I survived Alcatraz (San Fran: Part 2)

Firstly, let’s start off with a controversial statement: I think San Franciscans like coffee more than Seattlites. That’s right. I said it.

Why? Because lines at Philz (they put mint in certain drinks!) and Blue Bottle Coffee, not to mention the regulars (Peets, Starbucks), all had lines OUT THE DOOR from 9a-9:30a downtown. That never happens in Seattle. San Franciscans, hats off to you dedicated bunch.

I walked from my hotel to Pier 33, where you get the ferry to Alcatraz. I don’t recommend that, but I was on a coffee hunt (and failed, as I am not dedicated enough to wait 30 min to pay for $4 coffee).

Maybe it’s because since the Harry Potter movies, I’ve imagined Alcatraz to look like Azkaban, I was a little shocked at just how small the island was. Yes, I read the website that told me just how tiny the island is, but I have a stubborn imagination. Besides, other than ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ and a couple of ‘Mythbusters’ episodes on the infamous escape, I didn’t know much about the U.S. federal penitentiary just over a mile away from the bustling city.

I was impressed to learn that it’s name, Alcatraz, came from the Spanish conquered the outpost, naming it Alcatraces. From there it became a fort to a civil war prisoner camp, before becoming part of the federal prison system. And then don’t forget the big ‘Indians Welcome’ sign that still exists behind the ‘Welcome to Alcatraz’ sign on the island, one of the few reminders of the Indian occupation after the prison closed in the 60s.

I had heard fantastic things about the audio tour. They really no longer do tours of the prison itself, though there are ‘guides’ giving specific tours around the entire island; I didn’t take part. It was a little confusing on how to pick up the audio tours, which we did in the shower area. For me, it was just a tour of a prison (not that I’ve been to many!) Because of the crowds, I found myself distracted by wondering where people were in the audio tour by how they moved down the ‘Avenues.’ I think I sort-of got over that to learn about the escape attempts and what daily life must’ve been like for prisoners and guards.

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They’ve kept the conditions of the cells up pretty well, considering it hasn’t been in use for decades, at least the cells on the ground floor. I wonder what it looks like now on the 2nd & 3rd floors, out of view from the public. What it must’ve been like to have been up in a cell on those floors, high above everyone else. Probably just as loud and boring as any other. I spent time (4 seconds!) in D Block’s solitary cell. The door was open and it was pitch black! Can’t imagine what it must’ve felt like at night! They say that you could sometimes hear sounds of life from the mainland inside the prison, depending on which way the wind blew, which was maddening. While I couldn’t hear anything but fellow tourists, it was easy to picture in my mind’s eye. Even the recreation yard, large as it was, seemed claustrophobic for me — there were a handful of tourists willing to make the climb up (they’re renovating part of the prison that gives easy access to the yard), and I wanted to get out as fast as possible! It’s amazing to believe that prisoners lived to go outside into that small space!

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Did you know kids lived on the island too? I didn’t! But, it makes sense, given that guards  have families too! They took a boat to school day in and day out, and if the winds were too bad, they just didn’t go! How strange! Now, the places where those kids lived and played are turned to ruin, at least, for humans. The birds who now call Alcatraz home seem to enjoy the cement playfield and the crushed walls of former homes.

Also surprising: the gardens. Those ALONE should be given their own separate tour (they probably do). Volunteers now take over the responsibility of maintaining the flowery spaces once tended to by inmates. Stunning! I was so impressed and hope that they looked just as beautiful during the prison years.

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The day I visited, a former prisoner was back for a book signing. The rangers were very cordial to him, and the gentleman seemed ‘normal,’ for all intents and purposes. Apparently he had landed in and out of prisons for most of his life for his forgery skills. I wonder what it was like for him to be back on the island? From the stories I had heard, I don’t know why you’d want to step back onto a desolate, despairing place, even if it does help you get a few bucks. Personally, the idea of criminals as ‘celebrities,’ even minor ones, baffle me.

But lucky for me, the rangers allowed me on the ferry back to the mainland! I didn’t have to beg for a cell! I then walked to Fisherman’s Wharf. With my mind set on Ghirardelli’s ice cream sundae (I hadn’t eaten since breakfast), I didn’t stop too long. It looked like most boardwalks I’ve seen in my life, though I hear the sea lions are loud (I’ve heard those too, in Oregon). For being the Ghirardelli’s former chocolate factory, it looked a lot like the Ghirardelli’s at Disney World’s boardwalk. And while there wasn’t much of a line at the main entrance (I since learned there are other places to get Ghirardelli ice cream in the square), my sundae seemed a little small. Don’t get me wrong, I ate it all and really enjoyed it, even though my wallet didn’t.

My feet were getting tired, so I bit the bullet and waited 45 minutes for the $7 trolley ride from Ghirardelli Square to Powell St. Because that didn’t allow me to hop on and off, I had to come back the next day to Lombard Street…but that’s okay. I rode at a peak time, so perhaps my experience wasn’t the best; they really pack you in like sardines! It was hard to take pictures or enjoy the trip when you can’t move! From there, I walked into the Palace Hotel and enjoyed the beautiful glass windows while my phone charged.

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I ended the day by meeting my friend at the Giants game! Sadly, they lost, but we had great views of the bay, the bridge, and of the entire field! It was a really cool experience!

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