hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

May 17, 2012

Poor Tom's Almanac: Flip side of life full of surprises

Tom Vartabedian

There I was, working out on the treadmill one morning, watching "Good Morning America" when one of my favorite newscasters revealed a rather unorthodox side of herself.

She told the outside world that her favorite pastime was turning junk into treasure. I never would have thought this about the woman, until she showed herself rummaging through junk piles and yard sales, retrieving trash.

A wrecked chair suddenly gained new life in her den. A forsaken lamp was rescued from a heap and turned into an eclectic work of art. It fit perfectly with other remnants this woman salvaged.

She took pride in being an honest-to-goodness dump picker and even wrote a book on her experiences. Who would have guessed?

And with a snicker, she gushed out, "You snooze, you lose. I brake for yard sales."

Well, so do I for that matter. I can't pass one by without pulling my car to a halt by the side of the road and investigating the scene. It's like stumbling upon a scavenger hunt and finding lost treasure.

As you may know, I regularly go in and out of second-hand stores in pursuit of the Holy Grail. The other day, I stomped into the Salvation Army store and headed straight for the audio section.

People were busy picking through the record section. Others went straight for the DVDs. I found the CDs more palatable and couldn't control my passion for good music.

Upon selecting a good share, I approached the register and quickly discovered that what I had selected with the pink labels were half price. My entire lot went under $10 and that's not all.

The clerk gave me a pleasing smile and said, "God be with you."

Now, how often do you get that inside a retail establishment, whether non-profit or not? It left me with a good feeling, as well as a good shopping spree.

We all have our flip sides, our alter egos, and a side people may not recognize.

You may know the columnist in me over the past 42 years. That's how long I've been hacking out these pieces. But did you know I was a big science fiction fan who devoured everything from Bradbury to Asimov?

Bet you didn't know that I've watched every "Twilight Zone" episode ever introduced by Rod Sterling. Read the books, too.

And are you aware that I cannot get through the day without doing something to enhance my Armenian heritage, whether it's promoting genocide issues through school presentations or writing about them for the ethnic press?

Did you know that I had this insatiable dream of becoming a chemist during my school days and when that didn't work, a yen for accounting followed? Of course, there was that time I was suspended from junior high school for selling firecrackers. Wasn't my fault, honest. Some culprit slipped them into my pocket and I was getting rid of them.

Which of you would have thought I spent a year inside a monastery with aged priests wearing long white beards speaking a language that was 1,700 years old?

Or that I succeeded in my attempt to climb the tallest mountain peak in all our New England states and even survived a frigid overnight in Maine after getting caught in a storm?

Did you know that I corresponded with a pen pal for 25 years before I finally met him? It actually made me a better writer and I recommend the gesture at student workshops.

My instrument as an adolescent was the violin and I had aspirations of being a professional. Until I smashed it over the head of a heckler and mom cut out the lessons.

You may know that basketball was my passion and, together with assorted partners, we won several city foul-shooting championships. What's kept secret is the time during a game that I inadvertently scored a basket in the wrong hoop, giving the opposition a victory.

I worked for an editor who gave horse massages on the side. Another reporter who ran ultra marathons (50 miles). A publisher who was a crackerjack sailor. A world-class ophthalmologist who decorated his Boston office with some of his own creative photography.

I thought my primary care physician was a self-contained individual until I found out he scales some of the tallest mountains around and rafts some of the fastest rapids this side of anywhere.

But the one that stole the show happened to be this man in a wheelchair I knew. His handicap was no liability. To prove a valid point — and show the outside world that handicapped accesses were being ignored — he traveled across the country.

His mission brought awareness and raised thousands of dollars for charity.

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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.