By Eileen O’Connor
We rarely know when a visit to a favorite destination will be our last; life usually does not work that way. Earlier this month, however, patrons of Dock Deli in Rye, were afforded just that: a sign that something very good and very special was about to end.
On Wednesday November 29, owners Neil and Maggie Pinsker posted a small notice on their storefront announcing that after 29 years they had decided to close. The note expressed sincere thanks and gratitude to the customers they have “come to look upon as family.”
No call to the local paper, no grand announcements, no big countdown. Just a few simple words and that was it. Or so they thought.
In this age of instant messaging and the Rye Moms Facebook page, word spread like wild fire and from Friday through Sunday Neil and Maggie served a standing room-only crowd. Patrons, many in tears, waited to place their favorite orders and soak up the scene, a scene that was as far from “a scene” as you can get.
Dock Deli was a neighborhood hub whose appeal was very much its lack of appeal, from any aesthetic or superficial perspective. A haphazard array of wooden tables and aluminum chairs with vinyl seats accommodated thousands over the years. Coffee came in small or large. No skinny frappuccinos or grande mocha lattes. No kale salads, smoothies, or sandwiches with fancy names. Turkey, roast beef or tuna on white or wheat bread. A nod toward popular trends recently appeared on a white paper plate which was taped to the back wall: <Try an avocado on your sandwich.>
Like the place itself, the food was no frills. Not fancy, but like home to so many families, including mine.
When the Dock first opened in 1988, the local kids referred to it as Maggie’s Place, in tribute to the lady behind the counter who often handed out pieces of candy as a small treat kids enjoyed on their walk home from school. Located around the corner from Milton Elementary School, this friendly oasis offered families a short respite, whether it was a much-needed cup of coffee or a last-minute packed lunch. In recent years, a group of fourth and fifth graders — “The Breakfast Club” — gathered every Friday morning before school for a debrief on the week’s events.
They were not the only morning regulars. The predawn hours ushered in “The Man Cave”. Around 5:30, a group of five or six guys filed in for a coffee and a quick glance at the day’s paper. They’d sit at different tables and rarely talked, but sometimes someone would call out from his table and a conversation might start up.
Starting at 9:30, “The Irish Mafia” held court. Having moved beyond the age of racing small children to school, this circle of women, many originally from Ireland, reminded me of my grandmother and her sister from County Mayo with their lilting brogue, lively banter, and strong convictions.
There was a place for all at Maggie’s Place: police, politicians, sailors, construction workers, CEOs, and camp counselors. During the course of my conversation with Neil, a retired cop, a construction worker, and a boat owner from the marina across the street stopped in looking for a cup of coffee, a place to rest, and “the best roast beef around.” The boater was sad to have only been able to enjoy one summer at the Dock.
“I’m happy to be going out on our own terms,” said Neil. “I was also happy to work for myself for this long.”
Growing up in the Bronx, Neil watched his parents labor a lifetime in the garment industry. At age 17, he got a job at an army/navy store in Mount Vernon where he worked for a “killer of a boss” until his wife got wind of an opportunity across the street from her childhood home. Maggie, who honed her cooking skills in her mother’s kitchen, had always worked in food services and hoped to one day own a restaurant. She was waitressing at Par’s Steak House in Rye Brook when the space on Milton Road Deli became available. “She was a top-notch waitress,” Neil said with admiration, “and full of energy, she still is.”
Neil and Maggie are a bit of a yin-yang couple. He, the steady salesman standing behind the counter, she, a smile in constant motion: making a sandwich, clearing tables, stopping to chat with customers along the way. Both always took the time to greet everyone who walked through their doors.
“It’s not very hard to say hello,” said Neil. And it was his signature and very sincere <“Hello, how are you today?”>that kept him going and everyone coming back all these years.
By Friday afternoon, December 1, Neil had unplugged the phone because “it was ringing too much and getting in the way of conversation. That’s what it’s all about. We’re an old-fashioned deli.”
With no takers, Sunday, December 3 had all the makings of an Irish Wake: tears and laughter and food. Cards and flowers had arrived from as far as California. A line snaked out the door as Neil methodically wrote down each order on a small slip of paper and handed it to Rosie, a devoted employee of 18 years. Someone had penned a poem and posted it to the back wall. Around it patrons wrote notes of thanks and praise. A woman sharing a ‘last breakfast’ with her husband wiped away tears. A group of young boys sat unusually quiet at a table for four. Next to them a couple with a young son greeted a friend who shouted the question on everyone’s mind: “Now what are we going to do?”
From behind the counter Maggie simply smiled and soaked it all in before answering, “It’s time.”
Photos by Jannine Moran and Eileen O’Connor