RETURN TO SHEPHERD AVENUE, AND THE ETERNAL QUESTION: CAN YOU GO HOME AGAIN?

You’ve written millions of words since “Shepherd Avenue” was published, but there’s something really special about that first novel.

You still remember that magical phone call from your agent, all those years ago: “Go celebrate! ‘Shepherd Avenue’ has been sold!”

Oh, man. You can hardly believe it. You’re going to be published! You say it to yourself over and over, right until the day you actually hold a copy of that novel in your hands, hot off the press.

The book gets good reviews. It’s the story of a sensitive ten-year-old boy who spends a turbulent summer at his grandparents house in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood after his mother’s death in 1961.

The house that inspired the story is the one your real-life grandparents lived in, on Shepherd Avenue in Brooklyn. You spent a lot of good times there when you were a boy, and one morning all these years later, a strange thing happens:

You wake up and can’t stop wondering if that old house is still standing.

You do more than just wonder. Like an aging homing pigeon, some primal instinct has you in its grip, taking you on that long subway ride back to Shepherd Avenue.

Your legs tremble as you reach the red brick house. It’s a different neighborhood, now. The windows have bars over them and the driveway is gated, but otherwise the house looks just as it did when you were a kid.

Everybody you knew from the old days is long gone, but the memories come flooding back, and that’s when the craziest “What if” of your literary life strikes like a bolt of lightning:

What if the troubled little boy from ‘Shepherd Avenue’ is now a troubled man in search of peace he’s never been able to find? What if he thinks he can find that peace by moving back into Grandma’s old house?

And as long as we’re being totally crazy: What if he knocks on the door of the Shepherd Avenue house and offers to buy it from the startled present-day owner, just like that?

There’s your story. That troubled man buys the house and moves into it. Nothing but strangers on the block, now, but he doesn’t care. He’s on a mission to make sense of his life with this trip to the past.

Meanwhile, the present will prove to be just as exciting as the past, with a beautiful and passionate young woman living just across the street….she’s every bit as lonely as he is….

Oh yeah. Now you’re cooking! You get back on the subway. You can’t wait to get home and start typing.

That’s how “Return To Shepherd Avenue” was born, fifty years after the original story.

The legendary Thomas Wolfe famously said You Can’t Go Home Again, but you know better than that. You can indeed Return to Shepherd Avenue.

Just don’t be surprised by what you’ll find, because many things can happen in fifty years. Amazing, heartbreaking, wonderful things.

Oh Danny Boy, We Came So Close....

 

The legendary character actor Danny Aiello loved the screenplay for "Shepherd Avenue," and that looked like the break we'd been praying for.

Danny was eager to play the role of the grandfather. His career was on fire, as he'd just been nominated for an Oscar for his role in Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing."

We met him at a restaurant on New York City's Upper West Side. The place was called Columbus and it was jammed with celebrities.

Danny was the kind of guy who attracted people to his table. Paul Sorvino and Ben Stiller dropped by to say hello. Everybody dropped by to say hello. Danny was hot, hot, HOT.

Producer Andrew Gaty, who wrote the screenplay with me, took me aside. "If Danny wins the Oscar, 'Shepherd Avenue' will get made!" he said with glee.

I was on a high when we left, and then Danny made the night even sweeter by driving me home to the Village.

"I think you'll enjoy this, Charlie," he said, popping a cassette into the tape deck. We rode downtown to the sounds of Danny Aiello singing show tunes.

I never cared for the Oscars much, but you'd better believe I was watching them with keen interest that year, especially when the nominees for Best Supporting Actor were announced.

And the winner was....Denzel Washington, for "Glory."

Well, that's show biz. You can't let it get you down. You've got to remember the good stuff.

Like cruising down Broadway late at night in a luxury car, with a movie star as your own personal chauffeur.

Believe me, that didn't suck.

Dustin the Wind - Until Now!

One of the best things an author can have is a pushy mother who cannot be embarrassed.

When "Shepherd Avenue" was first published in 1986 my Irish-American mother happened to be checking it out in a midtown Manhattan bookstore when she spotted Dustin Hoffman browsing through the stacks.

She grabbed a copy of my book, marched straight to Hoffman, shoved it into his hands and said:

"Mr. Hoffman, this is my son's first novel, and I think it would make an excellent movie for you to star in."

The Oscar-winning actor had no response, save for a stunned expression.

Nothing came of it - Dustin the Wind, I like to say - but
the truth is, Hoffman was way too young to play the grandfather in "Shepherd Avenue" back then.

Now, he'd be just perfect. Hmmmm...

A "Shepherd Avenue" That Lost Its Way

Ideally, you want your new book displayed in a bookstore's window.

Or at least on a display table just inside the door.

But what you don't want is what happened to me when "Shepherd Avenue" was first published.

I'd been assured that copies had been delivered to this particular bookstore in New York City, and went to check on the display.

They weren't in the window, and they weren't on the indoor display table. Well, that would have been a lot for a first-time novelist to expect, so I wasn't upset.

But when I couldn't find them anywhere in the fiction department, I started to panic.

Nobody seemed to know where my books had gone, until a row-by-row search of the shop solved the mystery.

There they were, in the cookbook section. The cookbook section?

Believe it or not, there was an explanation.

The sheepish manager explained: "I think one of our clerks thought it was a recipe book for Shepherd's Pie."

Oh.

Together we carried my books to the fiction section, where they took up residency beside Truman Capote's books. Pretty good company.

The moral of the story?

Make sure they don't mistake your novel for a cookbook, or you will get burned.

Frank Sinatra as the Grandfather in "Shepherd Avenue?"

You always hope your book will make it to the silver screen, and in the case of "Shepherd Avenue" old Blue Eyes himself was in the running to play the Italian-American grandfather, Angie Ambrosio.

Oddly enough, it was a British film company that was willing to bankroll this Brooklyn-based movie if Frank Sinatra signed on for a cool million dollars.

Which might not sound like a lot of money these days, but this was quite a payday back in the late eighties.

Frank says "yes," and the cameras roll. Weeks went by, and all we could do was wait.

Would he do it? At that time Sinatra was still giving concerts, though he was far from young. He reportedly needed a Teleprompter to help him with the lyrics.

At last, word came from one of Sinatra's representatives: an extremely gracious "No." The rep went on to say that though Mr. Sinatra liked the story and was a big baseball fan, he was not considering film roles at this time.

Had he actually read "Shepherd Avenue?" I guess I'll never know. But he did know that baseball played a part in the story, so he must have read it! Hmm....

Well, it was a long shot. To this day I can't help wondering what a "Shepherd Avenue" film would have been like with Frank Sinatra in it. Guess we would have had to throw in a few songs.

Meanwhile, I can think of a few more Italian-American actors who've aged beautifully enough to fill Angie Ambrosio's shoes.

Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino...could I have a word with you?

 

 

 



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Frank Sinatra As The Grandfather?

You always hope your book will make it to the silver screen, and in the case of "Shepherd Avenue" old Blue Eyes himself was in the running to play the Italian-American grandfather, Angie Ambrosio.

Oddly enough, it was a British film company that was willing to bankroll this Brooklyn-based movie if Frank Sinatra signed on for a cool million dollars.

Which might not sound like a lot of money these days, but this was quite a payday back in the late eighties.

Frank says "yes," and the cameras roll. Weeks went by, and all we could do was wait.

Would he do it? At that time Sinatra was still giving concerts, though he was far from young. He reportedly needed a Teleprompter to help him with the lyrics.

At last, word came from one of Sinatra's representatives: an extremely gracious "No." The rep went on to say that though Mr. Sinatra liked the story and was a big baseball fan, he was not considering film roles at this time.

Had he actually read "Shepherd Avenue?" I guess I'll never know. But he did know that baseball played a part in the story, so he must have read it! Hmm....

Well, it was a long shot. To this day I can't help wondering what a "Shepherd Avenue" film would have been like with Frank Sinatra in it. Guess we would have had to throw in a few songs.

Meanwhile, I can think of a few more Italian-American actors who've aged beautifully enough to fill Angie Ambrosio's shoes.

Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino...could I have a word with you?

 

 

 

 

 

THERE GO THE NEIGHBOR-HOODS!

THE BLOG

There Go The Neighbor-hoods!

 

This is a scary Halloween story from long ago involving a bunch of kids known as....the Little Neckers.

Right about now a chill will be running down your spine if you’re gray at the temples and you grew up where I did on the edge of Queens, in a sweet neighborhood called Douglaston.

Little Neck was our neighboring town, and every time there was any kind of mischief in Douglaston, we blamed the Little Neckers - right or wrong.

A broken street light? Tire tracks across somebody’s lawn? It couldn’t have been any of us!

It was those damn Little Neckers, officer!

Little Neckers could be tough. They smoked cigarettes and leaned on the fenders of cars that didn’t belong to them. They took the Lord’s name in vain.

We took His name in vain too, but they did it with a lot more style, and I don’t think they worried about eternal damnation. In the afterlife I imagined I’d see Little Neckers leaning on the Pearly Gates, bumming smokes from St. Peter.

Until then, they liked hanging out at the Howard Johnson’s parking lot on Northern Boulevard, daring people to make eye contact.

Hey, what are you lookin’ at? You took your life in your hands going to HoJo’s for a fried clam sandwich.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Little Neck was a sweet neighborhood, too. This wasn’t West Side Story. We were the Sharks and the Jets, Lite.

But the rivalry was there.

Everything came to a head between Us and Them on Halloween night in 1970. We were out horsing around on our streets when suddenly a mob of Little Neckers - dozens of them! - made their way up West Drive, chucking eggs and squirting shaving cream at everyone and everything in their paths.

We had the same artillery but a lot fewer people, and it wasn’t going well for us.
One bold Douglaston girl from my class opened her door to yell at them, and quickly closed it in time to avoid being pelted by half a dozen eggs.

We were losing our neighborhood! We needed a miracle!

And here came the miracle, in the form of a skinny, spirited Douglaston boy who must have made a trip to Chinatown to get what he pulled from his pocket - the biggest firecracker I’d ever seen.

He broke from our retreating crowd, calmly lit it and tossed it toward the advancing Little Neckers.

What an explosion, ten feet in front of them! It didn’t hurt anybody but it rocked the night, and the Little Neckers scattered.

So did we, at the sound of an approaching police siren. I ran all the way home, breathing hard as I plunged through the back door.

“Did you have a good time?” my mother asked.

“Great,” I said. That was the truth. I was stoked. Fleeing from the cops! What a night! Who said Queens was boring?

“Hey, you didn’t get any candy,” my mother said.

She thought I’d been trick-or-treating. Mothers always think you’re a little younger than you actually are.

“It’s bad for my teeth, Mom.”

I never did tell her what really happened on that crazy night 46 years ago, until now. (Hi, Mom!)

And I realize now how lucky we all were to get through it unharmed. Our mothers washed eggs and shaving cream from our clothes, and the damage was undone. I saw some Little Neckers at school the next day and we all had a good laugh about it. No hard feelings.

Anyway, that was a long time ago, and of course everything has changed. That orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s where the Little Neckers hung out is long gone. Seems to me that the art of hanging out is gone, too.

Kids would rather stay inside these days, for the better reception. Everybody lives in the same wretched neighborhood now, and it’s called the Internet.

But old habits die hard. I now live an ocean away from Douglaston, and the other day I saw a smashed jack-o’-lantern on the street. A crime for which I had just four words.

“Those damn Little Neckers....”

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MUM'S THE WORD TO MAKE TROUBLE GO AWAY

I'm walking my dog past the local pharmacy when a young Englishman comes flying out to confront a traffic agent who's poised to hit him with a ticket for illegal parking. "Please don't give me a ticket!" the Englishman cries. "I was in there for just a moment, getting a prescription for me Mum!" No reaction from the traffic agent until the Englishman adds: "She's on her deathbed!" The agent smiles. I smile. My dog smiles. We all know it's a tall tale, but it's damn entertaining. No ticket.

ONE FOR THE RECORD BOOKS

A writer reaches a new level of humility the first time he finds one of his books for sale in a second-hand bookstore.  It's like finding your first gray hair.

There the book sits on a dusty shelf, like a full-grown dog hoping to be adopted by a kind-hearted person.  And what are the chances of that happening, with all those frisky new puppies to choose from?

It's happened to me numerous times in New York City, and the really painful part comes when you open the front cover and find your handwritten inscription to one of your friends.

Yeah, that's right. Your "friend" sold the book for a quick buck, without even bothering to tear out the inscription page!

The first time it happens, it really hurts. Then you have time to think it over, and you realize that space is precious in New York City, and new books come in all the time, and there's only so much room on the lifeboat.

At least your friend didn't throw the book in the trash, right?

Now this story takes a hairpin turn - a 3600 mile turn, to be exact - all the way to the leafy British suburb of Hampton, where I live.  Check out this little bookstore, right by the local train station:

 

It's one of my favorite places, filled with rickety racks of second-hand books.  I've been going there for years, and sometimes I'm shocked by what I find.

Like the time I came upon "The Boys Of Summer," by Roger Kahn.  A book about the Brooklyn Dodgers, in a British book shop?  How the hell did that get here?

But that was nothing compared to the shock that hit me on my latest visit,  when I dropped in to browse and my eye caught a familiar yellow cover on a dog-eared paperback.

Oh yeah.  It was my 2009 novel "Raising Jake," jammed on a rack beside Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon."

I'd been second-handed in a second country, and to make matters worse, the inscription page was intact.  No need to identify my British "friend."  You know who you are!

I brought both books to the sweet little old lady at the desk.

"I wrote this one," I couldn't help telling her as I handed her my book.

"Oh my!" she said.  "Well, we cannot charge you for that one!"

A lovely gesture, but I insisted upon paying.  Hell, it was only one pound and fifty pence -  a little over two bucks. Same price for "The Maltese Falcon."

I left the shop laughing.   I'm not even upset at my British friend who ditched my book.

Because for a while there, I got to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dashiell Hammett.  First-rate company for a second-hand book.

NOT MY TYPE OF TYPE

I was in my twenties when I banged out my first novel on my mother’s portable Olivetti typewriter, and I mean “banged.”

We were like boxers from different weight divisions, that typewriter and me - my heavyweight hands coming down hard on its flyweight keyboard, the typebars jamming in clusters that had to be pulled apart whenever I worked too fast.

That poor Olivetti grew creakier by the day. I hit those keys as if they owed me money, to make sure the carbon copy was legible.

Inky fingers, carbon paper, Wite-Out... a pretty messy process. Crossed-out words, coffee rings on the pages, and (worst of all) circled paragraphs with arrows indicating their new locations, to be moved around in the next draft.

All those drafts! The endless rolling of pages through the carriage! By the end of it, I figured I’d defoliated a corner of Brazil to complete “Shepherd Avenue” in time for publication in the spring of 1986.

Then, suddenly, the process changed. Technology didn’t walk into my life. It galloped.

I gave up the Olivetti in favor of an electric typewriter with a rotating golf ball studded with letters, numbers and punctuation marks. No jamming with that golf ball! You barely touched the keys, and the letters appeared on the page. It worked like a dream.

But not for long, because I soon abandoned that machine in favor of my first word processor - a big, boxy IBM.

Whatever I wrote appeared in green light on its screen, and when a manuscript was complete I simply hit “print” and waited as the pages emerged from the printer, pristine and flawless, ready to be mailed to my agent.

“Pages.” That’s the key word here.

Because I just completed a novel on my laptop computer, and not until I typed the words “The End” did something really freaky occur to me:

This story exists only in the form of light! It’s a blackout away from oblivion!

Well, not really. I’d “backed it up” on a few systems, and now all I had to do was e-mail the link to anyone I wanted. Five seconds later they’d have the novel, and they could read it on their computer screens.

Which is exactly what was bugging me. Sure, they can read it on their screens, but they can’t really touch it. That’s what thirty years of progress amounts to - look, but don’t touch.

Can you be touched by a story you cannot touch? And can you truly call it a book if it’s never existed in the form of paper pages?

I don’t know, but here’s one thing I do know - I’m going to print out a copy of my new manuscript, just for the hell of it.

I’ll dog-ear a few of those pages, smear some ink on a few more. Maybe even set a cup of coffee on the title page, just to give it a little ring.

The ring of truth, I hope.

STOP, THIEF!!!

This old British man is standing behind me on line at the local Post Office today, a growly guy who looks like he might have thrown a few grenades during WWII. At last it's his turn and he tells the clerk: "Aw need a passport renewal form!" The clerk's face lights up with that delighted look civil servants get when they know they're about to disappoint you. "You have to go to the main Post Office," he tells the old man, who snarls: "You wasted my bloody time!" - and walks out with a copy of the Daily Mail under his arm. "Sir!" the clerk calls out, "aren't you going to pay for that newspaper? Sir!!" The old guy ignores him and waddles out the door. Probably history's slowest getaway, and nobody stopped him. You go, old man!

HE WASN'T NOTHIN' BUT A HOUND DOG, WITH A FANCY NAME

This morning in the park a frisky black dog got a little too affectionate with my dog, and growling ensued. The owner of the black dog - a chubby bearded guy, smoking a pipe - strolled casually up to his hyper-humping pooch shouting: "Elliott! That's enough, Elliott!"
And while pulling Bailey away from the amorous Elliott, I couldn't help wondering:
1) Who the hell smokes a pipe these days?
2) Who the hell smokes a pipe in the morning?
3) Who the hell names his dog ELLIOTT?
Then I remembered - this is England! It all makes sense! The more ridiculous the name, the more regal the hound!

EYES WIDE SHUT

I'm in the fourth kilometer of a 5-K race last Saturday, pushing myself as hard as I can, when suddenly a runner gives me a hard elbow as he passes me.

This is very unusual in these polite British races, and before I can summon enough breath and New York City attitude to say something like "Hey, what are you, blind?" I see that he's got a rope around his wrist, attached to the wrist of a guide runner.

And on the back of his shirt are the words VISUALLY IMPAIRED.

Yeah, he's blind. And he apologized for bumping me. And suddenly I was glad I'd been too winded to say something stupid.

THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING THERE TO REMIND YOU

Every picture tells a story, but sometimes the story waits a long time to be told.

Thirty years, in the case of this long-lost photograph.

towers  corrected.jpg

That's me back in 1986, preparing to take part in a race from the Statue of Liberty to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. A hundred miles of running and biking, on one of the hottest days of that year.

It was one of those "Our Man In The Race" assignments for the New York Post. I finished -- barely -- but that's not the story.

The story is that while I was trotting to the starting line at Liberty State Park, photographer David Rentas snapped this shot just as the sun was rising behind the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

What a shot. Look at the shadows, reaching all the way across the river.

Never dreamed I'd be standing longer than those towers.

The photo wasn't published with my story, but I kept a copy for myself. A copy I'd forgotten about, until I was digging through a drawer the other day in search of something else.

That's when I stumbled upon this fading black and white relic. Quite a jolt.

Ever notice how often you see those towers when you least expect it?

I was recently watching "When Harry Met Sally" and there they were, visible in the distance when Sally drops Harry off at Washington Square Park.

And the towers stand tall during the opening credits of "The Sopranos," as a cigar-smoking Tony makes his way from the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey.

Movies, TV shows, photographs....you see the twin towers, and the reaction is always the same. A sharp intake of breath. A tingle across the shoulders. A sense of disbelief that never fades.

It happened. It'll never un-happen. At a certain point, there's really nothing more to say.

Well, maybe just one thing.

David Rentas, you captured quite a moment.