On March 21 in 1963, the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz closed. This little factlet jumped out at me; in 2004 I was there with a couple of friends as part of our holiday to San Francisco.
It hasn’t been that long, but some of the memories are getting a bit hazy. Alcatraz is a pretty cool place to visit; it’s now a National Park, and so amid the tours covering the history and law and order aspects of the place, we had one tour guide enthusiastically telling us about a colony of oysters that was developing off one of the piers. That’s one of the reasons I have such respect for tour guides – the US National Parks Service is one of the reasons for that. The Park Ranger at Alcatraz genuinely loved his job, bubbling over with enthusiasm and geeky joy in his subject. That’s actually the thing that most stands out from that particular tour; well, that and getting pooped on by a seagull.
(Reading that back, it sounds a little dismissive of the place and I don’t want that to be the case. It’s well worth visiting if you’re ever in San Francisco, even if Mythbusters may have proven it to be less escape-proof than everyone thought…)
My most recounted memory of SF came at the end of the holiday. We got a cab to the airport and, frankly, the driver was insane. He looked how you’d expect a cabbie in San Francisco to look – long grey hair, vaguely hippy-ish – and he drove maniacally, swerving around a three or four lane freeway as if all other cars were merely conceptual entities and thus couldn’t kill us if we drove into the side/back/front/roof of them. He operated a clever system of indicating the opposite direction to that he intended to move, and when other drivers hit their horns and, you know, swore at us, he just blinked his hazard warning lights with Zen-like calm. It would have been beautiful in its Darwinian elegance if it weren’t for the fact I was in the passenger seat and therefore had a close-up view of everything we were about to hit.
(Minor thought on memory – I remember sitting on the left hand side of the car, but that can’t be right, because it was American and so the passenger seat would have been on the right, surely?)
He also told us that, although he was married, his wife was a hippo and therefore he had a mistress. I don’t think his wife was really a hippo, I just think she nagged him a lot to reconsider his vocation, what with the whole driving thing being a bit of a kamikaze mission…
One night we went to the Hard Rock Cafe, eating over-sized portions, listening to live music and impressing a cute waitress by polishing off a dessert the size of a whale. I think that’s when I consolidated my little tradition of going to Hard Rock Cafes in every country I visit.
Then there was Haight-Ashbury, the legendary hippy district, which still kinda looks the part, although there’s a GAP there which sort of spoils the image. We went there on the bus; in front of us a teenage girl was crying and an aging hippy couple were trying to comfort her. “Write all your memories in a book,” the guy said, “Then when you turn the page it puts those memories in the past and they don’t hurt so bad.” I remember being a bit cynical about that; now I look back and admire the guy for giving a damn about a crying girl on a bus.
Also in the Haight we went to the Ben and Jerry’s store, where the spaced out twentysomething dude behind the counter told us how The Da Vinci Code had blown his mind.
But all this aside, one moment stands out, embedded in my bones. 2004 was a bad year for me; something bad was coming, I knew it was coming, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. It was a good holiday in a bad year and so that’s the context for all this.
Our last night in SF, we went down to Pier 39. It’s a popular tourist spot, all carousels and smelly sealions, and we’d travelled there a couple of times on the famous trolley buses. It’s a nice spot and on that last night I found myself on my own at the end of the pier. Behind me were the sounds of shops and sideshows; before me was San Francisco Bay, dark, waves lapping, the lights of boats slowly drifting, the Alcatraz lighthouse blinking on and off and on and off… And time slowed to a crawl and I was at peace and didn’t want to leave and I just stared out at the Bay with a sense of transcendence and a presence that may have been God but that I don’t think I was in the state to recognise as such at the time.
“There he is,” said my friend Andy, “You alright, Mr. Hyde?”
“Yeah. Just taking a moment. Just taking a moment.”