categories: Cocktail Hour
My first true business venture, after college, was trying to make and market a poster in which one man urinated on another. That should be all I need to say to give you a sense of my basic business acumen. Somehow it never occurred to me that this concept–a guy pissing on another guy–was not going to make me rich.
To be fair the story is slightly more complicated: the poster was born of a political cartoon I drew in college for the Harvard Crimson. It was a picture of the back of Ronald Reagan, recognizable mostly by his ridiculous pompadour, urinating on an African American homeless man who was sleeping, covered with newspapers, in a gutter. It was called “The Trickle Down Theory.”
Not very subtle perhaps, heavy handed true, but it packed a punch. This was the early eighties, as you may have already guessed, and it was the time not just of Reagan’s ascension but of the newly formed conservative college newspapers, which anticipated the basic spirit of Fox News. These papers didn’t like my cartoon, not one bit.
The Crimson stood by me, however, in part because of the integrity of the young editor-in-chief, Bill McKibben. Bill had not yet been deemed an eco prophet, but he already seemed a powerful and slightly remote figure, tall and thin and archetypal, someone who, as another classmate put it at a recent reunion, always looked a little like Abe Lincoln. Anyway, I enjoyed being part of a controversy, however small, and it was the first time anything I’d created got some attention. As it turned out, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of the Trickle Down Theory after graduating.
The next fall my good friend Dave and I decided to start a small business that would market satiric posters, and for our first effort we chose a real life depiction of my semi-notorious cartoon. I still wonder why we didn’t simply make a poster of my original drawing, but I do know that part of the reason was pure youthful slavish imitation. At the time the best selling poster in the country was something called “Poverty Sucks,” which portrayed a scene of glorious wealthy excess. In that poster rich folks thumbed their nose at the poor, which apparently seemed amusing to enough people to make it popular, in the same way that Reagan himself was, after the dour morality of the Carter years. We set out to copy that successful poster, not really thinking through the fact that ours had almost the exact opposite message. We decided to hire a limousine and two actors to play a chauffeur and the homeless man, while getting Dave’s grandfather to play a generic rich guy. As the director, it was part of my job to coach poor Dave’s grandpa in spraying the water from a mustard bottle onto the man playing the bum in the gutter. Dave and I filmed the thing in the backstreets of our mutual hometown, Worcester, Massachusetts. We had a professional photographer shoot the scene but apparently he wasn’t feeling all that professional that day and when we got back the ten thousand copies we had ordered, wrapped in brown paper bundles of 500, we discovered that the lighting in the poster was too dark and muddied.
We learned a lot over the next few months. We learned how to roll posters, between thumb and forefinger, so that they fit in the small plastic wrappers we shipped the posters out in. We learned that being an entrepreneur is a risky thing, and that you have to ride the ups and downs of an uncertain profession. Mostly we learned that the country was not too excited about buying copies of the Trickle Down Theory.
Whenever, I think back on the poster and its fate, which isn’t that often despite today’s reminiscence, I remember carrying most of those posters up the stares to the spot where they would spend the next couple of decades (so far.) They still sit there today. I remember that Thoreau’s Walden suffered a similar fate and that he liked to muse about the work-out of carrying those books up to his study and say that he had a substantial library, mostly made up of his own books.
But let’s not end this on a depressing note. Let’s revive my youthful spirit of entrepreneurship! If you would like to purchase a vintage Trickle Down Theory poster (circa 1983) please let us know here at Bill and Dave’s warehouse. We’ll make sure you get one—for cheap.