“Changes? This place never changes,” Dave Gelfman, 101, said as he leaned back in his beach chair at his regular spot at the Silver Gull Beach Club and pressed his feet on the warm concrete deck.
It was a warm Saturday and Mr. Gelfman had a pool behind him and the ocean in front of him, just beyond a nearly empty beach that stretched into the hazy distance.
All around him, the Silver Gull was coming to life.
Children ran from the beach to the family pool. In the breezeways between the blocks of cabanas, groups of women — with their outfits and makeup just so — started their daily mah-jongg games. Deeply tanned men followed suit, but their games of choice were pinochle and poker.
The cabana staff carried chairs out to the beach, set up tarps and tables, and carried the day’s first round of drinks to members sitting poolside at this oceanfront summer colony that lies on an oddly deserted stretch of federal seashore near the western tip of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens.
The Silver Gull is part of a disappearing world of private waterfront clubs in New York City, where most people flock to crowded public beaches or head elsewhere for more pristine seashore spots. But in a city of constant change, these timeless clubs offer tradition and continuity — a reunion that lasts a few balmy weeks every year, pulling together familiar faces who may not see much of one another after the chill of fall settles in.
The New York Times will visit the Silver Gull throughout the summer, chronicling a season at a beach club where Mr. Gelfman is among its longest-standing members, having joined a couple of years after it opened in 1963. A half-century of active summers at the club might not have helped him live this long, he said, “but it certainly didn’t hurt.”
The idea of trudging to the Hamptons or to the Jersey Shore, as armies of New Yorkers do every year, brings a chuckle to members of the Silver Gull. Why subject themselves to rage-inducing traffic jams or to the struggle of squeezing luggage aboard packed buses or trains when they can make a quick trip from their nearby homes and take an ocean swim at a club with a view of the Manhattan skyline?
For Mr. Gelfman, the seaside retreat is a mere 15-minute drive from his home in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Several days a week, he drives to the Silver Gull, one of a dwindling breed of organizations that include longstanding swim clubs on the East River in the northeast Bronx and boating clubs in Sheepshead Bay and in Broad Channel, Queens. The Silver Gull is run by Ortega National Parks, which also runs the Breezy Point Surf Club, about two miles to the west, which sits back from the water.
But the colony is unique in the city because it sits directly on the open ocean, resembling the string of clubs to the east in Nassau County.
It is one of the few remaining clubs of the sort portrayed in the 1984 film “The Flamingo Kid,” in which Matt Dillon plays a cabana boy, and the Silver Gull retains much of the early 1960s feel of the movie.
Mr. Gelfman sat next to a cluster of cabanas where most of the movie was filmed. Sure, there have been amenities added over the years — a gym, a tiki bar, Wi-Fi — but, over all, the Silver Gull has remained largely a traditional cabana club, and to an outsider it might seem soaked with the kitsch of bygone summers.
Not far from Mr. Gelfman, three members sat in the sun enjoying cocktails.
“This club is the best-kept secret on the East Coast because nobody knows it’s here; you could be in Tahiti,” said one of them, Jerry Schackne, 84, who kept a bottle of 12-year-old Chivas Regal Scotch by his side, along with two friends, Art Maiese and Tony Costanzo.
Mr. Costanzo nodded and said the club was “like Lourdes — you come here and all your worries are gone.”
Nearby was Dr. Leonard Kane, 91, a retired psychiatrist who decorated his cabana with red life buoys bearing the name “HMS Kane.” Dr. Kane, a former Army medic, said he landed on Normandy Beach during the D-Day invasion and served in the Battle of the Bulge. His medic training came in handy at the club, he said, when he decided to rig an inverted bottle of vodka as an intravenous-style dispenser, feeding a rubber tube that filled shot glasses.
Like Mr. Gelfman, most Silver Gull members tend to be longstanding and return every June to catch up and make new memories.
“No one leaves this club; we just die,” Mr. Gelfman joked.
Members are virtually all white and consist mostly of middle-class families and retired couples from southern Brooklyn, a short drive away on the Belt Parkway.
They include teachers, school secretaries and garment industry workers. Many joined after clubs in Brooklyn closed, places like the Palm Shore Club or Brighton Beach Bath and Racquet Club where they used to spend their summers. Some members are avid ocean swimmers while others never touch the sand, preferring to socialize on the patio or from a cushioned lounge chair in a cabana. Another group plays paddleball, heading for the courts past the parking lot and sweating for hours in the blazing sun, honing their skills for the club’s championships in August.
Last year, Mr. Gelfman’s wife of 74 years, Leah, died. She was 95. Their summers at the Silver Gull were as routine as the tides. They would show up in the morning and open their cabana. Then she would play mah-jongg and canasta, while he played tennis and paddleball and, afterward, relaxed in front of their cabana. Over the years, they would bring their two daughters and their grandchildren.
This year, Mr. Gelfman is renting just a small locker. Returning to the club both hurts and heals.
Even at his age, he refuses the valet parking the club provides and sets up his own beach chair on the club’s broad concrete patio.
On this particular Saturday, he hit the gym, took a dip in the pool, sat for a while in the whirlpool, and then went for a walk on the beach past the rows of cabanas jutting toward the surf.
The piers and cabanas sustained extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It was just one of the many times over the years that the club seemed on the brink of closing; in the past the federal government has threatened not to renew its permit.
But that demise has been avoided with the help of local elected officials, including Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, whose family belonged to the club when he was a teenager.
The Silver Gull, which is open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, has 2,300 members and 457 cabanas. The cabanas are like large walk-in closets that serve as miniature beach houses, though no overnight sleeping is permitted. Many members decorate them elaborately and pass them on to their children.
Most cost nearly $5,000 for the season, and include a shower, electricity and two chaise longues. On top of the cabana rental fee, patrons must buy summer memberships ($530 for each adult, with reductions for children and older people).
Jamie Blatman, the general manager of the Silver Gull and Breezy Point Surf clubs, said that because the private organizations are concessions of the National Park Service, they offer daily passes ($30 each for an adult; $20 for children) to the public.
“It’s amazing it’s still here,” said Mr. Gelfman, who was slim and tan and dressed for summer: swimming trunks, a T-shirt and espadrilles.
Mr. Gelfman, who looks much younger than a man born in 1915, said he grew up on a farm in Mansfield, Conn., before his family moved to Brooklyn and struggled through the Great Depression. He put himself through college and later worked at an aluminum factory in SoHo that made munitions used in World War II.
He bought a liquor store in Marine Park, Brooklyn, in the 1950s, which allowed him to spend summer afternoons at the Silver Gull. But after being held up at gunpoint five times, he sold the store in 1978 and retired.
He can still hold his own in pinochle and has many friends at the club whose conversations gravitate toward current events, summers past and health problems.
“He doesn’t have anything wrong with him,” said a friend, Jeff Coven, 62, sitting next to Mr. Gelfman. “I take 17 pills a day. This guy doesn’t take one pill.”
Mr. Gelfman smiled and looked around the Silver Gull and said, “I’m just grateful I’m still here.”
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