Yesterday marked the first day that I could see my breath before me as I walked to work. The air smelled of cold damp and the sharp tang of dead leaves. It was a great morning. But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the Fuck Cancer t-shirt.
The difficulty of the Fuck Cancer T-shirt
At lunchtime yesterday I went to Fratelli's Café, a noon-hour restaurant that belonged to a family named Fratelli about fifteen years ago. Since then it's been owned by (among others) a Korean couple who served sushi along with Italian sandwiches and espresso, a born-again biker who loved to extoll the virtues of virtuous living while entertaining me with tales of organized crime in the Maritimes, and most recently, a lumbering hollow-eyed guy with long blonde hair who looks like he took a hit of speed in 1974 and hasn't slept since. He employs little skater girls in touques and baggy cargo pants. They slouch around the counter, shuffle over to the tables, saunter back, slump over the espresso machine, and generally contrive to look as bored as possible. I suspect they're a major draw for the IT lunchtime crowd, a herd of slightly puffy guys in their twenties and thirties, khaki pants and checked shirts turned out, keycards swinging from their lanyards, a Blackberry holstered at the belt. How many times per day in cities across North America is this scene repeated? The numbers from Seattle alone must be staggering.
I generally show up at the tail end of the IT rush, when everyone is filtering out and the café enters the start of the long lazy afternoon, the slow stretch from one to four. After one o' clock the customers tend to be people who, like me, have waited out the rush, with its rustle of golf shirts and clack of heels, people who prefer to eat in relative quiet (this usually ends when the owner comes out of the kitchen and says "Anyone here like Led Zeppelin?" and then cranks up the stereo for a few minutes). People who need a brief break from the people who show up at noon. The skater girls sweep the floor and most of them leave. A couple hang around at a table or lean against the concrete planters in the courtyard and smoke. Somewhere in the midst of this slow time yesterday a boy walked in wearing a Fuck Cancer t-shirt.
I call it a Fuck Cancer t-shirt - as opposed "a t-shirt that says Fuck Cancer on it" - because teenage boys never do anything original, and this one was probably the first of the many that I will see over the next few years. Despite the contrivance and crassness, the smarmy calibration between the offensive and laudatory, I still wanted one for myself. I wanted to get up and run down the halls of hospitals and retirement complexes, bursting into the oncology ward with a raised fist, screaming "Fuck Cancer! Fuck it man!" and then running out again. The wearing of the shirt reminded me of the time that our grade 4 class found out that the French word for seal was "phoque". Much running around at recess and irritating of teachers followed.
I wondered what I'd do if I were the person behind the counter when Mr. Fuck Cancer came in and asked for an Italian soda. My likely reaction would be to ignore the shirt politely and make him his blueberry bullfrog or whatever they're calling sodas nowadays. Then I'd stand around and realize that I'd missed my moment - the responsible moment in which I say, Turn that t-shirt inside out and you've got a deal, young man. Undoubtedly that would be the guy's cue to tell me that I was being a fascist, and can't I read? Don't I see that fucking cancer is a good thing? Why would I want to silence such a positive message? Would I rather that he came in with a t-shirt that said Down With Health and Positive Feelings In This World? Which is what the wearers of Fuck Cancer t-shirts and kids running around a playground screaming "Phoque! That means seal in French" are always waiting for. I recall a few kids crying out "What did I do? I wasn't swearing! I said 'seal' in French!" as stone-faced teachers harvested them from the playground.
What exactly does it mean to fuck cancer? We all know what it means when someone screams out "Fuck You!" or dismisses someone out of hand with a fuck-him-he's-not-worth-it kind of gesture, but to fuck cancer suggests a sustained determination to ignore the disease, to carry on regardless. Fuck Cancer is not an exhortation to allocate more funds for its treatment or bend resources to the task of eradicating it. It's a dismissal of cancer altogether, which is even less productive than running around hospital corridors and screaming at old people. In which case I would have to play the stone-faced teacher to the phoque cancer kid in the Fuck Cancer shirt, and kick him out to the street.