The fate that gnaws at him
By Kathleen F. Phalen
Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2001
3, 1971, 11:07 P.M.
It's all a lie.
New York City cop leans over the front seat, as the
radio-car careens, screaming up Metropolitan Avenue
in Brooklyn. He steadies the limp, bleeding body in
the back. It's been 25 minutes. The blood is black,
jellied in the center, dried on the edges. It coats
his beard, face, Army fatigue jacket. Still, the man
in the back knows he must stay awake. He struggles.
He clings to consciousness. If I fall asleep, I'll
die, he thinks. He hears the voice again. "It's
a lie. It's all a lie." The blood is thick in
his nose and throat. He's suffocating. He's so tired.
Stay awake, he tells himself. Keep your eyes open.
Just keep your eyes open. The cop in the front says
something, but the man in the back can't hear over
the sirens. He sees shadows in front and behind. The
grotesque shapes seem to split and fall across his
bloodied face. His eyes are heavy. Stay awake, he
tells himself, again and again. Then, as if in one
of those vaporous, just-before-waking dreams, the
man in the back remembers: "Frank, why don't
you take the money? Just take it, Frank."
3, 1971, 10:42 P.M. 778
Driggs Street, Brooklyn. Apartment 3-G. The emergency
dispatcher gets a 1010 call from a civilian: investigate
It seemed like a pretty routine heroin bust. Four
cops from Brooklyn North get a tip that a drug deal
is going down. So three officers—Gary Roteman,
Arthur Cesare and Paul Halley—stay in a car
out front. The fourth, Frank Serpico, watches from
the roof. They're waiting for the informant's signal.
Frank observes the buy in the hall outside apartment
3-G. When it's over, he follows them out and motions
to his partners. They jump out; one of the kids has
two bags of heroin.
let's go in and get this Mambo," says Gary. "How
are we going to work this?" Frank asks. "Well,
you make the buy. You get the door open for us. What
the hell, you speak Spanish."
stays in the car with the kid with the heroin. The
other three creep up the steps to the third-floor
landing. Frank knocks, his other hand inside his jacket,
cradling his .38. "Mambo...."
door opens a few inches, the chain still on. Frank
pushes; the chain snaps. It's enough for him to wedge
part of his body in. The guys on the other side are
trying to push it closed. Frank needs help. He needs
his partners, now! Nothing moves behind him. Instinctively,
he turns. "What the fuck are you waiting for?"
he hollers. His head and shoulders are in the alcove,
inside 3-G. His mind races. Where are they? Nothing.
The action takes fractions of a second; it seems like
minutes. Frank turns his head back toward the opening
into 3-G. Flashes of red, orange. Like searing shards
of thin, jagged glass, the bullet penetrates his face.
Officer down. But there's no 1013 call—the highest
priority dispatch that signals an officer is in trouble.
hears nothing but the lingering echo of the blast.
He's alone. Blood pools and spurts from his head,
staining the already sullied, white octangular tiles
crimson. Not yet black and jellied, but flowing crimson.
Crimson, the color of passion. Where is everybody,
he wonders? Please, somebody? Lying flat, he listens.
Nothing. Blood runs into his mouth. He's numb. Number
than silence. Is there anybody out there? Is there
anybody out there?
the husky whispers of a neighbor, the old Latino man.
"Don't worry. It's okay, you're gonna be okay,"
he tells Serpico. "I called the ambulance."
holds Serpico's hand.
MEETING I met Frank Serpico in September,
in the year 2000.
been almost 30 years since his fellow officers set
him up on that drug bust. Set him up because he believed
in doing the right thing; because he believed in good
cops. Set him up because he wouldn't take a bribe
or his share of the weekly take. Frank Serpico refused
to look the other way, and he turned the New York
City Police Department upside down by exposing rampant
graft and corruption. When his superiors would do
nothing about his accusations, he went to The New
York Times. The front-page story led to
the formation of the Knapp Commission, an in-depth
investigation of corruption in the police department.
my appearance here today," he testified before
the Knapp Commission, "I hope that police officers
in the future will not experience the same frustration
and anxiety that I was subjected to for the past five
years at the hands of my superiors because of my attempt
to report corruption....We create an atmosphere in
which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer,
and not the other way around."
of his courage, a lot of cops went down during the
years Frank Serpico was on the force. To good cops,
he is a hero. To dirty cops, he is a rat. In the months
following the shooting, the rumor was that the Mafia
had a contract on his head. Some still want him dead.
the months leading up to our meeting, I asked all
kinds of people—my hairdresser, students, friends,
my dad, strangers, Goth kids on the Mall, a few homeless
guys (they all remembered and admired him), a waitress,
a bus driver, the librarian, a couple of academics,
some cops (they all remember him, too), a couple of
musicians, a cab driver, my kids, "Do you remember
Frank Serpico?" Some gave me this vacant stare,
so I added, "Remember the movie, Serpico,
with Al Pacino?"
he still alive?" "Is he a real guy?"
"Yeah, I really respect him, the way he stood
up for what he believed in." "Ummm...no,
I don't think so." "He's my hero, he's why
I became a cop." "Is he in that band...you
know the one, oh man, I can't think of it. Do you
know?" "Wasn't he Al Pacino in that movie?"
"MMMM, I think so. What was it he did again?"
here's this man who risked his life for what he believes
in. A man who stood alone against corruption. I wonder
what makes him tick. What is it that makes integrity
more important than life itself? I want to know this,
because there is so little to look to these days.
So few heroes to emulate. We're living in a time when
world leaders are publicly accused of lying. A time
when we hunger for gossip and the media obliges our
cravings with daily doses of tabloid journalism. A
time when few can hold onto hero-ship because we pick
at the edges of the human scab until we make it bleed.
And then when its raw underbelly is exposed, we shake
our heads yes. We knew it. He was no good. I wonder
what the cost of courage is. What price has Frank
Serpico paid? How did this betrayal—being left
in a pool of his own blood to die—change him?
Who is he, really?
as I sit in this little restaurant, somewhat of a
cross between a hip trendy café and a New York
diner, I wonder what to expect. We marked our calendars.
Perhaps this, September 25, 1 p.m., will be our first
and only meeting.
five minutes early. It smells of good coffee, organic
vegetables and cilantro. When I first walk in, two
men at the counter stop eating, their forks halfway
between plate and mouth. One's wearing a black vintage
shop jacket and 1950s hat, the other a white T-shirt
and khakis. I'm thinking a town that still has nickel
parking meters is small enough to know a stranger.
A red-haired waitress comes up to me, her eyes questioning.
you know Frank Serpico?" I ask, half-thinking
he doesn't live anywhere near here. So when she gives
me her expressionless "yeah," I am relieved.
meeting him, and we don't know each other," I
explain. "Would you mind letting me know when
know," she says.
taken months to set this meeting up. The checking
on me, my resume, my clips. It's been a series of
mediated conversations between Frank, his lawyer-nephew
Vincent and me. And I still don't know Frank's phone
number or exactly what town he lives in. It's five
after one, and here I sit—more than 500 miles
from home, not even sure he'll show.
ROOTS Frank Serpico is 64. An Aries.
Each day, he checks what the stars have in store.
Astrological stars, that is. He has little time for
Hollywood or labels or anything that smacks of conformism.
He speaks five languages, dances the tango and plays
the harmonica and African drums. And he's rarely without
a woman. His friends are really acquaintances, and
he's not afraid to cry. When asked if he's a vegetarian
or an artist, he responds with another question, something
he does a lot. "I don't know, am I?" And
then with eloquent poetic precision, he uses another's
words to describe how he feels:
consideration, without pity, without shame
They have built great and high walls around me.
And now I sit here and despair.
I think of nothing else; this fate gnaws at my mind
For I had many things to do outside.
Ah why did I not pay attention when they were building
But I never heard any noise or sound of builders.
Imperceptibly they shut me from the outside world.
(Constantine Cavafy, 1896)
The bullet left fragments in his skull, and his hearing
is impaired. Still, he's got much more compassion
for the guy who shot him than for the ones who left
him for dead. Frank says, "No doubt my life changed
after February 3."
He retired from the New York City Police Department
after 11 years—a disability retirement a year
after the shooting. The only thing Frank had wanted
was to earn his gold shield (detective badge); the
department finally gave it to him, promoting him after
the shooting. They gave him the Medal of Honor, too.
But what makes Frank mad is that the commendation
is not for standing up to corruption, but for getting
Where did this passion come from? Frank points to
Vincenzo and Maria Giovanna Serpico, his parents.
And even though Frank has traveled to many parts of
the world, he's still a Brooklyn kid. Sometimes in
his innocence, he can momentarily look like the kid
who shined shoes at the subway stops or stole away
to catch glimpses of the huge goldfish at the Brooklyn
When Frank talks about his childhood, he's a different
person. He's calm, centered and laughs a lot. He tells
how his father taught him to use a shoe hand polishing
cloth. How he and his friends would get pictures of
Jane Russell, the sex symbol of his time, erase her
dress and fill in the missing pieces. He tells about
going to the Brooklyn Museum to look at the jeweled
Arabian daggers. "It was a magic carpet ride
In the mornings, Vincenzo woke Frank with a big cappuccino.
"He'd boil milk and the left-over espresso from
Sunday on Monday morning," Frank says. "He
would always have a glass of fresh-squeezed orange
juice for me. And he'd make me a big sandwich for
school. A round loaf, I can still see the cracked
grain, and cut a hole in it and stuff it with meat
says the kids would make fun of him, but Maria Giovanna
said they were just jealous. He calls her a true macrobiotic
and respects the way she would conserve energy, lighting
candles at night. "The seeds are there, it's
so important the framework you build your life on,"
THE ENTRANCE He shows,
about six minutes late. The waitress was right. I
know. Frank's movements are sweeping, theatrical.
I feel his energy. He's wearing sunglasses,
two silver hoop earrings, a black shirt, black pants
and a gray jacket. He's got a Sean Connery-like white
beard, and I notice he's cut his shoulder-length hair.
It's in longer layers. I put my hand out; he kisses
my cheek. I'm not sure why, but I expected he would
Barely in his seat, he pops back
up. He removes his driving gloves, finger by finger.
Then his jacket. Then the rounds: the chef, the two
guys at the counter. He orders carrot and celery juice
and a soy cappuccino, from two different waitresses.
We talk about last night's sky, the stars and his
car date with his tango teacher. It's a new car, a
convertible white Toyota Spyder. They're hard to find,
he tells me. About five sentences later, he's back
up. "How's your bladder?" he asks, before
walking away. This time I watch him. His movements
are just as I had expected. Just like Al Pacino portrayed
him in the film.
"Yeah," he says when
I mention it. "People who know me say, 'Al Pacino
acts more like Frank Serpico than Frank Serpico.'"
But I hear the tension. He doesn't like the movie
talk. Still, he shares that he met with Robert Redford
in Greenwich Village before they cast the part. Redford
was considering the role, Frank tells me.
He orders a salad, dressing on
the side. I offer him my bread. He peppers a small
ramekin of olive oil and dips the crusted end in,
takes one bite and pops up, still chewing. "Gotta
plug the meter," he says, laughing. I can't figure
out what's funny, so I ask when he returns. "That's
a line from the film."
There are parts of the film that
make him cringe, especially when Al Pacino is going
across the bridge singing. "People say I have
a great voice," he tells me, now leaning into
the table. "I love opera, I love to sing opera."
But if you ask him about Pacino, he reveals little.
"Al Pacino is an actor," he says. "I'm
the real thing."
"Hollywood is no different
than the police force, with its corruption and racial
profiling. Take my movie," Serpico says, fingering
the silver and glass object around his neck. "They
make the bad guy black. I tell Sidney Lumet he wasn't
black, and he says to me, 'Pussycat, I'm trying to
make a movie.'" The way Frank tells it, after
he was on the set for a while, there was a parting
of the ways. They even took his rental car away.
Seems Frank got more than he bargained
for in Hollywood, though. A woman he dated there got
pregnant, and he was slapped with a paternity suit.
But Frank did the right thing—he pays her half
his monthly pension. And he sees his son, who is now
20, about four times a year.
Our conversation is about as disjointed
as his eating. A bite here, a swallow there. But eventually
he comes back to the topic. I ask about the glass
object he continues to cradle. "It's a talisman,"
he says. I discover later that it's his looking glass
so he can read the fine print on food labeling.
"You wanna see something?"
he asks, and pulls his wallet out. In the first plastic
cover is his police I.D. badge from the 1970s. "See
my eyes?" I look, but I don't see. "See,
across here." He rubs his forefinger across the
photo. "The Japanese call it sampuco, life out
After about four hours, we go for
a ride in the Spyder. Kids are yelling as we drive
by. "Hey, Paco." "Paco." That's
what everyone calls him. But then he remembers he
has a tango lesson in 30 minutes and drops me at the
side of the road. "Tomorrow?" he asks. "Tomorrow."
EUROPE Frank lived
in Europe for more than a decade, with most of his
time spent on a farm in Holland. These were some of
the best, and the hardest, years. Suffering from post-traumatic
stress, he studied the Bible, trying to solve it like
a case, questioning everything. And now he's working
on what he calls the case against Moses.
In his search for answers, Frank
found a spiritual group in England, The Order of the
Star, and together they established a mind, body and
spirit school (ORISA). "It was a wonderful concept,
we allowed people to use their own innate creativity,"
he says. "We would guide and support, rather
than inhibit, children." But eventually this
endeavor fell short of Frank's expectations. "Too
culty," he says, and he backed out. But working
with kids stuck. He's a natural. Today Frank teaches
kids about nature and issues of integrity.
Some have called Frank Serpico
a womanizer. So I ask him if he even likes women.
At first, he seems insulted. Days later he tells me,
"You're right, I don't like women. I like food.
I love women, they are the yin of my yang."
There have been many. But perhaps
really only one. Marianne. A Dutch woman. The woman
who lived with him in Holland. The woman he married
in a spiritual wedding. The woman who died of cancer.
The woman he says is his true soul mate.
Seems like some might have given
up, after all that Frank endured. Some may have backed
off, gotten selfish, not worried about the world anymore.
Not Frank. His passion for doing the right thing only
intensified. "Suffering is part of learning,"
he says. He lets no one slide. "I know I'm a
pain in the ass," he says. "I've got to
say what I feel."
His hero? The controversial Thomas
Paine. Interestingly, Paine was often ostracized by
those who feared his free and sometimes radical opinions.
And like Paine, Frank sees himself as a citizen of
the universe. He gets fired up when he talks about
his frustrations with the American system, Mario Cuomo,
the police department and prisons. "Look at the
corruption in Hollywood, the corruption in society,"
he says. "What's the answer? It starts with each
person. It's time to take responsibility."
THE GARDEN, WET WITH RAIN Tonight he's made a
salad with nasturtiums from his garden. Bright orange
and yellow. Maintaining that little bridge to the
earth is important to him, he says. So now he tells
me he wants to run in the dark. I suggest getting
some kind of light. He cuts me off: that would defeat
the purpose. We can do these things, he says. Like
being able to see a spider's gossamer strand in the
we talk this night, with me now back in Virginia,
I consider how my thoughts have changed. Oh, yeah,
I still think he's a little crazy. He can still be
exceedingly irritating. Perhaps a mirror of what we
don't want to see. Understanding Frank Serpico is
more complicated than black and white. Even more complicated
than gray. He's got all these layers, and you have
to peel them one by one, like an onion. Each thin
sheath revealing just a little more insight. What
strikes me most, though, is that I think sometimes
he's lonely and longs for what he can never have again.
But then I think of his cabin tucked into the overflowing
herbs and flowers that seem to shield him somehow.
go to his cabin the day before leaving. I bring my
dogs. We meet in a little village not far from his
50-acre plot. Parked across from the bagel shop, I
see him in my rearview mirror. Looks like he's got
something on his mind, so I pretend not to notice
him walking up behind me. "Hey lady, you want
to get arrested for parking in the hot sun with these
dogs in the car?" I guess we're playing cop.
And momentarily I'm annoyed.
decides he wants a sandwich before he goes home and
starts talking about some shop across the street.
Mid-sentence, he stops. He sees some guy he knows
driving by in a van and he's off, running down the
road after him. Once in the sandwich shop, the waitresses
are not amused with his questions, his antics. But
this time, it seems easier. At least they don't pretend.
gets a tuna salad on bagel and eats it in my car while
I drive. Fall is already showing a light warning of
winter's death. We drive past the apple orchard and
wind around several bends. His drive is hidden.
go through his box of pictures. Frank as a kid. A
soldier in Korea. Vincenzo. Pasquale, his brother.
Frank in bikini underwear. Alfie, his dog. Other women.
Lots of other women. His farm in Holland. The cops
in the different precincts. Marianne. She's so beautiful,
he tells me. But he doesn't have to say it; I can
see her long reddish-blonde hair. Her youth. Her nose
that seems to turn upwards, just a little. Yes, she
is beautiful in that natural classic way. He shows
me each image in the box. Slowly, gently, like they
might break. Like he's clutching each fragment of
memory, the puzzle pieces that define his journey.
"Careful, don't touch them," he says.
white sage burning, and he's drinking a glass of white
organic wine. Josh, his extra-toed cat with paws that
look more like a bear, smells my ankles and looks
at Frank. Just as fast as it began, picture time is
through. Frank calls the car dealer about a cassette
tape the mechanics seem to have broken. So I look
around. It's the kind of place you feel at home in
right away. It's full, with African masks and goat-skinned
drums. His sculptures. The ones he's made. A giant
fig tree nearly overtakes the wooden kitchen table.
cabin is one large room, with alcoves, furniture and
screens defining the bedroom, office, living room.
He heats with wood. His life, here at the cabin, is
simple, rich, sensual.
have my answer. This is Frank Serpico: no mask, no
pretending, no posturing. Here, in this place, I like
him. He's got his own goldfish pond and running trails
he's cleared with a machete. He's got rabbits, chickens
and five cats. He did have a goose till it flew away
the other day. He's got more herbs and edible plants
than most greenhouses. And he respects the man who
came to clean his septic tank more than he respects
the President. "He was honest and forthright,"
Frank tells me. "He had integrity."
I leave, I ask Frank once more, "How do you want
people to see you?" "Like
Oscar Wilde's tailor, measuring me anew each time
he sees me."
get in my car for the ride back to the village. He
plays with the dogs, teasing them in a gentle sort
of way. Of course, we have to make one more stop at
the apple orchard for a few apples and some red and
green peppers. I smile when I notice he's wearing
the leather bracelet he's had made. The one with his
gold detective's badge in the middle.
pull up behind his car. With his hand on the doorknob,
he turns back to me. Just one more poem, he says,
smiling that deep-down smile. "Disguised since
childhood, haphazardly assembled from voices and fears
and little pleasures, we come of age as masks. Our
true face never speaks. Somewhere there must be a
storehouse where all these lives are laid away like
suits of armor or old carriages or clothes hanging
limply on the walls. Maybe all the paths lead there,
to the repository of unlived things." (Rainer
kisses both my cheeks, European style.