American Sabbatical 043: 10/31/96

North Beach & The Rock

10/31.. North Beach

The sun actually decided to shine on the last day of October. Happy Halloween. And Berkeley is the perfect town to celebrate all hallows in. Everyone looks like a storybook character. We put our backsides to the sterility of Pinole, with its blowdryed jr. execs in the Starbucks drivethru, jammed with the endless rush-hour over to Berkeley, and went upslope to the University. North, west, and south of the big campus there are street scenes: outdoor cafes, huddles of homeless, drum circles of teens living rough, and folks from every color of the rainbow. Beret-topped beats on bikes, with goatees.. honest. Professors in profundo tweedo, braless babes, twenty-year-old skateboarders, purple turbans, golden saris, earnest bumperstickers, esoteric bookstores, decorative self-mutilation and other sophisticated college things. We rubbernecked until our heads spun, then twanged up to our meet.

This was another venture in personal history for Peggy. Her brother’s lifelong best friend. They traded tales until the air was thick with mist. It’s fascinating how others’ memories of your childhood open doors to recollection, or knock your own recall into a cocked hat. The idea there is ONE history won’t stand up to a conversation with your big brother’s friends.

Across the Bay Bridge

When Danny had to meet with a patient, we aimed the Owl west again, across the bay into dreamland, San Francisco. Jim Torbert, one of our cyber companions on the E-train, had connected us with John and Kina, his old Peace Corps friends from the 60s, and they'd invited us to stay in their house in North Beach. Right in the heart of the beast.

I'd followed this idea with considerable trepidation. I'd felt my tendons tighten as we approached megalopolis from the north. The freeway jangle and the zoo-scene at UC Berkeley hadn’t reassured me a bit. Coming into a big city spooks the countryman in me, bad. Parking Red Owl on the street, on Halloween? OOhoo.

But San Francisco steals your heart instantaneously. One minute you are jostling with machinery across miles of arched engineering, next minute you are joyriding around in makebelieve. It’s improbable that people drive and park on 45 degree slopes. It’s impossible that so many charming townhouses can be stacked so high in one place. Blossoming bay windows, dazzling bright colors, and the patterned multiplicity of little houses climbing atop each other. Up close to heaven this IS the most beautiful city in America. Of course the sun had been shining all day.

Our hosts live at the end of a blind alley, one block uphill from City Lights Bookstore, Ferlinghetti’s roost, two blocks from Chinatown, three blocks from everything. Climb up to the third story livingspace and you have a view to live for. Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill to your right, the Golden Gate behind Fishermans Wharf to your left. Mount Tam straight ahead. Go back out the front door and the TransAmerica Tower is down the alley, the rest of downtown at your feet. All it lacks is parking.

North Beach View

Ah, parking. The shade-building mechanic who works on Vallejo advised us to strip the Owl bare, feathers and all. "They’ll break in for anything they think will sell on the street." So we back up the alley and unload into John’s basement. Feels weird to turn a faithful traveling companion back into the barehulk of a vehicle, and cut her wheels hard to the curb on Vallejo. We are going to have to play wipe-the-chalk-mark with the traffic police or pay the city for parking. And we make a deal with the streetman to keep an eye on it. So there she sleeps while we do the town.

Coit Tower
We hit the pavement around mid-aft and huffed up to the top of Telegraph Hill for a wideangle rotation of Baghdad by the bay. Every corner you turn offers scenes of urban hideaways, private niches, neighborhood pleasantries. You can easily imagine yourself slipping into this burg like a hot bath. San Franciscans are marvelously houseproud, and every private domicile is brightly painted, potted, and pruned. It's worth climbing ladders to reach such heights. Dark evergreens follow you up to Coit Tower and arch up beyond you.

Then we clambered down to the waterfront and Via Tourissima. The old fishdocks have long since given way to tourist traps, from lowend honks to elegant tonks. Well, if casually, dressed visitors pointing camcorders, milled among the vendors purveying souvenirs. Isn’t it peculiar that we need to bring back trophies or our travels are unrealized? What’ll it be, mother? One-a-them Alcatraz shirts, or a sea lion mug? Bemused by the shopaholia, we strolled down Pier 39 with its two-story alleyway of redwood storefronts. Rounding the far end we were met by the bellowing music of sea lions. A dozen moored swimfloats fill a corner of the enclosed boat basin, and 60 -70 barking beasts were hauled out sunning, stretching, or squabbling. Young Turks taunting old bulls, smallfry trying to make the leap onto the floats.. a whole circus. Lined up along the pierhead was a twolegged circus gawping and clicking instamatically. Peggy, as usual, was entranced, and I had to finally lead her away by the arm, glassyeyed, mumbling “urf?....urf?”

I pointed the passive sea beast landward, through street mimes, trumpet soloists, bungey jumps, kitsch hawkers, and kodak stands. The best novelty we saw was a play-with-yourself tennis rig: a sandbag connected to a tennis ball on a long elastic band, the peddler thwocking it past tourist heads.


Upstreet from the embarcadero we were back in residential Frisco, all terracotta and faded pastels. A few blocks more plunged us into the dizzy jangle of North Beach. Italian markets hardby Chinese delis, bike messengers dodging accordion busses, cafe tables spilling into the mill of foot-traffic. A gaudy gabble of signs, Chinese and English and Chinglish, climbing the walls along Columbus and the other arteries, make them look like nineteenth century photos, until you notice the microbusses. Heads full of hydrocarbons and hubbub we turned up Vallejo to dine with new friends.

Golden Gate
John and Kina are graphic designers riding the leading edge of the cyberwave. They created and produced a mag called GRAPHICS: ON-LINE for some years, and the ground floor of their duplex up the alley is an image-stuffed Macinshop webnode. The sense of being near an epicenter vibrates strongly here.

We proposed going out for Chinese, and our hosts took us to a hot spot around the corner from City Lights. On the way we stuck our heads into The Stinking Rose, just for a blast of GARLICK. On the sidewalk in front of the Chinese holeinthewall we were marshaled into cuing clots of hungry diners, then herded into the most basic of possible bistros. Every possible inch was in use and we were shoehorned into a corner elbow-to-elbow. Our unsmiling waitress didn’t waste a breath. How many dishes? Three? OK. One this, one that.. the squid? How many tea? And the food came fast and furious. It was fantastic. You can shove me around like this anytime. And cheap! Pleasantly plumped we ambled about briefly, hearing local tales, then tottered up the incline, and to bed.

(Memo #38)


Who? most violent prisoners

What? maximum security prison, now a tourist attraction

Where? middle of San Francisco Bay

When? prison 1909 -1962

How? ferry ride from San Francisco

Topics: prisons, social control, crime & punishment, rehabilitation, recidivism

Questions: What was it like to be a prisoner at Alcatraz? How can we control or change or confine people who refuse to live by society’s rules? What is prison supposed to accomplish? Can you rehabilitate criminals? Is criminal behavior a result of genetic disposition or environment and upbringing (nature or nurture)?


Alcatraz. The rock. The Bird Man. Inescapable island. Whirling currents. A stony outcropping in the middle of San Francisco Bay surrounded by legends. The small island is located to the north of San Francisco, a couple of miles out, in the middle of the bay as it opens out from the Golden Gate.

The Rock
It’s an odd concept to tour a prison. Alcatraz is a major tourist attraction. Seeing it involves a long wait, then a ferry ride, then a hike up a steep roadway in the company of a crowd of German and Japanese and French and Swedish tourists all with cameras. Then you’re in one of America’s most famous prisons. You get a headset and set off on a self-tour. The tour takes you throughout the major cell building with stops at a number of places to tell you facts and stories about Alcatraz. You hear the voices of former inmates and guards, you hear of riots and escapes.

It is a cold, bleak place of rock and metal and bars. The buildings are all beige or gray outside, gray or light green inside. Long corridors, clanging doors, high ceilings. Cement, stone, steel. Nothing softens the institutional architecture. There was no attempt to provide ease or beauty (ironically, the largest cells are in the isolation block). The exercise yard is a bare rectangle with little grass and no plantings. Signs were still posted everywhere with rules and procedures. They have not prettified Alcatraz for tourists, the paint is peeling, the floors are worn. Most of the cells are empty and you can walk in and out of them.

The main building is three stories tall, open corridors all the way up, with three tiers (floors) of cells. There are walkways on each level in front of the cells. At the end of the blocks is the area patrolled by guards, barred off from the rest of the building but with a clear view of all cell blocks.The front of the cells are bars. The inmates had no visual privacy. The cells are about six by ten with an iron cot attached to the wall, a small fold-down table and seat, two shelves high on the wall, a sink and a toilet. Cold, functional, bleak.

Main Building in Background

I expected a prison with its reputation to have been inhabited since early Californian settlement. In fact, Alcatraz became a prison in 1909 and was a military prison from 1909 -1934. It was a federal prison only from 1934 to 1962, when it closed. Alcatraz was a special prison, a place where men who had been violent or difficult in other prisons were sent, a superprison for hard types. It was never fully occupied. The island was considered secure since the bay’s current are dangerous and the water is cold.

Alcatraz’ location was ironic. Men incarcerated for bloody crimes had gorgeous views. While prisons in the desert are societies unto themselves, Alcatraz had the San Francisco skyline and the sounds of a city and bustling port to remind the men of what they were missing. One inmate said that they could ALWAYS hear the crowd sounds from San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. As he put it, you could hear the life you were missing.

Typical Cell
There were four main corridors between the three-story blocks of cells (A, B, C, D). They had the cells of famous prisoners marked (Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, the Birdman). One inmate drew and painted and his work is displayed in his cell. The corridors were named for streets, Broadway and Michigan Avenue were the two main corridors. Cell Block A (the oldest) was only used for storage and for typing places for the men. Block D was the solitary confinement corridor where prisoner spent 24 hour a day in their cells (a prison within a superprison which again starts you thinking about what a prison is supposed to accomplish and what you do when a prisoner in a superprison won’t behave). At one end of the cell block were small glass windows where prisoners could see their visitors. There was no physical contact and no privacy. You talked through a microphone. Off the main cell block there was the barbershop, the cafeteria, the hospital, and the library.

In the cafeteria you were told to look for canisters on the ceilings which contained gas to quell potential riots. The narrator noted that it was dangerous to have supercriminals all together for meals (did they ever consider feeding all the prisoners in their cells?) You were told of one occasion when tables were overturned and the guards ready for a riot that didn’t happen. The kitchen area was at one end, separated by bars. They took great care to keep track of knives. Each kitchen knife had its appointed place on the wall, outlined in paint so its absence would be immediately noticed.

The library was a large room with high ceiling separated from the cell blocks by a barred wall. Ordinary prisoners were not allowed in; books and magazines (highly censored) were delivered to the cells by special prisoner-aides who had earned the position. The most deadly Alcatraz riot (in which some guards and inmates were killed) was organized with the help of a library aide who carried messages and plans around as he distributed reading matter.

The riot took place in May 1946. Prisoners had noted the one time in the day when only two guards were in the cell blocks. They figured out how to overpower the guards in the cell block. One prisoner had manufactured a bar spreader which was used to get to the guard on the catwalk. As other guards came on duty, they were taken hostage. The key to the exercise yard (the planned escape route) couldn’t be found. The plotters were trapped in the main cellblock by the attacking marines. 9 prison officers were shot by the prisoners. We saw the holes in the ceiling in one area where explosives were dropped on the fortified plotters. All but one were killed.

The tape described the only successful escape from Alcatraz. Three inmates supposedly used spoons to widen the openings from their cells to the ventilation shaft. They left fake heads and stuffed "bodies" under their covers in their cells (which we saw - amazing!). No trace of them was ever found. A movie on the incident assumes they escaped rather than drowned.


The philosophy behind prisons has changed over the years. If the aim of prison is punishment and retribution, then there is no need for frills or comforts. Prisoners are paying dues to society. If the aim is rehabilitation and change, how is this to be accomplished? Education? Can criminals be changed, and how? Is criminal behavior genetically based, or caused by abuse or other environmental forces? Do prisoners lose their civil rights in prison? Alcatraz raises many questions. A sobering tour.

11/1.. Alcatraz.

Our San Francisco morning dawned bright and clear. A rare gift. Last evening the purple mountains had faded, with a dreamscape of piggyback townhouses glittered in the foreground. This morning the towers of Peter, Paul and Coit glowed golden against the bay, and the bright jumble of house colors smiled up at us. Paris may be called the City of Light, but San Francisco shines on her hills like a forerunner of paradise. When it doesn’t fog.

No fog today, and we skipped down to the waterfront to catch the early boat to Alcatraz. Onroute we skirted a park full of elderly Chinese, silently stretching in unison to a stretchmaster. A figure study with a cast of 70. I felt my back straighten, and breaths go deeper. Imagine living in a place where you can go stand on one leg in the AM with all your neighbors.

Alcatraz? you might ask. Well, Peggy has been disappointed in the student response to her messages, and here was a hook which might bait a few. Those who say school is like prison, maybe. Besides, the thought of a prison as a National Park is irresistible, and a boatride on the bay not to sniff at either. But we weren’t early enough for the first trip, already booked solid by eager incarcerees. So we bought tix for #2 and went to commune with the sea lions again. You can actually see Peggy’s neck grow and her feet broaden as she urfs along with these clowns.

When our time came, we found ourselves in a hundred-yard line of tourists shuffling along in lockstep to be jammed nikon-to-nikon onboard the BAY PRINCESS. SRO for the rock. No loudspeaker rap, no fingers pointing toward the oil spill just west of the slip, no amenities. You’re on your way to prison, son, this is a hardtime tour.

From across the bay on Telegraph Hill, Alcatraz is a romantic cluster of buildings capped with a skinny lighthouse on a steep bright-beige rock. Up close it is a foreboding ruin of grim cement structures rising like a rotten tooth from the placid waters (at least placid today). Our nofrills ferry squeezed us out like toothpaste onto the sloping rampway, under the foot of the prison walls, and we shuffled uphill into History.

We’d paid for the self-guided tape tour, and it’s worth the nick. Everyone under phones has that glazed audiophonic look, and we inchwormed along from site to site with our heads full of hardcase clamor, all vaguely alienated, each in our isolated world.

It’s surprising how small this prison actually is. Although able to house 300 some prisoners, it never caged more than 200, with a guard for every three cons. And the three-tiered cellblocks are the exact prototype of all those B movies you saw, only without the shiny metal. Everything is worn, chipped, shabby, and encrusted with institutional paint. And the din and stench must have been astonishing. With braided lines of muttering tourists the noise was bad enough. The experience was wonderfully oppressive, especially backing into a solitary confinement cell or peeping though the tiny begrimed windows at the sparkling city across the water.


We were glad to be short-timers. Two hours on Alcatraz is enough to convince you that institutional retribution is not the highwater mark of civilization. What if all our prisons were to become tourist attractions? Mementos of a barbaric age long past? Dream on.

We reentered contemp reality at the barking dock and hoofed overhill for Vallejo and the Moscone Center beyond. We were going to risk another museum despite our lingering case of museumitis. The new Museum of Modern Art came highly recommended, along with the architectural delights of the Yerba Buena gardens at the center, so we traipsed downgrade for the financial district and the core of the fruit.

Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, and that crowd must have learned to walk in this town. You find your backs arched at funny angles with your feet flapping ahead. It’s also a hoot to be looking down into staid business country from makeadeal sidestreets with girlyshows sexsexsexing all day. Going upscale downhill, we leveled out beneath the bankers’ towers, where the girls had all their clothes on, and the men were in pinstripe. Although all citycenters have that concrete canyon ambiance, this town doesn’t feel as buttoned-down or knotted tight. And the air is scrubbed with salt.

I can’t sing about the skyscrapers in a town with glorious hills. The TransAmerica has a nifty sweeping lift, and the blueglass music atop the Moscone Center buildings is fun, but the skydancing townhouses steal the show.

Inside the museum I was overcome with another episode of hohum. Computer graphics, slickprint adverts, highway engineering, the whole of contemporary reality has pushed so far beyond the classics of modern art as to make them irrelevant. Sorry, Pablo, give me a hawk on the wing. This philistinism will pass, no doubt, but I best be kept away from the august shrines of ART for a while, or I’ll be tossing paper planes off the upper balconies.. and OMYGOD I almost leaned against an ARTWALL. Thought it was just designer deco in dull crayons. Take me away, officer. We cooled ourselves in the gardens, sampled the municipal waters, and found it good.

With luck we figured out the bus route to North Beach and sardined in with the schoolkids and Friday rushers headed home. Witnessed an urban drama when a shabby drunken old black man threw his arm around a young wide-eyed white woman dressed for the office. A muscular black with his ears full of jewelry called him off, saying, “Hey, don’t you be messing with my wife,” winking at her. The protector proceeded to take responsibility for jollying the drunk for the rest of our time on the bus, and we got to inhale the poetry of maudlin stupefaction and street-talk up Columbus.

A couple of footweary wanderers were glad to accept John and Kina's invite for pasta at home, and we enjoyed an evening of lies and laughter with friends of theirs, an Industrial Designer and a Waldorf School teacher, along with Caitin, the resident teenager. Perched on their hill, it felt very much like being at a cultural crossroads. A fellow could get to liking a city when it’s all at your feet.

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