by Glenn Reed
(Swans - December 2, 2013) "Which piece do you want to be?"
I checked over the tiny, metal tokens available: a shoe, race car, ship, thimble, top hat, dog, cat... Where was the flat iron?
We were playing Monopoly (the classic version) one night at my job. No, we weren't goofing off on the boss's dime. I'm currently employed in a residential mental health facility where we have a games hour as one of our activities for the clients.
Someone told me that the tokens used in Monopoly represented key parts of the economy from the time when it first came out. That was back in 1935, although the origins of the game go back to the early 20th century. I'd never thought of that as a kid, which was the last time that I'd played the game. To me, then, it was just another game.
I remember that I typically chose the flat iron when I played. I don't know why. Now I wonder if it actually represents the women who were usually confined to the home, without careers, raising numerous children, cooking and cleaning and washing and ironing clothes? Or did it also symbolize the clothing and textile industries that were so prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? I lived in old Massachusetts and Vermont mill towns in my early, childhood years. They all had dark, expansive brick factory structures belching smoke and dumping strange colored liquids into the streams upon which they sat. Many of the mills were just beginning to phase out at the time. Some were textile mills except for one that produced machine parts and another that produced toilet seats. The latter always made me laugh as a kid. Nowadays those old buildings are either brooding ruins in towns gutted of their hearts or have been converted into pricey condos with first-floor imported clothing stores or overpriced restaurants in gentrified neighborhoods.
I remember that if someone chose the flat iron first in Monopoly, I'd usually settle for the shoe. Footwear was still manufactured in the United States back then. "Just do it" wasn't some capitalistic mantra, and the basketball shoes we prized in 3rd and 4th grade were not made in China. Over 30% of the work force was still unionized. The working class could still afford to buy a modest home, send their kids to college, and retire in Florida. Hell, there was a thriving middle class.
Of course, the shoe could also be seen as how the working class has been treated throughout history. Kicked around, of course. Or often without shoes (during the Depression).
So, I hadn't played Monopoly since some time in the 1970s. By my high school years I was bored with the game. The world conquest of Risk or making three words with two tiles in Scrabble was much more fun or challenging. That recent night at work I thought it might be fun to try Monopoly again.
I found that the essentials of the game haven't changed at all and the board is mostly the same for what is called the "classic" version. The only differences that I noted were that dollar amounts for purchasing property, mortgages, fines, etc. were no longer in the hundreds but in the millions. The money itself was also smaller and seemed thinner, as were the property cards. Was this a case of fewer bangs for the buck or saving money on money? I figured it was probably cost-cutting measures by manufacturers who also kept their labor costs nice and low. I also noticed that the game was manufactured in China. How fitting, if not predictable, these days.
It's ironic that the "classic" version of Monopoly was developed during the Great Depression years. I guess its quick popularity was a case of wishful thinking among those for whom the premise of the game is what led to their economic predicament. Americans, it seems, have always had a sick obsession with the wealthy and acceptance of a system that is stacked heavily against those who aren't the plutocrats. How often have I heard struggling people rationalize that they'd do "the same thing" if they were rich? Unfortunately, that "same thing" means screw over others and the environment to the max for more money and power. Ah, but in the end, that recent game of Monopoly was rather boring to me. Acquiring more and more cash and property, then building on the latter until you bankrupt everyone else lacked a sense of satisfaction. So much is dependent on rolls of the dice. The only opportunities are to build houses and hotels on property and collect bloated rents rather than set aside the land to preserve it or create a park for all the people.
That missing token came back to mind several times over the next few days. One was when I noticed a Forbes magazine article on-line that touted "The World's Most Powerful People 2013." Russia's Vladimir Putin was ranked #1 ahead of United States president Barack Obama. Drilling for more fossil fuels, persecuting sexual minorities and deeming Greenpeace activists as terrorists "wins" over rampant domestic spying, pursuit of corporate-dictated trade deals and drone bombs falling on civilians. Looking down the list I note that other "powerful" figures include lots of CEOs, such as Microsoft's Mr. Monopoly, Bill Gates; Michael Duke, the CEO of a Walmart known for endless masses of imported Chinese stuff, so much produced unfettered by pesky regulations back in Asia, and for less-than-living wages, union-busting, and non-existent benefits that force its workers to rely on aid from our maligned federal government. Others are such scions of human rights as Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and his kingdom's Medieval Sharia Law.
Presidents and CEOs are pretty much the same thing now, after all.
Were such lists to include figures like Nelson Mandela or Vandana Shiva, the world would be in much better shape, I thought. Of course, there are no solar panels, organic tomatoes, or open books as Monopoly tokens. I suppose we should be happy that the Pope made the list as he, at least, gets the Sarah Palins of the world upset.
The small Vermont town where I live was once a huge slate quarrying center. In fact, the local high school teams are still called the "Slaters." On another night last week I was out running on a back road here when I remembered another Monopoly token. I'd forgotten about the wheelbarrow.
During the late fall and winter months, I enjoy running on this route in the quiet hills and woods, past a horse farm with open pasture and a small swamp with patches of cattails and the occasional ducks swimming away with quacks of alarm. On this one night, the moon was about four days shy of full. Everything was illuminated with that softly intense, almost bluish wash of lunar light. As it's November, the trees were bare and their shapes twisted and reached to the sky. Rustling, fallen leaves caught a slight breeze or hinted of scampering mice. The air was brisk, cold, refreshing.
Past the 1.5 mile mark of this running route, piles of quarried slate rise out of the woods. They scar the landscape, jarring your eyes when they appear, unexpectedly, while driving down forested dirt roads. Most of the slate quarries, here in western Rutland County, are no longer in operation. The slabs of mostly gray stone slide in haphazard heaps as if some giant had been digging here and there. The excavations go down a hundred feet or so and some are gauged out of otherwise easy-sloping hills.
I think about those Welsh and Italian immigrants who crossed the Atlantic back in the mid-19th century, lured by the "Land of the Free" promises of unfettered capitalism that savagely tore the resources from "sea to shining sea." Sometimes I feel their ghostly presence as I run by that one, abandoned quarry where 12-16 hour work days, six-day work weeks, discrimination and abuse, horrific injuries, and no health insurance were the norm. Of course, these workers must have used wheelbarrows on a regular basis. I almost hear the token's rickety wheels creaking through the little patch of woods between the road and the piles of slate indicating past profits and the damage left behind for everyone else to deal with.
I'm thinking that, in the end, we're all the tokens. That is, "We the people." The 99%. Just pawns in the endless game of greed and power that has drawn the entire planet to the slow, painful extinction that will be as complete as any quick meteor or comet strike. The global playing board is awash with oil slicks and island-sized masses of floating garbage. Open pit mines, miles of clear cuts, dusty plains devoid of topsoil, decapitated mountains, chemical-laden streams and lakes cover it. The "players" lording over it all laugh and roll the dice. They greedily move us around with oily fingers.
And they never tire of the game, either.
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Glenn Reed is a writer and activist from Fair Haven, Vermont, who works in the non-profit world. (back)