Small blessings when life takes a wrong turn
Toronto Star, June 18, 2004
By Joe Fiorito
There was a swelling in his foot. At first he thought it
was a strain, a deep bruise, whatever, who knows, it's probably nothing.
But the swelling got worse and his foot got so painful that Rob Siciliano
thought he ought to take some time off work.
A tough decision.
Rob is a bike courier, a poet, a musician. If he doesn't
work, he doesn't get paid; none of his gigs provides him with sick leave or
any other benefits in the usual sense of the term.
Although after you read this, you might be able to make
a case for the benefits of membership in a samba band. Wait for it.
Rob owns two bikes, an Italian Gios and a Raleigh
gearless; two bikes, because a courier needs a spare. After a couple of
weeks off work, his foot was so badly swollen that he couldn't ride either
one of the bikes to the hospital. He limped on to public transit. He
hobbled over to Mount Sinai. He slumped into a chair in emergency.
There were the usual tests - ultrasound, x-rays, blood
work. Not long after they got the results, the doctors asked Rob if he had
any close relatives. He swallowed hard. That's a serious question in a
hospital. They said the swelling was a clot. They told Rob he had
Oh, man, cancer.
Rob is 37 years old. His only living relative is his
older brother, who lives in Paris. All he has are friends.
The best of his friends are the guys in the band, We Are
Samba, a loose collection of some 30 drummers. They play Brazilian music
around town. Rob played steadily for many years; now he is an irregular.
His instrument is the surdu, "the deaf one," a huge drum, the heartbeat
of a samba band.
When word got out that Rob was in the hospital, his
bandmates thought it was frostbite. Rob wears ratty old torn sneakers all
winter long. Why? He's a poet. He's broke. His head is in the clouds. His
eyes are on the horizon. Poets don't care about sneakers.
I dropped by to see him the other day. That's what you
do if you want to see Rob. You take your chances. You can't call ahead. He
doesn't have a phone. If he's home, he's home.
He came to the door on crutches. He is thinner than a
vegetarian. His hair is wispy under his baseball cap. There are angry red
marks on the insides of his arms where the doctors have drawn blood, and
you can see by the marks they have drawn a lot of it. He was wearing a
hospital-blue bootie on his foot. The foot is still painful. But he didn't
look bad for a guy with cancer.
How's he feeling?
"My appetite's okay. I get pretty tired. This thing
came out of the blue. It's telling me to slow down. People in Toronto are
work-work-work. It's time to take a break." He paused, as if weighing
something in his mind.
"I've had close calls before. I've been hit by cars
maybe half a dozen times. That's nothing, a courier hit by a car. This is
cancer. I'd rather get hit by a car any day.
"I just had a CAT scan. I'll have a better idea of
how I'm doing when I get the results. But I'm halfway through the chemo.
Four more rounds to go. I'm going to beat this thing. I'll be back leaner
and meaner than ever."
How's he getting by without a paycheque?
"I wasn't eligible for employment insurance, so I'm
on Ontario Works. An irony - I'm okay for money now that I'm not working,
but when I'm healthy I'm just scraping by. Figure that one out."
Not hard to figure.
Couriers don't make much in the summer; it's worse for
courier-musician-poets. That's the price of a certain kind of freedom. On
the other hand, membership in the band has provided him with a literal
benefit: We Are Samba is holding a fundraiser for Rob. June 24, 7 p.m.,
Bloor Cinema; tickets, $10.
A ticket gets you a rare chance to see a documentary
film about the band. After the film, a song or two. If he's feeling well,
Rob will pound a drum. He may read a poem. One of the members of the band
is a travel agent, so there will be a raffle. You could win a trip to Rio.
The money they raise? Nobody wants to screw up Rob's
benefits by giving him anything the government will claw back.
Last I heard, there were plans to bring his brother over
for a visit. And, last I heard, the party will continue elsewhere when the
theatre is cleared for the next movie.
Rob said, "I left the group, but the group hasn't
left me. Samba is like soccer or hockey. It brings people together."