City Heights

“We can report that Edward G. Partin has been under investigation by the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office in connection with the Kennedy Assassination investigation… based on an exclusive interview with an Assistant District Attorney in Jim Garrison’s office. We can report that Partin’s activities have been under scrutiny. In his words: “We know that Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald were here in New Orleans several times… there was a third man driving them and we are checking the possibility it was Partin.

WJBO radio, New Orleans, June 23rd, 1964; quoted from Walter Sheridan, “The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa,” 1972

I arrived at the casa particular and spoke with the hosts politely yet briefly, then went to my room with a window overlooking a small courtyard and laid down a travel towel, one of the ones advertised to soak up many times its weight in water and dry quickly, and stretched out on the floor and did about twenty mintutes of yoga and meditated for about five or ten minutes more.

A year before, I learned that I knew yoga, like Neo in the Matrix realizing he knew Kung-Fu. I spent three months hiking across the Himalayas from Nepal to northern India, a few gurus and pilgrims in a couple of towns saw me stretching and asked if I were doing this move or that, saying things like I had a remarkable “Hunanmansana” or “Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana.” Before I heard the words, I thought I was just stretching and using the same moves from high school wrestling practice, plus a few modifications to elongate the tight muscles and scar tissue connecting my skull to my spine and hips. Apparently, I have good form for poses I can’t pronounce. Now, when I stretch, I say I’m doing yoga, and people seem to accept that more than saying I’d like to stretch. “Hunanmansana,” I later learned, is named after Hunan, the monkey god of wrestling, so maybe Coach was a guru and I never realized it. As for meditation, I had begun practicing a form of vipassana about two or three years earlier, trying to clear my mind and stop taking opioids for pain, which had become a habit for too many years after the VA began prescribing me and I was in the middle of a project and craving painless sleep. It took hiking across the Himalayas to reset my brain after getting too deep into work. One of my childhood heros, Audie Murphy, was America’s most decorated war hero, having won every medal America has to give, and with 278 confirmed German kills and almost 40 Hollywood films under his chest full of medals, suffered from PTSD later in life and became addicted to sleeping pills and locked himself in a hotel room without food for a week until he sweat out his addiction; I didn’t have that much will power, so I had bought a plane ticket into Khatmandhu and out of Delhi and gave myself two months to get there without my cell phone or jar of pills. Audie’s still a hero; imagine my shock when I learned that Big Daddy may have killed him.

After a shower that, that, as a spoiled person who likes long hot showers, could have hotter and with higher pressure, I fell asleep and slept surprisingly well despite the long flight and worry about Wendy. I woke to the unmistakable smell and crackle of bacon frying. Pork in a Cuban family’s home is a treat. I’m mostly vegetarian, or at least try to be every now and then, but I indulge in seafood when I travel to islands and am not adverse to eating anything someone puts in front of me: I see food and eat it, as the joke goes. Even The Buddha’s last meal had been pork, because he was begging with his bowl and a villager gave it to him, and I’m not so spoiled that I’d decline bacon made by a host family. I had read in my Lonely Planet guide that after the Berlin Wall fell and Cuba lost its benefactor, famine lasted almost a decade and everyone ate all the pigs, chickens, and varmits from the marshes, and the average person lost more than 22 pounds, more than I ever lost in a wrestling season, but even a few pounds was rough, and I’ve been through a few military schools centered around food and sleep deprivation and learned enough to know I don’t want that experience it again. I can’t imagine what the people of Cuba went through. The hosts were old enough that they probably experienced the famine, and I imagined that having pork again was celebrated on levels I couldn’t fathom, no matter how much I celebrated seafood. I’d be an asshole to decline it and ask for an acai bowl or fresh avocado toast.

Besides, just imagining bacon makes me drool. I once laughed at a comedian who admitted that fidelity doesn’t mean lack of desire, just like a vegetarian can still drool over bacon. He quoted Jesus as saying anyone who lusted after a woman in their heart sinned just as much as someone who gave into temptation, so he was doomed and never tried to temper himself. The crowd laughed, but there was something deep about what he said that obviously stuck in my mind and slipped out whenever I smelled bacon. Everything’s a choice and I was on vacation, and sometimes it’s fine to embrace the bacon. A lot of scholars think the Buddha got food poisoning from his last meal, and debate whether or not it was a good idea. I wasn’t sure. He died in his 80’s, and even he said that his body was like an old cart that could only be repaired so many times. Everyone dies, or gets sick or old. Only recently did people start labeling what caused people to pass, rather than celebrating living beyond rearing your children. The fourth person a young Prince Siddhartha saw that inspired him to become The Buddha, incidentally was a guy choosing to suffer unnecessarily by depriving himself; hence, The Buddha said the path to happiness was the middle way, between indulgence and denial, so I ate the bacon and accepted a second helping, but declined a third. I would have died happy that day, like The Buddha had after his final meal, regardless of the cause.

I chatted with the hosts for a while, a spry couple the age of grandparents, and learned they had children at work and grandkids in school who lived there, but were in work and school all day every day. I don’t know what they thought of any religion or philosophy, but they were pretty sure the Plaza de San Francisco de Asi was the best place for a gringo to get public WiFi. I thanked them, said “hasta luego,” and left the casa and meandered towards the plaza.

I walked along residential back streets, mostly, using a map from my Lonely Planet to force me to read street signs and, because I have a horrible sense of directions, chat with people to get back on track. I shopped a bit along the makeshift route, careful to mind the only awkward visa requirement of not exchanging currency with government owned businesses. I sought out private vendors, and bought another WiFi card and a pocket knife and a small pair of needle nosed pliers. I’ve carried a knife since I was four or five years old, like my dad and his father before him, but hadn’t been able to carry one on an airplane since 9/11 and I felt naked without one, especially when I’d be diving and climbing and usually carried a multitool with pliers and screwdrivers. A pair of needle nose pliers is useful for tightening nuts and bolts of many sizes on boats and dive tanks, and the long tapered end can slip into a knot and loosen it without impatient Gordian measures that damage the protective kenmantle and weaken your lifeline; I’ve seen ropes snap and people fall, and it’s not pretty. Since 9/11, I’ve learned to say knife and pliers in about 20 languages, along with please and thank you. It’s amazing how many people all over the world are willing to help a stranger who looks lost and seems polite, even if you’re neither. A knife is useful for slicing limes and mangos to share or squeeze onto seafood.

I put the booty in a thin packable daypack I carried inside my carry on backpack with a reusable bottle full of water, the Lonely Planet guidebook, a deck of cards, four Kennedy half dollars, and a handful of miscellaneous personal items like a pack of gum and hand wipes, and a spoon; I like yogurt and ice cream, but dislike throwing away plastic spoons. A few years before, I began adding reading glasses and a telescoping hiking pole to my daypack, though I had forgotten the pole on this trip, just like I used to forget my glasses before acquiescing to the inevitable. I’m always surprised how hard it is to find reading glasses in some countries, even ones with national healthcare, because almost all people over 40 need them, whether they realize it or not, and so do many kids in elementary school, whether their parents realize it or not. I have a slight astigmatism, though I can override it by squinting and forcing my lenses into shape, though that gives me a headache and I prefer my prescription glasses with built in transitions to magnification region where bifocals, the type invented by Benjamin Franklin, usually formed an obvious line. I was vain, and I splurged on transition lenses, which ensured I wore them and prevented the headaches I experienced in high school before I learned I needed glasses from the army recruitment physical.

I included a homemade first aid kit, a version of which I’ve carried wherever I travel for more than thirty years: bandages and small packets of antibacterial healing cream; dimen-hydramine pills for rashes and bug bites and, in a pinch, motion sickness prevention; an atropine injector, like the ones used in the first Gulf war in case of chemical attack, and for people who have severe allergies to bee stings or shellfish (I don’t, but I’ve stumbled upon people whose throats were too swollen for CPR and had wished I had an atropine pen); and container of horse pill sized ibuprofen, the ones buddies and I used to call “Airborne candy,” 800 mg chalky SSRI bombs still prescribed by the VA provided that provided instant release from the placebo effect of tasting that chalk since I was 17. I tried to not use them habitually, though, after several studies showed professional football players who took ibuprofen daily were at higher risks of tendon tears, and a rat study showed tensile test on the deceased varmits drastically reduced after a diet of SSRI’s, though they seemed to die more cheerfully, because, in addition to weakinging soft tissues, SSRI’s increase your mood and were once prescribed as antidepressants. In a pinch, if I were feeling down, I could wash down a horse pill with a Hemmingway daquiri and rest my aching joints.

My tiny daypack was bulging and almost as big as my carry on, just without the shoes and fins and toiletries and a few changes of clothes, but it was worth having a few personal items while I walked around. If you can do first aide and fix things, you can earn a livelihood almost anywhere that has people, especially if you know a thing or two worth sharing. Apparently, the monks who followed Sidhartha shared what they knew, and were known as “ever smiling,” content and knowledgable, though without a knife or needle nose pliers. I don’t know how they survived or made impromptu cocktails.

Almost everything I carried had ulterior motives that I’d only discuss if an opportunity presented itself. The daypack was an ultralight waterproof packable bag from Sea-To-Summit, founded by an Australian entrepreneur whose name I never remember. The Lonely Planet listed the names of the husband and wife who founded it in 1973, and I knew they had recently sold their business to BBC for a 51 million Euros or so. I had ordered the book and bag from Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, using my Steve Jobs iPhone, and with voice commands spoken through my earbuds or iBuds or whatever they’re called. My phone had a translation app downloaded, and if I had decent WiFi it could even translate in almost real-time, like a Babble Fish from The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Unlike the entrepreneur-driven products I discussed, a lot of technology has been built on top of older technologies long since forgotten, and that’s useful to know, too. Even Bill Gates’s Windows was built on open architecture I no longer recall, though I took a test on it once and made an A. Though not obvious, I had paid for my plane tickets using PayPal, the company that eventually earned a young engineer named Elon Musk $121 Million after PayPal went public on the New York stock exchange. In a pinch, I could point to other examples in store windows, like the ubiquitous Spanx founded by the world’s first self made female entrepreneur, a former Disney World employee and stand up comedian named Sara Blakely, who had bombed the Florida State law school entrance exam but eventually got the last laugh. She solved her own problem – changing one leg of her stockings without taking off her skirt – and wrote most of her own patent, but hired a sketch artist and collaborated with a few other people who helped, and invested around $5,600 and a year of her life to become a billionaire.

I had lost more of the ubiquitous Victorianox keychains than I can remember in the fifteen years since 9/11, and maybe one day I’ll solve that problem. If I had checked bags, I would have had a multitool from Portland engineer and inventor Tim Leatherman, who carried a Victorianox Swiss Army Knife and a pair of pliers on a six month, cross-Europe van trip, when he had plenty of time to wonder why he carried two tools, or one of the plethora of multi-tools available since Tim’s patents expired a few years earlier, 17 years after the date of filing, and there were a plethora of cheaper options now, but I was nostalgic; I had one of Tim’s first iterations, from a parachute jump with a few Delta Force gurus in 1993, when a young Tim had scored a contract with them and his Leatherman Tool was unheard of and perceived as a James Bond gadget. Apparently, before provisional patents, it was hard to scrape together the thousands of dollars for patent attorneys and engineering drawings and prototypes, which is why the first Leatherman looked a lot like projects I had made in sheet metal class as a teenager. It was my first “I shoulda thought of that” moment.

I carried Force Fins in Cuba, short, stubby, thick polyurethene split toe fins invented by a guy for SEALs and Rangers in, I think, the mid 1980’s, to be compact and portable, designed to move far fast for those with strong legs, as if you had to go a long way to sneak up on something and didn’t want your calves cramping on the way, but had strong thighs that wouldn’t fatigue as easily. Their open toe design is useful for people with big feet, and the stubby size allow them to be strapped to a carry on backpack. Almost all of the 10,000 things we see and touch and feel and hear about every day without thinking about their history can become learning lessons. Everything must be invented at least once, and after that happens I’m fascinated by the process necessary to spread it globally. Ideas come from people and are spread by books and word of mouth, but products take a lot of resources and complex teams and distribution systems, and usually some type of marketing and all of the psychology wrapped up in that, and of course shipping the things across borders and all of the politics involved in that. I had no idea how to “teach” entrepreneruship at USD and UCSD, much less in a country without patent protections and access to global markets, and nary a Maker Space anywhere. All I could do was listen and show examples and brainstorm ideas.

I returned to the same spot in the Plaza de San Francisco de Assi, and learned that Cristi had been unable to reach Wendy. I tried to call again, but got her voice mail again. If I spoke with Wendy, I thought, I’d tell her about the cards and coins in my bag. It would probably make her laugh, because she had always enjoyed my card tricks and encouraged me to perform as a kid, driving me to magic club meetings. And I’d tell her about the Force Fins, because she used to complain about how much she spent on shoes every time I hit a growth spurt, and she said I still hadn’t grown into them; I’m 5’11, but I wear 14W shoes. I travel with fins and climbing shoes because guides and rental shops rarely have my size. More than once, on unplanned diving trips, a rental shop employee has joked that they didn’t have my size, but with 14 Wide feet I probably didn’t need fins. Jerks. Wendy had said the same thing the one time we went diving together in Cozumel, but she had smiled and her eyes had crinkled and we had laughed together about it, and I splurged on a pair of Force Fins soon after.

I wasn’t concerned that I couldn’t reach Wendy, because that was typical both because of her remote home and her tendency to be emotionally unavailable for weeks or months at a time. My worry persisted, though, if only as a shadow of its former self when I was fatigued and still feeling the effects of being cramped in an airplane seat all day. I began to look ahead. The reporters were en route to Vinales and would be ready for when I arrived. A few other messages could wait until I returned home, and I didn’t bother listening to them; though one reached out and grabbed my mind, and I paused before deciding whether or not to listen to JoJo’s voice mail.

JoJo was, and hopefully is, Alvaro Giovani “JoJo” Lopez. He was a tall 28 years old male with smooth, light brown skin and obviously made from collage of races that included Hispanic and Native American, most notable in his sharp cheek bones and slightly hooked nose. He’s almost always smiling kindly, and his dark brown eyes are usually wide open and attentive. Most people first notice his height and tattoos: he’s 6.2″ and lean but not thin, and a row of black tattoos snakes out of his shirt and up the left side of his neck, and two drip from the corner of his right eye. A bright red lipstick mark is tattooed on the right side of his neck, paid for by a girlfriend who made decent money at the time. His hair is cropped short, almost bald, though that’s mostly because he began having a receding hairline in his mid twenties and thought a shaved head helped maintain his youthful appearance. He can seem intimidating at first glance, if you don’t know him. But, a lot of people notice his smile first, and it’s calm and pleasing if you stop there. If his sleeves were rolled up, you’d see dark blue tattoos swirled into a thick soup of symbols on his left forearm, with words mixed in here and there, like “Trust,” “Hope,” “Love,” “Honor thy Mother & Father,” and “Only God can judge me.”

I sighed, put in my earbuds, and listened.

“Hey, J,” he began in his message. “It’s JoJo. You’re probably traveling, and I hope you’re well.”

He paused, not like Wendy, but to ensure I understood. He knew my hearing wasn’t great. And, when he was a kid, I had encouraged him to pause when speaking to a judge, to look for understanding or confusion before continuing. It’s a good habit for anyone, I think.

“I’m good,” he continued. We had also talked about setting expectations at the beginning of a call to save time. “I was just in an incident, and I wanted to ask you about it. But it can wait.”


“Remember to smile more. Buen viaje. I love you. Goodbye.”

Nothing felt out of the ordinary, and I didn’t re-listen to his message, but I thought about him before deciding whether or not to try calling him back.

I had been JoJo’s Court Appointed Special Advocate when he was a kid in the San Diego foster system, and my cell number was the only phone number her remembered that was still owned by someone who remembered him. The national CASA program, incidentally, began just as Judge Lottingger returned my custody to Wendy in 1977, when a judge solved his problem using an entrepreneurial mindset; to me, entrepreneurship is seeing a problem you’d like to solve for others, and going from there. According to the national CASA website:

Inspiration came to Seattle juvenile court judge David W. Soukup in 1976.

Judge Soukup had insufficient information to make a life-changing decision for a 3-year-old girl who had suffered from child abuse.

That’s where the idea came from: These children, who had experienced abuse or neglect, needed trained volunteers speaking up in the courtroom for their best interests.

Each state is a bit different, and San Diego used CASA’s to be more involved in the kids’ daily lives, and CAMA’s, Monitors and Advocates, to dig through the mountains of classified paperwork on each kid, looking for clues from their past to help explain their present, and trying to paint a picture for the judge. I had worked with three kids over forteen years, and JoJo had been my first. He had so much paperwork that the agency assigned a CAMA to help me prepare for his court dates every three to six months over about eight years, give or take. The San Diego county judges would read my report and meet with me privately before making a decision, ensuring they understood – it’s hard to write things between the lines – and my reports were a permanent part of his record, just like Judge Lottingger’s are with mine, and Warren’s are with Hoffa’s. We had to be discrete and follow national laws of working with at-risk kids, especially those who had suffered sexual abuse and were prone to promiscuity to obtain acceptance, or had such strong PTSD from physical abuse that anyone not patient or highly trained could trigger a reaction with what’s typically a benign statement or gesture.

JoJo was named by his mother, who tossed in a gumbo mix of nationalities into his name, unsure which nationality was his father, because there were a few options to choose from. She missed the mark, though, because we learned his dad was a homeless Native American from a nearby sovereign nation, one that ran an average sized casino in San Diego County in the rugged and relatively undeveloped canyons between City Heights and El Cajon. Because of the 1978 Indian Welfare Act, JoJo’s tribal council had to be counseled with his every move in the foster system, adding to bureaucracy and tacking years onto the the process. JoJo eventually became unadoptable, a word used by social services, and he emancipated at age 16. By then, he had been bounced between a dozen foster homes, 29 social workers, a handful of teenage group homes, and more outreach programs than I can count. There were a measly 300 social workers supporting the annual 55,000 reports of child abuse among San Diego county’s almost 800,000 kids, and only another 300 to assign as case workers with no fewer than 80 kids assigned to each, and with high turnover among the social workers. JoJo was a statistic to most people. CASA’s try to help judges see them as people, and we’re trained to begin with a physical description and personality summary of them, followed by nuances few people would notice, and, if possible, similar profiles of parents, foster parents, teachers, doctors, and anyone else with a partial perspective of the person on paper. No one had asked me what I thought Judge Lottingger should have done. A CASA in San Diego is part of The Voices for Children nonprofit, and I joined a soon as I heard their name.

Statistically, according to academic researchers, JoJo hit the mark. Of emancipated kids, about 80% will end up in jail, more than 30% before they’re 21. Only 14% will attend college, and only 3% graduate school. Of the 80% in jail, 80% of them will return to jail again and again, and their children are just as likely to repeat the pattern. There are around 400,000 foster kids in America, officially, and probably more than that in atypical living situations with friends and family but without state funding. Being an emancipated foster kid is different than being adopted, like Steve Jobs, who was adopted from an agency; Bezos, who was adopted by his stepdad; or Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s Hamburgers, who was adopted from an agency and spent millions simplifying the system for others; because as an emancipated kid you’re on your own at a young age, not unlike my mom and many others, and almost all kids on their own too soon suffer from PTSD or genetic learning differences. They’re not unlike most people in jail, regardless of how they got there, and 2.7 million people were incarcerated in America in 2019, when we had about 320 Million people: almost 1 out of every 120 men, women, and children locked up in the land of the free. JoJo, incidentally, says that sounds like a lot of people and he’s sorry for them, because he knows how bad it can be in there.

After a few arrests while on meth, JoJo spent three years at Atascadero State Hospital, a prison for mentally ill and addicts, where he learned yoga, meditation, and gemstone cutting as a method of medication and as career training. He was released at age 25 with $127 in his pocket for good behavior pay and a train ticket back to San Diego. The coastal train has a bar – I’ve used it to and from Santa Barbara – and he used his savings to drink six 6.2% alcohol IPA’s and call me from a prepaid cell phone, buzzed after three years and around a half million dollars of taxpayer money spent on his rehab. He had only one CASA, and I was it and he knew my number by heart.

On his right forearm, you’d see an immaculately detailed face of a baby girl in fine black lines, shaded to show her round baby cheeks. Under it, you’d see an her name sprawled out in elaborate, Victorian-era looking font, intentionally chosen because his daughter’s name is Victoria, like the keychain pocket knife I often have taken at airports, which was named for the founder’s mother, Victoria.

JoJo had his Victoria when he was 15 years old and locked up in a San Diego youth center for unadoptable foster kids. He was, like my dad, known as the community drug dealer, weed at first, but meth after weed became legal in dispensaries, and he was big and handsome even as a young teenager. Unlike my dad, JoJo was cheerful and charming and smiled a lot, and in his youth his smile was a lethal weapon that lured girls in like moths to a flame. They flocked around him, and he set his sites on an adorable, sweet young lady who had just arrived at the foster center named Christy, short for Christiana, a 14 year old girl no bigger than Wendy who looks remarkably like her, only a bit darker complexion from her Mexican grandparents, and they hit it off and produced Victoria.

Like Wendy, Christy was prone to impulsive behavior and drug use, and she abandoned Victoria and JoJo was arrested for resisting arrest, which is as convoluted as it sounds, and Victoria entered the foster system, like her parents were when she was born. I saw the pattern immediately, and soon saw it was a pattern with most foster kids, a cycle that perpetuates like the Buddhist samsara, a series of cause and effect, stemming from previous cases without a clear origin. I’ve never learned what to do about it. But, I learned about comparative happiness from JoJo. Usually, that has a negative connotation akin to not coveting your neighbor’s things, but for me it was seeing kids who had rougher childhoods than I had imagined possible that helped me forgive my family. Maybe comparative suffering is a more apt phrase when it comes to kids like JoJo and Christy and Victoria.

JoJo, Christy, and Victoria were born in City Heights, a densely packed urban zone that has been used for refugee settlements since before I was born, and it’s a poverty ridden city of about 74,000 people packed into hundreds of four story apartments and businesses area the size of downtown Havana, about two miles wide. Academics and sociologists refer to City Heights as America’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood, citing 82 languages and more than 168 dialects spoken within a mile and a half radius, and use it to study and report about international sex trafficking syndicates, citing its poverty and proximity to both Mexico and Los Angeles as possible variables unique to City Heights compared to other poor regions of America.

In one of JoJo’s childhood court reports:


that I never discussed with X, is the police officer who pulled X from a cheap hotel room on El Cajon Boulevard used her thumb and finger in an OK sign to explain how wide “the baby’s” asshole had been forced apart by his mom’s drug dealer, and a judge, whom I was able to meet with extensively as X’s CASA, finally removed X from X’s biologic mother and placed him into the San Diego foster; I dry heaved and cried long enough in the judge’s chambers to leave off white salt stains on my cheeks and then-auburn beard stubble. I cry when I think about it. X has a legion of abuse reports, all confidential, but because of bureaucracy, resources, and a lack of people with time and energy to share, X never received the focus or resources to stop the cycle. After X placed out of the system, new laws continued to allow access to X’s childhood records, hoping for empathy and compassion from the courts, but now that X was in X’s late 20’s X had no CAMA and I was no longer X’s legal representative, and because X was either a cute, wide eyed and brown skinned little girl, almost like Wendy, who had trusted the wrong men; or a big, tattooed, ex-con. X maintains a sense of humor better than I ever have.

X’s humor is a lot like Wendy’s. X laughs at how CASA and CAMA are the Spanish words for house and bed, two things X never knew. Something within X’s self, that thing that has no memory, radiates calm. I’ve learned a lot from X.

I sighed, but didn’t try to call JoJo back. The numbers he called from were usually a borrowed phone, and he wouldn’t be standing beside them by the time I tried to call back, or he’d score one of the charitable Obama phones distributed from pop-up booths in City Heights parking lots, but he’d invariably use up the limited minutes too quickly for me to reach him on that number. I was feeling exceptionally old and tired. My body hurt, and I was worried about Wendy. JoJo would be fine. X would have said something if it were urgent. I wanted to be on vacation. I deleted X’s voice mail, and told myself I’d try to find X when I returned.

At the same time, I called myself selfish. A jerk. An asshole. I don’t know what PawPaw would have told my childish self, though I’m sure he would have said it cheerfully and I would have listened. He was a man no bigger than Wendy, but he stood up to the Partins and did so with a smile on his wiry little face, all while working full time at Glen Oaks and juggling several side gigs to pay for me, without any payments from the state – he was not my foster father, he was my father – and never taking a vacation to squeeze out enough from a side gig to pay for MawMaw’s chocolate chip cookie dough rolls from the convenience store ‘fridge. He left me with shoes so big I couldn’t fill them on my best day.

PawPaw had been on my mind during the flight, too. I grew up lucky, with a safety net that had been woven by men like him, Mike, Coach, Uncle Bob, Keith, and at least a dozen members of the Baton Rouge magic club. True, I also grew up surrounded by big, violent men. I was the son of an angry drug dealer, and the grandson of a rapist, murderer, lier, thief, adulterer, gangster, and, according to Mamma Jean, a man who stopped going to church on Sundays. I never knew if he worshiped false gods or any of the other ten commandments I can never remember, and technically, “not raping” and “not beating to the brink of death,” aren’t commandments, according to Moses, but I believe God would disagree. Humans are imperfect translators. Nature, on the other hand, is just as it should be.

Even great Grandpapy Grady Partin had been in and out of jail during the depression. He, according to Grandma Fsoter, was a drunkard during prohibition and ran out on her and thier three boys when Grandma has no skills and did what she had to do to feed her children. She remarried Grandpa Foster, a mild mannered teetotaler, saying she finally learned to stop falling for big handsome men, and settle for someone gentle and kind who paid for her children’s doctor and lawyer bills. I never asked Grandpa Foster what he thought about that. But, I did, however, recognize that Grandpa was a good man, loved by all three of her children, and that Grandma loved him and he loved her. He did, in fact, help pay the bills, and Big Daddy and Uncle Doug loved him dearly; I never spoke that deeply with Uncle Don. After my experiences with my family, I had made assumptions about nature vs. nurture, and assumed I could be like PawPaw, to coach a kid to freedom. I’m often mistaken. X had listened to me preach about things like trust, honor, and love when I was younger, but I’ll never do that again. Everyone I’ve seen die, and I’ve seen thousands, withered in doubt, wondering if they were sheep or wolf, right or wrong; I dripped sweat and blood trying to save many of them. Doubt is suffering. I never want to introduce doubt into someone’s mind again; I’d rather bear tempering my tongue than introduce doubt into another person’s mind again.

I sighed, adjusted my posture to stop favoring my right hip, and tried to relax. I smiled. JoJo was right, I had been smiling less and less the past few years. He once called me from Atascadero Mental Prison, almost eight hours away, and said the best thing I could do for him is smile more. I tried. Every time I spoke with him I tried.

I sighed, and put away my phone. I finished my drink and returned to the downtown casa particular, where I put on my bigger backpack with the Force Fins strapped to the outside, said “Hasta luego!” to which they replied, “Buen viaje!” and walked to the malecon to find a privately owned 1950’s classic car.

I’m spoiled and demanding, so I searched the cars lined up along above the ocean waves crashing against the sea wall until I found a convertible, one with updated speakers and Bluetooth, and a cheerful owner with a big smile under a bushy mustache who wore a sun faded black hipster hat. I think the Cubans call it a “canotier,” a straw hat to shade your head but still allow cool breezes, but in San Diego we call them hipster hats. I had been tempted to bring mine, but opted for an LSU baseball cap that was more packable and would be remarkable in Cuba; it would help people remember me when I returned to a bar or casa particular.

Unlike Big Daddy, who was a handsome, strawberry blonde and blue eyed walking mountain of a man who would have stood out anywhere, especially in a country of mostly average sized, dark complected people, I’m average height and size and have brown eyes. I blend in much more easily, unless you notice my feet or the giant backwards letter C shaped scar across the back of my scalp, or my broken left ring finger that forms my left hand into a permanent V shape. Less noticable is the machete scar across my left first finger, but once someone sees it they notice how gnarly it looks. A remarkable hat helps me stick in people’s minds without drawing attention to my feet or scars, and it’s easier to remove if I don’t want to be remembered. I can roll down my sleeves to cover tattoos, and direct people’s attention wherever I want. I never bothered worrying about the conflicting reports on Oswald’s locations, because I know how easy it is to be remembered or forgotten, how physical traits or accents can be emphasized, deemphasized, or faked. Anyone can don a remarkable hat and use the same words to trigger or create a memory. Big Daddy was so remarkable that he’d stand out anywhere: you can’t hide big, charming, and confident.

Per how I interpreted my ambiguous visa, I had to exchange cash with private owners, not employees or government owned businesses, which sounded ideal to me. I admired the Hipster’s car, not wanting to be nosey and ask if it were his, and he proudly said it had been his fathers’. I’m not a car person, so I can’t tell you what type it was, just that it was a convertible and looked like belonged on television’s Happy Days or a older Beach Boys video, like the one Kennedy had been riding through downtown Dallas in 1963. I was stoked about the possibility of riding to Vinales with the top down, at least until we were beyond site of the ocean, or within view of the mountains when we approached Vinales.

After some negotiations and a brief discussion on the merits of the Buena Vista Social Club, the driver agreed to drive me the two or so hours to Vinales, where I couldn’t imagine anything being on my mind other than having fun for the next few weeks. I was smiling, and would tell JoJo that the next time I saw him; I did, during the pandemic, both wearing masks and speaking though a plastic screen through wired phones. A few days later, 1,800 prisoners took off masks and rioted, because getting Covid meant you could escape. It was reminiscent of the orgies in prion’s near Wendy’s St. Francisville paradise in the 90’s, when prisoners realized they’d be treated better if they had AIDS. A lot of people in prison were raped by groups of assailants hoping to get AIDS so they could die sleeping in clean sheets and being fed nutritious and relatively tasty food, compared to Angola grub. I don’t know what Saint Francis would say about all of that. But, I know I had a fabulous drive along the coast of Cuba, singing every song that driver knew.

I wish I had called JoJo back.

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