San Francisco is where you’ll repeatedly say,
“Youdon’t see that every day!”
After our hearty McDonalds breakfast and snaking around those who slept under the stars, we had time to kill before our early bird tour of Alcatraz. We paused to see the wild California Sea Lions that took up residency at Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf. They’ve been congregating on the docks since 1989. They moved in when boats were moved out for the docks to be refurbished. Ever since, these invaders have become a tourist attraction. The kids picked out their favorites when two would start wrestling with noses and flippers to playfully knock each other off the dock. It was pretty fun entertainment for free. We were the only audience they had at that early hour. None of the shops or restaurants that we saw along the walk were even open yet.
The ferry ride was nice. It allowed for a panoramic view of San Francisco’s skyline and its roads plunging to the sea.
Once we landed on The Rock, everyone gathered around a special guest introducing us to the island. He was the youngest guard at Alcatraz when the active federal penitentiary closed. He knew several infamous prisoners, including the Birdman of Alcatraz whom a Hollywood movie later featured starring Burt Lancaster. The guard had written a book telling all about his tenure. When our thoroughly enjoyable orientation was over, we beat tracks straight to this now elder man for our tourist-must photo-op. He posed with the kids like a good sport and said his goodbye, anxious to get up the hill to sign and sell his books.
We were free to roam the island. It was a real treat. There was a lot of ground to cover for such a small island. Much of which can only be described as ruins. The out buildings were decayed to the point they posed a danger if visitors were allowed any further access. Cement staircases had collapsed sections. Building shells looked like something out of 1940’s war-torn Europe. But the way vegetation was creeping back to claim their ground left an artistic contrast of the neglected architecture.
Walking by a cannon and cannon port, I scratched my head. Cannons on “The Rock.” Why? Well, it turns out there was more to the island’s history than I ever knew. In 1859, a citadel was built on the island. And during the Civil war, it was said to have served as an important line of defense. Then again, I read that it was never needed. Anyway, America’s Civil War had ties to the San Francisco Bay. Bend your mind around that!
Earlier still, a Native American tribe known as the Ohlone lived there. They’re the earliest known residents of the small island.
American Indians lived on Alcatraz once again from late 1969 to mid-1971. This “Occupation of Alcatraz” was by those who called themselves Indians of All Tribes. The 19-month demonstration drew national attention. Today, there’s still graffiti visible on a wall when you get off of the ferry. It reads, “Indians Welcome.” There’s more verbiage but it is partially covered by a historical plaque anchored on the face of the wall.
When you enter the prison, here’s some advice. You are a fool if you do the tour without the audio headset. Truly, it is a must. And from the looks of it, there were no fools in the crowd on this day.
Once inside the historic prison, we synchronized our headphones or so we thought. My nine-year-old son would wander off into crowds when he heard prompts like, “Walk to your right and….” Meanwhile, the rest of the family was left gawking in a cell listening to the audio. When we were done, we’d turn and freak out when we couldn’t find our little boy! That didn’t last long before we re-synchronized. When we took off the headphones to do so, the entire place seemed like a zombie-land. Hundreds of people were moving slowly in dead-silence. It was a peculiar and eerie scene.
The tour is fascinating and covers everything from the showers to the dining and visitation rooms to old decayed cells. Some cells were made-up to look as they did when the prison was active while most were just vacant and dilapidated. There’s even a cell that shows the hole dug straight into its pliable wall, widening the existing ventilation duct, for what is known as The Escape From Alcatraz. Around the corner you can see the exit part of the hole in a space between cellblocks which was an unused utility corridor. This is a view into the 1962 escape from the federal prison – the only successful escape in its history. The mastermind behind it was prisoner, Frank Morris. Clint Eastwood played his part in a Hollywood movie about the event.
The Yard is another cool part of the tour. When you sit on the same concrete slabs that Capone and others did and look at the view they saw, you can feel the history here. But everywhere your eyes lead, there’s decay from the windy bay spraying salt water against the material structures. Conditions became so deteriorated and upkeep too expensive. So the federal penitentiary was finally closed March 21, 1963.
The ferry ride back crossed paths with a dolphin. I thought the boat would tip when everyone ran to our side to see this novelty.
Back at the mainland, we walked the scenic Bay streets. Our son took notice of a natural design in the bark of a curbside tree. It struck his funny bone so he clicked a pic of it and said, “I’m going to snap a butt pic every day.” Did I mention he was nine?
Now it was time to do that thing you feel you must do because you’re in San Francisco, ride a streetcar. So we waited in line – for a very long time. It was near the bay and cold. The park next door had a lot of people chilling out. Then there was a very distinct “college” smell floating in the air. So we passed the time talking about hippies.
The streetcar ride reminded me of my first day in the army when they packed us tight into cattle cars. It was that relaxing. But you do have to do it once I guess, to at least be able to say that you did it. Fortunately, we were on the backend and had a wonderful view of the bay as we climbed the steep hill.
In Chinatown, we saw mostly tourists and the things sold to tourists. We ate like tourists and shopped for a souvenir. My daughter fell in love with something I could have bought at a thrift shop back home but hey, the price was about the same so I didn’t say a word.
We wandered aimlessly the whole day.
As connoisseurs of Cannoli, we stopped to try some in North Beach Little Italy. Once inside the café ready to dig into the greatest pastry ever made, my family embarrassed me.
“Happy birthday DEAR DADDY…” I didn’t even realize it was my birthday. But now, 30 strangers did.
I remembered a documentary about the parrots of Telegraph Hill so we decided to walk – all – the – way – up – there! By the way, the views of the street-laced hills were incredible. So, apparently was my lung capacity. I found some college-age students kickin’ it in the grass by COIT Tower and asked where I could find the parrots. This awkward exchange made me think they might have had a hippie discussion after I left.
Finally, I found someone who pointed me in the right direction but said I was too late for today. You can usually see them from 6-10 am. When I relayed this new knowledge upon returning to my family, they were convinced I made the whole thing up.
“Dad and his parrots, yah right! Parrots in San Francisco – gimme a break!” So it goes.
We walked onward, downward and upward to the world’s most crooked street – Lombard – taking pictures all the way. Lombard Street is so colorful with its landscaping and beautiful buildings framing it. You can see this one block wonder and its eight hairpin turns down a very steep hill from far away. No matter the time, there’s a steady stream of thrill seekers driving bumper to bumper down the famous street just to say they did it.
On our last morning, we walked to find breakfast somewhere in Fisherman’s Wharf. While waiting at a street corner, a strange sight grabbed my attention. I know new trends tend to begin on the “Left Coast” so perhaps my backwards butt will see this become commonplace back home before long: A lady was walking backwards ever so casually at a pace somewhere between not too fast and not too slow. I quickly reminded the kids (and myself) not to snicker when she neared. We missed our “walk” sign and stood still, gawking, as her back-side passed us and now shown her front side. She kept walking, looking at us, us looking at her. She crossed a couple streets as if she had eyes in the back of her head and finally turned a corner, all the while walking backwards before any of us could look away.
In unison we said, “Well, you don’t see that every day.” Which pretty much summed up our visit to San Francisco.
By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!
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