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Dispatches From the Russian River: Pioneers and Profiteers

Like the '49ers before them, modern-day techies arrive with a dream and feel as if they deserve to realize it.
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San Francisco harbor during the Gold Rush. (Photo: Public Domain)

San Francisco harbor during the Gold Rush. (Photo: Public Domain)

The man-child standing before me in the coffee shop was wearing a faded Facebook hoodie, which means something very specific in San Francisco. He wanted people to know that he was an early employee of Facebook, and that in 2012, when the company went public, he became a millionaire. He looked to be in his late 20s, and since it was 11 o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday, it was clear that employment was optional. He could do as he pleased, and being told “no” wasn’t to his liking.

When I first moved to San Francisco from New York, I hadn’t been aware of these kinds of men. Wall Street frat guy? Neurotic comedian? Nathaniel P. Brooklyn writer? Of course. But these guys are different. I had to learn that I wasn’t just turning down his offer of coffee; I was embodying B.M. (Before Money), his personal dark age. It’s a period he would rather forget, and from which he, like so many young men like him, seemed permanently scarred.

“Do you realize that I could charter a helicopter right now, and we could be having dinner in Napa?”

I knew all this, so I went out of my way to thank him kindly, and with a sweeping gesture, pointed to my reasons: My own cup of coffee was filled to the brim, still too hot to drink. I was guest teaching, and had stacks of student’s papers piled up in front of me. I was holding a red pen. I excused myself and turned back to my work, which is when I saw his fingers drumming on my table, as if I had acted out in his classroom.

“Do you realize,” he sneered, “that I could charter a helicopter right now, and we could be having dinner in Napa?”

The techies are only the most recent wave of newly wealthy men with big appetites and a fathomless sense of privilege; their kind has been around since my beloved state’s inception. San Francisco’s modern day techies have more in common with the '49ers than just their demographic profile, which is overwhelmingly young, single, and male: They arrive with a dream, and they feel as if they deserve to realize that dream—very quickly. Mining, panning, and coding are hard work, but no one intends to do it for a long time. A flash in the pan, a gold nugget in a sluice, or a successful iPhone app is all they need to expand or cash out and move on. That’s the pioneer spirit.

Women have always been a hot commodity in San Francisco. There were 50 men to a single woman in San Francisco in the 1850s, and that lopsided ratio grew as wide as 300 to one in Gold Country. Early settler Mary Jane Megquier wrote that women put on “aprons full of gold” when they arrived, enjoying the rare opportunity to make money and, by extension, gain some freedom. They were laundresses, teachers, prostitutes, cooks, merchants, and entertainers.

In this tradition, my joint-rolling neighbor, Amy*, is no stranger to the hustle. At the age of 18, this “river girl” turned down a full scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute to care for her mother, who had broken her neck. Since then, Amy has primarily worked on grow farms and in dispensaries, rolling hundreds of joints a day. She also bakes bread, builds furniture, chops wood, and paints when she can find the time. Amy knows a techie when she sees one, and has noticed there’s a lot more of them in town. They’re driving up the price of river housing—one real estate agent told me 80 percent of his 2014 sales were all cash for second homes—and I hear most of my neighbors on the creek wondering how long they can hold out. But not Amy. She wants to open a fancy food truck with her boyfriend, the first in the area. I tell her about $4 toast, $10 green juice, and other city-wide obsessions, like “live edge dining room tables.” Once she recovers from laughing at the price I quote—at least $5,000 for the slab—she quickly names three people who would be able to supply materials and labor, and a store that might carry them. It turns out she’s good at finishing wood too.

Whether they were pioneers or profiteers, access to few women has always coaxed a little creativity out of men’s brains. During the Gold Rush, they wrote home to their families and friends asking for leads, and then courted them by mail. There were so many ads for brides placed in newspapers that there was one publication, the Matrimonial Papers, solely devoted to the cause. Young brides who had never met their intendeds arrived by boats, wagons, and, later, trains. Today, they use planes. There are start-ups that fly women in from New York and play matchmaker. Maybe that angry guy from the coffee shop could make an app that connects women who want to take choppers to Napa with men who want to charter them. I hear about Hinge a lot, an app that sorts the dating pool by matching potential mates based on Facebook friends. The fulcrum it rests on is elitism. Dates come “vetted.”

Courtship rituals in San Francisco today mimic the techie culture itself: Young men who have lots of money are looking to spend it in ways that make them feel innovative, but they also want to remain in control. It seems like many of these men didn’t interact with a lot of women in high school and college, and then they became successful in an industry that employs very few women. In the 1850s, there weren’t a lot of women around to approach; today, there aren’t a lot of men around who can approach women. In both cases, California’s treasure seekers haven’t been able to find love alone. Techies need a lot of very basic help—soon their Alfreds will be Hinge-ing on their behalf.

Amy is keeping a close eye on these treasure seekers, and, these days, I’m keeping a close eye on Amy. It turns out this fascination is mutual, and so we had a little too much wine with dinner last Sunday night. We ended up on my front porch, sampling Amy’s handiwork and complimenting each other. “We’re alike,” she said. “I hope so,” I replied, and I meant it. Amy adapts. She’s smart and adventurous and resourceful. I bet she would’ve handled that angry coffee shop techie differently; she probably wouldn’t date him, but she’d figure out a way to participate with him in this boom. She’s experiencing the same hostile tech-driven economy as I am, but she’s doubling down as they approach. Maybe there is more opportunity in San Francisco for people like me—thousandaires, not millionaires—and I just can’t see it. Am I retreating when I should be “disrupting” in kind? How does a writer of narrative history even do that? As the 355th resident of an unincorporated hamlet two hours north of the city, I can’t answer that now. Everyone keeps asking me if I’ll go home after this—as if I know where I’ll go—or if San Francisco is really my home. If it is, if I want it to be, can I find a way to be like Amy, and the pioneering women who came before us? Can I find a way to put on that damn apron and fill it with gold?

Filed from a creekside cabin outside an unincorporated hamlet, Alexis Coe's Dispatches From the Russian River is a personal and historical exploration of leaving home and pursuing dreams.

*The names of locals have been changed.