Places Last Longer Than People

I've ridden the subway my whole life, but this was going to be the first time I'd ever ridden it into the past.

Because out of nowhere I was hit by this crazy impulse -- to see the red brick house my grandfather built, the one where he and my grandmother raised five children, entertained sixteen grandchildren and fed more people than anyone could count.

Mostly, that house on Shepherd Avenue was a place of laughter, the kind that made you double over and forget about anything that was troubling you.

I loved it. I wrote a book about it. I still dream about it.

So like an aging homing pigeon I obeyed the impulse, boarding the J train to that corner of Brooklyn I hadn't seen in more than thirty years.

When I was a kid, Shepherd Avenue was heaven on earth -- Italian-Americans sitting shoulder to shoulder in Grandma's basement, eating and drinking and sticking it to each other, the way only blood relatives can. What could be better than that?

There was even a celebrity legend connected to the house. A notorious Murder, Incorporated hit man named Harry "Happy" Maione was dating my grandmother's upstairs tenant back in the 1940s.

He always tipped his hat to my grandmother on his way up and down those carpeted stairs -- frequent trips that came to an abrupt end when Happy died in the electric chair.

"Happy was a lovely man," my grandmother insisted to her dying day. The people he killed would have disagreed.

Shepherd Avenue was our whole world. My Uncle Sal's future wife lived upstairs. My Aunt Jeannie's future husband lived next door. My great-grandmother lived a few doors down, and so did my godfather. Assorted cousins were all just a Ralph Kramden-to-Ed Norton shout away.

I couldn't throw a rock without hitting a relative's house, or a relative. And if I did throw a rock, nobody would squeal on me. (It was an Italian thing, you know?)

Shepherd Avenue seemed like forever for our gang, but that's not how it worked out.

It was as if there was an invisible blanket on the street, and one day God shook the blanket and all my relatives went flying -- to Queens, Long Island, New Jersey, and the cemetery.

Goodbye, Shepherd Avenue.

And now at last, hello again.

Same subway train to the same elevated station. Same walk to Shepherd Avenue, in the laddered shadows of the train tracks. Many of the shop signs are now in Spanish, and loud music booms from passing cars.

Does anything remain from the old days?

Better believe it. There it is, standing strong near the end of the block -- my grandparents' house.

It seems smaller than I remembered it, but it's looking pretty good. There's a new front door, and the bricks have been cleaned, and the simple black wrought-iron fence in front of the house has been replaced by a gaudy white one.

There are bars on the ground floor windows, and the driveway, once wide-open for incoming and outgoing grandchildren, is now sealed behind a locked gate.

Except for the trees, taller and fuller now, not a living thing from the old days remains on Shepherd Avenue.

I walk up and down the block, time and again. I don't want to stand and stare at the house, but every time I pass it I wish someone would step outside so I could casually introduce myself, and tell him funny stories about good times gone by in that old building.

But would he care?

A strange sorrow grips me as I head back to the subway, and that's when it happens.

I'm passing the house where my great-grandmother spent so many hours sitting out on her porch, telling funny family tales. Now that porch is enclosed within a decorative metal fence, and I can't see the people behind the fence, but I sure can hear them.

They're laughing. Somebody on the porch is telling a funny story, and they're laughing their asses off.

It's a great thing to hear again, all these years later. Laughter on Shepherd Avenue.

Charlie Carillo is a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition." You can click on the link to his novel "Shepherd Avenue" here.