“[Jimmy Hoffa’s] mention of legal problems in New Orleans translated into his insistence that Carlos Marcello arrange another meeting with Partin, despite my warning that dealing with Partin was fruitless and dangerous.”Frank Ragano, J.D., attorney for Jimmy Hoffa, New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello, and Cuban exile and Miami mob boss Santos Trafacante Jr., in “Mob Lawyer,” 1994
I hopped into front of the convertible and tossed my backpack onto the slick vinyl bench seat in back. The driver pulled out of the long line of vintage cars parked along the Havana malecon, drove along the crashing surf and past the big old fort slowly enough that the wind didn’t blow away his hipster hat or my baseball cap. Soon, we were cruising east, and I had one hand on my hat and the other was by the outside rear view mirror, surfing the wind, moving up and down with slight twists of my wrist, and imaging my hand was flying like Superman, just like I had as a kid in my one of my dad’s convertible jeeps. The sky was as blue as Big Daddy’s eyes, the weather was a perfect spring morning, I had nowhere urgent to be and nothing on my mind, and it was already the best day imaginable. I sighed a pleasant sigh, and I felt so fine that I didn’t notice the difference in today’s sigh of contentment from yesterdays sighs that stemmed from a cluttered mind.
Of course the driver asked about my scuba fins.
Usually, if I’m not diving, I carry a Frisbee strapped to my backpack. Fins are harder to toss around with friends than a Frisbee, and a Frisbee is more fun to talk about than my big feet. It was named after the Frisbee Pie Company about a hundred years ago, when Yale college kids learned they could toss around empty pie platters for fun. Now, “Frisbee” is like Kleenex, Q-Tips, or Zerox, and only few quirky people know its history. I’ve used one in classes for years. If you wanted to become an engineer or physicist, you could possibly learn more deeply by tossing around a Frisbee and contemplating Berniouli’s equation, or trying to prototype improvements to solve the problem of discs turning left after a right backhand throw. You’d have more fun, and save more tuition money than if you attended Yale, Harvard, MIT, or LSU.
He asked why the fins looked the way they did, and I reached back and pulled out one of the fins and stuck my hand through the molded foot hole, wiggling my fingers out the open end. Like my feet, my hands are disproportionately large compared to my body. I never grew into them, either.
I tried my best to answer the driver’s question by simply explaining bending moments about the ankle, and how the open toe design put less force across your toes and moved the force closer to your ankle, allowing the stronger muscles of your legs to do more of the work. I bent the fins and resisted the moment with the back of my hand to demonstrate, unsuccessfully. My Spanish was rusty and I didn’t know what sparked his interest and how to build upon that, but he listened politely but fidgeted with his steering wheel and glanced at his fancy Bluetooth stereo as if listening to the Buena Vista Social Club would be more fun on a two hour drive. Sensing his mind wandering, I changed gears and lifted a foot and said the big opening could fit over my foot. He was impressed. I have big feet.
I didn’t know the Spanish word for “nickname,” so I said, “No se como se dice una parabola en Espanol,” and paused for a bit, slightly exaggerating a countenance of contemplation, “En Englais, es ‘nickname,’ una nombre familiar con amigos o…” I paused for a brief moment and contemplated earnestly, “… abusadors.”
“El apado,” he suggested.
“Gracias. Cuando era un nino, en escuela, mi apado fue Bigfoot, pie grande.”
“? Como la monstera? Ha!”
“Si! Ha!” I wiggled the fingers of my gangly hand through the Force Fins and smirked and said, “? Y tu sabe lo que dice sobre un hombre con manos y pies grandes… ?”
I paused for effect and waited for him to glance away from the road to smirk back at me, hinting that he knew what was coming, before I broadened my smile and delievered the punch line, “Dificil para comprar guantes y zapatos!”
He laughed and laughed, and I laughed too because I enjoy laughing with people and I knew he saw a different punchline coming.
My Uncle Bob had taught me that joke before he died in 1989, when I spent three months by his bedside, saying it was a way to diffuse focus on my feet and make people smile. He was a French Canadian who settled in Baton Rouge to run Montreal’s Bulk Stevedoring out of New Orleans, and he traveled the world negotiating contracts with cargo shipping companies for Bulk stevedores to load and unload their ships. His humor, unlike Wendy’s, which was centered around sarcasm and ironies, was focused on subtitles that were polite enough for mixed company and just ambiguous enough that a ribald oriented mind could complete the joke internally. He traveled all over the world, and was what most people call a people person. Since then, I’ve learned that all types of people laugh about penises and farts, and it’s nice to have a few jokes about both that can go unsaid. I didn’t feel like asking the driver to pull my warped finger and farting just then, so I relied on a partially completed penis joke and let his mind do the rest.
In the fifth grade, after a few flatulence incidences following a too many bowls of red beans and rice, the only thing Wendy could afford back then, my apado changed from Bigfoot to Fartin’ Partin, but it eventually settled on Dolly, like Dolly Parton, at least until high school. None of my nicknames meant to be flattering before high school, when it became Magik, with a k, and I was voted co-captain of the wrestling team and, by most definitions, became a well liked young man. I never found a link to entrepreneurship with any of my younger nicknames, so I rarely mention them. I had used the “big shoes, big gloves,” joke many times, but never mentioning my Bigfoot nickname until that day. I don’t know why I did, but it seemed to work and I appreciated learning that he viewed Bigfoot, Sasquatch, as a monster rather than a meme.
I don’t know why, but that told me something about how he perceived American culture, like an American trying to understand Mexico’s chupacabra or Scotland’s Nelly. Seriously, I don’t know why, but him calling Bigfoot a monster stuck in my mind. Most of what we know about others comes from films rather than experiences, and something as simple as calling Sasquatch a monster, akin to Frankenstein, told me he was well versed enough to know a lot about my culture; but, like me with Cuban culture, he was probably distanced enough from hands-on experiences to be open to more. I never learned his nicknames in school, but he was affable and of above average size, and I assume he had few, if any, apados or abusadors, and that he was well versed enough in other people’s cultures to connect with me, at least a little bit. Pop culture is a starting point for more meaningful connections.
He liked joking more than discussing nicknames or bending moments, and we eventually pulled over to the side of the road out of Havana and put the roof up to soften the wind, and laughed a lot on the rest of the hour and a half drive. I learned that his hat was was, indeed, a canotier.
With the roof up and not needing my cap to shield my growing bald spot from the sun, I removed and showed him my scar, which looked less like a backwards C with the bald spot, and more like a giant semi-colon; I couldn’t think of a joke for that. He laughed sympathetically, anyway, and showed me his bald spot, too, and we laughed together and swapped hats organically. If you’re ever in Havana and see a man driving a 1950’s convertible with with a bushy mustache and a purple and gold LSU baseball cap, now you know why. There’s a strong chance he’s playing Galactic or Trombone Shorty on his stereo, if that helps identify him. He may also have a tiny red silk handkerchief I left him as a tip that he said he’d like to show to other people and tell them about our trip together. I don’t recall his name.
We arrived in Vinales and he pulled in front of a small, private casa particular near the town center that I had read about in The Lonely Planet and reserved from the phone at my casa in Havana. We hugged goodbye, a rarity in Cuban culture, and I began my vacation.
I managed to not think about Wendy and JoJo more than once or twice, and only after one too many pours of Club Havana Grand Reserve; alcohol really is a depressant, and unfortunately it’s also delicious and fun at first. Fortunately, I was so busy climbing and hiking that I didn’t have time to drink, other than a few splurges on Grand Reserve.
The only politics we discussed was lamenting that Grand Reserve wasn’t available in the states, and laughing about how President Kennedy had ordered hypocritically ordered a case of Cuban cigars before telling America about the embargo. What an asshole; I don’t know what Marylin saw in him. I did, however, mention his back when it popped up organically, as back pain does when I’m climbing and people notice my stretching at the end of long days. Most people don’t know that Kennedy suffered back pain, had multiple surgeries and spine fusion implants – Harrington rods, named after a Mexican surgeon who improvised them one day – and focused on exercise rather than drugs to stay focused while plotting the Bay of Pigs and putting men on the moon. Of course, we landed on the moon and everyone returned home safely, unless you believe in conspiracy theories that claim otherwise. And we chatted about the Bay of Pigs, but only because we took a few days off climbing to go there and dive. As Hemmingway may have said, it was good diving and I’d go again.
I returned to Havana three weeks after having left, stronger, tanned, shaven, marginally better with Spanish, and wearing a canotier so much more faded that it appeared grey rather than black. I asked a stranger for the best place to get WiFi service, because of a habit to not assume what you heard from a few people the first time is true; Chief Justice Earl Warren could have learned a thing or two about that. They listed the same two spots, and I checked messages at Plaza San Francisco. It felt like returning home.
JoJo called again from a phone number I didn’t recognize, but didn’t sound worried. Cristi hadn’t sensed anything unusually wrong; I said I was fine and back in Havana for a day. I a message from Wendy reiterating that it was not urgent and that she’d wait until I was back in San Diego. Wendy’s silence amplified my worry, because if it was important enough to discuss when I was home I imagined it should be important enough to let me know the gist. I decided to skip heading east to wander around Guantanamo, and I sent a voice mail saying I’d be in Havana an entire week and able to check messages every morning, and would wait for her call. I sent a follow up to Cristi saying I had changed my mind and would linger a week or so.
I sighed, my thoughts back on things out of my control, and went to the same bar with the same band and sat my cantonier on the bar. The same bartender greeted me without recognizing me, probably because I had shaved my beard to better fit my scuba mask. I ordered a mojito with white Havana Club rum.
I look about ten years younger without my grey beard, and I wasn’t wearing my remarkable LSU cap. I looked just like a lot of other tanned tourists at the tail end of their vacation. I was glad he didn’t recognize me, because I didn’t feel like small talk that day, especially after almost a month of real conversations. I just wanted to enjoy the music and revisit their mojo sauce and relax without thinking too much about conjugating verbs. And I was stronger, aching less, and happy to be there and able to dance without an ulterior motive, though my dance moves hadn’t improved as much as my Spanish and face climbing skills; I mostly climb granite cracks in California, where my big feet can be advantageous when wedged into a crack too wide for other people.
For the next few days, I checked messages and explored Havana on foot. I used the Lonely Planet’s street map instead of my phone’s GPS, out of habit and because my eyes dislike electronic screens, no matter how much advertisers swear by blue-light reducing features, and I also preferred meandering over following the little blue dot and arrow that told me where to go based on how other people went there. Fuck you, Google Maps, I was walking before you were conceived.
I walked along urban streets and noticed how differently Havana had developed compared to New Orleans. Back home, especially after Hurricane Katrina, the downtown streets seem more like a jazz and po’boy themed Disney World than the city I remembered as a kid, before phone apps. Now, looking at New Orleans with the AirBnB app makes the City of Sin seem like a quilt of red dots with price tags instead of a map of houses and addresses; and the dots were disproportionately clustered along parade routes and around the bars and restaurants I knew from my youth, but were different animals now, more dependent on likes and dislikes than appreciating the moment when you stumble upon a band you had never heard of, or tried a po’boy because the guy at the counter seemed to be enjoying his so much he closed his eyes and uttered subtle moans of contentment. I’ve been that guy. Seriously, if you get a chance, seek out the flakey french baquettes baked locally, either Liederman’s or one of the others I can’t recall, and indulge with two helpings of bacon on your first morning of vacation, unless you’re in a Muslim country.
Havana, on the other hand, developed, according to The Lonely Planet, more wisely, or at least more equitably. Businesses and residences overlapped seamlessly, probably a result of communist laws I didn’t feel like investigating. The walk was pleasantly diverse, alternating between shops and hotels and apartments, and many of the people had set up shop with displays on the steps of their stoops, selling whatever their family had clung to and was now worth money to gringos, like old vinyl albums and mafia memorabilia. If I were to sniff our a hint of Big Daddy, it would be in the back streets of Havana.
I’m still not sure what I was expecting to find. Maybe a stoop manned by a big Cuban with blue eyes selling a trinket I’d recognize? The Lonely Planet wasn’t helpful for what I really wanted, whatever it was, but it was a start and it gave me a target to shoot for. I picked out a used book shop shown on a map to be a mile or so from Hemmingway’s house and called, humorously, Cuba Libre, a tasty cocktail of rum and Coke, and a clever name for a used book shop and cafe; libro means book in Spanish, and libre means free, as in the Cuban revolution and the free education it allowed. It was my red ballon.
In my mind, I called a random target, any target, a red ballon, from the 1956 French short film “Le bellon rouge” about a bullied boy who follows a red ballon floating through the streets of Paris; and from my childhood memories of not being good at throwing darts at different colored balloons at the state fair and arbitrarily saying I’d shoot for the red one. Sometimes, I hit it, like a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut, and it had nothing to do with my skills; I used that analogy when discussing Lee Harvey Oswalds abysmal marksmanship scores form the marines, and how hitting the president could have been luck or an accident, and that him missing kill the general six months before could have been intentional. For all we know, the shooter could have been sending warning shots at generals and presidents, and missed and accidentally hit Kennedy while a bunch of other people were shooting to kill. To me, a red ballon is simply an arbitrary destination that I never have to reach, a way to get me walking around with an open mind rather than limiting what I discover to what I was seeking, which I still didn’t know. Cuba Libre was a red ballon and I was unattached to it, I just wanted to see where the walk took me.
Nothing remarkable detoured me, and I arrived at Hemmingway’s old two story house and sat cross legged in the manicured yard, beside a few reading benches, and flipped through my Lonely Planet. I read trivia that seemed more relevant sitting there: Apparently, Papa was Fidel’s favorite yankee, and he carried a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls to the failed Bay of Pigs for publicity photos from the team of newsmen who followed him around, and Papa wrote The Old Man and the Sea based on a nearby fishing village. During WWII, he would patrol the ocean in his fishing boat and drop grenades into the water, trying to spook German u-boat submarines. Around After Kennedy’s embargo, he had to leave and left his mansion to the people of Cuba.
I admit that I was a bit disappointed the small mansion wasn’t more like a Hemmingway Disney Land. There were no five toed cats sipping water from a decorative urinal, like the one Hemmingway had ripped out of Joe’s bar and drug home late one night, and is still in his Key West home; and they didn’t sell daiquiris. It was just a lovely place to sit and read a book, donated “to the people of Cuba” by Hemmingway after he was forced to leave by Kennedy’s embargo. Castro said Hemmingway was his favorite Yankee, and I can see why, especially after so many CIA agents had tried to kill him with exploding cigars and bombs planted in coral reefs; at least, that’s what I had read in a conspiracy theory book a long time ago.
When I visited Dallas, I never saw anything that stood out, either, and was surprised that the 6th floor book store didn’t sell cocktails, or hand’t been turned into a gun store. They didn’t even sell books any more. At least the Alamo had a funny wooden mural you could poke your head through and get a selfie as Daniel Boone or Bowie; not the singer, though that would have been funnier. The tree between the sixth floor window and where Kennedy was hit, the one that had theoretically blocked a chance of shooting from that window, had changed, but I still think I could have made the shot if I wanted, even with the leaves blurring the view, a bit buzzed, and without my glasses, if I squinted through the scope and focused past the leaves; original theorists took photos focused in the leaves, and a horde of lemmings followed their lead and looked elsewhere. I was, back in the day and according to the powers that be, considered an expert marksman with a wide range of weapons under adverse or distracting conditions, though I had never shot a 6.5mm round from an Italian carbine, which I read was much less accurate than a 5.56mm M16 or 7.92mm AK47, or my dad’s .308 deer rifle; it’s no wonder the Italians stopped using them and a million were available from mail order catalogs in the 60’s.
I packed my Lonely Planet back into my bag, got up to leave, stretched, and in my best Hemmingway-esque voice, said: It’s a fine home and I’m glad I saw it. No one was there to laugh, I don’t know if it was funny, and I picked up the trail of the red ballon again, meandering towards Cuba Libre with plans to buy a book or two.
Cuba Libre was a gorgeous example of the type of cafe I’d open if I could. It was in an neighborhood that benefited from a bookshop, and had an L shaped patio and several shade trees and sprawling vines covered in flowers acting as a fence to provide privacy inside, and the walls were lined with bookshelves and a ton of books displayed without seeming crowded. The shelves were punctuated by wall art that was probably local artists and for sale, and there were a few paintings or photos of authors, mostly Spanish, and quotes from Papa Hemmingway, Marquez, Cervantes, and others; one photos of Carlos Fuentes’s and his book, The Old Gringo, stood out to me, maybe because I had a vague recollection of it from a high school history teacher who kept a bookshelf of literature in his classroom. The timing was right; The Old Gringo was published in 1985, and the name made me smile on many levels. I once heard that “gringo” came from wanting the Americans in green uniforms to go away; now, they ask us to come and spend our greenbacks, and then go away. Back when I was in the army, America had just finished a series of sieges in Latin America: Honduras in 1979, Dominican Republic in 1983, Grenada in 1985, Panama in 1989, and a few flybys over Haiti in the early 90’s when I was in some of the planes with a parachute strapped to my back, but I never landed. Since 9/11, army uniforms are desert brown and tan, not green and black, but gringo persists. In fairness to the people, it’s awkward to have American paratroopers drop in on your home with permission from the president to kill you; George Bush Sr. had authorized my battallion to kill unarmed civilians in Haiti if they came within blood-spattering distance of any American in the embassy we were supposed to extract, based on our ignorance of AIDS back then and reports that 75% of Haitians were infected with HIV. It’s no wonder some people resent Americans, or at perceived bullying by our government, and part of why I watch what I say and appreciate having a few extra greenbacks to spend at Cuba Libre; I had to spend my $175 per month disability check somehow, and, like Wendy, I laugh at ironies.
I selected an English copy Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and a Spanish copy of The Old Man and The Sea, which was shorter and easier for me to read in Spanish, not that Hemmingway’s simple word style isn’t conduscive to translation, which probably contributed to his popularity and Nobel prize. He and Fitzjerald, who shared the same editor, had a feud about words, something like Fitzjerald saying poor Hemmingway used simple words, and Hemmingway retorting that poor Fitzjerald thinks you need complex words to convey emotion and meaning. I wouldn’t know about either, but I’ve always appreciated Hemmingway, if only for his backstory and images of him hurling grenades at German u-boats.
I waited in que behind what seemed like a few college students and an elderly female regular customer, arrived at the cash register, bought the books, and requested a mocktail; they served virgin daquiris, made from fresh fruit and bittered with something so it was more like a dauiri than a fruit smoothie. I tucked For Whom The Bell Tolls in my daypack as a souvenir for Cristi, and plopped down under a shade tree and set my drink on the table and opened the book.
A few minutes later, I sighed and set it on the table and began rolling a half dollar across the back of my right fingers and ruminated instead of relaxed.
I had been, by almost anyone’s definition, not an ideal student. I had flunked out of the ninth grade and was disruptive in classes, and was asked to never return to Scotlandville Magnet for the Engineering Professions, an experimental school in a predominately African American part of town between Baton Rouge and Saint Francisville, funded by the state as an attempt to comply with federal requirements for racial integration by incentivizing white kids to bus almost an hour to a school more well funded than most neighborhood schools that resisted bussing black kids in. You may have heard of Scotlandville Magnet if you remember John Allen Muhammed. Wikipedia changes often, but here’s what I read about John on Wikipedia recently:
John Allen Muhammad (born John Allen Williams; December 31, 1960 – November 10, 2009) was an American convicted murderer who, along with his partner and accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo (then aged 17), carried out the D.C. sniper attacks of October 2002, killing ten people. Muhammad and Malvo were arrested in connection with the attacks on October 24, 2002, following tips from alert citizens. Although the actions of the two individuals were classified by the media as psychopathy attributable to serial killer characteristics, whether or not their psychopathy meets this classification or as a spree killer is debated by researchers.
A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Muhammad changed his surname after joining the Nation of Islam in 1987. At Muhammad’s trial, the prosecution claimed that the attacks were part of a plot to kill his ex-wife and regain custody of his children, but the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to support this argument.
I never met him, but most of us in Baton Rouge knew his story well. He graduated from Scotlandville before I attended, and served in the same National Guard unit I would when I attended LSU after the army to augment my GI Bill; they paid my $2,800 a year tuition in exchange for one weekend of boredom at their Plaquemine headquarters a month. When I coached the kids at Belaire High, trying to relate to their disdain for sitting in boring classrooms, I’d joke that I was so disruptive student that Scotlandville asked me to leave, but John Muhammed graduated from there, which that tells you something. Around that time, budget cuts had stripped away mental counselors in school, and it seemed that kids fell into sports as a way to make sense of why they were in school. I always said that life was a marathon, not a sprint, and if I hadn’t been asked to leave Scotlandville I would have never met Coach, and I don’t know where I’d be.
Coach was an amateur magician as a kid, though he wasn’t good at all as an adult. His hands were so small and stocky that he couldn’t even back palm a business card without it being obvious. The first time I met him, when I was in 10th grade and weighed 126 pounds with my shoes on, he heard my nickname and reached in the air with white edges of his card poking from between his sausages and snapped it forward. His card had said, “Dale Ketelsen, Belaire High School, Driver’s Education Instructor” and listed Belaire’s football locker room as his phone number, a 504 area code number I can’t recall, before Baton Rouge grew and added 225. Coaching was his side gig, like magic is mine. Wendy couldn’t afford wrestling shoes, but Coach lent me one of his son’s old pairs of shoes, Craig’s, who had won state at 171 pounds several years before and was coaching at St. Paul in New Orleans. The size 10 shoes fit perfectly; hence, my childhood nickname before Belaire. When I graduated, I weighed 145 pounds stripped naked at weigh in, and Coach spoke the only advice he ever gave me, other than to rotate my wrists so the long bones were stiffer when applying pressure to turn an opponent’s shoulders to the mat, like a 2X4 board that bends less along the long axis than the short. He told me I should learn to relax. Thirty years later, I still had a lot to learn, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have to take long sabbaticals to clear my mind. Jesus only traveled 100 miles, and look how that turned out. I heard The Buddha wandered offline for about three months a year, returning to his followers after each trip, so maybe there’s not just one way to relax.
I was lost in thought and smiling as I alternated my thoughts between Big Daddy and high school, and how Mr. Morgan, the history teacher who had a copy of The Old Gringo on his bookshelf, had long since passed away, would have laughed to know I was reading The Old Man and the Sea in Cuba without it being assigned. He had always said he wanted to travel, but couldn’t on a Louisiana teacher’s salary, and he preferred to spend his summers relaxing around town rather than working to afford a two week trip. I told myself I’d raise a toast to him later that day.
As for Coach, I thought of him almost every time I did yoga or saw a budding magician with a bad back palm, and I couldn’t help but smile imagining little Coach Ketelsen as a wise guru, though not a good magician. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame after he passed, joining John Irving and vice president Dick Chenney, though less for his fame and more for his records in Iowa and prowess on the mat, and for brining LSU’s fledgling team up to being ranked 4th nationally before the team was unfunded due to Title IV in 1979, when he took a job at Belaire so his kids could stay in Baton Rouge, which they had grown to love. I don’t know how I got so lucky. His son, Craig, still coaches at St. Paul and hosts the annual Coach Dale Ketelsen Memorial Tournament there, which had been held in Baton Rouge to replace the Robert E. Lee tournament for at least two obvious reasons after Coach passed from Alzheimer’s years ago.
I must have been in a good place, because, in my peripheral vision, I noticed a kid had been looking at me and smiling anxiously. I knew his look well. He could have been me thirty five years ago, and he had obviously been watching the half dollar dance across my knuckles. I could hear him thinking: What’s a gringo doing at Cuba Libre? How do I learn to do that with a coin? Should I ask? What if he doesn’t speak Spanish? I decided to answer.
He was about ten or so years old with dark brown eyes and skin typical of Spanish Cuban heratige, not the darker skinned Creoles in certain parts of Havana, but probably of more pure Spanish decent; in New Orleans, Creoles are distinct from Cajuns, depending on overlap between French, Spanish, and African American decent, just like a lot of former colonies sprinkled throughout the Carribbean. He was average height for a ten year old and not plump, but definitely well fed, though healthy looking, as if he ate good home cooked food and probably asked for seconds. He had an ineffable energy, eyes that were alert and not weighed down by sodas and snacks, and a posture that was poised for action; he had muscles under his baby fat, as if he did a sport at school but wasn’t obsessed with it like I had been.
I matched him grin for grin, and he lit up and I couldn’t resist what I was about to do, especially because I saw a large man behind him with a similar smile who was probably his grandfather, enjoying his grandson meeting new people in a bookshop, and his father was about the age of people who could have remembered Havana in the late 50’s and early 60’s, the ones I wanted to chat with. I kept an eye on the alleged grandfather, placed the half dollar on my book, and showed my open left hand, back and front, which always attracts attention.
My left hand has several remarkable scars, and an awkwardly healed ring finger that splits my hand into a V with two fingers on either side of the gap, like Mr. Spock’s salute when he told someone to live long and prosper; it was from the Baton Rouge city wrestling finals on Sunday, March 4th, 1990, two weeks before Big Daddy’s funeral. I rarely discuss my hand. I lost the match. The results are online: Hillary Clinton, the humorously named captain of the Capitol High Lions and returning three time state champion at 145 pounds, pinned me 42 seconds into the second round, though I had given him one of his toughest matches in years. I doubt he remembers me. Ever since then, I’ve had to be proactive in showing my hand, giving people time to get used to not asking questions about it, so no one is distracted at the moment of astonishment and misses it.
The kid followed my hand, and I’m pretty sure his attentive face was noticing every detail. I reached my left hand into my daypack, slowly, and came out holding a small red silk handkerchief between my thumb and first two fingers. The kid’s eyes and countenance told me my scar was forgotten and he was focused on the handkerchief. And because I moved intentionally, obviously not hiding anything so intentional, he didn’t notice the thumb tip I had hidden in my cupped fingers.
The man, who I’d soon learn was indeed his grandfather, changed his smile to an insider’s smirk, as if he knew what was about to happen. He was a big man, as big as Big Daddy, and like Big Daddy he simultaneiuosly looked friendly and like he could handle himself in a fight. He had that old-school, working man’s muscular physique, barrel chested and with a few scars and probably callouses. He had the type of muscles of someone too busy working to lift weights in a gymnasium, but long beefy pythons for arms that could reach out and whallup you with their momentum before you got close enough to be a threat. I was glad he kept smiling, even if it had become a smirk, because I wouldn’t want to upset a man like that. He was the type of guy who would remember the mafia in Havana and live to talk about it.
I took the silk with my right fingers, and the kid followed. My left hand stayed as it had been, with the two smaller fingers curled to ostensibly display the silk more clearly and strongly implying there was nothing else in that hand.
I held the silk with my right hand and slowly moved it to my left and naturally closed the remaining two fingers just before I began poking the silk inside of my fist through the small opening between my thumb and scared first finger. The old man’s smirk widened into a joyful and knowing smile, and I knew that he knew what was happening, so I decided to leave an impression on him, too.
I finished poking the silk into my fist and made an obvious and unnatural poke with my right thumb, the way most people learn to load a thumb tip, and moved my right hand away a little bit quickly. The boy’s eyes remained on my left fist, but the old man’s eyes followed my right hand. I was right: he suspected a thumb tip. That was remarkable in Cuba, a tiny country without any magic shops, or at least none I had found while walking around. Something as simple as a thumb tip would have otherwise been a magician’s secret, so the old man knew something most Cubans didn’t.
I paused just long enough for him to clearly see there was no thumb tip and I brought my hands together again and poked my first finger in the hole in my left hand and deftly manuevered the thumb tip into the gap formed by my Spock fingers, where my right thumb was waiting and invisibly snatched the flesh colored thumb tip and it hidden red handkerchief. I pulled out my right forefinger slowly, not hiding anything, and rotated my right hand so that my fingers pointed directly at the man, ensuring my thumb was pointing at him to reduce the surface area. I also tried to gage his line of sight so that my left fingers obscured his view. His eyes moved back to my left fist, so I assumed he hand’t suspected the tip was already stolen. The boy’s eyes had never left it, because he never suspected the tip.
When I showed my hand empty, the boy practically squealed in delight and the old man’s smirk had given way to a look of genuine surprise and he and his grandson laughed together for a few moments. I was ecstatic and shared their laughter, and my huge smile returned and I invited them to sit down by gesturing with my left hand as my right hand ditched the thumb tip and silk in my back pocket and sat down with them and kept both hands in sight, obviously empty.
When the kid sat down he began rattlign off things in Spanish and I took advantage of the time to resteal the thump tip. I pointed my right finger a napkin holder on the table and focused my gaze and he stopped asking questions and stared at the napkin holder. I plucked out a paper napkin with my left hand and rolled it into a tube using my right hand, leaving the thumb tip and silk in the tube. I reached inside and tugged a couple of times and slowly withdrew the handkerchief, and the kid squelled again as he realized what was happening. Over the next few minutes I taught the kid how to do a simple version of it and gave him the tip; I kept a few in my backpack to leave as tips with bartenders or cab drivers who spoke English well enough to get the pun.
The old man said he had a thumb tip once, when magic became a hobby for many people in Havana after seeing the boxer Muhammed Ali visit Cuba’s boxing champion and make a small red handkerchief disappear for Fidel Castro on television. I had seen it on Youtube: The Champ fooled Castro and smiled as big as I did, and said his faith didn’t allow lying. He showed Fidel the caucasion-colored thump tip with a corner of the red handkerchief poking out of the Champs dark skinned hand, shaking from his Parkinson’s disease, and gave the tip to Fidel. And, like most of Cuba’s state-funded recreational activities that stemmed from Fidel’s personal interests, like diving and hiking, a few Cubans who were into boxing also became interested in magic and obtained thumb tips and shared them.
I always appreciated that Muhammed Ali, The Greatest, also had a side gig as a magician. A lot of people did, though most of us kept it secret. General Stormin’ Normin Swartzcoff, commander of about 560,000 American soldiers and allies in Desert Storm, was known to perform magic shows for his neice’s and nephew’s birthday parties near Fort Bragg, home of the International Brotherhood of Magicians All American Ring. The list is long: Prince Charles, Johnny Carson, Steve Martin, Neil Patrick Harris, Judge Harry Stone, Orson Wells, Leonardo DeCaprio, and a host of other celebrities were, sometimes secretly, magicians and members of the IBM, SAM, or Magic Castle. Fewer people know that than knew Ali had a few things up his sleeves. I was just lucky to have grown up in Ring #178 and met a few celebrities who thought I, a horrible student at both Scotlandville and Belaire, was one of the best coin magicians in America. John Calvert said so, and I quoted him on business cards I had made up to capitalize on my brief fame after winning the 1987 junior magician of the year, narrowly beating out the other candidate, a kid coincidentally named Jason “The Card Guy” Something or Another; I was Magic Ian, a play on my middle name, Ian, that I thought was funny. Wendy agreed – she liked puns based on our names – and printed business cards for me at Exxon office job that said something like, ” “Magic Ian, close up magician. ‘The best coin work I’ve seen!’ – John Calvert” and had our home phone number in case someone was impressed enough to hire me. Surprisingly, it worked, and I won magician of the year again in 1988, to The Card Guy’s chagrin, but I stopped competing in magic to focus on training to beat Hillary Clinton. After two years and 14 losses to Hillary, maybe I should have stuck with magic, or followed Mr. Morgan and became a history teacher.
The old man told his grandson about seeing Telifilo Stevenson, the famous Cuban boxer from long before the boy’s time and winner of several Olympic gold medals that was the pride of Cuba; and learning the thump tip trick Ali taught Castro. Ali visited in 1995, the year Walter Sheridan died and when we first began pressuring Mamma Jean for stories about Big Daddy, and I had seen The Champ on television performing for Castro. His hands were already shaking from Parkinson’s by then; you can find it on Youtube. The Champ, who was born Cassius Clay but converted to Islam under the guidance of Malcomn X, said he loved magic but that his religious beliefs prevented him from lying, so he fooled Castro and then shared the secret.
The kid, less interested in history than seeing his grandfather speak better than the gringo in a bookstore with broken Spanish, and very interested in learning more magic. He had already mastered the thumb tip, and told me so. I pushed the visible half dollar towards him and let him play with it, and eased my hand into my pocket and pulled out one of the other three halves. In my lower periphery, I saw I got lucky, and I removed the other 1976. I used that hand to move my book and left the coin under it. The kid was so focused on the half in his hand he didn’t notice.
I asked for it back and moved away from my book and made it disappear and asked him to lift the book, and he squealed with delight so loudly that several people put down their books to look over. I’m not sure he confirmed the date, but he inspected the second coin as thoroughly as the first and seemed satisfied; had I been less lucky, I would have switched the coins as I handed the new one to him, but because I got lucky I allowed him to grab it and see for himself. Once, when doing something similar at The Magic Castle, a coin collector approached me after the show and told me that the dates were the same, but that the coin he had first seen had been minted in New Orleans, but the second coin had been minted in Philadelphia; since then, in my side gig shows, I use coins minted from the same cities, but dind’t worry about that level of detail when traveling. And, in my shows I use Kennedy halves from 1962 to 1969, when they were almost pure silver and felt much nicer in my hands, and slid less in humid weather than the slippery mixed metal coins minted since 1969. The silvers ding easily when dropped and are too rare to give away, so I rarely travel with them.
I showed him how to make the coin disappear with a French Drop, though the half was too big and his hands were too small for him to master it quickly. I wished had a smaller coin, like a quarter, to give him, and I told him that when I gave him the half so that he wouldn’t be disappointed by how hard the French Drop seemed with his small hands. He almost instantly asked how I made it appear under the book, and I told him I’d show him after he mastered making it disappear and proved it by showing a few people in the cafe. He focused his attention and began practicing and I was satisfied, because mastering making a Kennedy half disappear would take him longer than learning the thumb tip, giving me time to chat with his grandfather without interruptions.
“You look like you could have boxed,” I said to the old man in broken Spanish, trying to change the subject away from magic.
“Yes” he replied, “After the revolution, when I was younger than you. You look like you boxed, too.”
He spoke clearly in flawless spanish, using only a few words and articulating them well and pausing for effect, like a brief pause after acknowledging that he had boxed. I felt comfortable around him, maybe even trusted him, and I allowed the conversation flow more naturally and began by offering personal information.
“No,” I said. “I wrestled. That’s how I broke my finger,” I held up my hand as if I were wishing him to live long and prosper, then pointed my first finger, the one with a long machete scar across it the back, and pointed to a deep scar under my right eye and said, “And how I got this scar, from my first wrestling match in high school.” I only mentioned it because it looked like a boxer’s injury, and by mentioning it early I’d avoid questions later. My scars are obvious, and I don’t like long stories with strangers.
“But my grandfather boxed,” I said. “I heard he had met Muhammed Ali and knew Joe Lewis, and had visted Cuba before the embargo. I don’t know if he knew Telifilo or the other famous Cuban boxers.” I couldn’t recall who they were, but I didn’t see the point of saying that.
The old man seemed impressed. I hadn’t met The Champ or Joe Lewis – they were before my time – but Big Daddy had boxed for a brief bit and, in all probabiltiy, knew Joe Lewis. Big Daddy was not the most trustworthy person I’ve ever known, but there’s a 1964 Life magazine photo of him in boxing gear, shirtless for no reason I can imagine other than to woo people and make him seem more charming. He knew a lot of celebrities – boxers, war heroes, and actors, like Audie Murphy – because of his Teamster’s roles moving around movie sets and housing actors. I heard Big Daddy’s how Joe Lewis showed up at one of Jimmy Hoffa’s trial in Tennessee for publicity photos, when Hoffa knew that a lot of the locals in jury selection would have been African Americans and wanted to get in the media before a jury was selected and restricted from newspapers.
Hoffa was apparently one of the smartest men who lived; you’d have to be to continuously outwit a heavily funded FBI Get Hoffa team led by Walter, who was a sharp guy himself. I never met Bobby, but I assume you can’t graduate Harvard law school and be appointed at U.S. Attorney General by your big brother if you’re not at least somewhat intelligent. Hoffa, who never went to college but was street wise, knew how important it was to prepare for jury trials in advance, and it made sense to take a few publicity photos with a well known African American boxer before a trial in the south. The irony is that that trial, the Test Fleet case, was the one where Big Daddy was working with Bobby, Walter and the Get Hoffa Squad, and it was there that Big Daddy’s reported what was happening behind the scenes. I doubt Hoffa laughed at the irony.
Eventually, the man asked what most people begin with, what brought you to Cuba; or why are you here; or what was your favorite part; or some other common question that’s almost inevitable, even when you try to steer the conversation elsewhere. You don’t grow up as a magician and Ed Partin’s grandson without learning to keep secrets, and be wary of strangers asking questions, no matter how much of a “friend” they seem to be; just ask Hoffa. But, I liked and trusted the man and his grandson, so I told them a partial truth without lying. I was Mamma Jean’s grandson, after all.
“I’m researching President Kennedy’s assassination and wanted to think about it while visiting Playa de Giron. I think my grandfather was involved, but no one will probably ever know for sure. His final words were, ‘No one will ever know my part in history,’ and he died without any of us knowing more.”
I smile every time I say that last bit, and had since I first heard it in 1990, twenty nine years before. If you say, out loud, ‘Edward Partin’ and ‘no one will ever know my part in history,’ you can see if that sounds funny to you. It’s just ambiguous enough that I can say it without sharing the joke, if only to make me smile inside. I once read that Jack Ruby said the same words towards the end of his time in prison, just before he died. But, like a lot of pamphets floating around back then, it was probably like someone’s uninformed blog today, or it could be a false memory in my head after pondering Big Daddy’s final words too much back then; I haven’t stumbled across the reference since.
But the old man didn’t know my last name and didn’t get the pun, and his face remained somewhat serious, as if he were chosing his words carefully. And, thankfully, he didn’t ask the obvious question of people who speak too quickly, who killed Kennedy. It’s a long story. I won’t tell you what most people want to hear, a simple answer and a few names they already know, because I don’t know the answer. I had long since stopped debating the number of shooters or which mafia families were connected or how sanctioned the government employees involved were, and I spent more time pondering the highest levels imaginable, forces that probably still shape world events, the orchestrators or human traits or collected consciousness that invisibly shapes the events that shape our lives. The old man leaned in, and instead of asking the obvious, he said what I wished more people said when discussing assassinations.
“It was a bad thing. Murder. Thou shall not kill. The world will be a better place when more people think that way. People talk about who did it, but not about what it was. Until we think more about values and less about punishment, nothing will change.”
He leaned back in his chair, spent.
I paused for a moment and then agreed, and asked what could be done. He stared silently, I assume thinking about what I had asked. His grandson burst between us and showed us the French drop again, and we relaxed and watched and I wished I had a quarter to give him for his small hands. I showed a simpler way to do something similar to the French drop that I had invented when I was his age, simply pretending to pick up the coin but leaving it in your cupped fingers, hidden, and following your closed fist with your eyes and hoping everyone watching does, too. He liked that version, because he could begin by plopping the coin at the right spot in his cupped fingers, rather than trying to drop it there and worrying about catching it without someone noticing. I called it the Partin Plop. Either version worked just as well, but sometimes I forget to start with the easier one if I don’t think about having smaller hands. He was too young to get the bigger picture, but it’s a powerful example of empathy to see what’s happening behind the scenes, to see the coin fall into your cupped right fingers and watch someone’s eyes follow your closed left hand, and to know more than people bigger than you and do things they can’t. That’s real magic. As I aged, I began to realize that adults weren’t that smart and were easily fooled, and I tried to make it as fun for both of us as possible, because I like laughing with people.
“What you are doing now, that’s how.” The man said. “Sitting, talking, laughing.”
He nodded towards his grandson, who was focused on the Partin Plop.
“Playing. When we know people and their families we can not kill them.”
I didn’t want to argue that point, because I knew what he meant. But it wasn’t true. As one example, if Frank “The Irishman” Sheenan was telling the truth that he killed Hoffa, then Hoffa was killed by a trusted ally who had spent time with Hoffa’s family and claimed he’d be “a Hoffa man until I die,” yet Frank lived to write a book about how he killed Hoffa. But, that was just one example, and history is filled with people who know someone yet still does bad things to them. I didn’t agree with the old man’s exact phrasing, but I think I knew what he meant or intended and didn’t want to be another opinionated voice at a loud party where everyone had something to say. Instead, I agreed that meeting diverse people helped you see the world more empathetically, and that it was hard to kill someone if you had empathy for them and knew that their family would mourn their loss. Who would do that to a kid! I said. He nodded in agreement. Even Big Daddy, when pressed to provide plastic explosives to blow up Bobby Kennedy’s house, refused, saying kids would be involved; that’s when Hoffa mentioned using a sniper rifle instead, both men missing the point about killing anyone for any reason. Those are topics I avoid with most people.
To change the subject and avoid too many examples one way or the other, I told him about Big Daddy staying in the Hotel Havana Cubana and asked if he recalled anything from back then. Apparently, that hotel and a few around it were known to host mafia leaders in what ammounted to annual conferences away from U.S. jurisdiction, with celebrity athletes attending and Frank Sinatra singing and maybe a famous boxer or two appearing. He said no, that in that time he was in school, and that after the revolution he was one of the young men sent into the hills to teach farmers to read so that they could participate in the new government. He hand’t paid attention to other people’s politics back then.
“And that’s another thing,” he added to our previous conversation, probably because not many people discussed such things openly, especially strangers from different countries that had, for practical purposes, been at war, economically, since before the 1962 embargo. “Education. For everyone. Not just facts and history that can be rewritten by who is in power, but reading and thinking, like you’re doing in Playa de Giron. Not just believing what people say and repeating it, like the blind leading the blind, but observing. Thinking. Keeping a calm mind and a good heart.” He was still smiling, but I felt that his energy was more intense, as if he had thought about these things before but had rarely spoken them out loud. Not many people have real conversations, where the words flow from you as if coming to life on their own.
“And entrepreneurship,” he added. My eyes widened before I caught myself. He had no idea that in all of my time listening to conversations in bars and music halls and record shops across Cuba, he was the first person I had heard use the word that led to my visa. I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it, so I leaned in, wanting to know what that word meant for him.
“What does ‘entrepreneurship’ mean for you?” I asked.
“Opportunitty!” he said. “When the government allowed us to rent rooms in our homes to tourists, we had more money and a better life, and we learned. Of course it is work, but it is our work in our houses and for our families. And now, with the internet, tourists can find us and see our work and chose us. It’s an opportunity to be our own boss.”
He sat back, relaxed as if he had expelled something pent up inside of him and was relieved to have said it. He took a deep breath and sighed in a way I felt was contentment, not my sigh of exaxperation, and then he leaned forward and we began chatting about whatever popped up. He finally asked what most people begin with when meeting someone, as if what someone does for a living tells you who they are as a person. I laughed and told a small lie, that I was a professor or entrepreneurship. I wasn’t a professor. I never completed my PhD, and I was faculty of engineering at The University of San Diego, not entreprensurhsip. But, all of my courses were focused on entrepreneurship and real-world projects rather than wrote memorization or mindlessly applying formulas, and I collaborated with the law school’s patent professors and local venture capitalists to make entrepreneurship the emotional focus of classes. It was my hope, I said, that none of them felt they needed to finish school after taking my class; but, if they did, it was a choice and in their best interest. The professors always hated that, perpetuating their ponzi scheme by pumping more PhD’s into the system and charging them $56,000 per yer in the process. We even had a school of leadership led by people who had never led anyone other than professors vying for tenure, and an entrepreneurship program in the school of business taught by people who needed jobs. I had a lot to say about entrepreneurship, and didn’t want to slow down and define whether I was called a professor, faculty, staff, or just an arrogant person who didn’t understand acadamia and whose students only liked my classes because I did magic tricks and asked them to imagine what was possible and work towards it rather than memorizing and regurgitating technical jargon in order to get a good grade and a job with a boss who probably knew less about leadership than the professors stuck in school. He asked what entrepreneurship meant for me.
“Freedom,” I replied. “It’s always been about freedom for me, never about money. Money buys freedom, but then it traps you and you’re no longer free, you’re addicted to money. If your focus is freedom, money doesn’t matter. Things come more naturally when you feel free.”
“And,” I added, my energy building, like his had when he spoke of things pent up inside, “When I was his age,” I nodded to the boy to let him know I was speaking to both of them, and he stopped playing with the half dollar and stared attentively, “I performed magic for tourists in the streets of New Orleans, and had fun doing it. I didn’t make a lot of money, but it would have been enough to live. My Uncle Bob taught me that if I could do what I loved, I would never need to do anything else. Magic gave me freedom. I went to school and did other things, but I’ve always thought that if I didn’t like what I was doing I could always change and do magic for a living. That made me happier. It probably led to some success. If anything, it taught me how to learn from books.”
He nodded as if that made a lot of sense to him, and sat with silent contemplation. The kid probably didn’t get it, yet, but I hoped I had planted a worthwhile seed. I hadn’t noticed magic books in Cuba Libre, and I felt a surge of nostalgia and newfound appreciation for Uncle Bob buying me the magic books that cost as much as a good bottle of Scotch, like David Roth’s Expert Coin Magic, Paul Harris’s The Art of Astonishment, Kris Kenner’s Totally Out of Control, and The Books of Wonder by Tommy Wonder. I still have all of them, though I had to buy them from an auction when I rebuilt my home library after moving to San Diego. I should have saved mine; they were pricier twenty years later, because of supply and demand. Nowadays, you can use Youtube to learn anything you want, but there’s something magical about a book and focusing on something silently that builds deeper lessons. I think it has to do with using your mind to visualize what the words mean, being able to see a few drawings for help with complex moves, and the quiet focus that comes from intentionally setting aside time to contemplate and learn rather than scrolling to a Youtube with a quick lesson.
The man asked if I was staying in a casa particular. He asked in a way that let me know he wasn’t just chatting idly, and he’d probbly invite me to stay. I even suspected he’d offer to host me as a guest, as happens often when I travel to where there aren’t many American tourists. I paused long enough to consider what I suspected he’d ask, before he asked it. I had planned to check messages and then go to Guantanamo, but this seemed much more fun. I told him I was thinking of staying in Havana a few more days, and he offered for me to stay at his casa, as a guest. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Not even David Copperfield was invited into people’s homes after a show. Incidentally, David, an active member of the IBM and SAM and collector of magic, did well, and he married a super model and bought an island not too far from Cuba, and he was up to $80 Million a year or so for his Las Vegas shows and royalties from TV shows in the 80’s. Not bad for “The Great Davino,” as his childhood business card said. When I’m asked about entrepreneurship, I say it comes in many ways, and can be called many things, like how a casa particular isn’t much different than the original AirBnB’s, named for an air mattress on someone’s living room floor who first advertised on San Francisco’s Craigslist and probably now earns enough to buy an island. I don’t know what to call it when someone offers for you to stay at their home for free, but if magic gave me anything, it was free room and board and interesting friends.
The boy’s eyes lit up and he said we’d do lots of magic, and I wrote down the address and said I’d see them the next day, after I spent my final night in the downtown casa particular. We ordered another round of mocktails and I paid – it was the least I could do – and they thanked me and we kept talking and practicing magic and laughing with the boy. I gave the half to the boy, like the Lone Ranger leaving a silver bullet, and he beamed and told me he’d practice and asked if he could learn more at his casa, and I laughed and said of course and we parted ways. I walked back to downtown and the Plaza de San Francisco de Assi and tried calling Wendy a few more times, but didn’t leave more of the same message. I bought another hour WiFi card, and when I woke up I called again and then walked to the old man’s house and had a wonderful few days of home cooked meals with the boy’s abuella, who taught me how to make her secret mojo sauce, and was worth the entire trip to learn. I promised not to tell a soul.
A few days later I took a private car to the airport. My backpack was lighter, because it’s etiquite to leave climbing shoes and gear with up and coming guides in developing countries, and I had given my bag of thumb tips to the boy so that he could spread the word, just like Muhammed Ali had done, and, after asking his grandfather, I gave him my navaja and alicates. I left my fins with a tourist who also had big feet; I had overheard saying he couldn’t find rental fins that fit well. He was as stoked as the kid receiving a thumb tip.
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