Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Rock

The burnt out warden's house perches on the top of a steep but lush cliff in the center of the island.  Only the outer wall frames remain standing, with evenly spaced windows on the sides.  You can picture the lovely house it once was, with an arched roof and flowery curtains that covered those gorgeous windows.  You could almost see the curtains fly up in the island breeze on a sunny day, as the windows are open.  You catch a glimpse of the lady of the house cooking the warden's dinner when their children play outside or finish their homework on the kitchen table.  The day is clear, and the red splendor of the Golden Gate Bridge stretches out on the left, as angel island and the Oakland bridge crouch on the right,  dozens or so sailboats breaking up the expansive blue water in between.  

You can almost forget for a moment then, that across the narrow road winding up the hill, there sits "a federal penitentiary housing some of the most dangerous criminals."  You imagine the aroma of the stew and the sound of those childrens' laughter must have reached some of the cells facing the right directions. 

Then you'd walk up around the bend to enter the prison.  You stop for a moment to question the wisdom of this decision as the structure swallows you with its weight and sturdiness, impressing upon you the one way nature of its design.  You steel yourself for a second or so, then you walk in to hear the babbles of languages of the world echoed throughout the brick and stone surroundings.  It nearly takes you out of the moment, reminding you this is but a tour, and you paid for the privilege of coming in and going out at will.  Then you are handed an audio guide with instructions of how, where and when you shall visit each site within the building, with a voice that didn't invite questioning or disobedience.

So you follow, a tinge of reluctance tarnishing the excitement and curiosity swelling at the sight of cells, photos, and the authentic period voices that told the stories.  Walking down "Broadway", you jump at the photos of young and tender faces in prison uniforms -- they could be college students,  or someone's high school sweetheart or brother, they are sons and fathers of the family they belong.  They could be that friendly but shy neighbor next door who doesn't talk much but seems completely harmless, if only you lived in their neighborhoods fifty somewhat years ago.  You come up close, as you are told, to those iron bars painted pink but emits nothing warm and fuzzy, and see a coverless toilet sitting next to the head of that single bed, marking the loss of freedom for something so basic as a bathroom break outside, a privilege enjoyed by a first grade child when he asks.  There isn't room for anything else in this five feet by nine feet space, but an air of desolation, hair raising eeriness, filled with silent screams of all its occupants that seem imprinted on the walls, like desperate claw marks of caged animals.

Courtesy of Alcatraz History (linked)
Then you turn down C-D street and are invited into an open cell inside the D-block.  You hear the voice introduce its history as one of the isolation unit for ill behaving prisoners.  There is a tiny square of opening on the solid door, the closing of which shuts out light completely.  You heart races then clench, breath held for as long as you could stand it without realizing you are doing it, mind racing about nothing whatsoever, yet racing in any case.  Two seconds pass, you think it's two hours and you may explode, missing the warm fuzzy airiness of those pink iron bars all of a sudden.

These cells face windows that look out across the water onto San Francisco.  It's so close that on new years eve, you hear on the audio, music and laughter of girls would float across the water into the ears of prisoners on the wings of wind.  Darkness then becomes all the more unbearable at this,  tears would well up into the eyes of those with the most hardened hearts, sitting alone, allowing a needle of light and songs to penetrate, piercing that spot of vulnerability in them that was buried so deep they were all but forgotten.

You can't help but wonder why?

How can we - a civilized culture, build such a barbaric instrument of torture for our fellow beings?
Then you hear shots fired, sharp and crisp, like fire crackers exploding against all the concrete and irons.  You hear people shouting, first the surprised shrieks of guards rushing in to find prisoners with guns on their hands, then the low and menacing commands from the prisoners demanding the final key to their freedom.

"Give the key or some people are gonna die!

Then another shot.   And just like that, they'd taken the life of a son, a friend and a father. 
The tender young face you saw earlier suddenly contorted into the face of a murderer as you hear his quickened breath and you recognize the hunger in his demands - so knife like that you shiver from hair to spine.  You catch a glimpse of this violent escape attempt on the audio guide, happened over sixty years ago right here on the patch of concrete you are standing.  All you want to do then is to withdraw from that dark thought, conceding there is no easy answer here as you move away from the leaden doors and the smell of harsh soaps still floating off of those cell blocks.

You turn off the audio guide then, and along with it all those gloomy voices and piercing stories floating in your head for the past hour and half.  Walking back out into the open, filling your lungs with the cold but refreshing wind and warming your skin under the blazing sun, you smile at the sight of your return cruise ship moving into the dock.

A pelican flies by, neck bent into an S, wings extended to float him above the sea breeze.  He lowers down and makes a dive into the swell but comes up empty.  A hungry nest at the pelican's tonight.  A fish's life spared.


  1. Dark, brutal, and utterly amazing.

  2. Very powerful! I know some of the history of the prison. I've never been there, but I walked through with you...

    I love when I get home from work and you have posted. I go right to your blog to read your latest never disappoint me.

    Thank you.

  3. So moving and real. Not only did you take this reader on a tour of Alcatraz, you also gave him a feeling of empathy for the prisoner.
    Thank you.

  4. Very powerful. I will admit to shuddering and holding my breath at this point "There is a tiny square of opening on the solid door, the closing of which shuts out light completely."

  5. We visited S.F. and went on the Alcatraz Tour. It's something you'll never forget.

  6. Interesting blog post. I have seen programs on tv about the place but it is especially interesting to have someone I know write about the tour. Gives a different sort of feel to the story.

  7. Awesome post...I love your blog:)

  8. Well that was just plain beautifully written.

  9. "...sitting alone, allowing a needle of lightness and songs to penetrate in a moment of weakness, piercing that spot of vulnerability that was buried so deep they were all but forgotten."
    I'd say you made the right decision, Shopgirl! Otherwise, we would not have the remarkable piece to take those who've never been inside the darkest days of incarceration.
    This piece made me feel the claustrophobia, the anxiety, the utter loneliness of the place. You're brave for having taken the tour. (I took the boat only around the island. Could't bring myself to go in.) This piece belongs in a magazine. On or offline. Or both. Really. Submit it! :)

  10. My goodness, you walked us through some deep and darkly chilling emotions here - what an excellently written account, you truly are an amazing writer, dear lady!

  11. Your description is amazing. I felt as if I were actually there with you.

  12. Wow! A very descriptive bit of imagery. I loved the way I could actually hear the pop of gunfire while reading this. Very "captivating" Good job!

  13. Brave and compassionate you are!
    This is an incredibly powerful piece.
    I am speechless.

  14. Robbie -
    Thank you! I'm really very you liked it.

    Loree -
    I'd love to learn more about it but also it is a little dark for me. Glad I went in without knowing anything, you know?

    Judge -
    I like that. It was emotionally overwhelming so I just wrote down where the words took me. Glad you got that.

    That's exactly what I did, even when I was writing it and reliving it in memory!

    TOG -
    I totally agree.

    Barbra -
    I like that. Blog is a unique form of media that does that, isn't it?

    Anonymous -
    Thank you!

    tattytiara -
    Well thank you! Your name is just lovely. :)

    Jayne -
    You found my favorite line Jayne. I am glad I went as I wouldn't have been able to write this without having been there. I don't know anything about who to submit it to, but thanks for the thought!

    Shrinky -
    I've always enjoyed your fantastic writing - wish I could have that funny bone your story carries - so glad you liked this.

    Angela -
    Thank you and congrats on your new book!

    Nessa -
    I am so glad to hear that - I worried about it not being enough for quite a while...

    Jade -
    Speechlessly wonderful comment. Thanks so much!

  15. Great job taking us with you. I would love to visit The Rock.

  16. I've read this twice.

    A beautifully written account of what sounds like a truly chilling environment.

    Amazing descriptions and such rich language. Really, really engaging writing Shopgirl.

  17. Marsha - I hope you do some day, it's an unforgettable experience.

    SFW - Wow twice. Thank you for the detailed reading and wonderful comment.

  18. Dear Blogger,
    Your post on “The Rock” left us with heavy hearts! I wonder how come we forget to thank for the happiness brought by little things! If the murderer would’ve thought of it, he wouldn’t have killed those innocent beings! We would love to take your stories further!

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    Thanks & regards
    Hamida, Content Manager, Sulekha US




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