Saturday, February 21, 2015

Days 1 & 2: Shotgun!

 You know the way it works.  The person who calls out “shotgun” gets to ride in the passenger side of the car.  That’s all there is to it, right?  Unless, of course, you’re talking about the Tenderloin district in San Francisco.  According to the front desk staff at our hotel in San Francisco, “shotgun” is what someone used to threaten a guest of the hotel to rob the guest in broad daylight in the Tenderloin district.  I had heard from a friend that the Tenderloin district is pretty sketchy and is to be avoided, but I had no idea it was this bad. (I’m not entirely sure she knew that it was this bad, either.)

Mindy’s and my trip to San Francisco was not so eventful.  Or, at least not in that way. The flight down was pleasantly routine – a Friday evening departure from Toronto, and a short shuttle ride to our hotel. Granted the shuttle skirted the Tenderloin district and we saw a "homeless hotel" along one of the streets, but we didn't know yet just how bad that area was. Our hotel room - which was not at sidewalk level - was small and, aside from a curious layout where the bathroom looked into the bathroom of the neighbouring room (I noticed a woman walk into the other bathroom and quickly close the blinds), it was exactly what I wanted at 3am Toronto time! Before drifting off to sleep, we booked a few more adventures in Japan; this trip still seems unreal! (Those stories will come as the adventures happen. Stay tuned!)

With 8 hours to explore San Francisco on a Saturday, what better to do than book a 6.5 hour tour? Our converted trolley car – which made us a tourist attraction as we went about town – met us at Union Square at 7:45am. 

We traversed Lombard Street – the crookedest street there is, and climbed many of San Francisco’s 9 major hills.  

The main attraction of the morning, however, was the Rock.  I don’t mean Dwayne Johnson, but Alcatraz!

Originally named for the gulls that populate the island, Alcatraz has served as a military base protecting the San Francisco Bay, a military prison, and the most notorious prison in the USA. Al Capone may have been one of the most prominent prisoners of Alcatraz, but the Birdman and Machine Gun Kelly were some of the most deadly and horrific of them.  Touring the facility today highlights the principles of the era, when prison was not meant to rehabilitate, only to punish and segregate.

Prisoners at Alcatraz were guaranteed the necessities of life – food, medical care, and shelter.  Anything else was considered a luxury, and had to be earned with good behaviour (or rescinded as punishment). While the cells were small and the “special treatment units” (“the hole”) claustrophobic, the food was considered very good.  Prisoners were invited to take as much as they wished, provided they ate all that they took. A rowdy riot at meal-time – when every prisoner is armed with a metal knife, fork, and spoon – might have also carried a digestif of tear gas, as canisters were built into the ceiling of the dining hall.  As our tour pointed out, it is a good thing that these canisters were never used. The three guards on the floor would never have survived the resultant chaos.

Notwithstanding that they were among the most violent and irredeemable men of the time, guards at Alcatraz stepped onto the prison floor armed only with a whistle. (Well, that was policy, anyway.  Apparently, many of them also secreted in a leather-wrapped club as back-up.) Guards overlooking the rows of cells from elevated cages were armed with guns. During one ill-fated escape attempt, a prisoner starved himself to be able to slip through the bars of the gun cage, knocked the guard out and stole his guns and keys.  When the would-be escapees couldn’t open the door to the outside, they vented their frustrations on the hostaged guards.  Two guards and three prisoners ultimately died that day, with two more prisoners executed for their roles in the escape attempt.

Alcatraz had its share of escape attempts, but most were equally unsuccessful.  Three brothers managed to escape, but to what end?  No-one knows. (An aside: that three brothers made it to Alcatraz, each on his own, is another story that is worth exploring.  That kind of social commentary was not part of the tour today.) The brothers created dummy heads of hair from the barber shop clipings, cement mix, toilet paper, and anything else they could get their hands on.  With these dummies fooling the guards on the night counts, the brothers slipped through their ventilation grates, and crawled silently to the roof inside the walls.  They slipped past guard-houses and made it to the water’s edge with a raft fashioned out of rain-coats.  And then they……?  Some believe they drowned in San Francisco Bay.  Others believe they made it to South America, putting to use the Spanish classes they had each been taking at prison.  They escaped Alcatraz island, but no-one knows whether they escaped the true prison.  It wasn’t just the walls of the cell house and the sightlines of the marksmen in the towers, the cold choppy waters of San Francisco Bay were the ultimate barriers to freedom.

Prison is as much about psychology as anything else, and I can only imagine the psychological effect of tantalising, downright beautiful views of San Francisco from the island prison.

Many of the guards, including the prison wardens, lived on the island with their families.  Children went to school, and gardens lined the streets.  It was a very small town with a very bad neighbourhood.  

After decades of use as a prison of one sort or another, Alcatraz has now been taken over by the National Parks Service, and is home only to the birds that nest there.

After Alcatraz, we went for lunch at the Bodin Bakery, known for its sourdough loaves of unusual shapes:

Then we were off to an engineering marvel of the modern world, the Golden Gate Bridge!

A feat of human ingenuity, it is inspiring just to look upon the bridge.  Of course, the beautiful backdrops of San Francisco Bay and the Marin headlands don’t hurt, either. Top it off with a sea lion playing in the waters off Fort Point (I did not catch a photo of that, but trust me, it was there), and you’ve got yourself a great time in San Francisco!

The tour wrapped up with a drive through the Presidio, a little neighbourhood nestled amongst majestic eucalyptus and fir trees beside San Francisco proper.  

We returned to Union Square and made our way back to our hotel for a shuttle back to the airport.  This ride was a little less uneventful than the ride out, as our driver nearly killed a woman crossing the street.  One of those scenarios where I was too stunned to speak as we kept driving toward her as she crossed the road… Finally, she became aware of the oncoming van and ran out of the way.  About that time, our driver seemed to notice her, too. Eek!

We checked into our flight to Tokyo; this trip to Japan still doesn’t seem real! On Saturday evening in San Francisco, we boarded a ten-hour flight that would land us in Japan on Sunday night. Whether it feels it or not, this trip is real.  Japan, here we come!

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