SAN DIEGO — When he was a 26-year-old junior high dropout from Spanish Harlem, Reuben Gonzalez walked into Fordham University, passed the entrance examination and registered in the school's writing program.
A few years later, while studying in New York University's graduate writing program, a penniless Gonzalez, needing cash, zipped off a "spec" script to "The Cosby Show," which promptly bought it and put Gonzalez under contract to develop the script.
The show's producers used his idea to set up a spinoff program featuring Tony Orlando as a Latino social worker. Gonzalez, who as a teen-ager worked as a youth counselor, received a contract as story editor for the spinoff series, with a sliding salary beginning at $160,000 and escalating to $280,000 in the third year.
Although his script aired, the idea for the spinoff was scotched, and Gonzalez soon found himself in the unemployment line.
Now Gonzalez's writer's stock has risen again. The world premiere of his first play, the partly autobiographical "The Boiler Room," will open the Old Globe Theatre's winter season Saturday.
Five days before the opening, Gonzalez, an intense but outwardly relaxed man, said the play is ready. It was ready a year ago, he said, when "The Boiler Room" received a workshop production in the Globe's Play Discovery Festival.
"The play is in pretty good shape," he said. "I'm just hoping the reviewers will like it as much as the audience did last year. You never know with these things."
The Globe spotted Gonzalez and the play two years ago at the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa. His was one of the plays that was considered but not produced by South Coast.
"I liked the play a lot," said Globe Executive Producer Craig Noel, who is directing. "The play is a highly crafted play. This one has great punch in it. He is an expert craftsman. He has been ruthless in his paring down and shaping and forming. I was amazed because I thought it was so much better than the ones they chose to do."
"The Boiler Room" is set in a basement boiler room where a family lives. It's about a Puerto Rican mother who is trying to beat the odds and keep her wayward son on the right track in New York's Spanish Harlem.
The scene is right out of Gonzalez's youth, when his family lived in a tenement basement next to a continually hungry, coal-fired furnace.
"A lot of it has to do with my family," Gonzalez said. "My stepfather was a (building superintendent) and died early as a result of being poor, I feel." Gonzalez used to watch his father, older brother and sister feed the furnace, although he was forbidden to fill the furnace's hot maw with coal.
"It was a strange upbringing, the neighborhood filled with petty crime, the intensity," he said. The play is Gonzalez's effort to "understand what it was all about."
The environment's tough intensity, along with what may be the inherited intensity of his mother, helped propel Gonzalez out of Spanish Harlem. It also is part and parcel of his makeup.
"You do have a sense of hustle" coming out of the ghetto, he said. "It's extremely rough. You're in a war day to day. When you're used to such intensity and such drive, if you do well, you really do well, and if you do bad, you really do bad."
As he saw more of his friends end up doing bad--dead or with 20- and 30-year prison sentences--Gonzalez decided it was time to quit stripping cars and get out.
"I always knew just by virtue of watching television that there were other worlds out there," he said. "I think I was very fortunate. I think it was the artistic side of me that got me out. Even as a child I was always observing others and I always felt this was just a period in my life that I had to get through. You, know, if I can survive and not get shot, I think I'll be OK."
An obsession with doing something with his life drove Gonzalez out of Spanish Harlem, he said. He took a bus out to Jersey City, where he worked as a counselor, stock boy, delivery boy and as his own boss refurbishing used furniture.
But the urge to write proved irresistible.
"I need to know how things function, how the world works," he said. "When I write about things, it's not always that I want to publish this or produce this play or do this. Mainly, it's so that I can understand what I've taken in, so that I can look at it in a concrete way, a story."
While the play runs through Jan. 17, Gonzalez will be here and in Los Angeles looking for an apartment.