I have a young friend named Gus. He is in second grade at school, just starting out in life, and doesn’t hold back in letting us know what he is thinking. I have another friend named Gus who is ninety-four and confined to bed in a nursing home. He has dementia, so we don’t know what he is thinking, but he responds with a smile when someone talks to him. My older friend Gus hasn’t met the younger Gus and doesn’t know who I am anymore. When I telephone the nursing home to ask if he needs anything the nurses are reluctant to tell me because they “don’t have his chart in front of them” or don’t know who I am.
Gus was born in Brooklyn in 1921, of Norwegian descent. He lived there for almost fifty years and was a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers before they moved to Los Angeles. He followed the Mets when they started up in New York but thought they were bigger “bums” than “da bums” in Brooklyn. At the age of twenty-two Gus was a cook with the US Army in Europe during World War II. After he returned home he became a laundry man, picking up and delivering laundry from hotels and restaurants around the New York area. That is what he was doing when I first met him. Gus and his wife lived in a little house in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. I lived in East Flatbush in a small apartment above an Irish bar near Kings County Hospital and a ten minute walk from the abandoned Ebbetts Field. Gus was a part-time golfer and introduced me to the game. I wasn’t all that interested in the “good walk spoiled” but enjoyed the regular refreshments as we walked the eighteen holes on a public course on Long Island. Gus carried a large insulated “thermos” flask around the course filled with freshly made whisky sours and after every second hole we stopped for a “refresher”. The nineteenth hole was an anti-climax because we were well primed by the time we reached it. Gus liked his golf but his real passions in life were cooking for large parties at his house and fishing. Regularly I caught the D Train from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Gus would meet me at the subway station to drive me to his home.
After a huge dinner and several whisky sours with his friend Don, a Brooklyn sanitation engineer, we would drive to Sheepshead Bay to catch a fishing boat for an all-night trip out into the Atlantic in pursuit of blue fish. Sometimes we would stay up all night to catch a boat at 5am in the morning. Gus always took a large cooler filled with ice, cold chicken and beer, enough for everyone on the boat. When the Atlantic was too rough to fish we sat on the moored boat and emptied the cooler. If we were out when the Atlantic became unfriendly Gus quietly stowed the cooler, took out his teeth and carefully put them in his pocket.
After the laundry changed ownership, Gus decided to become a chef. He moved from Brooklyn to Hyde Park, New York to be trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). We often laughed about him being with the CIA but he just smiled and said the pay was poor but the food was good. For many years I proudly wore a cap he gave me with CIA printed on it until the neighbors became too inquisitive about my frequent travels to certain countries. Now I wear an old Brooklyn Dodgers cap.
Gus graduated from the CIA, bought a small house and opened a catering business in Hyde Park, New York. He specialized in catering for large parties using his Army and CIA cordon bleu cooking talent. The business grew rapidly, exceeding Gus’ ability as a business manager. On one visit he confessed to me that he was in financial trouble because his major customers were not paying their bills. The customers were some of the wealthiest families in the Hudson Valley who threw huge parties and Gus was their caterer of choice. When I asked Gus why he continued to provide catering to the people who owed him money he confessed that if he asked them to pay their bills they would go to someone else and he couldn’t afford to lose their business and referrals. Before she succumbed to dementia Gus’ wife took care of their savings and spending because she knew he was not good with money, he was a chef not an accountant. Shortly after his wife Janet became ill Gus succumbed to the sales pitch of a broker friend and withdrew all of the money from their bank account and bought shares in a coal mining start- up company. It was a sure thing he was told, he could double his money in a year. Now he lies in bed in a nursing home with no money, no friends and no family. But he seems to be happy.
My young friend Gus is seven years old. He has never been fishing but if I have a problem with my iPhone, Satnav or any of the electronic systems in my car Gus sorts them out for me. His main interest is in sport and his understanding of the “rules of the game” is remarkable. Last month while I was driving him home late in the day Gus was unusually quiet.
I tried to start a conversation and there was little response from the back seat. He clearly wasn’t happy and when he finally spoke he said: “You are no longer on my friend list!” Surprised, I asked why and was told that he didn’t want to go home. He wanted to stay longer at my house because he was having fun. After a few minutes of silence Gus added: “But you can stay on my gift list and keep buying me things.” When I replied that if I wasn’t on his friend list I couldn’t be on his gift list, Gus responded quickly: “My game, my rules!” After ten more minutes of silence we reached his home and I handed him over to his mother. As I left Gus quietly said with a half-smile: “Oh well, I guess you can stay on my friend list.” Now who teaches kids these things? What happened to the three Rs? This wasn’t “readin”, “ritin” and “rithmetic”! It was a fourth R, the “rules” of the game.
Older Gus and younger Gus share an interest in fine automobiles. While he was still able to drive, older Gus drove either an old Lincoln Continental or a Cadillac. He didn’t need a large car as he had no family to drive around and only shopped for two at the market. But he had to have a fine car so the neighbors knew he was a success at his catering business and he truly enjoyed the comfort. When I visited I had to make sure my rental car measured up to his expectations. Fortunately, in those days I could negotiate a double upgrade from the car rental place. Younger Gus enjoyed sitting in the back seat of my ten year old silver Lexus until last year when he told me the car was “an old man’s car” and I should buy something new and faster. He suggested an Audi. Also, he said he didn’t like my choice of music in the Lexus because it was old too. I was very proud of my rotating collection of fine classical music and jazz, but Gus had never heard of Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Thelonius Monk and had no appreciation of their art and sound. I compromised and inserted a disc of “Pops in Space” by the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra when he was in the car. He liked the Superman and Star Wars tracks. After several months of thinking about my old car I decided at ten years I probably should update it to something smaller. Perhaps it had become “an old man’s car.” I bought a two year old white Audi S6 with a turbo charged V8 engine, designed and built for driving on German autobahns. I set the exhaust system on “dynamic” so everyone would know when I was arriving. Gus was impressed by the change and asked if I had upgraded the CDs to something newer too. I could go so far with this new image and thought the Audi was enough. The old Miles Davis and John Coltrane CDs moved over to the Audi, with “Pops in Space”. Older Gus would not have approved of my new car because it was not a limo but younger Gus and I were happy with the upgrade.
Last week while driving Gus home in the Audi he said to me: “You know I like the Audi, it is fast and looks good, but I think I like the Lexus better. The Lexus was quiet, had more space in the back and the leather seats were softer. Can you get the Lexus back?” After a firm “No” I turned up the volume of “Star Wars” and upped the speed so the exhaust would roar in tune. I didn’t need a new car, could have just changed the music. Unlike my older friend, younger Gus is good with money. If we go to the bakery to buy a snack for him he quickly works out what change I should get for the $5 note and then suggests what we can spend it on.
Older Gus and younger Gus will never meet because one is in Rhinebeck, New York and the other is in Australia. My older friend Gus could have taught my younger friend Gus how to fish, cook and play golf, skills that have escaped me. My younger friend Gus could have taught my older friend Gus how to manage money and the rules of the game. I may not see my older friend Gus again and I hope he still has the photograph of my younger friend Gus I gave him several years ago, when he could remember who he was and who we were. It is time to send him a new photograph and tell younger Gus more about Miles Davis.