Saturday afternoon I was on my way to pay my respects to Bob Reiter’s family who were having a memorial service for him at the fish market and restaurant that bear his name.
Bob had passed away in July.
Making the left at Route 114 and Manwaring Road, cars were parked on both sides of the road, from the Sylvester Manor gates west almost to the entrance to the Quaker Meeting.
My first thought was there was some kind of emergency ahead, like a fire or a terrible accident. But the people walking along the road, on a day as clear as a polished windowpane, were coming because of Bob.
Past the entrance to the fish market and restaurant and its brightly painted arch made from an anchor’s chain, there was a white tent on the grounds where people sat at tables eating with the sounds of a hundred conversations and laughter softly rising and falling. Others stood and spoke in groups all over the grounds.
Some were coming and going from the low building that houses the restaurant, which started, appropriately enough, as a scallop shucking shop, but through the enterprise of Bob and his wife, Kolina, became an Island institution, where generations came to eat and socialize.
Kolina sat and received visitors, gracious and smiling. One of Bob’s sons, Mike, greeted friends near the entrance to the restaurant. I expressed my condolences, and then said, looking at the crowd and the joyful atmosphere, “Wow.”
“Right, wow,” Mike said.
There were ribs, pork, fish, venison, vats of potato and pasta salad, and cold drinks in tubs of ice. Mike said the family had provided some of the food, but neighbors and friend had supplied most of it. “We had 240 plates, but we ran out so had to get more,” he said.
“An icon,” Beau Payne said as he passed by, referring to Bob, a description I heard from many people. He represented an older Island that is fading now, a time when people could scrap a living from the bays and ocean, as Bob did, and volunteerism — Bob was an active fire department member for more than 20 years — was not something special, but just what you did.
“He’d give you what you needed,” Mark Kanarvogel said simply.
I also heard variations on the description of “gruff but sweet,” but I only knew the latter, and will never forget his kindness to me when I first came to the Island five years ago. It had been, overall, a mixed reception when I arrived, with most people greeting me warmly, but others taking their time, viewing me, as editor of the paper, with skepticism and something a bit more frosty. In my profession that’s standard, but still, it registers.
Five autumns ago, Bob welcomed me on a dark November morning that had a touch of deep winter in the wind. It was opening day of the scallop season and I was looking for a story. Someone mentioned that Bob’s sons had been out on the water and I should stop by the fish market. Around noon I walked into Bob’s and the patriarch immediately grabbed my arm and said, “You lookin’ for scallops? You found ‘em.”
I introduced myself, and he said, “You got a thick skin? You work for the Reporter, you’re gonna need it.”
“Thick enough,” I said to his open, weathered face. “Not as thick as yours.”
He liked the response and guided me to a back room where his sons Jeff and Earl were wresting bulging burlap bags from the floor to a high worktable and dumping out hundreds of the black-gray scallop shells. You couldn’t get much closer to absolute fresh, with the scallops dredged up only an hour before. Jeff and Earl had been on Coecles Harbor at dawn harvesting the crusted bi-valves that held pink-fleshed delicacies, ready to retail at close to $20 a pound.
In one clean motion Bob opened a shell with a stubby knife, gave a quick twist and before the scallop nugget could settle in a plastic bucket at his feet, he had another shell in his left hand ready to open.
It would take him an hour to shuck and clean five bushels, he said. “But I’m really slow,” he added with a grin.
He told me tales of growing up in Greenport, working on the water in every season, fishing, clamming and scalloping, and of times gone by. After I stopped writing he asked about me, my family and where we were living. Finally Bob said, “You need anything?”
I thanked him and said, no, I had my story. “No, not that,” he pointed at my notebook. “You ever need anything, let me know.”
Saturday afternoon at the memorial — celebration is a better word — of Bob’s life, Pam Demarest said she always called Bob “doll, because that’s what he called me. He was the sweetest man.”
Pam’s mother, Carolyn, was asked about the changes she’s seen on the Island through the years.
“Oh it’s changed,” she said, and then, looking out at the crowd under the tent, and people standing and socializing near the long open-air buffet, added, “But the basics haven’t changed.”
Mike Reiter later said people came and went all day long, and Bob’s tribute didn’t end until the “wee hours.”
Jim Lenzer told me that at one point during the evening, kids toasted marshmallows around a fire on the grounds. Here’s hoping they hold on to the memory of the day, and pass it on.