Gold Fever

“Keep them poor so others can get rich off them,” he said. “Or, to be fair, not everybody gets rich. Some just sustain themselves off the poor, sorta like vampires, which is a terrible foundation for an economy, much less a society.”

Oh, shit, I thought. What do I have here? A newly converted socialist? Marxist? Anarchist?

I sighed deeply inside.

“Gibran called it Mr. Chattter,” he said. “You know about Gibran? Kahlil Gibran? The poet?”

“No,” I said.

“What about Heidegger?” he asked. “Surely you’ve heard of Heidegger.”

“Yes,” I said. But didn’t want to admit I knew nothing but his name.

“Heidegger calls it das gerede or the ceaseless chatter of the trivial that drowns out our awareness of most things of significance.”

“Okay.”

“The white noise of distraction and perceptual confusion,” he said. “Dontcha get it?”

“Sort of,” I said.

“Let me explain it to you like this,” he said. “You know much about the Gold Rush?”

Oh, fuck, I thought.

“Not much,” I said.

My friend set down his utensils. I knew things were about to get serious. He crossed his arms and leaned forward on the table, then told me how the Gold Rush of 1849 saw over 90,000 prospectors come to California seeking quick and easy wealth. People traveled across seas, mortgaged their homes, borrowed money and left families behind in the pursuit of success and easy wealth, he said. And nearly 100 thousand people was a pretty big deal back them.

“It’s true that a few got rich. That was mostly in ’48 before the tens of thousands followed – those suffering from Gold Fever.”

I wanted to leave but felt stuck in his explanation of…..what?

“Think about it. Fever – the reaction to an illness, generally infection, either viral or bacterial.”

I sat there trying to figure out what to do – what adjustments to make – to try to get the most – hopefully something – out of all this.

“But it was mostly propaganda or hysteria. You know what they say, propaganda and conspiracies aren’t any good unless they’re based on some elements of truth.”

“That seems to be true,” I said.

He went on to tell me about some guy, an entropraneur – a flim- flam man, he said – some publisher and entrepreneur that owned a newspaper in San Francisco. And how this guy announced in his newspaper how there was gold found in California and all you had to do was come and pick it up off the ground if you wanted to get rich.

“That’s how the news – the fever – the hysteria spread across the country and across the world,” he explained. “The hysteria spread and was fueled by the chatter of that huckster’s newspaper that he made sure made it to St. Louis and the east coast and from the ports of California to all over the world.”

My friend must have gotten this off the History Channel, I thought.

“But he had no intention of ever mining the gold himself. His idea was to get as many gullible nitwits out there to California…..”

He broke into a line from the The Mamas and the Papas.

california dreamin’ on such a winter’s day, he sang, purposefully off key.

I smiled, more at the idea of my friend knowing the Mamas and the Papas than his silly joke.

“Then, a few months later, President Polk confirmed in the State of the Union that there really was gold in California. Again, more truth. Confirmation by authority. Again, more chatter. But that’s how The Gold Rush got started and how Gold Fever got spread across the land, fueled by newspapers eager to sell their pages of sensationalized stories of the easy riches in the exotic, newborn west. That’s how people got bullshitted. And then ads in ever paper across the states started popping up for how to get to California. Trying to sell you what you’d need. Advertising revenue, see. And sensationalism that sells a thousand papers instead of one hundred.”

I was starting to see.

“That’s Mr. Chatter,” he said. “They even sold this stuff called gold grease.”

Now that caught my attention.

“Yeah. Gold grease. You rubbed it all over yourself and then rolled on the ground and it was supposed to attract the gold and make it stick to you.”

I laughed.

“Shit. People will buy anything when they’re intoxicated,” I said. “That’s what’s so bad about all that junk they peddle on late night TV. The same people that buy that junk are the same ones with the Gold Fever, huh?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Mix them up so they don’t know up from down. Confuse ’em with all the chatter and they’re like children. Like puppets for people to reach into their pockets.”

I thought for a moment.

“But it wasn’t anybody’s fault, necessarily,” I said. “It wasn’t really lies as there was gold. And the newspapers weren’t really lying, they were just sensationalizing cause sensation sold, then just as now.”

“Exactly,” my friend said. “And that huckster with his newspaper got the fever started and once he got all those young men out there – fully invested – he realized he could exploit them by selling them boots and picks and shovels and eggs and flour for 10 times the normal price. And that’s what he did. That’s how he made is fortune. Did you know he became California’s first millionaire?”

“No. But I guess I do now.”

“That’s right. And it was a brilliant plan,” my friend said. “But he was the luckiest. The rest did stuff like take what little riches the miners had and exploited them with booze and cards and whores. And that was easy since they were so weary and needed relief. It was hard work. Backbreaking work. And by ’49, when the bulk of them arrived from all around the country and the world, they realized pretty quick they’d been conned. That there may have been gold but it was long gone by the time they arrived by land or sea. And how else you going to deal with that smack in the face other than booze, broads and card, right?”

“That suck,s” I said. “But you gotta give the public what it wants, right?”

“Yeah. But by then you got ’em by the balls,” he said. “I mean, they’re all in. They’re fucked, you know. You traveled across the country and the globe and you’re just gonna turn around and run home without giving it your all? But they knew. They knew it was rigged. No wonder the booze and cards and whores were so popular. Poor miners. But, at least others made a living off of them. Selling them meals and houses and insurance and stuff.”

I tried imagining what that must have been like. Stuck so far away from home, knowing you’d risked and scarified so much. For some, all they owned. Some even scarified the well-being of their families.

“You had businessmen throughout the country investing tons in rinky-dink mining companies and advertising those. That helped give the whole frenzy a lot of legitimacy too.”

“Yeah, I can see how it would.”

“But the little guy, the dreamer, got fucked, mostly,” he said. “To be fair, a few did pretty well but they were the exceptions. – like day traders and house flippers today. But the rule was you got fucked by Gold Fever.”

I nodded.

“But my main point is – it spread through the chatter. That’s how the chatter fucks us. It fucks us by us fucking the little guy. That bent-backed miner with his busted up fingers, selling him booze and inflated mortgages and $3000 pairs of boots so the rest can make out better than him. Nobody’s hands are clean.”

“Yeah. And they had ambition. You’ve got to give them that,” I said.

“And they worked their asses off too,” he said. “For a while. Until they learned it was all a bunch of bullshit. And that’s when they started turning on all the immigrants.”

“Of course,” I said. “Should have predicted that.”

“But it wasn’t the immigrants fault. They wanted the same thing. Riches for easy work and risk. Then, when things changed, they were all still willing to put in the hard work until the riches dried up completely.”

“Of course,” I said. “There’s always somebody there to tell you it’s somebody else’s fault. Those kind of books and papers and sermons sell all day long.”

“There just wasn’t wasn’t much left by ’49. Anyway, that’s sort of how Frisco got built – by fucking the ’49’ers.”

“Strange,” I said. “Sorta seems like there’s another Gold Rush going on out there now.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Strange, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said, thinking there might be more to my friend’s spiel than mere chatter.

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