Inside Alcatraz

“We’re closed.”

My heart fell. I’d spent the last five minutes taking pictures of shoes lined against the wall. The light cast a neat silhouette, the room full of things once owned by society’s ills. Or was it by officers? I couldn’t get the settings quite right, so it didn’t even matter. It had been months, several in fact, since I’d consistently used the camera.

The camera, a 3 or so pound brick that could double as a weapon to fend off attempted robbers, is older than most. Its indoor shots a struggle, its colors not as vibrant as an iPhone’s. Most of all, it was me. I was rusty.

In those five minutes, I’d missed the audio guide cutoff. What about the voices of former prisoners talking about their day to days? What about that epic escape attempt that killed a prison guard? What about —

“Just kidding,” he said. He hung one around my neck.

Museums are best spent alone.

I often wandered the halls by myself, at times looking out from behind bars. The term the Slammer, I found out, comes from the sound the metal bars make when they open and close. To the prisoners in Alcatraz, the sound was so consistent, so terrifying, that it often became unbearable.

I’ve read of forms of torture in other parts of the world in which a change in room temperature, in intervals of extreme cold and extreme heat, weakens the mind. It’s a constant state of not being in control, of never feeling comfortable — the uncertainty of just when the next modification will come.

In the slammer, it becomes a way of life.

On New Year’s Eve, celebrations throughout the city could be heard. Beautiful days, for the most part, reminded them where they weren’t.

It showed that life went on, its mundaneness highlighted by things happening elsewhere.

For one prisoner, “There wasn’t a day when you didn’t know what you were missing.”


At first glance, Alcatraz didn’t seem to provide much respite from the five days of work I’d just had in San Francisco.

I’d had little sleep all week, so I felt ragged by the time Phil joined me. I needed a nap, a day of lying down, of lazing about on a beach somewhere. San Francisco, rainy, chilly, breezy San Francisco, hadn’t allowed it.

“After this hill,” the guide told the crowd, “there’s another hill. And then once you get over that hill, there’s another.”

I looked down at my strappy sandals.

I was definitely overdressed for prison.

The guide talked a bit about Al Capone, a model prisoner, before sending us off to fetch our audio guides. We were the last group for the day, and if we got to the top too late we wouldn’t have enough time.

“Let’s wait for the crowd to disperse,” is what Phil would have said if people really talked like that in everyday conversation.

As we headed toward the main building, I braced for an arduous climb. I wondered if It would be any worse than a few nights before, when I’d trekked up Nob Hill in heels on the way to a work thing.

“Why am I so out of breath?” I’d asked another reporter amid one of my nonsensical, long-winded stories.

As Phil and I wandered around the premises, we were struck by what we saw. Seagulls flitted about, and blue water surrounded us. We could see the city in the not too far off distance.

“I wouldn’t mind staying here,” I joked.

Such beauty, we’d soon find out, was among the cruelest punishments of all.

Ode to Bill Cunningham