Close to 30 years ago, when Peter E. Parisi was the program director at KADI-FM, he went to New Jersey to visit his barely school-age niece and nephew. On Christmas Eve, he sat them down and told them to listen to the radio. They didn't know it really wasn't a broadcast; instead, it was a cassette tape Parisi had rigged to sound like a newscast, complete with the sound effects of a plane crash and his own altered voice announcing there had been a terrible tragedy and that, horribly, Santa Claus had been "burned alive."
Santa Claus was dead.
His niece and nephew cried.
Rich Dalton, known as "Radio Rich" since his '70s days on KADI, remembers that Parisi couldn't fathom the reaction.
"Pete couldn't understand why his sister was upset and why the kids cried," says Dalton, a friend of Parisi's who kept in touch with him through the years. "Pete had trouble when people didn't see things the way he did. He'd go too far. It was part of his social ineptitude."
Parisi parlayed that ineptitude, augmented with persistence and perverse humor, into a nagging public persona that refused to go away. He had a knack for getting on people's nerves, both in person and on his public-access cable-TV show, World Wide Magazine. Annoyance was his shtick, his art, his peculiar calling for the show that aired for 15 years. Off the air, Pete could kvetch worse than an irritating in-law: The world sucked; his life was in the Dumpster; no one knew how bad he felt or how sick he was.
So when Parisi phoned Short Cuts in November to complain, there seemed to be little news in the call. It did sound more urgent than usual. After Parisi bitched and moaned that local radio-talk-show impresario Mark Kasen had screwed him out of his last paycheck -- someone was always out to get Pete -- Short Cuts told him he was blowing it out of proportion. Parisi said he wasn't, ending his diatribe with the now-chilling words "But this is real."
Indeed it was.
Parisi died on Jan. 19 in Florida after drifting in and out of a diabetic coma for close to two months.
Kasen, no stranger to pay disputes [Bruce Rushton, "Peeling the Onion," Aug. 1, 2001], appears to be in the clear on this one. Parisi had reached the end of one of his many ropes, not having taped a new show for months and having to take a part-time job as a security guard at a car dealership. Kasen, who views Parisi as a "truly a tragic figure," offered him the midnight shift on his fledgling Internet radio station, Newblackcity.com. Kasen says he didn't pay Parisi much so that he wouldn't be disqualified from receiving Social Security disability pay. But the arrangement didn't work out for long.
When Parisi called Short Cuts, he was driving his '91 Honda and talking into a cell phone he couldn't afford.
"I have to get rid of it next month. I can't afford a cellular telephone; I can't afford a regular telephone. I got no money," Parisi said. "I couldn't work anymore. It was costing me too much money to go to work. The gas, the car -- I used to buy a cup of coffee every day to go to work; I can't do that anymore. No money. I'm completely penniless. I have to borrow money from everybody.
"I'm so poor now I don't even have money to buy insulin. I don't have enough money to buy stuff to keep my diabetes gone. I don't know what I'm going to do."
According to those he contacted irregularly, Parisi had taken to sleeping in a recliner, with his insulin and whatever money he had safely nestled in his pockets. His relationship with his longtime live-in girlfriend, Linda Vaughan, had its difficulties. Parisi once had a restraining order against Vaughan; during his rant to Short Cuts, he expressed fear of her. Vaughan dismisses such talk as "crazy."
"This morning, she was mad at me, real mad at me, because I fell asleep and I left the wrong channel on the TV," said Parisi, who had dozed off in the recliner while watching TV Land. "She wants to watch [Don] Imus in the morning. She's in love with Imus."
On Nov. 11, Parisi was brought by ambulance to St. Alexius Hospital on South Broadway. His sister, Dolores Emmerich, paid for an air ambulance to fly the comatose Parisi to Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 6. He came out of the coma on Dec. 15, and, until he died on Jan. 19, he "was alert about 80 percent of the time," Emmerich says. She says doctors told her the coma was triggered by Parisi's being without insulin for several days.
Emmerich is trying to get Parisi's possessions back from Vaughan. Emmerich says Parisi's dying wish was that his sister and mother have the three-quarter-inch master videotapes of the 15 years of World Wide Magazine. It might be a stretch to refer to 15 years' worth of public-access TV shows as "intellectual property," but Parisi's sister wants the tapes for posterity, if nothing else. Thus far, all Emmerich has gotten from Vaughan is a video camera.
Vladimir Noskov, better known on Parisi's show and elsewhere as the Mad Russian, had planned to drive Parisi to Florida in late November. On his Web site, Vlad the Mad has offered his own theories on Parisi's demise. As a result, Claus von Bulow analogies are swirling around Parisi's fade to black, though it's likely to remain a dark load of loose talk. There seems to be no active investigation of what led to Parisi's diabetic coma.
Vaughan rejects the idea that she withheld insulin from Parisi.
"I'm the one who took him to get insulin. I've got the bills here," she says. "That's the most ridiculous stuff I've ever heard. I guess it came from Pete when he was disoriented."
Doctors told Parisi to get his blood sugar under control and to stop his three-pack-a-day smoking habit, but, Vaughan says, he wouldn't listen.
"He was facing dialysis, but he did not clean up his act," she says.
If anyone is looking for suspects in the demise of the 54-year-old New Jersey native, it might be wise to start with Pete himself. He was an overweight, insulin-dependent diabetic who loved doughnuts. Up until his last few years, he smoked reefer as often as he could lay his hands on it. In the early '70s, he did a recurring skit on KADI called "High Intensity News" in which he rated local pot for potency and availability. He once lost an easy production job at KPLR-TV (Channel 11) because he refused to quit smoking cigarettes in the control room.
And maybe Pete just ran out of gas. The early years of this public-access show, from 1986 on, had some funny bits, including one where Parisi drove around South St. Louis to collect a carload of Southside Journals from neighborhood lawns and then drove out Watson Road to throw them in front of the Suburban Journals' office. Soon his routine evolved into just walking the streets with a camera, a microphone and a bad attitude. He was banned from the Arch grounds; he was thrown out of meetings, hotels -- you name it, Parisi was tossed out of it.
"I know my brother wasn't an angel," says Emmerich. "I know he could annoy people and egg people on, but he didn't deserve to die. He certainly didn't deserve to go through what he went through."
During one of Parisi's later shows, a year or so ago, he talked about having just missed another on-air radio job. It was night, and he was driving around the city, being videotaped as he talked. He kept looking over his shoulder at the camera, damning St. Louis as a "jerkwater" town and moaning that he deserved better than what he got. The town was backward and wasn't open to things new or different, he kvetched.
Of course it was over the top -- it was Parisi. Despite his flaws -- and yes, they were impossible to ignore -- he had a point. In this jerkwater town, dozens of far less talented people make a living on radio and television. If you doubt it, click any channel on the dial. Dreck is everywhere.
Now that Parisi's gone, at least one of those statements he made while driving around that night is a bankable truth:
No matter how insensitive or socially inept he could be, in the end, he deserved better.