I have wanted to visit Alcatraz as long as I can remember. My father lived in San Francisco, and when ever I would visit, I would look forward to that moment approaching that wonderous city, when I could first glimpse that distant, mysterious, gloomy, ominous rock sitting so independently, so alone, drifting amidst a whispered shroud of fog in the middle of the massive San Francisco Bay. Some people mentally say goodbye to the Transamerica Building, Coit Tower, the skyline or some other world renown landmark as they leave this infamous city. I say goodbye to the island.
If you are visiting the city for the standard weekend, the next tickets for the island available on Friday night, guaranteed, will be at least Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on the season. I never had the urge to cross that water in winter, leaving only the busiest time of the year to procure tickets. David surprised us all by obtaining online tickets for a planned weekend with our best friends in a few weeks. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, I am finally going to go!!
We set off late, traffic was horrendous, we resigned ourselves to 'missing the boat.' Of course, I went to the ticket counter anyway, over an hour late, tears in my eyes, ready to beg, cry, whine and plea. I could have leaped over the ticket counter to hug the clerk who said, "No problem, we have had a power outage, just take the next ferry to the right."
A quick trip in a crowded ferry to the rock, long gangplanks and at last, I am on the rock. Nothing terribly spectacular, a few great signs that make you chuckle, listen to the ranger about what we can and can not do, off we go up the hill with cameras hanging from our shoulders. The first building you walk through, built in the civil war, is a sturdy pile of history, with several superb photographic spots. Up the hill past other buildings in ruin, the last leg leads you to the cell block, yet you aren't aware this is where you are as you are approaching from an angle that does not allow a view of the normal concept of the building. This is where I received my first 'assault.'
I had not done any research on Alcatraz, simply because it did not occur to me to do so. I now mourn this oversight tremendously. About ten yards down the hill from the entrance to the building, I received an overwhelming sensation of "We are HERE!" As always, I am left slightly dizzy and perplexed until logic makes sense of what just happened. Never did it occur to me, even slightly, that this would be a place to meet residents still lingering. Into the building, still absorbing what I had felt.
Ominous. Sensations that make me feel quiet, small, subservient. Keep your head down. You walk into the building just as a visitor would, past the glass enclosed main control area to an area immediately next to the main cell block floor. Several gigantic, impregnable, forbidding jail doors lead from this room from the rest of the building. The separation is distinct, even though the appearance says, "Just another door." Dark stairways and unused areas can be seen past the bars. Here are the four tiny windows for visitors to see and talk to the inmates who never leave the main cell block area in order to come to their side of the windows. This surprised me a bit, yet I am not sure why. Maybe I expected a separate room where inmates would be taken for visiting. Wandering led us through what I surmised to be administration rooms to get our individual tour head sets, another door led us to the end of the main corridor, what they call Broadway. Walk into the hallway about ten feet and prepare yourself.
The headsets include narratives about the particular spot you are standing in, then directions of where to go next for another tale. There are background noises such as people talking in low tones, cell door clanking, typical prison noises, all of which add to the uncomfortable atmosphere you are immersed in. The other tourists milling about the corridors where prisoners might have been only make it more realistic. What happened in this spot hit me like a ton of bricks. I was aware of being surrounded, coated, covered, smothered with unhappy, gloomy, eternal, resigned, insistent sensations, oppressed is the best word I can come up with. Trying to describe this to someone, I found the best method was to take both my hands, place them on their shoulders and push down, constant, hard, unrelenting.
The background voices and sounds were like a scurry, but what I heard was more of a flow. I was able to knock off the headset and sure enough, what I was hearing was not coming from the headset. I do not know how long I stood still in that one spot, but when I was finally able to shake it off and come to, capable of discerning my real surroundings, my friends had already reached the first cross corridor, half way down the long building. No one was staring at me oddly, and I was relieved. Whew.
Traveling through the tour, you see sights that can make the hair on your arms stand up. A nearby cell, one of the oldest ones, has square bars. The paint has been worn off from shoulder to waist level from the endless years of prisoners' hands grasping the bars. The tape's direction to touch the bars brought not only an incredible, real cold, but a measureless sense of dispair. Only later did I realize I had decided not to touch anything else at the prison from that point. Some cells have been recently painted and 'decorated' to be more realistic, but some have been left alone, and to say they are unpleasant would be an understatement. During one seige, a bomb of sorts was dropped into one corridor, the torn ceiling and pock marked floor attest to the violence that permeated the prison. The infamous escape holes 'carved with a spoon' are also blatantly displayed, along with the homes of the more prominent incarcerated personalities.
In the vast expanse of the empty dining room, any window provides a sort of torture in gazing out on the rest of the world, others non-chalantly going about their usual day in unchecked freedom under an enormous bright blue sky, from the immediate island activity to the bustling skyline in the distance, across the endless carpet of green, rhythmic sea. So near and yet so far.
Standing in the corner at the first window on the left, I took several shots of the city while I absorbed what the prisoners must have felt. Either Donnalee or Gary tapped me on my right shoulder, one method we had been using during the tour to instigate communication with each other as our thoughts focused on the stories from the headphones and our surroundings. I turned to see what they were up to, and found no one, absolutely not one person within a radius of six feet. I kept turning around to make sure there was not someone behind me. I inspected the extra camera over my right shoulder, clear it had not somehow been responsible for movement that might have felt like a tap up on my actual shoulder. My face must have been registering an odd look for a couple at the next window down knew something was amiss. They were looking at me like they were pensively waiting for me to do something, like explode, or run. I left. Quickly.
We passed the stairway down to the basement, and I made a mental note to return. On to cell block D. Isolation. This is a room attached directly to the large cell block, one side full of cells. What struck me immediately is that these cells seemed much larger than the others. Then, at the end of the room, were the cells known as 'the hole'. All the doors were anchored open. No longer could you enter the teensy cell and close the door to experience the sheer darkness, the complete lack of reference, utterly and absolute separation these cells were designed to provide. The second to last open cell was reportedly where the Birdman spent his years, while Al Capone and other equally dastardly villians were housed in the larger populus. Many people were peeking into the dark cells. I started to, but could not manage to command my foot to cross the threshold. Overload. I took a shot or two and simply left. I joined Gary in the library, very uncomfortable, but I dismissed it as a result of the sparse and empty bookshelves. I have more book space in one room at home then they had in this entire area.
The basement included an exhibit, the band room, and I believe showers, which I did not visit, or make an effort to see. By this time, my energy had waned tremendously, and the need for fresh, clean air was overwhelming. The odor of the prison was odd, unpleasant. Donnalee suggested urine, I felt it was more of an unwashed body pungency, equally repulsive after a time. Returning the headphones and escaping to the fresh air was truly a relief.
When you leave the cell block, you are on a large cement terrace near the lighthouse, the ruins of the warden's housing, and a rail that looks out to the bay and the city. Although none of the prisoners probably stood in that spot, or at least on a regular basis, I took several shot of that view, again, reflecting on the contrast of the solitary rock and the city. The winds were strong enough to bowl me over, making it mandatory to hold onto the rail while I took my shots. It was harsh but a welcome sweep.
Down the hill, we passed the road that would have led us to the mortuary, but I chose to keep walking. I was at my limit.
Back on the ferry (moooooo....) we stood at the back to shoot more photos and watch as the island drifted away, filled with a lingerimg sadness yet a relief as the island again, slowly drifted back to it's usual harmless, detachment. Goodbye, island. Hello, life.
P.S. As I related the adventure to my wiccan friend, Jay, and my equally sensitive daughter, Jena, I assured both of them I had no wish to return. As I type up my journal of the event, exploring my brain for the correct wording, or trying on the most accurate adjective to describe a sensation, I relived the experience, step by step. I just called Jay. We are going to take Jena up there just for the day, soon. Jay just laughed.
Pictures of Alcatraz can be seen on the Travel Page, including pictures of the mortuary and Jena in the 'hole.'