ICE GUYS FINISH LAST

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Three times a week, my 93-year-old father plays a very special kind of tennis.

“Social tennis,” he calls it. The guys he plays with are amazingly durable men, most of them in their eighties and nineties. They play doubles, and not one of them has served and volleyed since the Nixon administration.

You can hear their game as you approach the courts, the steady “pok……pok…..pok” of polite, unhurried points.

It’s kind of like oversized ping-pong. These guys have good strokes, and if tennis courts were the width of bowling alleys they might have made it at Wimbledon, back in the day,

But tennis courts are a lot wider than bowling alleys, and as for chasing the ball on those wide shots….well, it just doesn’t happen. And some of them consider it rude to hit an outright winner.

Not exactly a page from Federer’s playbook, but it works for them.

I was watching these guys play on a blisteringly hot morning last week and after just one set, a few of them were tapped out. They were down to three players, so they were desperate for a fourth.

You guessed it - they turned to me. “The Kid,” as they call me. (I’m 63.)

Just like that, a racket was shoved into my hand, and I was drafted into the game I’d barely played in 15 years. My father and I were partners, and on top of that, I was serving! Didn’t even take any practice serves. Here it comes, guys!

We won the first three points. I was proud of myself. I kept the ball in play, didn’t try to pass anybody. It was kind of fun. Figured I could show these guys a thing or two, once I loosened up.

Then it happened - a drop shot, to my side of the net. I’d pulled a hamstring a few weeks earlier and it was just about healed. I’d been careful not to do any running, until I saw that drop shot.

I rushed to return it, a 1973 impulse that my 2019 body paid for. It felt as if the muscle had been ripped off the bone as I limped to the sidelines, where I flopped on a bench, breathing hard.

I’d violated the number one commandment of this brand of tennis: Thou Shalt Not Run . The correct way to handle a drop shot is to wait for the ball to stop rolling, then pick it up.

My father, who still moves like a young leopard, came over to check me out with another player, a 90-something retired surgeon.

“Sorry guys,” I said, clutching my throbbing thigh. “I’m out.”

“Make sure you ice it,” the surgeon said. (Which I’m pretty sure counted as a house call.)

And as I limped home for Mom’s sympathy, an ice pack and a couple of Aleves I could hear that inevitable sound, fading in the distance:

Pok……pok……pok.

The game goes on, even though I can’t.

https://www.amazon.com/MOON-CAKE-Charlie-Carillo-ebook/dp/B07TT8LZ58

MOON CAKE HAS LANDED!


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Exactly a year ago I had this idea about a troubled teenager who’s obsessed by the Apollo 11 moon mission in the summer of 1969, and right away I realized two things:

One, my story was going to be restricted by historical facts and dates.

And two, I was going to have to self-publish - there wouldn’t be any time to peddle this tale if I wanted to get it out there for the 50th anniversary of that unforgettable accomplishment.

So I started scribbling in my yellow notebooks. Bits and pieces, in no particular order. Characters popped up suddenly, like dandelions after a spring rain. I was working on other things as well, but the moon book was where I breathed.

Eventually I had seven notebooks full of….well, notes.

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Bits of chapters, dialogues, random rants…. I probably threw half of it away. And now I’d have to stitch the surviving words into a quilt, which was hard enough, and then came the really tricky part: making the stitches disappear.

Don’t know if I succeeded, but I think it’s a fairly seamless story, and as for being restricted by historical facts? Actually, it went the other way. Whenever I felt lost at sea there was always another moon mission event to paddle toward. A literary lighthouse, so to speak.

Anyway, it’s done, with a dazzling cover photo by Dennis O’Brien and a breathtaking design by Catherine Allen.

To paraphrase the late great Neil Armstrong, Moon Cake has landed. Now all I can do is hope it takes off.

Over and out from mission control.

The link to the book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07TT8LZ58?fbclid=IwAR23LD2gi_EboUO24l79VROEYpnwKAgMbpw2-zB_oeSr4h9jJl1QlsLy5x8


WADE IN CHELSEA

Went to dinner last night at a Notting Hill restaurant featured in the TV show "Made In Chelsea" and after waiting nearly an hour for our table, we were told that the kitchen was out of commission. Which was just as well, because that's when water started falling from cracks in the ceiling.

No kidding - a pipe must have burst.

Can't remember the name of the place, and I had water in my eyes as we fled the flood so I couldn't read the sign, but anyone who books there for the ambience should eat first and request a table in a no-dripping section.

FAREWELL, FRANK

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The first time I met my future father-in-law he was working the garden at his beautiful home in the English countryside, not far from the sea. A former pro football player, he’d remained as big and strong as he was in his playing days, and now here he was, meeting the New York guy with designs on his daughter, Kim.

It was just the two of us - Frank O’Mahony turning the soil, me watching. We were making small talk, getting to know each other in that cautious, circular way males try to figure each other out, when suddenly his lovely wife, Betty, called us in for coffee.

“Let’s go inside,” Frank said cheerfully. He took the pitchfork he’d been working with and slammed it into the ground, inches from my toes.

All four prongs were instantly buried, right to the hilt.

Long prongs. And the ground was not soft.

Believe me, I got the message. Mess with my daughter, and you’ll be sorry….

Funny first impression, because the truth is, I was never in danger with Frank. It wouldn’t take long for me to learn that he was as kind and fair a person as I’d ever know.

I also thought he was indestructible, which makes news of his death at 83 even harder to take.

Frank, who’d faced overwhelming odds to beat pancreatic cancer thirteen years ago, was hit by a stroke last February. In the months to follow there were endless trips to the hospital, one of which happened in the midst of World Cup fever.

The Uber driver was a rabid England fan, wearing the team colors and ranting about the games ahead. Frank never boasted on himself, so I did it for him.

“This guy played for Chelsea,” I told the driver. Which was a mistake, because in his excitement he nearly went off the road.

When the driver steadied himself he started asking Frank about what it was like to play in the big time. Frank told the guy about the rough-and-tumble game he knew, back in the ‘50s. Not like these players today, multi-millionaires who fall down if you breathe on them!

“It was really great on rainy days,” Frank said.

That surprised the driver. “Rainy days?” he asked.

“Oh yeah,” Frank said. “The pitch would get all muddy, and you could stand on the defender’s foot and never get called for it!”

And I thought: How fantastic is that! Frank isn’t boasting about any of the big goals he scored - he’s bragging about putting one over on the referee!

Which was always part of Frank’s appeal - his capacity for mischief and merriment, no matter how gloomy things looked.

Like the time I took him to check out his local gym, a few months ago. It was Frank’s kind of place - no frills, a real spit-and-sawdust joint. Frank’s aching hip kept him in a wheelchair, so I rolled him inside and he greeted the young manager as if they’d gone to school together.

“Got a punch bag, by any chance?” Frank asked.

It was hanging in the corner. I rolled Frank to the bag, thinking he just wanted to inspect it.

Next thing I knew I was holding on tightly to the wheelchair handles while Frank bashed that bag as if it owed him money - dozens of rapid-fire punches, from a sitting position! The manager couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Right!” Frank said, rubbing his knuckles on our way out. “I’ll be back to join up, I live around the corner.”

“Okay, Frank,” the manager chuckled.

Frank died not long after that. Literally and figuratively, he went down punching.

And I remembered a conversation we’d had about The Big Sleep, many years ago. We’d both been raised Catholic, with priests and nuns telling us all about heaven and hell, the immortal soul - the whole shebang.

“I was trained to believe in all that,” Frank said. “But then the scientific side of my brain takes over, and asks - how can it be?”

We came to the same conclusion, summed up in three words: Who really knows?

But I’ll tell you something I do know, which happened a few days after we lost Frank. I was up early to take a run, and my eyes fell upon Frank’s running shoes.

Well, why not? We were the same size.

I grabbed his shoes. “Come on, Frank,” I said, lacing them up. “Let’s take a little trot.”

And those shoes carried me to that spit-and-sawdust gym Frank liked so much. I told the manager the sad news. His jaw dropped, and his eyes misted over.

“I’m really sorry,” he said.

And I thought: He means it. This guy only knew Frank for fifteen minutes, and he’s truly grieving.

Of course he was. You don’t meet people like Frank O’Mahony every day, and when you do, you don’t forget them. And being remembered is a kind of immortality.

How about that, Frank? Maybe the nuns and priests were right, after all.

"WE" SHOULD NOT INCLUDE YOU AND ME

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In the midst of this frenzy over the World Cup I can't help but notice a tiny word that ties London and New York together in a way that is absolutely maddening.

It's the collective noun "we," used relentlessly on both sides of the ocean during times of athletic excitement.

"If we can get past Croatia, we're into the final!" a chubby little man said to me in the local grocery story the other day.

It was all I could to do keep from asking him: When did you join British World Cup team? And why aren't you in Russia?

Same deal in New York back in the late 90's, whenever the Yankees were heading for the World Series. Words I'll never forget:

"We got this game in the bag, as long we bring Rivera in to pitch the ninth."

Oh yeah.  A double-we in that hum-dinger of a sentence, spoken in a sports bar by a mountainous guy who would have had trouble squeezing into Babe Ruth's pinstripes.

One of the best scenes in the movie "A Bronx Tale" happens when the bus driver's son meets the Mafioso after the New York Yankees lose the final game of the 1960 World Series.  The kid is upset because Yankee superstar Mickey Mantle wept over the defeat, and the Mafioso - played brilliantly by Chazz Palmintieri - replies:

"Mickey Mantle, is that what you're upset about? Mickey Mantle Makes a hundred thousand dollars a year.  How much does your father make?...See if your father can't pay the rent, go ask Mickey Mantle, see what he tells you."

Which is a brutal, brutal assessment of the situation, but come on.  You smiled when you read those words, didn't you?

I've had trouble with the word "we" for most of my working life, especially when I was a TV producer spending hours writing and editing stories long into the night. The next morning the story would be screened, problems would be assessed and some clipboard-clutching middle-management type would invariably say:

"We have to re-think the piece."

We have to re-think the piece.  Re-think! As if the clipboard-clutcher had thought about it in the first place!  When it came to additional work, we had a funny way of morphing into me.

So when it comes to things like the World Cup and the World Series, I appreciate the lightning-fast reflexes of these amazing athletes, their grace, their speed....all the things normal human beings can only dream about.

But I'm not part of their "we." I only wish I could be part of their "we."  Too old, too slow, too clumsy, too whatever.  Next life, maybe.

And sure, it's nice to take pride in your city's team, or your country's team, but let's not get too carried away.

Because I know what's going to happen if Britain loses the next round of the World Cup to Croatia, and I bump into that chubby little man in the grocery store again. 

"Did you watch the game, mate?" he'll ask me.  "Bloody hell, they really blew it!"

A GREAT RUNNER REACHES THE FINAL FINISH LINE

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Once in a while you see a name on the obituary page and you say to yourself: That can't be right.

Which was my reaction the other day when I saw Don Ritchie's name, followed by two dates that say it all - 1944-2018.

I was thrilled when I was assigned to interview Don for the New York Post, back in 1979.  I was a training for a marathon and Don was a legendary ultra-marathoner, a balding and bearded Scotsman who'd come to New York to participate in a crazy event - a 100-mile race.

Which he won, in a time of 11 hours, 51 minutes and 11 seconds.

Don also excelled at an even nuttier event - the 24-hour run, in which participants run as many miles as they can in a full day.

He once covered 166 miles in such a race, and I'll never forget one particular detail about his long distance running style:

He didn't have to stop to urinate. He'd trained himself to pee on the run, to save time.

Time is what Don Richie ran out of, at age 73.  A funny, quirky, soft-spoken man who knew better than anyone that his passion for running ridiculous distances was beyond normal.

"It helps if you are a little crazy," he said.

The last time I saw Don was at the 1979 New York City Marathon, just a few months after his victory in that 100-mile race.

The big story that day was Norwegian sensation Grete Waitz, who became the first woman ever to run a marathon in under two and a half hours - two hours, 27 minutes and 33 seconds, to be exact.

I'd run that same race in a little over three hours, and while staggering across the lawn beyond the finish line in Central Park I saw Don Ritchie reclining on the grass, like a man at a picnic.  He'd completed the course in two hours, 36 minutes and 47 seconds.

He didn't look tired - after all, the 26.2 mile marathon distance was his idea of a warmup - but he looked sad.

"Hey, Don," I said, "are you okay?"

He sighed.  "Grete Waitz," he said, shaking his head.  "Never thought I'd see the day I'd lose to a woman."

(Oh for those pre-Internet days, when a man could say something like that without being buried in a social media avalanche!)

Grete Waitz went on to many more triumphs as a runner, but she was just 57 when she died in 2011.  Another person whose name shocked me when I saw it on the obituary page.

What can you say?  The Big Guy's roulette wheel stops in funny places.

Maybe that's what running is all about.  Trying to stay one step ahead of whatever's coming, for as long as you can.

Rest in peace, Don and Grete. I'll be thinking about you tomorrow on my morning run.

FAREWELL TO A SERIOUSLY FUNNY MAN

Did you hear the one about the copyboy who had no idea of who Bernie Bard was?

You'll love this one.

The year is 1978, and I'm busy sharpening pencils, getting coffee and running errands for the people at the New York Post who outranked me (which was everybody) when suddenly the city desk assistant hands me a pile of letters and says:

"Give Bernie Bard a call at the Board of Education, and read him his mail."

Bernie who? 

"The education reporter.  Call him already, he's waiting!"

I dial the number.  "Hiya kid!" says a man in a bright, chirpy voice. "What's your name?"

"Charlie."

"Got a garbage can handy, Charlie?"

"A what?"

"A garbage can.  Can't do journalism without a garbage can!"

For the next ten minutes I read Bernie his accumulated press releases. Every time we hit a useless one, he chants: "Throw it awaaaay….."

By the end of the phone call the garbage can is brimming and I'm laughing my ass off.

"Isn't journalism fun, Charlie?"

It sure was, whenever Bernie Bard was around.  In an age of new journalism, he was strictly old school - white shirt and tie, manual typewriter, and a clean, crisp writing style.  No wasted words.

Plus, the most expressive eyebrows I'd ever seen on a reporter. Whenever those eyebrows went up, something funny was coming.

Like the time in 1988, when the Post was (as always) in danger of shutting down forever.

"How you doin', kid?" he asked me in the midst of the crisis.

"I'm worried, Bernie. I'm going to be a father in a few months, and I really need this job."

Up went the eyebrows. "You're gonna be a father? Mazel tov, I didn't even know you were dating!"

Bernie was once pounding out a story on deadline and a frantic city editor eager for his copy asked how it was going. 

"Finished the story," Bernie calmly replied. "Workin' on the screenplay."

Nobody laughed harder than the city editor.

A reporter once complained to Bernie about the newspaper business - the lousy money, the bad hours - and said she was thinking of another career.

Again with the eyebrows, as Bernie put a consoling hand on her shoulder and said: "Do journalism….and walk humbly with thine accountant."

The newspaper business is hard on marriages, and it seemed to me that Bernie was the only one happily chugging along as everybody else was consulting lawyers.

"How do you do it, Bernie?" I asked him. "What's the secret?"

He stopped typing, turned and smiled at me. "The key to a long and happy marriage?" Eyebrows up, almost to the ceiling. "Do not get emotionally involved."

Of course, he didn't mean it - but man oh man, what an amazing line!

Bernie will best be remembered by his line that's been repeated a million times: "If it ain't catered, it ain't journalism."

But I'll never forget something he said to me in 1993, as staffers at the Post marched around the old building on South Street in hopes of saving our jobs. 

A bloodbath was imminent, and we all knew it.  I fell into stride with Bernie on that chilly night, his eyebrows hidden beneath a wool hat. We both knew this could be the last time we'd ever see each other. 

"I'll tell you something," he said, pointing at the building. "Whatever story I ever worked on,  I always gave it my best.  I tried to make it as good as it could be."

I already knew that, but I loved hearing it. 

Hey - did you hear the one about the funny reporter, the guy we just lost at age 90?

Turns out he was a serious man.  That's what I call a punch line.

 

THE SOUNDS OF HOME, WHEREVER I ROAM

Took the pooch for a walk around the block late last night and coming my way - thankfully, across the street - was a frantic man screaming "I love you!" over and over, to someone who wasn't there. I felt no fear.  Actually, I felt a little homesick.  Add the sounds of shattering glass, a car alarm and a siren or two and it could have been any Saturday night in Greenwich Village.

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?