Day 5: Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The day opened with a hangover, wicked period cramps, and a heavy rainshower. I was not a happy camper. But an hour later, the rain had cleared, and the ibuprofen I’d scavenged from Tim’s medicine cabinet was beginning to take effect.

The plan was to take the N train downtown and meet up with an old high school friend for an early lunch. Then Alcatraz. Just as I was getting ready to leave, Tim was making crabcakes benedict to soothe his own hangover. And of course, I had to stay for those. Tim makes incredible crabcakes benedict; they are not to be missed.



I powered through a good two thirds of the dish, and I’m glad I did. Felt better with some food in my stomach. Moby finished the rest.

The N train was PACKED. The front car’s doors didn’t open, either, and that’s where you pay your cash fare. The few of us cash people looked at the driver like, “What the hell?” and he just shrugged back like, “Sorry, I dunno either.” So I crammed myself into one of the rear cars. There was zero way I could have made my way up to the front.

And natch, as I was exiting the downtown station, two Muni cops were checking people’s tickets. I was trapped. Had to fess up, and just told the truth. I still had my $2.25 in my pocket and pulled it out. “I really didn’t know what to do,” I pleaded. “I’m just a stupid tourist. I’m happy to pay.” He asked for my ID, and told me to go over to the ticket machines and get a ticket. When I returned, he gave me back my ID with a short lecture. Very, very nice. He could have given me a very expensive ticket. Whew.

Met my friend, Erik, and we went over to this indoor mall-like place with a food court covered by a glass roof. Must be lovely when it’s raining. We picked a soup and salad place, and I got a fruit cup and a diet Coke. Especially after that rich breakfast, I couldn’t dream of eating anything more. Erik and I caught up, outlining our respective career arcs and “how I met my spouse” stories. He told me how to take a shortcut down Sansome that would take me straight to Pier 33, where the Alcatraz Landing is. After lunch, he walked me a few blocks down Sansome, and we cruised past the Transamerica Pyramid building, and the darling little park along its side.

We hugged goodbye, and I continued on down Sansome. At the Alcatraz ferry landing, I had to wait half an hour for the next boat. So I got a beer at the cafe and got carded! WOOT! Called Rich from one of the outdoor tables to check in.

Views from the ferry:

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The guard tower:

guard tower

An old truck at the dock:

old truck at dock

In 1969, the American Indian Movement took over the abandoned island for nineteen months and claimed it for Indian territory. There is still evidence of that time:

dian occupation water tower-indian occupation

The Howitzer from the island’s days as a civil war-era fort:


The electrical services building:

electrical services bldg

The ruins of the PX building:

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There are protected nesting seabirds all over the place. They give zero fucks about all the people wandering around them. And that baby duckling just killed everyone with the cute:

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A greenhouse and garden that was tended by a select few prisoners. The storehouse/warehouse and the power plant’s smokestack are in the distance:

greenhouse-garden-storehouse warehouse-power plant smokestack greenhouse-garden-view north

The morgue:

morgue plaque morgue

At the very top of the hill (after a 13-story climb), is the cellhouse:

cellhouse cellhouse1

The line for the start of the audio tour winds around the showers. Next to the showers is the supply issue room:

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A spiral staircase:

spiral stairs

The gun gallery and its key winch:

gun gallery key winch gun gallery

“Finished” cells made up as though they were occupied, including the cell of one escaper who used a papier-mâché head as a decoy:

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Cellblocks and a cutoff corridor between blocks:

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The library:

library library1

In June 1962, there was a prison break made famous by the movie “Escape From Alcatraz.” The men used sharpened spoons to widen ventilation ducts in their cells, gaining access to this narrow unguarded utility corridor between cellblocks, and to the roof from there. Two of the men were never found and are presumed to have drowned, but the U.S. Marshall’s case remains open to this day:

service access-escapers used

During the May 2-4, 1946, “Battle of Alcatraz,” two guards were killed, and inmates reached the upper level gun gallery with a bar separator, gaining access to a rifle, pistol, keys, clubs, and gas grenades. Their plan failed, but a deadly standoff ensued. Electricity was cut off and the Marines called in. The Marines drove the armed convicts into a corner with tactics they had perfected against entrenched Japanese resistance during the Pacific War. They drilled holes in the prison roof and dropped grenades into areas where they believed the convicts were to force them into a utility corridor where they could be cornered.

Some of the grenades were dropped from these galleries.

Some of the grenades were dropped from these galleries.

These pockmarks in the concrete floor were left by the exploding grenades.

These pockmarks in the concrete floor were left by the exploding grenades.

The administration building and its operations room:

admin bldg admin-ops room

I happened to be there just when they were doing one of the day’s two “Sounds of the Slammer” interpretive demonstrations. I’m so happy I saw it.

The ranger was operating a complicated system of levers, selectors, gears, clutches, and pulleys to manually operate any of the 750-pound doors separately, in select groups, or as a whole block.

Many movies (including Jurassic Park) have used Alcatraz’s slamming doors as sound effects.

In addition to operating the doors, the ranger explained their mechanical design, and also touched on other sounds of the slammer: of jangling key rings, police whistles, the bells clanging atop floating buoys, the blaring of ship’s horns, the cry of seabirds, and how, when the wind was just right, inmates could hear the sounds from the yacht club just a mile across the water: of popping champagne corks, gentle music, and the laughter of women.

It was SUPER cool. So glad I was there just at the right time.

gear box-door operation

The isolation cells had double sets of doors. Prisoners in these cells lived in total darkness 23 hours a day.

isolation cells

The kitchen. I either don’t remember or didn’t hear about what that green stand-alone structure in the back was for. The dining hall directly adjacent was fitted with tear gas canisters in the ceiling in case of riots. It was nicknamed the “gas chamber.” They were never used, luckily, because any guards inside would also have been gassed. But perhaps that little building in the kitchen could have been used by the workers to seal themselves inside.

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me in cell

The oldest operating lighthouse on the U.S. west coast:


A vault:


The view of San Francisco from the top of the island:

view of SF

The ruins of the Warden’s house:

wardens house ruins wardens house ruins1

Took a taxi back home. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon by then, and traffic was a bitch.

Next post: Day 5 continued — Japantown — Ramen with Friends