Havana 5

“These [Baton Rouge Teamster] hoodlums make Marcello and the Mafia look pretty good.”

“I won’t let Edward Partin and his gangster Teamsters run this state!”

“[We’re going to arrest Partin] as soon as we get the evidence against him.”

“Walter, get him out of my state. Now listen to what I am saying to you. Just get him out of my state. I’ll help you do it and I’ll give him immunity. You write it up and I’ll sign it. Just please get him across that state line.”

Louisiana governor John McKeithen in a progressive series of 1968 news statements and ending with personal correspondence between him and Walter Sheridan, documented in Walter’s 1972 “The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa.”

I walked into a bar and stood beside a stool to avoid becoming a statistic.1 The bartender was busy. He didn’t see me yet, so I peered under the bar to see if there were a hook to hang my backpack.

I saw a dual purse hook: two upwardly curved rods emanating from an oblong brass disc held in place by two phillips screws that looked like two crossed-out eyes. The rods ended in oversized spheres to prevent tearing jackets. Combined, it looked like a drunk fighting octopus holding up two boxing gloves, blindly challenging anyone who dared approach. At least it did to me, probably because I was hungry and had noticed the daily special scribbled in chalk above the bar said pulpo a la parilla: grilled octopus.

I handed the octopus my backpack and removed my LSU baseball cap and rested it on the bar to mark my spot. I walked to the bathroom and splashed copious amounts of water on my face before looking at myself in the mirror. It had been a long day, and I suspected that I’d look like shit. I was right. Under my eyes was darker than usual and puffy, and a web of tiny red rivers radiated from my dark brown pupils and flowed across the whites of my eyes.

I twisted my head as far as I could, as if trying to see the back of my head. I knew I couldn’t, but I had been rotating my head to see the big backwards letter C peeking through my hair since I was 5 years old. I knew my rotation better than an army of physicians ever could. I tried joke to myself and say that I was 21.8% stiffer than usual, and that’s why I felt as badly as I looked, but the joke fell on deaf ears. The strain of looking tightened the skin across my scalene, and I watched it twitch and spasm like an agitated neck artery pulsing at around 80Hertz.

I looked back straight into the mirror and leaned slightly forward, resting my right hand on the sink for balance. It was slightly numb from radiculopathy, and I tried to ignore the long-term consequences of the feeling that’s exactly as of I had fallen asleep on the arm, and it tingling without me able to discern if I was actually touching the sink. I felt my weight shift to my arm, then I reached back with my left hand and ran a finger along the scar, an old habit that grounds me like a talisman.

There’s only one scar like it on Earth, and I knew its shape and texture no matter how fatigued I felt, how anxious I was, or how lost in thought I was. It’s a finger width apart, curving from top to right to bottom, slick and waxy compared to the rest of my scalp. Before my hair thinned, I could feel a forest of folicles rising at the junction of a horseshoe lake. Now, I felt a few scraggly weeds poking up in the barren ground beside a drying C-shaped waxy mud puddle.

I pulled my finger away from the mud puddle and bowed my chin to touch my chest. I stretched my eyeballs upward, but I couldn’t see my bald spot yet. It would happen soon. “Hair today, gone tomorrow,” my mostly bald Uncle Bob had said when I asked to grow my hair longer and hide the scar. Last year, Cristi saw the emerging bald spot and quipped that my backwards C had become a semicolon; I grabbed a hand held mirror and saw that she was right. Coincidentally, an internet meme had just gone viral that showed a young lady with a semicolon tattoo on her finger as a tribute to her father, who had taken his own life; it gave rise to ProjectSemicolon; a semicolon means an author could end a sentence, but chose to continue with a better alternative. That year, there was an uproar about the 19,000 murders in America using a combination of guns, knives, baseball bats, tire irons, pipe wrenches, rocks, and beer bottles; yet there was barely a murmur about the 38,000 people who ended their last sentence with a period. I quipped back to Cristi that, with my growing bald spot, I could finally become a spokesperson for something worthwhile, at least until my bald spot grew to match Uncle Bob’s or the San Diego Friar’s.

I splashed more water on my face and tried to change gears and stop thinking. I attempted to dry my face with a simple electric hand dryer mounted on the wall. I don’t recall the brand, but I guarantee it wasn’t a Dyson Airblade. I walked back to the bar wiping each face cheek on a shirt sleeve and patting damp hands on faded blue jeans.

The bartender walked over with a pleasant grin that hadn’t changed since I first walked in. He was about 28 to 30 years old, skin the color of cafe au lait, shorter than I am by a normal sized hand, and fit. His thick wavy hair was meticulously yet unostentatiously groomed, and probably required only a few extra minutes of effort each morning. (My dad’s mother, Mama Jean Partin, was a hair stylist and gave me the first haircut I remember, meticulously hiding my scar, and ever since then I noticed details in hair grooming that I would have otherwise overlooked.) He had a confident demeanor that was more like an absence of worry than anything he tried to project. He was young and happy, and I bet he had never heard of Hoffa. If anything, he may have had a vague idea about Hoffa from movies or memes, the way I had an idea of El Che from The Motorcycle Diaries and ubiquitous and ironic t-shirts with El Che’s profile sold in kiosks all over the world, usually next to shirts with Bob Marley, Nelson Mandella, and Bart Simpson.

He asked what I’d like. On a whim, I changed from ordering a Hemmingway Dacquiri and began dusting off my Spanish, as if I were stretching muscles on safe ground before committing to a steep climb. I said that I had never tasted Cuban rum, but I was hoping to learn how to make a mojito. But, I said, I’d like one not with the most expensive rum, but the rum he felt was… I paused, looking for a phrase that matched ‘bang for your buck,’ but I couldn’t conjure up one. Instead, I said I’d like a good value rum, one he’d keep at home for when someone who appreciated rum was coming over for dinner. Not a boss, but someone like a grandfather or a date. His smile broadened and he tapped the bar top and said something I didn’t understand. He turned and took down a bottle and went to work crushing fresh mint. It was like watching an artist immerse himself in painting, or sculpting something he could see as beautiful but wasn’t fully formed in his mind yet.

The band began playing something that sounded like the Buena Vista Social Club but wasn’t. All band members were 20-something men who seemed fit and had darker skin than the bartender, probably due to creole descent. They knew how to play above the din of patrons chatting but without drowning out conversations. The bar was a good choice. I was glad Tim would join me there. I tapped my fingers to the beat and smiled and sipped my mojito.

The mojito was everything I hoped for. I ordered the daily special, and it came with a side of mojo sauce. I wished I had a sharp knife to cut my slices more thinly than possible with the dull generic restaurant knife. I lamented life after 9/11 selfishly, how it used to be unremarkable to fly with a Leatherman tool strapped to my hip and a Benchmade clipped in my front pocket. Either blade would have cut the squid thinly enough to melt in your mouth. I tried to jot think about it, but I was still upset at myself for feeling upset when the young uniformed TSA agent confiscated the Leatherman in my personal bag. Of course I knew it wasn’t allowed; I had simply forgotten to remove it from the sunglasses pocket after tucking it in there on a quick drive to surf in Ensenada the week before. I had lost probably a dozen similar knives since 9/11, and just as many small Victorionox keychains, the ones with a puny blade and finger nail file and scissors that would barely cut an article out of an airline seat magazine. I lamented the loss of reason among humanity, and saw myself feeling old and cranky. I sipped again.

Confiscating my Leatherman was a ridiculous safety measure. The double edged razor blade in my German safety razor passed through three security checkpoints with fancy imaging software, and it could have been removed and taped to a plastic spoon with duct tape in my carryon backpack, or in a slot premade into a rigid toothbrush or the metal “safety” razor handle itself. All methods were common in prisons when I was a kid and learning these things; it was easier back then, when prisoners or people on airplanes could use a lighter or matches to melt the razor into a toothbrush, but I could affix one rididly enough with a bit of foresight.

With the modified knife, I could have used any slit the throat of the air marshal seated casually near the exit door. It would have been simple to seize what was likely a Glock 19 in appendix carry and pressed against his lazy belly before anyone else reacted. I knew how to use a Glock. At home, I had modified with sites to work with my aging eyes, because it fit my big hands better than the 19, which had become standard issue to Rangers and police officers, and, almost by default, many air marshals. I assumed his wouldn’t have a round chambered, which would be a risk to firefighters should the plane crash, but that was easy to rectify and would only cost a bullet if I were mistaken. (I don’t keep rounds chambered – in case of a fire, I don’t want it to go off and hurt anyone – so I have a habit of chambering rounds when I pick up a Glock. It has no safety, so there’s no need to check that before squeezing off a couple of rounds.) All of that could have been avoided by letting me keep my Leatherman; or, at the very least, the tiny red Victorionox keychain with a negligible blade and a very useful fingernail file.2

Of course, it was all probably just my agitated mind and hyperbolic imagination passing time on the flight, lost in thought while nibbling a surprising tasty salad using disposable plastic utensils, but it felt real.

The bartender approached and thankfully interrupted my thoughts. He asked if I wanted another mojito. I flashed the whites of my teeth through my beard and cheerfully exclaimed, “Claro qui si!” He tapped the table and went to work, and set his masterpiece in front of me. I thanked him and pretended to read a book while I sipped. The bartender interrupted and asked how the drink was. I wanted to push my Spanish, so I made a joke about why I don’t give opinions because opinions stifle creativity, and that The Buddha said unhappiness stemmed from liking or disliking; but it fell flat. I reacted to his blank stare by saying the Margarita was invented in Ensenada after a customer asked a bartender to have fun and create something unique, and that the Pina Colada was invented similarly in Puerto Rico. I paused just a moment and added the Cuba Libre was invented Cuba, though I didn’t know the history. In all cases, I said, the inventor was working for art, not appeasement.

“Innovation takes iteration!” I said. He laughed as if he understood, and asked if I’d like another mojito. I said, “Claro qui si!” again, but added to have fun and experiment. I said that he could do no wrong. I said I was on vacation, and the last thing I wanted to do on vacation was think too much. He laughed and said he understood.

Just before he tapped the counter and turned away, I added that I was expecting an old friend, and asked if he would put all of our orders on one tab and hand me the bill no matter what my friend said, and to please keep a glass of tap water with no ice filled for both of us. I said we’d be catching up, and if drinks kept magically appearing he could do no wrong. He thought about that for a moment, nodded affirmatively, tapped the counter, and spent a few moments inspecting his shelf before choosing a different bottle than before. He glanced around the shelf again, pulled down a second bottle, and went to work combining the two: one was white, one was light brown. When he finished, he brought it over with water. When he walked by the next time, he didn’t ask if I liked the mojito, and as he turned away his gaze swept across my water glass.

I sipped and grooved to the band. The alcohol began to soften my thoughts. I glanced at my watch in the bottom of my vision, and in my periphery I saw Tim walk in and stand in the door. He was a few minutes early. He quickly saw me – I was the only other caucasian there – and walked towards me with the same cheerful smile pushing up chubby cheeks that hadn’t changed thirty years. He was wearing the same battery powered Rolex Submariner with a gaudy metal band that caught a hint of light and stood out like a beacon; it was a poor choice for his line of work, but old habits are hard to break.

“J.P.!” he said, opening his arms.

“Timmy!” I said, stepping in.

We patted each other’s backs with Hemmingway-esque manliness, then we stood still for a few moments.

“It’s good to see you,” I said towards his back.

“It’s been too long,” he said towards mine.

We stepped apart and glanced up and down at each other.

“Dude,” he said, “You’ve aged.”

“Fuck you,” I said.

“Seriously,” he said. “That beard makes you look old.”

“Fuck you,” I repeated, though he was right. I scratched it and heard the crinkle over the band. “I’ll shave it before diving.” I grinned and said that I thought it was appropriate to land in Havana looking like Papa Hemmingway.

I stood at the bar and Tim plopped onto a high stool next to me, with his hips angled so much that he was practically standing, like I would have done had I not been sitting all day. The bartender saw us and walked over wearing his confident smile and carrying a glass of water with no ice. It was going to be a good night. We let it begin.

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  1. At least five double blinded, randomized studies followed around 800,000 people in different jobs over at least fifteen years, and the evidence was that sitting was as dangerous to health, if not more so, than smoking. People who sit more than 20 minutes at a time have 4 times the rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and lower back pain. The highest risk profession is truck driving, followed by sedentary office workers.

    My interest in the long-term effects of sitting began with my grandfather. He led the Teamsters, but never drove a truck and rarely sat behind a desk (other than for Life photo-ops showing him on a phone with the then-typical local union photo of Hoffa reversed on the wall behind him, saying that Hoffa had let him down and ostensibly making deals and working as America envisioned back then). He was always moving, hunting and fishing almost every weekend and spending weeks at a time elk hunting from his Flagstaff cabin that our government bought to get him out of the state for a while after Governor McKeithen agreed to give him immunity for a slew of murders and shoot-outs with local businesses. When Big Daddy finally went to prison in 1980, he sat in his kush federal cell watching color television all day, every day, until he was released in 1986 – three years early – for health concerns that included diabetes and an undisclosed heart condition, plus an addiction to amphetamines he somehow obtained in prison. He died in 1990, a deflated shell of his former self, when I was 17 years old and just beginning to form my idea of a career after the army. After a degree in civil and environmental engineering at LSU (the fastest engineering degree possible) in 1997, I attended graduate school in biomedical engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) as a full-time research engineer in the Veterans Administration Medical Center ‘s spine biomechanics laboratory, which was attached to UAB and shared classes with medical school.

    My thesis on the effects of single-level spine fusion on the entire spine was based on a motion-simulation robot that I designed to move cadaver spines before and after simulated surgeries; two infrared campers monitored three nonlinear infrared sensors on each vertebra, and I tweaked tensor shifting formulas from my civil engineering classes to use Hamiltonian mechanics to relate each vertebra’s 3D motion to adjacent vertebra’s motions without the multiple noise-inducing sine and cosines that plagued Euclidian geometry. The VA’ interest in spine fusion followed the 1996 FDA ruling that metal or synthetic devices could be used to fuse spines in-lieu of a piece of inatrogenic bone cut from the patient’s hip, and the VA was seeking to understand the long-term effects before recommending the new technology nationally; the patent for fusion devices, incendently, was a broad method patent for temporarily seperating two discs and shoving practically anything in-between, so almost all spine surguries in the $4 Billion annual market owed royalties; the inventor, Michelson, sold his rights for $1.1 Billion and became the world’s first overnight billionaire. Today, he runs a few nonprofit web sites educating people on healthcare.

    My 1999 thesis, “The Kinematic Effects of Single-Level Fusion on Multi-Level Spines,” where I cited around 200 supporting and contradicting studies, and rectified them with a statistical meta-analysis and dash of conjecture, and added a personal anecdote about my grandfather’s health concerns after sitting; though I omitted the parts about his amphetamine addiction and my family’s involvment with Jimmy Hoffa and the Kennedy’s. My lab partners used the same machine and cadavers for their theses by inserting pressure transducers into each nucleus pulposus, and correlating motion with in-situ interdiscal pressure in all discs before and after single-level fusion. Our results matched in-vivo pressure transducers in German volunteers that showed, surprisingly, that sitting has 120% more forces pushing fluids and nutrients out of the disc than standing; a simple 20-degree angle in the back would reduce that pressure to the same as standing, something that makes sense in hindsight with a simple free-body diagram of a vertebral segment in different positions and with patients holding different weights. But even standing slowly forces out fluids throughout each day, which is why we’re all about 1-2cm shorter at the end of a day compared to when we wake up after sleeping horizontally. Our discs are avascular, and as we age it takes longer and longer to rehydrate and replenish nutrients, and the shortening of our spine becomes permanent and pinches nerves and leads to low back pain.

    In a flash of prescience, when I was a young kid of 26, I wrote in my thesis that, in-lieu of surguries, the nicest thing we could do to our spines is take as many horizontal naps as possible, avoid desk jobs and driving trucks, and invent a time machine so that veterans didn’t spend years lugging around a 120 pound backpack after being flung out of an airplane. As for fusion: yes, motions increased, but usually that’s a good thing because it helps pump fluids. Unfortunately, many people – mostly surgeons and spine company marketing employees – assumed fusion led to adjacent segments degrading, leading to yet another market of motion-preserving implants in an ill-conceived view of “getting people back to work as quickly as possible.” Imaging technology back then didn’t show the nuances that meant inevitable deterioration in all discs, and research on dog spines with pseudo-surgery implied that any surgery, even just opening up the discs to air, led to deterioration. Entropy is inevitable, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; though no one is selling ounces of prevention, and pounds of cures lead to a $4Billion per year of incentives. In 2001, with a company called Intrinsic Therapeutics, Inc., I began learning from serial entrepreneurs and patented minimally invasive hydrogel implants that reabsorbed fluids into the nucleus; hence, my entrepreneurship visa to Cuba. But, to this day, when I discuss innovation with surgeons and investors, I point to prescience and say that true healthcare begins at a young age and includes more naps throughout life.

    Big Daddy – who never drank alcohol, saying it loosened lips – died from diabetes and his heart condition on 11 March 1990, at age 66, two weeks after I competed in the Baton Rouge City Wrestling finals and a few months before I left for the army. Of the many things I learned from Big Daddy, watching my tongue when drinking and understanding the ill effects of sitting sunk home the most. After a long day on flights, the last thing I wanted to do was sit down and order a drink. I’d stand instead. ↩︎
  2. A Leatherman tool, incidentally, is named after Tim Leatherman, a University of Oregon mechanical engineering graduate who shunned desk jobs and drove an old Voltswagon van around Europe after graduating, armed with a Swiss Army knife and a pair of pliers; combined, they could cut his cheese and fix his van, and he drove around pondering how to combine the two into one tool. Five years of cardboard prototypes later, he raised money for sheet-metal versions and decent 440 stainless steel blade and tools, and paid machinists who knew more about design for manufacturing than he did to help improve the design. He raised more money, and ordered a ton and became a salesperson. In the early 90’s, he scored a contract to supply Leatherman tools to Delta Force, the army’s anti-terrorism unit in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne, and soon he scored a national account with a major outdoor sports chain. He didn’t copy the Swiss Army knife – I assume he omitted the Swiss Army corkscrew in lieu of a more American beer bottle opener – and he added a Philips screwdriver and an awl useful for field repairs of of thick materials.

    Victorianox is the civilian brand of the venerable Swiss Army Knife and has been around for over a hundred years; it’s named after the founder’s mother, Victoria. I probably had a dozen Victorianox keychains and just as many finger nail clippers and screwdrivers confiscated by diligent TSA kids in the 15 years since five guys with a boxcutter took over an airplane on 9/11, but I always seem to get through with razor blades, even when I’m sporting a beard that obviously hadn’t been shaven in months. But, to be fair, I have yet to get my Glock through airport screening.