Hunga-Hunga (ode to gus)

Written By: Corrine Conover

HUNGA HUNGA. Uncle Gus always said as we turned down the corner to Amagansett. As a kid I never knew how to pronounce Amagansett. So I always called it. Ema-said. Which made sense to me because I had an Aunt Emily and she practically said everything. Uncle Gus was born in Pittsburgh LI. Moved to Levittown. And then, to Southampton where he created his home. A lot could be said for a guy that was born Richard and changed his name to Gus. Drafted at 17 years of age right after high school to the Vietnam War. He had no choice. He was poor. And, of age. Barely. In high school he had a license like all the other Levittown locals. Except when he chose a car. He didn’t. He chose a hearse. I asked him as a kid why he chose a death trap. He told me. “All the more room to have the ladies in” . his wife Janice at the time had a brother named Peter who saw potential in Gus and saw a beautiful car wash being destroyed. It was based in South Hampton. Only car wash in town. After, River head if you didn’t get your car washed. You wouldn’t get your car washed. The people that owned it didn’t have the skill or money to fix it up and it just lay there and rotted. Parts missing. Vacs displaced. Customers never came back. And that too was history. He fixed up that car wash in Southampton. Replaced the parts. Took out a loan through my father, and the bank he worked at and worked 7 days a week 70 hours a week and thensome. Pretty soon rich people were swarming the area. Getting their car washed and clean and pretty for the road and whatever else they desired. My father worked there on weekends with his younger brother Jimmy. Aunt Emily also known as “amaganssett” couldn’t do much. But, creatively Gus gave her a job painting signs to keep her busy and in the loop. After a year winter came. And we were’nt sure how this Southampton car wash would do. Now known, as Gus’s Car Wash. So Gus came up with a plan to buy Chilled SOCO. Lay it on ice and take shots every now and again. Kept the brothers as warm as they could be in 38 degree weather. Fixing frozen parts. Cleaning and drying salt down watered cars. And kept Emily in the heating lamp painting signs for ½ off winter prices. By the second year my father invited me and the family down for summer. I was only 6 at the time and going through some hard times.(Yup, hard times I said it. They don’t just happen when your grown up. Some of us at 6 learn early) So, drying cars in Southampton and hanging out at his house he he had out in southampton with water and a canoe sounded pretty damn good. Gus always made thingsgood. He also invited down his sons Keith and Jesse. Jesse came and worked with me drying the cars.He was two years older then me and let me know that every day. Now, 15 years later. Not so much. The place was packed. I never saw so many rich people. Come to think of it. I never saw rich people. I never saw so many people dressed so lovely and fashionable to get their car washed. I never saw so many flawless faces with not one drip of sweat stand in polished sandals and walk in a way that I looked up at and liked. majority of them never tipped Jesse or I. And yet, I was just really glad to be there. My sister had died that summer of Leukemia. and to be somewhere elese on the Island instead of a cape house on Tonopah Street where my parents made their bedroom out of an attic so my sister and myself could have our own bedrooms decorated the way we wanted (mine in purple, michelle’s in safari animals with lots of elephants). I wanted out. Gus’s car wash. Was my out. Southampton. Was my out. Hunga-Hunga. Jesse was not happy in the 98 degree weather. Slaving over every car dusting, polishing, cleaning tires, and spraying down windows. Mind you he was 8. Parents divorced. And working at his dad’s car wash. I was able to put all my energy into rich cars. Drying down their hoods, tops, tires, and car doors. That was my job. And I was damn proud. Smiled even. We met this women once. White hair. Black on black in the middle of summer with these artsy bi-focals. And she went over to us directly. Usually they just drove away without any giving. But this curious women, came right over to us and handed me a dollar. She said “You get a dollar because you are nice and you are polite.” Then she turned to my cousin Jesse and said, “You get 50 cents. Because you aren’t as nice. And you aren’t as polite”. I remember looking at Jesse so happy at my dollar and that he got only 50 cents. He turned to me and said At the end of the day it don’t matter. 50/50 split. The other guy that stood out was this freak of nature balding and timid shaking at the wheel. He refused to get out of the car and remained seated at the drivers seat not wanting to get out. When we went over to him to tell him he had to get out of the car before the machines went through. He frantically shaked his hands on the steering wheel and in a pretty much a micheal jackson voice as that is the only voice that came close to this guy’s voice said “Im in a car. I’m staying..I’m, I’m not getting out. I am not getting out. I knew him as the freakish guy every Wednesday who was allowed to go under all the machines when no one else was allowed. When I got older I learned his name was Truman Capote The man who was allowed to break all the rules. When no one else was. Needless to say, as rich as they were. I can count on one hand how many tips we got. Gus made sure though. He always did. He was asked a few times after his business got successful and being the only car wash in all of the Hamptons at the time, to go for lobster. Drinks. Country Club. A polo match even. He’d shrug and say. I’m heading on my boat with the kids, my brothers, and the Collie. Sometimes we got on the boat. But sometimes, we’d end up at the Road House. Be handed a 10 dollar roll of quarters to play the crane with Jess. While he drank beer with his brothers. Then, We’d saddle up to the bar and have a juicy burger. Man, I loved that. Aunt Emily outgrew her sinage and wound up moving back to Canada to teach print screening. She wasn’t a fan of America during Vietnam. SHe left at the time Gus was drafted. I’d like to think she’s the Amaganssett of the Hamptons. Just sayin…. ———————————————————————————————————————————————— But here’s where I remember the most. Gus laying a rope on a swimming hole in Southampton for all of us to glide on and drop into the water. Its not there anymore. Some kid died years later and they lay the rope and the boy to rest. Gus taking us in his bronco truck. Swinging that same rope from his bronco to our sleds in winter. Then, gliding on the icy patches of south Hampton woods and death man trap. Until my foot got tangled up in it and I was gliding on my ass. Some kid called out. Thank God. And I still got my foot. Gus filling up that same Bronco truck with gallons of water from the car wash and us swimming and sitting in it as kids while he glided around Southampton. And we got stuck in the one lane Jane as I called it in, in East Hampton. We were swimming. In a back of a truck and never needed a potty. And then, here’s what I also remember. sitting on a hill right below the duck pond and the wind mill on my 8th summer. Holding onto to Gus’s dog Collie. Who also happened to be a Collie. Looking up at the hill near the church and pond and thinking of my sister Michelle. Wishing she was here. Feeling guilty that I was. And she wasn’t. Petting the dog. Popping gum. And, Wondering what I’d do with my life ….without her. Gus came over. Looked right at me and said “Big Bubbles No Troubles” And I understood. In his life, and in mine.