|BALLBUSTER? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman
ARE THE BANKS READY TO FINANCE THE CLASS STRUGGLE?
Why did Alice jump down the rabbit hole? Did she, too, mistake herself for Odysseus about to embark on a voyage around the known world? The reality she found was far less grandiose, upside-down, laced with a touch of the ridiculous. If I set out on my trek through the marketplace treading in the footsteps of the noble Odysseus, I gradually came to see that I was really a socialist Alice lost in a capitalist Wonderland, surrounded by March Hares and Mad Hatters shouting "Off with his game, off with his game." "Sentence first, verdict afterward" became my daily lot.
Why is the Cheshire Cat grinning so? Is he laughing with me or at me? I can no longer tell. It's all very confusing and upsetting. I had heard that the road to revolution is full of strange twists, but I didn't expect to find it looking like a pretzel.
This was the first time I had ever applied for a loan of any kind. Though I assured Howard, Ed, and the others that I could handle it, I had no clear sense of what that meant. Is there a special borrower's uniform that I should wear? Do I assure the bank that this is just a game, nothing serious, fellows, just a way to make a buck, you know how badly professors are paid? Or just give them the figures and say nothing? Do bankers have a sense of humor? Is that at all relevant to lending us money?
The elevator leading to Citibank's Small Business Loan Office on the fourth floor of their Twenty-eighth Street branch was so small that I felt they were trying to squeeze the interest out of me before I even got the loan. Or was this merely another symptom of my Marxo-neurotic reaction to banks, this super-shell game in which coins are moved around so fast that few can divine where they come from or where they go, this magic money tree that grows interest like other trees grow apples, this Mafia-run casino taking its percentage out of every bed? And always, everywhere, it is the most imposing house on the block, for those whose taste runs to blockhouses. While industrial capitalists use other people's labor to make money, banking capitalists use other people's money to make more money. Justice, on their lips, always means forgetting where their wealth originates. Are the banks ready to finance Class Struggle? Greed, we're counting on you!
Inside, Philip Miller, Jr., assistant vice-president of Citibank, greeted me and tried to put me at ease by taking note of my "interesting straw hat."
"Yes, the holes are for ventilation," I responded.
Miller, whose own conservative attire contrasted sharply with the kindly twinkle in his eye, led me to the leather-upholstered conference room, where we were joined by Thomas Thweet, his deadpan black assistant.
"NYU. I've taken some courses there," Miller said.
"Did you?" Score two points for the old-boy network, I thought.
Then, following the rules of Class Struggle, the Capitalists threw the dice first: "Well, just what kind of a business do you have?" Miller asked.
I looked from Miller to Thweet and back, and as casually as I could, I took out a copy of the game and laid it before them. "It's a board game."
Just for a moment, Thweet lost his well-manicured composure, opening his eyes so wide that his eyebrows rose a full inch on his forehead. Miller glanced at the box and then back at me. His expression was completely noncommittal. Their silence seemed to call for more of something, but of what? I opened the box and took out the board.
"It's a kind of socialist Monopoly," I went on. "The players represent different classes, the main ones being Workers and... Capitalists... It's all very real to life... and a lot of fun."
"General Strike." Thweet was reading out loud from the board.
"The first edition sold out in a month," I continued, wishing that Thweet had focused on something little less explicit.
"Revolution." Thweet's voice had become barely audible.
"Here are a sampling of the over 50 stories that have been written on the game, almost all of them extremely favorable." And I spread newspaper clippings over the board to give Thweet and Miller something else to read.
Slowly, Miller broke into a broad smile. "Yes, I recall reading something about it. So you're the inventor. Well, well, well. How did you say the game is doing?"
"Great. So good that we have to produce more games fast. That is, of course, where you come in. How would Citibank like to help finance the class struggle?" No sooner had the words come out of my mouth than I regretted saying them. I had promised myself to be more serious, businesslike. Thweet was put off-balance and didn't know how to respond. He glanced over at Miller for his cue.
Miller hesitated, but just a moment. "If it's a solid business, why not? But that's what we'll have to find out first."
The next couple of weeks were spend drawing up a financial report of income, costs, receivables (money owed us by stores), and games on hand. Together with a Movement accountant friend, who organized numbers by night and workers by day, Jo Ann spent a couple of sleepless nights preparing neat rows of figures. However messy the facts, the figures had to be exact, and, above all, neat. Miller also asked that Howard, Izzy, Ed, and I, the four tenured professors on the board (two of whom own homes), co-sign the loan. In this way, in July, Class Struggle, Inc., obtained $30,000 at 14 percent interest to help pay for our second edition of 25,000 games. For a long time, Citibank had been making money out of supporting capitalists in the class struggle, and now it had found a way to make money by supporting the workers' side as well.
But the decision in September to produce another 50,000 games, coming so soon after we had finished paying Finn for 25,000, caught us fiscally unprepared. For the past month, we had been negotiating with Simon and Schuster, the giant publisher, for some kind of distribution arrangement in bookstores that we were hoping would include a hefty advance to help us produce more games. Using the bait of the Mondadori offer to do an Italian edition, Rodney Sokol had convinced S&S (the jargon of the trade came easy) that a lot of quick money could be made selling Class Struggle, especially overseas. Rodney had always made a lot of his personal connections, something we intended to discount as part of his selling style, until we saw a big picture of our agent hanging in isolated splendor on the wall of the office of Dan Green, a vice-president of S&S.
Friendship notwithstanding, the best S&S offered us was to take over the sale of foreign rights for a commission of 25 percent (Sokol's 10 percent would come on top of that), and to distribute the game in bookstores, also for 25 percent. Getting an offer of any kind was considered something of a coup. Publishers Weekly later spoke of it as a first for the publishing industry. It gave us considerable legitimacy and the widespread distribution network that we lacked. Promising that America's bookstores would soon be stocked to their ceiling with Class Struggle, Sokol urged us to accept the offer. Unfortunately, the numbers argued otherwise. The 25 percent that S&S wanted for their help in distribution was about twice what we were then paying, and did not leave us enough of a margin to continue running an office to sell the game in areas they neglected. Publicity and promotional expenses were also to be our responsibility, and, most important, they refused to advance us the money or to guarantee the bank loan that we needed to produce more games.
Paul, Jo Ann, and the other people then working in our office were so incensed by the offer that they said they would resign immediately if we accepted it. After running through a half-dozen possible scenarios, the board agreed to make S&S our agent for the sale of foreign rights, starting with the Mondadori deal, which had just been concluded (a windfall for S&S)Sokol had convinced us of their special clout overseasbut decided that we could do better on our own in the U.S. From that moment on, Sokol's interest in Class Struggle seriously waned. We were also right back at the beginning in our search for money to finance the next edition of the game.
The new contact with Finn called for paying $53,333 immediately in order to commence production, the same when he began to assemble the games approximately one month later, and the final third in 30-, 60-, 90-day installments after that. Our bank account at the time was $3,200. A little money could be raised by selling more shares. With sales still shooting upward, we raised the price of a share to $500 ($5,000 for a block of 10). In theory, investors had made a profit of 500 percent on the value of shares bought at $100 apiece in five short monthsif they could find anyone to buy them. In practice, only Howard was willing to buy shares (20) at this new price. Even Sokol said no. Howard had never counted on digging quite this deep into his pockets to support Class Struggle, Inc. With this purchase of stock, he had come to the end of his middle-income savings account, to the keen discomfort of his wife, Zita, who had always harbored doubts about the game's ultimate success.
The sale of the Italian license for Class Struggle to Mondadori had just been consummated, and "the check was in the mail." Firms in Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway had expressed strong interest in doing foreign-language editions, and money from them could not be long in coming. Stores that owed us for games already bought would also start paying us at a faster clip. All this money was just out of reach. For the present, we had a serious "cash flow" problem, a lack of cash in hand to pay for the third edition of the game. However we cut it, in the short run we needed a loan of $75,000 to $100,000, depending on how quickly money from these other sources became available.
I had assured Finn when we signed the contract that there would be no problem in securing the needed financing from the bank. Hadn't they already shown their faith in our product to the tune of $30,000? And that was before Mondadori. In any case, we had investors who were prepared to raise their stakes. Look at these sales figures. Look at this week's press clippings. L'Express, France's equivalent of Time Magazine, had just written, "The star at this year's Frankfurt International Book Fair was not a book but a game, Class Struggle." Wasn't this evidence enough? Finn looked at me a little skeptically, but I managed to convince him that Class Struggle had indeed tapped the mother lode. In order to get production underway, I gave Finn a check for $10,000 (the money from Howard's latest purchase of shares), and promised to bring him the other $43,000 due as part of the first payment in a week.
And I really believed there would be no problem. I had already called my friend Phil, the banker, to tell him that things were going so well we needed money to produce another 50,000 games for Christmas. He seemed truly pleased at our success, but reminded me that $100,000 is a lot of money. There was something in his tone of voice that gave me a slight chill. Still, he expressed optimism that we could work something out, and invited me to the bank to lay out the figures.
Having been there several times, I felt quite at home in his office. This was my bank. Weren't these people here to lend a helping hand to small businessmen, even socialist businessmen, as long as Citibank got theirs? The contradictions of capitalism continued to work nicely in our favor. In the conference room, Miller began by informing me that the ground rules for loans of this size were different from the ones we had used before. A lot more information was required, including 12-month projections of income and expenses, and the final decision on whether to grant the loan would be made on a higher level. How the hell did we know how many games we would sell and how many foreign license agreements we would make in the next year? No matterwe had to guess, and guess accurately, numerically. Miller said his role was limited to helping me collect these materials and to making a recommendation.
There wasn't much time. The rest of the first payment was due in several days. If we didn't have it, production would be delayed, and there was a danger of not having games to meet the Christmas rush. Poor Jo Ann had to spend more nights with little or no sleep. It seemed as if our first accountant, whose authoritative style made up for his lack of formal training, had made a mess of our books. The amateurish, helter-skelter nature of our operation required a systematic overhaul now that we stood posed on the edge of the Big Time. Bob Ricca, a professional CPA, was called in to establish fiscal order at $50 an hour. By the time I delivered the materials to the bank, it had almost cost us the equivalent of a first interest payment on the loan.
I urged Miller to try to get us a quick answer, but he found that a description of our office and a copy of the contract with Simon and Schuster were still lacking. The next day, when I returned with this, he said we still needed the Social Security numbers of all the members of the board and their wives. "Couldn't I telephone that in later?" I asked/ "No, it has to be written on these papers before the divisional manager will look at it." Miller was only doing his job, doing it well, so well that we would get our loan. I don't doubt that this was his intent.
When the week had passed, Finn threatened to discontinue production unless the rest of the first payment of $53,000 was made immediately. He needed it, he said, to buy the necessary materials. The following day, the Mondadori money finally arrived. With commissions our share had shrunk to $23,000a substantial boon, but still not enough. Confident that a loan from Citibank would set us squarely on our feet, Howard took out an $18,000 mortgage on his home and Izzy scraped the bottom of his savings barrel for $3,500 to put us over the top. Finn got his first payment. Both Howard and Izzy were assured by the entire board that their loans would be repaid in a few weeks. With this loan, Howard had now sunk close to $90,000 into Class Struggle. He stood there hovering over the roulette table like a seasoned gambler having bet everything on the red, watching the wheel turn, knowing that this time the ball had to land on his color. I was immensely thankful for his commitment; I greatly admired his courage, and tried hard not to think too much about what he must be feeling.
The days dragged by. I waited a week, and them called. The decision, I was told, would be made any day. Miller said he didn't expect any problems, but, of course, he couldn't be sure. As the tension built up, Paule noticed that I began grinding my teeth at night. To help me relax, she insisted on taking me swimming. Three days later, I called again. It was such a simple, obvious matter. The following day the decision was madeto deny us the loan! I was quite flabbergasted.
"It seems as if the assets of the four co-signers don't justify a loan of this size," Miller explained, decidedly uncomfortable with his new role.
"I didn't understand. What about our booming business? What about all the money people owe us?" I asked plaintively.
"Too doubtful," Miller responded. "The bank doesn't like to take risks. Just the certainties are counted, like the assets of the co-signers, and for a $100,000, they proved insufficient."
"Howard's house, Ed's loft, and Izzy's land in Massachusetts," I persisted, "are worth well over $200,000."
"Yes, maybe," Miller went on, " but none of you have any stocks or cash to speak of, and the bank doesn't like to take real estate as collateral. It's a messy business taking a house away from someone. Besides, all this already tied up as collateral for the $30,000 loan we made to you earlier."
"Yeah, yeah, sure." No speech, no joke, nothing more literate came to mind. My legs wobbled as I left the bank. Did the higher-ups decide against the loan for political reasons? Did they finally understand what Class Struggle is all about? I'll never know.
Production of the game was going according to schedule, which meant that in eight days we had to pay Finn the second $53,000. The machine had been set in motion, and my sleeve was caught in the conveyor belt. No time to panic. I called an emergency meeting of the board to discuss our situation. Howard was noticeably shaken by Citibank's refusal to lend us more money. Sales remained high. We wanted the new games as much as ever, but how to pay for them? Izzy had a friend who had borrowed $50,000 to start a record company from the Banco Popular: "No, he wasn't a Puerto Rican, and he had no assets to speak of." Apparently, there are banks that occasionally take a risk.
Ed wanted to know about going public with our stock. "Just what the New York Stock Exchange needs," Milton said. "Instead of buying kids a share of General Motors for their bar mitzvahs, their rich uncles will be able to buy them a share of Class Struggle, Inc."
Izzy remembered that there was an investment company called Carl Marks: "Maybe they'll handle it for us."
"Not likely," Ed responded. "It's a different Carl Marks. This one actually specializes in pre-World War I Czarist bonds."
Howard was too depressed to join in. Maybe I was, too. "Look," I finally said, "even if we could sell shares on the Exchange, it is not something we can do in a week or even a month. Ed, why don't you look into it as a middle-term possibility and also see how much it would cost us. Meanwhile, we still have to pay Fin $53,000 in a week or we don't get any games."
"And we lose the $53,000 we paid him last month," Howard added gravely. It was the first time anyone had mentioned the possibility of losing money.
"I'll go to the bank Izzy mentioned. There are also people who are looking or surefire investments, even if they are a bit kinky. I'll find them," I said in my most determined voice.
Why would another bank see things differently? Yet we had to try, and to try, we had to believe. The next day, I visited George Renert, who lends money to new record companies for the Banco Popular, which is located just off Rockefeller Center in central Manhattan. The bank's secretaries are Latins, but all the people with private offices seemed to be Anglos.
In the world of "us" and "them," Renert put out all sorts of signals that he was part of "us." If he could take off this stuffy jacket and wear just a T-shirt, but... Right off he wanted me to know that he understood, about everything. "We're in business to help small businesses, and to help Class Struggle would be a real pleasure." Meanwhile, he urged me to see the National Economic Development Administration (NEDA) to find out if we were eligible for a Small Business Administration guarantee on our loan. "That would make things easy," Renert said. "But even without it, I think your operation is sound enough for Banco Popular to give you the help you need. There are, of course, some materials you will have to bring me."
I went the same afternoon to the office of the NEDA and learned that an SBA guaranteeif we were lucky enough to get onewould take from six to 10 months to come through. But given the political tone of our game, the SBA guidelines made it very unlikely that they would help us even then. How could I have thought otherwise? Unfortunately, we only needed thousands and not hundreds of millions; and our name wasn't Lockheed or Chrysler. Yes, it would be lovely having the U.S. government helping finance Class Struggle, but it was not to be.
I got to work immediately putting together the materials that Renert wanted, but other options had to be pursued at the same time. Michael Lehrman, who scouts professionally for venture capital (money in search of big risks and correspondingly big profits), offered to help for 5 percent off the top, but complained that his task would be easier if we wanted more money. Alan Petricoff, a Republican lawyer and venture capitalist, obtained a free game and a stimulating lecture on the need to hedge his bets against the possibility of a socialist victory in America, and said he would think it over. Everyone wanted numbers, lots of numbers, almost any numbers, but they had to "add up."
People I knew with money also received calls offering them a piece of our booming business. Kent Barber, a boyhood friend, had earned most of his small fortune as a psychiatrist treating welfare patients. His soul was badly in need of saving. By investing in Class Struggle, he could save his soul and make money at the same time. How could he resist? Barry Schwartz, an anarchist friend from Milwaukee, who spends his days as a stockholder playing hide-and-seek with the market, offered to help. "If it makes money," he assured me, "my Jewish clients will invest in guns for the PLO." "Forget the guns," I told him. "The big money this year is in Class Struggle. But you've got to act fast."
I also called up people I know who edit radical publications or run progressive institutes: "Who has helped you out in a pinch? Where are the radical rich? Do you know anyone who might be interested in buying into Class Struggle, Inc., or lending us $100,000?" The names most frequently mentioned in answer to my questions were Samuel Rabin and Stewart Mott. Rubin was terminally ill at the time, and Mott, whose money came from a General Motors legacy, filters all requests for help through his assistant, Daphne Stewart. I made an appointment to see Daphne the next day.
I suppose I should have felt among comrades, but I didn't. Class Struggle was a stiffer political drink than any I knew Mott to have tasted. Daphne was an intense, attractive woman, who had the self-assurance that comes from knowing who had come to ask for money and who had it to give. Her young assistant, Carol, who was present at the meeting, was very enthusiastic about the whole project: "What a good idea to make a game about class struggle." Daphne stuck to questions about the business, saying finally, "Well, it's quite different than anything Stewart has done before, but maybe... The main problem, as I see it isis it an investment, or a political donation?"
"It's an investment. A good one, a safe one," I responded, "but one with a political thrust."
Daphne went on: "Stewart invests to make money and gives money to promote good causes he believes in. This seems to fall between two stools."
"No," I insisted. "This is a way of sitting on both stools at the same time. A super trick, you must admit, if it can be done, and it can be done. All it takes is the kind of flair for which Stewart is famous." (Ouch. There I go sounding like a salesman again. Now I'm selling Stewart Mott to his own assistant.)
"Well, bring me a copy of your financial report," she listed several other documents, "and we'll get back to you as soon as we can."
"We need a positive answer by Thursday," I responded, and my throat tightened as I realized how little time we had left.
Thursday came, and Friday. No decision yet from Banco Popular or from Mott or from the friends and businessmen who had promised to think about investing in Class Struggle. On Monday, I went to see Finn to explain the delay, sounding as optimistic a note as I could. Finn was very grim. There was no folksy exchange of news about our families, no anecdotes about the religious books he was publishing. "Look, I put a lot of my own money into this. The games are ready to be assembled as I promised. We're on time. You said you would have the money by now." His eyes would have scorched my face if I had let them.
"Bill, it's not time to worry, really worry." I punctuated each phrase with deep, labored breaths. "We had an unexpected problem with Citibank, so we lost some time. There is no question but that we'll come up with the money. It just might take another week... or so." My words bounced back at me from the walls. I had experienced this echo effect before, whenever I gave a particularly bad lecture, whenever my words and feelings seemed to lack synchronization. Yet I had no doubt that the money would turn up somehow. Business was going gangbusters. How could Renert, or Mott, or someone else, fail to see that? But I was beginning to have doubts about how soon that would be. Christmas was slowly sneaking up on us. It was essential that Finn not halt production, that he go ahead. My hope was that he was already too committed to pull back. Finn's breathing was fast and shallow. "Get me that money in a week, one way or another."
That evening, after giving my graduate class on "Marxism," I attended a fundraising party in a posh Park Avenue apartment for Tom Harkin, the liberal congressman from Iowa. With the frequent changes of role, the multiple demands on my time and emotions, my energy level was dangerously low, but just thinking of business was generally enough to recharge my batteries. Susan Weyerhauser, a former student at NYU, was one of the hosts. Susan knew of my business needs and encouraged me to come: "A lot of moneyed liberals will be there, including Stewart Mott, and well, who knows?"
The abrupt transition from explaining the theory of exploitation to being surrounded by some of its more striking effects left me momentarily numb. It was my visits to Citibank that first suggested the analogy with Alice in Wonderland, but it was only now, watching the Lobster Quadrille, that I realized how far I had wandered down the rabbit hole. Calm, musn't run. Even Alice, I tried to reassure myself, eventually emerged from her weird adventure. But she had been asleep, while I wasand here I pinched myself to make surequite awake. (I don't know if it was the pinch, or the recurring image of Finn, or the lemonade brought to me by a uniformed maid, but I snapped out of my reverie and began to mingle.)
The 100-plus "beautiful people" in the crowd seemed so confident of their own importance that no one took much notice of Robert Redford, who sat in a far corner munching on hors d'oeuvre. Susan was pleased to see me and introduced me to a group as "the professor from Class Struggle." I winced, but who could say that she was wrong? The moment had come for the congressman to deliver his typically inspiring liberal talk: The country is going to hell in a roller coaster, the conservatives having greased the track, and only liberals know how to apply the brake. Worsening poverty, unemployment, inflation, war, were all blamed on bad people when not viewed as unavoidable facts of nature. Solutions lay in electing better people. Of course, to graspeven as Ma Bell hasthe "the system is the solution." Congressman Harkin would have had to recognize the way in which he and his audience were also part of the problem. How I wished they had given me 15 minutes to respond. But, at the time, ideology seemed less important than finding cash.
"Bertell, this is Stewart Mott." Standing in front of me was a tall, rugged-looking man who could have been a professional football player only recently put out to pasture. "Stewart has a great interest in alienation." Then, turning to Stewart, Susan went on, "Bertell has written the definitive work on alienation, but of course you must know it." Stewart shook his head, with more than a touch of embarrassment. Not a good beginning.
Susan left us to find our own way out of the void. "What a coincidences seeing you here tonight. I met with your assistant, Daphne, just the other day, to talk about a project that I hoped would be of interest to you. It's about Class Struggle, the game. Did Daphne...?"
"Oh yes. Daphne spoke to me about it." The casual encounter had turned into a business meeting, and Mott immediately became very defensive. "There's been no time to look into it."
"Have you seen the game?" I asked.
"Yes... well, no. I've heard about it."
Damn. I should have stayed with alienation. My remarks had categorized me as just another indigent in need of money. Mott's whole adult life has been spent dodging people who want something from him. It's the price he pays for occasionally saying yes. He had become very cool and correct. I looked in vain for a sign of interest, a smile. Making polite noises about how good it was to meet me, he promised to look into my proposal very soon, and moved on. Like Casey at bat, I had struck out with the bases loaded. I felt silly, small, and foolish. Then angry at myself. What should I have said?
Mott and I collided like two icebergs in the Bering Sea. I didn't want to talk to him about games or money. What I really wanted to ask washow does it feel playing God? Happy? Lonely? Frightening? Funny? Judging from his works, Mott is a better god than most, but what interests me is how he feels in the role, something Moses, too, neglected to ask of Jehovah. Instead, I stood in line with my cup like the others, a schnorer for Class Struggle, for those who had their hopes and marbles in it, and for the political pay-off it promised. It's bad enough having to ask, but worse having the wrong question, and worse still getting put off, having your pressing needs ignored. I felt humiliated, and resented Mott for the power of his indifference.
After the party, about 25 of the biggest tippers and I were invited by Susan to join Congressman Harkin for a late supper at Pierre's Restaurant. My dinner partner was Jerry Wexler, president of Warner Records. His old mother, he told me, was once a Communist, but he is content to make records and money.
"It's not too late to make the old lady proud of you," I consoled him. "Don't let her die thinking of you as a failure. Invest in Class Struggle." Wexler got a good listener for his old yarns over supper. I got nothing.
As we were leaving the restaurant, another guest pulled me aside to boast, confidentially of course, that his son had been a member of SDS. "Buy the kid some shares in Class Struggle. Show him his dad isn't as reactionary as he thinks," I suggested, trying my best to bring the generations together.
"What an interesting idea," he smiled.
After 10 days of "tomorrow for sure," "probably okay," "just one more figure,"the telephone wire between us was being burned to a frazzle by my anxietythe Banco Popular decided to invest its funds in more traditional enterprises. Records, si! Games, no!
"Don't take it personally," Renert advised.
Rejections were still too new to me not to hurt, not to take personally. I tried to step back and see the bigger picture: Socially, a small business was getting screwed by the banks; politically, the capitalist class had struck another blow against the forces of socialism. The relief was only temporary. Where to go now? Whom to see? Later, later. I'll call Howard and Paul tomorrow. Don't want to talk now. Don't want them to see me so low, so worn, so short on hope. I felt an overwhelming sense of exhaustion that comes when you discover you've been walking a whole day, a whole week, in the wrong direction. So much energy, so much timeand in this case so much wasted civility. Too frequent sales raps had burned the initials "C.S." in my throat. I needed a drink of cool water, a change of air, of people, of ideasfast.
Some days before, a friend had invited me to attend a talk by Manuel Azcarate, a leading member of Spain's Communist party, who was visiting New York. I was much too busy to attend, but I noted the address. Now it seemed like a window opening onto the world beyond my petty business concerns. I needed to stretch, and forget.
The first half-dozen people I met at the meeting all asked me about Class Struggle. "We're doing fine. Of course, we could use $100,000." "Ha, ha, ha. Ollman sure has a sense of humor," went the refrain.
The talk offered some relief. Azcarate didn't mention Class Struggle once. Afterward, while I was drowning my sorrow in a second cup of tea, an elderly Communist union organizer turned Jewish businessman came up and introduced himself: "Nat Levine. I've been in the toy business many years, so I know what you're going through." There was something in Nat's look that suggested he might be right.
"I'm sure you know what it's like to sell games," I responded, "but how about needing $100,000 in a week, or else?"
Nat nodded. "Most small businessmen know that. If you were to make a doll of a small businessman, he would have his hand out like this." And he opened his palm.
"That leaves out the stomach pains," I said.
"No," he replied, "we show that with a facial expressionlike this." And he pointed first to his face, and thenwith emphasisto mine.
I had done enough selling that day to appreciate a chance to unburden myself to an understanding comrade. Then in the middle of my sorry tale, Nat interrupted"I'll help you." I must have looked at him with such disbelief that he said again, "I'll help you." I must have looked at him with such disbelief that he said again, "I'll help you. How much do you need?"
"One hundred thousand dollars," I answered, still unsure of what I had heard.
"Well, probably not that much, but I think I can get you out of the hole you're in. Come to see me tomorrow morning."
"Why?" I asked. In the emotional din set off by Nat's remarks, it was my curiosity that dominated.
Nat laughed. "Well, if I told you it sounded like a good business proposition, I'd be lying. No, I like what you're trying to do with the game. All my life, I've been a fighter in the class struggle, though I haven't had a chance to do much lately." Then, becoming very animated, he added, "If I can give capitalism just one more stauch before I die..."
The very next night, Nat came to my house to meet the Class Struggle board. How much he would help us was still unclear. That morning, Ed and I had gone with him to see his banker in Brooklyn. The banker said he would only make us a loan if Nat co-signed the note. On the drive back, Nat said he himself would lend us $15,000. Only, we mustn't tell his wife. "And then," he said, "and then we'll see."
Our meeting uncorked all the laughter and good cheer that had been bottled up in the last month of worries. Nat, who loved telling anecdotes about his life as a Marxist businessman, never had a more appreciative audience. Then, with the coffee poured and cheese spread, Nat began to grill us on the business side of our business. "How man orders did you have when you put in the request for another 50,000 games?"
I looked at Paul, who looked back at me, and we both looked at Howard. Howard began, "The games we had were selling very fast."
"And the buyer at Bloomingdale's told us she was thinking of taking 10,000 sets for Christmas," I added.
Paul chimed in: "We also got a call from Holland asking for 5,000... Of course, it hasn't been confirmed yet."
"The Bloomingdale order hasn't come in yet either," I said, beginning to feel uncomfortable.
Nat's jovial manner turned icy cold. And he repeated his question: "How many definite orders did you have when you asked Finn for another 50,000 games?"
"If you mean firm orders," I said, "I guess the answer is none."
Nat shook his head in disbelief. "You bought 50,000 games at the cost of $160,000 that you didn't have on the basis of no orders?" With these words, something snapped. I heard it. We all heard it. Howard has confessed that for him this was the most frightening moment of our entire venture.
"And if the expected orders don't come through?" Nat asked, after a long moment of silence.
"Then we're in bad shape," I responded. "Though even then..." And I repeated, but with waning assurance, the long litany of our successes and possibilities.