“Partin was a big tough-looking man with an extensive criminal record as a youth. Hoffa misjudged the man and thought that because he was big and tough and had a criminal record and was out on bail and was from Louisiana, the home states of Carlos Marcello, the man must have been a guy who paints houses.”Charles Brant and Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman,” originally published as “I Heard You Paint Houses.”
The three of us were sitting on a balcony overlooking a small forest of trees in Balboa Park and enjoying breakfast tacos served with thinly sliced avocados, when Hope saw Cranky Ken approaching along the sidewalk. 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.”
Cranky Ken looked at Cristi and said, “Hey, Cristi. Beautiful day, ain’t it!” She kept enjoying her tacos and waved politely.
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 squatted down and picked up his bucket and liquid soap and limped up the street.
Waddled is more accurate. Ken was a short, stocky man around 70 to 75 years old, about 25 to 30 years older than I was. He looked good for his age, with strong forearms and a full head of hair with hardly any grey. He had a paunch poking through his tight polo shirt that had probably fit him more graciously many years ago, and his tight shorts left over from the 1980’s highlighted his muscular legs. He squatted to pick up things out of habit of someone who had earned their livelihood from manual labor, and he probably waddled because his hip tendons had tightened over the years of carrying heavy things, restricting his gait and causing him to keep his pivot on each foot to step forward instead of swinging his legs. I watched him waddle off and made a mental note to do some yoga in the park later that day.
We finished our breakfast tacos and Cristi took Hope to play among the decorative trees and I did the dishes and pulled a porter from the fridge and set it on the balcony to warm up just a bit. I pulled out two small tulip glasses so we could split the beer.
Ken waddled in without knocking. The pockets of his already tight shorts bulged with quarters from the washing machine; they were so tightly packed that they didn’t clank or jingle when Cranky Ken plopped down in one of the four chairs on my balcony. I quickly poured two glasses of beer from the bottle as he smiled subtly as he silently looked at the gorgeous view of Balboa Park and Cristi and Hope playing in the big Mississippi Magnolia tree. I sat down and he looked at his glass and took a sip.
“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 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. Times changed, and recently a Chinese investment firm offered $10.7 Million for the two story apartment building with 12 units 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 since Ken moved there. Investors were always hoping that Ken would sell at least one of his buildings or the small Irish pub he had recently bought and refurbished to be more like the pubs he recalled from New York. He didn’t need money, and kept telling the investors to go fuck themselves – his words – and said 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 and to ask me questions about Jimmy Hoffa and my grandfather.
Ken looked inside 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 with barely a pause told me that had seen The Irishiman and what he thought about Frank “The Irishman” Sheenan, a former WWII infantryman turned mafia hitman who claims to have killed Hoffa in 1975. His memoir, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” was made into Martin Scorcese’s most expensive film yet, and the original title was a reference to mafia lingo: to paint a house was to splatter someones’s blood across a wall. According to The Irishman, Frank painted the wall of a house in Detroit on behalf of one or more mafia families. But, no evidence exists, and to this day the FBI maintains a team investigating Hoffa’s disappearance 45 years before. Frank thought it was funny that the young FBI agents were born twenty years after Hoffa disappeared, and he had been looking forward to seeing The Irishman ever since Scorsese announced the project a few years before releasing the film to theaters.
“They got a lot right, but it was a movie and not real life. It was for men my age,” Ken admitted. “We grew up seeing Pacino and Pecci and those guys play mob bosses. Wise guys, if you believe 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. People see too many movies, like Wise Guys and Goodfellas, and that’s what they pay to see again.”
He paused and thought about what he had just said. “The Godfather was good, though. That put Pacino on the map. 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 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, not Hoffa. Robert Blake did Hoffa better. He got the rage right. Pecci did a good job as Chucky, though. Gotta give him that. DeNiro did Frank okay, but he smiled too much. But people pay to see DeNiro be DeNiro. Scorcese knows that. 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; he was a big guy in Casino, too, so Scorcese probably thought he’d be fine. Brian Dennehy did better; he and Blake did your grandpa and Hoffa good.”
I sipped my porter as I waited for a pause in Ken’s thoughts. When he finished, he 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. He smiled; he had always appreciated that we appreciated the park. We sat silently for a few moments.
To me, Ken seemed a lot like Pecci, and therefore a lot like Chucky: short, stout, intense, and fiercely loyal to people and ideals, like sticking by your family – however you define family – and fighting for the working class. Ken was born blue collar and never adapted to his wealth.
“I can see Frank doing it,” he 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. He and Chucky are quoted in most books about Hoffa as wishing they had killed my grandfather, Edward Grady Partin Senior. He was a senior Teamster leader, and his surprise testimony had sent Hoffa to prison in 1964, one year after President Kennedy was assassinated and four years before Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed. I was surprised Ken didn’t know his name, but I remained silent and sipped my beer and thought about all of those guys who probably knew my grandfather better than I had.
“Fucking Partin,” Chucky had said, “I should have killed him when I had the chance.” Others were just as blunt, and many had tried over the years until Hoffa disappeared in 1975. During Ken’s generation, many people followed my grandfather as closely as Hoffa, trying to understand what had happened. Many wondered why Hoffa never said anything disparaging about my grandfather, even after serving prison based on his betrayal. To the end, even in his biography published just before he vanished, Hoffa said that “Edward Grady Partin was big, rugged guy who could charm a snake off a rock.” Everyone I knew who had met my grandfather agreed; Ken never had, but had implied that he knew many of the people involved in Hoffa’s saga without saying anything outright.
Ken said, “I don’t know why Scorcese left out that chapter about Nixon and your grandpa. That’s a bigger story.”
I said I hadn’t read the book yet and I asked what chapter he meant.
“Nixon!” he said, as if that explained everything. “Hoffa put Nixon in office from prison, and told him to get your grandpa to change his testimony. It’s in a chapter all about Nixon, your grandpa, and that war hero guy, Audie Murphy. Jesus, Partin! Don’t you know your own history? It’s an entire chapter! I don’t know why Scorcese left it out. I guess they got to cut somethin’ to make a two and a half hour movie. But the part about Nixon is big. Hoffa put him in office. When your grandpa wouldn’t change, Nixon pardoned him, anyway. 1971. Eight years early. You should know that.”
What Ken was talking about was before my time. I was conceived in January of 1972, almost a year after Audie Murphy died in an airplane crash. But I knew the stories well because I grew up hearing them from my family. I probably took a lot for granted, just like any kid who hears the same things so often that it’s commonplace for them.
I hand’t though much about my grandfather until only a few months before, when the actor portraying him in The Irishman, Craig Vincent, contacted the surviving Partins to research his role. My uncle, Kieth, was still president of the Teamsters Local #5, and his uncle, Doug, had retired after taking over the local from my grandfather in 1980. They were easy to find, and, interestingly, still worked with James Hoffa Junior, who had been running the international Teamsters for decades. Kieth gave Craig my aunt Janice’s contact information – she was always the family historian – and when she told me they had chatted I called him and I learned that he was dying of Leukimia and The Irishman would be his last film with Scorceses. He admitted he couldn’t master the charming southern accent my grandfather was so renowned for, and that Scorcese was okay with Craig playing a big, rugged Irishman that was in line with the film’s mafia theme. We spoke more about his recent diagnosis and reflections on life than the discrepancies between books and films about Hoffa. Coincidently, my mom passed away unexpectedly soon after, and my mind had been focused more on her legacy than my grandfathers, though the two are indistinguishable in my mind.
After my mom died a few weeks before, I had begun rereading all of my old books and notes, beginning with my old copies of the first part of the JFK Assassination Report that President Bill Clinton released 1992, when I was still in the arm and coincidentally on President Clinton’s quick-reaction paratrooper force. It clearly reveresed the 888 paged Warren Report from 1965 that had been hastily assembled and inaccurately claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald “acted alone when he shot and killed President John F. Kennedy,” and the congressional JFK Assassination report that began in 1976, just after Hoffa disappeared, had fifteen years to conclude that Hoffa was one of three suspects; the other two, New Orleans mafia boss Carlos Marcello and Miami Cuban exhile and mafia boss Santo Trafacante Junior were the three main suspects, and that a major reason for suspecting Hoffa was an FBI report that had remained hidden from the public and even Chief Justice Earl Warren but had been in the possession of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover since a year before Kennedy was assassinated, and that report said Hoffa and my grandfather plotted to kill US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, the president’s little brother, in the same way that would be used to kill the president a year later: a lone gunman in a southern town shooting Bobby Kennedy with a sniper rifle outfitted with a scope and unable to be traced to the Teamsters. Buried in the massive JFK Assassination Report are a few other facts, like Lee Harvey Oswald being from New Orleans and training in the Baton Rouge civil air force a few miles from my grandmother’s home, and Hoffa and my grandfather knowing Jack Ruby, the Dallas low level mafia runner who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald in front of the Dallas police station on live television only two days after President Kennedy died, before Oswald could say anything more than, “I’m a patsy!” A year later, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy pulled my grandfather from a Baton Rouge jail, where he had just been arrested for kidnapping and manslaughter, expunged his records and paid my family to remain silent, and my grandfather became famous as the Teamster leader who infiltrated Hoffa’s inner circle and whose surprise testimony sent Hoffa to prison for eight years based solely on my grandfather’s word. By 1992, there were already more than 2,000 books about Kennedy assassination theories and about half as many on Hoffa, and in the thirty years since I stopped paying attention to new books there were thousands more. “I heard you paint houses” began in 2010, and it took Martin Scorcese ten years and $250,000 million to turn it into The Irishman and simplify the story to sell tickets. I can’t fault him; but, to me, the story is much more personal and less of an expose than any book I had seen. As Craig and I discussed, our perceptions change when we know we’re dying, and I listened to what he had to say more than I corrected mistakes in his research, which had come mostly from Wikipedia and Youtube videos and the 1983 film “The Blood Feud.” We spoke again after my mom died, and he told me about his mom, and we both felt that single mothers raising children was more emotionally relevant to our happiness than an expose on who killed Hoffa or Kennedy
My grandfather died in 1990, two years before Clinton released the first part of the JFK Assassination Report, and his final words were, “No one will ever know my part in history.” He was probably right. I had always assumed he had been involved in Kennedy’s assassination, and everything I read in the 1990’s seemed to point to the same thing, and I hadn’t thought much about it since, especially because I left Louisiana in 1990 and the first gulf war began and many years seemed to slip by quickly. Now, thirty years later, I wasn’t learning anything new about Hoffa or Kennedy, and I felt cynical about how America’s finest investigative journalists and FBI teams still assigned to the case who seemed to parrot old books and films instead of rereading the JFK Report. Every president since Clinton released a bit more and chose to keep some, and even by 2023 President Joe Biden would promise to release the final part. I have no idea why so many presidents kept the report hidden despite the 1976 Freedom of Information Act, but that was probably a bigger and more relevant story than any of the books and films parroted. For me, I learned more listening to Cranky Ken than I had in any book or blog or article.
Ken reiterated, “So Hoffa put Nixon into the White House from prison. That’s power! But we know how that turned out. Ha!”
I assumed he meant Nixon resigning in 1975, the year Hoffa vanished, but I didn’t say anything and sipped my porter to do something instead of stare at Ken smiling; he seemed pleased at something, perhaps having more insight than Scorcese. Cranky Ken was the most well read person on Hoffa I had ever met, and he seemed to relish in seeing what other people did not. He would argue with anyone who had a different opinion, or would simply deem them a moron and not speak with them again. I rarely expressed opinions about anything, therefore Ken never had a reason to consider me a moron.
Ken stopped smiling and looked at me sternly, as if studying my expression, and said, “But your grandpa never changed his testimony. And then Hoffa disappeared.”
He paused, staring intently, and said, “But I still don’t know why Scorsese cut out the part about Nixon. That’s big! Not even Bobby and your grandpa putting Hoffa in prison changed him running the country. You’d have to kill him to stop him. No one today understands how powerful Hoffa was.”
I remained silent and sipped my porter and glanced at Cristi and Hope playing in the magnolia. Ken sipped his beer, too, but he kept looking at me intently.
“Did he do it?” he finally asked.
“The Irishman?” I asked, assuming Ken, like most people who learned I was from a family of Teamsters, was asking who killed Hoffa.
“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 when I chatted with Ken.
“I told you I know Frank did it. Hoffa! Did he ask Partin to bribe the negro? I can’t see it. Hoffa was too smart to talk that blunt. Did he do it?”
Ken was mistaken, and was using terminology commonly used when he was my age. Even Chief Justice Earl Warren used “the Negro” when referring to James, the African American offered a bribe in one of Hoffa’s trials. In Hoffa vs The United States, where Hoffa spent years and millions of dollars on the best attornies in America already used to defending mafia leaders, Warren exponded on the bribes of “The Negro” so much that it was easy to confuse when he switched to bribes of someone else on the jury, Fields, who would “look after his own,” meaning Teamsters but seemingly racial; that juror’s brother was a Teamsters and had allegedly been bribed. But, no one could link anything to Hoffa until my grandfather’s testimony.
My grandfather had testified that Hoffa asked him to give a juror $20,000 from the Teamster petty cash box and influence one of the jurors to throw the trial, and then said that Field’s cousin, a Teamster, would influence Fields. The jury believed him – he was handsome and charming – and his word sent Hoffa to prison. In the supreme court case of Hoffa vs. The United States, America’s best lawyers and nine supreme court justices focused almost exclusively on my grandfather’s character and the legality of using him as a witness.
Chief Justice Earl Warren was the only one to dissent, and and he wrote:
“Here, Edward Partin, a jailbird languishing in a Louisiana jail under indictments for such state and federal crimes as embezzlement, kidnapping, and manslaughter (and soon to be charged with perjury and assault), contacted federal authorities and told them he was willing to become, and would be useful as, an informer against Hoffa, who was then about to be tried in the Test Fleet case. A motive for his doing this is immediately apparent — namely, his strong desire to work his way out of jail and out of his various legal entanglements with the State and Federal Governments. And it is interesting to note that, if this was his motive, he has been uniquely successful in satisfying it. In the four years since he first volunteered to be an informer against Hoffa he has not been prosecuted on any of the serious federal charges for which he was at that time jailed, and the state charges have apparently vanished into thin air.“
He went on for a few pages about my grandfather’s lack of character and comparable court cases of disclosure vs entrapment, and concluded:
“I cannot agree that what happened in this case is in keeping with the standards of justice in our federal system, and I must, therefore, dissent.”
But, Warren was the only one of nine supreme court judges to dissent, and Hoffa went to prison based Edward Partin saying that Hoffa suggested that he give $20,000 to one of the jurors. Few people knew that level of detail I did, even Ken. As I mentioned, I’m cynical when it comes to new information, because every book and film since 1992 has had access to the same JFK Assassination Report and Earl Warren’s Supreme Court notes from Hoffa vs. The United States.
It’s rare that I knew something about Hoffa that Ken didn’t, so I leaned back and embraced the moment. I was curious what Ken would offer in return for my honesty.
“He never told me,” I said. “But, jury tampering was common back then and my family was good at it, so it’s possible Hoffa had asked my grandfather to bribe the juror. But, from what I read, there were a lot of ways Teamsters were trying to reach different jurors, because it would only have taken one of them voting not guilty to throw the case out of court.”
“Yeah.” Ken said. “From everything I read, I can see Hoffa trusting your grandpa to get stuff done. But I can’t see Hoffa saying anything out loud that could have been recorded. They used code back then. They probably still do. I can’t see Hoffa telling Partin to give someone 20 grand. People loyal to Hoffa would have done that without being told, and Hoffa would have left cash laying out for them to take. They had millions – a few grand was nothin.’ Loyal people look after their boss. You learn to read between the lines, and a boss keeps people around when his problems go away. You keep sayin’ your problems and keep a box full of cash layin’ around. Or guns. Or big guys like your grandpa. But you never ask no one to do nothin’! You just keep loyal people around. You take care of them, and they take care of you. You don’t say nothin.’ No one can record you, and you can pass a lie detector test. That’s smart.”
I waited for Ken to mention my grandfather’s lie detector test. He had asked about it before, and even had a copy of the 1964 Time magazine with my grandfather showcased nationally and connected to a lie detector test that J. Edgar Hoover was touting as a powerful weapon for the FBI’s crime fighting. Like many Americans, Ken had assumed my grandfather told the truth about Hoffa’s bribery and plot to kill Bobby Kennedy with plastic explosives – Hoover had released that part of the FBI report but had kept the part about a sniper rifle in a convertible classified – and whether he realized it or not, Ken was biased by all of the hype over Hoover’s FBI in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. For 37 years, Hoover had maintained a strong image that lingers in people’s trust of our agencies. I didn’t want to get into that conversation with Ken, though I smiled recalling one of the things my grandfather installed on me: how easy it is to fool a lie detector test.
Ken sipped his beer then said, “I wonder how many people got taken care of because some moron read wrong.”
I didn’t offer my opinion. In fact, I had recently tried to stop forming an opinion instead of only not offering it. I can’t recall everything my grandfather said about defeating a lie detector test – I was only a teenager back then – but I seem to recall it had to do with not thinking to much or too deeply, or believing any one thing too strongly. That way, your subconscious reactions are quieted and the lie detector is less likely to detect subtle variations in your pulse or pupils. It was, in a way, very Buddhist. I sipped my beer and smiled at the thought of Edward Grady Partin Senior being considered a Buddhist.
I suddenly realized I had a book that Ken would probably appreciate. I excused myself and pulled a new book from my bookshelf. It was still shiny, with a bright blue book cover, and had only been published a year before. My great-uncle Doug Partin, Ed Partin’s little brother by name alone – he, too, had been a physically large man – had self published his autobiography through a small Mississippi publisher called Oak of Arcadia Publishing. It’s logo looked just like the big magnolia tree across the street, and that alone had made me smile when I first saw it. I would have never come across it if I hadn’t been in Baton Rouge to clean out my mom’s house. In Baton Rouge, so many people are involved with Local #5 that Doug’s book, with all its grammatical errors, had been available at a few bookstores and at an airport kiosk with a few other books of local interest. I had bought it and read it a few days previously.
I took out the bookmark that I had tucked in a page that, coincidentally, answered Ken’s question about Hoffa asking my grandfather to bribe a juror. I paused and thought Ken would appreciate the bookmark, too. It was an old card of mine the size of a business card. It was old and frayed and held together by Scotch tape and seemingly unrelated to my family; but In my mind, it was synonymous with my Partin family because I was given it shortly after my grandfather died in 1990. One side with Ace of Spades with airborne wings and a skull wearing an 82nd Airborne beret, and on the other side it said, “I’m an American Paratrooper, if you’re recovering my body, kiss my cold, dead ass.” Soon after his funeral, I was a 17 year old soldier headed off to the first Gulf war. My mom had saved the card in a shoebox full of my old medals and a few photos from the war, and I had brought the box back with me after I cleaned out her house a few weeks before.
I handed the calling card to him as a gift and told him a quick version of its history, omitting a few details that would lead to questions I didn’t feel like discussing. I thought he’d say something about it, especially because he had mentioned Frank “The Irishman” learning to kill people as an infantryman in WWII; and, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby had been veterans, too. But, Ken merely shoved the memento in his pocket like all cards handed to him, and he mumbled insincere thanks and reminded me that I was reaching for a book about Hoffa.
Ken was really good at staying on task. I suspected that, like Chucky and other ferociously loyal Teamsters and hitmen, he could be singularly focused. From my experience, loyal people were not easily distracted. It was as if they had blinders on and only looked where they wanted to look, not seeing things in their periphery, and that may be why they remained loyal no matter what was handed to them.
“Here. My uncle, Doug, just published a book about it.” I handed the book to Ken and said, “He ran Local #5 for twenty years after my grandfather went to prison in 1980, and he’s pretty old now and probably trying to get things off his chest, probably like Frank was. 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. He believed 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.”
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. He must have been around 90 years old, I realized. I was approaching 50, and I wondered when I’d get around to writing a memoir. Hopefully, not confined to a nursing home and with a fading memory, like Doug had been. He had made a few mistakes in his book. But, I had enjoyed reading about his mother, my great-Grandma Foster, and my uncle, Kieth, who was only about ten years older than me and had taken over Local #5 after Doug retired. He was still there, and only had a few years before he’d retire. I had seen him in Baton Rouge, and he said the book was ‘full of shit, just like Doug,’ but I still enjoyed reading it and remembering all of Doug’s stories over the decades; he had always liked telling stories about growing up with my grandfather, and, unlike my grandfather, never hesitated in forming or offering an opinion.
Ken read the front cover out loud: “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 flipped the book over and read the back cover, and his New York dock worker accent made it much more ominous than the charming southern drawl I heard, just like his voice when he and my grandfather told stories when I was a kid in the 1980’s.
“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 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.
Ken took a sip from his 10 oz tulip glass and said, “You’re right. It does taste better a bit warmer. What did you call it? Basement temperature? 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 the idea in the back of my mind while I addressed what Ken had said; unlike fiercely loyal people, my challenge is often staying on task when my mind drifts to things more fun, like a book on brewing beer.
I said that everything about Hoffa and Kennedy was already out there, waving my hand out there towards The Universe, the vast expanse of everything that included libraries, books, and conversations with people like Cranky Ken.
My bookshelf had the books I had kept over the decades. Most had my notes and scribbles, underlines and circles and arrows, like someone trying to solve a conspiracy mystery. Some of the books I had reached for most often in my youth included, of course, Hoffa on Hoffa, authorized by Hoffa just before he vanished in 1975; The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa, authored by the head of the FBI Get Hoffa Task force and published, coincidentally, the month I was born in 1972; JFK, which was the basis for the 1992 Oliver Stone film that let public pressure into forcing Clinton to release the first part of the JFK Assassination Report; Lawyer for the Mob, by one of the lawyers defending Hoffa who knew my grandfather well; and a few others for a variety of reasons. I had a couple of duplicates with new editions that came out after new information was made public, like JFK, in an attempt to correct old errors in information.I had a couple of new, used books about Hoffa and the mafia, copies picked up in a local used book store or found in the nearby Little Free Library, like Kennedy’s Avenger, a book reinvestigating Jack Ruby’s trial for killing Oswald. But, I donated most books I browsed to the Little Free Library after seeing that nothing remarkable had changed since 1992.
I had, for a while, kept a few of the books detailing whether or not Oswald was the shooter, but I got rid of them towards the end of my military service when I realized that my small team could remove any target we wanted, and probably make it look any way we wanted; the details of one assassination over another were irrelevant to me, and I remained more interested in the higher levels of government and whatever it is that we call freedom of press. Ken was uninterested in those topics, so I never brought them up. Instead, I remained fascinated by his steadfast trust in the printed word that had been vetted by the government and media. I don’t know where it came from; perhaps his old immigrant family had installed deep seeded beliefs or hopes in America into Ken after WWII, when he was just an idealistic kid.
After I had spoken with Craig Vincent, I obtained a few books from a nearby used bookstore, the Little Free Library on the pedestrian bridge linking Balboa Park to Banker’s Hill, and, of course, Amazon. At first, I liked to browse the books to see how little had changed and how farther and father removed the authors were from the actual events. But, my cynicism resurfaced and I saw that they all had their biases and diligently pursued evidence to confirm those biases, and I felt that the story had become like the old parable of five blind men each feeling a part of an elephant and therefore imagining something different, like a palm frond for the ear to a vine for the tail and a tree stump for the leg. Their only limitation at seeing the elephant was their attachment to opinions based on limited perspectives. Or, in the case of classified documents, the perspectives released publicly and by the government, media, and even the Supreme Court. I’m the same, of course. I’m biased to believe in biases, especially after reading the books President Obama suggested for future leaders, which included Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, and was based on 40 years worth of research saying the same thing humans have repeated since before the Buddha’s time: our minds become attached to false views and opinions, and that’s the source of personal unhappiness and society’s woes. The only cure is awareness, consistent mindfulness until those bits and pieces of information stop leading to reactions. I was trying to be aware of my biases, and one of the reasons I appreciated Ken was that every now and then he introduced me to a new perspective, like he had about Hoffa putting President Nixon into office, I reaccessed old beliefs with new awareness.
Listening to Ken, I began wondering if a new book could help wipe the slate clean and allow people to see the simplified version of what happened, and I told him that he knew enough to write a book that, to use an old film term, cut to the chase. He guffawed, and said no one would read it, that even the frickin’ assholes in his apartment didn’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.” He ranted about a few things he had to fix in his apartments, and I sipped my beer and waited for him to finish.
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 didn’t pry into each other’s backgrounds, and I never offered an opinion that he could disagree with. We maintained a good fence between us, and good fences make good neighbors. We nurtured our fence with a few chats now and then, like the two men who mended their fence in Robert Frost’s famous poem, and we didn’t need anything more from each other. In my experience, that level of comfort was akin to trust, and when people trust you they speak more freely and share more than they do when you ask prying questions. But, even though he spoke with me more than anyone else I knew, he never told me how he came into enough money to buy properties around Balboa Park in the 70’s. He probably knew how to keep a secret better than anyone I knew; except, perhaps, my grandfather. I may have known him up until his death, but he never told me anything that’s not already published.
Ken and I chatted a bit more, and he left as soon as he finished his beer. I told my phone to order a copy of “I Heard You Paint Houses” and another one of Doug’s books, cleaned up the balcony and washed the two tulip glasses and the beer bottle I’d reuse the next time I brewed, and sat down and stared at the big magnolia tree and thought about things for a while. Ken was right: the part about Nixon was important, and I was surprised I hadn’t seen that before.
I had been planning to work on a book I had been struggling to write ever since my mom died in a Baton Rouge hospital early in the morning of April 5th, 2018; it had only been a few weeks, and I was still processing that she had died so young, and that I was the last one left from her side of my family. Cristi had suggested writing a book about her, perhaps as a way to honor her, but mostly to organize my thoughts and to stop ruminating about the past. I watched her walking back with Hope, happy and carefree, and I knew she was probably right. But, I wasn’t feeling like writing a book about serious things now; everything seemed less important, and I was sad.
I thought about writing a book on brewing to distract myself, but there was more than enough about brewing beer on my bookshelf and in The Universe. I had nothing to add. Instead of imagining writing a book on beer, I began imagining taking a day off to brew a batch with a few friends. I contemplated making another porter, but lighter in body and with a bit less alcohol in the next iteration. The porter style is a favorite among dock workers, and it was originally brewed with simple dark malts for the dock workers in London, who were called Porters, and I thought Ken would get a kick out of that tidbit. We’d probably enjoy one or two on the balcony and have a fun time chatting about dock workers and working class people who looked up to men like Hoffa.