|BALLBUSTER? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman
MAYDAY 1978, 4:30 PM: "YOU ARE INVITED TO A PRESS CONFERENCE..."
"Did we buy enough class strudel?" No one winced anymore at the pun. Milton had convinced us that punning was one of our strongest suits and that we shouldn't be afraid to play it. The world's press was coming, or as many as them as could fit into Ed's SoHo loft, and we were anxious to put our best foot forwardthe one with the red, white, and blue slipper. The first hundred games of Class Struggle had arrived from Juvenile Packaging just yesterday, still warm from the shrink wrapping and as bold and brassy as the hopes that had nurtured them into life. They were arranged on a long table that also sported two large wicker baskets of red and black "Class Struggle Is the Name of the Game" buttons. Delays in production and all the extra dollars Gouldner plucked from us were immediately forgotten in the warm glow I felt in holding the newborn on my knees. "Look, Paule, it already talks."
"What does it say?"
"'Feed me'...no, it's 'Read me, you who would be free.'" We laughed and hugged each other. It was the laugh of people who had come to the end of a long and tiring journey. Because all of our efforts had been aimed at producing and unveiling the game, Paule felt that our experience with Class Struggle was coming to an end. Never as interested in games as I was, and even more hostile to everything connected to business, she had looked forward to this moment in ways she would only now admit.
Not everything was read. It was 10 minutes after 4 P.M. and the beer, wine, soda, nuts, crackers, and strudel were still fighting with each other for space on the overcrowded bar. Milton was squeezing the last pun into the punch as Ed brought out more ice and cups. Jo Ann was directing traffic. "The bar can't come out that far. It doesn't leave enough room for the TV cameras." More chairs were displaced and the bar pushed farther into a corner, leaving a 15' x 15' space in front of the huge blowup of the Class Struggle board that would serve as the backdrop for my remarks to the press. Milt's friend the photographer arrived and immediately started taking pictures.
Ed's loft had once been the headquarters of the American Silk Exchange, which accounted for the mahogany floors and the pieces of marble jutting out of the walls. Ten floors below in the same building, our friend Bob Bonic had tempted fate with his darts bar. It was a coincidence we preferred on this occasion to forget. From the huge egg-shaped picture window in Ed's front room one looked over the checkered roofs of the Lower East Side, the site of some of New York's most intense class struggles.
"Throw the Genetic Die to see who plays what class."
"Maybe we should wait until some press people arrive."
I had just entered one of our bedrooms where a game of Class Struggle was about to get under way with Raoul, by now a sassy adolescent, John Birnbaum, Ellen Chase, friends from the NYU Center for Marxist Studies, and a few of my students who had volunteered for the occasion. "No, I think it's better if you begin now," I said. "This way you'll be in the heat of battle when the press comes along. And don't forget to enjoy yourselves madly."
"Dad," Raoul asked, "do I have to laugh even when I don't find it funny?"
"You have to laugh the loudest." Turning to John, I instructed, "Report to me if Raoul doesn't laugh loud enough."
Margaret, Ed's wife, poked her head in the door and announced that the band had arrived. And in walked Perry, Les, and two friends they had invited to play along with them. Perry is an accomplished jazz clarinetist with a couple of esoteric records under his belt, while Les plays guitar and sings, most recently dressed as a chicken, on the Greenwich Village street corner circuit.
"Greetings, minstrels. There are no press here yet. Margaret, could you take them to the bedroom? The Class Struggle T-shirts are there."
For some reason, which I don't understand, we thought Class Struggle needed a theme song, and that the press conference was the perfect place to introduce it. With a dozen last-minute details contesting for my time, I had spent the previous evening with Les distilling the essence of Class Struggle while Perry improvised a jazz accompaniment.
"Gouldner's here." A cry rang out from the front hall. And a moment later, in walked our beaming producer, sporting a powder-blue suit, orange tie, and what seemed like spats. Deeply tanned from "a couple of days out on the boat," he looked every studied inch like the Hollywood mogul. No one would guess from his appearance or from the Mercedes Benz he arrived in ("It saves me a fortune in upkeep") that he was turning out subversive games. Gouldner had come to our opening to see how many rabbits a socialist professor could pull out of a hat. We had assured him that the press could not fail to see the novelty of our venture and would turn out in droves for the press conference, but he remained politely skeptical.
"Good luck, Bertell. Nice crowd," he greeted me warmly, gesturing to all the friends, relatives, and students who were milling about. "Who's here from the press?"
Before I could find my voice for an answer, Paul rushed in with his news: "There's a guy here who says he's from Toy Magazine." I exchanged knowing winks with Gouldner, and urged him to help himself to a drink in the next room. I would speak to him later. Then, to Paul: "Send him in here. No, let me go out to greet him."
"Too pushy," Ed stopped me. "Play it cool, like it's the biggest story of the decade. Someone go tell the guy that Professor Ollman is in here."
"Yeah," Howard agreed. "This way we hit him right away with the image of people enjoying the game. I'll go get him."
A few moments later, a thirtyish, baby-faced man about five feet high entered the room, followed by Howard, who supplied the introductions while looking down on the top of his short-cropped, well-scrubbed head. "Bertell, this is Davis Winfell of Toy Magazine. Mr. Winfell, this is Bertell Ollman, the creator of Class Struggle."
Warmly shaking hands with our slightly overwhelmed guest, I continued, "And this is Ed Nell, who is also on the board of directors of Class Struggle, Inc., the producers of the game, and Jo Ann Gullen, our general manager. That's John, Ellen, Bill, Raoumy sonIrma, and Philip playing the game. This is..."
Raoul let out a wild youp, followed by three quick guffaws, which I was able to stop only by giving him the dirtiest of looks.
"As you probably know," Winfell began, "Toy Magazine is the largest publication in the industry. It has 100,000 readers including most of the people who buy games for stores."
"Sounds like the ideal place for a good story on Class Struggle." Milt smiled, only to receive a kick from Howard, whose lips I could see mouthing the words, "Too pushy."
Hoping to recover from Milton's faux pas, Jo Ann broke in, "The press conference should start in about 20 minutes, but if you have any questions to ask Professor Ollman now, I'm sure he'd be pleased to answer."
I nodded assent. We were about to hear the first question asked by the press about Class Struggle. It was a historic moment. Milt called over our court photographer to make sure it wasn't lost to posterity. She snapped two, three, four photos.
After a slight hesitation, Winfell began, "Have you gentlemen considered the importance of advertising in selling your product?"
Howard, Milton, Ed, Jo Ann, and I looked at each other, puzzled, and then back at Winfell. "Sure," I answered, really unsure of what I was hearing. "Do you want to know how Class Struggle works?" Howard asked. "Or why Professor Ollman invented it?"
Not to be sidetracked, Winfell pushed on: "A study of the companies that have advertised in Toy Magazine shows an increase..."
Ed interrupted, "Aren't you a reporter for Toy Magazine?"
"No," Winfell replied, looking very sheepish all of a sudden. "I'm with their advertising department."
Not sure that he heard him correctly, Ed persisted, "You don't write?"
"I write ads, well, really sales agreements for ads." Winfell corrected himself. "Someone else writes the ad copy." The noise from our deflating balloon might have frightened him off his feet if the band hadn't begun playing at that moment in the other room. The cool jazz made the party atmosphere complete. I apologized to Winfell and said that I had to greet our other guests, promising to discuss advertising with him later on.
Jo Ann, who joined me, swore once again that all the invitations had been sent out 10 days ago, over 100 of them. I followed up," she went on, "with phone calls yesterday to ABC, NBC, and CBS news staffs, and to the dozen New York papers, TV and radio stations we had singled out."
"Then I don't understand it," I said. "Could Irwin have been so right about 4:30 being a bad time for a press conference?" (Our other "experts" had disagreed).
A noisy crowd of people had just gotten off the elevator outside the front door. It sounded like a welcome burst of rain in the middle of a long drought. Whoever they were, they really enjoyed being here, judging from their rapid-fire talk and frequent bursts of laughter. The door opened and in came a smiling Milton, waving his hand behind him as he announced to us, "Board members of Class Struggle, Inc., meet the ladies and gentlemen of the press." And in walked two, five 10, 14 in all, black and Puerto Rican teenagers 14 to 16-years-old, each holding a notebook and pencil, and all looking dead serious, the fun having stopped at the door. Following the troop in was Milt's friend Joe Leonard.
I think it was Ed who recovered first. "Who are these kids?"
"They are students at the New York High School of Printing," Milt replied. "Joe teaches a class in reporting there. This is their first press conference. I thought it would be a good idea if they came. It kinda gives us the crowd effect." Then, addressing the ladies and gentlemen of the press, he added, "Go into the back room, kids. The press conference will begin in about 10 minutes."
"Milt, aren't you supposed to check out your good ideas with us?" Jo Ann was brimming with annoyance.
"It makes no difference, Jo Ann," I said. "We have lots of room. I wish we didn't, but we do."
"And lots of class strudel." Milt smiled weakly.
Paul rushed up. "It's 4:35 P.M. Are there any press here yet?"
As I slowly shook my head, I began to feel what seemed like strong hunger pains in my stomach, although I knew I had just eaten. It was no time to show anxiety. A general has to swallow his panic. My troops were watching, ready to take their cue from how I reacted. For someone who had always made a fetish of letting it all hang out, setting an example of calm in the midst of a growing storm is a grueling experience. Easy, I thought, it's still early. The loft may have been hard to find. A lot of press will come late. The Guardian and Seven Days surely will come late. Radicals are never on time to meetings. My native optimism began to reassert itself.
"There is a guy in the bedroom watching the Class Struggle game whom nobody seems to know." Paul, who had just emerged from the room, added, "I saw him ask Perry and Les some questions earlier."
We went back into the bedroom, and sure enough, there was a solidly built man with straight black hair and a navy-blue double-breasted suit peering intently over Raoul's shoulder watching the game. I don't know how I could have missed him, but I did, and so, apparently, did Howard, Ed, Izzy, Milton, Jo Ann, and Paul.
"Are you enjoying the game?" I asked.
"Very much. A game called Class Struggle, very interesting idea." Not wanting to miss any of the action on the board, he hardly glanced in our direction. The accent with which he spoke was slight, but noticeable.
"Where are you from?" I went on. "Are you a reporter?"
"Yes, I am a reporter." Every head in the room was now turned in his direction waiting for his next words. "I represent TASS, the Soviet press agency."
An unexpected pleasure, I assured him. Along with the other major foreign press agencies, TASS received an invitation to the conference, but we'd had little hope they would attend. An article in Pravda wouldn't sell any games in New York City, but the idea of it boosted our flagging morale just the same.
With the introductions out of the way, Mr. Borosov asked me, "Why did you make a game of class struggle?"
"To help teach people about the real class struggle in America," I answered. "Don't you think it's needed?"
"But tell me truthfully, Professor," his tone had become very skeptical, "do you really believe the capitalists will allow such a game to be sold?"
"Yes, they'll let it be sold, but whether they'll help us sell it is the big question. And only time will tell." My answer brought a doubting smile to his lips.
"It's a quarter to five," Margaret said, joining us. "Perry and Les want to know if you're ready for the Class Struggle song."
"Yes, I think we'd better begin. Will everyone please come into the living room?" Turning to the man from TASS, I added, "We can continue to talk during the question and answer period of the press conference."
In the front room, Milton, our emcee for the occasion was conducting the Class Struggle rafflefirst prize, an all-new Class Struggle T-shirt. To his embarrassment, his own 9-year-old son, Jonah, emerged the winner. Having weathered the audience's cries of "cheat," "fix," "fake," Milt began to introduce the members of what he had baptized "The Class Strugglers," Perry, Les... They looked resplendent in their red T-shirts with black "Class Struggle" lettering across the front. After a brief instrumental intro, Les started to sing.
"Move over Monopoly, you capitalist game.
We've had enough of your greed, it's time for a change.
CLASS STRUGGLE, THAT'S THE NAME OF THE GAME..."
Well, at least the music was good, and Less has a pleasant baritone voice. The audience responded warmly to the song. It was now 5 o'clock, or about a half-hour after the press conference was scheduled to begin. We could not delay things any longer. I nodded my assent. Milt welcomed the ladies and gentlemen of the press and assembled friends. Then he introduced me, handing me the wooden pointer that he had insisted was a necessary implement in every successful press conference. I began by asking each member of the Class Struggle team to stand and take a bow. Howard took advantage of his moment to say how proud he was to be part of this "unique undertaking." I'm sure he chose the word "undertaking" as a happy compromise for "business" and "politics," but in the circumstances I could only hear "undertaker." Under the professional calm, my stomach was hurting so much that I had to loosen my belt.
I was only four to five minutes to explain why I had invented Class Struggle and to outline the mechanisms of the game. The large empty space we had set aside for TV cameras became more and more oppressive as I spoke. "Fun, funny, politically relevant"I strove mightily, but my heart wasn't in it. "Are there any questions?"
After a decidedly unpregnant silence, one of the reporters from the New York High School for Printing raised his hand: "How does one invent a game?" he asked. "What are you going to do with all the profit you make?" Rex Wiener, an ex-Yippy friend of mine who was writing a book on the counterculture, wanted to know. I thought it was odd that Rex or anyone else should be interested in our profits when we hadn't yet sold a game.
Two questions, one from Milton on problems connected with playing the game, followed, and then nothing. I looked hard for the man from TASS, but he seemed to have left. Ordinarily, the sea of young black faces down front would have inspired me to heights of socialist oratory, but not now. When our court photographer signaled she had finished her last roll of film, I opted for a swift ending (in keeping with the rest of the occasion, only a couple of photos came out, but the bill was a royal $500!).
The band resumed playing. "No, Les, I don't think it's a good idea to sing the Class Struggle song again." My whole body felt heavy, weighted down with bags of sand. But most of our guests felt obliged to say good-bye and wish me good luck, often adding something about "the terrific party." Some sensitive souls, like Ira, wordlessly patted me on the back, or simply waved from the door.
Howard approached. His long face never looked longer. "Where were The Guardian and Seven Days?" he asked plaintively. "Even the radical press let us down."
Later that evening, Paule, the Gullens, Izzy, Milt, and I retired to drown our sorrows in Chinese tea in the Hog Fat Restaurant down the block from Ed's loft. "Well, let's hear it. What's next?" I asked.
"I got it," Milton erupted with what seemed like genuine excitement. "How about issuing a news release saying that press from around the world, ranging from the New York High School of Printing to TASS, turned up today to greet the birth of the world's first Marxist board game?"