Neighbor Carl

“And Kennedy made him a national hero,” my neighbor, Carleton summarized, “and that’s the only reason he didn’t go to jail for rape, murder, kidnapping, and, ironically, perjury? Just to get Hoffa?”

Carleton was a visual editor for small films and local businesses advertising on the internet, and of course had already seen Scorsese’s The Irishman in the big theater downtown. My grandfather had a small part in it as the surprise witness who sent Hoffa to prison, but Scorsese had skipped over details to squeeze the story into theaters. Carleton had borrowed my copy of The Irishman and had read my summary of Big Daddy that I had posted on my blog earlier that day. It was late at night and everyone had gone to bed except for him and Cristi and me, and we were sitting on the balcony together, enjoying the pleasant San Diego evening and listening to the faint sound of lions roaring in the Balboa zoo.

“But,” I said, hoping to change topics back to my dad. “His drug arrests were already on file. I learned that today. Here…”

I showed Carleton and Cristi the file on my phone. Not only were his old records available, but so were his lawsuits against the states of Arkansas and Louisiana. After he went to prison in 1985 for drug dealing and after I left Louisiana, he returned to college and earned saledictorian of Arkansas State University with degrees in political science and history, and then he graduated with honors from law school, and had even won a national essay competition and was flown to Washington DC to speak in front of congress to advocate the constitutionally legality of burning an American flag in protest of Desert Storm. He returned to Arkansas and easily passed the bar his first time, which is remarkable, then moved back to Louisiana and passed Louisiana’s bar under their unique Napoleonic law system, more related to King Louis and Queen Anna’s French codes than the common law in every other state. Very few people do that, and most get a degree from LSU or Tulane to practice in Louisiana or as part of a bigger plan to focus on international law. But, he hadn’t done his homework before starting down his path, and he learned eight years later that both states had laws that prevented former convicted felons from voting, owning guns, or practicing law. He had sued the system and represented himself and won, even taking cases all the way up to the supreme court, something fewer than 0.01% of lawyers do, and he had been in the news quite a bit when I was younger. In the state’s arguement against him, they had used his drug dealing convictions from when he was 18 and had abandoned my mom and me to go off somewhere and buy wholesale drugs, American prescription opiods, according to the records; probably from new offshore third party manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico back then, probably because Big Daddy had known the local Teamsters there well and my dad shared his name. Despite his history, he won suits in both states and they changed their laws because of his tenacity, and he became a Louisiana public criminal defendant and fought just as hard for anyone who needed a free lawyer; even the Miranda Rights tell us that. It was all online, and I was only repeating what had been in the court records. He had precided over controversial cases, still angry and intense, but adamenently adhering to the constitution and the Miranda Rights that reminded everyone that they had the right to remain silent, and to have access to a free public defendant. He was a good man, and I hoped that by me saying it, I could emphasize the significance of what my dad must have overcome and the importance of his work in an emotionally connected way, not just a list of facts.

Carleton shared his thoughts and I listened and answered a lot more questions than I would have liked. He was just a kid. A good friend and neighbor, but only thirty or so years old. As Frank said in The Irishman,

“Nowadays, young people, they don’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was. They don’t have a clue. I mean, maybe they know that he disappeared or something, but that’s about it. But back then, there wasn’t nobody in this country who didn’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was.”

Carleton knew the name Hoffa about as well as he knew Amelia Earheart, and he made a joke about seeing their names together in a Far Side comic that implied both had gone missing and we never found their bodies or knew what had happened. He wasn’t sure what a Teamster was, and can’t imagine America in the early 60’s, when the mafia was an unknown concept and organized crime was denied by the president. Back then, people thought crime was by one or two people, never part of a bigger plot, and that Hoffa’s 2.7 million Teamsters controlled everything shipped in and out of America, and across the newly built interstate system; if he called a strike, he could shut down the world’s largest economy. That was a power few people today understood, and I didn’t know how to convey it and didn’t want to try. The closest we have to that in pop culture today would be people like Elon Musk or Richard Branson, or maybe celebrities with hundreds of millions of Twitter followers (before Elon bought Twitter) or TikTok or whatever else was up and coming; Beyonce had 168 million Twitter followers, and could probably steer a democratic election, if she wanted. Hoffa was like that. Carleton had no idea. Like Ken said, he viewed Hoffa as Al Pacio or Rober Blake or a character in a video game, not as a real person.

I sipped my beer and partially engaged in the conversation, though my thoughts were on my father. We had been estranged since I returned form the war, though he had called to say he was sorry about Wendy passing; he hadn’t spoken with her since I was a little boy, but he said she was a good woman. He was right, and I had been thinking about what the bible said about honoring your mother and father. To me, that was more important than Hoffa or Elon; I was on the fence about Beyonce, especially after her Lemonade album. But I still didn’t know how to do honor my mother and father, and I know my dad had a rough time honoring his. Because I was in the foster system, I don’t even know to explain that my definition of mother or father may be different than other people’s, and I thought I’d like to write about that, if I could. I had taken a sabatical and had plenty of time and people who loved me and good neighbors and a peaceful place to live. I felt lucky to be alive.

“Maybe that’s all it means,” I said, fighting back tears I felt forming. They looked at me, wondering what I meant, but I didn’t feel like saying more. They chatted and let me practice my Miranda Rights and remain silent, thankfully.

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