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 after dinner 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 minutes of yoga and meditated for about five or ten minutes more.

A year before, like Neo in the Matrix realizing he knew Kung-Fu, I learned that I knew yoga. I spent three months hiking across the Himalayas from Nepal to northern India, and 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. Now, when I stretch, I say I’m doing yoga, and people seem to accept that more than saying I’d like to stretch, and I don’t have to explain why my back hurts.

“Hunanmansana,” I later learned, is named after Hunan, the monkey god of wrestling used to demonstrate what good friendship looks like in the Ramayana, 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. Audie Murphy, one of my childhood heroes, was America’s most decorated war hero, having won every medal America has to give, with 278 confirmed German kills and almost 40 Hollywood films under his chest of medals, suffered from PTSD later in life. He became addicted to sleeping pills and opiots when no one talked about those things, but he locked himself in a hotel room without food for a week until he sweat out his addiction and then became a vocal proponent of PTSD and mental illness awareness and treatment until his 1990 death in a small private plane crash. I always wondered what he’d have to say about the 2010’s prescription opiode epidemic and the VA’s role in it. I didn’t have an opinion on opiods other than I wanted to be off them, that they muddled my mind and made the perception of pain greater when I tried to stop. I didn’t have as much will power as Audie did, so instead of healing myself I bought a plane ticket in to Khatmandhu and out of Delhi and gave myself two months to get between the two without my cell phone or jar of pills. It was challenging, and Audie’s even more of a hero to me now.

Havana was my first sabattical since getting off opiods and tempering my drinking, and I wanted to soak in the experience before going to sleep my first night. I took a shower in my room’s private bath, and I’m spoiled person who likes long hot showers. The tepid shower lacked pressure and smelled like two day old seafood. But, only an asshole would complain when you were the only room in the house with a private bath. Besides, for almost three weeks in Nepal I went without showers and peeded in toliets to melt the layer of ice so I could poop; and in the military I would deploy for months at a time without even a toilet. I could suffer a tepid shower for a month.

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. I had just read in The Lonely Planet that pork in a Cuban family’s home is a treat, a celebration among generation who had gone without. 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 was happy the grandparents had bacon again.

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 can’t imagine what the people of Cuba went through. I’d be an asshole to decline it and ask for an acai bowl or fresh avocado toast, especially if I followed by complaining about the less than ideal shower. Instead, I leaned into the experience. Bacon makes me drool, despite trying to be a vegetarian, and I found myself salivating like Pavlov’s dogs on my first morning in Havana.

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 after breakfast. They were spry grandparents with children at work and grandkids in school who lived at their casa particular, and they rented a room to help support their family in their old age. 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 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. But, one message caught my attention, one from a number in San Diego’s slum-like City Heights, probably from JoJo; he’s the only person who has my private phone number and no phone of his own.

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 was been his CASA, court appointed special advocate, for almost fourteen years, until he got to old to have me legally represent him.

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. 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.

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 could help him pay for medical procedures, tattoo removals, and better attorneys if I skipped sabbaticals. I’d have to spend those three months working a high paying job instead of my fun side gigs. Everything’s a choice, but not every choice feels good.

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 put away my phone, and walked into a bar.

I wish I had called JoJo back, and I wish I had flown to New Orleans and taken Wendy to Paris. Not all choices work out for the best, from a short term perspective. But, I didn’t know that then, and I had a wonderful second night in Havana, and even went back to the first bar. I was recognized because of my beard and mannerisms, and the band was just as good, the Hemmingway daiquiris just as strong, and I’m glad I went.

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