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A dying man, an unlikely friend and a last wish

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Ken Broskey can live with dying. It's not his first choice, but he knows he doesn't have long and by now he's used to the idea.

What he can't imagine is his daughter being bounced from his home, along with his grandkids.

That's what haunts him and has kept him working even as his doctors start using words like "hospice."

That's what makes Roland Gainer seem like such a miracle.

He's a 22-year-old community college student who moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Ypsilanti three years ago. Broskey is a 69-year-old real estate salesman, Uber driver and cancer patient who has lived in Livonia for six decades.

They've known one another for all of 21/2 weeks — but it only took three minutes in Broskey's car for Gainer to declare, "God meant for us to meet."

"The ride of my life," he's calling it, and it was the start of not only an unlikely friendship, but a crowdfunding campaign that might let Broskey truly rest easy.

The campaign is only hours old. There have been no miracles yet, no cheers as someone puts a match to the mortgage on his little house.

But just knowing that Gainer cares has eased the weight on Broskey's shoulders at a point when he needs help from his left arm to raise his right hand high enough to shake hello.

Win or lose — raise $95,000 or not — they're living out a movie of the week:

Formerly homeless passenger, black, befriends ailing Uber driver, white. Bond forms so quickly that older man, an unlikely fan of hip-hop, can kid younger man, who mostly listens to motivational recordings, that "you make a lousy black guy."

Friends rally, story resonates in historically tense region, public responds, mortgage disappears.

Fade out.

Roland Gainer, 22, bonded with his Uber driver, 69-year-old Ken Broskey, during a 10-minute ride in Ann Arbor. Now Gainer is leading a campaign to pay off Broskey’s house before he dies of cancer.

No strangers to cancer

Cancer has visited Gainer and Broskey before.

Gainer's mom beat it when he was in high school, when all he felt he could do to help was get good grades.

Broskey's wife of 40 years, Sandy, lost her fight 10 years ago. The location was the lungs, the likely cause Virginia Slims.

He says he has never smoked or even had a drink, but it's in his lungs, too, as well as his head and neck after spreading from the base of his tongue. He's lost 70 pounds in 21 months, his voice grows more hoarse by the day, and his best hope is for 10 more weeks.

"Cancer is progressing," reads his most recent medical report. "Chances of response are low and side effects could be worse."

But he told the doctors to keep plugging. He has responsibilities at home, and it's not like this is his first brush with hard times.

Before the real estate collapse, he was making $100,000 a year selling homes — with, he concedes, bills to match. Not long after losing his wife, he lost his house.

When things rebounded, so did he, enough to buy a 1,000-square-foot ranch where his daughter, 47, and each of her two kids has a bedroom and he sleeps in the basement.

His daughter is a waitress pulling in maybe $250 a week. She's had problems, too: a former delivery driver, she lost out on similar job because of traffic tickets. But everyone makes mistakes, and the bottom line is that she could never cover the monthly house note of $804.

Enter Uber, and enter Gainer.

Sebastian Jackson of the Social Club barber shop at Wayne State University will hold a fundraiser Wednesday night for Ken Broskey.

A fortuitous ride

Ultimately, Gainer hopes to enroll at Michigan. For now, he's at Washtenaw Community College, paying his way as a telemarketer in Ann Arbor.

When a ride from work to East Quad fell through last month, he summoned Uber, where Broskey calculates the average profit per ride at $4.60 before expenses.

Somehow the conversation turned to real estate, and Broskey mentioned that he sold it. For Gainer, he was a self-help tape come to life.

"Can you give me knowledge?" he asked. "Can you share some wisdom?"

In a few blocks, Broskey was sharing everything.

Since then, Gainer has been sharing, too.

He walked into the Social Club, the stylish on-campus barber shop at Wayne State, and told Broskey's story last weekend.

The room fell silent, says owner Sebastian Jackson, and Wednesday night he's pitching in to help; from 5:30-8 p.m., he'll turn over his proceeds to the fundraising campaign at

"When you're dying," Broskey says, "you realize life is all about family and friends."

Old friends, surely, but new ones, too.