The Ramblings Of A Solo Traveller by Gai Lemon
The Streets Of San Francisco
I never thought I’d find a city I could live in until now. San Francisco is quite simply amazing on so many levels… and it was hard to pick why until a very perceptive cabbie with a broad Jewish accent but who had been born in Pakistan (according to the ID in the visor) said to me… “this city is not neurotic”. And he hit the nail on the head- it isn’t.
It is one of the most encompassing places I’ve ever been- not just because the queer community is embraced with alacrity here; it is after all almost sacred ground- but it’s things like the dignified protest I saw when I wandered downtown, for example. Demonstrators facing off their opposition with chants and yelling- it could have been ugly but it was simply thrilling. They chanted, they yelled at each other- no obscenities that I could hear, and it was getting volatile but still… polite!
The streets are abnormally clean for a city. There is no smog. The air smells fresh, even in Union Square which is a shrine to Capitalism with brand names leering from every shop window. There are people of all nations and identities, shapes and sizes. I love a country where the people are friendly. I had travelled across oceans to a place who’s culture had bombarded and invaded my homeland and because of that, I expected to hate the place. In spite of myself, I couldn’t!
We rode the trolley car through streets impossibly steep, lined with beautiful Victorian terrace houses painted in hues of pink, aqua, pale green. Saw Municipal buildings carved from stone with impressive golden or copper cupolas and intricate carvings and sculptures all around. Went by Lombard Street- the world’s most crooked, and could only see the cars at the very top before they disappeared into a void below the level of the street. Who knows where they end up?
A prison by any other name… Alcatraz
And then we did a night trip out to the forbidding Alcatraz, and another side of San Francisco revealed itself.
One of the things I’d always loved about where I used to live on the Sunshine Coast Hinterland in Australia, were the mists that slowly and delicately descended on spring, summer and early autumn mornings. Wispy and ephemeral, they floated above the ground and disappeared with the rising of the sun, returning- if they so wished- the next morning, or not at all.
The fog in San Francisco is an entity unto itself. It arrives in the afternoon; tinged with grey and whipping past your face, leaving damp traces of its presence behind. You know it is there, because it’s bloody cold and wet. And it’s fickle too. Today it decided to descend about 7:30pm after we had seen traces of it beginning to show over the hills of Twin Peaks (behind the Castro area where we are staying).
The evening we went to Alcatraz, it came in right at the time we were to leave. It had obviously decided to enhance our visit by making it even more gloomy and desolate on “The Rock” by adding a damp and frigid coldness to the experience.
But what a treat… we sailed off into a scene from a Stephen King novel I’d read as a teenager. A dense fog that swallows the people it captures- whole.
Just out to sea was a wall of dense fog, and beyond it, identified only by the tourism brochures (because it wasn’t visible) lay the notorious jail of Alcatraz. Fog horns sounded as we traversed the Bay. Through the dimness of a 7pm landing (with 90 full minutes of daylight yet to be expended) the ‘Rock’ emerged.
Damn! but it’s a formidable beast. And having worked inside some of the modern prisons currently in operation in Australia, I have to say that the concept of reform takes on a whole new demeanour when confronted with the frigid, spartan hell hole that was Alcatraz.
Less than 2000 prisoners spent time here. Only 36 made an attempt to escape but none, so far as is known, succeeded. “The Hole” isolation cells are completely devoid of sound and light. No prisoner spent more than 19 days there. I spent less than a minute in one before I knew I would have lost my mind beyond an hour of that kind of sensory deprivation.
And all the while, the light dimmed and the fog descended and it became colder and more forbidding. Christ…no wonder people chose reform rather than recidivism.
D Block was considered the worst place because the wind whipped through and no sun made it into the cells (that were about 8 feet wide and barely 12 feet deep). A toilet, sink, two narrow shelves, bed, chair and two small tables a foot or so square, suspended from the cell walls, were the furnishings. Sound luxurious? Hell no. Try mapping the space out sometime.
Alcatraz was an experience in what human beings could do to each other if pressed. And today, it sports remarkable gardens and burgeoning wildlife that has no predators to threaten it; and as a consequence there are seagulls there with attitude. Huge things that make Australian seagulls look like the skinny kid on the back of those old comics who’s getting sand kicked in his face. San Fran ‘gulls are laid back tho’ bro’. Beautiful sleek white things that look like they’ve been pumping iron and throwing back steroids since 1988 and chilling since the love drugs made their way to the Haight in ’69…
© Gai Lemon 2020
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