Golden Girl- Thomas Piekarski

In 1853 San Francisco

was strutting like a peacock

in full array, its bluster brimming,

flush with wealth that had flowed

from gold fields not far to the east.

Five years previously

a rascal named Sam Brannan

let the cat out of the bag,

left Sutter’s Fort,

spread word from there

along the way and into San Francisco

of the gold discovery in Coloma,

this to drum up prospectors

who would purchase goods aplenty

at his well-stocked general store.

The success of Brannan’s campaign

meant ruin to portly John Sutter

as his workers caught the fever,

abandoned him for the mountains

while his land was overrun

by rabid fortune seekers

who’d jettisoned sweet home

and struck out for gold.

Many of the early prospectors

who panned streams and rivers

brought sacks of pure gold

to San Francisco, spawning a surge

of development. By the time the ship

carrying Countess Lola Montez

and bevy of recognizable dignitaries

steamed into San Francisco harbor

after a lengthy trip from the Isthmus

the city had morphed into

California’s premiere venue

with everything from a rapacious

Barbary Coast to mansions perched

atop tall hills. Oh how they relished

their raucous cat houses

and emancipated theater scene!

Into this miasma of enthusiasm

Lola dipped her toe. Everybody knew

about the universally famous danseuse,

alleged mistress to Ludwig of Bavaria,

siren, and paramour of many a lothario,

or so they claimed. Peerless as a dancer

and an accomplished actress

Lola had performed for royalty,

mesmerizing audiences

at many a European court.

She’d dazzled our eastern seaboard

of late, also New Orleans, then made

her way to California, eventually

settling in the rugged boomtown

Grass Valley, perhaps the last place

you’d expect a Countess to embrace.

After a strong run in San Francisco

Lola hit the road. She went east,

sold out theaters in Sacramento,

then headed north, performing

in Marysville to packed houses.

But her heart was with the gold.

She lusted for the thrill of it, maybe

dreamed of miners tossing nuggets

rather than bouquets onto the stage.

Lola boarded a coach for Grass Valley.

The road out of Marysville bearable,

but once they entered hill country

the trail became rutted, stippled

with boulders and loose stones.

The stage’s wheels pounded,

shook, jolted its passengers

while the team of stout horses

whinnied and snorted.

A perilous passage across edges

of deep canyons overlooking

steep cliffs, hooves clacking,

was nerve-wracking for Lola

and the entourage. There were

river ravines to slip into as well,

Indians on the loose, and perhaps

a grizzly looming around the bend.

The press hot on Lola’s heels

had published accounts

of her appearances in most

periodicals of note. The residents

about Grass Valley amply prepped,

appraised of Lola’s latest scandals.

How in San Francisco in broad daylight

she horsewhipped an innocent actor

simply because he was starring

in a hit burlesque that had taken the city

by storm, burlesque wherein

Lola was lampooned. And then

while in Marysville how she launched

one of her well-chronicled rages

and threw the puppy dog husband’s

luggage out a hotel window.

By the time Lola Montez had arrived

in Grass Valley its nearby gulches

and rippling rivers no longer yielded

much gold, having been stripped

by countless predecessors, worthless

except to the insufferable Chinese.

They had to bore into the mountains

and underground following quartz,

extract solid rock by the ton in order

to get at the gold. They dug, blasted

miles and miles of dank shafts,

the work much like slave labor.

Month after month the miners

toiled in those miserable caverns.

So it came as no surprise

that they filled local theaters

to experience ethereal

Lola Montez, whose act

was utterly spellbinding.

To watch Lola perform

her international sensation

the Spider Dance,

witness it in the flesh

worth more than a stash of gold.

Thomas Piekarski is a former editor of the California State Poetry Quarterly . His poetry and interviews have appeared in numerous literary journals internationally.