In keeping with my usual traveling habits, I didn’t sleep well, and woke up in a sweat on top of that. Beyond the first night acclimation to a new bed/sleeping environment, the unusually warm weather and room’s lack of airflow made my room stuffier than nature ever intended (it took me the following evening to find a happy medium between the room’s window-mounted AC fan and the open window).
Alex wasn’t due to arrive until that evening, Michael was working through the day and Steve was tied up with errands and other logistics for the coming big weekend, so I purposefully reserved a tour on Alcatraz Island for this morning. Since I was without a car, Steve suggested the Route 38 bus, which should take me almost all of the way to the pier area. This was also an opportunity to get in my first impressions of the city and a feel for the local vibe and culture (while risking the chance of locals feeling me in return).
Observations En Route to Prison
San Francisco is often described as America’s most European city, and until now, I didn’t get what that meant. The first thing that hits you is it’s a dense city, making the most of not a lot of space with a combination of tight, sometimes way too narrow streets and weirdly broad main avenues, along with buildings designed to fit into whatever space is available. The fact that this kind of dense city planning incorporating the region’s rolling, hilly terrain makes for some dangerously misleading map reading. Everything on a map here looks like a relatively short walk, until you realize that 1) this city’s blocks are longer-than-average city blocks, and 2) you don’t necessarily walk around San Francisco, but sometimes you climb around San Francisco. The immediate perks to this are there’s no shortage of amazing views and you get your cardio workout whether you want it or not. It isn’t the tallest city for obvious reasons,(1) and outside of the financial district, there aren’t a whole lot of “tall” buildings. I feel that certain cities have their own, unique overall color scheme – New York City’s moody shades of grey, Washington, DC’s stoic palette of neutral off-whites, Honolulu’s tropical shades and floral hues, and Miami’s kaleidoscope of bright and intense pastels. San Francisco’s spectrum is a comforting range of warm beiges and earth tones,(2) giving the city an ironically warm look despite its climate’s chilly reputation.(3) There’s also an emphasis on older architecture and the arts, a huge focus on good food, and a diverse, cosmopolitan attitude that brought back memories from wandering through Bordeaux.
Steve described San Francisco as a “young” city, and you can feel that kind of energy while walking around. The people are a little nicer and welcoming, the styles and colors more diverse and vibrant. It’s the kind of place where people don’t hesitate to give a dollar to a complete stranger in need, or another leaving a free pair of repaired and shined up shoes on a street corner with a note for any homeless person who might need them.(4) I was experiencing a similar culture shock here that I felt in Honolulu, where the East Coaster defensive posture and mindset not only didn’t belong, but seemed ridiculous by comparison. It’s no wonder that this city was one of the central points of the hippie movement and is the “alternative lifestyle-friendly” locale of today. In fact, if I noticed any real blight on the city, it’s the ever present homeless population.(5) As a long-time Washington, DC area resident, I’m accustomed to seeing (a polite way of calling myself apathetic) the homeless quietly curled up by national monuments or panhandling on a sidewalk. Earlier this year in Honolulu, I was taken aback by that city’s rampant homeless problem, where its breed of homeless are a similar to their “always seen but never heard” DC kin, but San Francisco’s homeless are more proactively vocal and engaging. Whether walking down a street or sitting on a bus, sooner or later a chatty hobo is almost certain to try and get your attention, as well as whatever is in your wallet.
The bus route eventually dropped me off near the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, which is at the opposite end from Fisherman’s Wharf and the Alcatraz ferry at Pier 33. Whether it was a sixth sense or just my own cautious behavior about touring new places, I left the hotel earlier than I originally planned in the not entirely unheard of circumstance that I might screw up my getting there. With some extra time to enjoy the view by the bay, I took up the walk down the Embarcadero on what was turning out to be a beautiful and quickly warming morning.
(1) I was surprised to find that the Transamerica Pyramid isn’t that tall compared to other noteworthy towers. I’m still not sure why this irks me.
(2) I may be on to something, too.
(3) “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” – Mark Twain.
(4) A group of us witnessed both of these events on our last night in the city.
(5) Read Shame of the City for more details.
Welcome to the Rock(1)
Alcatraz has three gift shops.
You’d think that with all of this island’s history, notoriety and scenic views, I’d be distracted from this trivial fact, but you’d be wrong.
The Alcatraz tours’ website recommended reserving a ticket in advance of visiting the city, and judging by the crowds lined up to get on the ferries, I’m glad I did. The place was bustling with people from all over the world (I lost count at hearing six distinctly different languages) and the ferries were filling up to capacity each time.(2) Overhearing some of the other tourists, it was clear that not ordering tickets in advance meant taking your chances with going over to the island that same day, reminding me of the mad dash at the Pearl Harbor welcome center to get tickets before they sold out for the day. I overheard more than a few conversations of others bemoaning getting late afternoon ferry tickets when they were there first thing in the morning. And once on the ferry, as soon as the engines growled to life, the wind instantly replaced the near-summerlike temperatures, leaving me shivering like a dog in a vet’s office and with far too many appendages experiencing record-breaking levels of shrinkage.
I can’t quite explain my fascination with Alcatraz. Maybe it’s the island’s notoriety, maybe it’s the historical romance and mystery associated with it thanks to movies and TV shows, but it’s one of those places I always wanted to see for myself.(3) I tried using the audio tour while going through the cell house (it was included in the ticket price), but the droning of former prisoners and guards badly reading copy text started to feel like the visitors were meant to suffer, too. Touring the cell house made you appreciate the cramped living conditions and claustrophobic nature of the place, the bullet marks from previous riots were sobering, the view of the city and bay from the yard was a fitting taunt for the prisoners, and the graffitti from the Native American occupation was a bit symbolic of this island’s unhappy history. Walking around the grounds, you get the perspective of just how small the island is and how a mile and a half to shore was a Hell of lot further than you’d imagine (or want to swim in given the chilly water).
After a few hours of walking around, taking pictures and otherwise soaking up the history, I couldn’t help but notice the fact I mentioned above. The main dock has a gift shop, the cell house has a gift shop and the administration building has a gift shop – all selling the same stuff. By contrast, we’re not talking about Disney World gift-shop-on-every-corner levels of blatant capitalism, but Alcatraz isn’t a big island, so it seemed a bit much, even if the proceeds went to funding the park service. And this isn’t including the “last chance to get a buck out of you” gift shop back at Pier 33.
Top: Alcatraz’s dock “welcome sign” and lighthouse (burned out Warden’s House is in front).
Middle: The yard. Strangely, it’s far smaller than it appears here.
Bottom: “Broadway” and I believe Cell Block A inside the Main Cell House.
(1) You’re required to read this in Sean Connery’s voice.
(2) In the weeks leading up to this trip, I was wondering if the government shutdown, which famously hindered national park access across the country, might last long enough to nix my tour plans.
(3) It’s stupid and fun to watch, but I love the Nicholas Cage/Sean Connery movie The Rock. By contrast, Clint Eastwood’s Escape From Alcatraz is boring as Hell.
The Dress Rehearsal
It was mid-afternoon when I finished up at Alcatraz and I was ready to go back to the Majestic and sneak a nap in. An hour or two later, Steve texted me to come over and hang out, so I jumped in the shower and headed over to his place.
As I said earlier, Steve’s journeys and interests led him to meeting an eclectic range of people from all over the world. So, when I arrived at his apartment, two of his friends from those previous adventures were there – both people he first encountered online and eventually met face-to-face. One was a big guy named John (not the same one who picked up Michael and I at the airport), who’s a genuinely nice man and an awe-inspiring encyclopedia on…well, just about everything (just watch out when you get him started). The other was Steve’s friend from Amsterdam, Arnoud, a tall Dutchman with a European’s traditional ignorance of the average American’s supersized personal body space (i.e., mine). We hung out for a while, getting to know one another and trying some of Steve’s selection of favorite rye bourbons and whiskies, including Angel’s Envy, which is a first for me since I’m not a big rye fan. Steve pointed out later that Angel’s Envy is usually the “starter rye” for drinkers new to them.
Given my tendency for abstract thinking and spatial relationships, I was fascinated with the layout of Steve and Joël’s apartment. The living room/kitchen area is trapezoid shaped, with the dining room on one end and the foyer/hallway leading to the bathroom and bedroom at the other, complete with a giant bean bag chair in place of a couch and more crystals than in any of the local New Age shops. It’s technically a one bedroom unit, but they converted the smallish dining room into their bedroom and the bedroom into their office and entertainment room. Similar to my condo, but with a bigger expanse, the living room main window wall is along the narrow balcony, offering a nice southwestern view of the city, especially of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption (a.k.a., St. Mary’s Cathedral) across the street, which at the right time of day, the shadow along its side is nicknamed “St. Mary’s breast.” None of us could agree on whether this is a coincidence or an architect’s elaborate practical joke, as well as if said architect was struck by lightning for it.
As time passed by and stomachs began to growl, we wandered out and made our way over to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) to grab a bite to eat and see the Project Nunway V dress rehearsal. To get there, we walked through the Tenderloin, one of the worst (if not the worst) neighborhoods in the city, and where Steve wisely cautioned that cell phones go in your pocket and eyes stay up. Even without that warning, you’d have to be Helen Keller in a sensory deprivation tank to miss that it isn’t a friendly part of town. Street gangs survey any and all passers-by, tetanus and hepatitis shops pose as not-exactly-high-end strip clubs, and homeless litter the sidewalks. The sad state of this area fills every crack and soot-stained crevice, and it was the only area where I didn’t feel much of the city’s friendly, positive vibe. It also meant that making eye contact was an open invitation for a mugging attended by a street full of “mob witnesses.”
After eating at what amounted to a surprisingly good gourmet food court across the square, we checked out the YBCA to see some of the dress rehearsal. Stage hands were running back and forth, partially-costumed gay men practiced their strutting, MCs and other show people worked on lines and blocking, and in the center of it all was Steve’s partner Joël. One of the show’s MCs was Jane Wiedlin, former lead guitarist of the The Go-Gos,(1) and the other was Sister Roma, a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Debate still rages about how sober (or not) Jane was during the rehearsal (and at show time the following evening).
Part way through the rehearsal, Steve was caught up in the frantic energy and was buzzing about talking to friends and acquaintances. It was surreal watching Steve caught up in the venue’s activity, emulating and reacting to the hectic energy and enthusiasm filling the place. As a fellow Libra (Steve and my birthdays are only five days apart), I consider myself fairly empathic to other people and social gatherings’ energy (the “vibe” if you will), but it’s impressive to Steve feeding off of and immersing himself in the moment, despite his own protests of being an introvert. Whereas my own inhibitions and introvert tendencies motivate me to sit back and observe the action around me in a large crowd, Steve jumps right in, almost as naturally as breathing, or as he puts it, the trick is getting them to talk to you. It’s something we’d see again during the wedding reception, and it’s a quality of his that I admire. Libras are supposed to be “social butterflies,” and while I work fine one-on-one or in smaller crowds/groups, large gatherings always bother me, whereas Steve handles them with ease. As the evening went on, he introduced us to the costumer who was preparing the wedding outfits and gave is a peek at Joël’s Project Nunway costume for the big show.(2)
Since the dress rehearsal was going to last well into the night, and our chances of meeting Joël were pretty slim, Steve suggested stopping for a drink on the way back and led us to the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, which is home to a jaw dropping venue – The View. By itself, the bar offers some tasty (if not wildly expensive) cocktails and bar food (the tuna tartar was crazy good), but the giant, round vista window overlooking the city made it worthwhile. Steve joked that the window looked like something out of the Emperor’s Throne Room from Return of the Jedi, and since then that’s all that comes to mind when I think about it. It being a Friday night, the bar was busy and we settled for one of the tables toward the back and away from the huge window. Along with some of the other eager and ready patrons, we kept a close watch on the window-side tables, occasionally trying to swoop in like hawks and claim any newly-available window-side perch. After a few fruitless attempts to beat others (i.e., mad dashes mixed with our best…if not most graceful…attempts at emulating Olympic hurdlers), luck/fate/karma smiled upon us as I spotted a couple leaving a table near the center of the vista. Tagging Steve as a heads up, I bolted toward the table like Wyle E. Coyote after the Road Runner, nabbing the highly-prized table. Finally victorious and satisfied with drinks, company and an incredible view, it was a pleasant end to a very long day.
The View’s window during the day.
(1) According to Steve, one of the ideas floated for his and Joël’s wedding was Jane officiating since she’s an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out for whatever reason, and then she was supposed to attend the wedding as a guest, but didn’t make it due to a little too much fun at the Project Nunway after party. Given their being huge music aficionados, Michael and Alex were bitterly disappointed about not getting to meet her.
(2) The one piece of Joël’s Project Nunway costume that we couldn’t help fixating on was the headpiece, directly inspired by the Bene Gesserit costumes from the Sci Fi Channel’s Syfy’s Dune miniseries.