SATURDAY, APRIL 30, 2011Al Capone Was HereMy leadership class voted: for our end-of-the-year day away, we would visit Alcatraz, eat at Hard Rock Cafe, and buy overpriced trinkets at Pier 39.
I hadn't been to Alcatraz in years; Will, my friend Alisha and another chaperone had never been. There were some logistics to consider, including the transportation of 22 twelve and thirteen year-olds through commuter traffic, all of us catching the same train at the same time, a long walk from the Embarcadero station, a boat ride, and a weather report that referenced "heavy winds."
But we made it, arriving at The Rock without a single student overboard. (Dear M, from the front office, had suggested that perhaps a few students could be left behind at the end...) It was sunny and clear, atypically beautiful San Francisco weather, and after a much-needed bathroom break (one of us, in particular, had been holding it since her morning latte, five hours ago), we climbed the hill and donned headphones for the audio tour.
Alcatraz, for anyone who doesn't know, was home to Al Capone (tax evasion), the Birdman (killing a prison guard), Machine Gun Kelly (kidnapping, failing to have proper permits for his signature weapon), and a host of other prisoners who vaguely resemble the gang from Shawshank Redemption. They lived in the tiniest of cells, ate their pasta with real silverware in the dining hall, staged uprisings and escaped on rafts made of stitched together raincoats. Or at least, three of them did, and maybe even made it.
Will and I brought up the rear, making sure no stragglers from our tour took a wrong turn. We were at the tail end, about to turn in our headphones, when an older man stepped out of the shadows and said, "Anyone want a private tour of Robert Stroud's cell?"
I know what you're thinking: Don't take private tours from strangers, Paula. But this guy was seventy at least (yeah -- I could take him), and there ended up being six people in the private tour - Will and me, two of my students, and another couple who had possibly taken a wrong turn to the bathroom. Plus, this guy was clearly an authorized tour guide, because he had a set of keys, wore a badge that I couldn't actually read, and seemed to know what he was doing.
So we headed up a skinny set of steps marked "Authorized Personnel Only." The guide produced a massive key and unlocked a heavy gate, then locked it behind us when we had passed through. Was that really necessary?
"Regulations," he explained.
I started to get nervous.
My students were snapping pictures like crazy and high-fiving each other for being the Chosen Ones. Everyone else in our group had probably filed into the theatre for a screening of Capone-era footage, but we were in a secret wing that was basically off the Alcatraz map. It concerned me that the place was disintegrating: brush against a wall, and flecks of pale green, undoubtedly lead-based paint flecked off.
We found ourselves in the medical ward: a dentist's office, a pharmacy, a primitive operating room. I battled a sudden urge to give everything a good once-over with some Formula 409. How old was that fingerprint in the grime?
"This is where Robert Stroud, the Birdman, lived for eleven years," the guide said, and we entered a room that was spacious by Alcatraz standards. He could have entertained a dozen other prisoners here, easy. "He was your basic psychopath," the guide explained. "He killed a guard at Leavenworth... practiced cannibalism... wasn't even allowed any birds at Alcatraz."
Huh. I glanced at my students, but they hadn't reacted to "cannibalism." Maybe they didn't know what it meant; it hadn't shown up in our Vocabulary for Success workbooks.
We also got to see Al Capone's cell during his last, syphilis-ridden year on the island.
Will was giddy. "This is Al Capone's toilet!"
I also took note of Al Capone's shower, which was not as uncomfortable as one might expect.
"Here's where they filmed The Rock," the guide continued, leading us into a wider room lined with huge cells. There were a few rusty gurneys and wicker wheelchairs locked behind bars. "Over here is the TB ward. We kept them segregated from the rest of the population."
"Oh -- did you work at Alcatraz while it was in operation?" Will asked, at the same time I asked my students, "Do you know what TB is?"
"I worked out of my garage for 31 years," our guide said, vaguely. "I've been volunteering here for three years because They want to know where I am at all times."
Huh. Will and I exchanged a long glance. I looked back down the hallway to where a gate was locked behind us. I remembered the trouble the rioters had gone through to get that key.
I glanced at the time and gestured helplessly. Probably time to go... a boat to catch...
We shook hands all around and my students took a picture with the guide, their own private tour guide, as proof that they had a much cooler experience on the island than anyone else.
As for me, I was glad to be out in the open again, stumbling down the crumbling hillside to the dock. There's no way I was missing the boat.
Paula Treick DeBoard