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Elsie Robinson’s Benicia

Daily life of 1890's Benicia comes to life in hard-to-find memoir
by admin on October 29, 2013

victorian-clipart-1  In 1883 a girl was born in Benicia, grew up there, and came to make sense of the world from what she saw. At age nineteen she moved to Vermont to marry into a family of strict puritans and years later returned to the West to barely make a living digging underground in a gold mine. Faced with exhaustion, hunger and despair, she willed herself to try to find a way out. At age fifty she wrote about it all, and wrote well.

Elsie Robinson was her name. Her book was published in 1934. After hearing about it from my friend (and fellow writer and Benicia history aficionado) Donnell Rubay I bought a copy that I found online and read it. I quite liked it. The more I thought about it in the days that followed, the more certain I was that I would write about it here. Nineteenth century Benicia comes alive in those first chapters, and it seemed like fans of Benicia should know about it.

But then I learned that the Benicia Library had only one copy that they kept as a reference book that couldn’t be checked out. So last month I bought three of the four copies I found online on Amazon and donated them to the Benicia Library. The used copies weren’t too much of a strain on my bank account, and now anybody in town can easily read a compelling firsthand account of life in old Benicia.

The book is titled “I Wanted Out!” and, if that seems to make a negative statement about our little town, it really is more an account of Elsie’s state of mind throughout most of her life wherever she went. Truth is, she remained proud of her upbringing in “rowdy Benicia,” a colorful little city that then seemed to be on the edge of civilization.

For the first two chapters, daily life in old Benicia is made real. No matter how much you think you can envision 19th century Benicia (such as the big train ferry, the brothels along the waterfront) for true-to-life detail we must turn to the Book of Elsie.

A sample:

“At the other end of the street the ‘dobe dirt gave way to barnacled piles that reached far into the bay. There was a ferry slip at the end of the long pier – a great ferry, ‘The Solano,’ largest, then, in the world that took the overland trains across. Frequently she lost her way in the fogs and went blustering around like a blowsy, disreputable old harridan until she fetched up short in somebody’s backyard.

“But of far more moment than the Solano were the certain small, shuttered shacks built along the piles – or anchored to them in ‘arks’ . . . the homes of the ‘red light girls.’ All day the tide came and went beneath those shuttered houses. At flood, the water slobbered and clucked under the rotting beams. At ebb, the stink of the flats oozed through the yawning cracks.

“Then the sun set in a great swash of scarlet, and the color ran in veins of copper and crimson over an oily indigo of mud, and suddenly, through shutter chinks, there broke the glow of lamps, the crackle of laughter, and tinkle of mandolins – and out across the swaying planks, teetering on their high heels, minced The Girls on their evening parade.

“A long, rough street that began with a convent and ended in a bawdy house. I loved the convent. But there was something about those bawdy houses . . .  I never knew which end of the street I preferred! I still don’t know!”

The young Elsie goes along to get along. The older wiser Elsie finally learns what sort of internal strength is needed to take command of her life. Her life from her birth in the 1880’s until she wrote about it in the 1930’s spanned an era of big change in the world, especially for women, and she realized it. She was a keen observer of things, with a modern sensibility and a breezy way of writing about it. That’s what kept my interest, even after the growing-up-in-Benicia part of her story ended. (If only the savvy fifty-year old Elsie could have had just five minutes to talk with the nineteen year old Elsie about some of her choices! Yikes! But I suppose every life has its share of that.)

There are some highlights unique to her era. We get to experience the “terror and beauty” of what it was like that first night when an electric light was added to her house by her older brother, as she sat with her family in awe, wondering just what was this mystical energy inside that intense white glow, so astonishing after a lifetime spent with the dim mellowness of gas lamps.

We experience the effort that is required to don formal Victorian clothing. Aunt Elsie lived it and then wrote about it with a frankness we moderns can appreciate.

But for we Benicians, the most interesting reading comes from seeing our little town come alive on the page. Many of our favorite things from past and present are there: the convent at the top of First Street; the oversized Victorian houses known as “follies” by the locals; the overgrown gardens; the wood boardwalks on the sides of First Street that provided places underneath for kids to play hide and seek and for drunks to sleep off a bender; the city blocks loaded with saloons; the Graveyard (what we now call the City Cemetery) where she made her midnight deal with God to be shown all that life had to offer as long as she wasn’t a cry-baby about it. Both parties lived up to that deal.

That’s probably enough said. If you want more, go online to benicialibrary.org and then  click on “catalog and accounts” (key step!) and then type “I wanted out” in the search box. Your options for getting the book will be displayed. After that you just wait to be contacted by the library when it’s available – no extra effort required.

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