Imagining New York City and the world without Michael Imperiale’s booming voice, friendly smile and firm opinions is to imagine a place that is blander, colder and less direct. Imperiale passed away last month at the age of 74. He lived on the Lower East Side and was the 34-year partner of the late Frieda Zames.
Disability rights activist Anne Emerman said, “Michael was a quintessential downtown guy, riding a scooter, wearing a big Western hat and a poncho. Bus drivers said he was the mayor of the Lower East Side.”
Imperiale was the lead singer for the Disabled in Action Singers and liked to play chess and sing in Washington Square Park. “Michael was a big, warm-hearted person. Children and animals loved him,” Emerman said.
Nadina LaSpina and her partner Danny Robert said Imperiale was the first person they called for a civil rights or peace protest because he could convey a message with great volume and he was always ready to start a chant, which he enjoyed more than meetings. They knew him for 20 years.
“He was irrepressible, once he got something in his head he didn’t care what anybody said,” Robert said. “Of course he had a really beautiful singing voice and he would break out in song at any time he wanted to.”
“He was so full of life and full of love,” LaSpina said. “Good heart, always wanting to come and bring food.” She recalled a time when they chained themselves to the White House with other activists to protest President Obama’s lack of support for the Community Choice Act and LaSpina helped prevent Imperiale from being arrested – a promise she had made to Zames.
Zames was a renowned disability and civil rights activist who passed away in 2005 at the age of 72. She had been a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which she worked to make accessible, and the president of Disabled in Action. She wrote the book “The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation” with her sister Doris Fleischer.
Emerman said Imperiale was the navigator when Zames drove their car. Though he had never learned to read and write well in his youth, he was a strong chess player and skilled at reading body language, Emerman said.
The couple sometimes left meetings when Imperiale could sense that a decision would not go their way and “He would get up and say Frieda, let’s get out of here and sue [them],” Emerman said. “He acted from his guts and from his heart. He got it 100%.”
Imperiale once ended up in jail for blocking a bus that wouldn’t allow Zames to board and breaking the front windows. Another time he was beaten by police and later sued them for $10,000 and won.
Fusun Ateser, a friend of Imperiale’s who lives near Washington Square Park said he would call her name every time she walked through the park no matter where she was going.
“He just loved that park and if he were on the other end and I had to go to an appointment, he would call my name. You had to hug and say hello. Waving wouldn’t do,” she said.
“There are some chess players who know him well and if he lost he laughed and if he won he laughed,” Ateser said.
Matthew Sapolin, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities said, “Over the years, my experience with Michael has always been excellent.
He was always outwardly blunt and funny and wasn’t afraid to say anything that was on his mind, and he had a good sense of humor about it and a good attitude. He fought for serious things but was never mean-spirited and was always very passionate.”
Imperiale is survived by his son Michael Imperiale, his daughter Stephanie Imperiale and his sister Joann Hunter. A memorial service took place on October 22 at Visions at Selis Manor, 135 West 23rd Street, to celebrate his life.
This article was published in the November issue of Able News.