Richard Lee


By Richard Lee / The Rag Blog / January 10, 2010

BOCAS DEL TORO, Panama — I’m watching the financial channel here in Panama, in Spanish, in the middle of the night. On this particular night the financial pundits and talking heads are taking turns for some reason reminiscing about the March 2008 Bear Stearns bailout with U.S. taxpayer dollars.

At first Bear Stearns looked like it was alright, but they were engaged in a common business scam, borrowing money using accounts receivable as collateral. Most businesses do this and as long as there is sufficient cash flow to pay the vig, or interest due, they get away with it.

Accounts receivable has two faces, or two meanings, in one sense it is a number in the company books that shows what the company is owed. Then there is the real accounts receivable, money owed to the company that they will actually receive some time in the future. The former, the one in the books, is usually much larger than the latter.

Sometimes the company gets found out. And the people who are lending them money demand that they use the real accounts receivable numbers. This happened to Bear Stearns. It happened long ago to Billy Sol Estes. Most of you don’t remember him, but you do remember Enron. Their accounts receivables were from companies that didn’t exist except on paper.

When Bear Stearns tried to roll over their short term paper, based on home loans that they claimed were receivable, it came to light that the loans weren’t receivable at all and the collateral on the loans (the homes themselves) weren’t worth what they said they were. The lenders refused to lend them more operating capital. And they began to go down the tubes.

J.P. Morgan offered to bail them out. Morgan offered them two bucks a share for the company. Morgan would then be the proud new owner of Bear Stearns accounts receivable, which wouldn’t really be receivable. This would leave Morgan holding the bag, an empty bag, making them vulnerable in the near future.

Something had to be done, the big corporations in the lending business were setting themselves up like a row of dominos, and the first one was starting to tip over. Two dollars a share was probably generous. Bear Stearns was unable to continue to operate so in reality they were worth zip, squat, nada, they were bankrupt.

Uncle Sugar offered to jump in and take J.P. Morgan’s back; in effect pony up the money, two dollars a share, to cover Morgan’s bid for a worthless company. Whoa, wait a minute said Morgan, if the Fed was going to pass out free taxpayers’ money, then why not get while the getting was good. Next morning Morgan announced that they had made a mistake, seems the worthless company, Bear Stearns, was really worth ten dollars a share. The Fed went for it and promptly put up five times the original bailout money.

Well it was late and my mind was wandering, first it sounded like, “keep watching the show, there is no one behind the curtain.” Then it wandered to “fuck a duck, anything for a buck.” And I remembered the poster and how it all came down and all alone in my Panama hotel, stretched out nude on the bed, I began to laugh, and the more I remembered about it the more I laughed. I’ve got a big shit-eating grin right now because I can’t wait to tell you this story.

Come on back with me now. This is Boston, it’s 1970. I’m living on Erie Street that runs out of Central Square in Cambridge. Sometimes I sell underground papers, and do some high level panhandling around Harvard Square, and sometimes around Boston City Hall, to pay the rent and keep food in my stomach, plus something to roll in the quiet moments.

But my real occupation is plotting the demise of U.S. imperialism. This was a very real struggle in those days and it seemed like it had possibilities. Like every great struggle it had many fronts. One of the fronts in that moment was the Troika Free Poster Factory. I was there at the beginning; actually I was a part of the beginning.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston had a school. It was a small school, a few students who showed artistic promise attended, most if not all on scholarships provided by the Museum. A group of these fledgling artists, the politically aware and therefore anti-war ones, formed a small collective within the MFA School to do something about the horrible Nixonian blood fest in Vietnam.

Their politics motivated them to harness the means at hand and when they saw an opportunity, they acted. The school provided the tools for the artists to do their thing; paint and canvas, sculpting clay, knives, chisels, air brushes, silk screens, a copy camera and a dark room. Probably a lot more that I don’t know about or don’t remember.

I knew about the copy camera. I also knew that in the evenings there was usually no one around and a door that wasn’t locked. I had more or less of an ID factory going over on Beacon Hill, just down the alley from Suffolk Law School, behind the State House.

Also in this alley was the State Print Shop whose trash I regularly sorted through to garner State paper that I could use to bolster ID sets needed by deserters, anti-war fugitives, and people who needed to get out of the country. I found blank licenses for all sorts of trades, blank ID’s, official letterheads and envelopes, and sometimes rubber stamps or embossing discs in the print shop trash.

One of the important pieces of ID in those days was a Draft Card. Every male citizen between the ages of 18 and 50 had to carry around a draft card; it was the only ID that was required by federal law. I couldn’t just “find” these, although I suppose a regular visit to the trash behind some draft board offices might yield one. Since this was a common piece of ID, I needed lots of them. Some friends in Texas had a printing press and were willing to run some off, but they needed a negative with which to make a plate.

I borrowed a nice clean draft card from a young man who had made the mistake of registering for the draft, and in the evening set out for the MFA School to use the copy camera. As usual the door was unlocked and no one was around when I slipped in and made my way to the camera and dark room.

I spent a while trying to get the right 100% size, and to locate the film and get it loaded correctly on the vacuum back of the camera, and to get the exposure and developing right. I’d done some film developing but most of this I was trying to accomplish by trial and error. While I was still puzzling my way through, the door opened and two students came in. It’s a small student body, everyone knows everyone, and they didn’t know me.

For a few seconds we stood looking at each other: they were wondering who I was, I was wondering if I should bolt out onto Huntington Avenue and escape to a friend’s pad over on Hemingway Street. The newcomers were a guy and a woman; they didn’t look dangerous. I decided to hold my ground. I needed that negative.

The woman spoke first. “What are you doing?” She didn’t sound angry or suspicious, more like inquisitive.

“I’m trying to get this camera to work.”

They stepped closer. “What are you trying to do?”

“I need to make a negative of this at a hundred percent, but it’s not working out too well.”

“Maybe I can help,” she said, coming closer, peering at the settings on the camera. The guy came over too; he was looking down at the draft card. It took a moment, but pretty quickly it all became clear to him, he tugged at her sleeve and nodded toward the draft card. Then she was looking at it too and then at me, back again to the card.

All three of us stood looking at the card; they were trying to make up their minds, and I gave them the time, maintaining the silence. They looked at each other. They looked at the card. Silently they came to an agreement about what to do. I waited, eyeing the door, ready to move.

She reached up, saying, “You’ve got to crank this up ‘til the two arrows meet.” The guy nodded his assent, about the arrows and about the card, and about what I was doing. I stopped looking at the door. We had a conspiracy going. She moved the card and adjusted the focus, we killed the lights and he cut a piece of film, we took the shot, they introduced me to the “bump” light, the guy took the film into the dark room.

With the light back on she introduced herself. She was Pamela, Pam. He was Matt. She never asked what I was going to do with the negative, she didn’t need to. We talked about the school and about Boston and about the war. We each knew that this was a fortunate meeting of destiny. Matt joined us while we waited for the film to dry.

They went to demonstrations and had done some artwork for some anti-war leaflets; they wanted to do more. They helped me opaque out the typed in information on the negative. We went over to the Greek coffee shop and talked ‘til late. We made plans to get together in a couple of days. It didn’t yet have a name, but the idea was pregnant; soon there would be a birth. We would call it the Troika Free Poster Factory.

The next time we got together, they brought three other MFA School students and I brought a friend who had an idea. He wanted to make a poster, it was somewhere in his head, it was his vision of the government. He wanted to depict them as sycophant weirdos in a way that he saw them. It was coming up to election time, but there was no hope that anything would change, kind of like now.

We tossed his idea around, and in doing so, Troika was born. We had a name and set to work on our symbol. In this case it was a flag or banner that we would silk screen, everyone contributing a part, a color, a design, according to their feeling for it.

We also defined how we would operate. We wouldn’t take people’s ideas and do the work for them, but would work together with them, teach our skills, use our means, and allow people the opportunity to express themselves. Posters would be produced by their authors, no names would be allowed and no organizations would be noted. Simply a person’s artistic idea produced as a poster, anonymously, and with a view that would be anarchist and anti-war.

The first poster began to take shape that night; the artwork would be in the form of a photo depicting my friend’s view. When I moved into the Erie Street place, I found a metal box full of fishing lures, or plugs. There were three or four dozen of them, wooden or plastic plugs, three or four inches long, painted in various colors and each with eyes on one end looking like some underwater bug, all had fish hooks in various places.

With the help of some modeling clay, we stood the plugs on end, in even rows and files, with all their eyes looking in the same direction. We took a picture with black and white film and printed it at the MFA darkroom. The posters for the most part were formatted to fit 17 by 22-inch poster boards. The copy camera blew our photo up to fill the top two-thirds of the space. Below, we art-typed the words “The government has been elected.”

From that we fabricated a silk screen, putting on the emulsion, burning and developing the image. We printed a couple of dozen copies, and my friend hung them around town, where they drew puzzled looks but left a strong impression. By the time we finished that one, we had a half dozen more posters in the works. I don’t remember them all, but I do remember that they were all poignant and expressed, in an artistic way, the feelings of many anti-war people.

This brings us, in a long, round-about way, to the poster I was thinking about that caused me to start laughing while watching the financial news, in Spanish, naked on my hotel room bed, one night in Panama.

This poster was the inspiration of my friend Carl. We got hold of one of many renditions of “Leda and the Swan.” Leda, in Greek mythology, was impregnated by the “god” Zeus while he was disguised as a swan. We made this poster a little bigger, probably 22 by 35 inches, and silk screened it on white 20-pound paper, coated on one side. In the center of this poster were Leda and the Swan getting it on, done in black ink. Above Leda and Swan in red ink it said, “FUCK A DUCK” and below the graphic it said, “ANYTHING FOR A BUCK.” That in itself has a certain amount of humor in it. But there is more to it.

We printed a couple of dozen copies. At night, armed with a half dozen cans of condensed milk, we left Central Square and, skulking up Mass Ave toward Harvard Square, began “hanging” them on storefront windows. There is nothing like condensed milk to attach paper to glass, it puts Elmer’s Glue to shame. It’s damn near permanent.

By the time we got to the little coffee shop (gone now) in Harvard Square, we were down to our last poster. After a couple of cups of coffee and cigarettes, we stepped out to look for a good location. We were directly across from Coolidge Bank. This was the bank that had the contract to issue welfare checks to the poor in the Boston area; they were unfriendly and arrogant to the people who came there to cash their meager stipends. What better spot?

I stood chickie (lookout) while Carl church-keyed open a can of milk and splashed it on the window of Coolidge Bank, then, working together, we put the poster up and rubbed it in real good. We walked back toward Erie Street, admiring our work along the way, and called it a night.

The next morning I panhandled my way from Central Square to Harvard Square looking for breakfast and cigarette money and maybe a start on a small bag of weed. Along the way I saw all the FUCK A DUCK posters we had distributed on the windows of shops and stores.

At Harvard Square I noticed a small crowd in front of Coolidge Bank. There were about five cops fondling their night sticks, a couple of dudes in suits and half a dozen gawkers all gathered in concentric semi circles around the window with our poster. In the center, one of the guys in suits was directing the other suit, who was trying to remove the poster by picking at the corner with his fingernails, making little headway.

The picker was picking, the manager suit was directing, the cops were tsk-tsking, and the gawkers were giggling. I sauntered up to stand at the back of the gawk circle.

Finally the picker had picked enough to grab the corner with his fingers, and, giving a tug, he pulled off the bottom six or so inches that had the words, ANYTHING FOR A BUCK. Now everyone became a gawker. They all stared for about ten seconds. Then the manager suit said to the picker suit, “Let’s go, we got the important part.” With that the cops headed back to sit on their fat asses in their respective squad cars, the suits went into Coolidge Bank, and the giggling gawkers stayed for one last look at the Swan doing Leda under the words, FUCK A DUCK.

Down in Panama, I laughed a little harder, picturing the suits at J.P. Morgan grabbing the check from Uncle Sam’s fingers and saying, “Let’s go. We got the important part!”


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