Brothers Tartamella: Newly Trained "Caulkers" Ready for Cash

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"I wear this T-shirt because his superpower was will power," James Tartamella tells me, pointing to the Green Lantern symbol on his chest. "The greatest green energy is the green energy within us." James and his brother Joe each suffered a direct hit from the recession, but are rapidly adapting to seize opportunities created by the swelling wave of green jobs.

The brothers Tartemella are sons of Italian immigrants, whose parents left Sicily in the 1950s to seize the opportunity of America. Both credit their father for endowing them with a relentless drive and tireless work ethic. "To this day, I don't know anyone who works as hard as my father. I don't care what nationality they are," Joe says.

After a full day building sets at ABC, the elder Tartamella would come home and take a 15 minute nap lying on the living room floor. Mother served dinner at 5:00: "Not 4:59. Not 5:01. Dinner was ready at 5:00," James recalls.

From 5:20 to 10:30, their father would be in the basement with his saws and sanders, practicing the woodworking craft he learned from his brother back in Sicily. The work brought another stream of income into the house, and orders were always pending for the sturdy handmade cabinets and shelves he created. "I wanted to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings, and there's always saws and drills going off," James recalls. "From 8 am to 4. On Sundays, he'd rest. Sometimes."

Joe was first drawn to woodworking because it allowed him to spend more time with his father. In their neighborhood of Bensonhurst, the wave of Italian immigrants arriving after World War II brought with them an Old World practice of informal apprenticeships. Bensonhurst boys were expected to begin learning a trade from someone in the neighborhood before they even hit puberty. Joe chose to learn woodworking from his father.

"I liked to learn. I wanted to spend my time with him. I liked spending time with him. So I became a woodworker. A tradesman. That's what I am," Joe explains.

Joe was barely out of his teens when he launched an independent woodworking business, Rite-Way Wood-Crafts, twenty-four years ago. I meet up with the brothers at the Rite-Way office and workshop, so Joe clearly made good use of the skills passed down by his father. If the recession hadn't decimated demand for his custom-built cabinets and furniture, Joe would have kept at his craft until retirement. 

Always more talented with his mind than his hands, James chose the path to law school instead. He passed the bar and would have become a lawyer too, if he hadn't been struck down by non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Twice.

James spent first half of the new millenium fighting cancer and insurance companies. He beat the cancer, but lost his battle with insurance. Despite having two separate insurance policies with different companies, which should have created a comprehensive coverage package, he was determined responsible for 20% of his medical expenses. Unable to pay nearly $200,000 in bills, since he was in recovery and unable to work, James declared bankruptcy in 2004. 

Though still suffering from lingering health troubles, in 2005 James began working as a mortgage broker in California. He specialized in re-financing mortgages until the California housing market began to decline. James was laid off in late 2006. He moved back to New York and into his old bedroom at his parents' house in Bensonhurst.

James did manage to land a job in Brooklyn as a real estate appraiser, but was laid off again in August 2008 after the New York market tanked.

"Oh my god, I'm 38 years old and still living with my parents," James groans.

"Eh, at least you have somewhere to go," his older brother counters.

"Yes, at least I have a roof over my head," James concedes. "I'm very, very lucky."

It's not just the roof, but also his mother's cooking that makes him lucky. James grabs his belly to demonstrate physical evidence of 20 pounds he has put on since moving back home, listing his mother's meatballs and spidini as causes. "And a chicken cutlet parm like no else," Joe adds.

The conversation makes me hungry. Thankfully, James and Joe brought a box of cannoli from Vito's Bakery. James says of the many lessons the economy has taught, he always likes to share one nugget of wisdom with people: "Cannolis makes the recession much more bearable." 

Joe did his own return stint in his parents' home when his business slowed during the 1990s recession. For five years, he lived in his parents' one-room basement with his wife and two children. "We hadda be very creative," he chuckles.

Now a homeowner himself, Joe can't just move his family into a Bensonuhrst basement to make it through the hard times. When his woodworking business began to feel pinched by the declining economy in late 2008, Joe started seeking ways to cut back on expenses. His research led him to solar panels, and a revelation about the state and federal tax incentives that can make them a cost-effective investment.

Thinking about his own personal circumstances led Joe to an epiphany about the bigger picture, as he explains: "The 2006-2007 spike in gas prices cost my business over $5000 a year. Multiply that by the number of people in this country that own small businesses and that would be billions of dollars. That's money that should be in the pockets of the American people. For me, solar panels and other cost-saving methods for American families and small businesses should be a national priority."

During conversations with the solar panel entrepreneurs, Joe became electrified by the imperative of reducing financial burdens of unnecessarily excessive energy consumption. When one of his new "green" friends told him that the government would reimburse his expenses for training to learn about assessing a building's energy leakage and the array of environmental and cost-saving fixes, Joe saw the door open on a rewarding career opportunity--one that could help pull him and his brother out of their personal recession slump.

"I hate monopolies--utility companies, oil companies. They rip off the average person," Joe explains. "What are you going to do when they raise the price of gas? There's nothing you can do! There's a direct correlation between the oil company profits from 2006-2007 and the debt of the American people. Now I don't like being ripped off. This is something I can do to help people save money. To keep money from those mega-corporations. To keep that money in the neighborhood."

James's excitement and motivation about the new career direction goes beyond the logic of cost-savings and energy conservation: "There's a direct link between having clean air in your home and good health. As part of an energy audit, we'll address leaky heating units and air quality. Most carbon monoxide detectors don't work until you're dead. No one knows what caused my cancer, but environmental pollutants can be a huge contributing factor. So as a cancer survivor, this is very important to me. For me, this is a quasi-religious undertaking." 

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.
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