Cuba Libre

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

WJBO radio, June 23rd, 1964; quoted from Walter Sheridan’s “The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa” in 1972.

I was agile and able to quickly move in and out of buses and rental cars because I traveled lightly, with only a carry on backpack and a pair of extra large scuba fins as my personal item on the airplane. I dipped in and out of vintage cars parked along the Havana malecon until I felt like I found a fit for the long ride to Vinales. I’m not a car aficionado and I don’t recall the vehicle other than it was a 1950’s hard top, which I thought would be more enjoyable on a long ride than a convertable, and it had modern speakers with a bluetooth connection. The driver seemed content with life and didn’t ask a lot of questions and we quickly agreed upon a price.

I sat in front and placed my backpack in the back with the fins strapped to compression straps that usually held my Frisbee; my only regret, so far, was not bringing a Frisbee to Cuba. It was, after all, a fun way to discuss entrepreneurship, becasue something as simple as a a couple of Yale college kids tossing around a used Frisbee family pie plate had created a worldwide phenomena. My scuba fins were, to me, much less fun to discuss, because they lead to talking about my big feet.

Of course he asked about my fins, which always attract attention because they’re so big. One of my nicknames since childhood has been “Bigfoot,” and I long ago realized that few rental shops carried size 14 Wide scuba fins or rock climbing shoes, so I traveled with them. The shoes were inside my carry on backpack, but the fins were obvious and attracted attention not just because of their size or the fact that I carried them, but that they were unique looking Force Fins, invented by someone who got their first contract with the U.S. Navy Seals and Rangers, and their short and wide appearance with lack of toe covers was remarkable: they were designed to travel compactly and propel a strong swimmer great distances by not applying force at the toes and keeping the moment arm as close to your ankle as possible, which was useful for someone with disproportionately long feet. I reached back and pulled one forward and put it on my hand and demonstrated the force being closer to my wrist becasue my fingers were free to wiggle.

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. En escuela, mi apado fue Bigfoot, pie grande.”

“Como la monstera? Ha!”

“Si! Ha!” I wiggled the fingers of my disproportionately large hand through the Force Fins and smirked and said, “Y tu sabe lo que dice sobre un hombre con manos y pies grandes, como loa monstera…”

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 had known he would laugh and I still chuckled at how many people saw a different punchline coming. In all the world, people seem to laugh about penises and farts, and it’s nice to have a few jokes about both that can go unsaid, so that you’re not the one saying them. We chatted more on the hour and a half drive, and in that time he eventually admitted that I wasn’t proficient, but much better than most tourists, and I knew a few jokes he could share.

Over the next three weeks my Spanish improved, but when I returned to Havana I asked for the best place to get WiFi service, a habit to keep learning and not assume what you heard from a few people was always true. They listed the same two spots, and I checked messages at Plaza San Francisco de Asis when I could. Cristi hadn’t sensed anything unusually wrong, and 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, and I skipped going to Guantanamo to send another voice mail and wait. I went to the same bar with the same band to have a daquiri, and the same bartender greated me without recognizing me, probably because I had shaved my beard to better fit my scuba mask, and I look about ten years younger without my grey beard. I was glad he didn’t recognize me, because I dind’t feel like small talk that day, especially after almost a month of real conversations, and I just wanted to enjoy the music and mojo sauce and relax without thinking too much.

For the next few days, I checked messages and explored Havana. I had a recent edition of the Lonely Planet’s guide to Cuba and followed its directions to a used bookstore deep in a non touristy part of Havana humorously called Cuba Libre, a pun on being both a book shop and a popular rum cocktail. It was the perfect place to read a Hemmingway novel. I purchased a Spainish copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a book Castro carried with him to Playa de Giron to fight off the invasion, and I tucked the book in my small, packable day backpack I carried inside my larger backpack and walked to Hemmingway’s house, passing by where someone told me the Hotel Havana Cubana had once been. I didn’t learn anything new, but Hemmingway’s home was a fine home and I was glad I saw it.

I sat silently at Hemmingways house and read for a bit, then returned to Cuba Libre and bought a used English copy of The Old Man and The Sea; about 20% of the books in Cuba Libra were English, perhaps as a way for Cubans to learn English. Apparently, the book’s based on a Cuban fisherman in a town just outside of Havana, and I thought to myself that I’d like to go to a fancy tourist area and read The Old Man and The Sea and order Swordfish and watch the small fishing boats come in, like the tourists did in book’s ending. To prepare, I bought a mocktail from the cafe and sat under a shade tree to reread The Old Man and The Sea.

Over the past thirty years, I’ve read Hemmingway in Paris, Barcellona, Ketchum, Key West, and now Havana, like I had read William Faulkner in Louisiana and Mississippi; Herman Hesse, Karl Marx, and Albert Einstein in Germany; Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Mexico City and towns like Macondo; Mark, Luke, John, and Mohummed in Jerusalem and the Sea of Galalie and on a Ramadan pilgramidge across the Red Sea; the Pali Cannon in Nepal and India; the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia; and a bunch of magic books in the Magic Castle’s library. In every instance, I agreed with my history teacher, Mr. Morgan, a short, plump gay man who never left Loiusiana other than, as he told me, “in his mind,” but who had traveled in his mind by reading literature and history from the same periods simultaneously. I had copied that concept, but added being in the geographical location. I can’t tell you what, exactly, I saw differently by reading on site, I believed I benefited from it and felt a sense of happiness knowing that, unlike Mr. Morgan, I had the opportunity to travel the world and that freedom fed the enjoyment I felt from sitting quietly, reading a book and having no where to be any time soon. I smiled, knowing Mr. Morgan would have appreciated that I was choosing to reread books I had half heartedly summarized in high school.

With high school on my mind, I couldn’t focus on reading; ironically, it felt just like high school, when I had so many other things to think about I couldn’t be bothered with school. I closed the book and put it on my table and mindlessly rolled a 1972 Kennedy half dollar across my right fingers; the only reason I remember the date is because I was born in 1972 and used to carry a 1972 half with a small hole to wear as a necklace, practically begging someone to ask me why. After BigFoot and Dolly, when I lost a bit of my awkwardness in high school and gained a reputation as a magician, my nickname was Magik, with a k. Practicing coin tricks in class was the only way I could sit still all those hours. It was as if my body needed to move on its own for my mind to settle.

I was lost in thought and may have been smiling as I thought about high school and how Mr. Morgan would have loved to know I was reading The Old Man and the Sea in Cuba, because I noticed a kid had been looking at me and smiling back with a type of smile that’s returned rather than offered, a result of feeling comfortable around someone. He had obviously watched the half dollar dance across my knuckles. I could imagine him thinking, what’s a gringo doing at Cuba Libre? And how do I learn to do that with a coin?

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, and he had an ineffable positive energy. 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.

I wanted to leave a good impression. I placed the half on my book and slid the book to cover another half dollar that was beside the book and out of his view and also happened to be 1972, 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. I rarely discuss my hand – it’s not a very pretty one – but I make a point of allowing people time to notice the scars before performing a magic trick, so that they aren’t distracted later.

The kid followed my hand, and I’m pretty sure his attentive face was noticing every detail. That’s what I wanted. I reached my scarred 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 was being 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. I was glad he kept smiling, even if it had become a smirk, because I wouldn’t want to upset a man like that.

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 suspectec the tip.

When I first became interested in the Kennedy assassination as a teenager, I wasn’t surprised how all witnesses changed their stories over the years, even the ones who had sworn their memories were accurate. As a magician, it was easy for me to accept that memories are maleable, and people who think they know what’s happening can be the easiest ones to fool.

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.

The old man told his grandson about seeing Telifilo Stevenson, the famous Cuban boxer and winner of several Olympic gold medals, and learning the thump tip trick. 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. Of course he saw the date. 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. 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. I did, however, try to notice which dates were on the coins in view for situations just like that day.

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. If I had wanted to steer the conversation, I would have mentioned that Hillary Clinton broke my finger, which is true: he was the four time state champion 145 pound wrestler in Louisiana, and he broke my finger in our final match two weeks before Big Daddy died. It was two years later before anyone outside of Arkansas had heard of Governor Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, and ever since then one of my favorite jokes was that Hillary Clinton broke my finger. But, I didn’t want to make jokes, I wanted to learn a bit from the old man.

“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 and he knew a lot of celebrities, and Joe Lewis showed up at one of Jimmy Hoffa’s trial in Tennessee for publicity photos, because Hoffa knew a lot of the locals would have been African Americans and Hoffa wanted photos in the press of him with Joe Lewis before the jury was selected. I never heard that Hoffa was racist and have no reason to suspect he was, but he was an intelligent man and knew how important it was to prepare for jury trials in advance, especially knowing that justice wasn’t blind and that he had an FBI task force named after him with no other reason to exist other than sending him to jail. The irony is that that trial, the Test Fleet case, was the one where Big Daddy’s testimony sent Hoffa to prison for trying to bribe a jurer. Of course, I didn’t go into detail about all of that whenever I mentioned that my grandfather boxed and may have known a few famous boxers.

The old man and I chatted about boxing and sports and his ability to spending time with his grandson, who was more interested in books than sports and that was a good thing. 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 Ed Partin’s grandson and as a magician without learning to keep secrets and be wary of strangers asking questions. But, I liked and trusted the man and his grandson, so I told them a partial truth.

“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.

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, and I don’t know how to share everything I knew or suspected or was learning, especially in Spanish. And, to me, 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. I always avoidloud people at parties stating simple opinions and asking narrow questions that are answered by like minded and equally loud people, but I do appreciate an open minded discussion on most topics, including Kennedy and the state of the world and what we could do about it for posterity’s sake. 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. It does not matter who is president. Until we think more about values and less about people nothing will change.”

I agreed, and asked what could be done. He sat back and thought about that while his grandson showed us the French drop again. 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 and following your empty hand with your eyes and hoping anyone watching does, too. He tried it but couldn’t tell if it worked by himself, and he preferred the French drop because it almost fooled him to see it. I smiled and said that’s why I carry a half dollar with me, and why I was happy he’d be able to keep it and practice while I was gone. He beemed, and went back to practicing.

“What you are doing now, that’s how. Sitting, talking, laughing.” He nodded towards his grandson, “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. He says he was under orders from several mafia families to kill Hoffa before Hoffa talked about the Kennedy assassination, but no one honorable I knew ever did something just becasue they were told to, so I’m not sure whether or not I believe him and the evidence is inconclusive. 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 agreed. People forget that every adult in the news or history had children and family. 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. 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, to my surprise. He was probablby lost in his own thoughts, and had no idea that in all of my time in Cuba, listening to conversations in bars and music halls and record shops, he was the first person I had heard use the word on my visa. I leaned in, wanting to know what that word meant for him, an old man in a communist country who had experienced the country before and after the revolution, and whose first job had been for Castro, teaching old farmers to read and write, and who was now an old man in a used bookstore with his grandson. His story was much more interesting than mine. I had long since acknowledged the privledge of being born a white male in America, regardless of who your family was, and I was ceaslessly inspired by people who thrived in less auspicious situations.

“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.”

I tend to adapt to people’s ways of speaking when I’m in their country, so I probably sounded like the old man.

“And,” I added, “When I was his age,” I nodded to the boy to let him know I was speaking to both of them, “I performed magic for tourists in the streets of New Orleans, and I had fun doing it. 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.”

He nodded as if that made a lot of sense to him, and sat with silent contemplation.

I could have gone on and on. Eric Weiss, the famous immigrant escape artist known as Houdini, said his brain was the key that set him free, and when I was the kid’s age every one of the magicians in the local magic club, the Baton Rouge Pike Purden Honorary Ring #178 of the The International Brotherhood of Magicians, had encouraged me to apply myself like Houdini had; they had also stepped up when Uncle Bob died adn then Big Daddy and then I was on my own and making choices about earning my livlihood. Our club was lucky and had high profile members, and I had grown up meeting people like Gene Anderson, who was known more by his side gig as a corporate speaker and inventor of tricks, like the ones Doug Henning used to perform on television, than as a LSU faculty of engineering and Vice President of Dow Chemicals in Baton Rouge; John Rachabaumer, a legendary card master who lived in New Orleans; Harry Anderson, the magican and actor from Night Court, who would marry a girl from Meterie and open a bar in New Orleans; and David Copperfield, who would visit John when in town and made $33 Million a year and married a super model and bought an island not to far from Cuba, and whoes twin female assistants, coincidentally, had graduated from a Baton Rouge high school a few years before me; their local fame probably spurred people like me getting into magic. By 1989, I was kind of a big deal in the magic community. A year before, I had won the state junior magician contest, narrowly beating out the other contender who was also named Jason, aka, “The Card Guy.” I was Jason, aka “Magic Ian,” a play on my middle name that, to me, was funny because it looked like magician. But, as Uncle Bob had asked as I sat beside his bed during his final few weeks, was I willing to put forth the work to be as good as David Copperfield? No. Nothing motivated me as strongly as things seemed to drive other people. It was as if I was motivaetd by not being driven by anything. But, I still enjoyed magic as a side gig, and I knew that if ever grew tired of working I could rely on magic to get by while having fun. Even though I couldn’t make $33 Million and marry a super model, I could earn a decent livelihood with magic and I was happy with Cristi, and I could fly to a carribbean island without owning it. But, I didn’t go on and on to the old man. Instead, I let him sit silently and ponder whatever he was pondering. To me, the bigger picture concept was just as magical: to envision what you want and pursue it while having as much fun as possible.

He 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.

The boy was stoked that I’d visit, 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, and we ordered a few mocktails and I paid and they thanked me and we kept talking and practicing magic and laughing with the boy. It was as if his youthful energy prevented us from discussing too many serious things for too long. I felt a familiar feeling, one I get some times, and for a brief moment I regreted not having had biologic children. Almost immediately, I realized that moment was possible because of my choices in life, and it was a perfect moment. I was raised by the combined efforts of several men, most of whom never had biologic children but had time when other role models did not, and it’s rewarding to pay their efforts forward when I have the time and energy, like I did that day.

We parted ways soon after and 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.

Staying there was much more conduscive to world peace than reading books by myself, and probably more useful to my happiness than standing on the edge of Guantamano Bay. I’m sure I laughed more with the old man and his grandson than I would have with the American guards watching over a few prisoners or worrying about Wendy.

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 and I had overheard him saying he couldn’t find rental fins that fit well.

I partially filled my depleated backpack with a copy of The Old Man and The Sea and a small, wooden, handmade music knocker, a simple hollow tube with a stick that I had seen people jamming with in the streets and bars of Vinales. And, I couldn’t resist: I had stumbled upon someone selling used vinyl albums off a small side street near a quiet plaza, and I bought a used copy of a Buena Vista Soical Club album that was older than I was but had sounded acceptable on the vendor’s small record player. I never found where Cima Funk had played and hadn’t stumbled across any other new music that spoke to me, and after hearing The Buena Vista Social Club in practically every tourist oriented bar I was surprised that I grew to appreciate them so much, perhaps because it’s a fine metaphor to find vinyl albums scratched and worn and older than I was but still working. I strapped to my backpack where I’d usually carry fins or a Frisbee. I borded the plane and we departed without incident.

I transfered planes in Fort Lauderdale and started a leg home that would stop in Houston. A few hours later, I looked out the airplane window and saw the Mississippi River flowing past New Orleans and spreading a massive, brown fan into the Gulf of Mexico. I was surprised to realize that in all the flying I’ve done, this was the first time I had flown over southern Louisiana in the daytime and had been able to look down on where I grew up. The Crescent City of New Orleans was obvious, and so was the rembrents of the old Mississippi River that had whipped 18 miles across the delta in the 1916 Missouri earthquake; living among California’s plentiful earthquakes, it always stuck in my mind that one of the biggest faults in America is the Mississippi valey, another fact that sinks deeper when you’ve been there.

Less obvious than New Orleans was the small port of Baton Rouge an hour upriver, and even less noticeable was the tiny bend near Saint Francisville, site of a famous civil war steamship battle as northern forces navigated past New Orleans and Baton Rouge to the plantation country where Wendy now lived, only a few miles from the longest battle of the entire civil war in Fort Pickens, between Saint Francisville and Baton Rouge. I had a similar feeling, that few Americans appreciate war because only a few of us in the south grew up where war had happened, and of course my mind thought of Wendy Anne Rothdram and her jokes. Saint Francisville and Baton Rouge had seemed far apart to me back then, but thirty years later and from 30,000 feet in the sky, they were barely a pinky finger distance apart, and within a minute or two they were out of sight.

I sighed, recalling Mamma Jean and Big Daddy and all of my family that had died down there, and then I shuddered and had that same, sudden, terrifying feeling that Wendy could commit suicide. Perhaps it was the view of Baton Rouge and my memory of my many cousins who had committed suicide in the 1990’s, beginning soon after Big Daddy died, when we all began entering our early 20’s and mental illness manifests, especially sciphrenia. That’s how Mamma Jean’s 1996 letter began, a conversation about our family’s mental health, because she was seeing signs in some of us and wanted to tell us that we weren’t crazy. Or, at least, we weren’t crazy because we imagined that FBI agents followed us and mafia hitmen tried to kill us. We had long since realized the irony that the FBI told us we were scizophrenic, not doctors, but the parts that most people would say sounded crazy was, in fact, truth, though often muddled with accidents typical of families living near chemical plants, like explosions and industrial accidents that kept us wondering. It’s no wonder Wendy rarely talked about it.

One of the bits of trivia I know by heart is that the final bill President Kennedy signed into law was the 1963 Community Healthcare Act, signed three weeks before Kennedy was, allegedly and ironically, shot and killed by a veteran with a lifetime history of mental illness, who was then shot and killed by another veteran with a lifetime history of mental illness. Kennedy’s speech about the bill is often overlooked, probably because his death a couple of weeks later dominated the news, and most people focused on things like his speeches to put men on the moon or explain the Bay of Pigs, or his alleged affair with Marylin Monroe, but he said that mental illness was a root cause of all of our country’s problems, not unlike what pshycologits and spiritual leaders have been saying for generations, and the bill had a plan that would begin by building 1,500 outpatient mental health clinics in communities across America. But, like many hyped acts and laws, the intentions are rarely followed through, and over time politicians shifted budgets away from mental healthcare and towards military, police and prisons, and since Kennedy’s time there has been decrease in mental illness patients that is occassionally celebrated as a success, but not if you consider that it came with a 1:1 correlation to an increase in prisoners with mental illness. Today’s estimates are that more than 80% of prisoners exhibit mental illness, and just as many return to prison because of a lack of healthcare outside, and the cycle continues. Healthcare leaders continously raise alarms that we are paying for mental illness, though not mental healthcare, and that prisons have replaced hospitals as our mental institutions.

Wendy’s jokes about being warped had just enough truth to them that I felt worried, and though I don’t undestand how my mind works, I know it focuses on ideas even when I don’t want it to, and I spent almost half of the flight to San Diego lost in thoughts of the past, rereading a few files on my phone, and planning a trip to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The idea of returning to my home town began to take hold, and I steered my thoughts towards the upcoming spring festival season and the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Fest for All in Baton Rouge, and Festival International in Lafayette. I put in my ear buds and made a quick playlist of bands like Galactic, Trombone Shorty, Dr. John, The Meters, and a few lesser known bands I enjoy, and leaned into the idea of enjoying Louisiana like I had enjoyed Cuba, with an alterior motive of seeing Wendy in person. I don’t understand my mind, but I know that it’s like breathing, that usually it operates by itself but that I can take control if I focus, and I focused on the music and food I loved in Louisiana until that became what my mind did automatically, and the despite lingering worry and a cramped seat, the second half of my flight was surprisingly pleasant, thankfully.

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