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History: Rubens Francois – love-smitten poet lit himself on fire at Crescent and St. Catherine

« When the weight of life is upon your shoulder – sister, don’t show any sadness on your face – for no one shall pity you – do away with yourself – make a deal with darkness – Get up and fight – may darkness free us all. »
 -Rubens Francois
   Rubens Francois was born in 1946 and left Haiti with his family for New York City where he had a brief association with the Black Panther movement before moving to Montreal to avoid military service.
   Rubens found work washing dishes and became a familiar downtown figure in cafes and bars around Bishop, Crescent and Stanley,
   His main haunt was the Bengal Lancers, an Indian restaurant at 1187 Bishop, which later became Darwin’s Pub.
  Its owner, referred to in one article as P.K., likely Eftaib Khan, noted that people liked Francois and the poems he sold.
   « We always made him welcome, gave him free dinners. But when he bought himself drinks he always paid by cheque. They never bounced, » said P.K.
   Fellow scenester Esmond Choueke confirmed that Francois was well-liked. « Nobody gave him flak. »
   Rubens had ambitions as a poet and managed to get one budget-edition, My Soul in Tears, onto shelves at Classics bookstore on St. Catherine. 
   Rubens, in his late 20s, had a girlfriend for about two years years. He changed somewhat after she left town. .
   « He didn’t seem sad but he became a bit careless, » PK recalled.
   One day in 1974 Francois bumped into acquaintance Aviva Hershorn, aka Aviva Caiserman, a well-known stage actress almost a decade older than himself.
   Hershorn shared her feelings of distress with Francois, reporting that she felt bad about her recent divorce and from being far away from her children.
  She promised to help translate some of his poems into English and the two embarked on a fling. « He did love me, though he knew I didn’t love him. »
 Hershorn had been an aspiring actress before marrying a noted Hebrew scholar and told Montreal Gazette reporter Betty Shapiro* that the NFB once did a documentary on « her method of being. »
   Francois was determined to help Hershorn in any way he could and soon actively buttonholed people to see if they could help her.
   Francois dedicated poetry to her and quit his dishwashing job early that summer.
   He quarreled with his roommate, who asked to leave. It’s unclear where Francois stayed after that, although he might have been homeless.
   On July 4 an acquaintance reported seeing Francois who appeared normal.
   Sometime that sunny summer morning Francois purchased a can of gasoline.
   At noon Francois sat down in the middle of the the sidewalk at the busy corner of  Crescent and St. Catherine, one of the city’s liveliest hubs and not far from Classics bookstore where his poems were on sale.
  He placed some of his poetry volumes nearby, then doused himself with gasoline while mumbling incoherently.
   He then lit himself on fire.
   He told police and ambulance attendants that he lit himself because he’s a poet.
   Staff at the Montreal General Hospital treated him for third degree burns to 80 percent of his body.
   While painfully coping with his wounds, Francois whispered Aviva’s name and phone number.
   He lived in agony for three weeks.
   Aviva was at his bedside when he died, while trying to remove tubes from his face.
   One nurse who got to know Francois rejected the the narrative that Francois killed himself as a result of romantic passion.
    Aviva herself said Francois lit himself for a different cause.
  « He did the Buddhist thing. He felt he had a mission, to bring attention to man’s inhumanity to man,. He wanted to bring unity to the world, » she said.
   Choueke, however, pointed out that Francois never spoke of religion or Buddhism.
   Francois told a nurse before dying. « I did it for nothing. »
   He left behind his parents and eight brothers and sisters, all living in New York City.

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