Tom's Two Cents: A Collection of Columns by Tom Paolangeli - Read Online
Tom's Two Cents
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"Tom's Two Cents" was an award winning humor column by Tom M. Paolangeli that ran in the Ithaca Times for many years. This is a collection of some of his best and favorite columns. It includes some longer versions as well as some never before published pieces. Tom's columns often focused on daily life in Ithaca NY, a town where "everyone has an opinion, and you're entitled to it."

In winning the 2004 NY Press Association Award for Best Humor Column, the judges advised, "Make sure the folks in NY read Tom's columns. They need the dose of common sense, and the laughs."
Reader comments about various columns: J.O'H wrote, "Thanks for your hugely funny and close to the bone commentary! I wasn't sure if I should laugh or cry...”. CayugaDeer.org. said, “In this week's Ithaca Times, Tom Paolangeli presents a wonderful parody of the situation playing out in Cayuga Heights. Highly recommended reading!”. R.K. - "I enjoyed your article about the new bus stops. Keep up the harassment and try to make sense of this "free money" project.” A.E. - “Many thanks for a good laugh!”. R.O'C. - "Thanks for some hearty laughs - yet another benefit of duct tape!" D.K. - “I think Tom should change his writing column name from Toms @cents to Toms nonsense.” Well, you can’t win them all...

Published: Tom Paolangeli on
ISBN: 9781465757593
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Games

Introduction

Rather late in life I discovered the joy of writing. I’d always been an avid reader, and had mild, short fantasies of one day becoming a writer, but one seemingly insurmountable problem loomed: I had absolutely no idea what to write about.

My first published work was motivated by the desire for free advertising. In the early 1990’s I was a Real Estate agent in Ithaca NY, and I made a deal with a local newspaper to write an advice column. I wasn’t paid for it, but I figured it was subtle advertising for my expertise. Thus Ask the Real Estate Guy was born.

In the column I answered readers’ questions. Well, that was the plan. In fact, no one ever actually sent me a question, so each week I’d just make them up. To the best of my knowledge I never got one single client from the column, but I really liked writing it.

With my typical flair for awful timing, I’d become a real estate agent just as the market tanked. Since you can’t make a living writing free columns, in the mid 1990’s a career change prompted a move to Stuart, Florida. To keep in touch with family and friends back north, I availed myself of the still rather new technology of email. I wrote about whatever was going on in my life, usually in a funny self-deprecating type of way.

I enjoyed the letter writing process, and I began to take a bit more time and care in telling my tales. I found great satisfaction in using just the right word, crafting just the right sentence. This was reinforced by the feedback I received. I love getting your emails spurred me on to make them even better. And slowly the thought formed - maybe I do have a knack for writing. I sure wasn’t ready to take on grand themes like war and peace or love and death, but I could handle a funny tale about a trip to the grocery store or canoeing through a swamp.

So I kept writing my emails, but thought about starting a grander project. Since the clichéd writing advice is write what you know, like millions of other aspiring writers I decided my first major work would be my memoir. I even had a unifying theme. I realized I could tell my life’s story by referencing the various automobiles I’d owned. Thus was born My Life in Cars, An Autobiography.

It was a fun project, a huge learning experience, and of course it sits in the corner gathering dust. I only sent it to one person, Leon Mandel, the editor and publisher of AutoWeek. I asked for his opinion and advice. He wrote back a very nice letter, saying he enjoyed reading my work, and I did seem to have a knack for writing, but I should realize that in the harsh world of publishing, a memoir from someone who wasn’t already famous was a tough, if not impossible sell. But keep writing!

So next, for reasons that now escape me, I decided to write a screenplay. I actually have a degree in Cinema from Ithaca College, but had never put it to good use. It overqualified me for my first out of college job as an Audio Visual Technician, and played little part in future forays into things like Sound Reinforcement, Rock and Roll Bands, Bird Song Tape Preservationist, Real Estate Sales, or my then current job with a company that manufactured oil and gas pump systems for industrial gas turbines.

When I attended Ithaca College, they didn’t offer a dedicated course in screenwriting. So I supplemented what little knowledge I had with voracious reading, and soon cranked out a series of screenplays that wowed no one and went nowhere.

I still wasn’t deterred. I was determined to find some modicum of success as a writer. Screenwriting is an extremely tough world to break into, especially from the East Coast, but maybe I’d have more success with novels?

And so after a few years of writing and sending out hundreds of queries I finally had my answer. No.

Okay, plan A, B and C didn’t work, so on to D. A move back to Ithaca in 2000 allowed me to audit a couple of writing courses at my old Alma Mater. Despite my literally being old enough to be a parent to my fellow students, I found they responded well and warmly to my personal essay efforts.

Fortified with that shot of confidence, I approached a local weekly paper, The Ithaca Times. I’d heard they were receptive to new (as in cheap) freelance writers. I met with then editor Kenny Berkowitz. Much to my pleasure, Kenny gave me a small assignment to see what I could do, and said we’d take it from there.

That first assignment was to do a short article about the upcoming Chili Festival. You didn’t need to be Dostoevsky to write that, so my work was judged acceptable. And most exciting to me, I was paid for it! I was now a professional! I had the check to prove it! Yeah, it was only $15, and it took me 6 hours to write the piece, but still…

I was given other assignments, and soon worked my way up to feature articles. One day I was asked to write about an upcoming Italian Heritage event planned for the local museum. After I wrote the article, I told Kenny I had something that complimented it. For my personal essay class I’d just written about my Italian grandmother. Kenny liked the essay, and agreed to run it. Though it appeared under a Personal Opinion heading, it was really the start of my eventual column, Tom’s Two Cents.

To try to shorten up this rambling tale, what basically happened next was I continued to get assignments from Kenny, but also submitted the occasional Personal Essay piece. These were usually funny stories taken from my life or the local news.

Then one day Kenny made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. How would I like my very own humor column?

It doesn’t get much better than that. So after a stumbling start at a name for the column, (View From the Valley was the title for a while) Tom’s Two Cent’s was born. I claimed two cents was all my opinion was really worth, and a few disgruntled readers doubted even that.

Usually the column was inspired by simple daily life in the rather interesting and unique city of Ithaca, NY. The bumper sticker that succinctly sums up Ithaca is Ithaca: Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality. (I wish I’d written that!) In Ithaca everyone has their own opinion, and you’re entitled to it. (I did write that one, but I’m not sure if it’s original.)

I wrote the column about once a month. Sometimes it was twice a month and sometimes a few months would go by without my writing anything. The columns were generally well received, and it always was a nice moment when strangers told me they enjoyed my work. I even won a few awards from the New York Press Association, so I could now claim to be an award winning columnist.

The years of writing spanned an incredibly tumultuous time for me. I went from being a part time to a full time father, I held a series of different jobs, one longtime relationship ended, but a new one began, and I moved from a city apartment to a country home. I can look back now and be happy where I ended up, but there sure were some difficult moments. Through it all, I tried to find something funny to write about.

As much as I enjoyed writing the column, after about nine years it was getting harder to come up with something on deadline, and I decided to dedicate my short window of daily writing time to other projects.

Let’s see, memoir, screenplays, novels, humor column…Well, I haven’t tried doing short stories yet…

But before I embark on that plan, (I think we’re up to plan E), I thought it would be fun to cull my columns for about 50 of my favorites, and share them with the big wide world outside of Ithaca.

There really is a world outside of Ithaca, right?

***

PART ONE: FAMILY AND MEMORIES

I had the wonderful opportunity to write about whatever I wanted. While that’s great for a writer, it makes it a bit harder when I put on my editor’s hat and try to figure out a way to best present them now. I could have just printed the column chronologically, but I hoped to find some organizing principles.

I finally came up with four very loosely labeled sections: Family and Memories, Ithaca, Silly Tom, and the catch-all, Musings on Miscellanea. These are rather broad categories, and often a column could have nicely fit in more than one section.

This first section contains some of my favorites. And while they are the most personal pieces, I was pleased and surprised by how often readers cited many of these as their favorites, too.

***

Madison Street Memories

February 2001. I consider this my first column. As mentioned in the Introduction, it was originally done for a Personal Essay class I was then taking at Ithaca College. The version that ran in the Times was shortened to meet their space needs. This is the full-length original.

Last fall I went to an Open House and searched for ghosts.

Anchoring the corner of Madison and Fifth Street, kitty corner from Conway Park, the house belonged to my Italian grandparents for 60 years. It was sold to strangers in 1994. The previously pristine property soon joined its neighbors in a downward property value spiral. Eventually a community renovation organization, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing, acquired the tired old house, and had just completed a major renovation.

They reconfigured it from an up/down duplex back to a single family. They uncovered hardwood floors that had been buried under gold-flecked linoleum and brown shag carpeting. They completely redid the outdated kitchen and bathrooms. They tore down extraneous walls and closets.

All in all they did a very nice job, and I’m happy they resurrected the property from the condition the previous owner had let it decay to.

But as I walked through, I felt something was missing. The basement was clean and open, but I missed the little side rooms with wine barrels that still reeked of the musty odor of homemade wine last bottled decades ago. Gone too were the makeshift shelves neatly stacked with Mason jars containing mysterious red and green vegetables from the garden. Gone was the worn brown leather strap that hung in the bathroom, for sharpening straight razors. Gone from the kitchen was the immense chrome and white art deco stove that cooked heaps of pasta and tomato sauce. Gone was the patched tin ceiling in the dining room, appropriate theatrical cover for innumerable mealtime dramas.

It may have started out as a small, square, two-story house, but later additions sprouted in a haphazard way, defying any easy symmetry. A wraparound porch with rocking chairs provided a safe reviewing stand from which to watch the world go by. The house was, and still is sheathed in grayish blue asphalt siding, the rage in 1948, that has more than made up for in longevity what it lacked in aesthetics.

When I was growing up in the sixties, the neighborhood still had strong ties to its working class Italian past. The Cacciotti’s on one side, the Turco’s on the other, with Iacovelli’s, Massicci’s, Ciaschi’s, Saccucci’s and a whole host of vowel ending names nearby. Most of those Italian families are now long gone. Their sons and daughters, even if they stayed around Ithaca, completed the second generation immigrant climb to newer homes in nicer neighborhoods.

The old neighborhood is still working class, but across Fifth Street, where Geiger’s Corner Grocery and a dozen houses once stood, there’s a low- income housing project. Basketball, not baseball, is the game of choice in Conway Park.

My grandparents arrived in this country via Ellis Island in 1926. They headed straight to Ithaca, joining my grandfather’s brother and about 300 other native born Italians who’d settled there. Many came from the same small Italian village, Carpineto, about 60 miles south of Rome. My grandparents bought the Madison Street house in 1929, not a great year to take out a mortgage.

They raised three kids, the youngest my father. They both pounded out links for automobile timing chains at Morse Chain, the monolithic, many windowed factory that sprawled across South Hill. They never owned a car, nor did most of their neighbors, who joined them for their 2 ½ mile walk to work each day. In winter, they attached cleats to their shoes to better navigate the icy hill.

My grandfather, Pa, died in the mid 1960’s. I was too young to know him well. All I remember is a frail old man who smoked cigarettes and spoke with a heavy Italian accent. He always sat in the living room, in his brown leather-backed rocking chair. There was no doubt this was his chair. If by some rare chance the chair was vacant, it never entered my mind that anyone else could sit there. It was Pa’s Chair, simple as that.

My grandmother made do with a smaller cloth covered rocker to his left, which we were allowed to sit in. What the heck, she was always in the kitchen anyway.

Ma was a short, strong, stocky, typical Italian noni whose main mission in life was to make sure we were never hungry. Italian superstitions meshed seamlessly with her Catholic faith. When my grandfather died, she wore nothing but black for years. She lived alone in the downstairs portion of the house, renting out the upstairs, until she passed away about 15 years ago. Until her last few years, she kept two magnificent gardens; one for flowers, one for vegetables. The remnant of a grape arbor in the backyard was a reminder of the time when they use to make their own wine.

My father would send us kids down to help Ma out around the house. For a long time her lawn mower was an ancient, heavy, green push mower, the kind with helical blades that only moved when you provided the muscle power. It was hard to push, and would quickly clog up with grass still damp from the morning dew. The trick was to cut the lawn after the dew evaporated, but before it got too hot. The problem was, when Ma wanted the lawn mowed, she wanted it mowed right now. If we dallied at all getting there, we’d