A bad-ass P.I. spices up the quest for truth (Browne, column)

Molly Browne

He belongs on “The Sopranos,” or maybe “Six Feet Under.” He could have joined the Family, but his stint as a mortician makes it a tough call. I’ve spun the wheel of his gun, we’ve barreled down the highway in his brand spankin’ new Suburban and he’s cuffed me with his silver police-issued bracelets — yes, they hurt.

If you know me at all, you know I’m talking about Sergio. His last name is Serritella, but I’d argue that’s irrelevant. I think Sergio could be like Madonna. The cheese stands alone.

Sergio is the private investigator who protects and defends Team Serrano — my investigative journalism group that spends its nights on the South Side while you’re at the Deuce. We’re investigating the possible wrongful convictions of two men serving time for a 10-year-old homicide. This is indisputably the most important thing I’ve been up to lately.

Our class, unlike so many others, is as much about process as it is about potential result. And Sergio makes our process unlike any other. So let me introduce you.

After our first night in Humboldt Park with our new “Ghetto 101” teacher, my group concluded one thing: Working on the case would be worthwhile if only for meeting Sergio. He’s a 25-year-old contradiction — a bad ass who serves warrants and has been shot at and stabbed.

He also signs his e-mails, “Ciao!”

Sergio is the only guy I know who can rock out to Avril Lavigne and Sarah McLachlan. He references Atlantic Monthly articles at a whim. He has stared killers in the face, has worked brutal crime scenes and can do wonders with scarves and lipstick — remember, the corpses.

When I start talking about Sergio, I can’t hide my awe. My roommates know all the stories, like when I had to hide his semi-automatic in my purse while we ate dinner at Cracker Barrel. Sergio, terribly fond of practical jokes, told me an armed robbery was in progress in the kitschy country store accompanying the highway pit stop.

I guess I need some more tutoring in Sergio’s course: I practically jumped into teammate Julie’s lap, away from the loaded pistol in my tan Longchamp.

Sergio is, aside from my dad, the best cheerleader/bodyguard/chauffeur I know. He has introduced us to prostitutes, defended overzealous police officers and challenged our opinions about everything — all in the name of advancing our search for truth.

Aside from expanding our vocabularies — some of his favorites are attitude adjustment, knucklehead, and euphemisms for shoot like off, pop and do — Sergio has made us skeptical, not cynical, and prepared, not paranoid. And he sure can make us laugh.

One day I’ll be able to appreciate the big lessons I’m learning, but for now, I know this: Things in life that are grueling, frustrating and all-consuming can also be fun as hell.

When I took this class, I thought it would be the prisoners that surprised me most. Instead I’ve learned they are, in so many ways, just like all of us.

It’s Sergio I’m not so sure about. And for that, I’ll just say, Grazie!