John and Jackie, and 'the best death'
The scene was something that might have been directed by John W. Borek himself. Three people, including two women in angel wings, opening the show -- show would likely have been Borek’s own word for this memorial -- by sashaying through the crowd, displaying photos of Borek and his wife, Jackie Levine, flinging rose petals into the bright afternoon sun, and throwing in a ribbon dance for unexpected good measure.
Levine had died early in 2020 of a rare neurological disease. Borek died 10 months later of leukemia. Now, what we were witnessing Sunday afternoon beneath one of the roofed sheds of the Rochester Public Market was the pandemic-delayed celebration of what were being called “the magical lives” of the couple, who were married for 44 years.
Their magic was sometimes serious, sometimes silly, cynical yet wise, supportive of the arts and trusting that small human goodness would prevail. And on this day, their magic confronted what is perhaps our greatest fear: That life, no matter how bursting with wonder and inspiration, will some day end for all of us.
There would be light moments such as an onstage visit by Levine and Borek’s dog, Henry. Heartfelt moments, and circus moments, but no soul-wrenching church organ. Instead there would be banjo and accordion and Richard Storms and the Stormy Valle Band, with a breezy version of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Because even after four decades of marriage, the dance continues.
Master of ceremonies Anthony Irwin recalled one of the final conversations he had with Borek, as his 71-year-old mentor was in hospice, dying.
“I know what’s on the other side,’” Borek warned him. ‘Dinner Theatre.’”
“Dinner Theatre.” Where an audience at the Multi-use Community Cultural Center -- the MuCCC, on Atlantic Avenue -- sat and watched a group of actors eating dinner and improvising mundane conversation. It was perhaps the most reviled creation awaiting Borek in his personal purgatory of theater productions.
As Irwin noted, Borek loved to tell the story of how, a year-and-a-half after the show, a woman came up to him in a supermarket and asked if he was the person who had put on “Dinner Theatre.” Yes, he said, he was. She screamed at him, “You robbed an evening of my life!”
This is what we were celebrating on Sunday? Mediocrity?
There is much more that the Rochester community needs to know of Jackie Levine and John Borek. Levine directed the University of Rochester’s study abroad program. Borek spent 15 years as a legislative aide to former City Councilman Adam McFadden. He was the president of the 19th Ward Community Association, and worked with community advisory programs at the University of Rochester. Many Rochester residents recall him behind the counter at The Village Green bookstore on Monroe Avenue, which he owned and operated for years.
Levine and Borek were the couple holding court on Saturdays at the back table at the Best Coffee at the Market coffee shop at the Public Market. She would work on and off at the New York Times crossword puzzle while conversing on erudite topics. He would wander off and return with a bag of bakery treats, or odd-looking vegetables.
“Jackie was a master improvisational conversationalist,” Sara Korol said at Sunday’s celebration of their lives. “She could talk to anybody about anything, she could be interested and interesting, and this was not lost on me.
“John, on the other hand, was a master at creating fantasy all around himself, through his whimsical art and music through the artists that he and Jackie supported. And frankly, because he could not resist buying things at Rite-Aid.”
Levine would often react with an arched eyebrow to the odd turn that her husband’s life took at age 58. He began recording rap albums. He took an interest in theater. His Rochester resurrection of “Moose Murders” -- one of the worst plays to have ever, inexplicably, made its way to Broadway -- was reported on the front of The New York Times arts section. Succumbing to his muse, Levine agreed to serve as the play’s narrator. By then, Borek was writing his own plays, and even performing in them, as artistic director at the MuCCC.
Perhaps there was a method to his madness. His offbeat, limited-budget productions were, if nothing else, accessible to anyone who could not avoid them.
Levine and Borek did not have children, unless you broaden the definition of “have.” There were a handful of loosely adopted young people, the “Not Children.” Typically they were UR students taken under the wings of Borek and Levine. Korol was one. She lived with them for 1½ years. She serenaded their memory Sunday on her accordion.
As Irwin correctly pointed out, “What’s a funeral without an accordion?”
“Beauty, through the act of creating,” Korol said of Levine and Borek, “survives the creator.”
Yes, that’s what Levine and Borek did. They created. The Not Children described sharing time, stories and lives. Something that happened in Lithuania today was valuable because Levine and Borek could relate it to something here. They excelled in “stitching together loose confederations.” Or exposing people to “something you didn’t know you needed until you experienced it.”
Eleanor Oi recalled how Levine had directed her on where to go during a UR Study Abroad trip to China. Everyone does the Great Wall, but there was a ferry ride not to be missed. “These are the experiences you need to have,” Levine told her, “because you are here.”
“She always knew the best places,” Oi said, “or who to call to get us there.”
Tiny things mattered. Easily dismissed things were revelatory. Philip Brune was a grad student when he went on a road trip with Borek through the Southwest. Roswell, New Mexico, a town whose reason for existence is the fact-free legend that a UFO crashed there in 1947.
Brune recalled that Borek bought a gift for Levine at an alien gift shop. Something called “Roswell Alien Pâté,” which was set on a shelf over the kitchen sink in their 19th Ward home and stayed there for a half-decade. Brune knows, he checked every time he was at the house.
Looking out at Sunday's crowd, shaded from the intense afternoon sun by the Public Market roof that a day earlier had protected vegetables and vendors from the intense afternoon sun, Kristina Wilson noted, “The bonds between us are John and Jackie’s work.”
Not all of these stories are of equal weight. But they all reveal the same Jackie and John. Rick Collins recalled how Borek stopped him on the street one day, admiring his shirt. Collins had made it himself. Borek asked Collins to make him one as well, explaining, “I’m a rapper.” And handed Collins $40 as a down payment.
A rapper? Collins Googled The Professor of Rap. It checked out. As confirmed by Borek’s rhymes about Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, this aging white guy was technically a rapper. The next day, Borek handed Collins another $60 to complete the shirt deal. One hundred dollars is a lot for a shirt. And the relationship continued. Collins said Borek would slip him money every now and then when times got tough. Collins was a convicted felon. And when he broke parole, he said Borek “did a year of parole violation with me.”
“Maybe,” Collins said, “there are some good people in the world.”
“I really started doing the right thing because of the things he was doing for me, like he was helping me. I’ve been home 11 years, and it’s because of John and Jackie. He made sure I always had money in my pocket.”
Were Levine and Borek about forgiveness? Faith in people? Loyalty? Borek remained loyal to McFadden, even after the city councilman was forced to resign after pleading guilty to felony fraud charges.
McFadden had big words for Borek. “A modern-day abolitionist,” he called him, “because he really believed in rights for everyone, no matter what.”
“Half the time I was in the paper fighting for justice for Rochester residents, it was because John had found some soul that needed help. And I was his attack dog.” McFadden said Borek, as president of the 19th Ward Community Association, pushed hard to make the Brooks Landing development a reality.
McFadden is a big man, but he said Borek protected him for his first six months in City Council, even hiding death threats that came by mail. Until one threat snuck through, McFadden said, an email from Dansville whose author threatened to “chain me to a truck and drag my body behind it.”
There is little an attack dog can do in some situations, though. Levine’s doctors were at first uncertain as to why her health was declining. Borek sat in waiting rooms, typing on his iPhone. The result was “The Club Van Cortlandt,” a small but marvelous book about his freshman year at Columbia University.
It became clear that Levine’s fall down the basement steps in 2017 was not an accident, but the result of her progressive neurological disorder. And Borek’s leukemia had slipped out of remission.
“I don’t believe in miracles,” Eve Elzenga said. “But we had so many miracles.”
Friends were making them meals, taking them to doctors' appointments, or simply visiting. Elzenga among them. Wearing a hat smothered in colorful flowers, she described for the memorial party how Borek had tasked her with the jobs of creating costumes for “Moose Murders,” or buying a pink coffin for his mother.
The people who stepped up to help enabled the miracles. But miracles have a shelf life. As the end neared, Levine wanted to be at home, where she was for a few days until her final morning. Her oxygen levels dropping, an ambulance was called. Late that night, Borek, wearing a hazmat suit and in a wheelchair, was swiftly moved from Wilmot Cancer Center to his wife’s side. “John was able to hold her hand,” Elzenga said, “as she passed away.”
It was a similar story “almost a year later,” Korol said. “I was with John holding his hand as he passed away. I felt it was my duty, as their Not Daughter, to make sure that someone as beloved as John Borek did not die alone.”
And with Not Children, and friends and family at his bedside, he did not.
“They had the best death,” Elzenga said, “anyone could ever hope to have.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.