Saturday, March 27, 2010

Escaping Alkatraz: Just Like Those Other Guys

No one has ever escaped Alcatraz! Until you look closer and realize that that's just terrible spin – after all, we all know Sean Connery managed to get out, even going so far as to hide microfilm in a church bench.

The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and strangely San Francisco had refused to pour down on us. I'll not complain about this, but as far as I was led to believe there was no such thing as good weather in this town. And yet, here I was riding the cable car under perfect conditions. Until we stopped moving.

Apparently the cable had stopped. It wasn't until this moment that I put any thought into what powered cable cars, bt hearing that the cable stopped – and later started to run backwards – made me consider all the various possibilities. While the vehicle moves on tracks, there is no power. There is no gasoline, nor electricity moving passengers from one stop to the next. Instead, there is a chain hidden beneath the city streets, being powered independent of the transport, onto which the cable car hooks. Connected, it is pulled up the hills like an urban roller coaster. And once the peak is crested, the hook is released, allowing the car to slide down the hill under its own momentum.

Think about it, cables running all over the city, underground. While only three lines exist today, when just before the majority of them were destroyed in 1907 the city must have been amazing. I would love to see detailed plans as to how all the chains interconnected, and avoided hitting each other. I'd also like to know what engine was powering their movement. The idea is ingenious, and the metropolis must have been a sight to behold in those days.

As it stands, the 5.00 a ride car are mostly novelties for tourists – locals option for te 2.00 bus. Still, with the metro pass coving all lines, sometimes The Mason-Powell line is the best way to go.

Until the cable stops running.

With the weather gods smiling down from above, there seemed to need to be disheartened by this turn of events. Instead, it was seen as a blessing. According to my map we were halted quite near to Coit tower. All the tour guides talk about it, it must be worth at least a little peak. So off Katherine and I jumped, and we began our journey – our ascent – to the tower.

What type of sick person builds a city like this?!

Always on the uphill. Those people who tell stories about walking ten miles to school up hill both ways? They lived in San Francisco – but they were lying about the snow. If it ever snowed in this town the whole city would shut down. Cars parked at 90 degrees to the sidewalk would start slipping down the hills, buses wouldn't be able to go anywhere, those tiny three wheeled parking enforcement buggies would zip around everywhere they weren't supposed to head. It would be chaos. And maybe San Francisco deserves that as they seem to have everything else handed to them here.

To Coit tower we walked, passing Washington Square, and little Italy. You can tell when you get to Litte Italy because all the grocery stores in China Town start turning into leather goods dispensaries.

Up hill we walked, but by some gracious piece of luck someone decided to build stairs into the slope. Oh – wait, no they didn't. They built two or three meters of stairs. And then it's back to hill, and a few meters down you have some stairs again, more hill, stairs, more hill. It's a hodge podge of who knows what went into designing this. But then you reach the base of Coit Tower - and before you can admire the construction that may or may not be shaped like the nozzle of a fire hose, you glimpse the Golden Gate bridge.

It's only once you've shaken yourself out of the stunned aww inspired state of seeing that particular piece of construction that you can look at the tower. Which doesn't seem quite so wonderful anymore.

Not wanting to retrace your steps down the road you walked up, there are stairs that lead down the hills to near-sea level. These stairs start off as concrete and metal, but soon turn to wooden constructions. Soon you find yourself walking through overhanging gardens, passing cute little cottages, on your quest down the steps. And they're so beautiful and enchanting that you don't really think about how impossible it would be to move in or out of these places.

Nor do you consider that your friends must really love you to drive all the way out, only to park, and then spend five minutes walking up or down stairs to see you. And if they forgot something in their car? Well it's all over. And let us hope they have a car, as no bus comes up these steep hills. That's why cable cars were invented – to help expand the city beyond the flatlands. Cable Cars!

At Pier 33 you wait for your boat to head over to Alcatraz, getting in line, and having a ridiculous picture taken of you in front of the island backdrop. This can be purchased later for 22USD for two 4x6. It seems odd that you have to buy both images, and that the price would be so high. Having already printed the pictures, any sale would be profit. Add that with the fact most of the images go unsold – offering one for ten bucks, or two for fifteen seems like it would work out better. Ten is an impulse buy – one bill. Good to go, and two for fifteen seems like a deal at that price. But two for twenty two? That's not impulse – costing more than a single bill – nor is there anything that makes it seem a deal such as offering one for fifteen. These people need to get their capitalistic act together.

Standing on the bow deck, I watched as the island grew larger and larger as we neared it. Signs still remain explaining the penalty for attempting to help people escape. And the spray paint declaring, “Indians Welcome,” still stands from their 1970s occupation of the island.

Ahh – yes, Alcatraz wasn't always a prison. It started as a fort hundreds of years ago to defend the bay area. The gold rush brought may people here, and there was a fear that the newly acquired state might fall. Then in the 30s it became a prison, until it started to fall apart and there way no money to upkeep it. In the 70s the Native population occupied the island in protest of their being forced onto reserves. Once this occupation was forcibly ended a year and a half later, the state decided to turn it into a public park, and tourist attraction.

Once on the island you can see special programs that offer tours, and unique tales, every two hours. There are also some movies to watch, and all sorts of little gifties to buy. Including posters of the rules and regulations – to be honest, I think a number of the Alcatraz rules and regulations would work wonderfully for teachers trying to get a handle on classroom behaviour. Go look 'em up. #21 is a goody.

You will walk past burned out buildings where the guards and their families lived, and you will pass by the water tower and the lighthouse. At the top of the hill you will be in the cell block. In the shower room you will pick up your free audio guide, and begin to make your way through the prison. The guide is well worth the listen and explains why you should care about the library, the various wings of cells, and why certain items can be seen in the recreations of the living spaces.

Prisoners tell their tales, as do the guards. The pock marks in the ground are explained as being caused by fragmentation grenades when one of the prisoners almost broke out of the super-max jail.

You will then be told that no one has ever been proven to have escaped from this place. At which point you start to think logically – and everything falls apart. In my opinion, three people escaped. And the more you listen, and read, and learn, the more obvious this becomes. This inescapable myth? Hooey!

No one has been proved to have escaped because to do that would have meant locating the on the mainland, outside of jail – at which point they would have been sent right back into jail! Thus their escape? Not successful. Three people did break out, and have remained unaccounted for. It is said that they most likely died in the water, being unable to swim across due to currents, and sharks. You are told that no one could have made the swim alive. In fact prisoners were given hot showers in this jail – the only in the country to offer this – just so they wouldn't adapt to cold water.

But if you keep looking into escape attempts you'll see that one of the escapees from another attempt was found at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge, where he passed out after successfully swimming across.

So – you put all that together, three people got out, whereabouts unknown, and there is president for the one kilometer (that's all) swim being made. The idea that all three would have drown together? I think not.

Also – to escape, there are no fire tunnels and moving saws like in the rock. You just need to jump over a fence, and run down the hill. Although some of the guards were crazy here and liked to shoot prisoners – but that's another story all together.

Your tour ends in the kitchen where you hand back your audio guide, are told that the food here was better than most people were eating at home, and then get ushered into the gift shop.

Look around, but make sure you're on the last boat back to the mainland. Who knows what happens if you miss it. And once on the mainland? Go find yourself something to eat! I recommend Boudin's bakery. So delicious.

This bakery offers you the tastiest sourdough crust pizza you've ever had. I could go on about it – but I don't need to. It's the best. The best pizza I've had since leaving Ontario. There. Done.

And that's another one in the books.

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