Telling Things To Strangers

As published in Chronique

A few weeks ago, we had a climatic curiosity in Maine. Snow in late October. Serious snow – as in 50cms in an evening. On the night in question I was bringing my children – now both adolescents – by bus to Logan Airport in Boston to catch their flight back to London, then was booked on a late-evening plane to New York. But my flight to JFK was cancelled, so I booked myself on the slow night train to Manhattan – a journey of 320km which takes over five hours and points up one of the terrible truisms of American life: when it comes to public transportation, public broadcasting, public schools, public anything, we dogmatically refuse to spend anything that might improve the lot of our citizens’ lives. When it comes to military spending and tax dodges for the plutocrats, however…

But I digress. Having seen my children off I then took the bus in to the railway station, only to discover that, owing to the snow falling everywhere around New York, my train had also been cancelled. I was standing by the announcement board when the cancellation was flashed on the screen. A chap near me muttered ‘Shit’ under his breath. We got talking. His name was Daniel (actually I’ve changed his name for reasons that will become clear). He was Irish, but lived in London. He too was trying to head into Manhattan, as he had business there the next day. And when I turned to him and said, ‘Want to split the cost of a rental car?’ he jumped at the opportunity. So I called a car rental company, negotiated a rate, and five minutes later we were in a taxi en route to the airport. Within ten minutes we were at the rental counter, and when the guy behind the desk offered up a 4×4 for an extra $11, we said yes… given the night that was out there. By 22h00 we were on the road – me (the American) behind the wheel, telling the Irish guy that, all going well, we should be in New York by 0100 the latest… as the drive at night usually takes three hours, no more.

Now the snow is Boston was more like sleet. But to reach New York, it’s simpler to go west on Interstate 90, then cut south through the most northern part of Connecticut. This turned out to be a bad call – because 20km from Boston we drove straight into deep, unforgiving snow. It was near-blizzard conditions – visibility down to perhaps 10 metres. And all around us cars were skidding off the road, crashing into trees, gaining no traction whatsoever.

“Is this a good idea?” Daniel asked me.

“It’s a little little to worry about that” I said – and the car hit the first of four skids that marked our way south.

Our conversation was a little awkward at first. After all we were strangers thrown together by climatic curiosity – and now we were very much dealing with the sort of adversity that strange weather (a blizzard in October!) can bring. So, to break the ice, I started talking about my children and how they had coped with the divorce that I had initiated three and a half years earlier. And how, since the legal deal was struck some months afterwards, I had actually discovered that being out of a bad marriage was, truly, a ‘get out of jail’ card.

Having exchanged this confidence, Daniel suddenly began to open up, informing me that his marriage was anything but happy; that though he was close to his two daughters he also – as a man in his early forties – wondered if he had entrapped himself in a life he didn’t fully want. And then there was the fact that an Italian woman he worked with – he was something in finance in the City of London – was meeting him in New York… ‘so I am very pleased that we will be getting to Manhattan tonight, as she arrived there a few hours ago”. And no, it wasn’t love. But it was passionate and intense – and after the desert of his marriage…

The snow kept falling, and I kept learning more and more about the complex contours of Daniel’s life, as I, in turn, let him in on a few more things about my own. The casual, but intense confession-box banter of two strangers meeting each other in wholly random way, and speaking about things that mattered – in the knowledge that, in a few short hours, they would never see each other again.

Is this why we confide things to a stranger – because they are largely certain to vanish thereafter? Does the impulse we all have towards confession, to seek some sort of personal exculpation, gain greater force when it is spoken to someone who will drift out of our lives as soon as the train arrives in the station?

In this case, the snow made the three hour trip to New York last six hours. But as we pulled up in front of my hotel – and I handled Daniel the car keys (as the deal we made was: I would drive, but he’d get the vehicle back to the rental car drop-off in Manhattan the next day) – I said: ‘A pleasure travelling with you’. And handing him my card with my email address I said: ‘Keep in touch’.

But, as expected, I’ve never heard from him again.

  • Maggie Roche

    Douglas, I wish I was in Boston that evening. It would have been my dream come true. You are such an amazing guy. Your books, (I’ve read them all at least twice over, the big Picture 3 x & Temptation 4 x) have had quite an impact on my life. Ultimately they offer me hope & the way you write leaves an indellible mark. BTW I would have definately kept in touch…! Keep doing your magic. And thank you for your wonderful work. Maggie.