Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco, California

Fifty-nine dollars and a fifteen minute boat ride is all it took for me to gain access to The Rock.  Dave had meetings that day so my girlfriend and I went the day before and bought our tickets. We got up early, walked to Market Street and caught the Street Car. As we rode a long we began chatting with a young couple sitting in the seats in front of us. They were going to Alcatraz too.  We sat there watching them tend to their beautiful baby girl when my friend and I commented to each other, “Remember how easy it was having a little baby?”  We looked up at the couple and said, “Enjoy this time. Cherish it. We know you are not sleeping.  That being said, you can take her anywhere and she won’t talk back. She won’t fight with her brother. She is just a baby.  With those big blue eyes and shock of bright red hair, She is so beautiful.”

I could see the look on the husband’s face. I could see him thinking, “Are you kidding me ladies, ladies with those big, capable boys. Did you see me haul the giant stroller onto the streetcar?  Do you see the sweat dripping down my face? Easy? Not sure about that.  Your boys can walk on the bus, find a seat and sit down without any help.”

As we talked to this couple all I could think is how much the wife looked like my DC friend, Heather’s sister.  I wanted to ask her. I knew Heather’s sister lives in the Bay Area and also has a new baby. I kept thinking to myself how cool it would be if it were her.   As I was studying this woman’s face and thinking about this possible connection, my friend asked where the couple was from. “Phoenix,” the woman responded and suddenly I had to let got of this imagined connection.

The boys were eager to get going and we were almost to the Pier.

And that is when they said it:

“I think all the tickets are sold out for the day. We bought ours online. We bought our tickets last night.”

Moments later as we stood in this Alcatraz Tours Ticket Line with our squirrely boys, we learned that the couple with the beautiful, easy baby girl were indeed correct. Tickets were gone for the day.

We re-grouped and bought tickets for the next morning.

Twenty-four hours later we followed the same routine.  Dave accompanied us on his way to his meetings.  First stop was the hotel lobby where the boys had their daily dose of complementary hot chocolate.  Then Starbucks on O’Farrell for breakfast, oatmeal. As we made our way, we did the daily check, making sure we had enough change for bus fare. Meeting our friends by the Gap on Market and waiting for the Street Car.  Back on the Street Car, riding along, I looked up at just the perfect moment to see the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market.  There it was, a sign for “Donna’s Tamales.” Glee is what I felt and I smiled as the warm memories flooded in.

Mid-February 2008 found Dave, the boys and I at Hapuna Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii.  After purchasing three Boogie boards from the local Kona Costco, two yellow and one blue, we made our way on the black volcanic rock-covered, dry desert landscape drive to our favorite beach, spending many of our Big Island days riding the Hapuna Waves.  I don’t think I have ever spent that much time in the Ocean.  While riding the waves Kyle and Eli met another boy.  As often happens on sunny beach vacations, my boys and this boy became fast holiday friends making sand castles, catching the biggest boogie board waves and collecting amazing beach artifacts as they ran all over the beach. Soon the Aunties of Kyle and Eli’s new friend were saving a place at the beach for us each day.  We got to know them too and feel blessed because of it.  One of these women was Donna of Donna’s Tamales. The other was Shirley.

I looked up at just the right second and saw the sign, “Donna’s Tamales.”  I insisted that after we were done at Alcatraz we must return. Knowing my girlfriend is a big foodie, I knew this would not be a hard sell. It wasn’t.

The line for Alcatraz Tours was long and windy. Naively, and as we were also toward the back of the line, I wondered how they were going to get all of us on the boat.  Sitting on the boat I realized my perspective was inaccurate and that they indeed had room for many, many more.  Even though we could see “The Rock” clearly from the San Francisco Shoreline, I also assumed the boat ride would be much longer. Barely enough time to sit and take a few pictures, I heard the Captain or whomever’s job it was to do this, announce, “We will be docking momentarily. Be prepared to leave the boat.”

The weather was unusually warm. I stripped layers of clothing off and tied a sweater around my waist and stuffed the boy’s sweatshirts in Dave’s newly-acquired tradeshow swag backpack.

We stepped off the boat. I looked up to my right and starting snapping away. It has been years since I have felt this inspired. The landscape. The words. Everything about this moment entranced me and I wanted it captured. The Large Red Spray Painted letters read, “INDIANS WELCOME,” (in reference to the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island by 79 Native Americans), on the sign that also stated in big black bold type face, “United States Penitentiary, ALCATRAZ ISLAND 12 ACRES, 1 ½  MILES TO TRANSPORT DOCK,  ONLY GOVERNMENT BOATS PERMITTED, OTHERS MUST KEEP OFF 200 YARDS, NO ONE ALLOWED ASHORE WITHOUT A PASS.”  I could not believe I was standing there. I could not believe I was reading these words, not on a television or movie screen, in person and it was not a dream.

As we walked on further, we were met by our Jersey-Chicago styled ex-cop-ex-army guy. He talked like my Chicago Irish Cop grandfather. I could envision our Chicago-Cop-Accented guide eagerly and loudly calling as I disembarked, “Hey Bam Bam,” just like my grandpa used to do.   At age four, maybe even five or six, I always thought it was super cool that my grandpa gave me this special name.   I looked forward to our visits and positively could not wait to hear those words: BAM BAM!  As I got older wiser, or maybe just a little insecure, I realized that my grandpa was comparing me to the Flinstone’s “boy” baby and the comparison was made because I was so rough and tumble. Girly girl I was not.

AS we walked off the boat, instead of hearing my “special” name (I seriously half expected it), our guide immediately began weaving the off-the-beaten-path tales of the Alcatraz Prisoners and prepping us for the tour. We were also given the option of touring the island on our own.  After hearing him speak, yet knowing I usually only take a guided tour if absolutely required, I did not hesitate when my friend asked, “What do you think about taking the tour?”  “Absolutely!” I responded.

Before starting the tour we were encouraged to buy the $1.00 Alcatraz Pamphlet and use the restrooms.   We chose the restrooms. The caffeine had caught up to my bladder and all I could think about is the closest place to release.  I scanned the fastest route, grabbed my boys and raced over.  As I jammed the old family bathroom door lock shut, I sliced my index finger wide open.  The blood was gushing, would not stop and I was elated that I had inadvertently cut my finger on the Alcatraz bathroom door. I made my way to the ranger station for a Band-Aid while the boys looked among the masses for our friends.

Our guide was speaking just to the left from where I stood.  Several people were gathered around. Kyle looked at me with an “I can’t find them” face, while Eli stated, “Mom, we cannot find them!” I looked and there were our friends, perched right next to our tall guide.  I really do wish you could hear his voice as he told about Inmate #210, Joseph Bowers or Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz or Arthur “Doc” Barker.   I was hooked and then promptly wondered to myself, “Why don’t I usually take the tours?” Boring! Because they are usually so mind numbingly boring. Not this time. Not on this island.

See, I was a tour guide once. I tried to make the tours interesting. Ultimately I think all I did was spew out phrases, tons of factoids that I had to remember word for word. Not our guide. Maybe it was The Rock. Maybe it was the subject matter and then I listened for a moment to the young, long-haired tour guide behind us. Yes, because our most awesome guide was so loquacious, the next tour caught up to our tour.   The tour behind us, I listened and yes, it was boring.  Our guide added things, and I do not know if they were exactly true, and I did not even care if they were.  He kept me engaged.  Maybe it was his voice. Maybe it was because he reminded me of my Chicago Cop Grandpa. I think it was his stories, stories about this amazing place where I never thought I would be.

The tour ended.  I pulled out my camera and snapped away as we moved through the rest of the Island on our own.  The prison cells were so clean, so small and so desperate. Looking at the tiny prison cells I imagined the claustrophobic feeling and understood the need to escape.  The boys broke free from the line of people waiting to check out headphones and tape recorders for the recorded portion of the tour.  With their escape, we dodged the boring-taped tour bullet.  I did one of those once, the USS Something or Other. Never again!

They went off, up some stairs and out a door and back down another set of stairs. We were walking in the prison yard. It was lonely, stark and beautiful.  The boys played and asked about what prisoners did. “They would most certainly have a basketball.”  I snapped and captured and snapped some more. The fog was settling low and the sun was shining appropriately through.  Breathtaking light.

At the edge of the yard there was a small exit. At the exit there was a set of steep stairs. We walked down and I snapped pictures of the birds perched on the out building, with fog, ships and water all floating mystically in the background.

Then it hit me. I was standing next these broken old buildings, surrounded by thousands of birds, with the foggy, dark shadowed San Francisco backdrop off in the distance. At that moment I felt like I was hiding in some crazy Post Apocalyptic movie. It was beautiful and I was inspired. I had not been this inspired in I do not know how long. All the broken concrete on the rocky beach, the vivid and occasional flower growing through the destruction, the Prison Buildings behind me, surrounded by the beautiful landscape, the fog, the darkness in the distance and the sun shining through. I could not stop taking it in. I was more interested in photographing the scenery than my own kids. That just does not happen.

Our time was nearly up, we made our way back to the ship as I snapped and tried not to miss a thing.  Even the restroom sign was cool.

Back on land, we hopped another streetcar, rode along and got off at the Ferry Pier Farmer’s Market.  I could not make way fast enough. We headed directly for “Donna’s Tamales.” The boys and I stood in line and then I saw her. It was Shirley! “I nervously thought, “Is this stupid? Will she recognize us? The boys are so big.” We moved closer to the front of the line. Between the second she looked up and smiled until the moment she uttered the word, “hello,” she had indeed recognized us. Her long grey hair pulled in a ponytail and she could not believe it was us. Words flowed out of her mouth,  “What happened to you guys? We waited and waited and never heard from you. It is you!”

“Time and life got in the way. I saw your sign this morning and knew it was meant to be.”  I quickly told her about tickets selling out the day before and how we had to come back this day and how I had looked out the window at just the right moment to see the sign. It was all meant to be.

“Can I buy you guys lunch?”  Shirley offered.   The boys and I ordered three amazing tamales, one goat cheese with red pepper and two traditional.  They were the best tamales we ever had and I am not just saying that because we know the owners.  Shirley and I talked a minute more and made plans to keep in touch.

The boys and I walked away met up with our friends.  Fruit and vegetables beyond our wildest dreams of goodness were before us. We tasted grapes, peaches, candy, nuts and some sort of Apricot-Plum hybrid fruit. I am sure it was organic [wink, wink]. And then we made our way to the Gelato Sorbetto store. I mention this now because as far as memories go, the Coconut Sorbet I had was and still is one of my very best and most delicious memories. We were hot. The boys were hot. The cold coconut flavored sorbet with giant coconut flakes mixed in was an experience I did not want to end. So much did I not want the flavor to end that I talked Dave into taking the bus back down to the Pier for some more Coconut Goodness that very evening.

A perfect day, it was a perfect day.  My eyes and my heart were big and I was open.

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8 thoughts on “Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco, California

  1. Beth, I LOVED this post, not only because it’s so evocative and it’s positively thrilling to hear how inspired this day obviously made you, but because of my own affinity for that island. I took the Alcatraz tour twice in my life, and I would do it in a heartbeat next time I am in SF. xoxo

  2. Brian, I love you (and Robbins, of course) ! I am so glad you get and of course I know you would. What a beautiful place. Seriously, it was other-worldy. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all go back to The Rock together? We miss you guys and think of you often! Thank you for reading! It means the world to me. xoxoxoxo

  3. Beth, I was thrilled to see the kind and loving reference to Poppy. I want you to know that any nickname he gave was with love and when he gave them they stuck. My nickname was brat all of my life and I hear that word today and it brings a smile to my face and a tug to my heart. I always said I could accept being called brat as long as it wasn’t spoiled brat. He really loved all of you kids and it saddens me to think that you did not have the opportunity to see and be with him as much as my kids did. His kids and his grandchildren were the light of his life and the twinkle in his eyes when he spoke of them was worth all the money in the world. I am sorry that he left this world as early as he did, but glad that God took him while he still had his dignity. Thank you for remembering him in such a lovely, beautiful and public way

  4. Aunt Sue, Thank you for your kind, kind words. I always took BAM-BAM with love and thought it was really cool that I had my own special name. I don’t know if you noticed the picture in the post of the guide? I posted the photo with his hand covering his face. With the guide’s face covered, I can really imagine Grandpa Allman standing there.

    much love.

  5. Beth,
    Your writing is so wonderful and your photos even more amazing! I can only imagine how inspired you were. The fog is so surreal. We visited Alcatraz once, years ago. In fact, we did SF in a day…how insane! Now I want to go back.

    Your description of this tour guide made me think of the carriage tours in Charleston. So authentic and fascinating and certainly NOT boring.

    I loved your post. You really shone through it.

  6. Andrea, Thank You for your wonderful feedback! I bet the carriage tours are awesome. The authenticity is really what makes it.

    Thanks for sticking with me!

  7. Hi Beth. Great to see some posts up. Really fantastic photography – especially the image of San Francisco skyline rising above the mists. I’d been to Alcatraz for an evening tour, so it was appropriately creepy and oppressive. Think I’d like to go back in the day.

  8. I’m so glad to see you are back blogging again, I’ve missed your amazing writing and incredible photography. I love seeing how grown up your boys are now. Where has the time gone?

    My company’s SF office is on Market Street @ Geary. I’m there fairly frequently, so let me know when/if you’re back in either San Diego or San Francisco. Oh, and I make it back to Utah a few times a year too. We need to do lunch.

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