“Partin was a big tough-looking man with an extensive criminal record as a youth. Hoffa misjudged the man and thought that because he was big and tough and had a criminal record and was out on bail and was from Louisiana, the home states of Carlos Marcello, the man must have been a guy who paints houses.”Charles Brant and Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran in Frank’s 2014 memoir,“I Heard You Paint Houses,” a reference to mafia lingo for a hitman who paints the walls of a house red with splattered blood.
Like the American journalists I was meeting, I had ulterior motives that I didn’t talk about openly. The most obvious was researching Big Daddy’s time there, and trying to understand his role in Kennedy’s murder. But I also wanted to see Guantamano Bay, to listen to locals who grew up near an American base that never left after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Playa de Giron, and to try to understand how it still exists, how we keep prisoners there without the freedoms we enforce on our soil, like an attorney and not being tortured, and why Obama renigged on his campaign promise to close it.
On a related note, I was curious why Obama and every president since Jimmy Carter has kept parts of the congressional report on the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luthor King, Jr., classified after all these decades. Why do patterns keep repeating? Was life nothing more than fractals seen from different perspectives? From my unique perspective of seeing history repeat itself with elected Teamster officers and politicians, I wondered what, if anything, could be done to benefit posterity. I didn’t know what I was seeking, other than bars with funky bands, but I thrive on ambiguity and was looking forward to immersing in Cuba and ponding things over a few Hemmingway daiquiris between dives and climbs.
Sipping a daiquiri and reflecting on Craig and Scorcese’s films prompted me to open a folder on my phone titled JipBook – I’m Jason Ian Partin, and an old army nicknames were JP or JiP and Scarhead, which is too lengthy for a folder title – and I found the scanned version of Mamma Jean’s handwritten letter. She was Norma Jean Partin, like Marylin Monroe’s birth name, the source of a reoccurring joke in our family about Kennedy’s private life. And, Mamma Jean was a gorgeous as a movie star, her good looks smiting Big Daddy like a sledge hammer, instantaneously toppling the lady’s man the first time he saw her. I looked for anything I may have missed that may be more relevant now that I was in Havana. She had written it soon after Walter Sheridan, former FBI head of the Get Hoffa squad, died in 1995, and immediately after my older cousin, Tiffany, and I began asking questions about how Big Daddy had fooled Mamma Jean. She was such a practical and temperate woman that it was hard for us to imagine anyone fooling or intimidating her, especially after having just survived a double masectomy and six months of chemotherapy and maintaining her wits and faith without faltering for a single moment. She was tough, resilient, resourceful, and sharp; if I were striving for a literary prize, I’d make up something like sharper than a sickle in a shed full of worn out rusty tools, but that would weaken who she was by making her a meme. She was exactly like you’d imagine, and she, like Wendy, had gone through a lot in life and rarely discussed it. In her final days she wanted to put pen to paper for posterity’s sake, before she died.
Here’s Mamma Jean’s letter, complete with typos from the handwritten first draft she never completed before her cancer returned. Aunt Janice photocopied it and sent it to us, and most of us keep copies because it’s the only thing we have that tells us about how she met Big Daddy.
504 9th N.E.
Springhill, LA 71075
Aug. 17, 1996
My dear children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,
I don’t know how to begin this. I should have written this when you were small, while it was fresh on my mind, also while your daddy was living. After someone dies, you seem to forget all the bad things and remember only the good in them. That is the way it is with my memories of Ed.
He was so charming when I met him. As Jimmy Hoffa wrote in his book, “Ed Partin could charm a snake off a rock.” It was Aug. 1949 and I was living with my sister, Mildred and her husband, Percy Cobb in Natchez, Mississippi. International Paper Company was building a mill and Percy was superintendent of construction. Ed was steward over the Teamsters, Union (I.B.T.C. and W.). He came to the house one afternoon to talk to Percy concerning the Teamsters, and that is how I met him. I was 18 years old and he was 26. I thought he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. He had blond hair, blue eyes and teeth like pearls. Keith, he looked just like you, except he was 6’2”. He didn’t smoke or drink, not even beer, and I believed every word he said. He loved to come over to Mildred’s when I babysat James Paul. I thought he would make a good father. After six weeks we were married in Fayette, Mississippi, Sept. 27, 1949.
Cynthia, I guess it was good thing I waited three years for you. Ed had not told me about his debts. He owed for three cars and we didn’t even have one. He had sold them before we married, spent the money but had not paid for the cars. He also had to spend three months in jail in Woodville, Mississippi, from October 10, 1949 until January 1, 1950. He wouldn’t tell me why; just that he was innocent. I wrote the judge a letter and he let him out. It was not until March 1964 that I found out why he was in jail.
He made about $75.00 every two weeks, which was pretty good in 1950. We moved to Pascagoula, Mississippi in the spring of 1950. The Electricians went on a strike the first week we were there. Ed drew his unemployment, $20.00 a week. We paid $8.00 per week for our rented room and shared a kitchen. It was nice, we had no responsibilities so we would go to the beach everyday and cook hotdogs or hamburgers. We started going to church and were baptized June 17, 1950. The strike lasted three months. By that time, International Paper Company, had started an addition to the mill in Natchez and we moved back there, to the Pharsalia Apartments, which were brand new and real nice, two bedrooms, kitchen, living room and bath, no air conditioning in those days. That is when we bought furniture, the old mahogany bedroom suite, sofa, chairs and tables for the living room and a red Formica top, chrome kitchen table and chairs. By this time Ed had let me start handling the money and I had him out of debt by the time you cam, Cynthia. You were the answer to my prayers. Ed was real disappointed that you were a girl. Your grandmas Foster always said she was so glad you were a girl because “Son,” (that’s what all his family called him) didn’t get his way for the first time in his life. You were so pretty and you soon won his heart because you cried after him every time he went to work.
Janice came a year later. I didn’t mind because Maurice was pregnant with Susan and we had the best time together. You and Susan were a week apart. I was going to help Maurice when she came from the hospital and then she was going to help me with Janice. I was not due until the first of August, but you came early so we had to call Mildred to come to our rescue. She was always so good to come stay with me when the first three of you were born. She stayed two weeks the next year when I had Edward. Ed was real good to go to church, he even went to Men’s training class when we lived in Natchez.
The construction ended with I.P. Company so we moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, September 1, 1953. He got a job with a construction company driving a truck, and then in March 1954, he was elected business agent and Secretary and Treasurer for the Teamsters of Local #5. He made $75.00 a week.
Baton Rouge was booming. Houses to rent were scarce. We rented a small two bedroom, kitchen, bath and living room on Ellerslie Drive, behind Memorial Stadium. By this time I was pregnant with Edward.
We were doing better financially. We bought a brand new 1954 Ford. Edward was born July 1, 1954, finally a boy. You were so precious. You had the most beautiful brown eyes and dark brown hair.
Ed began to find excuses not to go to church with us. He had union meetings on Sunday morning, so sometimes he would have them at the house and he would keep Edward while we went.
He organized Louisiana Creamery, Holsum and Sunbean Bakeries, and the Refineries that were being built between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I really think he was honest during this time.
We bought a lot on Prescott Road and in 1956 we built a house. I drew the plans and selected everything in it. Ed was very cooperative. It was just what I wanted, 2,586 square feet and a double carport. We moved in December 15, 1956. By this time we had two cars. The Teamsters had bought our 1954 Ford for Ed and we bought me a 1955 red and white Oldsmobile. I suppose that was the happiest time of my life. I really wanted another baby, now that I had this big, pretty house with two bathrooms. I was thrilled when I had you, Teresa. Especially to have one with blue eyes.
Ed bought a truck stop and restaurant on Airline Highway, in April 1959, called the J and L Truck Stop. He also bought and old house with fifty acres out in the country close to Greensburg, Louisiana. He made a garden and mad repairs on the old house. He wanted us to move in it an sell the one on Prescott. I wouldn’t agree to it. I’m sure glad I didn’t. This is when our problems started. He was gone most of the time. Always Union Business or at the Truck Stop Restaurant. Mildred Kelly was a waitress there. I began to have suspicions of her and Ed having an affair. It would make him mad and deny it when I confronted him about it.
I am so thankful you all don’t remember how abusive he was to me. Cynthia, you probably remember some. I might could have tolerated his “other women,” if he had been good to me, but the only good thing about him was his generosity with is money. He thought money could buy anything. He never cared how much money I spent and he never objected of us going to church. He wouldn’t go with us but he was good to help me get you all dress. I am thankful for that. He was continuously buying me things what I called “a peace offering.” He bought me a 1959 Impala Chevrolet and the transmission went out on it with only 80 miles on it. He wanted to have it fixed but I told him I didn’t want it, that I would keep my Oldsmobile. I later found out he had given it to Mildred Kelly. He also started my silver with a place setting and all the serving pieces. He could never save money. He thought it was made to spend. He lavished you all with toys. Edward you had a gun and that lovely knife by the time you were five years old. I guess it’s a good thing I was conservative and learned how to handle money, because by the time we separated I knew how far a dollar would go.
He seemed to blame me for everything, even the fusses you all would have. He insisted I get a maid so I hired Olivia, remember her? She worked for me until we separated.
It was in January 1960 that I knew he was having the affair with Mildred Kelly. He had to go to Washington, DC on union business. He had driven and called me on his way back to tell me he was snow bound right outside of Atlanta, Georgia and would be home when he could. I knew she was with him but when he came home he denied it. I guess he thought if I had another baby that I wouldn’t leave him, so Keith, you were on the way soon after this.
By the summer of 1960, I knew Ed was doing things that were dishonest. He had to go to Atlanta and while he was gone, C.J. Brown, a Baton Rouge realtor, called and told me that the grass needed cutting at the house we had rented on Sevenoaks Drive. I quickly asked what was the house number and he told me. This was a shock to me, so that night I went over there. Ed came to the door but he turned out all the lights and wouldn’t let me in. The next day he told me that he was hiding dynamite for Jimmy Hoffa in that house. He also told me he was on some kind of drugs. I had called your Aunt Mil to come help me decide what to do. She came and I went home with her to Pine Bluff. Ed called everyday, begging me to come home. I was gone about two weeks, but we did go back. When I got home, I realized there was something wrong with him. He tried to keep it from me, but he finally showed me where he had been stabbed, the lowest part of his stomach, a horizontal cut about six inches long. It was always a mystery as to who did it. It needed stitches but he wouldn’t go to the doctor. He had been stabbed on his shoulder about four or five months before this. He wouldn’t tell me who did it either, but wouldn’t go to the doctor. When he left in January, the cut on his stomach had still not healed. In later years, Mrs. Rankin, one of my lawyers, said he probably was bringing in some kind of drugs in the wound. It sounded horrible to me, but I never knew.
Keith, I didn’t think you would ever get here. All the rest of you had been three or four weeks early, so by November 1, I was ready, but you didn’t get here until November the 17th. I worried about you while I was in the hospital, not knowing if Ed would be home, but I had Olivia and she took real good care of you.
Keith was nine days old when Ed told me he had to go to Havana, Cuba to see Fidel Castro. I didn’t believe him, but he gave me a number at the Havana Cabana Hotel for me to call. I called and talked to him, so he was there. This was another mystery. I never knew why he went. When President Kennedy was assassinated, and Lee Harvey Oswald arrested, I really thought Ed was going to be involved, but I don’t suppose there was any connection. When he got back from Cuba, there was some argument we had every day. Marge and Orlan were so good to me, helping me decide what to do. He advised me for one and a half years to stay with him. He would talk with Ed and Ed making promises not to see Mildred Kelly anymore, but finally said that she was blackmailing him. I tried to believe him, but there was always something disturbing and a mystery.
One nite I was giving Keith a bottle. Ed was asleep. I looked down, there under the bed were his shoes with a lot of money in them. I counted it quickly, I would guess about $20,000. I put it in the drawer and the next a.m. he asked where it was. I asked him where he got it. He said it wasn’t his, that he was to pass it on to someone that was to meet him at the Palms Motel. I never knew.
He had made several trips to Chicago, he said, and then
<That’s where Mamma Jean ended her letter. She never finished her story. She passed away from breast cancer a few years later. – Love, Janice>
I was Mamma Jean’s second oldest grandchild, second to Tiffany by ten months, and we were many years older than our other cousins because Aunt Janice had Tiffany at 18 and my dad had me at 17, when my aunts and uncle were in the midst of pueberty. We were the only grandkids who remembered Big Daddy well, before he had gone to prison in 1980, and saw his change when he was released in 1986, five years early, because of declining health due to diabetes and an unspecified heart condition. He died in 1990. The congressional JFK Assassination report was partially released publicly in 1992, and soon after we began asking questions about why things in the media were different than we recalled. Mamma Jean’s letter had been told to us in different versions here and there, which may be why it sounds so well thought out for a first draft. She stopped, first because Tiffany, who was then in her mid twenties, when mental illness manifests the most strongly, stopped taking prescription anti-depressents and took her own life a few weeks later. Mamma Jean slipped into a funk, and then her cancer returned and she never completed her letter, never writing down the details that still haunt all of my aunts and their siblings, that she had fled Big Daddy and hid her children around the time he was in Cuba, just like Wendy had fled my dad when he ws in Kingston; like with Teamster leadership, some patterns seem to perpetuate, and young girls get pregnant when young boy’s sex drives are peaking, and mental illness cruelly manifests a few years later and people change. I hadn’t read Mamma Jean’s letter probably ten years, but speaking with Craig inspired me to reread old notes and look for things I may have overlooked or not understood when I was younger.
I put down my phone and thought about Tiffany, remembering her face and voice and smile and energy. She and I shared the same eyes as Mamma Jean, Aunt Janice, and my dad: so dark of a brown they’re almost black, contrasting with Big Daddy and many of our cousin’s sky blue eyes. And Tiffany was tall, like most Partins other than me. I was the runt of the litter. Tiffany had been homecoming queen in high school, and one of the most popular kids in school – again, unlike me – and her death had shocked us all, family and friends and her community, and especially me, I think, who had looked up to her in more ways than one. I felt she was one of my first and closest friends, and not just a first cousin by chance.
I had been thinking about her, too, on the plane ride. In hindsight, it’s no wonder I was worried about Wendy with all of that rolling around my head on the long and cramped flight.
The Havana band was taking a break, probably before people began filtering in after work, and I felt I should leave soon before the bar became too noisy. I definitely didn’t want the temptation of standing next to a bar after I had already had two dacquiris. I was Wendy’s son, after all, and moderation takes more effort than I felt like putting forth. I put my phone in the padded pocket of my backpack and waited for eye contact with the bartender.
“La cuenta, por favor,” I said. He brought it over, and now that the band was silent we I chatted. He asked how I spoke Spanish so well. I chuckled to imply I was flattered or that it wasn’t a big deal, however he interpreted a chuckle, and said I lived in San Diego, on the border of Tijuana, and I couldn’t help but learn Spanish, “como la o’smosis.” He chuckled back at that, which told me I probably pronounced it correctly.
Bartenders usually think I speak better than I do, probably because most people speak predictively, especially in the first first five minutes. When you practice the same phatic comments again and again, you can sound fluent for about five mintues, and I sounded fluent to bartenders, especially when I chatted about food and beer. I used just enough atypical words, like ‘la o’smosis,” that people assumed I knew more than I do. I was marginally decent at ordering food and drinks in about a dozen languages, and could say things like please, thank you, and “where’s the bathroom?” in about a dozen more, but only if the bartenders were used to tourists mispronouncing words and read body language; it’s easy to realize someone needs to pee. I’d be lost in a real conversation in almost any language, but I’m pretty good at reading body language and laughing when other people laugh, and looking up the words they used on my phone later. My memory isn’t as sharp as Momma Jean’s, it’s more like one of the rusted blunt instruments in the back of a tool shed, useful for some things but not all, though it’s more reliable than a lot of other people’s. I know my mind’s a blunt tool, which is why I read quite a bit and try to sharpen it, or at least keep the words handy as a backup tool to help when I need it.
I can’t tell you how I know a lot of the things I know about Hoffa and the Kennedy’s, other than to assume I learned as a kid via osmosis. My dad doesn’t remember most of his time from being five years old around Big Daddy and the Teamsters, either, but also seems to know a lot about history without knowing how. Mamma Jean would have been our best reference, especialy with her attention to details and sticky memory. She would have written a fine memoir. After the JFK Report, when books about Hoffa and Kennedy were all the rage, we asked her why she didn’t capitalize on the timing. She never wanted for anything other than a safe home for her children, she said, and that was that. She, like I, preferred time more than anything, and appreciated the subtle pleasure that came from not feeling pain or rehashing history. As she said, and I can see her eyes sparkling as I reread it,
The band began plaing again and I paid in U.S. Dollars and said, with eye contact and a nod of my head that could be heard over the band, “No necicitto cambio.” The bartender picked up the cash and smiled genuinely and waved as he said “Gracias! Buen viaje!” I put on my backpack and turned towards the door and began walking out. I dropped $5 bill folded in half into the band’s tip jar and smiled and clasped my hands and bowed a thank you to them without interrupting. One of the trumpet players locked eyes with me and nodded back with his horn without missing a note, and I limped to my downtown casa particular, trying not to limp and realizing how tired I must be to not even walk straight. Anyone watching probably assumed it was the daquiris, and maybe they’d be right.
I arrived at the casa 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 a bit of yoga. The year before, I had spent three months in Nepal and India, and learned that I did yoga when a few gurus asked if I were doing this move or that; until then, I had thought I was stretching, the same moves from high school wrestling practice plus a few to elongage the tight muscles and scar tissue connecting each corner of my skull to my spine, hips, and ankles. Apparently, I have good form for poses I can’t pronounce, and since then, when I stretch I say I’m doing yoga or dancing if someone asks. Between you and me, it’s just stretching, but saying yoga instead of stretching satisfies people the same way they don’t ask more questions when I say I’m on sabbatical rather than a vacation. Both are ways to enjoy life longer.
After a shower that, as a spoiled person who likes long hot showers, could have been hotter and with more pressure, I fell asleep and slept surprisingly well, without a trace of the worry I had felt all day. I woke to the smell of a homemade breakfast. Pork, of course, in a Cuban family’s home; I’m mostly vegetarian, indulging in seafood when I travel to islands, but even The Buddha’s last meal had been pork because someone made it for him, and I’m not so spoiled that I’d decline breakfast 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, and I did it by choice. Having pork again was celebrated. 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, and I was on vacation and life was short and few things were worth worrying about; just ask The Buddha.
I chatted with the hosts, stretched again, and strolled from their casa towards the Plaza de San Francisco de Assi, taking the mostly residential back streets. My only awkward visa requirement was not exchanging currency with government owned businesses, and along the way to the plaza I searched for private vendors. I bought another WiFi card from one, and a small knife and a small pair of needle nosed pliers from another. 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 Gordian measures that damage the rope, which is a wise thing to consider when you’re life depends on the integrity of that rope. Like my dad, I had carried a knife since I was about five years old; a gun, too, though that wasn’t allowed on airplanes even before 9/11, and I wasn’t foolish enough to cary one in a foreign country now that I was a civilian and without an extraction team.
I put my booty in a tiny daypack I carried in my carryon backpack, along with a reusable bottle full of water, a Lonely Planet Cuba guide, 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 added reading glasses and a telescoping hiking pole to my personal items, though I had forgotten the pole on this trip, just like I used to forget my glasses before acquiescing to the inevitable. In a worse case, I could buy one in Havana, and cheap reading glasses are ubiquitous worldwide, but I wouldn’t find an ultralight telescoping stick with sweat absorbing cork handles that could be stashed in my bag when I felt more mobile. I included a homemade first aid kit, a version of which I’ve carried wherever I travel for more than thirty years. 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 fix people and fix things, you can earn a livelihood almost anywhere there are people.
Mentally, I felt more comfortable with daypack on, even with a sore body that would rather the load be lightened. I was ready for anything. To help blend in, everything I carried was a bit worn and scuffed, but neither old nor young. If someone glanced at me, I’d blend in as someone who enjoyed traveling and did it often, and probably didn’t need directions or any other assistance. If they looked closely, they would have noticed I wore an old Seiko analog dive watch, the type with a rotating bezel to mark time underwater, and big, Tritium Roman numbers easy to see in dark or murky water. It’s the type of watch someone who had been diving a long time would wear; it was solar powered, which had been revolutionary at the time, and I hadn’t had to change a battery or wind it in decades, though I had gone through at least a dozen bands. It was as if I were an actor; I had read that character actors do that, immerse in public, to practice remaining in character for an upcoming film, like Robert DeNiro boxing professionally before he starred in Raging Bull, or Daniel Day Lewis living outdoors and throwing tomahawks at squirels to prepare for The Last of the Mochicans, and working as a butcher to prepare for Gangs of New York. I can see how that would be fun. I’m never asked Craig Vincent what he did to prepare for portraying Big Daddy, but I hope he had as much fun as I was having preparing for my entrepreneurship adventure.
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 using third party software designed by another innovator.
If I had checked bags, I would have had a multitool from Portland engineer and inventor Tim Leatherman, or one of the plethora of options available since Tim’s patents expired a few years earlier. (I had lost more Victorianox keychains than I can remember since 9/11.) I carried Force Fins, 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. 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. If pressed, I could tell you who invented the 7.5mm stainless steel compression screws in my ankle, and how they became commercialized and distributed by the VA. And, we could chat about the eye glasses I wore, and the company that developed transition lenses they used that were more likely to be worn consistently than bifocals, mostly due to vanity. Like my earbuds with embedded software, my glasses were pricier than average but worth it to me. After all, I had to spend that monthly $175 disability check somehow. As for the cards and coins, I just liked practicing magic tricks more than scrolling through my phone, except when I was rereading old letters or court reports and had a purpose.
If I spoke with Wendy, I’d tell her about what was in my bag, because it would probably make her laugh. 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 arrived at Plaza de San Francisco de Assi and learned that Cristi had been unable to reach Wendy. But, that was typical both because of Wendy’s remote home, and her tendency to be emotionally unavailable for weeks or months at a time, so I wasn’t surprised. 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; though one reached out and grabbed my mind, and I paused before closing the message from JoJo, an 28 year adult who was a foster kid when I was appointed his CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocate, in San Diego County.
“Hey, J,” he began. “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, so people wouldn’t worry about him. “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.
JoJo’s worth focusing on for a moment.
JoJo was, and hopefully is, Alvaro Giovani “JoJo” Lopez. He was a 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 chekk bones and 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 head is cropped short, and he can seem intimidating at first glance, if you don’t know him. If his sleeves are rolled up, you would see dark blue tattoos swirled into a thick soup of symbols on his left forearm, and words like “Trust,” “Family,” “Love,” “Honor thy Mother & Father,” and “Only God can judge me.”
There was something that looked like a ships steering wheel, but was a dharma wheel of the eightfold path. 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-looking font, Victoria; coincidentally named like the keychain pocket knife I often have taken at airports, which was named for the founder’s mother, Victoria. JoJo had Victoria when he was fifteen years old, locked up in a San Diego youth center for unadoptable foster kids to big and inimidating looking for foster homes, where he met Victoria’s mother, coincidentally named Christy, short for Christina, a girl no bigger than Wendy, and they hit it off and produced Victoria, who recently graduated from high school and lives with her adoptive parents, but only after six years of custody court. I hadn’t seen her in almost ten years, but I heard from Christy that she’s doing fine in school and happy at home.
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, more outreach programs than I can count, and 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, suggesting that he hammer stones after prison, too. 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. He had only one CASA, and fate decided I was it.
JoJo was born in City Heights, where he was born, is 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. The median income of a family of four is under $24,000, though City Heights is only eight miles from La Jolla, America’s most expensive town, which is saying a lot. I think homes begin around $10 or 11 Million or so in La Jolla Shores, the jewel of San Diego, but I’m not sure, because I’ve never shopped for a home in LaJolla. I lived in Banker’s Hill, a hipster neighborhood adjacent to the luxuriuos Balboa Park and San Diego Zoo, packed with small cafes downtown bars and concert venues and only three miles from City Heights, two miles from the downtown airport, and within bike distance of downtown bars and concert venues.
Rent, even in City Heights, is rarely under $2,000 for shitty little Section 8 subsidized housing, and one bedrooms often have two or more families crammed together, often willing to do almost anything for money. If any Americans wanted to see second or third world living conditions, they didn’t have to travel too far, but the only adventure sports in City Heights is climbing fences and dodging bullets; it has San Diego’s highest murder rate, too. I don’t know the rent in La Jolla, but I know there aren’t many, if any, Section 8 apartments there.
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 had originally gone to juvenile jail for beating a meth dealer senseless because the meth dealer’s gang threatened one of JoJo’s older brothers. He became a pacifist, like The Buddha, and was arrested for “an incident” years later. He was raped in jail and has HIV. He’s extremely claustrophobic, and spends most of his time in jails meditating or doing pushups. Until about ten years ago, I could still do more pushups than him; but, as I mentioned, I haven’t aged well.
Interestingly, to me, most people forget that after Jimmy Hoffa got out of prison, he began a short lived campaign to reform America’s prison system, and newly elected President Nixon had planned on sending Hoffa to Hanoi and negotiate the release of American POW’s before Hoffa disappeared, coincidentally, around the time the Vietnam conflict officially ended in 1975. In his autobiography, published just before he vanished, he talks about the need for prison reform extensively. I often wonder what America would be like if Hoffa had lived, what a man so driven that he revolutionized labor unions internationally would do after spending six yeas in prison pondering his next move, and what any of us could do to help kids like JoJo. I don’t know if Jimmy Hoffa knew the statistics about prisoners, or what he would have thought about the median cost of keeping someone in jail in America is around $76,000, more than three times the median income of a family of four in City Heights, but I’m sure he would have had a lot to say about it. Just as interestingly, few people remember that the final bill signed by President John F. Kennedy, whom Hoffa publicly and vociferously hated, ordering American flags at all Teamster’s locals locals all over the world to fly at full mast the day Kennedy was shot and killed, was the 1963 Community Healthcare Act, three weeks before he was possibly shot and killed by Oswald, a veteran with a long history of mental illness, who was then shot by Ruby, also a veteran with a long history of mental illness. If you think about it, it’s enough to make you crazy, not matter who you believe shot Kennedy.
I didn’t know where to begin processing big number statistics, so I had volunteered as JoJo’s CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocate, to do what I could when I could. In CASA training, the first thing they do is show case studies of CASA’s who adopted the kids, and how badly that seems to go; sometimes, a bit of distance is healthy, like the Robert Frost poem about good fences making good neighbors, or the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt; or, at least intolerance and impatience. My phone number was the only one he remembered that was still owned by the same person, and I’d be an asshole to at least not listen to his message before beginning vacation.
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 invariable use up 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. I wanted to be on vacation. I deleted JoJo’s voice mail and told myself I’d try to find him when I returned. At the same time, I called myself selfish. An asshole. PawPaw had been a man no bigger than Wendy, but he had stood up to the Partins and done so with a smile on his wiry little face while working full time at Glen Oaks and juggling several side gigs to pay for me, without any payments from the state, and never taking a vacation. He left me with shoes so big I couldn’t fill them on my best day, and he had been on my mind during the flight, too. I grew up lucky, a safety net woven under me with threads placed by men like PawPaw, Mike, Coach, Uncle’s Bob and Keith, and at least a dozen members of the Baton Rouge magic club who knew my family well, because it was on the news weekly throughout the 70’s. 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. Even my Great Grandpapy Grady Partin had been in and out of jail during the depression and was a drunkard during prohibition; he ran out on Grandma Foster, who got lucky and married my gainfully employed and mild mannered Grandpa Foster soon after, and she became a positive influence on me. When I was 16, after Uncle Bob died and Wendy had another nervous breakdown, I, like JoJo, was emancipated, and I became a legal adult the summer of 1989, less than a year before Big Daddy died and almost exactly a year before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and I left Louisiana. Unlike JoJo, I missed the mark, and if I’m grateful for anything, it’s that Wendy knew who my father was, and didn’t name me Edward Grady Partin III; I wouldn’t know what to do with a name like that.
Mentorship is still the number one cause of change in kids, statistically speaking. I don’t know how to mathematically quantify self-mentorship or realization, nor do I know how to mentor everyone, much less someone I only see now and then for a burrito and to discuss the latest incident, but I try my best to lead by example whenever I have time and energy to spare.
I sighed again, and adjusted my posture to stop favoring my right hip and be more upright, and tried to relax. There wasn’t much I could do to help JoJo, though I still felt badly for at least not trying to call. Truthfully, I always felt a hit guilty speaking with him when I was traveling, knowing he was lucky to find somewhere safe to sleep that night, and wondering if I were using my time wisely. I almost became lost in thought, but I heard Uncle Bob’s final words ringing in my ears, to live a life without regrets, and I deleted JoJo’s message and decided to continue my journey and to check back on him and Wendy whenever I was passing back though Havana, when I could do something other than worry.
I put away my phone, 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. 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 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. I can choose whether or not to roll up my sleeves and allow my tattoos to be seen, and I don’t have any on my neck. Yet. But I was on vacation, and prone to impulsive decisions.
Per how I interpreted my ambiguous visa, I had to exchange money 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 in on November 22nd, 1963, and 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.
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