while staring at the dreamy pictures of Donnie Wahlberg and Jordan Knight they had cut out of Tiger Beat and taped all over their doors. And every one of them had some story about how they actually knew the New Kids, or their cousin knew them, or they saw Joey McIntyre hanging out at the Li’l Peach in Jamaica Plain because I’m totally sure Joey Joe is just hanging out at a convenience store when he’s not being a global pop star.
The whole thing was deafening, and in the roar, my job was to pretend to hate the entire thing, because that’s how tween politics works: The fact that I know all the words to their songs? That is because you stupid girls will not stop playing them. I’m only butchering the high notes in “Please Don’t Go Girl” to show what a wuss Joey is for being able to nail them. The time I spend endlessly watching the Hangin’ Tough VHS tape with four other boys so we can learn the dance routine for “My Favorite Girl” and perform it in the annual end-of-summer lip-synch contest? That’s because we’re making fun of them. Der. There’s no way we actually like the New Kids. (Those four other guys are all cops and firefighters now.) How are you not getting this?
Then we grew up, and the New Kids grew up, and they broke up, and everyone went on with their lives and did boring things like turning 30, and when we’d see Donnie Wahlberg in a movie we’d laugh and say, “Remember when he used to be in a boy band and wear overalls?”
It all felt very much past me, past everyone, until one day in 2008 when my younger brother called me. The New Kids had apparently reunited — a fact that had happily escaped me — and were playing that night at the Garden. My brother wanted to go.
“You’re nuts,” I told him, dusting off my old act. “I am not going to the New Kids.”
“Come on,” he implored. “It will be hilarious.”
A few minutes later, he called me back.
“I just bought four tickets. We’re going.”
And so we went, with our wives, and right away I dropped my “being dragged” act because the scene was impossibly entertaining. It was 99 percent women, and they were all dressed up in their old ’80s gear, and there was an electricity in the building like nothing I’d felt before. They were playing old clips of the boys running around the streets of Boston, and I started to get little nostalgia bumps on my arms. Then the show began, and Donnie came out on stage and yelled “Bossssttttonnnnn!” and I thought the building was going to collapse. I was screaming. Everyone was screaming. When the opening bars of “The Right Stuff” started playing, I was dancing like a fool, singing every word, no longer pretending that I hated the New Kids on the Block.
I went to their show at Fenway a few years later, and then again last summer — in both instances, I was the one who bought the tickets and “dragged” people there for the time of their lives — and as I stood in the grandstand at Fenway in July, looking out at the vibrating hordes of ex-teenage girls, I realized that I did not exactly love the New Kids on the Block, at least not in the way of the diehard fans. No, what I was finally old enough to admit was that I have always been fascinated by the New Kids. For my generation, they have always been something larger than just a boy band. They were a symbol of something, of innocence and youthful dreaminess and unapologetic fun. This was true in seventh grade. And it is even truer now, because what’s amazing is that there is still a now for the New Kids on the Block. Oh, yes, there is definitely a now.
“And, so, as a journalist,” I tell the Australian woman who didn’t know she was going to get such a long answer, “I started poking around to try to figure out how I could tell the story of the New Kids on the Block now, and everyone kept telling me I had to go on the cruise. So here I am.”
“Well,” she tells me with a knowing smile, “you’re definitely in for something.”
Just then Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood, Jon Knight, Jordan Knight, and Joey McIntyre take the stage, and the strangest four days of my life begin.
THE FOLLOWING MORNING AT 6 O’CLOCK, I am standing in the same spot on the deck, watching the sun rise over the Gulf of Mexico. The only other people awake are a handful of women still up from the night before, still wearing the old prom dresses they had donned for the Blockhead Ball. Their dresses do not look so great in the early light.
I had intended to go to the ball. I really had. But after the opening show and then New Kids Jeopardy! in the ship’s theater and then the formal dinner in the dining room — where I was shocked to learn that the ball didn’t start until 11 and went until 4 — I had lied to myself and my dinner companions and said I was just going to take a little nap before the party. But I’m too old to pull that off, just as I’m too old to pull an all-nighter, and so there I am, well rested, wondering how all these middle-aged moms, not to mention the New Kids themselves — who are pushing 50 — are going to sustain this pace for three more nights, because the parties only go later and later.
So I stand there at dawn, having the deep thoughts one does at that hour, trying to piece together what I’d seen on day one, which is not what I had expected to see.
I was expecting the ship to be full of moms with mortgages who got their girlfriends together for a silly 40th birthday trip, and wouldn’t it be funny if we went on that New Kids on the Block Cruise thing. I used to have such a crush on Jordan Knight.
And there is that. But it’s the minority. This is not a nostalgia trip. This is a ship full of very active Blockheads. The fans who never left, who wear T-shirts that read “I still love the New Kids,” who argue in online forums and know every bit of gossip and know everything Joey McIntyre posts on Twitter, who go back to their rooms during downtime and watch the 24/7 New Kids television channel that is playing on the ship’s cable system. I see tons of New Kids tattoos, including one woman with an elaborate image of Joey McIntyre covering her entire forearm. And they save their money, because this is not a cheap event, and they come on this cruise every year. If you cram in with others in an interior room, you can get on board for about $900 including taxes and fees. But most of the women I talk with have happily spent closer to $1,500 for the cruise, not counting the booze and the latest New Kids merch and the airfare from as far away as Japan and Germany and Chile and England, all for their chance to spend four days this close to the boys who were and still are their ultimate.
One thing I hear repeatedly is how the New Kids timed their reunion perfectly. They waited until their fans were old enough to have enough money to misbehave like kids again.
But what surprises me most is something else, which I can feel right away when the boys first take the stage, something a woman from Hammond, Louisiana, puts into words when I happen to sit next to her at dinner.
“It’s not sexual,” Dee Dee Becker says. “It’s hard to explain. But when I hear one of their songs or see them, I get emotional. I cry. It’s hard to explain. It’s nostalgic but . . . ” — she pauses and puts her hand on her heart — “ . . . it’s just love.”
Indeed, at the welcome show, as women dressed head to toe in New Kids gear scream all around me, my first reaction is that the boys look like five barely hip dads. (The band, I should note, performs a few of their own songs over the course of the cruise, but the cruise is mainly a big party.) Joey McIntyre is wearing a V-neck T-shirt, khaki shorts, and comfortable boat shoes. Later, at Jeopardy!, they take a little dance interlude, and Joey sneaks up behind Danny Wood and lifts his shirt to show off Danny’s abs, which are impressive, and everyone woohoos. But it’s all kind of a joke, and Danny looks slightly embarrassed, as if he knows this is all silly now, and that is what makes it fun. It’s an adult form of being young. Everyone is in on the joke, especially Jon Knight.
You are required to choose a favorite New Kid, and I’m ready to announce for Jon, who has always been the least visible of the guys, and the least interested. His shtick is that he is so over being a New Kid. He refuses to do that hip-thrusting move in their dance routines. He just stands there while the rest do it. And during Jeopardy! — where the band takes on five fans in New Kids trivia — he can’t wait to get off the stage, at one point interjecting this after a question a fan had answered about a lyric from a 1994 song: “I’m a New Kid, and even I didn’t know that.”
I AM STANDING IN A VERY LONG LINE of very dressed-up women who are waiting for their chance to take a group photo with the band. Each group must have 10 people, two per New Kid, and there are lots of women holding up signs that say “We need two Dannys” or “1 Joey.” The line snakes nearly the entire length of the ship, and the band shows up an hour late for the photo shoot, but no one seems to care, because no one has anywhere else to go, because we’re all trapped on a boat.
I’m inching along with a 41-year-old woman from California named Barbara Kasman, whom I met the previous day, and she’s telling me her New Kids story, which is very long and sad and involves a tough upbringing and the sudden death of her husband. After he died, while she was cleaning out his things, she found boxes of her New Kids memorabilia — sheets, dolls, magazines — which led to her going to see a reunion show, which led to her learning about the cruise, which she first went on in 2015. “I was experiencing PTSD because of my husband’s death, and I just knew I had to go on the cruise, and I have never felt as free as when Donnie Wahlberg gave his speech at the beginning.” Donnie always opens the cruise with an oath about sharing and spreading love. “I was on a cloud. It’s not just a party for me.”
Hours later we finally get in the room where the band is on a small stage for the photos, and as we are shuffled across, I shake hands with each of the guys, and I have to give them credit for still being boy-band hunky. Not a dad bod on them. Well maybe on Jon, but that’s why he’s my favorite New Kid. As I shake Donnie’s hand, I weirdly say, “Thanks for having me,” because I don’t know what else to say. And he looks at me genuinely and says, “No, man. Thanks for coming.”
Donnie does 90 percent of the talking when there’s a microphone around, and he’s big on messages of love and being thankful — there are a lot of #thankful T-shirts being worn; it’s kind of the slogan — and as I stand next to Jon and smile for the camera, I am kind of being swept up into this whole strange love boat, and it’s fine. I’m old enough to admit how endearing it is to revisit all this teenage nonsense in adulthood. One thing that makes me smile over and over is the way the fans decorate their cabin doors with New Kids photos, just like they did with their high school lockers.
DID I SAY ENDEARING? Well, mostly endearing. First, there were the guys on the ship. Based on my head count at the lifeboat drill, it was about 1 in 20, and a couple of them were there solely to take advantage of those odds. This included a crew from Scotland that goes on the cruise every year and is notorious in the NKOTB world. I’m not sure if that’s creepy or genius. It’s probably both.
And there were definitely a few women you had to keep an eye on, because when you think of the fact that this is the New Kids cruise, which naturally draws the most rabid New Kids fans on the planet, there are bound to be a few psychos. There is still security around the band, still women trying to sneak backstage, still women who fully believe that if they can just get a few minutes of alone time with Jordan, then he will fall in love with them and they’ll have babies together. There is a reason that, beyond the scheduled events, the band is nowhere to be seen. The guys aren’t lounging by the pool. They’re in their rooms in a blocked-off section of the ship.
These fans are the minority, but when you see it, it is uncomfortable, and the most uncomfortable moment of my cruise comes on the third night, after we’ve spent the day in Cozumel and turned back toward home. It’s about 3 a.m., and the evening’s theme party — Glow Night, which involves lots of neon glow sticks — is tipping from buzzed to blasted. The band doesn’t exactly perform during the nightly parties. They have microphones and dance along to a DJ, and they pull women up on stage and dance with them. That sort of thing. Mingle with the crowd. Pose for selfies.
Then, at one point, Joey McIntyre, dressed in a bright blue unitard, jumps into the pool. Security, standing on the deck next to him, have a look that says, “We’re not going in the pool.” But the fans are going in. And at first it’s funny. There are about 30 people in a small pool, and the boat is really rocking at this point, sending everyone sloshing from side to side. But then I notice a few women getting kind of aggressive toward Joey. He’s inside a small inflatable tube, giving him some kind of buffer, but the women begin to cluster around him, as if they are one big cell and he is the nucleus. And he smiles through it, but you can see from the look on his face that it has turned, that this is one of those moments that makes being a New Kid on the Block, or a fan of them, old-school uncomfortable. I’m standing there, making notes, and he starts yelling at me to hop in. I think he needs help, or at least another guy in there. It’s cute, but, you know, I have my phone, and my notebook, and it’s 3 a.m., so good night, Joe. I’ll catch you tomorrow.
IT POURS FOR MOST of the final day. Buckets. An acoustic show on the deck is canceled, so Donnie Wahlberg — who does not appear to sleep and does not appear to stop — stands under an awning on the deck and poses for a selfie with every single person who wants one. The line trails all the way around the ship.
Joey McIntyre goes to the atrium bar and does an impromptu lounge act with a pianist. He takes requests. He tells stories about crazy things he’s seen as a New Kid. It feels very homey and sweet, like it’s not his story but everyone’s. Just off the lounge is a sports bar, and the Patriots are playing the Atlanta Falcons for the first time since the Super Bowl, and this is a good chance to take a head count of how many Boston guys had been “dragged” on the cruise by their wives. It’s about two dozen.
I’m fading. It feels as though everyone is fading. Yawns are contagious. I go back to my room to watch the second half of the game, fall asleep, then wake up in a panic at 4 a.m., thinking I’ve missed the final night’s party. I have not.
We’re already back on the Mississippi River, steaming toward New Orleans, when the elevator door opens on the pool deck and I get out to hear Donnie on the microphone. It’s 4:23 a.m. We’re close enough to shore that cellphones are working again. Delayed text messages are flooding my phone. The real world is closing in.
“The boat’s about to pull up. Let’s close this weekend off with all the love we’ve got in our hearts,” Donnie shouts as he puts his arm around Jon Knight, the only other New Kid still awake. About a third of the women are still standing. Everyone else has gone to sleep or back to their rooms to pack, because we’re just hours away from being dumped on shore. But still going strong is a crew of women I’d met earlier that day. I’d been shocked when they’d set up shop at 8 a.m. to get a seat next to the stage. When I found them just before dawn, they had been there for 20 hours, through the torrential rain, just to be this close to their guys. They are dancing like maniacs when I walk up, like they’re having the night of their lives.
The sun is peeking over the horizon, and you can see New Orleans in the distance. The DJ plays one last song, and the DJ knows what he’s doing, because it’s the perfect New Kids song.
You walked into my life
Your love was so new
And nothing will ever change
My feelings for you.
Donnie is on stage singing along. All the women are singing along, getting ready to crush the chorus together like this song is about them, because at this point it’s easy to believe that it is.
She’s my favorite girl, ooohhh, she’s my favorite girl
Don’t you know.
MORE PHOTOGRAPHS:Billy Baker is a Boston Globe staff writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.