On January 4, 2013, nearly half a century after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, I met my friend Eric Martinez at PJ’s Coffee on Magazine in New Orleans. I found Eric in the back of the café, his ancient MacBook perched atop a tiny table with at least 12 tabs open in his browser. He had probably beaten me to PJ’s by an hour, and he’d been busy. “Okay,” he said, excitedly gesticulating with fingerless gloves toward pages of scrawled notes in his journal. “I think I’ve got our afternoon planned.” Armed with a list of addresses and a camera, we set out to make visible the invisible—to give ourselves the JFK tour of New Orleans.
Though the central drama of the JFK assassination played out in Dallas, New Orleans was a secondary nexus of activity. Lee Harvey Oswald, the man commonly associated with the murder, grew up in New Orleans and lived there again as an adult. There are countless theories delineating the actors and motives converging in that assassination. Most involve the CIA; many involve Cuba or the Soviet Union. But New Orleans holds the unique honor of being the only precinct to have actually tried anyone with the crime of assassination.
Eric and I came to the fetid melting pot of JFK conspiracy enthusiasm from different places. Eric was a frequent viewer of Oliver Stone’s 2001 film JFK and had read Jim Marrs’ Crossfire. My sources are more miscellaneous—an issue of the quasi- academic zine The CIA Makes Science Fiction Uninteresting and a collection of fringe podcasts. Our conspiracy and hidden history interests converged and commenced with the peculiar life and times of Oswald.
Bonus audio: Hand Grenade Job’s
cover of the Misfits’ “Bullet”
When we realized this was the 50-year anniversary, our sense of purpose sharpened. Usually at the 50 year mark, a trove of classified documents become released to the public. My excitement deflated when I learned that the National Archives in College Park, Maryland is refraining from releasing anything new until 2017 (for reasons that are, of course, unknowable). All the anniversary marks, in this case, is half a century of fruitless research. My personal interest in conspiracy theories stems from an anarcha-feminist analysis of power, and specifically with viewing the last century of US history and foreign policy through the lens of imperial intergovernmental struggles between intelligence bureaus.
But that’s the stuff of my academic work. A person needs some space to dream.
My journey took me through many New Orleans neighborhoods, backyards, graveyards, and one unassuming uptown coffee-shop. Sure, I sought to discover firsthand the topography of Oswald’s childhood. But I also investigated what draws people to conspiracy theories. I wondered, are my friends as complex and fascinating as murky characters from history books, despite our powerlessness and insignificance? The answer was right in front of me, under taped-together glasses and a Washington Nationals’ hat.
My friend Eric Martinez is a second-generation West Bank nutria. His grandma tied all the children together in the garage to survive Betsy. In 1961, Eric’s father, Federico, was among the first students of color to desegregate the all-white McDonogh II school in the Marigny. A tense photograph from the Times-Picayune captures Federico standing at the gate next to a white police officer.
I met Eric through punk rock, which is to say I can not remember the first time I met him. It was certainly by 2008, when my band first played New Orleans, because Eric took pictures of that show. We stayed in touch through chance encounters in miscellaneous cities, having disjointed conversations in between loud bands. Eventually my friendships with New Orleanians outgrew incidental meetings and I started visiting on my own time. It was on one such visit, planned around the new year, that we launched our inquiry. We nicknamed our project Operation P.A.T.S.Y. (Preserving, Archiving and Treasuring Sites Y’all). Truth be told, we got started before we even realized it was the 50-year anniversary. Initially this was just an endeavor by and for each other, treating ourselves to a geographical link with an inaccessible hobby. Every time I came to town, P.A.T.S.Y. converged. We researched addresses and showed up with a piece of poster board and a marker. At each site, we created a temporary historical placard explaining the significance to the assassination. Then we documented the placard with a photograph.
Though we both tend toward controversial figures and hidden histories, skepticism regarding the JFK assassination is far from marginal. The inconsistent autopsy reports from Dallas and Washington, as well as the omitted frames from the infamous Zapruder film, are part of the mainstream cultural consciousness. A CBS poll in 2009 reported that more than three quarters of the American public does not believe Oswald acted alone. No matter one’s political inclinations or proclivity for intrigue, Oswald as a character is fascinating. What Marine grunt—at the height of the Cold War—would renounce their American citizenship and move to the USSR—only to abdicate their Soviet citizenship a few years later and move back to the US… only to begin flyering for the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee? All of this before he died at 24—younger than we are now and before his trial—murdered by Miami club owner/Mafioso/concerned patriot Jack Ruby.
We first drove Eric’s red pickup truck into the 9th Ward, to the conch-shell pink childhood home of Oswald’s mother, Marguerite. Mothers of suspected killers are often culturally indicted for their under- or over-parenting, their emotional or material poverty, or for just being women. Marguerite was a single mother with a strong sense of pride, and that pride outlived her youngest son. Marguerite has always been Oswald’s most active and ardent defender. She remains proud of him and insistent upon his innocence. The latter does not render her unique, but even conspiracy enthusiasts such as ourselves see Oswald as a foul- mouthed, volatile, woman-abuser at best. But Marguerite’s adoration and assertions stretch far beyond the usual theories. She believes that her son was not just groomed in the US Armed Services to become a double or triple agent. Marguerite argues that he was chosen from birth for something special, citing unusual documentation of his adolescence and young adult years. Oswald was photographed and interviewed more than a normal young man, she insists.
Our P.A.T.S.Y. journey took us downtown, near the preposterously named John Minor Wisdom Courthouse. Years ago, here were the offices of FBI agents with whom Oswald secretly met. One of the Fair Play for Cuba fliers that Oswald, in his improbable guise as anti-Castro Marxist, distributed bore the address of one such agent— Guy Bannister. When I asked Eric which moment he would have liked most to time travel and witness, it was one that took place here, on Camp Street. At the now defunct Katzenjammer bar, on the very day of JFK’s assassination, Bannister and a co-worker got into a heated fight. Supposedly, the two men traded barbed words regarding the mechanics of the assassination. The argument escalated, and Bannister pistol-whipped the other agent, as is documented in a police report from that day. Eric is mesmerized with this tawdry violence taking place in broad daylight, an incident epitomizing the sleaze and intrigue in politics.
Once the sun went down, we couldn’t take any more pictures. Instead, Eric and I got a beer and a whisky (respectively) at Le Bon Temps Roulé, where Oswald has a permanent seat at the bar. We pulled up and took our last photograph of the day. Eric told me to write “LEE HARVEY OSWALD GOT TANKED HERE” on the sign and I posed self-consciously by the chalkboard outside. We walked inside dazed. We’d been inside our own heads and the deep speculative past all day. I felt like I had a big important secret, or like I was a traveler from impossibly far away… We looked the part of outsiders, clutching notebooks, looking for an outlet behind the jukebox, while civilians cast us assessing looks over their beers.
At first we couldn’t find the plaque. We sat down at a table and stared at the bar until a spot toward the end cleared and we caught sight. It reads “Lee Harvey Oswald Sat Here.” It is small. It is discreet. The bartender had no interest in discussing it, none whatsoever.
All day we had been seeking traces of Oswald all over the city. We had been making and leaving our own signs. Finally we had found one waiting for us. We sat and sipped our drinks with it while the Soul Rebels played in the back room. We discussed Eric’s other marginal interests. He is taken with the doomed 20th century Antarctic Endurance voyage of Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton and his crew were stranded after their ship was crushed by ice and slowly collapsed and sank. Eric was so moved by the story that he wrote at least one song about it for his former band the Redbeards. He was drawn in by some mixture of the crew’s resilience and weakness—“how they survived, how they didn’t die,” he explained, and I intuitively felt the distinction between the two statements. “I was just blown away that they made it, even though four of them died instantly,” Eric told me. When the survivors got back to England, most of them perished in World War One. “I think they joined the war coming from the mentality of ‘I’m already dead,’” after what they’d gone through in the shipwreck, Eric said. Grief has a way of hollowing you out from the inside. Sometimes survivors do not really survive at all.
On our next P.A.T.S.Y. expedition, we drove out to Metairie Lake Lawn Cemetery, which is not actually quite in Metairie. It’s on Pontchartrain Boulevard, a busy street free of crosswalks and sidewalks but full of blind spots. We were agile enough to make it into the cemetery alive, and a statue of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston greeted us at the entrance. We walked the gravel path past the grave of fried chicken king Al Copeland, on which there were fresh white flowers, and past the future resting place of ex-Catholic vampire fiction pioneer Anne Rice. Rice’s mausoleum is inscribed with biblical-inspired passages by her son, gay erotica author Stan Rice. We came to Lake Lawn to find the grave of former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. Garrison was a complex and controversial character, pivotal in the JFK assassination legacy. Over the course of several years, dubious witnesses, shifting evidence, and recanted testimonies, Garrison publicly pursued theories pointing to a conspiracy larger than Oswald. The famous Zapruder film showing the final moments of Kennedy’s life was brought into the public eye by Garrison. The only person ever tried in a court of law for JFK’s death was Clay Shaw, tried under Garrison’s incumbency. Driven by a sense of justice honed by the sights of Dachau, Garrison was also an ardent supporter of civil rights. He was also a virulent homophobe who made Shaw’s homosexuality a centerpiece of the trial. After Garrison’s time as DA, he was accused variously of fraudulence, pinball racketeering, and pedophilia. As JFK once put it, “our responsibility is not discharged by the announcement of virtuous ends.”
We found Garrison’s grave just as the sun was setting. His gravestone sits discreetly amongst large family mausoleums. It oversees a plot of low, freshly cut green grass, under which lies Garrison and an empty space that will never be filled—his wife divorced him in 1978, well before his death in 1992. We sat next to the stone, trying to situate the strange dead man beneath us into the tangle of history with JFK and Oswald. Why did Garrison pursue the truth about JFK, when even the Warren Commission barely tried? Was it truly a virtuous end, or did he have other motives? What was the kernel of curiosity in this jerk of a guy that tied him to us in some way?
Lake Lawn was the only site that made me feel more eccentric than intrepid. It’s hard not to feel a little self-conscious while engaging in necro-tourism, walking past the dead bodies of other people’s loved ones in search of clues to unanswerable questions. We were trying to impose a pattern on events, map out cause and effect, make sense of motive and consequence. Draw connections where maybe there are not any—or if there were, it would be too late, or too little. The structures and institutions underlying those connections are so much larger and more powerful than us and our brief lives. Science fiction and horror godfather H.P. Lovecraft wrote: “the most merciful thing in the world… is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Lovecraft was also an agoraphobic racist. What to make of all these complex characters?
Less existentially provocative than our time at Lake Lawn was our time with the Oswald family homes. Oswald and his mother Marguerite moved around at least twice a year until his mid- adolescence. We set out to visit those homes, armed with addresses from the Warren Commission’s report. Our enthusiasm got ahead of our planning, and we’d visited a few of those houses in the 9th ward and the Bywater before we realized many of them were within about a ten-block radius of each other. “He was a Bywater brat!” Eric said, shaking his head and chuckling. The Oswald house on Alvar was demolished in 2007. Photographs taken shortly before the demolition show an x-code on the house from 9/13/05 noting toxic floodwater and indicating the house was not entered. Today that lot is empty. One of the reasons Eric and I chose the sign-making and leaving strategy with P.A.T.S.Y. was to catalyze conversation. We hoped that, catching us making and leaving our shoddy plaques in their front yards, homeowners would reach out to us with stories of Oswald’s restless ghost. Instead, we encountered practically no one. Across the street from the Oswald home on Congress Street, a woman saw us taking our pictures and asked if we lived at the art lofts.
During Oswald’s youth the Bywater was “largely working class, without a huge amount of crime. Then white flight happened and the city divested from the neighborhood,” explains Darin Acosta, a cultural geographer and Louisiana native. Now, as businesses and the city reinvest once more, the Bywater is changing again. Tracing the economic cycles of the area, the neighborhood today is the 21st century version of the neighborhood in which Oswald grew up. Eric gets all his news from Darin. That’s what he told me when I asked him if he’s as obsessed with current events as he is with those of yore (he is not).
Darin fondly recalls the first time he met Eric. Darin was 12 when he rode with some friends to the West Bank to meet “this really quirky photographer guy” and see his “punk band photo zine.” This chance meeting (and inherently late 90s experience) grew into a close friendship that Darin describes as being “like siblings.” Darin is devoted to documenting Eric on Instagram (check #flannelass), and admits his adoration borders on the obsessive. “Eric’s just a unicorn,” Darin says. “I don’t think I’ll ever meet someone like him again.” Shortly after Eric returned from Austin, the two worked together at that same PJ’s where Eric and I started our journey.
Your basic no-frills caffeine-dispenser, PJ’s certainly does not look like a hotbed of political intrigue, but neither do any of the other P.A.T.S.Y. sites. Their strangeness stems from their very innocuousness. PJ’s was the scene of Eric’s growing interest in JFK and Oswald.
Eric’s ex-girlfriend, Lauren Mulcahy (née Goldstein) thinks Eric’s attachment to JFK began in 2005, in the months leading up to Katrina. That, she says, was “the start of his frequent obsession with historical figures.” Preceding this obsession, Lauren recalls an extended dark period in Eric’s psyche. “He had this huge death crisis,” she says. “He would have really severe nightmares and he would wake up in the middle of the night, scared of dying.” It was not death itself that terrified Eric, Lauren explained. It was death in a world without God. According to Eric’s understanding of himself, his Catholic upbringing groomed him well for this categorical and sequential loss of faith. Between the hypocrisy of priestly molestation and the goofy implausibility of transubstantiation and venial sins, Eric was a skeptic from an early age.
“Chronologically,” Lauren says, “he stopped believing in God, became terrified of death, and that gave way to being interested in these historical figures.” I noticed that Eric’s fear of death arose just in time for the storm. “Yeah,” she confirmed. “Then that was the thing that piqued his interest in distrusting government.” Exile in Austin also deepened Eric’s loyalty to and love for New Orleans. There he was drawn to things he had hated before, like Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, and parades. As Milan Kundera observed, “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” In Austin, Eric sought comfort in Dixieland, books with Louisiana characters and familiar bits of dialogue (ya heard?), and conspiracy theories. He returned to New Orleans with his interest multiplied, colliding with the mortal and political questions plaguing him.
Eric told me that if he could know the ultimate, complete truth of the JFK assassination, he would—even if it resulted in his death. I am impressed by the nobility and the extremity of that desire, though I do not share it. I just can not believe in ultimate truth. 50 years after the fact, it may not matter much who exactly killed Kennedy or why. There are so many repressed histories with higher stakes, like that of COINTELPRO, or how the FBI surveilled Dr. Martin Luther King, or Reagan’s genocidal under-response to the AIDS crisis, or how the institution of prison quickly replaced slavery. We should remember those histories and teach them. This is, after all, the age of the leak. Whistleblowers and hackers show us distressing truths about our panoptical world on a daily basis. It is vital that we situate those truths in a historical context, so that we can see them for what they are: not as sensational, shocking outliers but as inherent characteristics of how power operates.
On a more abstract note, another crucial lesson of the JFK assassination is that history is made by bumbling, flawed people like us or worse. So, whenever we can, we ought to snatch our fate back from them. We ought to create history by documenting our friends with the loving touch of archivists. As a bulwark against the erosion of time and in spite of it.
The snarled threads of conspiracies caution us to remember that our subjective experience of reality is not the only one, or the final one. There is always another veil that could fall away, revealing more. Or, in the chaos of contradictory evidence, we can become overwhelmed and surrender. This is why conspiracy theories are a salve to the spirit, why I like to fall asleep watching documentaries about the moon landing. It’s the same reason Eric likes waterfalls and travels to slow time down. Existence is excruciatingly lonely and intolerably crowded. But the world is still full of secrets.
“Let Justice Be Done
Though The Heavens Fall”
– Epitaph, grave of Jim Garrison, former District Attorney, Orleans Parish