On any other Thursday evening the Starbucks on North Yale Avenue in Claremont, California, would be teeming with a healthy mixture of lattes, frappuccinos, and other corporate coffee concoctions. But tonight, it’s plain black coffee all around, slugged from a communal 96 ounce coffee travel mug. This is one of those nights when no one wants to be here.
“I joined the union to go toe-to-toe with management, not my own brothers,” quips Joe Carsdale, a stocky union type in his mid 50s, as he collapses into a brown, faux-leather easy chair normally occupied by students from the neighboring Claremont Colleges.
Carsdale, a member of the United Game Characters and Tetrominoes Worldwide Union, or UGCTWU, is one of about 20 Tetris pieces (formally known as tetrominoes) attending tonight’s emergency meeting in which a vote will be held to expel longtime member and straight piece, Rashad Jordan.
Jordan, as well as all other straight pieces, are curiously absent from the smattering of other tetrominoes filing into the beleaguered coffee house as the meeting is called to order. As the knock of the gavel radiates through the air, the grim consternation surrounding the event can be immediately seen on the faces of the union leadership council comprised of a square block, a T piece, a retired J block, his longtime partner an L piece, a “squiggy” (or inverted N piece), and a Z. They are the unlikely group of impromptu undertakers who most likely will be tasked with stripping Jordan of his union membership tonight.
Tetris is in trouble. While opinions differ as to whether Rashad Jordan is the cause of the inner turmoil that has left the fate of the beloved video game in jeopardy, or merely a symptom, the fact remains that his presence threatens the very foundation of the logistical lattice that is perhaps the most enduring video game ever produced.
As evidenced by the tension that pervades the room, tonight’s vote is not a simple one. It is the conclusion of a years-long battle steeped in allegations of corruption, racketeering, and racism. At the core of the issue lies the fact that by a seemingly random twist of genetics, Jordan, as well as all other straight pieces, happen to be the only African-American tetrominoes involved in the age-old and wildly successful game of Tetris.
“For the last time, this is not about race!” cries a green Z piece that has taken to the podium. “I am not racist. When I was a kid my best friend was black, therefore it’s frankly unacceptable for the race card to be played as often as it has here.”
Prior to the vote, organizers have arranged to allow comments on the issue from anyone who wishes to speak. For the most part these comments appear to be nothing more than reassurance that what seems to be inevitable, a vote to expel Jordan, is in fact the right thing to do.
“Rashad Jordan has been lazy, unprofessional, and a detriment to the game that we all cherish,” says a pink T piece that has taken to the podium after waiting patiently for his turn. “It’s not fair that Tetris is being ruined just because of Rashad’s niggardly behavior. OK, that was probably not the best word choice, but the fact remains: he is ruining a great game.”
As the flustered tetromino takes his seat, another, this time a blue square block, takes the podium and seamlessly picks up where the prior speaker left off. “Just last week I was in a game. We were all stacked perfectly, just perfectly. We had this solid, gap-free block ready to go. All we needed was for Rashad to show up on the end and bam, there’s a Tetris. Well, we waited. Square block, T block, T block, squiggy… but no Rashad. Finally he shows up 15 minutes late, but by that time it didn’t matter anymore. We had stuffed an L block in the gap as a last ditch effort before we lost.”
Nearly 20 minutes later the crack of the closing gavel pierces the nighttime air and the battered league of tetrominoes file out of the coffee house in near silence. The membership has voted for the for the first time ever to expel a member. Rashad Jordan, the first and only African American to join UGCTWU, is out.
Two days later, and 90 miles north in Palmdale, CA – Rashad Jordan has taken to a tire swing in his suburban backyard. “I used to love tire swings when I was a kid,” Rashad says as the afternoon sun seemingly channels nostalgia, rather than sunlight, onto his back and shoulders. “I can’t remember ever having to deal with the… mechanics of life as a child. That’s what made it great.”
The 29-year-old straight tetromino sways back and forth on the aged and battered tire swing, which seems to have been in use continually since sometime in the late 1960s based on the design of the old-fashioned tire, flush with white walls that likely haven’t actually been white since sometime during the Johnson Administration. When the subject of Tetris is raised, all life seems to immediately drain from Jordan. Nevertheless, after lighting a marijuana cigarette which he has seemed to save for just such an occasion, he takes on the subject with renewed vigor.
“I mean, what’s the point? Have you ever stopped to think about that?” he says. “Blocks pile up. Day after day. Pile, pile, pile. Then they always leave that one gap that I’m supposed to go into vertically, all for what? So that four rows of us can disappear and some lights can flash? Why? Where do we go after that? Has anyone thought about this?”
Jordan exchanges his marijuana cigarette for a water-filled smoking apparatus that he has fashioned from an old soda can, and continues. “I’ve seen so many tetrominoes disappear when their rows are completed. I’ve lost friends and loved ones. A T block who lives down the street from me lost his left block to a completed row, and now he can’t walk. But why? For points? What can you buy with Tetris points? I don’t know of anything you can buy with Tetris points. But every day we’re told to go into that game and line up and disappear, and no one even stops for a minute to question it.”
Jordan says that he lost confidence in the union several months ago after they failed to even hear his complaints. He hadn’t heard that they had voted to expel him, but didn’t seem surprised at the news.
“UGCTWU is a corrupt institution. I’m just going to say it straight. Are they racist? I honestly don’t know. Sure, they like to rag on me being late and liking fried chicken in that, ‘Haha, I’m so clever’ kind of way. I just find it interesting that the only time that they truly get offended is when I, an African-American tetromino, question this notion that we should all live every day for the sake of collecting points. I mean, it really scares them. Again, I don’t know if it’s the black thing or just about selling games, but it’s a problem.”
Jordan never says it directly, but he repeatedly implies that the union is in league with game publishers to continuously increase profits from the game and is thereby corrupt as UGCTWU was founded to protect workers. He says he doesn’t have proof, but has long suspected union leadership has received kickbacks in the past as a result of Tetris hitting certain sales targets.
In his defense, the game Tetris is no stranger to scandal. The untimely 1984 death of Jonathan “Spanx” Murphy, an orange tetromino later found to be a drug mule for a Mexican cartel, served as the opening salvo in Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs. In fact, some have attributed the sudden slide into obscurity of chess legend Bobby Fischer to a debilitating cocktail of Tetris, pornography, and cocaine that Fisher reportedly referred to as “The King’s Gambit.” But Jordan says that the real issue is one of transparency and, by virtue, democracy.
“When we live in a world where tetrominoes literally fall in line because they’re told that they need to collect points, even if it costs them their lives, something is really wrong. When anyone who questions is immediately expelled and silenced, and everyone does as they’re told, that is dangerous. It means that we’re no longer living, breathing tetrominoes, but instead we’re just blocks on a screen. If that’s the case, then what’s the point of morality? What’s the point of thousands of years of tetromino science, art, and philosophy? I reject that worldview. There has to be more out there… there just has to be.”
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