Alcatraz, a Criminal Love Affair

by Heidi Obermeyer

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Surprisingly, I had never been to Alcatraz on a San Francisco trip. I always waited until the last minute to consider going, and at that point the tickets are sold out and waiting in line across town sure seems like a big waste of time when there’s Bi-Rite to be eaten and hills to be climbed within the city itself. With a little foresight, that problem was solved this time around and Laura and I got tickets for the first day we were in town. We took the train from the Castro to Embarcadero, and walked the (fairly significant but full of interesting stuff) remaining distance to the dock for the Alcatraz ferry. They have lots of stuff to keep you occupied while you wait for you scheduled departure time (this you have to plan, but you are free to return at your leisure on the return trip) including a few little gardens with local plant life and a strangely aggressive photography company that takes your picture in front of an Alcatraz backdrop as you get on the ferry. The guys running this thing were obnoxious, and I told them we would pass on the fake vacation pic.

Sadly, the Golden Gate bridge was obscured by fog on our way out to the island, and the wind really gets going once you are out on the bay. We sat outside for about half of the 10 minute ride before we gave up and went in, but not before snapping a few pictures of docks and our very windy selves in front of the island. I also took the opportunity to point out a typical hip German couple to Laura, who had almost exactly matching clothing save for the colors of their shoes and hats. Once you disembark that weird touristy competitive atmosphere really gets going, but the park rangers corral everyone at the beginning to explain how to get around the island and where to pick up audio guides. There’s actually quite a bit more to see besides the prison, which apparently no one ever does- we were guilty of this as well since it was pretty late in the afternoon when we started our tour. The prison sits on top of the island surrounded by various smaller buildings, all which are constantly pummeled by the fickle weather in the middle of the bay.

The audio guides at Alcatraz are awesome, and everybody has one. It’s pretty weird to be walking through the prison (there is a set route, although you’re free to jump around if you wish) and take out your headphones for a moment to hear almost complete silence, save the footsteps and shuffling of the other visitors. Thinking I would kill two birds with one stone and practice my German while we were there, I got the audio guide in German, only to discover that they had interviews with former prisoners that made up much of the audio guide, which would have been a way cooler experience in their original voices in the English version.

It’s pretty weird that we are all so fascinated with prisons. Prison must be damn boring- and fairly torturous, especially on Alcatraz where you knew that you were so close to such a vibrant, intoxicating city. Alcatraz actually only closed down in the 1960’s, so lots of the original stuff remains and the building isn’t in particularly terrible disrepair just yet. Laura and I took up a Ranger’s offer to test out the solitary confinement cell for 30 seconds with a bunch of other people, and it was awful. I would imagine the darkness would drive you mad.

While we waited for our ferry back to the city, we saw a big group disembark with sleeping bags and suitcases- it appears that you can go out to Alcatraz and spend the night! That sounds pretty creepy to me, but I guess it is technically a National Park. Whatever floats your camping boat I suppose!

Other San Francisco posts can be found here, here and here.