“Are you serious? Wow.”
That was my reaction when I heard the news that the building known to us as Club 91 was being torn down. As I hung up the phone, a myriad of memories flickered in front of me. It can’t be true, I thought to myself; they have got to be mistaken. So I pulled up the latest issue of the News-Review, and there it was: a picture of a bulldozer and a gaping hole in the side of the building. When I saw that picture it was more than just a gaping hole in the building, it signified a gaping hole in the walls of my many memories.
That’s when I sat back in my chair at my desk at work and took a moment to reflect.
“Hand me that pry bar over there Carnal Jr.” It was 1978 into 1979, and the familiar voice of my Uncle Wallace Vanslyke arose in my head. He was hired to renovate the Peconic Avenue building, turning an old bowling alley and discotheque into a middle-scale nightclub run by Tyre Lodge No. 91. It was to be named Club 91. It was during my last year in high school and on occasion after school I would go and help my uncle. My chores were minimal — carry a board here, pass a nail there — but to witness firsthand as he transformed that building into what was then a very nice facility, to be known as Club 91, was historic.
I watched as my uncle went into transformation mode, and all along I wondered how he was going to pull this one off. Through his carpentry magic he renovated some remnants of a bowling alley into an eye-appealing dance floor. I remember seeing all the rubbish and discarded wooden panels piled up onto what was to become the main dance area. Will this ever get done? I would wonder. Yet by the constant sound of my uncle’s hammer and saw, I could tell that “wondering” never approached his train of thought. Then, finally, it was transformed!
When the doors of Club 91 were first opened, my cousin Melvin Parker and I worked the coat room for tips. We weren’t going to miss out on this event and I piously felt like I had an interest in it, being that I carried a board or two and fetched my uncle’s tools whenever he called out for them. It was such a sight seeing the “grown folks,” dressed to impress, enjoy a family-like atmosphere and dance the night away. We both were in awe. Club 91 was Riverhead’s own little “inkwell” back then. Many have celebrated weddings, anniversaries, New Year’s and other events that brought us all together. I can remember the well-known radio personality B.J. Kirkland from WBLS making an appearance and setting the stage for my cousin and me, as well as some other friends, to DJ parties as “Phase II and Perfection” and become well known throughout the East End. I thought about all of the couples who, after saying their “I do’s,” enjoyed their memorable moments at Club 91, toasting and cheering to a new beginning. Vows have been renewed there and dreams of a better New Year were set in place there.
It also served as a rite of passage. It was there in Club 91, not just during the late evening gatherings but during the weekend afternoons and early evenings, where the Masons of our African-American community would share wisdom with us over a pool game or seated at the bar. They all showed interest in our well-being as young African-American males. From the likes of my dad, Carnal Hobson Sr., to Tony Brown, Larry Toler, Buddy Brown, James Brown, Hilly Booker, Charlie Hall, James Scruggs, Gene Robinson, Mr. Campbell, Walter Saunders — the list goes on and on. Club 91 was more on the inside than what people perceived on the outside. It was an institution in our lives; its foundation was cemented in the lives of so many African-American residents within the community. The physical foundation may be removed, but never the social cornerstone that so many lives were fixed upon, square and plum tight.
Even though the building went crashing down in a heap of dust, the memories linger. Club 91 was a focal point in the lives of Riverhead’s African-American community and it was iconic. Throughout the years the building deteriorated and now it’s demolished. But never the memories. You see, it was more than just a building.
A former Riverhead resident, Mr. Hobson is a receiving clerk for a major electronic motor firm in Chesapeake, Va., where he now lives. He also composes spoken word poetry and counsels at-risk youth at Chesapeake area community centers.