Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Diversion Press Welcomes Tom Piantanida, author of In the Shadow of the Big Apple

We caught up with Tom Piantanida, author of In the Shadow of the Big Apple to talk about his book.  Tom is semi-retired, working as a consultant to medical instrument companies in northern California. Many of his stories involve his alter ego, Kenny, who grew up in an Italian ghetto across the river from NYC, where the local pool was known as Mussolini's Bathtub and its turbid water instantly turned all bathing suits the color of Italian battleships. During his career in biomedical research, Dr. Piantanida wrote numerous technical articles and book chapters; only after early retirement did he concentrate on writing fiction. Since then, Dr. Piantanida received Honorable Mention in 2005 from the Writer's Digest for his short stories and has recently been published in The First Line, Today's Feature, Skive Magazine, Silver Thoughts, Demon Minds, and The Front Porch. During his six year tenure as Editor of the Racing Drivers' Club Newsletter, he published a monthly column, in addition to submitting stories under the Spoonerismic pseudonym, A. Mack Barker. When he is not tinkering with custom and special-interest cars, he is building model trains, or pursuing motorsports.The main character in your book is Kenny.  How did you develop the Kenny character? Kenny is an amalgamation of kids I knew while growing up in Union City, NJ. Of course, some of the adventures are autobiographical with literary license. That is, the stories have a kernel of truth, but were embellished to provide more interest. If you think of Kenny as my alter ego, you would not be far wrong.

What is the setting for In the Shadow of the Big Apple?
Kenny's home base is 28th Street, Union City, NJ, and most of the local action takes place on that street and the two closest cross streets - Bergenline Avenue and Central venue. Bergenline Avenue is the most interesting street in the stories because it is lined by the car barns, Caputo's Fish Market, Vincent Giuliani's Italian Grocery Store, and Reguzzi's Produce Stand.  Columbia Park, where Kenny and two friends were apprehended for setting a fire was a defunct amusement park that Kenny's dad and others of his generation passed some time decades earlier. The park was actually beyond Kenny's territorial limit, being across Hudson County Boulevard, which was one of the main thoroughfares in Union City.

Palisades Amusement Park was actually in the town of Palisades Park, NJ. It was poised on the edge of the New Jersey palisades, overlooking Manhattan. The huge PALISADES AMUSEMENT PARK was clearly visible from the West Side of Manhattan. I only recently learned that the management of the amusement park knew all about the private entrance the Kenny and other kids used, and they had told their security force to turn a blind eye to kids sneaking into the park.

The Highlands is a real town on the "Jersey Shore." In fact, the movie Jersey Girl with Ben Affleck, George Carlin, and Liv Tyler was set there. After a few summer vacations - always the last two weeks in August - at Keensburg (another Jersey Shore town), my family settled into a pattern of renting from Captain Brown in the Highlands. The family would stay either in the Big House or The Boat House, but always at Captain Brown's. When the excitement of a carousel waned as Kenny got older, the family vacationed in Seaside Beach, NJ where there was a boardwalk and a huge amusement park.

What can I say about 42nd Street in Manhattan that hasn't already been said? In Kenny's time, the street was lined by movie theater that showed first-run films and businesses that sold a wide variety of inexpensive items, particularly binoculars, pocket radios, and switchblade knives. These business perennially displayed "Going Out Of Business" signs. Sandwiched between the businesses and the theaters were Grant's, where you could buy a great hotdog, and Hubert's Museum that featured a flea circus, among more exotic fare. The museum was at the rear of a penny arcade, and had a downstairs where the actual fleas circus and other acts could be found.

McDougall's Camp is based on a real camp that I attended near Sparta, NJ. And, as the story suggests, an "association" of which my parents were members, sponsored the trip. The camp was about as decrepit as described in the story, right down to the chlorine and gypsum-laden pool. And, incidentally, while I was at camp, my family did move out of Union City. I found them, though.

Which Kenny story is your favorite?
I think my favorite story is about the Highlands, because there are so many fond memories of summers spent there.  I am particularly pleased that an illustration from the Highlands graces the rear cover of the book. It is the only photo I have of Uncle Ben, who was my grandmother's "boarder" (a polite term used in the early 20th Century for a cohabitant of the opposite gender), and who I loved as the grandfather I never had. My fondest memory of the Highlands is chronicled in the story. It was not until many years later that I learned that because my dad had been laid off at work, the only way we could afford a vacation was if we lived off the sea, which we certainly did that year.

Who are the other important characters in Kenny's life?Two of Kenny's closest friends were his two male cousins, one six months younger and the other a year younger than Kenny. The three cousins were a physical contrast. Kenny was of average build, if small; the next younger cousin, Max, (AKA Crisco, because he was "fat in the can") was taller than Kenny whether he was standing up or lying down; and the youngest cousin was rail thin and was called JJ Candybody by his father because he seemingly survived on candy, refusing to eat whatever his mother prepared. The cousins were very attuned to each other, so if one started a prank, the others joined in immediately.

If you had to convince someone to pick up a copy in two sentences, what would you say?
Wow!! Two sentences to convince someone to buy my book. Could one of them mention my cousin Guido, the Enforcer? No, I guess not. I don't know whether comparison is permitted, but if so, I like to compare my writing to that of Jean Shepherd, who wrote such books as WANDA HICKEY'S NIGHT OF GOLDEN MEMORIES (and other Disasters), and IN GOD WE TRUST, ALL OTHERS PAY CASH. Jean, who was my inspiration, had a zany talk show on WOR in NYC in the early 60's. He also morphed many of his stories into a film that has become a classic: A CHRISTMAS STORY.

Okay, try this: Experience what was like to grow up in an Italian ghetto in the mid-fifties with street-wise friends destined to dichotomize into cops and criminals.

Will there be more Kenny stories?You have not heard the last of Kenny. In fact, I have self-published two other books about Kenny. KENNY'S KEMPS is a collection of short stories about Kenny's adventures as an older adolescent. Most of the stories involve cars and girls, which were the two intertwined themes in Kenny's life. DAVIES LAKE EPISODES is a novel that expands the cars-and-girls theme, while documenting adventures and misadventures at a summer resort where Kenny worked, and in Kenny's high school. Both were published by, and are available on


  1. Tom, I haven't read your book yet but am very interested. I am part Italian and have, for most of my life, been very interested in my family history. One thing I come against in the research is a strangely negative, superficial impression of Italian-Americans much like other ethnic and racial minorities. Is this why you call it an Italian ghetto as opposed to neighborhood?

  2. I emailed your interview to a friend who is from New Jersey and who will really be able to relate to your story. Being a New Englander, I never got to New Jersey. (We easterners don't travel much.) I wish you much success with your book.