“Edward Grady Partin was a big, rugged guy who could charm a snake off a rock.”Jimmy Hoffa
The three of us were sitting on our balcony and enjoying breakfast tacos served with thinly sliced avodado and homemade hot sauce, when Hope saw Cranky Ken approaching along the sidewalk between us and Balboa Park.
She finished chewing and waved her cute little hand and said, “Hey Ken!”
He put down his empty mop bucket and a big bottle of liquid laundry soap and looked up and said, “Hey, Sweetheart. I’m happy to see you.” He looked up and said, “Hey, Cristi. Beautiful day, ain’t it!”
He looked at me and said, “I don’t know why people use powdered soap. It clogs the washing machine and I have to fix it. Don’t they see all the frickin’ signs I put all over the laundry room? I should raise all of their rents and make them figure it out! What a bunch of frickin’ morons. I tell you…”
I interjected and asked him if he’d like to stop by for a homebrew after he fixed the machine. I had another bottle of the porter he liked, I said. His eyes lit up and he said sure, that he’d be back in a bit, and he picked up his bucket and liquid soap and limped up the street.
We finished our breakfast tacos, and Cristi and Hope went off an adventure in Balboa Park and I did the dishes and waited for Cranky Ken to return.
Ken had bought several small apartment buildings facing Balboa Park in the 1970’s, when San Diego was still a sleepy little surf city on the border of Mexico that most traffic bypassed on the way to Los Angeles and Hollywood and the hustle and bustle up there. Times changed, and recently a Chinese investment firm offered him $10.7 Million for the two story apartment building with 12 unites and a frequently clogged washing machine. They wanted to tear it down and build a high rise condo with underground parking and security gates, like most of Midtown San Diego had become.
Ken received around $1,000 per month rent for his apartments, but a condo sold for between $3 million and $7 million, depending on how high up and away from the sidewalk you were, and if you preferred a sunrise view of Balboa Park and the mountains or a sunset view of the Pacific Ocean. The only limitation were strict building height codes because the San Diego airport was only a mile down the hill, and Midtown buildings had to be low enough to not interfere with the flight path; that’s why garages went underground, and why Balboa Park would never be Central Park, and only a relatively few number of people could live there and enjoy the views. Investors could tear down Ken’s place and use relatively inexpensive labor from Mexico to build a new building and sell each condo and easily make three or four times their $10.7 million offer, but so could Ken.
Investors were always hoping that Ken would sell at least one of his buildings or his downtown bar. But, he kept telling them to go fuck themselves – his words – and he told them that they’d have to pry the title from his cold, dead hands. Every time they handed him their business cards, Ken would shove it in his pocket and throw it away as soon as he was near a trash can, sometimes at my condo when he walked by in the mornings and stopped to tell me what he thought about things.
For Ken, time and money meant different things than it did for most of us, and he seemed to appreciate that our balcony was always being used, and that we loved Balboa Park as much as I’m sure he did.
He had grown up poor and had had a rough time as a teenager, working the frigid docks of New York harbor, loading and unloading big shipping crates for mafia bosses and handing the contents over to Teamsters who brought the goods to Chicago, Detroit, and the burgeoning city of Las Vegas. He had dreamed of owning one of the fancy condos on Central Park, and when he became wealthy one snowy winter in the 70’s, he decided to do better than Central Park and he moved to sunny San Diego and began buying real estate around Baloba Park and Hillcrest.
Ken only came by early in the mornings and rarely ever saw the tenants in his several small buildings. Over time, he grew to love them, and didn’t want to see them turned into condos that blocked sunshine for te trees, and were cost prohibitive for families with kids who would enjoy the park more than adults seemed to; he was too old to relive his youth, but he enjoyed seeing kids happy and carefree, fluttering around the thriving trees like butterflies, like he had wanted to be. He rented his small apartments for remarkably cheap monthly rates and without checking people’s credit, and many of his tenants and had lived there for more than ten years with hardly any change to their rent, increasing with inflation at the most; though others had their rent raised by 10% or $100 per month, whichever California’s strict landlord laws would allow, until the tenants saw the pattern and realized why they had a month-to-month lease and moved elsewhere, with less of a view and no trees and no handwritten signs telling them to stop clogging the fucking washing machine or leave.
Most people mailed their monthly checks – he was old school, and still demanded checks instead of transfers or online payments – and I don’t know if any of them knew who Cranky Ken was. I only did because my balcony faced the sidewalk, and I had seen him lugging big bottles of liquid soap up the street for years and morning had invited him over for a beer one morning. He had told me that he appreciated that I had set up a compromise with my bank, automatically mailing him checks that arrived a few days before rent was due. He said that other people were a pain in his ass – his words – and would forget to mail their check or wait too late or, even more infuriating, the check would bounce. He appreciated that my checks had arrived a few days early for years, and had never bounced. He then asked if I were related to Edward Partin, and ever since then he had been unfiltered in his opinion about a lot of things, if not everything, and my balcony had become one of his favorite morning spots to enjoy a beer for what was, to him, happy hour.
I pulled a porter from the fridge and set it on the balcony to warm up just a bit, and set aside two tulip glasses. I realized that I had something that I thought Ken would appreciate, a calling card from when I was younger, and I pulled it out and put it beside his glass. My mother had passed away in Baton Rouge four months prior, and when I was settling her estate I had found a few things from my youth that I was giving away. I was almost 46, about 30 years younger than Ken, and, like him, I was old school and enjoyed sitting down to chat and sharing things.
I stood, staring at the calling card, and lost in thought. I had found it by the photos at my mother’s home in Baton Rouge, along with some of my old medals she had saved, and I had almost forgotten about it until Ken said something that reminded me. It was the size of a business card and faded and frayed, held together over thirty years because I had laminated with strips of Scotch tape many years before. One side had a large black and white Ace of Spaces with a skull in the center of the spade, and the skull was wearing an 82nd Airborne beret with the ubiquitous parachute wings spread across the spade. The other side said, “I’m an American Paratrooper. If you’re recovering my body, kiss my cold, dead ass.” I had been using it as a bookmark while researching my family history. I picked up the card and smiled a bit.
Ken walked in without knocking and his pockets jingled with quarters retrieved from the washing machine. I didn’t wait to hear about the soap and I handed Ken the faded Ace of Spades and told him the quick story, and he said thanks and shoved it in his pocket and plopped down in a chair and sipped his beer.
“This is good!” he exclaimed. “I still prefer Guiness. It’s better in Ireland, but okay here. But these kid bartenders here don’t know how to pour it. I gotta teach ’em, every time. They won’t learn on their own. Bunch of frickin’ lazy bastards, these kids today. I tell you!”
Ken had bought a bar in one of the other neighborhoods circling Balboa Park and converted it to an Irish pub and named it after his family. He had always had been and Night Owl, and in the 60’s and 70’s he had enjoyed a Guiness when he got off the dock worker’s night shift. His happy hour still began around 6 or 7 am, but few San Diego bars were open then, unlike the more old school and rough around the edges port towns of New York and New Orleans, where some bars don’t even open until midnight. The few he had found in San Diego that were open didn’t know how to pour a proper pint of Guinness and he got tired of telling them how, so he bought a dive bar for around $20 Million just for it’s liquor license – San Diego liquor licenses are often more valuable than the buildings – and refurbished it with a few bits of Irish decor named it after his Irish family, and it opened at 6am. But, for some reason, not many of his bartenders stayed long, and he kept having to train new ones so that he could enjoy a proper pint after getting quarters from his apartments’s laundry rooms once a week.
I liked his bar, but I never saw him there because I went there for Tuesday night celtic music with a few friends once a month or so. Like Ken, I was a night owl, and I could enjoy some of my friends in the evenings at one of the hundreds of bars within biking distance and still share a porter with Ken once a week or three. More than that would be a bit too much; good fences make good neighbors, as they say, and sometimes a fence is simply time and space away from someone nicknamed Cranky Ken.
Ken looked at my bookshelf and asked, “You seen the Irishman yet?”
I told him I hadn’t, that a lot had been going on. I hadn’t told him that my mother had died, and that I had been going back and forth to Baton Rouge to finish details of her estate. I didn’t want to talk about it.
Ken said he was sorry for my loss and that he had seen it, and he told me what he thought about Frank “The Irishman” Sheenan, a former WWII infantryman turned mafia hitman who claims to have killed Hoffa in 1975.
“They got a lot right, but it was a movie and not real life. It was for men my age. We grew up seeing Pacino and Peci and those guys play mob bosses. Wise guys; if you believed Hollywood. But it wasn’t like that. Frank told how it was as best he could, but no one today gets it. He said that in his book, that no one today gets it. They see too many movies, like Wise Guys and Goodfellas. The Godfather was good, though. No one today realizes how Hoffa shaped all that; Hollywood and Vegas and the families. He was the most famous man in America! Working class. We looked up to him. He didn’t take shit from no one! Not even the Kennedys or the families. But people today confuse actors with real people. Pacino was no Hoffa, let me tell you! But Pacino does Pacino well, and we pay to see Pacino. He said the words right, but he said them as Pacino. Pecci did a good job as Chucky, though. Gotta give him that. DeNiro did Frank okay, but he smiled too much. That big guy from Casino did your grandfather good, too, but got the accent all wrong. Partin sounded like you. Southern. Talked slow. Smiled more than that big guy.”
I sipped my porter and waited for a pause. Ken looked across the street at the big Mississippi Magnolia tree where Hope was climbing with Cristi under her, arms upraised, ready to catch her if she slipped and fell.
“I can see Frank doing it,” Ken said. “Like Pacino said in The Godfather: it’s just business. Fitzgerald had changed the Teamsters, and Hoffa was gettin’ old and had Nixon in his pocket, but the families don’t care about presidents. Scorsese got that right in one line. I didn’t know the guy who said it, but it was good. Somethin’ like they can whack The President, they can whack Hoffa.”
That guy was Bufalino, Hoffa’s lead attorney in the Test Fleet case where my grandfather was the surprise witness who sent Hoffa to prison.
I sipped my porter and waited for what I suspected Ken would ask.
“Well?” he asked.
I asked him, “What?”
I tried to not assume what people were thinking, even when I was pretty sure what they were wondering, and I often ask questions to clarify.
“Did he do it?”
“No, no, no!” Cranky Ken said in a tone of voice that made me, for a moment, contemplate moving to a balcony farther from the sidewalk to allow more time and space between our chats.
“I told you I knew Frank. Hoffa. Did he do it. I can’t see it. Hoffa was too smart to talk that blunt. Did he do it? Did he ask Partin bribe the Negro?”
Sometimes I’m mistaken. Ken believed Frank killed Hoffa on behalf of the mob who owed Hoffa hundreds of millions of dollars. He didn’t focus on the author’s comments in l later editions, adding allusuions that Hoffa was involved in President Kennedy’s assassination; duffle bags of sniper rifles, like the one that killed Kennedy. Ken was like a lot of us, and we enforce our own beliefs subconsciously, reading deeply what we understand and skimming over seemingly irrelevant details.
He was uninterested in who killed Kennedy, but he was the most well versed person I had ever met about Jimmy Hoffa and mafia movies. When Ken said “the Negro” he meant the juror in the Test Fleet case against Hoffa, a police officer named James. My grandfather had testified that Hoffa asked him to give James $20,000 from the Teamster petty cash box and influence him to throw the trial; my grandfather’s word sent Hoffa to prison, despite James never knowing what had allegedly been planned for him.
Ken knew James’s name, but he said “the Negro” because he spoke like his generation, and I tried not to judge anyone. Cristi was – to use Ken’s phrasing – part Negro, but few people realized that. She looked like a well tanned San Diegan, or one of my friends who visited from Baton Rouge or New Orleans and had the darkened complexion of Creoles, all of whom had some African blood in them. We never saw the need to share our backgrounds with anyone, unless it was relevant to helping them feel comfortable. Cristi felt we were all the same.
People of Ken’s generation didn’t mean anything by it; even Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren had called James “the Negro” in the 1964 supreme court case, Hoffa vs. The United States. No one doubted Earl’s intentions, and we can forgive his lapses in today’s social etiquette. Warren had spent 40 years on the Supreme Court and oversaw controversial cases like Brown vs. The Board of Education, Row vs. Wade, and the case that led to our Miranda Rights being read by arresting officers; I had no doubt that people of Ken’s generation could be good people with poor choices in phrasing because they’re ignorant. I’ve always found it remarkable, given Warren’s reputation and attention to detail, that he was the only one of nine justices to vote against using my grandfather’s testimony that Hoffa had asked him to give James $20,000; it seems like someone would have dug deeper. But, even Ken kept missing that point. He was more interested in simply knowing if Hoffa did it; asked my grandfather to bribe the Negro named James.
“He never told me,” I told Ken. “But,” I said, “jury tampering was common back then, and my family was good at it.”
“Yeah.” Ken said. “From everything I read, your grandpa was just like the families. He wouldn’t say nothin’ to noone. You had to read between the lines to get what they were sayin’. I wonder how many people got whacked because some low level guys read wrong.”
I suddenly realized I had something Ken may appreciate, and I excused myself and pulled a new book from my bookshelf. It was still shiny, with a bright blue book cover. I had just finished reading it, and had coincidentally tucked my calling card between the pages that may have answered Ken’s question.
“Here. My uncle, Doug, just published a book about it.” Ken knew that Doug had recently retired as president of Teamsters Local#5, and was in a veterans nursing home in Natchez Mississippi, near where he and my grandfather had been born. I tried to joke about it, and showed him the publishing company, Oak of Acadiana, that had a logo not unlike the big Mississippi Magnolia tree across the street.
“They say you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but I think this one does a good job of summing it up. And he bluntly says that my grandfather lied to send Hoffa to prison, but that was just his opinion. My grandfather never talked about it. You’d have to decide for yourself.”
Ken took the book and looked at the cover: “From my brother’s shadow: Douglas Westly Partin tells his side of the story.” The cover had a simple photo of Doug’s smiling face from about twenty years before, and a small photo of my grandfather’s face above him, looking down as if from heaven. Ken didn’t comment on the title or photos, but he read the back cover out loud with a rough New York dock worker accent that made what he read sound ominous.
“Boxes full of money in the trunk of the car, suitcases filled with fresh twenty-dollar bills, assassination plots against President John F. Kennedy and against his brother Bobby, then Attorney General of the United States, deals with the New Orleans mob, arms deals with Fidel Castro, fake passports and Mexican IDs, contracts on the lives of any who dared to oppose, violence against companies that refused to cooperate with union organizers, secret testimony against union boss Jimmy Hoffa, criminal indictments, trials, convictions and imprisonment … these are all part of the story told by Douglas Wesley Partin, younger brother of Edward Grady Partin, ruthless boss of Teamsters Local #5 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for thirty years. Doug witnessed it all from the shadow of his older brother, and then he stepped in, succeeded his brother as principal officer of Teamsters Local #5, cleaned it up and led it for many more years. This is a story for the ages.”
“Hey, thanks,” Ken said. “This sounds good. I’ll bring it back to you next week.” He sipped his beer and said, “I love this stuff!”
I wasn’t sure if he meant Hoffa’s history or the porter or relaxing on a balcony overlooking Balboa Park with nowhere else to be any time soon. I didn’t ask. It was nice to hear Ken happy about something, and I wanted to appreciate a moment of silence.
I made a mental note to ask Doug for a singed copy made out to Ken. Both would probably get a kick out of that. Doug was in a Mississippi veterans nursing home; he had served in the air force for two years during WWII. I hadn’t spoken with him in years, and it would be a good excuse to wish him well.
Ken took a sip from his 10 oz tulip glass and said, “You’re right. It does taste better a bit warmer. And this glass feels good. We use pints in the pub. Real pints. 16 ounces. Not those smaller glasses bars use to skimp an ounce or two. But Guiness is thinner and less alcohol, and a pint is okay. This fancy glass slows you down. You need that with the alcohol. You should write a book.”
I assumed he didn’t mean a book about brewing and enjoying beer. I knew he was talking about my grandfather and Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy, but a book about beer sounded more enjoyable, and I pondered that in the back of my mind while I addressed what Ken had said.
I said that everything was already out there, waving my hand towards The Universe. But I wasn’t being dismissive. It was all out there, though many book chapters are omitted or modified in films. Amazon listed thousands of books on Kennedy, and almost just as many on Hoffa. My bookshelf had the books I had kept over the decades, and I had a few extra copies with my scribbles from when I was in the army in the 90’s and new books about Hoffa and the mafia came out almost every week. Some of the ones I reached for most often included Hoffa on Hoffa, of course, Ragano’s book, Lawyer for the mob, Oswald’s Tale, JFK, Kennedy’s Avenger, and a few others that were too new for me to know if they’d find a permanent home, like The Irishman.
Doug’s book was self published and read more like a glorified blog than an edited book. Few people think about it that way, that anyone with a computer can publish a blog, and anyone with a typewriter and a few hundred dollars can publish a book, though without all the editing and scrutiny of a reputable publisher. I knew that, but I had ordered a few copies when Doug published it and donated a few to nearby Little Free Libraries, just so he’d see a few copies being bought from California. And I enjoyed reading it, and hearing Doug’s voice in my head. He was often – as Kieth and Janice and my dad always said – full of shit. But, he wasn’t always full of it, and like a blind squirel finding an occasional nut, he got lucky or recalled overhearing something, and I learned a bit from his book. Mostly, though, I liked hearing his oice as it sounded in my mind’s ear, brining me back in time to almost 40 yeas before, listening to my uncles tell stories just like I tend to do after a few beers.
I told Cranky Ken that he knew enough to write a book, and he guaffed and said no one would read it, that even the frickin’ assholes in his apartment dind’t read the signs he kept leaving in the laundry room to stop using powered soap or he’d raise their rents and put them on the street.
“They don’t know how lucky they are,” he grumbled. “If I had this view when I was a kid, I’d been happier than a pig in shit.”
Ken never told me how he earned the money he used to buy all his properties, and I never asked. Maybe that’s why we got along; we had a good fence between us. He finished his beer and left, and I walked to the corner cafe and worked on the latest iteration of a book I had been struggling to write ever since my mom died early in the morning of April 5th, 2018. It had only been a few months, and I was still processing everything.
I was thinking of taking a day off to brew with a few friends. Another porter, but lighter in body and a bit less alcohol. The porter’s a favorite among dock workers, and it was origninally brewed with simple dark malts for the working class ship porters in London. I though Ken would get a kick out of that tidbit.