I reached the top of the hill, finally, with no small thanks to the efforts of my Sherpa, Reggie (who makes one hell of a House Mouse Curry). I checked into the hotel, The Mark Hopkins Intercontinental, my temporary residence and the location of the writer’s conference. It was also the most expensive part of the trip. Thankfully my wife splurged because she didn’t want me hiking all over Fog City every morning to make an eight o’clock start time. The quickest route from “point a” to “point b” is still a straight line, but in San Francisco that line rises and drops at a 60 degree angle. I left my stuff in my room and headed down the slope to Pier 33—the tourists jumping-off point for “The Rock”.
Alcatraz seems close to the city, but it only took a couple of seconds riding in a small ferry across the windswept San Francisco Bay to realize it was a lifetime away for anyone without either a boat or fish DNA…I doubt Aqua-man could’ve escaped this place without a boat…but, then again, he always was a fair-weather superhero…and make no mistake, even on its warmest days, there is nothing fair about the weather that surrounds “The Rock”. Those foolish enough to brave the cold waters of the bay would—more than likely—die as a result of the perpetual currents on that body of water, or so they say.
Once on the island we were given some simple rules and a warning. Failure to follow said simple rules would be considered a federal affair, as Alcatraz is now a National Park. I made sure to follow the rules. There is something about the place that inspires uneasiness in my heart. I don’t know if it’s because it was a prison, or because it was a military base…or both. I’ve never been all that comfortable in Jailhouses, Hospitals, Schoolhouses, or on Military Bases. They make me nervous. Imagine groupthink not just as a way of life, but a necessary means of survival.
Evidence that life on “The Rock” was hard—physically, mentally, and spiritually—is everywhere. There’s nothing soft about the place, save for the vegetation that surrounds the island and inhabits every square inch of soil that is not occupied by the footprint of a building, and some crumbling square inches that once were. Plant life is taking over, that and birds, and is slowly dismantling the once powerful structure. The gardens were planted and maintained by the inmates, and—as such—serve as a final “kiss our collective ass” message from the once powerless inmates to the once powerful institution. There are efforts being put forth to restore Alcatraz. On one hand, I like the idea of this place being around—until the end of civilization—for people to tour and draw their own conclusions about, but I also find the idea that the place is disintegrating into the waters as a result of the vegetation put there by former inmates to be a nice monument to poetic justice…Alcatraz itself dies trying to escape the island. It just sounds pretty. Alcatraz then would be, literally, for the birds, which make up the majority demographic on that island. Everything on the island, from the small piece of grass—“The Yard” as it was called—to the small green cells, to the beautiful view of the city—one of the most striking views in the world—was there for one reason, not rehabilitate you, but to make you pay for your insolence. But who cares. Everyone there deserved what they got…well, almost everyone…but if I were you I wouldn’t think too much about that. If you start thinking about that stuff it leads you to ugly places of moral ambiguity and unpopular mistrust. Better to remain a citizen of nanny-state. “Of course I’m pro-life and pro death penalty”, you say as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
I left the island in an ugly mood, haunted by my own ignorance, or by the ghosts of the island. Whatever. There really wasn’t any time to think on that. I had a city to explore, and all the guilty social consciousness that books have imparted to me couldn’t stop me from having a good time. “Screw you books, I have an adventure to pursue.” And I did…