word craft


Story Behind the Story #70: Gold Rush Girl

Gold Rush GirlSan Fran­cis­co is a city where I have lived often, vis­it­ed, and have great fond­ness for. I first went there in the fall of 1961, hav­ing fin­ished my grad­u­ate class time at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin, Madi­son. A fel­low I knew was set­ting up a new the­atre, and he want­ed to do a play I had writ­ten. I took a Grey­hound bus from Madi­son to Chica­go, anoth­er bus from the Windy City to the Gold­en Gate. I have a vivid rec­ol­lec­tion of the bus com­ing to a stop moments after cross­ing into Neva­da. “Neva­da!” the dri­ver shout­ed, wak­ing me up. “Half an hour stop.” I watched most of the pas­sen­gers pour off and start play­ing slot machines. It was two AM.

Once in San Fran­cis­co I met the guy who want­ed to pro­duce my play. Turns out he had already hired an actor for the first play he was going to put on—an adap­ta­tion of James Joyce’s Ulysses. That actor was named Tom Ewing, a good friend of mine from Wis­con­sin the­atre days.

The the­atre pro­duc­er allowed us to take an upper, unused room in the the­atre. The the­atre was on Green Street, in the North Beach area. Tom and I dragged in mat­tress­es (who knows where they came from) and we lived there for a few months while the first play went into pro­duc­tion, opened, and failed. The the­atre closed. My play was nev­er pro­duced. Tom and I went our sep­a­rate ways.

(Years lat­er, I went into the build­ing that had been the the­atre. It had become a bar. I chat­ted with the own­er. He claimed Jack Ker­ouac had pre­vi­ous­ly lived in that same room where Tom and I lived. True? I have no idea. Could have been a bar story.)

Mean­while, when the the­atre closed, I had to get a job, and found one print­ing signs for The White House Depart­ment store. Each morn­ing I rode the cable car, which stopped in front of my door on Russ­ian Hill, to work.

There in that base­ment apart­ment I wrote plays. Not very good ones. I also learned a lot about San Fran­cis­co. I stayed in Cal­i­for­nia for most of the year, then went back to NYC.

But since my twin sis­ter (and her fam­i­ly) moved there, as did one of my sons, I have often vis­it­ed. A few years back, my wife and I were win­ter­ing in the city. We were walk­ing along the Embar­cadero, the city’s restored shore­line along the great Bay. Mul­ti­ple flag­poles were fly­ing flags with a curi­ous pho­to­graph­ic image: a mass of aban­doned 19th Cen­tu­ry sail­ing ships.

Puz­zled, I did a lit­tle inves­ti­gat­ing. What I learned was these images were of the fleet of aban­doned ships which were part of the Gold Rush. When news of the 1849 Cal­i­for­nia gold spread around the world—and it did so with amaz­ing rapidity—people rushed to San Fran­cis­co from every­where and in every way. Many came by ship. Of course, the would-be min­ers hur­ried off the ships to head for the dig­gings. But so too did the boat crews, includ­ing offi­cers. The ships were left to rot. They even acquired a name: Rot­ten Row. At some point there were more than sev­en hun­dred of these desert­ed ships. Some were con­vert­ed into saloons, church­es, jails, hospitals.

I was fas­ci­nat­ed and hooked. I began to think about the book that has come to be called Gold Rush Girl. It’s just about to be pub­lished by Candlewick.

To be con­tin­ued

2 thoughts on “Story Behind the Story #70: <em>Gold Rush Girl</em>”

  1. That sounds so fas­ci­nat­ing, Avi, I can’t wait to read it! It is so inter­est­ing and enlight­en­ing to learn about the var­ied expe­ri­ences and roads trav­eled along the way to achiev­ing your life’s work, that of a wide­ly-loved writer/artist for chil­dren and young adults. Keep up the awe­some work as a writer and shar­ing your sto­ries behind the stories!


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