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Serpicoby Peter Maas
Synopses & Reviews
it is a warm September afternoon in New York as I watch Frank Serpico, age thirty-five, the son of a Neapolitan shoemaker, walk with the help of a cane toward the entrance of a fashionable Manhattan hotel. The hostility of the hotel doorman, white-gloved and resplendent in a forestgreen, brass-buttoned, epauleted uniform, is immediately evident. His nose, with crosshatched tiny red veins, sniffs disdainfully; his watery blue eyes grow suspicious at Serpico's approach. Clearly he does not like what he sees.
Serpico is a short, muscular man, with a shock of brown, curly hair that brushes his shoulders and a full beard. He is wearing leather sandals, a pullover shirt of coarse white linen with leg-of-mutton sleeves, a leather jerkin, and brown velour trousers with flared bottoms. The trousers are supported by a wide belt with a huge brass buckle that Serpico found in a flea market. Emblazoned on the buckle are the heads of two bearded gentlemen of historical note, Henry Wells and William Fargo. Between them are crossed American flags and underneath the legend SINCE 1852. On Serpico's right wrist there is a silver bracelet, and on his left a double strand of varicolored quartz love beads. His shirt is open almost to his waist, and suspended from a slender gold chain around his neck is a gold Winnie-the-Pooh. It was given to Serpico by a Swedish girl he met during a trip to Stockholm. One night he was reminiscing about his childhood and happened to mention that the Pooh stories had been his favorite book, and the next day the girl went out and bought the gold figurine for him.
Serpico has dressed with some care for this visit uptown. In Greenwich Village, where he lives, hewould normally turn out in a striped T-shirt and a pair of faded jeans which he himself, being handy with needle and thread, has repaired and patched from time to time. Still, the hotel doorman would like nothing better than to spot a small sign of hesitation on Serpico's part, a hint of indecision, anything to enable him to confront Serpico with an accusatory, "Can I help you?" But Frank Serpico has been through all this before; he knows exactly what the doorman is thinking, and he limps past him as if he did not exist.
stripped leather with a carved ivory cardinal's head for the knob-there is a twenty-nine-inch-long sword with a razor-sharp edge and point, or that beneath Serpico's jerkin, in a holster clipped to his belt on his left side, the butt facing forward, there nestles a big, loaded, fourteen-shot, 9-mm. Belgian-made Browning automatic pistol in well-oiled, working order. Serpico never goes out without the automatic; it is the reason why, even in the hottest weather, he always has on a jerkin or vest of some sort.
Serpico has just returned to the city after a two week vacation in Nova Scotia, and since he had a doctor's appointment near the hotel, we arranged to meet there for a drink so I could hear about the trip. He orders a Bloody Mary and asks for a stalk of celery in it. The waitress, a pretty blonde, says with a touch of annoyance, "Celery? I never heard of that."
"You ought to try it," Serpico says. "It'll cure all your ills." He looks directly at the waitress as he speaks. Serpico is not, by any conventional standard,handsome. His nose, for example, is too large for his face and is bent slightly sideways, as if it once sustained a blow from which it has never recovered. But one's impression of him at any given moment is governed by his eyes. They are dark brown, and when he is angry, they smolder with rage. On the other hand, when he smiles, as he does now, they dance instantly with their own inner amusement, the lines around them crinkling in concert. Together with the suggestive note in his voice, the effect on the girl is magical. She smiles back, blushing, and says, "Oh, wow! I guess I will."Over drinks, Serpico speaks longingly of his trip to Nova Scotia, of the brilliantly crisp days, the marvelous, silent nights. He had gone north while the word was carefully passed that he was headed south, even to the extent of purchasing an airline ticket to Florida. He had driven to Nova Scotia in his Land Cruiser alone save for his English sheepdog, Alfie, specifically because of a death threat on his life, but also to get away from the city for the first time in more than a year, to reflect on a series of personal crises, past and present, and to think about his future,
Except for a two-day stay with a farmer he encountered on the road, Serpico recalls, he spent his time driving leisurely along the coast, stopping occasionally to fish or to walk on the beach to exercise his left leg, which was still weak from a severe attack of phlebitis, a painful and sometimes dangerous inflammation of the veins that had first put him in a wheelchair, then left him with the cane.
At night he usually camped out. Serpico carried a large plywood board with attachable supports in the back of the Land Cruiser, andwhen he spotted a suitable site, he would set up the board so that it extended out through the rear double doors, place a sleeping bag on it, and rig a tentlike tarpaulin overhead in case it rained. Then he would build a fire, feed Alfie, and cook himself a steak he had bought or a fish he had caught during the day after coffee...
It is the late sixties, a time of intense social and generational upheaval. Into this maelstrom came a man who broke the mold. A working class, Brooklyn-born, Italian cop with long hair, a beard, and a taste for operaand ballet. Most of all, Frank Serpico was a man who couldn't be silenced — or bought.
For years a culture of corruption had pervaded the New York City Police Department. Police payoffs, protection, and shakedowns of gambling rackets and drug dealers were common practice. The so-called bluecode of silence protected the minority of crooked cops from the sanction of the majority.
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