Satan’s Bassoon

On the fourth of July I was whiling away a hot afternoon outside Jackson, California, where the thermometer read 40-something in Celsius–even a warm-weather-lover like myself found it intimidating to go hike. Downslope, in town, up and down Highway 49, people were finishing Independence Day parades, starting BBQ grills, finding a good spot to watch the fireworks. Me, I pulled a chair to the ingratiating shade of a live oak, to read an anthology of California Gold Rush literature.

There were familiar words from Twain, Harte, Dana, the “Dame Shirley” letters: prose about rough mining camps, arduous sea voyages, illness, death. Others were less well-known, and many, contrarian: the editor wanted to offer a broader picture of the world rushing in to exploit the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. For all the ships that arrived in Yerba Buena Cove, not a few left full of the diseased, dejected, and death-bound, carrying them back to “the States,” their view of the elephant complete.

Probably the most engaging selection of the book is editor Michael Kowalewski’s introduction. He notes that the California Gold Rush is one of the best documented events of the nineteenth century, due to the high literacy rate among the gold-seekers. Not only did the argonauts write, they read: the dismal sand dunes of San Francisco–more than one observer judged Benicia a better location for a great city–produced a bonanza of newspapers, such as The Pacific News, The Alta Californian, Public Balance, and the delightfully named Satan’s Bassoon (I call dibs on naming a band that!).

And just while I read about this on that hot July day, under the handsome oak tree in Amador County, San Francisco’s latest Gold Rush roared to similar pitch.

What had been “Multimedia Gulch” in the 1990s, and the epicenter of the dot-com boom by the 2000s, roils again with crowds of fortune seekers, so many of them young men confident of their success, swaggering with a grandiose sense of entitlement, jumping each other’s claims. The pickings had been easy in the Nineties–the placer gold period of the Web industry. Now we’re into the hydraulic mining era, requiring more elaborate rigs, more hands, more capital, to find anything valuable in the picked-over ore.

The world has once more rushed into San Francisco. It’s becoming a monotonous place. Instead of tents or shanties, these new miners pay too much to live in the tiresome glass boxes sprouting on unlikely street corners. If you were here even fifteen, twenty years ago, you remember the corner grocery, the dusty variety shop, or the never-open hairdresser’s–now it’s a curtain wall of green-glass mirrors for the parvenus to admire their reflections.

“Nothing gold can stay,” wrote Robert Frost, born in San Francisco just 25 years after Marshall’s discovery.

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Sit in South Park’s Caffe Centro a while, and observe the tidal flow of customers. In 2000 there were no empty seats in the mornings; the line for takeout coffee spilled out the door, an easy target of industrial espionage as all of us yakked about our startups right there in the queue. But one morning in 2002 I lingered for hours at a table, nobody there to take it, the cafe glad for at least one customer that Wednesday. Today, maybe the line isn’t as long–the places serving Blue Bottle are more in vogue. Tomorrow, who can say: full house, empty chairs, or no chairs at all.

None of us knows when, nor how; we can know only that it will. The Hayward Fault will slip, or Wall Street will lay another egg, or….the mines will play out. Ore becomes impossible to find. The disappointed will drift back to where they came from, to the foghorn sounds of Satan’s bassoon.

The devil’s own double-reed will reprise its eight-bar solo. Nothing gold can stay.

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