Never again. I'm in the back of a car on the road to Montréal with two complete strangers, found via a lift share group online. They're a couple who have obviously had a serious argument prior to getting in the car and nobody has yet said a word. The atmosphere is dreadful. But still, only another 5 hours and 46 minutes to go.
We pull into the car park of Big Daddy’s Drive In Diner, about an hour or so from the Canadian border. Soon the ice is broken by a short-but-civil chat while standing in the queue for the loo (I’m dancing actually – it’s the first opportunity of this road-trip to relieve the pressure from the wall of my bladder). They ask me what I do for a living. I tell them I’m an accountant visiting friends in Quebec and not that I’m a comedian appearing in a burlesque show. Back to silence. And dancing. I must look like a lunatic.
Montréal. Walking along the Boulevard Saint-Laurent, where I’ll give my first show tonight, the face of Leonard Cohen looks down upon us, painted in black and purple – the work of the artist Kevin Ledo – towering several floors above the street, on the side of the Cooper Building. Cohen was born here in Montréal, kept a home here throughout his days, and is buried here today. He said he felt at home in this town in a way he just couldn’t feel at home anywhere else. His presence in the world always made me feel reassured about my own place in it and I’ve lost count of the people who’ve told me that they find his music depressing. Anybody who finds Leonard Cohen depressing cannot possibly be listening to Leonard Cohen properly. He was, and still is, uplifting for the human spirit and a deeply witty soul.
Wandering the streets in heavy rain when my trainers have had it is a strange and beautiful thing. I’d go barefoot if I knew the place better. It’s the summer, the rain is almost warm and the battery on my phone has just died. Good. If only for a few hours, I can enjoy being out of contact with everybody else. I like a decent storm. I find a crack of thunder to be an intoxicating thing. I’ve never understood why weather reports tell you that there might be a “risk” of thunder on the way. A “risk” for me is getting into the back of a car with two strangers on a seven hour journey to the unknown.
Across the street I spot the Cinéma L’Amour, a movie theatre that first opened as a house of vaudeville that doubled up as a cinema, screening films in Yiddish for the local Jewish community throughout the first half of the last century. It is said that the great escapologist Harry Houdini was punched several times in the stomach by a religious zealot – believing magic to be the work of God alone – backstage in his dressing room at this theatre, an incident that occurred just before his death by peritonitis – secondary to a ruptured appendix. I think of Houdini as I look up at the marquee which boasts all the films “Now Showing” above the boards where he performed. They include Cute Little Things, He Came Inside My Hot Wife and the charmingly titled MILF Creampied.
Backstage, life at the Wiggle Room – the burlesque house where I’m working tonight – is alive with activity. I jostle for space with a juggler, a stand-up comic and two burlesque acts. We all prepare to do our own thing between the protocol of niceties that are the norm backstage almost everywhere. But no backstage life anywhere is as courteous as it is right here in Montréal. Don’t ask me why. It’s probably right to thank the French.
The show is soon over. It isn’t essential that a burlesque audience work as hard as the performer does but it helps if they do. But they did – it went great and unlike poor Harry Houdini, I wasn’t punched in the stomach in the dressing room after the show. It is surely a sign of a roaring success in this part of the world.
I find this place to be the most civilized of a major world city I’ve been to – though now I live in New York where people are just too busy to be civilized – with some truly great places to eat (thank the French for the decent bread), fun places to drink (the bars stay open until 3am – which is right and proper) and the cost of a rented apartment is almost a third of what it costs in New York. Could La vie de Montréal really be ouvrir to the likes of me? Maybe. But could I live in a city that once suffered a January climate of -33.5ºC? I doubt it. Though I’m always on the lookout for someplace to settle, the liberté de vagabondage is how I’m wired to function.
I’m sitting on a train, headed back to New York. Covering a distance of nearly four hundred miles, it takes over twelve hours to get there. Twelve! The couple behind me are bickering between themselves, there’s a screaming child across the aisle, and the immigration cops on the American side of the border are notching up their seat-to-seat interrogations to the level of Checkpoint Charlie. I should have taken a plane. Never again.
With thanks to Matt Roper for the text and imagery.
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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