“Partin was a big tough-looking man with an extensive criminal record as a youth. Hoffa misjudged the man and thought that because he was big and tough and had a criminal record and was out on bail and was from Louisiana, the home states of Carlos Marcello, the man must have been a guy who paints houses.”Charles Brant and Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran in 2014’s“I Heard You Paint Houses,” a reference to a hitman who paints the walls of a house red with splattered blood.
Satisfied that I had done all I could do, I sent an gmail telling two thirty-something American reporters that I had arrived and the address of the casa particular where I would be staying. I doubted they’d have a reason to contact me before we met in the tobacco farming valley of Vinales, where they were beginning a three week trip reporting on burgeoning eco and adventure sports in Cuba. I had international cell, of course, but reception was spotty in Havana and I was relying on scarce public WiFi. We’d be climbing the limestone cliffs around Vinales, and etiquette dictated communicating before necessary, to touch base. I sent a WhatsApp to an alleged climbing guide, a reticent young dude of Spanish decent whose father was a farmer in Vinales, with a similar message, though omitting the address of my casa.
As a side gig in San Diego, I led day long rock climbing trips to Mission Gorge, Tahquitz, and Joshua Tree; and succinct mountaineering expeditions in areas like the California Palisades and Nepali Himalayas. I didn’t make much money, but saved on gym memberships, and I enjoy leading small teams over remote mountains without communications. I was attached to Front Range Climbing out of Fort Collins, Colorado, near The Garden of the Gods, and I was able to write off plane tickets and climbing gear for each year’s taxes, so my hobby paid for itself. Front Range covered my liability insurance and secured permits for wilderness areas without me having to deal with bureaucracy.
My time in Cuba was off the books. Rock climbing wasn’t legal in Cuba yet, because Fidel’s national healthcare scheme shunned unnecessary risks. If someone fell climbing as a sport, they could be jailed for wasting collective resources and add insult to injury. If that sounds harsh, please remember that a few hours from where I was checking voice mail, in Guantanamo Bay, there were dozens of American prisoners in an American base still on Cuban soil and therefore not under our constitution that claimed inalienable rights to all people, and those prisoners had been held for fifteen years without a lawyer or trial and had been tortured under orders from the U.S. Government. Jesus said something about not judging others for the splinter in their eye when you had a ton of timber blinding yours, and I tried to not judge other country’s jail policies. The U.S. incarcerated 2.7 million people, almost 1 out of every 120 men, women, and children, and most of our prisoners suffered from mental illness, a consequence of shifting funding from Kennedy’s final bill signed into law, three weeks before he was shot and killed by a mentally ill person or people, The 1962 Community Healthcare Act, away from the proposed 1,500 mental healthcare clinics and towards more law enforcement: the decline of mental patients and increase in prisoners has been 1:1 since. I read we imprison more people than all of our nemisis, like Iran, Russia, North Korea, and a slew of countries I can’t recall combined. And we tortured them in Guantanamo. Anyone who thinks waterboarding isn’t torture should try it for a while and then ponder the Golden Rule. I had been through simulated torture, and by simulated I mean I knew it would end within two weeks. Even if we disagreed about waterboarding, I’m sure most mentally stable people wouldn’t volunteer for it like I had. SERE school simulates it decently, though without the fear of never ending, but may not be for everyone and therefore it’s difficult to empathize with a bunch of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. I excelled at Survival and Evasion after growing up growing weed with my dad, and Resistance wasn’t hard after training under Coach Ketelsen and wrestling Hillary Clinton, and Escape was a snap for anyone who had read what Houdini wrote and gotten advice from James “The Amazing” Randy. I promise you that being water boarded isn’t as fun as rock climbing, but climbing is less safe, and I took a calculated risk climbing by in Cuba. I didn’t know what local police would to an American prisoner sporting a military tattoo, but I didn’t want to find out.
I knew climbing wasn’t a big deal and Cuba welcomed our greenbacks, but I was an American, and Americans are often arrested for minor crimes because it’s possible due to seemingly senseless laws, not unlike American federal marijuana laws are mostly ignored nowadays unless a federal agent wants to find a reason to arrest someone; or that silly tag on your mattress that says “do not remove, under penalty of law.” Raul Castro was in charge of Cuba, but I didn’t know him and didn’t know how resentful anyone overhearing what I said felt about Guantanamo, The Bay of Pigs, or the CIA allegedly killing Cuba’s adopted son, El Che Guevara. Last but not least, Latin America’s lingering resentment from the 82nd Airborne, the All Americans, America’s Guard of Honor, the president’s quick reaction force of paratroopers, able to react to any president for thirty days without congressional approval (that still terifys me with some presidents, especially because I don’t understand how a nuclear missile is launched), and our history of invading Latin American countries: The Dominican Republic in 1979, Honduras in 1982, Grenada in 1985, and Panama in 1989. Plus, many covert operations, most notably the early 1980’s CIA mining of civilian ports in Nicaragua, and the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra affair that routed money from selling weapons to Iran to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua. I was a veteran of the late summer of 1993 deployment to Haiti, and though never landed and only circled, everyone knew that President George Bush Sr. had authorized our team to parachute in and kill all unarmed Hatian civilians within blood splattering distance of any American in the embassy, about 15 meters or so, because the CIA reported that approximately 75% of Haitians had HIV, still a new and misunderstood disease back then, and a few thousand of us were okay with that; I can see how people in Haiti may have a different perspective. There could be lingering resentment against death from above, a slogan of American airborne troops worn on t-shirts of people who typically advocate the 2nd Ammendment, and are often not fond of brown people from other countries. And, of course, there’s the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, where Kennedy tried to overthrow Castro, and the decade of CIA assassination attempts after the invasion failed. I’d be foolish to believe there wasn’t lingering resentment about the past. If I fell climbing in Vinales, I wouldn’t want to add insult to injury and be jailed for trumped up hospital bills and create an international incident, especially with Airborne wings tattooed on my left inner bicep that I usually covered with a short sleeve shirt, and the words I added in lieu of “Airborne,” words I saw cut into stone and arched above an abandoned Latin American cemetery, “La Muerte es Inevitable,” which could sound like a taunt or invitation if I fell into the wrong hands.
I had international travel insurance, per my visa requirements, but healthcare costs can be exaggerated. Even in America, or maybe especially in America, a simple ankle fracture treatment can vary more than $150,000 from city to city. No one I knew understood healthcare costs, and I hadn’t researched Cuba’s policies. I’m not prone to worry, but I try not to be naive. I was discrete in my emails. You never know who’s listening. I know that can sound crazy, paranoid, or schizophrenic, but it happens to be true, and I’d rather be safe than sorry on my vacation. I’ve always felt that way, and you could think of it as a lesson learned from Big Daddy, who was meticulous about what he said and who could be listening, because even your so-called friends can have ulterior motives. Just ask Hoffa, who had trusted Big Daddy implicitly, and when Bobby Kennedy’s surprise witness stood up, Hoffa lowered his head and said, “Damn. It’s Partin.” I’m sure Hoffa had a few thoughts on watching what you said around anyone, even your trusted inner circle. To be safe, I doubled my insurance and watched what I said or wrote.
One of the quirkiest coincidences about my family is that after 9/11, the Bush Jr. administration cited my grandfather’s testimony in 1966’s Hoffa vs The United States, and Big Daddy’s testimony was part of the foundation built by federal lawyers to justify monitoring cell phone messages of millions of Americans without warrants. The marketing team brilliantly called their work The Patriot Act. The gist is that Big Daddy’s testimony sent Hoffa to prison, and Hoffa’s team of lawyers fought the testimony based on destroying my grandfather’s character and challenging the government using a walking “bugging device” with no specific goal other than to sniff around and report anything he whiffed that could be used against Hoffa. The supreme court only sees a handful of cases from dozens of thousands submitted, and at the time it was rare to have a walking bug used to send someone to jail, and since then it was the predicate for many wire tapping cases against mobsters and CEO’s and other high profile people. Decades later, after cell phones and computers and scrubbing software were ubiquitous, Bush’s lawyers locked on to those predicate cases, and The Patriot Act passed and monitored hundreds of millions of cell phones without a warrant with software seeking out words, texts, or phrases of interest, and somehow was used to lock up people in Guantanamo Bay for fifteen years, ironically without a lawyer or phone call. Most of the prisoners were still there when I arrived, a couple of hours east of Havana, but not on American soil and therefore, according to another court decision, not applicable to the American Miranda Rights.
Chief Justice Earl Warren, a 40 year veteran of landmark cases like Roe vs Wade, Brown vs The Board of Education, the case that gave us Miranda Rights, and the author of the flawed 1964 Warren Report about Kennedy’s assassination, was the only dissenting Supreme Judge in Hoffa vs The United States. He had a thing or two to say about Big Daddy’s testimony, for posterity to ponder, and I’m Big Daddy’s posterity and had pondered it quite a bit.
“Here, Edward Partin, a jailbird languishing in a Louisiana jail under indictments for such state and federal crimes as embezzlement, kidnapping, and manslaughter (and soon to be charged with perjury and assault), contacted federal authorities and told them he was willing to become, and would be useful as, an informer against Hoffa, who was then about to be tried in the Test Fleet case. A motive for his doing this is immediately apparent — namely, his strong desire to work his way out of jail and out of his various legal entanglements with the State and Federal Governments. And it is interesting to note that, if this was his motive, he has been uniquely successful in satisfying it. In the four years since he first volunteered to be an informer against Hoffa he has not been prosecuted on any of the serious federal charges for which he was at that time jailed, and the state charges have apparently vanished into thin air. Shortly after Partin made contact with the federal authorities and told them of his position in the Baton Rouge Local of the Teamsters Union and of his acquaintance with Hoffa, his bail was suddenly reduced from $50,000 to $5,000 and he was released from jail. He immediately telephoned Hoffa, who was then in New Jersey, and, by collaborating with a state law enforcement official, surreptitiously made a tape recording of the conversation. A copy of the recording was furnished to federal authorities. Again on a pretext of wanting to talk with Hoffa regarding Partin’s legal difficulties, Partin telephoned Hoffa a few weeks later and succeeded in making a date to meet in Nashville, where Hoffa and his attorneys were then preparing for the Test Fleet trial. Unknown to Hoffa, this call was also recorded, and again federal authorities were informed as to the details.“
Warren’s missive was lengthy, even for a missive, and a few paragraphs later he mentioned Mamma Jean and began to wrap up; he obviously had a big bug up his ass and wanted to let it out.
“Pursuant to the general instructions he received from federal authorities to report “any attempts at witness intimidation or tampering with the jury,” “anything illegal,” or even “anything of interest,” Partin became the equivalent of a bugging device which moved with Hoffa wherever he went. Everything Partin saw or heard was reported to federal authorities, and much of it was ultimately the subject matter of his testimony in this case. For his services, he was well paid by the Government, both through devious and secret support payments to his wife and, it may be inferred, by executed promises not to pursue the indictments under which he was charged at the time he became an informer.
This type of informer and the uses to which he was put in this case evidence a serious potential for undermining the integrity of the truthfinding process in the federal courts. Given the incentives and background of Partin, no conviction should be allowed to stand when based heavily on his testimony. And that is exactly the quicksand upon which these convictions rest, because, without Partin, who was the principal government witness, there would probably have been no convictions here. Thus, although petitioners make their main arguments on constitutional grounds and raise serious Fourth and Sixth Amendment questions, it should not even be necessary for the Court to reach those questions. For the affront to the quality and fairness of federal law enforcement which this case presents is sufficient to require an exercise of our supervisory powers. As we said in ordering a new trial in Mesarosh v. United States, 352 U. S. 1, 352 U. S. 14 (1956), a federal case involving the testimony of an unsavory informer who, the Government admitted, had committed perjury in other cases:
This is a federal criminal case, and this Court has supervisory jurisdiction over the proceedings of the federal courts. If it has any duty to perform in this regard, it is to see that the waters of justice are not polluted. Pollution having taken place here, the condition should be remedied at the earliest opportunity.”
I don’t know if the waters of justice are still polluted, nor do I know what Warren would have to say about The Patriot Act, especially because Warren also championed the1940’s unjust imprisonment and detention of 250,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans in detention west coast camps shockingly similar to Hitler’s concentration camps, like Manzanita, just off Highway 395 on the way to the Sierra Nevada Palisades, where Mr. Miagi’s wife and baby died while he was fighting Germans for America. I’m not a politician, historian, or lawyer, but, I’m pretty sure that no one in any country and of any nationality was worried about me working with illegal Cuban rock climbing guides in 2019. I was cautious because I didn’t want to be proven wrong; you can’t pay attention to my family history and believe no one’s listening or won’t nail you to a cross for a minor infarction. Just ask Hoffa, who slipped one word too many to Big Daddy, or my dad, who went to federal prison for a handful of shake that’s now legal in most of America. I don’t take unnecessary or uncalculated risks.
My Wifi ended and I was tired and worried and sore from the flight, so I straddled my backpack on both shoulders and limped across the Plaza San Francisco de Asis towards a small bar and grill. It had double doors wide open so that live music flowed out of the bar and across the plaza, and the open doors attracted my attention more than the other venues circling the square plaza. I’m slightly claustrophobic, and after a long flight I always felt cooped up and about to burst from pent up energy. I needed to move my body and stand up for a while to settle my mind. The double wide doors seemed like an acceptable compromise between being outdoors and wanting food and a drink.
Sitting is one of the worst thing anyone can do for their body. At least five randomized, double blinded clinical trials with and a meta analysis of more than 850,000 people followed over fifteen years by independent research teams says so. I walked into a bar so that I wouldn’t become a statistic. As for why sitting is risky: a right angle bend increases lumbar disc pressure 120% due to muscles yanking on your spinous process to maintain static equilibrium, and seat pressure against the back of your thighs restricts blood flow, which relies on pumping action from muscle movement to deliver oxygen and remove toxins. Your disc isn’t inervated, it receives nutrients and expels nutrients via osmosis, and by the end of a day sitting, your disc squishes out all its juice and receives no nourishment. Over time, you’re at risk for herniation and cracked outer annulus, where the nerves are, and that hurts. In all history, we’ve never seen evidence of a degenerated disc healing. That sucks, and because of the arrow of time it’s too late to change anything by the time you feel the cracked annulus, and from that point on you choose between living with pain, lifestyle changes, or risky surgeries with unideal success rates.
When you sit, your lethargic circulatory system doesn’t bring as much oxygen to your brain, and your body stores calories as the unhealthy kind of fat rather than burning them to stabilize the spine and legs and strengthen the balancing muscles. Truck drivers are one of the number one suffers of back pain and diabetes, because they sit and the seats vibrate and increase disc pressures with every bump, followed closely by nurse’s aides, who work on their feet but bend their backs to reach over gernies to move patients or change bedsheets, restricted from bending at the knees because of the gernies and sending huge spikes of forces through their lower back every time. Office workers are next, though I don’t know why they don’t just get up and move around ever twenty minutes or so, or use a standing desk, like Hemmingway did later in life. I’m unsure what happens to the toxins that build up in our legs while sitting, but sitting for long periods each day has overwhelmingly been shown to, statistically, drastically increase the chances back pain, diabetes, and, not surprisingly, obesity. Anyone who’s sat crammed between strangers on a long airplane ride sees that.
Some people notice the sluggishness in their minds, and do something about it. Hemmingway, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Jefferson noticed, and all began using standing desks. Jefferson designed and patented one around the time our country was founded, and his prototype is in his Monticello museum; he was one of the founding fathers who incorporated rewarding inventors with patents into the American constitution, hoping to spark innovation by working with individual selfish desires instead of against them. The Buddha talked about the cause and effect of sitting on mental clarity, something he realized simply by observing his mind over time, which is part of why he suggested sitting with crossed legs, which shifts hip angles to allow more flexibility, and removes pressure from the backs of thighs, and is much more relaxing for your back and mind in the long term. I was getting better at sitting cross legged, but felt it was easier to seek out a standup bar than one with floor mats instead of chairs.
Big Daddy, incidentally, was released from prison six years early, 1986 instead of 1992, for declining health due to diabetes and an undisclosed heart condition. He never drove a truck, because he was a Teamster president and not a Teamster, and he was always in motion, dumping bodies and such. But, he sat in jail for six years, and when I saw him in 1986 he was a deflated shell of his former self. By his 1990 funeral, it was hard to imagine the man he used to be. I was lucky to learn that lesson early in life before all the research papers began being published about the long term consequences of sitting; it’s today’s smoking, they say, but few people have ever listened to them.
Maybe I was just grumpy after a long series of flights, squished between different groups of big, chatty people on each leg, and I almost leaped from the plane before we rolled to a stop. Because I only had one carry on bag, I was able to find a driver with a convertible and rush downtown in time for happy hour, planning ahead and hoping to relax far away from chatty tourists. I thought my irritability could be what led me to worrying about Wendy. I try to laugh it off, but my mind was stuck. If anything would help, it would be live music and a Hemmingway dacquiri on my first day in Havana. I was Wendy’s son, after all. I took a deep breath and shook my head to knock loose the tentacles of dendrites in my brain clinging to the past, exhaled, and approached the bar.
The cozy bar was about the size of a living room in a wealthy home, filled to about 30% capacity, maybe a dozen people or so in groups of no more than three. It was the type of bar I imagined was for intimacy among a few friends rather than happy hour gathering of coworkers. It had a standup bar that called my name, and about a dozen rustic wooden tables with six or so seats each generously spaced apart. A six man band was standing between the bar and the open doors and were loud but good. They were young, dark skinned Cubans of probable Creole desent, and had a scuffed wooden stand up bass, relatively new congo drum set, three dented and tarnished brass horns, and an unremarkable acoustic six string guitar. There wasn’t a slide trombone, but that can be a good thing in a small bar. Each was talented, and they knew how to play in a small venue, putting less emphasis on the horns and more on the guitar and bass. The horns were pointed outside, sirens beckoning people to come inside, and it had worked on me. Standing by the band, I heard the bar calling.
I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, straightened my posture, and strolled inside, leaving a puddle of worries that oozed down the slanted cobblestone street of Plaza de San Francisco de Asi and flowed away from the bar, towards the malecon and its long que of 1950’s convertibles for hire, reaching the ocean and dripping into the crashing waves that were barely audible when I was first heard Wendy’s voice mail, gently welcoming me to Cuba and whispering that it was time to relax and go with the flow. I don’t think that way, but it sounds good to say. My earbuds had blocked the waves, but I heard them again when I hung up the phone, and I felt I was finally on vacation.
Happy hour was just beginning, and small bands were beginning to play to entice people inside after work. I walked past the band and stood at the bar a few feet from the young trumpet player farthest from the doors and rested a foot on the brass rail below the bar, which, a long time ago, people intuitively realized changes spinal loads beneficially, and the muscles from balancing pump blood up from your feet to get oxygen and keep your mind alert, especially if you alternate feet every now and then. I have big feet, so there’s a lot of blood down there that pools and makes my brain stagnant if I didn’t move around a bit now and then. I’m no buddha, but I noticed that even before I had so much scar tissue, back when I left the military and still had most of my cartilage, when I began studying engineering as a young man. The good old days.
Only about half the people were focused on the band, but even those chatting or laughing moved their bodies to the beat, channeling the band’s vibes or vice versa. Good music is a collaborative experience, and the vibe was right and it was the perfect time for me to start happy hour, before the crowds arrived after work. But, I caught myself sighing again. My mind had drifted back to Wendy and my aching back, and my posture had slouched. I realized I wasn’t helping the room’s energy. Drastic measures would be necessary.
I straightened myself and kept an eye up for the young light skinned bartender to notice. He saw me and began walking over. He had a wide smile and was wearing a casual Cuban styled button up short sleeve shirt, and sported a haircut that required a bit of extra effort every day before work and probably spoke softly to his female clientele. He was calm and confident, and leaned forward and said something I didn’t understand because of the band, but I assumed and shouted that I’d like a Hemingway daquiri and whatever seafood tapas were on special. I rotated my head to listen to what he said, but I couldn’t make out the words. I smiled enthusiastically at whatever he said and gave a “thumbs up” and he smiled back, patted the counter to say he understood, and went to work.
He brought out the daquiri a few minutes later, but the food from the kitchen took about a song and a half longer. I sipped the drink on an empty stomach while I waited, and the placebo effect loosed my mind before the alcohol seeped into my brain. When it did, I finally began to unwind, and I sighed a good type of sigh, not intentional, like when I decided to walk in, but the type of sigh that begins as a feeling of contentment and oozes out through your lips without thought. The music sounded brighter, my thoughts had subsided, and my body joined the party.
I moved to the beat while inspecting what the bartender had delivered. The daily special was “calamar a la parilla,” grilled squid, cooked longer than ideal and toughened. I wasn’t complaining, I just liked nuances of seafood and was trying to enjoy myself, and I build up ideals that can rarely be met. It was fine calamar a la parilla for anyone who didn’t know otherwise. My eyes lit up, though, when I dipped a slice of squid in the side of mojo sauce, the first time I had ever had it. It was packed with roasted garlic and a tang from what was probably freshly squeezed orange juice, with just enough heat to, as Chef Paul Prudhome of Commander’s Palace fame said, “wake up the taste buds.” I sliced the next bite of squid thinly and spread the creamy mojo on thickly to add some squish and compensate for tough calamar. I savored the next bite; the creamy mojo balanced the chewy better than I could have planned. Sometimes, rolling the dice pays off. I sighed again.
The Hemingway daquiri was strong and good and I ordered another. I sipped it gently to lower the liquid in the steeply angled margarita glass, one like Uncle Bob’s martini glasses that Auntie Lo would spill when she got sloshed, and held it stable while I stretched and ostensibly danced to the band’s groove. After a few sips from my glass, dancing seemed easier, and Cuban Funk seems to be made to move Even the private driver I had hired to take me from the airport had tapped his fingers on his steering wheel as we cruised into town with Buena Vista Social Club blaring on his upgraded Bluetooth stereo. All around town, it seemed, people tapped their fingers to the beat of whatever music was nearby, and people in the bar did the same while chatting with each other or focusing on the band and moving whatever part of their body wasn’t stuck to their chair.
Of course I had heard of the Buena Vista Social Club, if only because of the film, but there was more music worth discovering and I was anxious to listen to bands I hadn’t heard yet. I had a few ideas to prime the pump, because I’ve seen Cuba’s Cima Funk play with New Orleans’s Dumpstaphunk, with a ph, maybe because of their base. They were all at Tipatinas, an old fruit stand turned hip music venue near the river’s Irish Chanel, with Trombone Shorty, two of the Neville brothers, and a few members of Galactic. Shorty hosted fund raisers there, and celebrities like Santana, Lenny Kravitz, and Kos Def sometimes drifted in cognito, and Galactic had recently purchased Tipatina’ to invite up and coming musicians to share the stage. Everyone was enthusiastic about the Afro-Cuban music scene, which is like the Pope saying he digs another preacher’s sermon. A seed was planted in my mind at a late night show after a couple of local beers, and a week later I saw a few other Cuban and Carribbean bands two hours away, at Lafayette’s Festival International, and the seed sprouted. I saw a news blurb about the Obama entrepreneurship loophole, and the sprout skyrocketed. I requested a visa and was approved, and a year later the tree bore fruit and I was standing in Havana savoring a Hemmingway dacquiri. It was meant to be; Cristi called it synchronicity.
I only remembered that Big Daddy had been in Cuba because, coincidentally, Martin Scorcese had cast actors for his film about Jimmy Hoffa and the mafia, The Irishman, set to be released in the summer of 2019. It was based in Frank Sheron’s memoir, another Teamster leader who knew Big Daddy, and set around the time I was born. Scorcese had raised more than a quarter of a billion dollars – that’s billion, with a B – from investors to recruit the most well known actors who would help sell the most tickets, at a time when they planned to release in theaters and then score a lucrative Netflix streaming contract. They hired old Scorcese standbys from decades of mafia films, like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Ramano, and a host of other Goodfellas and Godfathers. Craig Vincent would portray Big Daddy. He had starred in Casino as a big brute in a cowboy hat that got slapped around by the diminutive Joe Pesci, who was based on Hoffa’s squat little stepson and mafia runner, Chuckie O’Brien, a guy known to pounce on anyone threatening Hoffa, literally leaping over benches in a courtroom and tackling a would-be assassin and pistol whipping they guy with the his own gun before court security could intervene, all while Big Daddy sat calmly, reporting what he saw to the FBI and waiting to testify against Hoffa. It was that type of film.
Craig had tried to master Big Daddy’s southern drawl, but couldn’t, even with Youtube clips available to hear it, and Scorcese modified Big Daddy’s backstory to fit the accent. Craig played “Big Eddie” Partin, Hoffa’s bruiser bodyguard with a New Jersey Italian accent. I had missed Craig’s call the first time, because I was on sabatical in Nepal and India, and I didn’t speak to him until after filming, when his parts were being whittled down and scenes with him and a lot of other characters were trimmed to fit the film’s too long, unedited version that would be released much shorter, though still at a whopping 209 minutes.
Instead of focusing on the accent, Craig told me he called Uncle Keith and Aunt Janice to ask out Big Daddy’s personality traits, hoping to tap into what made him so charming, not just the accent, but any mannerism that would differentiate him from all other big, handsome men with southern drawls. They were easy to find: Keith was president of Local #5, and Janice was on a family tree website as a contact for Partins. Craig asked a simple question that no one ever calling us over the years had asked before: what were his characteristics and nuances that allowed him to fool Hoffa, Hoover, Nixon, the Kennedy’s, and Audie Murphy? They had a few ideas, but no one knows for sure. I thought I did, but I didn’t know how to explain it to Craig, who had finished filming but was still curious, so I simply quoted Mamma Jean as saying the devil can quote scripture. As a former Catholic with his own ties to the mob, Craig got it. I didn’t mentioned the part about The Buddha having blue eyes, and something as simple as remarkable eyes seems to make people worship you, and I didn’t get into Mamma Jean’s unformed thoughts about the ten commandments, wondering if “thou shall not worship other gods” was misinterpreted, miswritten, or mistranslated, and was meant to not worship any human like a god, not Hoffa or Kennedy or Obama or Trump, and definitely not Big Daddy. All of that would have taken longer than Craig and I had to chat, and I was unprepared because I hadn’t coaxed out those memories in more than twenty years.
As soon I hung up with Craig, I began reflecting on Mamma Jean and my cousin, Tiffany, which led me to find Mamma Jean’s old hadnwritten letter to us and save a copy to my phone to reread in Havana, looking for clues. That’s what I had planned to as soon as I landed, when Havana was no longer just an idea. I’ve always learned more by reading something where it’s set, like Cervantes in Barcelona, Faulkner in New Orleans, The New Testament in Jerusalem, the Pali Cannon in Varnasi, and Mamma Jean’s letter in Baton Rouge and Havana. She was the wife mentioned by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the one who received “devious and secret support payments to his wife,” and I’ve always wondered how the Chief Justice overseeing one of only a handful of supreme court cases each year wouldn’t know the details about Mamma Jean, much less why he was the only one to taste the polluted waters of justice and spit it out as a warning to others. It’s no wonder he made mistakes in the Warren Report after only ten months of research from the Warren committee and negligible help from J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men in black.
Mamma Jean, who was Norma Jean Partin, like the actress Marylin Monroe’s real name, had fled Big Daddy immediately after Kennedy was shot in the back of his convertible on November 22nd, 1963, and scattered their five children among her family’s remote hunting and fishing camps throughout Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi; but Walter and the Get Hoffa squad wanted to protect their key witness’s reputation, so they found Mamma Jean – they were the FBI, after all – and Bobby Kennedy arranged for her to own a fine home in an upper middle class suburb of Houston, close enough to her family for her to be happy, and far enough across the state line from Big Daddy’s Baton Rouge Teamsters for her to feel safe. I never learned how, but the federal government found a way to pay her a monthly living stipend beyond the $1,300 in travel expenses for her testimony. She used the money as a safety net, a way to put food and clothes on her five young children, and to pay for their healthcare. Wanting to be independent and do more than just scrape by in a big house, she saved a bit each month and built a hair saloon in her garage, complete with the curved sinks that let her wash clients hair, and a couple of chairs with the big domes to dry their curls when all the ladies wanted to look like Marylin Monroe and, unsubtly, Mamma Jean, who was a redheaded knockout with immaculate curls. She became a well known hair stylist in Houston, with little old ladies from her church scheduling appointments months in advance, and soon she felt safe and secure in her home and could focus on raising her children. I’m sure a lot of ladies wanted to be like Mamma Jean, even later in life she’d turn heads, because she took care of her body and walked confidently and had good hair. She was the first entrepreneur I knew.
Not only was Mamma Jean an entrepreneur and talented hair stylist, she had a memory like no other person I’ve known, except possibly the magican and memory expert Harry Lorane, who had a show based on memorizing names and details about hundreds of people in an audience. Mamma Jean knew the names of all her clients and all members of her large congregation, and could recite the names of their children and grandchildren and nuances about the hair of all of them, which ones had thick hair and could use thinning shears, or which had cowlicks. (I had two cowlicks, before my hair began thinning in my thirties, and Mamma Jean is why I used to part my hair on the left, emphasizing the front flip of hair as if it were intentional rather than camouflaging it.) She could keep a secret, and that’s what led her clients to trusting her for thirty years. No one knew who dyed their hair, who wore a wig, or who had let it slip that their husband was cheating or that someone else was getting divorced or dyed their hair or lied about why they skipped church on Sunday. I can’t recall her speaking about any living person who wasn’t in the room with her. She kept secrets better than a magician, and for almost thirty years, no one knew that Mamma Jean wasn’t a natural redhead. She never spoke of anyone else, quoting something about idle talk being the devil’s tool, and people loosened their lips around her because of her character, and her tasteful decor led to a comfortable, safe feeling when people reclined and rested their necks in her curved sink and allowed her to wash their hair once a month or so. We never had a reason to doubt her, and she didn’t begin telling us about Big Daddy’s past until after Walter died in 1995, five years after Big Daddy and three years after incumbent president Bill Clinton released the first part in the JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. Assassination Report. That’s also when she stopped dying her hair, and I learned that she wasn’t a redhead. Before then, I had mistakenly assumed Mamma Jean’s where I got my auburn hair, because by then Wendy’s hair was more fully blonde all year. Mamma Jean said my auburn hair came from, surprisingly, Big Daddy. I only remembered him with grey hair – he greyed early, just like my dad and me – and all old black and white photos don’t show his strawberry blonde hair.
Here’s what Mamma Jean wrote, and what had sparked my interest in researching Big Daddy’s time in Havana:
504 9th N.E.
Springhill, LA 71075
Aug. 17, 1996
My dear children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,
I don’t know how to begin this. I should have written this when you were small, while it was fresh on my mind, also while your daddy was living. After someone dies, you seem to forget all the bad things and remember only the good in them. That is the way it is with my memories of Ed.
He was so charming when I met him. As Jimmy Hoffa wrote in his book, “Ed Partin could charm a snake off a rock.” It was Aug. 1949 and I was living with my sister, Mildred and her husband, Percy Cobb in Natchez, Mississippi. International Paper Company was building a mill and Percy was superintendent of construction. Ed was steward over the Teamsters, Union (I.B.T.C. and W.). He came to the house one afternoon to talk to Percy concerning the Teamsters, and that is how I met him. I was 18 years old and he was 26. I thought he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. He had blond hair, blue eyes and teeth like pearls. Keith, he looked just like you, except he was 6’2”. He didn’t smoke or drink, not even beer, and I believed every word he said. He loved to come over to Mildred’s when I babysat James Paul. I thought he would make a good father. After six weeks we were married in Fayette, Mississippi, Sept. 27, 1949.
Cynthia, I guess it was good thing I waited three years for you. Ed had not told me about his debts. He owed for three cars and we didn’t even have one. He had sold them before we married, spent the money but had not paid for the cars. He also had to spend three months in jail in Woodville, Mississippi, from October 10, 1949 until January 1, 1950. He wouldn’t tell me why; just that he was innocent. I wrote the judge a letter and he let him out. It was not until March 1964 that I found out why he was in jail.
He made about $75.00 every two weeks, which was pretty good in 1950. We moved to Pascagoula, Mississippi in the spring of 1950. The Electricians went on a strike the first week we were there. Ed drew his unemployment, $20.00 a week. We paid $8.00 per week for our rented room and shared a kitchen. It was nice, we had no responsibilities so we would go to the beach everyday and cook hotdogs or hamburgers. We started going to church and were baptized June 17, 1950. The strike lasted three months. By that time, International Paper Company, had started an addition to the mill in Natchez and we moved back there, to the Pharsalia Apartments, which were brand new and real nice, two bedrooms, kitchen, living room and bath, no air conditioning in those days. That is when we bought furniture, the old mahogany bedroom suite, sofa, chairs and tables for the living room and a red Formica top, chrome kitchen table and chairs. By this time Ed had let me start handling the money and I had him out of debt by the time you cam, Cynthia. You were the answer to my prayers. Ed was real disappointed that you were a girl. Your grandmas Foster always said she was so glad you were a girl because “Son,” (that’s what all his family called him) didn’t get his way for the first time in his life. You were so pretty and you soon won his heart because you cried after him every time he went to work.
Janice came a year later. I didn’t mind because Maurice was pregnant with Susan and we had the best time together. You and Susan were a week apart. I was going to help Maurice when she came from the hospital and then she was going to help me with Janice. I was not due until the first of August, but you came early so we had to call Mildred to come to our rescue. She was always so good to come stay with me when the first three of you were born. She stayed two weeks the next year when I had Edward. Ed was real good to go to church, he even went to Men’s training class when we lived in Natchez.
The construction ended with I.P. Company so we moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, September 1, 1953. He got a job with a construction company driving a truck, and then in March 1954, he was elected business agent and Secretary and Treasurer for the Teamsters of Local #5. He made $75.00 a week.
Baton Rouge was booming. Houses to rent were scarce. We rented a small two bedroom, kitchen, bath and living room on Ellerslie Drive, behind Memorial Stadium. By this time I was pregnant with Edward.
We were doing better financially. We bought a brand new 1954 Ford. Edward was born July 1, 1954, finally a boy. You were so precious. You had the most beautiful brown eyes and dark brown hair.
Ed began to find excuses not to go to church with us. He had union meetings on Sunday morning, so sometimes he would have them at the house and he would keep Edward while we went.
He organized Louisiana Creamery, Holsum and Sunbean Bakeries, and the Refineries that were being built between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I really think he was honest during this time.
We bought a lot on Prescott Road and in 1956 we built a house. I drew the plans and selected everything in it. Ed was very cooperative. It was just what I wanted, 2,586 square feet and a double carport. We moved in December 15, 1956. By this time we had two cars. The Teamsters had bought our 1954 Ford for Ed and we bought me a 1955 red and white Oldsmobile. I suppose that was the happiest time of my life. I really wanted another baby, now that I had this big, pretty house with two bathrooms. I was thrilled when I had you, Teresa. Especially to have one with blue eyes.
Ed bought a truck stop and restaurant on Airline Highway, in April 1959, called the J and L Truck Stop. He also bought and old house with fifty acres out in the country close to Greensburg, Louisiana. He made a garden and mad repairs on the old house. He wanted us to move in it an sell the one on Prescott. I wouldn’t agree to it. I’m sure glad I didn’t. This is when our problems started. He was gone most of the time. Always Union Business or at the Truck Stop Restaurant. Mildred Kelly was a waitress there. I began to have suspicions of her and Ed having an affair. It would make him mad and deny it when I confronted him about it.
I am so thankful you all don’t remember how abusive he was to me. Cynthia, you probably remember some. I might could have tolerated his “other women,” if he had been good to me, but the only good thing about him was his generosity with is money. He thought money could buy anything. He never cared how much money I spent and he never objected of us going to church. He wouldn’t go with us but he was good to help me get you all dress. I am thankful for that. He was continuously buying me things what I called “a peace offering.” He bought me a 1959 Impala Chevrolet and the transmission went out on it with only 80 miles on it. He wanted to have it fixed but I told him I didn’t want it, that I would keep my Oldsmobile. I later found out he had given it to Mildred Kelly. He also started my silver with a place setting and all the serving pieces. He could never save money. He thought it was made to spend. He lavished you all with toys. Edward you had a gun and that lovely knife by the time you were five years old. I guess it’s a good thing I was conservative and learned how to handle money, because by the time we separated I knew how far a dollar would go.
He seemed to blame me for everything, even the fusses you all would have. He insisted I get a maid so I hired Olivia, remember her? She worked for me until we separated.
It was in January 1960 that I knew he was having the affair with Mildred Kelly. He had to go to Washington, DC on union business. He had driven and called me on his way back to tell me he was snow bound right outside of Atlanta, Georgia and would be home when he could. I knew she was with him but when he came home he denied it. I guess he thought if I had another baby that I wouldn’t leave him, so Keith, you were on the way soon after this.
By the summer of 1960, I knew Ed was doing things that were dishonest. He had to go to Atlanta and while he was gone, C.J. Brown, a Baton Rouge realtor, called and told me that the grass needed cutting at the house we had rented on Sevenoaks Drive. I quickly asked what was the house number and he told me. This was a shock to me, so that night I went over there. Ed came to the door but he turned out all the lights and wouldn’t let me in. The next day he told me that he was hiding dynamite for Jimmy Hoffa in that house. He also told me he was on some kind of drugs. I had called your Aunt Mil to come help me decide what to do. She came and I went home with her to Pine Bluff. Ed called everyday, begging me to come home. I was gone about two weeks, but we did go back. When I got home, I realized there was something wrong with him. He tried to keep it from me, but he finally showed me where he had been stabbed, the lowest part of his stomach, a horizontal cut about six inches long. It was always a mystery as to who did it. It needed stitches but he wouldn’t go to the doctor. He had been stabbed on his shoulder about four or five months before this. He wouldn’t tell me who did it either, but wouldn’t go to the doctor. When he left in January, the cut on his stomach had still not healed. In later years, Mrs. Rankin, one of my lawyers, said he probably was bringing in some kind of drugs in the wound. It sounded horrible to me, but I never knew.
Keith, I didn’t think you would ever get here. All the rest of you had been three or four weeks early, so by November 1, I was ready, but you didn’t get here until November the 17th. I worried about you while I was in the hospital, not knowing if Ed would be home, but I had Olivia and she took real good care of you.
Keith was nine days old when Ed told me he had to go to Havana, Cuba to see Fidel Castro. I didn’t believe him, but he gave me a number at the Havana Cabana Hotel for me to call. I called and talked to him, so he was there. This was another mystery. I never knew why he went. When President Kennedy was assassinated, and Lee Harvey Oswald arrested, I really thought Ed was going to be involved, but I don’t suppose there was any connection. When he got back from Cuba, there was some argument we had every day. Marge and Orlan were so good to me, helping me decide what to do. He advised me for one and a half years to stay with him. He would talk with Ed and Ed making promises not to see Mildred Kelly anymore, but finally said that she was blackmailing him. I tried to believe him, but there was always something disturbing and a mystery.
One nite I was giving Keith a bottle. Ed was asleep. I looked down, there under the bed were his shoes with a lot of money in them. I counted it quickly, I would guess about $20,000. I put it in the drawer and the next a.m. he asked where it was. I asked him where he got it. He said it wasn’t his, that he was to pass it on to someone that was to meet him at the Palms Motel. I never knew.
He had made several trips to Chicago, he said, and then
<That’s where Mamma Jean ended her letter. She never finished her story. She passed away from breast cancer a few years later. – Love, Janice>
I was Mamma Jean’s second oldest grandchild, second to Tiffany by ten months, and we were many years older than our other cousins because Aunt Janice had Tiffany at 18 and my dad had me at 17, when my aunts and uncle were in the midst of pueberty. All of us inherited Mamma Jean’s brown eyes, and we stood out among our blue eyed cousins, and we were the only grandkids who were old enough to remembered Big Daddy well, before he went to prison in 1980, and therefore we noticed his deflation more when he was released in 1986.
At Big Daddy’s 1990 funeral, Tiffany, who had already graduated high school and was living with Mamma Jean, spoke so eloquently to the crowd that I wasn’t upset that I didn’t get to speak; she had inherited Mamma Jean’s clear diction and confidence without loosing the southern drawl, whereas I still mumbled and used “ain’t” and “y’all” inappropriately, and sported a jock-hawk for wrestling finals that Mamma Jean vociferously disapproved of, though I don’t think that’s why no one asked me to speak. Wendy had won custody of me in the late 70’s, and I was the only grandkid still living in Baton Rouge, so I wasn’t as close to my aunts and cousins who lived there. Only Kieth had remained, following in his footsteps and working with Doug, who had taken over Local #5 while Big Daddy sat in jail.
I hadn’t read Mamma Jean’s letter in probably ten or fifteen years, but speaking with Craig inspired me to reread old notes and look for things I may have overlooked or not understood when I was younger. And, now that I was in Havana, things like the Havana Cabana Hotel seemed more vivid, more real, than they were even on the airplane. I didn’t know what I’d be looking for. Like The Patriot Act, I was open to anything that could trigger a plan. Maybe I’d stumble across a big blue eyed man or woman, around sixty years old, who didn’t know who their father was, and I’d start from there. Maybe they would know their father, and we’d have a lot to talk about. It was ambiguous, I know, and that’s what made it interesting to me, a hobby. Auntie Lo said everyone needed a hobby – hers was making cocktails, and she was really good at it – and I had begun imagining myself with a new side gig as a writer with a thing or two to share about funky laws that lingered long after forgotten, yet still influenced our lives in ways most people don’t recognize. The Patriot Act was one of plenty, and I thought I’d focus on it as an example, using my family as ethos for my logos, and Mamma Jean as pathos to link everything into one tapestry, like a rug that brings the room together and helps people relax and see what to do next.
I sighed, and put down my phone and looked down at the brass footrail under the bar, and thought about Tiffany, remembering her sly smile and sweet southern accent and calming energy, and that she and I shared Mamma Jean’s dark brown eyes, just like Janice and my dad, and contrasting with Big Daddy and most of our cousin’s sky blue eyes. And that Tiffany was tall, especially for a girl, like most Partins other than me. I was the runt of the litter. Tiffany had been homecoming queen in high school, and one of the most popular kids in school – again, unlike me – and her death had shocked us all, family and friends and her community. She was a victim of the side effect of a new antidepressant, Prosac, which most of us hear spoken in commercials with a quiet machine gun paced list of side effects that, “may include suicide…” She had stopped taking Prosac two weeks before she wrote a note saying goodbye and sat in her car in closed garage with a full tank of gas and the engine running.
I had looked up to her in more ways than one. I felt she was one of my first and closest friends, and not just a first cousin by chance. I can’t imagine what Mamma Jean and Aunt Janice felt, though I know Aunt Janice spent years in therapy and caretaking the spilled flowers on Tiffany’s grave, and patented a flower holder that was stable for outdoors. Janice had formed a small company to sell them in Tiffany’s memory, but it’s now defunct and I can’t recall the name, but it was something like “Vases of Love” or “Loving Vases for Outdoors.” Marketing was never any of our strong suits. But, her work was more therapy than calculated risk, and they lost heavily on patents and injection molds when they didn’t have money to spare. It was a rough time for her, and some sadness is so deep it lingers a long time, and the more attached we are the stronger the loss. Janice still talks about Tiffany in therapy, and I never felt the need to ask my aunt about an old defunct company, much less probe for details about her father, a man she was led to believe by national media was an all-American hero who saved Bobby Kennedy’s life and stopped corruption in Hoffa’s labor union. I’m not prone to hyperbole, and I can’t imagine what she experienced. I’m glad.
If you were interested, you can see a ten year old little girl version of Aunt Janice in the 1964 Life magazine focus on the Partin family, shared with the new first family of President Lyndon Johnson, who had been vice president when Kennedy was killed. It fills an entire page on the nations most revered and viewed news magazine back then, and shows her sitting on Big Daddy’s lap, looking up into his eyes full of love for her father, and he has that charming smile that everyone adored. My dad and his siblings are a few pages later, perched with Big Daddy atop the Baton Rouge State Capital Building, the tallest in America at the time, pointing across the mighty Mississippi River at the site of a famous Teamster shootout against the Plaquemine cement company. As a kid, I looked so much like my dad in that photo that every time I visited a Partin they’d pull out old Look! and Life magazines and show me what my dad looked like at ten or twelve years old. We’re unquestionably from the same seed. The similarities to Big Daddy are more subtle, mostly in my cheeks, a subtlety that makes me seem like I’m smiling even when I’m not. That suability skipped my dad, but a lot of my cousins share the same trait if you looked closely at the muscles around our cheek bones. My online LinkedIn photo, though professionally shown in a suit and with the USD background drop behind me, hides my cheeks with a beard, but you can see my eyes match my dad’s and Janice’s, and my smile matches all magazine photos and Youtube’s of Big Daddy, who was always clean shaven and usually smiling. In one of my favorite quotes in that Life article, he explains what happened after he stood up as the mole, the rat in Hoffa’s inner circle, and a few hitmen clicked their thumb nail against their top teeth, signaling a hit on him, he said, “You know what I did? I just smiled.” Big Daddy outlived all of those hitmen, except for Chucky; he was aa tenacious as Hillary Clinton, and I’m glad I never crossed him. Aunt Janice and her siblings didn’t know any of that when Walter Sheridan reunited them with Big Daddy for the Life photos.
I had been thinking about Tiffany on the plane ride, which may have planted a seed of worry in my mind and led to reacting when I heard Wendy’s voice mail. Standing at the bar, I remembered Hemmingway had put the business end of a shotgun in his mouth in Idaho, and I snapped out of my funk and joined the crowd and applauded the end of a song. I had missed it, and I was pissed at myself for not noticing slipping into thoughts again. Unlike Big Daddy, who never drank alcohol, saying it clouded your mind and loosened your lips, I fell more in line with Wendy’s side of the family, and booze led me to smiling but definitely took away from my focus. I tried to only drink on vacation; but that was after a few years of drinking too much daily, and I couldn’t fault Wendy for her vice. Unlike her, I had the support of the entire federal VA Healthcare system, which prescribed me opioids to help with pain and sleep, and then told me that now-legal cannibas had been shown by the FDA to be an alternative to addictive opioids. Wendy thought that was hilarious! I never told her about Tiffany, because Wendy had been taking Prozac on and off for a decade, after other brands hand’t stopper her suffering. I sighed, and shook my head to refocus.
The band took a break, probably refreshing their energy before people began filtering in after work, and I felt I should leave soon before the bar became too noisy. I definitely didn’t want the temptation of standing next to a bar after I had already had two dacquiris. I was Wendy’s son, after all. I put my phone in the padded pocket on my backpack by my feet, and waited for eye contact with the bartender, who had been busy running plates of food from the kitchen cutout to tables around the room.
“La cuenta, por favor,” I said when he approached. He patted the counter, swung around, and returned a moment later with a bill and slid it across the bar to beside my empty glass. We chatted with the now quiet room, and he asked how I spoke Spanish so well. I chuckled to imply I was flattered or that it wasn’t a big deal, and said I lived in San Diego, on the border of Tijuana, and I couldn’t help but learn Spanish, “como la o’smosis.” He chuckled back at that, which told me I probably pronounced it correctly. I have a hard time with most accents, and never quite lost my southern murmur and Wendy’s quick grouping of words, so I have to focus when I practice saying new words.
Bartenders usually think I speak better than I do, probably because most people speak predictively, especially in the first first five minutes. When you practice the same comments or jokes again and again, you can sound fluent for about five minutes, and I sounded fluent to bartenders, especially when I chatted about food and booze. I used just enough atypical words, like ‘la o’smosis,” that people assumed I knew more than I do, but I was only marginally decent at ordering food and drinks in about a dozen languages, and could say things like please, thank you, and “where’s the bathroom?” in about a dozen more, if the bartenders were used to tourists mispronouncing words and read body language. I’d be lost in a real conversation in almost any language, but I’m pretty good at reading body language and laughing when other people laugh, and looking up the words they used later.
One of my favorite Gary Larson Far Side comics from the 80’s is an aging Lone Ranger with a Native American dictionary on his lap, his old faded mask hanging nearby, reading that “Kimosabe” means “horse’s ass.” The Lone Ranger didn’t have a smart phone, or he may have realized he sometimes acted a bit racist sooner. My phone has a dozen languages downloaded, and when there’s WiFi I have a Babble Fish app that translates almost any language instantly, like magic, and I’ve found that I don’t need to memorize too many words to have a good time traveling. My proficiency at languages pales compared to Uncle Bob’s, and my memory isn’t as sharp as Momma Jean’s; it’s more like one of the rusted blunt instruments in the back of a tool shed, useful for some things but not all things, like the exact day or date or whether it was a leap year. But, I can recall everything Mamma Jean said to me as she aged it trickled out hesitantly, unsure of itself in the light after having been cooped up so long, like a prisoner finally freed from solitary confinement.
We’ll never know what was left inside her box of memories, because her cancer returned and she passed peacefully in 1999 after another long series radiation and chemo treatments that sapped her energy too much for any caring person to pressure her for details just to learn about ancient history. And she, too, never got over Tiffany. I never learned more about Big Daddy and Kennedy than what’s already written in a few dozen books and government records, and I’ve never found anything funny to say about suicide or suicide. I’m not Gary Larson.
Harry Anderson, the famous comedian, incidentally, had passed away almost exactly a year before, on April 16th, 2018, from pneumonia. He was a smoker, and surprisingly unfit for a tall thin guy who was unquestionably sharp and should have known better. He had been on my mind on the airplane, too, maybe because he had died around the previous year’s Jazz Fest, when I first thought anout going to Cuba. He had married a young lady my age and from a high school down the street from Belaire, St. Vincent’s all-girls school, and after playing Judge Harry Stone for seven years on Night Court and a few years of other shows, and of course his record breaking eight time hosting of Saturday Night Live, where I first saw him shove a hatpin through his arm, take off his pants to reveal a card, and swallow a hamster that refused to jump through a flaming hoop. He retired and moved to New Orleans and bought a bar and became a local hero after Hurricane Katrina. When I was in New Orleans a few years after Katrina, before he had moved to North Carolina, I had met him and we jammed on some street magic for tourists in town for a convention and too young to remember Night Court; one of them said he could become famous if he applied himself. In 2018, when I walked into his old bar near the French Quarter and stood beside the brass plaque that said “Harry’s Corner,” I raised a toast to him, and a few days later that I was at Tipatina’s. Standing at the Havana bar, staring at my bill and listening to the silence, my mind’s ear could hear the funky baseline from Night Court’s opening scenes, and I almost ordered another drink to raise a toast to Harry. That urge was a sign that my mind was sluggish, as Big Daddy had always warned, and I was becoming too sentimental. I told myself I should leave the bar and go to bed.
The band began plaing again and I paid in U.S. Dollars and said, with eye contact and a nod of my head that could be heard over the band, “No necicitto cambio.” The bartender picked up the cash and smiled genuinely and waved as he said “Gracias! Buen viaje!” I put on my backpack and turned towards the door and began walking out. I dropped $5 bill folded in half into the band’s tip jar shaped like a spittoon, smiled, and clasped my hands and bowed a thank you to them without interrupting. Approaching the Tioga Pass a year before, I learned from locals that “Namaste” meant “I see the divine in you,” and to bow after feeling the sentiment was almost more for your benefit than anything else. A comedian in San Diego quipped that he didn’t know what “Namaste” meant, but he saw it on t-shirts of a lot of people rushing from buying a non-dairy double peppermint latte in a plastic cup to their yoga studio that costs 100 bucks a shot, and he assumed it meant, “I’m an asshole in a hurry.”
At least, I hope it was a tip jar and not the band’s spittoon. I think it was a tip jar, because the trumpet who had played next to me locked eyes and nodded with his horn without missing a note. I walked out the double doors, paused, and breathed in deeply. I caught a whiff of sea breeze, then sighed and smiled. I limped to my downtown casa particular, trying not to let my gimpy gait be noticeable, and realizing how tired I must be to not even walk straight. Anyone watching probably assumed it was the daiquiris, and they might have been right.
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