by Frank LoBuono
They are like good, old friends; you may not have seen each other for a while but, when you do, it’s like you had never been apart. You pick up right where you left off the last time you were together.
Except, instead of a person, I’m talking about a place.
We all have them – those special places that we seem to return to, over and over again. It may be a coffee shop or diner. Perhaps, it’s a newsstand or a bench in a park. Maybe, it’s a hotel at a beach. Certainly, for most of us, we have a special restaurant or tavern that we like to call our own. Whatever, or wherever, it may be we feel at home there – like we belong.
For me, one of those spots was The River Club in Nyack, NY. I call it The RC.
Arriving on the scene in Nyack at just about the same time (the early 1980’s) must have been kismet. We grew up in this town at the same time, together. I was immediately drawn to the place because of it’s location on the banks of the mighty Hudson River. It occupies a very old and historic spot on the river, of which you can find in more detail on The River Club’s website. As a person who grew up on the river, literally (I spent my youth in another river town, Fort Lee, NJ), it was perfect. It was, and remains, the ONLY bar/restaurant in town that’s actually ON the river. So, it was a natural fit from the very beginning. The vistas are nothing short of spectacular. The large windows allow for viewing of one of the most beautiful natural wonders to be found anywhere. The Dutch settlers called it The Tappan Zee an amalgam of the Native American tribe who lived here (Tappan) and the Dutch word for sea (Zee). To watch a storm race across its expanse (it is one of the widest points on the river) is to have your breath taken away. The food was never “great” and the booze was not exactly top-shelf. But, when sitting on one of their bar stools facing the river while the setting sun gleamed of the Tappen Zee Bridge, it just didn’t seem to matter.
However, The River Club was/is more than just a place with a view. It had soul.
Mike Hekker owns and runs the club. His whole family was involved. He employed his brother, his daughters, his wife, his cousins and countless others from his immediate and extended family. In fact, his family has been a huge part of this village for a LONG time. His mother was mayor and his father a village justice. The Hekkers are part of the fabric of this town. And, if you hung out at The River Club you became part of it, too. Mike could be brusque from time to time, but he could also be incredibly fair and loyal. You became part of his extended family. For example, Mike mostly gave up catering private parties, but when it came to my 60th birthday celebration, The River Club accommodated. It was one of the countless good times we had there.
My apartment is just a few blocks away so, it’s easy for me to walk there. I often tease people with another one of my hackneyed phrases: I walk there so I can stagger back. But, it’s also true. It was/is part of my neighborhood. I always knew that I would be taken care of – like family. Pete Hekker, Mike’s brother, is the head bartender. He has been there from the very beginning. And, he has taken care of me from the start – literally and figuratively. Should I forget something? No problem. Pete will take care of it. Forget to pay? No biggie. Pete will remind you the next time you are in. There is no “angst”. He is one of the best barmen anywhere. He is the consummate professional – and, a gentle soul. Pete seems to be perpetually in motion but always makes time to make sure that your wants are met. Should you need an ear, his is one of the best. And, the whole staff was always great. Everyone one of them, Jacqui, Marie, Eric, and all the others never treated like you a customer but, rather, as a friend.
And, we have this wonderful routine. He knows that I almost exclusively drink Canadian Club Manhattans – straight up and very cold. When Pete sees me walk through the doors the drink is usually on the bar by the time I get there! People ask me why I “haunt” the place. Well, that’s another reason. What’s NOT to like?
And, at the end of the night it’s always the same routine:What do I owe ya’, Pete?
The usual, Frank.
It’s ALWAYS the same. He is generous with the drinks and I return the “compliment”.
There was/is a slightly older crowd at The RC and that was/is just fine by its steady and loyal patrons. Because of the plethora of drinking establishments in town, Nyack has gotten a reputation as a party place. On a Friday night, thousands of young people flock into town to get some serious drinking done. It’s a good thing/bad thing discussion for another day. But, the RC managed to miss most of that. Being off the beaten path it avoided most of the drink/puke/drink some more gang. And, it did so on purpose. I remember one incident that summed it up – Three or four twenty-five ish young women came and an sat near me at the bar. Pete greeted them warmly and asked:
What’ll you have ladies?
One replied, oh, we’ll have “Tequila Sunrise”.
Pete: I don’t do that.
Girl: How ’bout “Sex on the Beach”?
Girl: “Singapore sling”? (or, some other concoction)
Pete: Look ladies, this is an old person’s bar. We don’t do that.
They got the message and ordered wine.
I’m not sue that “old person’s” bar would be my choice of words, but it may be accurate. It is a mature crowd. And, what’s wrong with that? There is always a great mix of conversation from people with diverse and accomplished backgrounds. Rarely is anyone found puking in the parking lot – a claim most other establishments in Nyack cannot make! Plus, it’s racially diverse. The place LOOKS like Nyack or, at least the best of it!
The RC and it’s loyal followers have been through a lot together, including the near destruction of the place by Hurricane Sandy. After a sail boat came loose from its moorings and crashed into the main dinning area, Mike and his staff worked diligent to repair and resurrect the place in just a few weeks. Their triumphant return was a tangible symbol that the village as a whole would come back. While they closed for repairs, I wasn’t sure that I would do with the time I normally spent there. And, it was a significant enough lose for me to have an affect. The RC IS part of the fabric of my life. There was a tangible sigh of relief when they returned.
Now, change is in the air at the River Club. After over thirty years, Mike Hekker is looking for a well deserved rest. He has decided to share the responsibility of running the established with a partner. I know this was not easy for him. He has always seen the place as an extension of himself and he ran it accordingly. But, that can take a toll. The restaurant business in almost as bad as the one I’m in – the news business. Both are 24/7/365 grinds. There really is no such thing as a weekend or day off. It can be all consuming. You may love it, but it comes with a price – always. I don’t think it was a matter of sagging business. The RC always seemed to do a thriving, if not necessarily booming, business. I think that like all things, there is a right time to make a move. Mike saw this as the time.
He says it will take a few weeks to, perhaps, a few months to map out all the details and move forward. I cannot imagine it to be closed for too terribly long. It occupies just too valuable a spot. But, there is uncertainty (*hence the was/is). It will certainly be a different place. That’s part of the point. However, will it remain OUR place? That is MY fear. Too often in the name of change, places loses their character and, therefore, their souls. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it right here in Nyack.
In the meantime, I’ll have to fill what is a significant hole in my life. Yes, the RC meant that much. But, I remain hopeful that things will work out for the best and, just like an old, lost friend, when we meet again, we will not have missed a beat.
And, THANKS, for all you’ve meant to me in my life. We are here for you when you return.
Frank LoBuono has lived in Nyack for over 30 years writing and covering Rockland County in print, on TV and online. He works as a cameraman and an editor for a major TV News organization. You can read his blog at Talk-Frank.blogspot.com.
Photo Credit: Dave Zornow
Editor’s note: The headline for this article is not a typo, although the author’s sentiments would support spelling the headline as both “Farewell” or “Fair Well.”