The Company of Strangers

It is only as I’ve gotten older that I recognize that I’ve inherited my mother’s bleeding heart and my father’s willingness to talk to complete strangers. The combination of these traits are — I’m sorry to say — sometimes a recipe for chaos in life. 

I don’t know what it is about cab drivers here in the States, but they’re always opening up/ sharing their problems/needing a shoulder to cry on whenever I happen to be inside their taxi. In Harlem it was the Bangladeshi whose mother had just died. I was already very late for an appointment and there I was, standing on the kerb for ten minutes, reassuring him that he wasn’t a bad son. Now who am I to say whether he was a bad son or not? But I think if you can make somebody feel a little better about themselves in their hour of need then you should do all that you can. In Phoenix, Arizona, it was the widower who feared he’d met somebody else “too soon”. I told him there was never “too soon” only “too late”, while thinking to myself that I really ought to be writing slush for the insides of greetings cards. In San Francisco my driver was the former junkie who’d nearly murdered his landlady once and “hadn’t told any passengers” about his past but felt he could “tell me everything”. What can you possibly say to that? The mind boggles. In a taxi you’re more or less trapped, of course, and I’m only glad that the passenger doors were left unlocked and that he’d decided to stop the meter.

Taxi’s are not the worst places on earth to be stuck with strangers, in fact sometimes they’re the place to be stuck in the company of somebody new. It all depends on what sort of mood I’ve woken up in, I suppose.

Long-haul flights are perhaps the worst of all places to be imprisoned with others but I might have perfected the art of dealing with that. On check-in, I ask to be seated right at the back of the aircraft — the final row if possible. Once I’m seated alongside my fellow passengers I casually and quietly mention that I have a tendency to be physically sick when flying and if they don’t mind me taking the aisle seat as it gives me more chance to get to the loo in time. Alternatively, I might tell them I think I’m coming down with the flu. It works. After take-off, these passengers will go and have a subtle chat to a member of the cabin crew and have themselves swiftly seated elsewhere. Bingo. I have four seats all to myself and nobody behind me. Time to knock back a large glass of claret, snort a line or two of valium, before finding myself comfortably stretched across those beautifully empty seats — to doze off to glorious technicolour dreams.

Pubs and bars are the ideal place for the company of strangers — and for a swift, sharp exit if you ever need to make one. But even then sometimes things backfire. Very late one night in Notting Hill I ended up with a friend in the only place open past one o’clock in the morning that was licensed to serve us something to drink. I promise you, all we wanted was one quiet beer. We were ushered down a narrow stairway from the street into a rowdy Austrian-themed beer cellar. Themed is actually too shy a word for it. We were seated quickly and served a large tankard of beer by a blonde, blue-eyed and cheery faced waiter dressed in traditional Bavarian garb: full lederhosen and a pair of ‘Hans’ plattlershoes. There was little time to re-think, nor get out. We were — quite literally — von Trapped. A karaoke soundtrack of everyone from the Rolling Stones to Boyzone was piped loudly through the speakers while a jolly team of waiters led the packed tables in singing and clapping along — slightly out of time. And then *it* happened. The resident band. I despise oompah music from the opening bang of the big bass drum right down to the final fart of the tuba. Forty-five minutes and thirty-five pounds later we were pushed up and out into the street and I suppose the moral of the story is this: is just one more drink really necessary?

It seems that cafés are the safest place to be, where all of life is happening, especially in a town like, say, Paris where my ears and eyes are always open and everything around me is an event. Paris is one of those places where even buying bread is an event. And it was in Paris a couple of years ago that I found myself sharing coffee one afternoon with a writer who’d just returned from Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. He was telling me that they’d had a heavy rainstorm while he was there, which burst the banks of the river and flooded the city zoo, releasing a great number of animals into the city. Six lions, six tigers, a pack of wolves, several hyenas and one large hippopotamus found themselves on an immediate, unexpected adventure. One lone penguin even managed to get himself as far as the border with Azerbaijan.

That penguin is a hero.

Yes. His struggle is my struggle and I shall raise a glass to that penguin tonight and everything he stands for.


Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.

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