Stranger Things Have Happened
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You know how it is when you're in a hurry. Take last week. I'm running late for an important meeting. I turn on the TV to get a quick fix of news, but the news has been pre-empted. In its place is a live broadcast from Moscow, featuring a heated session from the latest Party Congress of the Soviet Union's Central Committee. There's Yeltsin attacking Ligachev. Gorbachev frowning at Yeltsin. Yeltsin attacking Gorbachev. Outside, cameras show Red Square overrun by angry, shouting mobs of demonstrators. It's fascinating. Here's some of the tensest melodrama I've ever seen -- and it's live, on television, from inside the Kremlin!
So, I'm running even later now. I'm in toys and games -- I own a small chain of toy stores in southern California. I've been looking to expand, get in on the distributing end.
I'm having lunch with Ivan Levnikov, a Soviet toy mogul. His company makes the board game "Kapitalpolitik," the Russian version of Monopoly. He's sold over ten million units in the Soviet Union alone and I've got the inside track on U.S. distribution rights. So, of course, the last thing I should be doing at this moment is staring at the TV.
Then, my suspenders snap, my pants fall down and the button that held them together rolls across the kitchen floor and under the refrigerator. It's lost and can't be replaced. I picked up the pants in Leningrad at an exclusive little shop where they make the buttons by hand. So, even if I could hop on an Aeroflot to Moscow, catch the shuttle to Lenin Field, taxi to downtown Leningrad, find Hero of the Revolution Street, find the shop, buy another button, then return here -- I'd still be late for this meeting.
And we're talking board games. That can mean big money. Look at Monopoly, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit. But it doesn't stop there.
Levnikov is friendly with Boris Khanassurian, the Armenian-Soviet millionaire who is the virtual "czar" of Little League baseball for all of Mother Russia. They need plastic batting tees. I've got tons of them.
So, I tear myself away from the Politburo, hunt down an old pair of Levi's, and finally make it out of the house. I figure the drive into L.A. should be fun. I just bought a sporty new convertible. Bright red exterior, racing stripes, soft leather bucket seats, powerful stereo. It's funny. I never thought I'd buy a Russian car. But my Ziv drives great, and it's cheaper than a Zil.
Then, I'm barely out of the driveway when I notice one of the tires is flat. I start thinking I'll never get there, and wondering if the tires were also made in the U.S.S.R.
Luckily, I get a ride from my next-door neighbor who was -- and I'm not making this up -- Raisa Gorbachev's first husband. He's had some rough times lately, but he still drives into town every morning, looking for work, God bless him.
One thing really surprises me, though. For the entire trip he doesn't say a single nasty thing about his ex. I guess he likes her.
Well, Levnikov said meet him at "The Borschterie," so I do, although I'm at least twenty minutes late. And nervous. But it doesn't matter because he turns out to be a very warm and good-natured guy. As soon as we're introduced he's ordering double "Vodkafe's" and brown bread pizzas. He's a big, happy-go-lucky, roly-poly bear of a man who reminds me a lot of a young Brezhnev.
The girl who takes our order doesn't speak Russian, which is odd, but Ivan jumps to his feet and acts out the order in mime. He even receives a smattering of applause.
Things eventually calm down and we start to talk, mostly politics at first. I ask him who he likes in the next election -- would he vote for Gorbachev again? Finally, I bring up the board game deal. He shakes his head. My heart sinks.
He says he's sorry, but it's not going to be available. His "marketing people" in Kazakhstan convinced him Americans wouldn't be interested in a game based on Monopoly, even if the streets are named for real streets in Tashkent. The "marketing people" say Americans want Russian. Anything, as long as it's Russian.
I'm crushed. It's like someone dropped a three hundred pound samovar on my head. I beg him to reconsider. I remind him that "marketing people" generalize too much. They think Americans only play with Russian toys and only go to Russian movies and only eat Russian food -- but it's not true! I remind him of the continuing popularity of American circuses and American ballet troupes.
I just wish those "marketing people" could have been at my house for our old-fashioned All-American cookout last July 4th. We had hot dogs and hamburgers and there was hardly a blini in sight.
Well, it's pretty obvious that I'm disappointed. Politely, Ivan lets me rave on for a bit, but I run out of steam. Then, a surprise.
He leans in and, very secretively, tells me he has secured the rights to "Gorby," the hottest selling novelty item in the Soviet Union. Wow. I've heard that every kid from Minsk to Ashkhabad wants the gag rubber baldpate with the famous birthmark. What a coup.
Then he tells me he's looking for a U.S. distributor for "Gorby." Someone with a lot of spunk and aggressiveness. Someone with a feel for the American toy market. Someone like -- me!
I must have jumped halfway to Mars. And business is booming. In the last few days we've had orders from Florida, New Jersey, Hawaii, you name it. You'd think we were giving away Faberge eggs!
So, what's the point of all this? I guess it's to say that if you're ambitious, work hard, believe in the American dream -- and have spunk -- you'll succeed.
Who knows? The next time he visits L.A., the General Secretary himself might autograph a "Gorby" at one of my stores. Why not? Stranger things have happened.