Shapiro vs. Serpico: The Rat in the Adage, Part Two

(Read part one here.)

“People who say I should go to hell, well, I’m here.”– Nevin Shapiro.

For a notorious rat, Frank Serpico never had much of a loyalty problem.

Long before Rudy Giuliani found his city so starved for perpetrators he had to start cracking down on jaywalkers, in that same Drop Dead decade when Jimmy Burke and his crew (the real-life GoodFellas) ripped off JFK, crime in the New York of the 1970s was at an ignominious apex- both outside and inside the law. A well-oiled arrangement permitted lower level cops to shake down drug dealers and numbers operators for a regular contribution while the brass looked the other way.  Not everybody was on the take, but pretty much everybody who wasn’t taking money kept quiet about those who did.  But Serpico, who joined the NYPD in 1959, didn’t play ball; in fact, he protested to his superior officers so strenuously (if fruitlessly) for so many years, his fellow officers finally more or less let him get shot in the face as thanks.*

As Peter Maas recounts in his classic 1973 book, Serpico would’ve understood people calling him “‘a rat,’ a fink, an informant” if he had “sworn fealty to, say, even the Mafia, and then spilled its secrets. He could see that, in all its variations.”   But to his mind, he owed other cops no allegiance; if they broke the law, he’d put them in jail like anybody else.  Jimmy Conway’s words of wisdom didn’t apply to him:  reporting dirty cops wasn’t giving up his friends, because they weren’t his friends.  Simple.

But that’s not how many in the police (and outside as well) looked at it.  While Serpico lay in the hospital after the shooting with cerebral spinal fluid steadily leaking out his ear and bullet fragments freshly lodged (they’re still there) in his jaw, he received a get well card in the mail.  Hallmark said, “WITH SINCERE SYMPATHY”, followed in pen by: “That you didn’t get your brains blown out, you rat bastard.”

For many in the police, and among the national public once the book and the Sidney Lumet/Al Pacino movie came out, Serpico became not just a rat but the poster boy for Rat.  But he believed in standing up for the right thing, risking himself for the public good- a “lamplighter” like Paul Revere, as he later styled himself.  Nearly forty years later his only regret was getting pushed out of the job he loved for the sake of that stand.

Maas poignantly depicts Serpico, a veteran of countless stakeouts, undercover drug buys, and prostitution arrests in the South Bronx, Hell’s Kitchen, and other of the nastier nooks of New York, in the hospital watching Sesame Street- a fantasy of a cozily squalid, tumultuous, multiethnic, neighbor-helping-neighbor 1970s New York- its “gentleness and lightness” (that is, sadly, its inaccuracy) making it the only show he could stand to watch.

Although Serpico went on to testify before the Knapp Commission, finally getting his public inquiry into police corruption, he was done with the police force, never working on the streets again.  He finally got the detective’s gold shield he’d wanted all his life (and, not for nothing, still carries), but quit the job, exhausted by the actual New York, worn down from the obdurate refusal of anybody in power to take him seriously until it was nearly too late.

* ”More or less,” because it isn’t clear that the shooting was as dirty as Serpico believed.  He got stuck trying to shove open the door to a drug dealer’s apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and his two partners were so slow to move to his aid that Serpico took a bullet point-blank.  Serpico thought they let it happen, but they just might not have had the balls he did.

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What compels someone to stand up to a system and stand for so much pressure and abuse?  I’m no psychotherapist, but Dr. Bernard Luskin of Touro University Worldwide most definitely IS, and he lists as the top characteristic for a whistleblower:  “Driven by altruism.”  It’s hard for normal people, those who wouldn’t have blown the whistle- and let’s face it, that’s practically everybody- to credit that someone would take that much shit JUST to do the right thing.  But he wasn’t getting a reward, no promotion (quite the opposite), no love- so what else did Serpico care about, but the right thing?

Now Nevin Shapiro, as discussed in Part One of this article, may be driven by a lot of things- revenge, demons, boredom (never underestimate boredom, especially with twenty yawning years ahead)- but altruism’s not high among them.  He’s no hero, probably not even in his own warped mind.  Charles Robinson, author of the Yahoo article that started it all, called Shapiro a “mixed bag as a human being”.  Perhaps by “mixed” Robinson means he couldn’t choose among various “-bag” prefixes.  You get the sense Robinson and the other Yahoo reporters working the story wouldn’t have minded a bit more breast-beating or self-justification (“I’m just a symptom of a larger disease” type of thing) from Shapiro, just so they weren’t so plainly providing a vehicle for his revenge.  But he’s playing, albeit for very different reasons, much the same role as Serpico in exposing widespread, widely ignored corruption.

Serpico and Shapiro actually have more in common than you might think.  Both are small guys with sizable egos born in shoulder-chip central, the (former) City of Brooklyn- yet not just little dudes with attitudes and flamboyant tendencies, but men of genuine talent and charisma.  And, of course, trouble with the law (granted, Shapiro’s trouble was breaking the law and Serpico’s not breaking it enough).  But they further shared two key traits:  an obsession to undermine the system in which they found themselves, and the capacity to endure hate, letting each function as the catalyst to break the story open.

Yet they were both trying to dismantle systems a lot of people had a powerfully discreet interest in holding together.  Even those who didn’t profit didn’t have the guts to declare a difference between loyalty and cowardice, letting the corruption continue.  It became consecrated by usage, one of those idiotic historic things, a legacy like fraternity hazing that it becomes a matter of tradition, an observance of protocol, to preserve.

In the end, Serpico’s testimony did produce a body count- a number of high-ranking cops were forced out or retired after the Knapp Commission’s hearings, though few if any of the really top guys went to jail.  Yet well into the 21st century Serpico maintained he still heard from police officers afraid to speak out:  “An honest cop still can’t find a place to go and complain without fear of recrimination. The blue wall will always be there because the system supports it.”

Will there be any happier harvest from Shapiro’s story?  The stakes are very different, of course; outrageous as all this misbehavior might have been, college football is still more of a farce than a horror show.  Nevertheless, Miami’s leaders, not just on the teams but in the university, are at risk.  Yet in the end their own stubbornly, cynically hands-off attitude, their willful ignorance, will likely save them from meaningful punishment.  Some players or coaches or other hired hands will take the brunt.  Not that they don’t deserve it, but they’re far from the only ones.

For Shapiro personally, the stuff he’s copping to now he never got in trouble for and probably never really will, standoffishly regulated as these matters are by the NCAA.  Rumor has it Standard & Poor’s is downgrading that AA to just A, for “Athletic”…actually, the NCAA operates rather like a ratings agency: after extensive review of problems raised by events they completely didn’t see coming, missed while they were happening, and don’t have a clue how to prevent, they make fundamentally cosmetic downgrades to various entities’ reputations, engendering much debate but leaving the public little enlightened and the industry’s moneymaking largely unimpaired.  College football as a business concern and source of civic and institutional pride will likely remain safe as houses.  The NCAA learned its lesson with SMU- no more permanent downgrades.

Anyway, the death penalty’s too good for Miami.  Too forgiving.  Far better to sentence them to twenty years in lockdown like their buddy Shapiro: give them a team, insist they field a team, but with no recruiting at all, minimal scholarships, a $100,000 cap on the head coach’s salary, equal (zero) tolerance for the University as for its athletic programs, and so on.  The U could use a little humiliation.  Going 1-11 every year builds character.  In a free society, untainted citizens can get away with a little illegality here and there, that’s their prerogative.  But no more perks or little cheats for you, Miami- you’ve lost your chiseling privileges.  Nothing but the straight and narrow from now on.

Many of the team’s fans would probably prefer death as a Hurricane to life as a good example.  That being the case, tough: they can take life and like it.

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As far as Shapiro is concerned, what was it all for?  When the drama subsides, he will still be serving his sentence in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta (well, at least he doesn’t have to commute).  Napoleon the Dyno-Mite finally met his Waterloo, or Lufthansa in GoodFellas terms: since his big score fell apart, he’s whacking guys left and right, just because he can and because he doesn’t give a fuck.  However, this newly created drama will only postpone his utter isolation for a time.  And the guys whose lives he’s thinks he’s ruining…somehow you imagine they’ll get by.

Shapiro should take caution from the lonely place Serpico ended up.  The Times article from 2010 presents him as a bit bitter, distanced from his family, and self-righteous about his past.  Maybe that’s what happens to real righteousness when there’s nothing else to latch onto.  Surely Serpico deserves a new cause, even a second shot at being a cop, doing the job he was meant to do.  Perhaps Kirk Herbstreit had the right idea.  Soon after the Shapiro revelations came out, Herbstreit said on ESPN that because NCAA can’t cover every school until violations are actually made, and even a head coach can’t be aware of everything his team’s doing, schools need “a little task force there on each campus,” and suggested an ex-cop or FBI agent to head each one.

There’s the solution: let Serpico come in from the cold.  Put him to work cleaning up the ‘Canes.  He could easily sweat the hate he’d get.  At least he’d be back in the game, and he wouldn’t have to answer to anybody.  I’d give money (not to him, obviously) to see a crusty 75-year-old Serpico toss a yacht.

Shapiro, too, will have to find another activity to occupy his dragging time and racing mind; it’s that or just brood on the insults he’s taken, nurse his grudges.  With his epic acting-out against the Hurricanes, he won’t have won any admirers.  My guess is all the opinionating in the press on Shapiro’s character and motives (ahem) will be that much more maddening, because now not just his former “nephews” but the world will know him as a bitter, isolated man.  The only people who’ll want to visit him will be more journalists, and just while the story persists.

Those he really cares about, the ones who hurt him and whose attention he’s trying to win back with all this, are the Miami players he befriended.  He’s wants them back in his life so much he’ll do anything to communicate with them, even if getting them to actively loathe him is the only way.  But it won’t take long before even that wretched comfort fades.

Now that he’s broken Jimmy Conway’s rules, and his friends, real or imagined, are nowhere to be found, Shapiro could learn from Serpico about the cost of turning rat:  the enduring pain is not being hated, or hurt, or even destroyed, but forgotten.

So here’s a sadder adage for the rat to remember:  Hell is other people, but only as long as they’re not too busy.  Otherwise, you’re on your own.

Andrew Westney writes about sports and business, and lives uphill on Tobacco Road.

About Andrew Westney

Andrew Westney writes about sports and business, and lives uphill on Tobacco Road.
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