Loss & Serendipity
With The Serko Project, the essence of a personality is conveyed across generations, through new media and old
by Karen Fleur Tofti-Tufarelli
At a Serko family wedding in September, 2011, a lovingly assembled handmade quilt panel was briefly the center of attention.
The panel would be included as one of the 47,000 panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt (a project of the NAMES Project Foundation), to honor actor David Serko, who had died of AIDS in New York City nearly nineteen years previously.
Two matching squares featured a photo of David performing in Pippin with his final words to his brother Peter: “Listen to your heart” in the three languages representing the family heritage: English, Irish, and Slovak.
The quilt panel—comprised of several mostly 9-by-9-inch squares made by various family members—had only recently been finished.
“The idea for a quilt started the day David died, with paper quilts made by Peter and my daughters, Lorean (then age nine) and Alice (then age seven),” says Sue Serko, Peter Serko’s wife. But the project really began “in earnest” about ten years later, Sue says, when she visited her sister, Lucinda Keers, in Minneapolis.
At the wedding in 2011, the Serko family—aunts, uncles, and cousins—gathered with the Russian Orthodox priest. He read prayers and sprinkled holy water on the quilt panel, blessing it. Peter Serko explained: “Our family is Russian Orthodox, so blessing things is just something that is commonly done.”
Jason Serko, Peter and David Serko’s nephew, who has early memories of his uncle David “teaching a soft shoe” in his grandparents’ living room, described the quilt panel blessing as “super, super powerful.”
But Peter wanted an additional way to convey David’s unique joie de vivre to his own children, nieces, and nephews. In February, 2012, he established a Facebook page and Web site, the David Serko Project.
Peter e-mailed Ron Goldberg, a friend of David’s since college, who had been arrested with David during the 1988 Wall Street II ACT UP protest, to tell him about the Project.
Goldberg says of David: “As everybody did, I fell madly in love with David the second I met him, which went more or less unrequited.”
Goldberg, who is writing a memoir and history of ACT UP, describes the odd coincidence leading up to Peter’s e-mail. “I had been working on this book for a long while and David is a central part of it,” he explains. After “sort of draft[ing]” a letter to David’s parents about the book, Goldberg set it aside; he needed their address. That weekend, he received the e-mail from Peter—to whom he had not spoken since David’s funeral. “Oh, my God, you’re kidding me, I just wrote your parents,” Goldberg wrote back to Peter.
Quickly, the Project has become an on-line version of a reunion.
“I have been flooded with memories, fresh as yesterday,” said David’s high school friend Denise Bertie in an e-mail. “I rejoice to discover a new friend in Peter Serko, and renew old friendships that have slept these thirty years. But mostly I am reminded of how much I love David, and miss him.”
Other entries that appear on the Facebook page include several stills from David’s many theater performances.
Mary Corsaro, Coordinator, BFA in Musical Theatre, Department of Theatre Arts, Ithaca College, and David’s friend and former teacher, relates how she re-choreographed David’s scenes when he hurt his knee before playing the lead character in Pippin. They both decided that David would use a cane. “Together we helped create a sinister character…a mix of drawing you in with a touch of evil,” she says.
The Project showcases one of the best aspects of social media: the ability to draw people together across decades and geographic coasts. Memory and legacy have new expression beyond the sepia-toned photos of previous generations.
Yet, ironically, part of the magic of the Project results from a serendipitous discovery of black-and-white still photographs.
In the years during which Peter Serko had been mulling over how best to convey David’s memory, filmmaker Clay Walker had been archiving/digitizing images produced over his twenty-five-year career, including images he had taken in 1988, as a young New York City freelance photographer, of the Wall Street II ACT UP protest.
For twenty-three years those images had lain “dormant,” Walker says. But, “[o]pening up those ACT UP images again,” he says, “I really wanted to have them on the Internet as a complete set.”
The 1988 photos, taken on Kodak Plus X black-and-white film with a Nikon FE2 camera, opened a window into David’s activist past and crystallized a new connection between the now-Atlanta-based Walker and Peter Serko, also a professional photographer.
In 2009, Walker, who has participated in five AIDS fundraising bicycle events since 2008, decided to post the photos to the ACT UP Wikipedia site in
Stunningly, it was not until March, 2012—twenty-four years after they were taken—that the Serko family even knew those pictures existed.
“I was trying to get some detailed information about ACT UP on Wikipedia,” Peter says, “and I saw a footnote at the bottom of the page [that led to] this photo gallery of the 1988 Wall Street protest. I knew my brother was there—I’d known that he’d been arrested at some point—I was just kind of clicking through this gallery of photographs, and lo and behold I saw this photograph of David being dragged off,” Peter says. When he first saw the images, Peter says, he cried.
In April, 2012, Jeff Serko, (David and Peter’s brother), Peter Serko, and Jason Serko (Jeff’s son) traveled to New York City for the twenty-fifth-anniversary protest march of the 1987 Wall Street protest (along with the Occupy Movement), where they spoke with Jon Nalley, who had shared a jail cell with David after being arrested with him twenty-four years earlier, and Tim Pinckney, David’s best friend.
Pinckney says about the period after David’s death: “My world had collapsed—David was my best friend, the most important relationship in my life; and when he died, the bottom fell out.”
A few years later, Pinckney wrote a comedic play, Message to Michael. But the play was not an attempt to “memorialize” David, Pinckney emphasizes. Pinckney, who describes mourning as “very personal and a very private process,” says that writing the play gave him “an opportunity to play out scenes that I didn’t have the opportunity to play out sometimes. I wanted it to be joyful and funny….It was about us. Best friends. Our voices.”
First produced at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in December, 1996, Message to Michael had several subsequent regional productions.
Would David embrace the Facebook/social media age that has done so much to reunite his old friends and family?
The answer is an unqualified “yes,” says Peter Serko. “David used to call people and leave silly skits on people’s voicemail…or when…his voicemail picked up it’d be [a] crazy wild skit of some sort….”
However, Pinckney emphasizes the desolation of these years around David’s death, when voicemail was advanced technology and computer ownership was spotty: “We lived with death differently because it was all around us constantly—we were saying goodbye to our friends on a frighteningly regular basis.”
In the same way, the Project, says Walker, “show[s] the devastating loss of…David, and [it’s] not…allowing his life to be forgotten, or disappear into a statistic; [it shows] that this disease hasn’t gone away.”
To visit the David Serko Project on-line, log on to www.facebook.com/davidserkoproject.
Karen Fleur Tofti-Tufarelli is a freelance writer and expert in the areas of art and culture; the environment and sustainability; food and health; law, public policy, historic preservation and politics. Write Karen at [email protected], or delve into the world of gluten-free living at her Web site: www.glutenfreesafari.com. Follow her on Twitter: @gfsafari.