Editor’s note: get to know Tom Cosentino and his new novel The Art of Looking for Trouble with the autobiographical sketch below followed by the book’s first two chapters:

I was born on a rainy Monday in Syracuse, New York. Being born in Syracuse you have a fifty-percent chance of being born while there is precipitation. From April to October it’s rain and the rest of the year is snow. I bring this up because the lack of sunshine does have an impact on a person. You either go crazy or develop a good sense of humor. To the best of my knowledge, I’m not (that) crazy.

I am second generation on both sides of my family. My father’s father arrived at Ellis Island in 1903 and went to work for the New York Central Railroad in Syracuse. Then at some point went back to Italy. He arrived again in 1908 with my grandmother following three years later with my Aunt Vera in tow. I mention this because of one unusual fact; my grandfather chose Syracuse twice.

My mother’s family was pure French, tracing roots back to the 1600s in Quebec. My French grandfather also chose Syracuse. Of course, that wasn’t such a crazy decision because he was moving south.

My father was born in 1924 which meant he turned eighteen in 1942. He was drafted right after he graduated from high school. He fought in the European Theatre, seeing action in major battles across the continent. He liberated concentration camps and never talked about what he did until he was very old.

My parents met after World War II and did something that no one out of the over twenty siblings on both sides did; they had a house built across town in the mostly Jewish neighborhood.

I came along ten years later, right before a sequence of events would dramatically change the neighborhood and my life.

Johnson’s Great Society, the first signs of rust on the Rust Belt, and the building of Interstate 81 through Syracuse, combined together to reshape my neighborhood. Public housing was opened up, immigrants arrived in the city from all over the world, and there was a seismic demographic shift as a result of all of these factors.

Throughout all of this I had the steadying force of a group of friends from grammar through high school. We all still remain friends over fifty years later.

During the recession before I was in high school, my father lost his job and struggled to find something permanent. I had attended Catholic school until my freshman year, where I went to the neighborhood public school. All my friends went to the Catholic high school in a safe suburb. I knew that the public school was not for me the first week when a kid was arrested in my English class. I got a job at a grocery store so I could pay for the Catholic high school myself. I started at $2.10 per hour and it took me nearly the entire year to earn enough for the tuition.

Besides my job, I played basketball, baseball and excelled academically. My junior year I had a very kind teacher for English, Sister Sylvia. She was getting on in years and because she was a little too trusting, she started the spark that would help me become a writer. We had a heavy load of books to read and report on for her class. When I procrastinated and hadn’t read an actual novel, I made one up. The title, author and plot, were all from my imagination. She never caught on and the rest of the year Sister Sylvia had my made-up books in my reports.

Through my hard work I earned a full Army ROTC Scholarship and chose to attend Syracuse University where I majored in Political Science. I also took several English courses and was just a few credits away from a double major in English.

While at Syracuse I met my next group of lifelong friends when I pledged Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity. While in high school I saw the movie Animal House and knew that once in college I would join a fraternity. When I am asked what my Fraternity was like I tell people to watch the movie, it wasn’t far off.

After college I went into the Army as a Field Artillery Officer. It was a great experience that I didn’t appreciate at the time. I left the Army after my obligatory four years of active duty but was called back for the First Gulf War where I spent a year and a half in the reserves.

I met my wife of over thirty years while I was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. My wife and I were married at Hendrick’s Chapel on the Syracuse University campus. We moved to Atlanta where we lived for ten years. Our daughter was born in Atlanta and when she was two and my wife was pregnant with our son, we moved back to Syracuse.

While in Atlanta, before kids, my wife and I had a Friday night tradition of stopping at the video store and renting three movies for the weekend and ordering a pizza. I was homesick for Central New York and rented Nobody’s Fool starring Paul Newman. It was set in North Bath, New York but it could have been Syracuse or any of the many, once great cities from Albany to Buffalo.

I rewound the credits and waited until I saw what I wanted, “from the Novel by Richard Russo.” I was at Barnes and Noble the next day buying the book. As I read it was obvious that the “other” part of New York had had the same influence on Russo as it had had on me. The closeness to the people, the pain of watching a city decline and the importance of friendship. I saw that spark in Russo that made him write Nobody’s Fool in myself, I knew I could be a writer.

I went to graduate school upon our return to Syracuse, driving a two-hundred-mile roundtrip to the Rochester Institute of Technology for two years, obtaining a Master of Business Administration. I still thought about writing but was too busy and all the other excuses that you can always come up with. After I finished my MBA, I began writing a novel about a young man that returns to Syracuse after World War II. All of his best friends had been killed and he sets out on a journey right before Christmas to visit their families. At his first stop he is embraced by his friend’s family and falls in love with his best friend’s sister. It is a story about forgiveness, love and redemption. It was terrible.

We moved again, to Safety Harbor, Florida. While we were visiting the Safety Harbor Library, I happened to pick up a calendar of events that had the first meeting of the Safety Harbor Writer’s Group. I knew that I had to go even though I was very scared and unsure of my writing.

At the first meeting I read a chapter from my World War II novel. The feedback was nice, better than I deserved. I read all of the comments and made the changes. I saw how much better the chapter became. I pivoted to another novel about living in Syracuse based on a Russo quote. When asked what his life would have been like if he never left New York he said, “I’m sure there is a ghost version of myself there.”

I began writing another terrible novel that went nowhere. I pivoted again to short stories. A different one for each meeting. This was the right strategy. It forced me to write, I got immediate feedback and my writing improved. I entered a local short story contest and won. I submitted other short stories to Liberty Island, and they were all accepted for publication. I now had the confidence to write my novel.

Writing The Art of Looking for Trouble was a true pleasure. The characters were part of my experience growing up in Syracuse, which I fictionalized into the city of Genesee. It is a novel about friendship and loyalty. Neighborhood and love. The main character owns a well-established Pub in the formerly Irish section of the city.

From his post behind the bar at Quinn’s Pub, Mike Lee holds together the Genesee neighborhood where he grew up. When his friends throw him a surprise 50th birthday party, the festivities are interrupted by ill-advised felons that come to rob his bar with explosive results. Mike knows he must take action to protect his community. He decides to run for mayor of Genesee against a callous incumbent that is running unopposed. Mike and his team of crusaders take on the established order the only way they know how, with determination and a lot of pints. He is thrown into an uproarious world of retribution, espionage, vendettas and eventually into the national spotlight.

I truly hope you enjoy the novel and the characters I have created as much as I did bringing them to life.

Please pre-order The Art of Looking for Trouble here, releasing June 23, 2021.

 

Chapter 1: Madam Mayor

Mayor Leona Lerner thought that her re-election campaign was completely under control. She had a token, hand-picked challenger that was supposed to serve her up softball opposition that would make her look better to the State party and at the same time keep the press interested in the race. But that easy adversary had decided to take a city manager job down in snowless South Carolina, leaving her running unopposed.

She waited in the conference room before any of her staff for the first time since she took the oath of office, which shook them when they saw her sitting at the head of the table. She glared at each person as they took their seats, daring them to state the extent of the bad news and the plans they better have to fix this mess.

“Well, Madam Mayor,” Carter stammered, knowing he had to start because he was the Chief of Staff.

She insisted on being called ‘Madam Mayor’ by everyone on her staff, even her husband called her ‘Madam Mayor’ – when he was actually in town. She longed to shake this dying city’s dust from her designer clothes and for the Madam to be dropped so she could hear the genderless title of Governor or Senator.

“Without an opponent we lose money from the State party, matching funds from national headquarters and the special funds that were being filtered through both,” Carter said looking at his notes.

“Special funds?” the mayor asked, feigning ignorance to the rest of the staff, while looking straight at Carter.

Lerner never took the time to bother herself with details like fundraising or money funneled and cleaned to adhere to campaign finance laws. She left that to Carter. But she knew every side deal and knew enough that they could be dangerous to her future.

“Yes, the donations from our friends that have already given the max amount. They donate to the State party or the national committee and then it is filtered back to us. We don’t really need the money for this race, but we are building our war chest for the next race, either Senate, if McGivern retires or Governor, if Russo decides to run for president.”

“Is there anyone else we can put into the race at this point?”

The staff looked around the table to see if anyone had the guts – or the stupidity – to deliver the news.

Carter finally continued when he knew no one would take the ball.

“Well, Madam Mayor, at this point it would be expensive. We would have to fund their campaign and there really isn’t anyone that has enough distance from us, far enough where it wouldn’t be obvious to everyone they were a plant.”

“I want some answers now,” the mayor shouted through clenched teeth.

Nancy Elliot had just recently joined the mayor’s staff. A product of a Genesee suburb with her eyes on City Hall, she planned to follow the same path that Lerner had taken to the precipice of real power. She had a plan for this problem and this was her chance to lay it all on the line. If it worked, she would cut years off of her ascent. If it failed, she would have to move to DC and start all over on someone else’s staff.

“I have an idea,” Nancy broke in.

All heads in the room turned to her. Carter shot her a cold look of disapproval.

“I have a great candidate, if we can convince him to run. He’ll give us plenty to hit him on and that will create a lot of press. He’ll be perfect to motivate our local base, get access to the state and national resources and we won’t have to give him a penny for his campaign.”

Nancy waited for all she had said to sink in and savored the anticipation that her pause was creating.

“Who?” Carter asked in a wimpy whine, humiliated at his loss of control.

“Mike Lee, the owner of Quinn’s Bar up on Liberty Hill.”

Carter emitted a loud, fake laugh before responding.

“He’s a local nobody, sure he’s been involved in opposing some of the mayor’s initiatives, but he hasn’t shown any indication of seeking office. He could win the city council seat for Liberty Hill without even trying, but he’s never shown interest.”

Nancy stood up and stared across the table at Carter.

“I have a source that tells me he is thinking about running.”

Carter stood to face her.

“Source, what source?”

“A very good source. And I know what we can do to give us a ninety percent chance he’d run. We have a couple development ideas for the old Grover Cleveland Middle School on Liberty Hill. If we change the development to something I have in mind, he’ll have no choice but to run.”

The mayor turned in her chair. “I like this, what should we do with the school?”

Nancy smiled and put both hands on the table as she leaned in the mayor’s direction.

“Public housing.”

******

Nancy’s real source was that she had been talked into going to Quinn’s to listen to some local Irish band featuring her friend’s boyfriend. When she was waiting at the bar to be served, she saw Mike Lee sitting with a bunch of other men and they were all imploring him to run for mayor. He was non-committal, but Nancy had seen more than her fair share of politicians in her short tenure and saw something in his expression that made her think that he was really considering running. Not just considering, but that he had already made up his mind to run.

After the conversation between Mike and his friends broke up, Nancy sidled up to the loudest member of the group that was begging him to run. He was a tall, gregarious man with a distinct Irish accent.

“Hi, I’m Nancy.”

“Seamus Corrigan, pleased to meet you.”

“Who was that gentleman you guys were pushing to run for mayor?”

“Oh, that’s Mikey Lee, he owns this place.”

“Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Liam Neeson? Especially with that accent,” Nancy said laying on her charm.

“Yeah, all the time,” Seamus replied without hesitation.

“What makes you think your buddy should be mayor?”

“Well, he knows half of the people in the city, he owns half of Liberty Hill and he thinks the mayor is a horse’s arse. She’s running the city into the fecking ground and now she’s running unopposed. He thinks somebody should run, just to give people some kind of choice.”

“She isn’t that bad.”

Seamus raised one eyebrow and looked down on Nancy. She sensed she was losing the initiative.

“I mean, what are you going to do? Politicians are all the same. So, is your friend serious?”

Seamus sensed something was going on with her overanxious curiosity. “What’s your name again?”

“Nancy, sorry I see my friends need me. It was nice talking to you Seamus,” she said before retreating to her friends.

When Nancy got home, she went online and found everything that was ever written about Mike Lee. When she saw light, she took a shower and changed before starting to call the people who would know how to fill in the blank spots in the information she had pulled. She needed to know about Mr. Lee, his friends, and what would make him run.

 

 

Chapter 2: Quinn’s

Quinn’s was a real Irish bar, cozy, with dark wood and polished brass, not the corporate Paddy McFunsters that pass as an Irish bar in most cities. It occupied a prominent corner in the Liberty Hill neighborhood in Genesee that up until the 1960s was exclusively Irish. They knew how to pour a proper pint at Quinn’s and only Catholic whiskey was served. Ordering a Bushmills would only get you a history lesson.

Over sixty years of pictures of the bar’s patrons and scenes from the neighborhood covered the walls. On another wall was a map of Ireland with pins in the towns that sired the ancestors that braved the ocean and ended up in Genesee to work in the factories, dig the canals, and fight the nation’s wars.

Just as Nancy had outlined, Mike Lee’s inner circle consisted of Seamus Corrigan and Vince Di Pietro. They served him as advisors, part-time help, occasional bouncers and were also his eyes around the neighborhood.

Rounding out Mike’s team were two guys who also worked at the plant before it closed. John “Murph” Murphy, was short and round, with reading glasses always perched on the end of his nose as he read the daily paper, making sure to editorialize on the news, especially local politics. He tried his best not to look like he was a blue-collar guy by wearing a tweed jacket and cap, but he never fooled anyone.

Pete Piontek was the last member of their group. He only had a few years at the plant before it closed and now worked at a Sears Automotive Center at the mall. He was about thirty years younger than the other guys, but they adopted him as sort of a mascot once his sister started coming to the bar. If you asked any regular to define the term “smoking hot” they would answer “Pete’s sister” without a moment’s hesitation.

When Seamus walked into Quinn’s that evening, he took his regular seat at the corner of the bar where he could see everything, who was coming and going, and who was doing something that they weren’t supposed to be doing. Before he could order his first pint, Pete and Murph accosted him with an urgent matter.

When Vince arrived, he was surprised to find his three friends huddled in conference and looking over their shoulders to make sure no one was eavesdropping.

“Who you planning to rob?” Vince asked as he pushed his way into the huddle.

“It’s Mikey’s 50th birthday and we wanted to throw him a party with gag gifts and maybe a stripper,” Pete said in an excited whisper.

“Is your sister going to be the stripper?” Vince asked Pete.

Seamus laughed. “That would be a gift for all of us.”

They both drew a malicious stare from Pete.

Murph brought the group back to their task, “We have to hurry, Mikey will be back from dinner with Helen any time. Now, I know a guy up on Morgan Hill that raises goats. We could buy one and plant him at the bar like he was a customer.”

“Why a goat?” Vince asked.

“I went to a party, they had a goat, it was a funny gag, end of story,” Murph said, annoyed at being questioned about his comedic ability.

“Well, I think we need a round before we can make any decisions,” Vince suggested.

They broke their huddle which prompted Dave Moran, the part-time bartender and full-time city firefighter, to pour four pints of Guinness and bring them over.

“What’s up, Davey?” Murph asked.

“Busy as hell at work, meth heads have burned down three houses this week cooking their shit. We have to treat the houses as a hazardous chemical site. It takes more paperwork per fire than it took me to get divorced from my first wife.”

“That bitch,” all the guys said in unison, as Dave had trained them to do at the mention of his first wife.

“I thought that problem was just out in the sticks,” Vince asked.

“Nah, just in the past month it’s moved into some vacants here in the city, there’s so many empty houses that they can practically cook the meth in plain sight.”

“This fecking city is going to hell,” Seamus added.

Murph cleared his throat and rapped his knuckles on the bar. “Screw the meth cooks, we have a party to plan. Davey, what’s the schedule like around Mikey’s birthday? We want to throw him a surprise party.”

Of course, the party would be held at Quinn’s so Mike could reap the profits and not protest too much about the gag gifts and the ball busting he was going to receive all night. Davey confirmed a Saturday when he knew Mike had nothing else going on and helped the guys set their plans in motion. Word was passed of the details of the party and the strict rules of silence were put in place, that if broken would result in the wrath of Seamus and Vince.

Murph and Seamus secured the goat. They had to explain to the cops what the goat was doing tied up behind Murph’s house when one of his old lady neighbors called in a complaint.

“What’s with the goat?” the officer asked.

“That’s me cousin Bart, he’s just arrived from Dublin, he’s a wee indisposed, jet lag from the trip ya know,” Seamus said to the officer who was a regular at Quinn’s.

“And what is the purpose of Bart’s visit?”

“He’s here for a birthday party. Tomorrow, Quinn’s, starts at nine.”

“Make sure you have him scrubbed and presentable then.”

“Yeah, will do, officer, thanks for the advice.”

Pete visited Barone and Sons Funeral Home at Seamus’s suggestion that they needed a casket for a proper Irish wake. He talked his buddy Dominic Barone into letting him borrow one of the floor models for the night, all it cost him was his sister’s cell number.

Please pre-order The Art of Looking for Trouble here, releasing June 23, 2021.