Sitting in the middle of a perpetually busy bay, Alcatraz has always managed to allude me. Growing up just north of San Francisco I’ve been to the city countless times and consider it to be my home away from home; however, every time the idea of visiting was carelessly tossed aside with a, “We’ll go eventually…” resulting in an acceleration of the next item on the agenda. With a limited amount of time left in California, I stopped the procrastination and booked tickets. Finally the day arrived and we were running late. Missing Munis, jam-packed trams and taxis nowhere to be seen, we began to run until we were able to hail a pedi cab with our desperate pleas.
A short ferry ride later and a gruffly-voiced audio guide slapped onto my head, we began to follow the hoards of families and tourists along the mint green walls that so cheerfully masked the penitentiary’s past horrors. Everyone marched in line of the extremely explicit directions, “Turn to your left…” he would say, and as a broken inmates tend to do to, we all half-hardheartedly obliged and turned left– silently noting the threat in his voice was as empty and lifeless as the cells he described.
Skipping the rest of the tour in lieu of lunch we began the walk down the hill towards the ferry. The view was incredible in the unseasonable November day as the city beamed and tinkled in front of us after every turn we took. Instantaneously it hit me: the truly maddening aspect of serving time on Alcatraz. It wasn’t the ice-cold currents or the hard-ass regulations and restrictions placed on the every day. It was the constant reminder of the outside world and all its promises. Unimaginably unobtainable and yet just two nautical miles away. Detachment and isolation from a world they once dominated, lying lazily in front of them as a painful reminder plastered onto a resentful backdrop. Nothing to look forward to except to watch the world grow from the outside of what was once considered the inside.
As I stepped back onto San Franciscan soil I realized I probably took home a drastically different impression from the standard ones thrust upon Alcatraz’s younger visitors: follow the rules, no running with scissors or a prison shiv and eat your veggies, or else you’ll end up like them. But in my mind I was already one of them. My move back home resulted in a similar breed of isolation that the prisoners must have felt (or so I imagine), in the presence of the looming and tantalizing city they craved for so much. I, however, am much luckier in terms of escape. With my move to Costa Rica months away I am in limbo between my own mint green walls of isolation where I’ve regrettably made myself comfortable, and the velvet-black unknown that seems protected by the nooks and crannies of the San Franciscan skyline. Despite being regrettably comfortable, there are no more options, I’m about to swan dive into the bay and into the shock of the ice-cold mysteries that lie ahead.
By either throwing oneself in or out of the masses and throngs of society a life can change dramatically; upsetting the delicate balance between the personal and collaborated universes. One life changes another life until a multitude of lives are subtlety tweaked and altered, resulting in a network of humanity that pulses and reverberates like sound waves blasting out of a car stereo racing through the Tenderloin. Bumping and echoing against one another with little hope of proclaiming just one source or origin of all the noise. San Francisco has always been my gateway into this network. I’ve been here countless times and yet I am constantly astounded by the city’s sense of energetic power and promise. Walking down its streets there are ubiquitous reminders of the human ability to create, conceive and communicate; side-by-side with the ability to falter, fail and fall. Collaborated connections, whether they are a fleeting glance on the bus or lasting friendship, empower individuals to feel the two extremes of community and utter loneliness all at once. People transpire the pressing here-and-now while simultaneously transfixing on the far-off future and past. The city hums with thoughts, talks and theses– ebbing and flowing to a unique pace and rhythm. It’s by the timing of a million minute transactions between inhabitants that foster the character of the city, nowhere else do these exchanges move at this frequency, this level. The clash of differing life stories overlapping each other, each proclaiming either dominance or defeat. It’s a battle of surrender and shove between the personal and the collective.
And it’s just a matter of time to see who the winner will be.