“Do you just talk?” Frank Serpico says, cutting off my attempts to chat him up as he holds court at this organic grocery where, on a near-daily basis, he gossips with fellow Hudson Valley locals while lunching on the store’s vegetarian deli food. The renowned New York Police Department whistle-blower explains that he isn’t ready to start our interview just yet because he “had a stressful morning.” Instead, he gently shushes me and mouths the words, “Drink your coffee.”
We won’t be getting to my questions for a while. Serpico repeatedly shoots up from our table, either to inspect a license plate in the parking lot he considers suspicious, or to read the packaging of artificial sweeteners or soy milk to see whether they contain ingredients he deems unhealthy. At one point, he bursts into the store’s kitchen and chats with the staff, who along with locals all fondly address the 77-year-old as “Paco.” The first few times he leaves our table and our conversation, I follow him, but I quickly give up on the cat-herding.
Serpico, who was played by Al Pacino in the 1973 Sidney Lumet film, Serpico, that depicted his brave and dangerous battle against police corruption, had agreed to discuss New York City’s populist mayor-elect, Bill de Blasio, and what changes he should bring to the police department. Serpico now lives in a small cabin about 130 miles north of Manhattan, but he still pays attention to what is going on in the city.
When I arrived this afternoon, he was sitting at the corner table with two buddies – a found objects artist and an acupuncturist. They act as his jesters, educating and entertaining me when he roams. The artist asks whether I’ve come to learn Serpico’s life story, then says “If somebody asks me to tell you my life story, I say, ‘It starts when you come out of your mother’s vagina!’
“We all do! Except for Caesarian sections,” he adds. “That’s even weirder.”
He explains that the universal bizarreness of birth makes us “all equal” as Serpico, in sand-colored Ugg boots, brown-green cords, a khaki Carhartt-style jacket and gray fingerless gloves bounds back to our table. He decides he doesn’t want us to sit with his friends, so he selects another table, then changes his mind, and settles on one next to his friends. He finds a scarf on his new seat and places it behind him – not quite hiding it, but not quite displaying it for the owner to see, either.
A few minutes later, a woman asks if anyone has seen a scarf. “Oh damn, that’s a beautiful scarf,” he says, handing it over. “I could find a good home for that.”
Still resisting chitchat, let alone questions about the NYPD, he leafs through a holistic healing book. “If I’m angry, I will not be lovable,” he reads aloud. “It’s not right for me to be angry.”
“Being angry is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die,” the artist chimes in, claiming to paraphrase the Dalai Lama.
“That’s easy for him to say,” Serpico mumbles, “He’s sitting and getting waited on while his people die. Christ wouldn’t do that.”
He pops up again, wandering up and down the aisles of the store.
During Serpico’s perambulations, the artist says: “He loves being a celebrity,” but quickly adds that he doesn’t talk to Serpico about why he is a celebrity.
“I’ve never even brought it up,” he says. “I let him talk, and periodically, he says something and I’m like, ‘Oh.’ He’s [still] a cop – that’s where his head is at.”
When Serpico comes back to our table, he says he has a joke that will teach us all how to speak Spanish. “How do you spell socks?” he asks.
S-o-c-k-s, his friends say, confused.
“Eso si que es?” I say, offering the Spanish phrase that roughly translates to “That’s it!”
He had asked me this same riddle when we first spoken on the phone several weeks ago. I still don’t know why it is funny, but Serpico told me then that he would have lunch with me because I was the “first female” to answer correctly.
The artist also has a joke: “People who are obsessed with Mapquest are ‘mapsturbators!’ ”
Serpico now begins to open up about Brooklyn, where he was born in 1936. His brother used to run a bodega near Prospect Park, long before the neighborhood was gentrified, and long before Williamsburg was a hipster haven, he recalls, “I saw my first dead person there.” It’s also where Serpico was shot in the face during a botched drug bust, and left for dead by his fellow officers.
What does he make of New York City now – the mayoral race, the NYPD, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and stop-and-frisk?
“Yeah, I was going to be made police commissioner if one of them got elected,” he says, not able to recall which candidate extended that offer. “I guess he didn’t.”
He says he didn’t have a problem with the controversial stop-and-frisk policy, but thinks officials should “ask the people who are the victims” about bad stops. He adds that he’s not optimistic about the direction of the NYPD, which “seems to be getting fattier.
“That's why it’s important to have credibility. Once the credibility goes, people believe the media.”
He believes there’s a disconnect between the city’s management and the common man, largely because of Kelly and outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a billionaire. “I think [Kelly’s] more concerned with the type of tie he wears than the people he’s supposed to be serving.… How could he possibly relate to what the poor man goes through? How could Bloomberg relate?”
He jokes that the Pope would be a better NYPD commissioner than Kelly or the other contenders for the job. “Does it matter who the police commissioner is? Does it matter who the mayor who puts him in power is? It’s all a political game. They all have their eyes on something bigger.”
Is de Blasio just another politician, then?
“We’ll find out when he gets in there. We’ll see if he keeps his word. New York should be for the working class.”
He is impressed by the new generation of activists. “Today they [protest] a different way,” he says. “Ray Kelly shows up at Brown University, and they just boo him off the stage. They’re more aware.”
He’s also heartened by the public support for NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who “fits the classic blueprint for a lamplighter, for a whistle-blower.” He then he adds, “In my day, there was no one sending me emails of support.”
The artist and acupuncturist bid goodbye, and Serpico once again seems to lose interest in the interview. When an exchange student from a nearby school sits down in the café, Serpico asks the teen whether he can say whatever he wants in his home country. The student hesitates, shakes his head, no, quickly finishes his meal and scurries out.
“I think I scared him,” Serpico says, smiling.