But then came the killing shot that was to nail me to the cross.
Edward Grady Partin.
And Life magazine once again was Robert Kenedy’s tool. He figured that, at long last, he was going to dust my ass and he wanted to set the public up to see what a great man he was in getting Hoffa.
Life quoted Walter Sheridan, head of the Get-Hoffa Squad, that Partin was virtually the all-American boy even though he had been in jail “because of a minor domestic problem.”Jimmy Hoffa in Hoffa: The Real Story
I had just landed in Cuba on an entrepreneurship visa when I first suspected that Wendy would commit suicide; she wouldn’t, and I had no reason to suspect she would, but that was my first reaction when I listened to her voice mail. I was standing in the small Plaza de San Francisco de Asi, which I was told was one of only two places a gringo could catch public WiFi, even in 2019. I was wearing my carry on backpack, and listening to messages for the first time since a long day of flying from San Diego. Gut instincts can be wrong, so I listened to her message several times. It wasn’t what she said that led to the feeling, it was the pauses between what she said, as if she were choosing her words carefully or that she wanted to tell me more, both of which were rare for her.
“Hey Jason, it’s Wendy,” she began, followed by a pause.
“I know you’re going to Cuba, but I was hoping to speak with you about my will.”
“It’s not a big deal,” she said quickly, and continued at a similar pace, clumping words together like one long word: “I’d just like to add Cindi as executor because you travel so much.”
Her last few words blended together, like when she rushed her words to camouflage that she was slightly drunk, hoping no one would notice her sluggishness. I don’t recall the exact time of her voice mail stamp, but it was early afternoon in her time zone on Tuesday, February 19th, 2019. I realized she must have received the Valentine’s Day card I had mailed her, telling her I’d be in Cuba and probably Puerto Rico and Miami, traveling off line and with an open agenda after the 30-day Cuban visa expired.
Wendy was my mother, Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin, but she taught me to call her by her first name when I was a child in the Louisiana foster system. Almost twenty years before, she had mentioned that the thing she missed most after my stepdad, Mike, and her split was not giving and receiving Valentine’s Day gifts, so I sent her one from San Diego every year, and she usually sent me one, too, though she had missed 2019. She lived in a remote area with inadequate cell coverage, and was usually a few glasses of wine into her afternoon by noon San Diego time, so we didn’t speak often. She had had a rough life, and I was used to lapses of months and even a year or so without hearing from my mother.
She met my biologic father, Edward Grady Partin Junior, at Glen Oaks High School in 1971, when she was a 16 year old junior and he was a 17 year old senior and the school’s drug dealer. She soon lost her virginity to him at a New Years eve party, and two weeks later realized she was pregnant with me. She couldn’t afford an abortion, so she accepted my dad’s proposal and they eloped an hour and a half away to Mississippi, where state laws didn’t require parental consent to marry. They returned as Mr. and Mrs. Ed Partin and moved into one of Big Daddy’s houses on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, near the murky Achafalaya Basin. I was born at 9:36AM on October 5th, 1972 – gestation takes ten weeks, not nine, as we’re told when births happen nine months after weddings – and I weighed nine pounds and eight ounces, a huge undertaking for Wendy’s petite 5.1” frame; but, an unsurprising size if you knew the Partin men, or had been squeezed near a few of them a room throwing their muscle around.
About a year or so later, she had a nervous breakdown and abandoned me at a daycare center near Glen Oaks and fled to California in a car with a young man she had met that morning. My dad had been gone for a while with a few of his friends, on a motorcycle ride to Miami and then a trip to Kingston to see a Bob Marley concert and buy a boat load of prescription opioids obtained, I think, from offshore Puerto Rican pharmaceutical manufacturers. No one knew when they’d return. The daycare didn’t know what to do with me – this was before social services were common in Baton Rouge – and they allowed me to go home with the first people who said they knew me, the custodian and groundskeeper of Glen Oaks, Mr. James “Ed” White, and his wife, Mrs. Delores Lamar White, my MawMaw and PawPaw.
When someone finally notified the police, I was removed from my parents custody by the only family court judge in East Baton Rouge Parish’s 19th judicial district, Judge Pugh, who assigned PawPaw as my legal guardian, with physical custody and the ability to dictate when and if either of my parents saw me. But, because Louisiana law was, and is, a unique Napoleonic code lingering from the Louisiana Purchase, Judge Pugh had more freedoms and fewer predicates to follow than in every other state, and for reasons no one understands, he removed Wendy’s legal rights to me and assigned custody to my dad, on paper at least.
Wendy returned from California on her own, divorced my dad, and moved in with Cindi’s family, the Cindi from Wendy’s voice mail, and tried to find work as a teenage high school dropout without marketable skills. She was a sweet and attractive young girl; my dad and his motorcycle friends said, in their words, that she was “fine” and had the finest ass at Glen Oaks and probably all of Baton Rouge, and even Uncle Keith, my dad’s little brother, agreed. There were and lots of people around town were willing to help her, especially because she kept the Partin name. But, she was ashamed of her youth and lack of education, and she taught me to call her by her first name so that people would assume I was her little brother.
Over time, Wendy was given a part time job with Keely’s Girls earning $512 a month, and she was able to rent a two bedroom, one bath apartment in a shitty part of town behind a Chinese restaurant along Florida Blvd, not far from the ramshackle area around Belaire High School. In the summer of 1975, coincidentally a few weeks after Jimmy Hoffa disappeared that July, Judge Pugh allegedly committed suicide and was replaced by Judge J.J. Lottingger, a thirty year veteran of Louisiana legislative law, and he took over my case and reversed Pugh’s decision on September 26th, 1976, and assigned my custody to Wendy. My dad and PawPaw appealed, both trying to get custody, but by 1979 I was living with Wendy during the school year and with my dad over the summer and winter holidays. Old habits are hard to break, and I still called my mother Wendy.
She talked about Pugh a few times over the decades, saying he probably did kill himself, because only a crazy man would have allowed my dad to maintain legal custody. Almost every time she mentioned him, she’d joke that she had been born WAR, but marrying a Partin WARP’ed her, and that’s why she drank now. Judge Pugh had, coincidentally, been on my mind just before I landed in Havana, because I had been considering writing a book about Big Daddy, who was president of Baton Rouge Teamsters Local #5, and Jimmy Hoffa, and I had downloaded and reread my custody records for the plane ride to Cuba, to look for clues about that time period, something briefly mentioned that I may have overlooked or not put into context the last time I read them.
“And I thought…,” Her voice mail said, followed by a pause long enough for me to take two breaths. “It’s not important. Call me back when you can.”
There was another pause and a slight, barely noticeable sigh.
“Tell Cristi I said hello, and I hope y’all are enjoying San Diego,” she said quickly, habitually, trying to leave her voice mail on an upbeat tone. It reeked of cover up.
“If I miss you,” she finished, “Have fun in Cuba and we’ll talk when you get back.”
I listened to the voice mail again using ear buds that blocked the sounds of downtown Havana traffic and music emanating from bars and restaurants circling the square. I have a 15% hearing loss in each ear, but at different frequencies, and in person I rotate my head to point one ear or the other towards whomever’s speaking, depending on their pitch and cadence, like a chicken with eyes where ears should be, pecking at something only after rotating it’s head to see in 3D. I miss a lot when I hold a phone to one ear, so I use earbuds that speak into in both ears simultaneously and have expensive, but worthwhile, noise-canceling software that helps me focus on what people are saying. I can even adjust frequency inputs, like a fancy home stereo equalizer, bringing up midranges and lowering bass, and that also helps. It’s pricey, much more than a less effective hearing aide, but worth it. Even with that technology, I didn’t learn anything from Wendy’s voice mail that would help me understand where my feeling of worry originated, other than her pauses.
I took out my earbuds and sighed in the same way Wendy did, taking a deeper breath than normal and exhaling in a single puff while averting my eyes downward; like Wendy, I avoid eye contact when something’s on my mind. I was her son, after all, and some mannerisms stick with you no matter where you move or how long had passed. I had lived in California for almost thirty years, ironically moving to San Diego long after Wendy returned to Baton Rouge for me. I can see why she wanted to live there, and it became my home and over time I visited Baton Rouge less and less. She had begun drinking after Mike cheated on her and the split up, and for the past few years she had left other ambiguous voice mails with slightly slurred speech many times. I still don’t know what made the message on February 19th feel differently, other than the pauses and the thoughts that had coincidentally been on my mind.
I tried calling back, but as usual her cell phone wasn’t getting reception in her remote location in Saint Francisville, an hour upriver from Baton Rouge, and she didn’t answer her land line. I sent a text message and an email letting her know I had already arrived in Cuba. In a voice mail, I chuckled so that she’d hear humor in my voice and know I was fine and to relax the mood I felt so that I dind’t send it back to her. I said that that the cell reception in Havana was worse than Saint Francisville, and that I’d only be able to check messages when I came back to Havana every week or two, but to text me if it were important. I said I’d stay in Havana longer, if necessary, so we could schedule a time to speak. Coincidentally, I added with another forced chuckle, I was calling from a public square named after Saint Francis, the patron saint of kindness to animals. I hoped that would make her smile.
She volunteered at the new St. Francisville humane society in West Feliciana Parish, just down the street from Angola prison, and if anything made her happy it was rescuing dogs and finding loving homes to adopt them. As I spoke into the air and my earbuds translated, I imagined her face lighting up and her crows feet crinkling and her still sweet smile resurfacing like the old days, and I smiled, genuinely, not forced like my chuckle, and I wished she could have been there to see it. She always had a warm heart for animals without homes, even before I was a foster kid she had brought home stray dogs and boxes of kittens. A sure way to get her to smile was talking about her work at the humane society, or any one of the dozens of dog that came in and out of her home and the two that had lingered around longer than I had. She’d nurse other rescues back to health, train them to not pee inside, and get their coats soft and shiny and ready for adopt-a-pet events in St. Francisville.
I ended the voice mail with a perfunctory, “I love you,” and reiterated that I’d check messages when I could, then sent a message to Cristi and I told her I had arrived safely, and that the WiFi was less than I had expected and I would be mostly offline, as usual when I was on sabbatical in what’s harshly called second or third world countries. I paused to emphasize what I was about to say, and said that I had a cryptic message from Wendy and was about Wendy’s depression and alcoholism, and why I called my mother Wendy. It was a long story, and I never saw a reason to explain it to people. I didn’t mention the coincidence about St. Francis, because I wanted to her emphasize my concern Wendy and not leave a lengthy message, though I would when I got home. Cristi felt improbable coincidences were a form of synchronicity, and the poor reception at both Saint Francis named locations would make her smile.
Satisfied that I had done all I could do, I sent a message telling two young American reporters and a German scuba buddy flying to meet us 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 Vinales, a tobacco farming area about two hours east of Havana which and surrounded by towering limestone cliffs. I contacted the alleged climbing guide and told him the same. We had to be discrete, because rock climbing wasn’t legal in Cuba, which made it that much more fun.
In a nationally funded healthcare system, unnecessary risks are shunned. According to that sytsyem, there’s no need to climb the cliffs of Vinales unless you’re pursuing food or fleeing something. Scuba was popular because, not only was it safer, it existed when Fidel Castro came into power, and he was an avid diver who dictated that dive shops circle the island to provide recreation for the people. Climbing, especially bolted sport climbing on sandstone, was relatively new, and probably safer that diving, but I wasn’t there to debate national healthcare policies. Clandestinely, the travel journalists were aspiring investigative journalists, and they plotted to slip subtleties into the text of their magazine articles that could spark bigger picture conversations across a diverse audience, not just preach to the choir, and try to change the world. I wished them luck. I had coordinated our trip with an alleged guide in Vinales, like I had in other developing countries with other, young, naive travelers and aspiring world changers. I just liked climbing and traveling, and as a climbing guide I could write off airplane tickets and reduce my annual taxes and perpetuate the hobby as long as my creaking body would allow.
My Wifi ended and I was tired and worried and sore from the flight, so I picked up my carry on backpack with scuba fins strapped to the outside and climbing shoes and a harness crammed inside, 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 claustophobic, and after a long flight I always felt cramped and don’t want to be inside and needed to move my body. Sitting is one of the worst thing anyone can do for their body: at least five randomized, double blinded clinical trials with a total of more 500,000 people followed over fifteen years says so. 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. The multiple flights from San Diego to Havana had been a full day of sitting in a cramped seat squished beside more than one overweight person, who may have been more used to sitting and seemed delighted by the in-seat entertainment screens. Sitting is today’s smoking, they say, but no one’s ever listened to them and I wasn’t about to start preaching about it when there were reruns of Seinfeld to watch on the backs of seats or letters to read on my iPhone.
Maybe I was just grumpy after a long flight, I thought, and that’s what led me to worrying about Wendy. That made sense, I said to myself, and I figured I should relax and let my mind settle before thinking about her message any more. If anything would help, it would be live music and a Hemmingway dacquri on my first day in Havana. I was Wendy’s son, after all. At that thought, which at first made me smile, I realized that Hemmingway had put a shotgun to his head in Ketchum Idaho, after Kennedy’s embargo made him leave his home in Havana. I shook my head to knock loose the stickiness, and realized I had to stop ruminating about Wendy’s voice mail and start having fun.
I approached the bar and saw it was spacious and uncrowded, with standup bar that appealed to me and about a dozen wooden tables with six or so seats each, and only about a third of the seats taken. 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. They were talented and played together well and all seemed to know how to play a small venue, putting less emphasis on the horns and more on the guitar and bass. The horns were pointed outside, like sirens beconing people to come inside, and it worked on me. I grew up wandering in and out of jazz clubs in New Orleans, and Havana had a similar feel and I instantly felt at home, and I felt some of the residual claustrophobia slide off me and settle into a puddle on the plaza’s cobblestone street, freeing me to walk inside the bar.
Happy hour was just beginning, and small bands were beginning to play to entice people inside after work. This wasn’t a tourist venue, which appealed to me as much as the stand up bar. I walked past the band and stood at the bar a few feet from the young trumpet player. I 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. And I have big feet, so there’s a lot of blood down there that would become stagnant if I didn’t move a bit. I imagined myself in a wild west saloon, with heel spurs clanking and possibly spitting into a spittoon on the floor, sipping a shot glass of whiskey yet alert, and I smiled. Like most kids I knew, I had always wanted to be a cowboy, and I would have been happy to see myself. I grew up during the cold war, when visiting Cuba had been taboo, and I had grown up poor, when a plane ticket was an unfathomable luxury.
Only about half of the patrons 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. It should have been the perfect time for me to start happy hour, before the crowds arrived, 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, and drastic measures would be necessary for me to relax. I stood upright and leaned into my right foot, watching the bartenders and, behind a small cutout window, line cooks prepping for the rush of happy hour. When the bartender walked over and leaned forward and said something I didn’t understand, I shouted over the band that I’d like a Hemingway daquiri and whatever local seafood tapas they had on special. I rotated my head to listen to what he said, but I couldn’t make out the words but smiled enthusiastically at whatever he said because details rarely matter to me when I’m on vacation, which is what I knew my sabbatical really was. When you meet strangers who like to chat, “sabbatical” is more easily understood and accepted and less likely to prompt questions than saying you like to take a few months off every year to travel.
The bartender brought out the daquairi within a few minutes, but the food took a bit longer. It was calamar a la parilla, grilled squid, cooked too long and toughened, but my eyes lit up when I dipped them in the side of mojo sauce, packed with roasted garlic and a tang from what was probably freshly squeezed orange juice, and I sliced the squid thinly and spread the mojo on thickly and it was delightful. The Hemingway daquiri was strong and good and I ordered another.
The placebo effect of the first daquiri had loosed my mind before the alcohol hit my brain, and about fifteen minutes into the second my body joined the party. I finally relaxed a bit, but my neck muscles were still tight and my lower back still ached, and I stretched while ostensibly moving to the music. It wasn’t hard, because Cuban Funk seems to be made to move to, and even the private driver I had hired to take me from the airport to downtown had tapped his fingers on the steering wheel of his classic 1955 convertible as we cruised into town with the top down and the Buena Vista Social Club blaring on his upgraded speakers.
Of course I had heard of the Buena Vista Social Club, 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 Dumpstafunk at Tipatinas with Trombone Shorty, two of the Neville brothers, and a few members of Galactic, and they all were enthusiastic about the Afro-Cuban music scene, which is like the Pope saying he digs a preacher’s sermon. It planted a seed in my mind, and a week later I saw a few other Cuban and Carribbean bands at Lafayette’s Festival International; the bands were mostly from French speaking colonies, like Louisiana had been, and several Carribbean bands participated and overlapped with the Creole music I dug. The seed sprouted, and I thought I’d like to visit Cuba soon, and, as if by magic, there I was, without a plan. I thought I’d just walk around and see what sounds good, and in a worse case I could look up Cima Funk and see where he played and hope the venue had other bands that made me wiggle my butt like one of Wendy’s rescue mutts.
The seed from Festival International bore fruit because, coincidentally, the Obama administration relaxed travel Cuban restrictions and added a loophole with an ambiguously titled entrepreneurship visa. I happened to see a news blurb about the loophole, and I quickly requested a visa. I was faculty of engineering at USD and worked with a few national nonprofits facilitating entrepreneurship and STEAM in public schools, therefore I met the requirements and my visa was approved soon after I applied, a rarity in government bureaucracy.
As another coincidence, I remembered that Big Daddy had been in Cuba, because, as I planned my trip, Martin Scorcese cast actors for his upcoming epic film about Hoffa and the mafia, The Irishman, and Craig Vincent was slotted to portray Big Daddy in a small role. Scorceses had raised more than a quarter of a billion dollars, that’s billion, with a B, more than I can fathom, from investors to recruit the best actors for the film, old Scorcese standbys like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Ramano, and a host of other Goodfellas and Godfathers. Craig Vincent would portray Big Daddy in only a brief role, and with Big Daddy’s smooth southern accent changed to match Craig’s harsher, New York Italian accent. Big Daddy would be Big Eddie Partin in The Irishman. Craig researched his role by calling Uncle Kieth Partin, who was president of Local #5 just like his uncle, Doug, had been, and just like Big Daddy had been, an unbroken line since the 1950’s; just like James Hoffa, Junior, still ran the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Some things don’t change quickly, or patterns repeat and look the same, but that would take longer to show than Scorcese’s three and a half hour opus would allow. Craig, who tried but couldn’t master Big Daddy’s southern drawl, even with Youtube clips available to hear it, had embraced the change in Big Daddy’s character to Big Eddie, and wanted to worry less about the accent and more about a seemingly simple question that not even Scorcese had asked: what were the characteristics and nuances of Big Daddy that allowed him to fool Hoffa, Hoover, Nixon, the Kennedy’s, and Audie Murphy?
It was a good question, and one I had wished more people pondered every time a new book or film came out. I didn’t know how to explain it, so I simply quoted Mamma Jean, who had also been fooled, as saying the devil can quote scripture. She had retired as a well known hair stylist with a home based saloon in her upper middle class suburban home in Houston, and spent her later years publishing cookbooks with her church as fundraisers. She remembered every detail about each and every one of her clients, nuances about their hair, names of their children and grandchildren, and everything they said over the decades. We never doubted a word she said. She was the first entrepreneur I remember. Craig, incidentally, had grown up Catholic and coincidentally had his family had ties to the New Jersey mafia, and he knew a bit about Mamma Jean’s background and recognized her reference from the bible, and that probably loosened his lips when we spoke. Over the phone, I mentioned Mamma Jean’s letter to us at the end of her life, he admitted that he had been diagnosed with Hairy Cell Luekemia, which is as terrifying as it sounds, but hadn’t updated his IMDB profile yet. I didn’t ask, but I assumed a film producer wouldn’t want to risk hiring an actor who may die half way through filming. Craig, whose mom had passed not too long before, said he had a small role among legendary actors and wanted to do his best, if only to honor his mom, and that’s why he was researching Big Daddy’s small role so thoroughly. I could relate, and we ended up chatting more about life, the universe, and everything than history from the 1970s.
I wasn’t aging well. I didn’t have Hairy Cell Leukemia, but a VA review board had recently upped my disability to 65%, partially due to my hearing loss after the first Gulf war, and about fifteen years before they had recommend bilateral hip replacements. Last year, they recommend C5/6 spinal fusion. I had neither, just a few surgeries around that time for things like an abdominal hernia and to put bone screws in my ankle after a climbing fall, and the high failure rates and long recovery times of bigger surgeries led me to change my lifestyle to have more freedom to walk and sleep when I wanted, to prioritize life. And, like Craig Vincent and Mamma Jean, I was probably viewing life through an older lens with a wider perspective, and hoping to make the most of my time however I could. Maybe that’s what honoring your mother and father is all about.
Like the American journalists I was meeting, I had ulterior motives that I didn’t talk about openly. The most obvious was researching Big Daddy’s time there, and trying to understand his role in Kennedy’s murder. But I also wanted to see Guantamano Bay, to listen to locals who grew up near an American base that never left after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Playa de Giron, and to try to understand how it still exists, how we keep prisoners there without the freedoms we enforce on our soil, like an attorney and not being tortured, and why Obama renigged on his campaign promise to close it. On a related note, I was curious why Obama and every president since Jimmy Carter has kept parts of the congressional report on the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luthor King, Jr., classified after all these decades. Why do patterns keep repeating? Was life nothing more than fractals seen from different perspectives?
I didn’t know what I was seeking, but I thrive on ambiguity and was looking forward to immersing in Cuba and ponding things over a few Hemmingway daiquiris between dives and climbs and bars with funky bands. Thinking of Craig and the Kennedys prompted me to open a folder on my phone titled JipBook, and I found the scanned version of Mamma Jean’s handwritten letter. She was Norma Jean Partin, like Marylin Monroe’s birth name, the source of a reoccurring joke in our family about Kennedy’s private life. I looked for anything I may have missed that may be more relevant now that I was in Havana. She had written it soon after Walter Sheridan, former FBI head of the Get Hoffa squad, died in 1995, and immediately after my older cousin, Tiffany, and I began asking questions about how Big Daddy had fooled Mamma Jean. She was such a practical and temperate woman that it was hard for us to imagine anyone fooling or intimidating her, especially after having just survived a double masectomy and six months of chemotherapy. She was tough, resilient, resourceful, and Sharp. If I were striving for a literary prize, I’d make up something like sharper than a sickle in a shed full of worn out rusty tools, but that would weaken who she was by making her a meme. She, like Wendy, had gone through a lot in life, and in her final days she wanted to put pen to paper for posterity before she died. Here’s Mamma Jean’s letter, complete with typos from the handwritten first draft she never completed:
504 9th N.E.
Springhill, LA 71075
Aug. 17, 1996
My dear children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,
I don’t know how to begin this. I should have written this when you were small, while it was fresh on my mind, also while your daddy was living. After someone dies, you seem to forget all the bad things and remember only the good in them. That is the way it is with my memories of Ed.
He was so charming when I met him. As Jimmy Hoffa wrote in his book, “Ed Partin could charm a snake off a rock.” It was Aug. 1949 and I was living with my sister, Mildred and her husband, Percy Cobb in Natchez, Mississippi. International Paper Company was building a mill and Percy was superintendent of construction. Ed was steward over the Teamsters, Union (I.B.T.C. and W.). He came to the house one afternoon to talk to Percy concerning the Teamsters, and that is how I met him. I was 18 years old and he was 26. I thought he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. He had blond hair, blue eyes and teeth like pearls. Keith, he looked just like you, except he was 6’2”. He didn’t smoke or drink, not even beer, and I believed every word he said. He loved to come over to Mildred’s when I babysat James Paul. I thought he would make a good father. After six weeks we were married in Fayette, Mississippi, Sept. 27, 1949.
Cynthia, I guess it was good thing I waited three years for you. Ed had not told me about his debts. He owed for three cars and we didn’t even have one. He had sold them before we married, spent the money but had not paid for the cars. He also had to spend three months in jail in Woodville, Mississippi, from October 10, 1949 until January 1, 1950. He wouldn’t tell me why; just that he was innocent. I wrote the judge a letter and he let him out. It was not until March 1964 that I found out why he was in jail.
He made about $75.00 every two weeks, which was pretty good in 1950. We moved to Pascagoula, Mississippi in the spring of 1950. The Electricians went on a strike the first week we were there. Ed drew his unemployment, $20.00 a week. We paid $8.00 per week for our rented room and shared a kitchen. It was nice, we had no responsibilities so we would go to the beach everyday and cook hotdogs or hamburgers. We started going to church and were baptized June 17, 1950. The strike lasted three months. By that time, International Paper Company, had started an addition to the mill in Natchez and we moved back there, to the Pharsalia Apartments, which were brand new and real nice, two bedrooms, kitchen, living room and bath, no air conditioning in those days. That is when we bought furniture, the old mahogany bedroom suite, sofa, chairs and tables for the living room and a red Formica top, chrome kitchen table and chairs. By this time Ed had let me start handling the money and I had him out of debt by the time you cam, Cynthia. You were the answer to my prayers. Ed was real disappointed that you were a girl. Your grandmas Foster always said she was so glad you were a girl because “Son,” (that’s what all his family called him) didn’t get his way for the first time in his life. You were so pretty and you soon won his heart because you cried after him every time he went to work.
Janice came a year later. I didn’t mind because Maurice was pregnant with Susan and we had the best time together. You and Susan were a week apart. I was going to help Maurice when she came from the hospital and then she was going to help me with Janice. I was not due until the first of August, but you came early so we had to call Mildred to come to our rescue. She was always so good to come stay with me when the first three of you were born. She stayed two weeks the next year when I had Edward. Ed was real good to go to church, he even went to Men’s training class when we lived in Natchez.
The construction ended with I.P. Company so we moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, September 1, 1953. He got a job with a construction company driving a truck, and then in March 1954, he was elected business agent and Secretary and Treasurer for the Teamsters of Local #5. He made $75.00 a week.
Baton Rouge was booming. Houses to rent were scarce. We rented a small two bedroom, kitchen, bath and living room on Ellerslie Drive, behind Memorial Stadium. By this time I was pregnant with Edward.
We were doing better financially. We bought a brand new 1954 Ford. Edward was born July 1, 1954, finally a boy. You were so precious. You had the most beautiful brown eyes and dark brown hair.
Ed began to find excuses not to go to church with us. He had union meetings on Sunday morning, so sometimes he would have them at the house and he would keep Edward while we went.
He organized Louisiana Creamery, Holsum and Sunbean Bakeries, and the Refineries that were being built between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I really think he was honest during this time.
We bought a lot on Prescott Road and in 1956 we built a house. I drew the plans and selected everything in it. Ed was very cooperative. It was just what I wanted, 2,586 square feet and a double carport. We moved in December 15, 1956. By this time we had two cars. The Teamsters had bought our 1954 Ford for Ed and we bought me a 1955 red and white Oldsmobile. I suppose that was the happiest time of my life. I really wanted another baby, now that I had this big, pretty house with two bathrooms. I was thrilled when I had you, Teresa. Especially to have one with blue eyes.
Ed bought a truck stop and restaurant on Airline Highway, in April 1959, called the J and L Truck Stop. He also bought and old house with fifty acres out in the country close to Greensburg, Louisiana. He made a garden and mad repairs on the old house. He wanted us to move in it an sell the one on Prescott. I wouldn’t agree to it. I’m sure glad I didn’t. This is when our problems started. He was gone most of the time. Always Union Business or at the Truck Stop Restaurant. Mildred Kelly was a waitress there. I began to have suspicions of her and Ed having an affair. It would make him mad and deny it when I confronted him about it.
I am so thankful you all don’t remember how abusive he was to me. Cynthia, you probably remember some. I might could have tolerated his “other women,” if he had been good to me, but the only good thing about him was his generosity with is money. He thought money could buy anything. He never cared how much money I spent and he never objected of us going to church. He wouldn’t go with us but he was good to help me get you all dress. I am thankful for that. He was continuously buying me things what I called “a peace offering.” He bought me a 1959 Impala Chevrolet and the transmission went out on it with only 80 miles on it. He wanted to have it fixed but I told him I didn’t want it, that I would keep my Oldsmobile. I later found out he had given it to Mildred Kelly. He also started my silver with a place setting and all the serving pieces. He could never save money. He thought it was made to spend. He lavished you all with toys. Edward you had a gun and that lovely knife by the time you were five years old. I guess it’s a good thing I was conservative and learned how to handle money, because by the time we separated I knew how far a dollar would go.
He seemed to blame me for everything, even the fusses you all would have. He insisted I get a maid so I hired Olivia, remember her? She worked for me until we separated.
It was in January 1960 that I knew he was having the affair with Mildred Kelly. He had to go to Washington, DC on union business. He had driven and called me on his way back to tell me he was snow bound right outside of Atlanta, Georgia and would be home when he could. I knew she was with him but when he came home he denied it. I guess he thought if I had another baby that I wouldn’t leave him, so Keith, you were on the way soon after this.
By the summer of 1960, I knew Ed was doing things that were dishonest. He had to go to Atlanta and while he was gone, C.J. Brown, a Baton Rouge realtor, called and told me that the grass needed cutting at the house we had rented on Sevenoaks Drive. I quickly asked what was the house number and he told me. This was a shock to me, so that night I went over there. Ed came to the door but he turned out all the lights and wouldn’t let me in. The next day he told me that he was hiding dynamite for Jimmy Hoffa in that house. He also told me he was on some kind of drugs. I had called your Aunt Mil to come help me decide what to do. She came and I went home with her to Pine Bluff. Ed called everyday, begging me to come home. I was gone about two weeks, but we did go back. When I got home, I realized there was something wrong with him. He tried to keep it from me, but he finally showed me where he had been stabbed, the lowest part of his stomach, a horizontal cut about six inches long. It was always a mystery as to who did it. It needed stitches but he wouldn’t go to the doctor. He had been stabbed on his shoulder about four or five months before this. He wouldn’t tell me who did it either, but wouldn’t go to the doctor. When he left in January, the cut on his stomach had still not healed. In later years, Mrs. Rankin, one of my lawyers, said he probably was bringing in some kind of drugs in the wound. It sounded horrible to me, but I never knew.
Keith, I didn’t think you would ever get here. All the rest of you had been three or four weeks early, so by November 1, I was ready, but you didn’t get here until November the 17th. I worried about you while I was in the hospital, not knowing if Ed would be home, but I had Olivia and she took real good care of you.
Keith was nine days old when Ed told me he had to go to Havana, Cuba to see Fidel Castro. I didn’t believe him, but he gave me a number at the Havana Cabana Hotel for me to call. I called and talked to him, so he was there. This was another mystery. I never knew why he went. When President Kennedy was assassinated, and Lee Harvey Oswald arrested, I really thought Ed was going to be involved, but I don’t suppose there was any connection. When he got back from Cuba, there was some argument we had every day. Marge and Orlan were so good to me, helping me decide what to do. He advised me for one and a half years to stay with him. He would talk with Ed and Ed making promises not to see Mildred Kelly anymore, but finally said that she was blackmailing him. I tried to believe him, but there was always something disturbing and a mystery.
One nite I was giving Keith a bottle. Ed was asleep. I looked down, there under the bed were his shoes with a lot of money in them. I counted it quickly, I would guess about $20,000. I put it in the drawer and the next a.m. he asked where it was. I asked him where he got it. He said it wasn’t his, that he was to pass it on to someone that was to meet him at the Palms Motel. I never knew.
He had made several trips to Chicago, he said, and then
<That’s where Mamma Jean ended her letter. She never finished her story. She passed away from breast cancer a few years later. – Love, Janice>
I was Mamma Jean’s second oldest grandchild, second to Tiffany by ten months, and we were many years older than our other cousins because Aunt Janice had Tiffany at 18 and my dad had me at 17, when my aunts and uncle were in the midst of pueberty. We were the only grandkids who remembered Big Daddy well, before he had gone to prison in 1980, and saw his change when he was released in 1986, five years early, because of declining health due to diabetes and an unspecified heart condition. He died in 1990. The congressional JFK Assassination report was partially released publicly in 1992, and soon after we began asking questions about why things in the media were different than we recalled. Mamma Jean’s letter had been told to us in different versions here and there, which may be why it sounds so well thought out for a first draft. She stopped, first because Tiffany, who was then in her mid twenties, when mental illness manifests the most strongly, stopped taking prescription anti-depressents and took her own life a few weeks later. Mamma Jean slipped into a funk, and then her cancer returned and she never completed her letter, never writing down the details that still haunt all of my aunts and their siblings, that she had fled Big Daddy and hid her children around the time he was in Cuba, just like Wendy had fled my dad when he ws in Kingston; like with Teamster leadership, some patterns seem to perpetuate, and young girls get pregnant when young boy’s sex drives are peaking, and mental illness cruelly manifests a few years later and people change. I hadn’t read Mamma Jean’s letter probably ten years, but speaking with Craig inspired me to reread old notes and look for things I may have overlooked or not understood when I was younger.
I put down my phone and thought about Tiffany, remembering her face and voice and smile and energy. She and I shared the same eyes as Mamma Jean, Aunt Janice, and my dad: so dark of a brown they’re almost black, contrasting with Big Daddy and many of our cousin’s sky blue eyes. And Tiffany was tall, like most Partins other than me. I was the runt of the litter. Tiffany had been homecoming queen in high school, and one of the most popular kids in school – again, unlike me – and her death had shocked us all, family and friends and her community, and especially me, I think, who had looked up to her in more ways than one. I felt she was one of my first and closest friends, and not just a first cousin by chance.
I had been thinking about her, too, on the plane ride. In hindsight, it’s no wonder I was worried about Wendy with all of that rolling around my head on the long and cramped flight.
The Havana band was taking a break, probably before people began filtering in after work, and I felt I should leave soon before the bar became too noisy. I definitely didn’t want the temptation of standing next to a bar after I had already had two dacquiris. I was Wendy’s son, after all, and moderation takes more effort than I felt like putting forth. I put my phone in the padded pocket of my backpack and waited for eye contact with the bartender.
“La cuenta, por favor,” I said. He brought it over, and now that the band was silent we I chatted. He asked how I spoke Spanish so well. I chuckled to imply I was flattered or that it wasn’t a big deal, however he interpreted a chuckle, and said I lived in San Diego, on the border of Tijuana, and I couldn’t help but learn Spanish, “como la o’smosis.” He chuckled back at that, which told me I probably pronounced it correctly.
Bartenders usually think I speak better than I do, probably because most people speak predictively, especially in the first first five minutes. When you practice the same phatic comments again and again, you can sound fluent for about five mintues, and I sounded fluent to bartenders, especially when I chatted about food and beer. I used just enough atypical words, like ‘la o’smosis,” that people assumed I knew more than I do. I was marginally decent at ordering food and drinks in about a dozen languages, and could say things like please, thank you, and “where’s the bathroom?” in about a dozen more, but only if the bartenders were used to tourists mispronouncing words and read body language; it’s easy to realize someone needs to pee. I’d be lost in a real conversation in almost any language, but I’m pretty good at reading body language and laughing when other people laugh, and looking up the words they used on my phone later. My memory isn’t as sharp as Momma Jean’s, it’s more like one of the rusted blunt instruments in the back of a tool shed, useful for some things but not all, though it’s more reliable than a lot of other people’s. I know my mind’s a blunt tool, which is why I read quite a bit and try to sharpen it, or at least keep the words handy as a backup tool to help when I need it.
I can’t tell you how I know a lot of the things I know about Hoffa and the Kennedy’s, other than to assume I learned as a kid via osmosis. My dad doesn’t remember most of his time from being five years old around Big Daddy and the Teamsters, either, but also seems to know a lot about history without knowing how. Mamma Jean would have been our best reference, especialy with her attention to details and sticky memory. She would have written a fine memoir. After the JFK Report, when books about Hoffa and Kennedy were all the rage, we asked her why she didn’t capitalize on the timing. She never wanted for anything other than a safe home for her children, she said, and that was that. She, like I, preferred time more than anything, and appreciated the subtle pleasure that came from not feeling pain or rehashing history. As she said, and I can see her eyes sparkling as I reread it,
The band began plaing again and I paid in U.S. Dollars and said, with eye contact and a nod of my head that could be heard over the band, “No necicitto cambio.” The bartender picked up the cash and smiled genuinely and waved as he said “Gracias! Buen viaje!” I put on my backpack and turned towards the door and began walking out. I dropped $5 bill folded in half into the band’s tip jar and smiled and clasped my hands and bowed a thank you to them without interrupting. One of the trumpet players locked eyes with me and nodded back with his horn without missing a note, and I limped to my downtown casa particular, trying not to limp and realizing how tired I must be to not even walk straight. Anyone watching probably assumed it was the daquiris, and maybe they’d be right.
I arrived at the casa and spoke with the hosts politely yet briefly, then went to my room with a window overlooking a small courtyard and laid down a travel towel, one of the ones advertised to soak up many times its weight in water and dry quickly, and stretched out on the floor and did a bit of yoga. The year before, I had spent three months in Nepal and India, and learned that I did yoga when a few gurus asked if I were doing this move or that; until then, I had thought I was stretching, the same moves from high school wrestling practice plus a few to elongage the tight muscles and scar tissue connecting each corner of my skull to my spine, hips, and ankles. Apparently, I have good form for poses I can’t pronounce, and since then, when I stretch I say I’m doing yoga or dancing if someone asks. Between you and me, it’s just stretching, but saying yoga instead of stretching satisfies people the same way they don’t ask more questions when I say I’m on sabbatical rather than a vacation. Both are ways to enjoy life longer.
After a shower that, as a spoiled person who likes long hot showers, could have been hotter and with more pressure, I fell asleep and slept surprisingly well, without a trace of the worry I had felt all day. I woke to the smell of a homemade breakfast. Pork, of course, in a Cuban family’s home; I’m mostly vegetarian, indulging in seafood when I travel to islands, but even The Buddha’s last meal had been pork because someone made it for him, and I’m not so spoiled that I’d decline breakfast made by a host family. I had read in my Lonely Planet guide that after the Berlin Wall fell and Cuba lost its benefactor, famine lasted almost a decade and everyone ate all the pigs, chickens, and varmits from the marshes, and the average person lost more than 22 pounds, more than I ever lost in a wrestling season, and I did it by choice. Having pork again was celebrated. I’d be an asshole to decline it and ask for an acai bowl or fresh avocado toast. Besides, just imagining bacon makes me drool, and I was on vacation and life was short and few things were worth worrying about; just ask The Buddha.
I chatted with the hosts, did more yoga, and I walked towards the Plaza de San Francisco de Assi. My only awkward visa requirement was not exchanging currency with government owned businesses, and along the way to the plaza I searched for private vendors. I bought another WiFi card from one, and a small knife and a small pair of needle nosed pliers from another. I’ve carried a knife since I was four or five years old, like my dad and his father before him, but hadn’t been able to carry one on an airplane since 9/11 and I felt naked without one, especially when I’d be diving and climbing and usually carried a multitool with pliers and screwdrivers. A pair of needle nose pliers is useful for tightening nuts and bolts of many sizes on boats and dive tanks, and the long tapered end can slip into a knot and loosen it without Gordian measures that damage the rope, which is a wise thing to consider when you’re life depends on the integrity of that rope. Like my dad, I had carried a knife since I was about five years old; a gun, too, though that wasn’t allowed on airplanes even before 9/11, and I wasn’t foolish enough to cary one in a foreign country now that I was a civilian and without an extraction team.
I put my booty in a tiny daypack I carried in my carryon backpack, along with a reusable bottle full of water, a Lonely Planet Cuba guide, a deck of cards, four Kennedy half dollars, and a handful of miscellaneous personal items like a pack of gum and hand wipes, and a spoon; I like yogurt and ice cream, but dislike throwing away plastic spoons. A few years before, I added reading glasses and a telescoping hiking pole to my personal items, though I had forgotten the pole on this trip, just like I used to forget my glasses before acquiescing to the inevitable. In a worse case, I could buy one in Havana, but it would unlikely be an ultralight telescoping one that could be stashed in my bag when I felt more mobile. I had a homemade first aid kit, a version of which I’ve carried wherever I travel for more than thirty years. My tiny daypack was bulging and almost as big as my carry on, just without the shoes and fins and toiletries and a few changes of clothes, but it was worth having a few personal items while I walked around. If you can fix people and fix things, you can earn a livelihood almost anywhere there are people. Mentally, I felt more comfortable with daypack on, even with a sore body that would rather the load be lightened. To help blend in, everything I carried was a bit worn and scuffed, but neither old nor young. If someone glanced at me, I’d blend in as someone who enjoyed traveling and did it often, and probably didn’t need directions or any other assistance. If they looked closely, they would have noticed I wore an old Seiko analog dive watch, the type with a rotating bezel to mark time underwater, and big, Tritium Roman numbers easy to see in dark or murky water. It’s the type of watch someone who had been diving a long time would wear; it was solar powered, which had been revolutionary at the time, and I hadn’t had to change a battery or wind it in decades, though I had gone through at least a dozen bands.
Almost everything I carried had ulterior motives that I’d only discuss if an opportunity presented itself. The daypack was an ultralight waterproof packable bag from Sea-To-Summit, founded by an Australian entrepreneur whose name I never remember. The Lonely Planet listed the names of the husband and wife who founded it in 1973, and I knew they had recently sold their business to BBC for a 51 million Euros or so. I had ordered the book and bag from Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, using my Steve Jobs iPhone, and with voice commands spoken through my earbuds or iBuds or whatever they’re called using third party software designed by another innovator.
If I had checked bags, I would have had a multitool from Portland engineer and inventor Tim Leatherman, or one of the plethora of options available since Tim’s patents expired a few years earlier. (I had lost more Victorianox keychains than I can remember since 9/11.) My scuba fins for Force Fins, short, stubby, thick split toes invented by a guy for SEALs and Rangers in, I think, the mid 1980’s to be compact and portable, designed to move far fast for those with strong legs, and their open toe design is useful for people with big feet and wanted to have only one carryon bag, like me. If pressed, I could tell you who invented the bone screws in my ankle, and how they became commercialized and distributed by the VA, and we could chat about the eye glasses I wore, and the company that developed transition lenses that were more likely to be worn consistently than bifocals, mostly due to vanity, but were much more costly than carrying reading glasses and therefore a doorway into what constitutes equitable healthcare.
As for the cards and coins, I just liked practicing magic tricks more than scrolling through my phone, except when I was rereading old letters or court reports and had a purpose.
If I spoke with Wendy, I’d tell her about what was in my bag, because it would probably make her laugh. She had always enjoyed my card tricks and encouraged me to perform as a kid, driving me to magic club meetings. And I’d tell her about the Force Fins, because she used to complain about how much she spent on shoes every time I hit a growth spurt, and she said I still hadn’t grown into them; I’m 5’11, but I wear 14W shoes. I travel with fins and climbing shoes because guides and rental shops rarely have my size. More than once, on unplanned diving trips, a rental shop employee has joked that they didn’t have my size, but with 14 Wide feet I probably didn’t need fins. Jerks. Wendy had said the same thing the one time we went diving together in Cozumel, but she had smiled and her eyes had crinkled and we had laughed together about it.
I arrived at Plaza de San Francisco de Assi and learned that Cristi had been unable to reach Wendy; but, that was typical both because of Wendy’s remote home, and her tendency to be emotionally unavailable for weeks or months at a time, so I wasn’t surprised. The reporters were en route to Vinales and would be ready for when I arrived. A few other messages could wait until I returned home; though one reached out and grabbed my mind, and I paused before closing the message from JoJo, an 28 year adult who was a foster kid when I was appointed his CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocate, in San Diego County.
“Hey, J,” he began. “It’s JoJo. You’re probably traveling, and I hope you’re well.”
He paused, not like Wendy, but to ensure I understood. He knew my hearing wasn’t great. And, when he was a kid, I had encouraged him to pause when speaking to a judge, to look for understanding or confusion before continuing. It’s a good habit for anyone, I think.
“I’m good,” he continued. We had also talked about setting expectations at the beginning of a call, so people wouldn’t worry about him. “I was just in an incident, and I wanted to ask you about it. But it can wait.”
“Remember to smile more. Buen viaje, I love you, Goodbye.”
Nothing felt out of the ordinary, and I didn’t re-listen to his message, but I thought about him before deciding whether or not to try calling him back.
JoJo’s worth focusing on for a moment.
JoJo was, and hopefully is, Alvaro Giovani “JoJo” Lopez. He’s 28 years old male, dark skinned and of obvious mixed races that include Hispanic and Native American. He’s almost always smiling kindly, and his dark brown eyes are usually wide open and attentive. Most people first notice his height and tattoos; he’s 6.2″ and lean but not thin, and a row of black tattoos snakes out of his shirt and up the left side of his neck, and two drip from the corner of his right eye. A bright red lipstick mark is tattooed on the right side of his neck. His head is cropped short, and he can seem intimidating at first glance, if you don’t know him. If his sleeves are rolled up, you would see dark blue tattoos swirled into a thick soup of symbols on his left forearm, and words like “Trust,” “Family,” “Love,” “Honor thy Mother & Father,” etc. On his right forearm, you’d see an immaculately detailed face of a baby girl in fine black lines, shaded to show her round baby cheeks. Under it, you’d see an elaborate, Victorian looking font and her name, Victoria, coincidentally named like the keychain pocket knife I often have taken at airports, which was named for the founder’s mother, Victoria. JoJo had Victoria when he was fifteen years old, locked up in a San Diego youth center for unadoptable foster kids to big and inimidating looking for foster homes, where he met Victoria’s mother, coincidentally named Christy, short for Christina, a girl no bigger than Wendy, and they hit it off and produced Victoria, who recently graduated from high school and lives with her adoptive parents, but only after six years of custody court.
JoJo was named by his mother, who tossed in a gumbo mix of nationalities to hopefully name JoJo with whichever nationality was his father, out of a handful of choices she had at the time. She missed the mark, though, and his dad was a homeless Native American from a nearby sovereign nation, one that ran an average sized casino in San Diego County in the canyons between City Heights and El Cajon. Because of the 1978 Indian Welfare Act, JoJo’s tribal council had to be counseled with his every move in the foster system, adding to bureaucracy and tacking years onto the the process. JoJo eventually became unadoptable, a word used by social services, and he emancipated at age 16. By then, he had been bounced between a dozen foster homes, 29 social workers, more outreach programs than I can count, three years at Atascadero State Hospital, a prison for mentally ill and addicts, where he learned yoga, meditation, and gemstone cutting as a possible career; he was released with $127 and a train ticket back to San Diego, which he used to drink six 6.2% alcohol IPA’s and call me. He had only one CASA.
JoJo was born in City Heights, where he was born, is a densely packed urban zone that has been used for refugee settlements since before I was born, and it’s a poverty ridden city of about 74,000 people packed into hundreds of four story apartments and businesses area the size of downtown Havana, about two miles wide. Academics and sociologists refer to City Heights as America’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood, citing 82 languages and more than 168 dialects spoken within a mile and a half radius, and use it to study and report about international sex trafficking syndicates, citing its poverty and proximity to both Mexico and Los Angeles as possible variables unique to City Heights compared to other poor regions of America. The median income of a family of four is under $24,000, though City Heights is only eight miles from La Jolla, America’s most expensive town, which is saying a lot. I think homes begin around $10 or 11 Million there, but I’m not sure, because I’ve never shopped for a home in LaJolla.
Rent, even in City Heights, is rarely under $2,000 for shitty little Section 8 subsidized housing, and one bedrooms often have two or more families crammed together, often willing to do almost anything for money. If any Americans wanted to see second or third world living conditions, they didn’t have to travel too far, but the only adventure sports in City Heights is climbing fences and dodging bullets; it has San Diego’s highest murder rate, too.
Statistically, according to the academic researchers, JoJo hit the mark. Of emancipated kids, about 80% will end up in jail, more than 30% before they’re 21; only 14% will attend college, and only 3% graduate school. Of the 80% in jail, 80% of them will return to jail again and again, and their children are just as likely to repeat the pattern. There are around 400,000 foster kids in America, officially, and probably more than that in atypical living situations with friends and family but without state funding. Being an emancipated foster kid is different than being adopted, like Steve Jobs, who was adopted from an agency; Bezos, who was adopted by his stepdad; or Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s Hamburgers, who was adopted from an agency and spent millions simplifying the system for others; because as an emancipated kid you’re on your own at a young age, not unlike my mom and many others, and almost all kids on their own too soon suffer from PTSD or genetic learning differences. They’re not unlike most people in jail, regardless of how they got there, and 2.7 million people were incarcerated in America in 2019, when we had about 320 Million people: almost 1 out of every 120 men, women, and children locked up in the land of the free. JoJo had originally gone to juvenile jail for beating a meth dealer senseless because the meth dealer’s gang threatened one of JoJo’s older brothers. He became a pacifist, and was arrested for “an incident” years later and was raped in jail and has HIV.
Interestingly, to me, most people forget that after Jimmy Hoffa got out of prison, he began a short lived campaign to reform America’s prison system, and newly elected President Nixon had planned on sending Hoffa to Hanoi and negotiate the release of American POW’s before Hoffa disappeared, coincidentally, around the time the Vietnam conflict officially ended in 1975. In his autobiography, published just before he vanished, he talks about the need for prison reform extensively. I often wonder what America would be like if Hoffa had lived, what a man so driven that he revolutionized labor unions internationally would do after spending six yeas in prison pondering his next move, and what any of us could do to help kids like JoJo. I don’t know if Jimmy Hoffa knew the statistics about prisoners, or what he would have thought about the median cost of keeping someone in jail in America is around $76,000, more than three times the median income of a family of four in City Heights, but I’m sure he would have had a lot to say about it. Just as interestingly, few people remember that the final bill signed by President John F. Kennedy, whom Hoffa publicly and vociferously hated, ordering American flags at all Teamster’s locals locals all over the world to fly at full mast the day Kennedy was shot and killed, was the 1963 Community Healthcare Act, three weeks before he was possibly shot and killed by Oswald, a veteran with a long history of mental illness, who was then shot by Ruby, also a veteran with a long history of mental illness. It’s enough to make you crazy.
I didn’t know where to begin processing big number statistics, so I had volunteered as JoJo’s CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocate, to do what I could when I could. In CASA training, the first thing they do is show case studies of CASA’s who adopted the kids, and how badly that seems to go; sometimes, a bit of distance is healthy, like the Robert Frost poem about good fences making good neighbors, or the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt; or, at least intolerance and impatience. My phone number was the only one he remembered that was still owned by the same person, and I’d be an asshole to at least not listen to his message before beginning vacation.
I sighed, but didn’t try to call JoJo back. The numbers he called from were usually a borrowed phone, and he wouldn’t be standing beside them by the time I tried to call back, or he’d score one of the charitable Obama phones distributed from pop-up booths in City Heights parking lots, but he’d invariable use up too quickly for me to reach him on that number.
I was feeling exceptionally old and tired. My body hurt, and I was worried about Wendy. I wanted to be on vacation. I deleted JoJo’s voice mail and told myself I’d try to find him when I returned. At the same time, I called myself selfish. An asshole. PawPaw had been a man no bigger than Wendy, but he had stood up to the Partins and done so with a smile on his wiry little face while working full time at Glen Oaks and juggling several side gigs to pay for me, without any payments from the state, and never taking a vacation. He left me with shoes so big I couldn’t fill them on my best day, and he had been on my mind during the flight, too. I grew up lucky, a safety net woven under me with threads from men like PawPaw, Mike, Coach, Uncle’s Bob and Keith, and members of the Baton Rouge magic club. True, I also grew up surrounded by big, violent men: I was the son of an angry drug dealer, and the grandson of a rapist, murderer, lier, thief, adulterer, gangster, and, according to Mamma Jean, a man who stopped going to church on Sundays. Even my Great Grandpapy Grady Partin had been in and out of jail during the depression, and a drunkard during prohibition, and had run out on Grandma Foster. When I was 16, after Uncle Bob died and Wendy had another nervous breakdown, I, too, was emancipated, and in 1989 I became a legal adult, just like JoJo. But, at least Wendy knew who my father was; and thankfully she didn’t name me Edward Grady Partin the Third. I wouldn’t know what to do with a name like that.
Mentorship is still the number one cause of change, statistically speaking. I don’t know how to statistically quantify self-mentorship or realization, nor do I know how to mentor everyone, much less someone I only see now and then for a burrito and to discuss the latest incident, so I try my best at mentorship whenever I have time and energy to spare.
I sighed again, and adjusted my posture to stop favoring my right hip and be more upright, and tried to relax. There wasn’t much I could do to help JoJo, though I still felt badly for at least not trying to call; truthfully, I always felt a hit guilty speaking with him when I was traveling, knowing he was lucky to find somewhere safe to sleep that night. I heard Uncle Bob’s final words ringing in my ears, to live a life without regrets, and I deleted JoJo’s message and decided to continue my journey and to check back on him and Wendy whenever I was passing back though Havana, when I could do something other than worry.
I returned to the downtown casa particular, said “hasta luego,” put on my bigger backpack with the Force Fins strapped to the outside, and walked around to find a privately owned 1950’s classic car. I’m spoiled and demanding, so I searched the cars lined up along the malecon until I found a convertible, one with updated speakers and Bluetooth, and a cheerful owner with a big smile under a bushy mustache who wore a sun faded black hipster hat. I think the Cubans call it a “canotier,” a straw hat to shade your head but still allow cool breezes, but in San Diego we call them hipster hats. I had been tempted to bring mine, but opted for an LSU baseball cap that was more packable and would be remarkable in Cuba; it would help people remember me when I returned to a bar or casa particular.
Unlike Big Daddy, who was a handsome, strawberry blonde and blue eyed walking mountain of a man who would have stood out anywhere, especially in a country of mostly average sized, dark complected people, I’m average height and size and have brown eyes. I blend in much more easily, unless you notice my feet or the giant backwards letter C shaped scar across the back of my scalp, or my broken left ring finger that forms my left hand into a permanent V shape. A remarkable hat helps me stick in people’s minds without drawing attention to my feet or scars, and it’s easier to remove if I don’t want to be remembered. I never bothered worrying about the conflicting reports on Oswald’s locations, because I know how easy it is to be remembered or forgotten, how physical traits or accents can be emphasized, deemphasized, or faked. I can choose whether or not to roll up my sleeves and allow my tattoos to be seen, and I don’t have any on my neck. Yet. But I was on vacation, and prone to impulsive decisions.
Per how I interpreted my ambiguous visa, I had to exchange money with private owners, not employees or government owned businesses, which sounded ideal to me. I admired the Hipster’s car, not wanting to be nosey and ask if it were his, and he proudly said it had been his fathers’. I’m not a car person, so I can’t tell you what type it was, just that it was a convertible and looked like belonged on television’s Happy Days or a older Beach Boys video, and I was stoked about the possibility of riding to Vinales with the top down, at least until we were beyond site of the ocean, or within view of the mountains when we approached Vinales. After some negotiations, and a brief discussion on the merits of the Buena Vista Social Club, the driver agreed to drive me the two or so hours to Vinales, where I couldn’t imagine anything being on my mind other than having fun for the next few weeks.
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