Friday, February 03, 2006
My Own Private Alcatraz
Years ago, when I was visiting my brother and his family in San Francsisco, I took the ferry out to Alcatraz, the infamous prison that sits in the middle of the bay.
This was the hightlight of my trip, the only thing I had actually planned on doing once the plane touched down on the runway, other than seeing my brother, his wife, and my beautiful little niece.
I had read an article about Alcatraz in the New York Times travel section and decided I had to see the place. Hell, after all those prison movies and episodes of The Untouchables I had watched as a kid, I figured a pilgrimage to the great American big house was mandatory.
The weather that morning was awful, all gray and windy, just perfect for sailing out to the notorious slammer.
As I waited to board the ferry, a group of German tourists approached and one of them, pointing out to the island and the unmistakable buildings, asked me, "Das is Alcatrez, ja?"
I told him it was, whereupon they all started chanting "Al Capone, Al Capone." It's nice to see how the best of American culture is spread around the globe.
I was wearing my Brooklyn baseball cap, which I had gotten a few years before. I had convinced myself it protected me whenever I had to fly.
I have such a terror of airplanes that I created this myth on my own, dubbing my battered headgear as "my lucky cap" that would protect me from all manner of castostrophes. And I half believed my own malarkey.
Now I also do a lot of praying when I fly and make so many promises to God while I'm in the air that I'd pretty much have to become the Pope in order to make good on them all.
Most of these desperate vows evaporate as soon the wheels hit the tarmac and admitting to be panicked prayer-type doesn't sound very cool, whereas wearing a lucky cap, that's got character.
The cap also does a bit of local advertising once I leave the city. People often approach me in the strangest settings and want to know if I'm really from Brooklyn--as opposed to some tourist who just likes to throw the name around.
This trip was not different. As I rode on the ferry, a heavyset man in his late 50's walked up me and asked "are you really from Brooklyn?"
I told him that, yes, I was, and he told me that he, too, was from the garden spot of the world, as Ed Norton once described Brooklyn, and that he was now living in Hawaii--quite a leap from Flatbush.
"Yes," he said, "it's been a long time, but now I feel like I'm finally happy."
I thought it was a little strange that a total stranger would confide me, especially on a boat to Alcatraz, but I have to say I genuinely happy for the guy. He wasn't be obnoxious or rubbing my face in dirt.
I was alone on this vacation, as I have been on so many times before and since, and so if someone wants to talk to me and tell me his life now, at long last, on track, I'm glad to hear him out. I'd like to think he saw something in me, aside from my cap and the local connection, that made him feel able to confide in me.
I didn't get that man's name and regrettably I lost track of him when the ferry arrived at Alcatraz. But I found myself thinking of him Wednesday night as I rode home on the subway.
Shine A Light on Me
I was taking a hard look at my life, my career, my living arrangements--pretty much the whole menu--and I was profoundly uphappy.
I realized that in spite of all my big dreams and bigger talk, I am not one inch closer to making them any of them come true as I was all those years ago on that ferry.
No woman, no real writing career, and I'm living in my family's house with my elderly father. I am neither a famous writer or a respected filmmaker and my biggest adventure seems to be trying to hold on to a job for more than a year.
The truth is I never took any real chances in my life. I didn't head out to L.A. back when I was 22, I just talked about doing it someday while the time kept passing. God knows L.A. is full of people dying to get into the film business; even the homeless people have screenplays tucked under their rags.
But it's that failure to try, that cowardice, really, that gnaws at me. Even if I didn't get into the business, I could honestly say, that I had tried. And who knows? Maybe I would have met the woman of my dreams, settled down, and had a whole passel of brats out there in the warm California sun.
Yeah, I know, and maybe I'd be miserable and alone in some crappy apartment on Sunset Boulevard, choking on the polluted air and sweating out the next earthquake. But at least I could stop wondering about it.
I look back at myself at age 22 and realize I didn't have the vision or the emotional strength to strike out on my own.
And I'm not talking about thrill-seeking nonsense like jumping out of airplanes or hiking through Afghanistan with a Swiss Army knife and a handful of crackers. I'm talking about calculated risks that are rewarding and honorable even in failure.
Instead I live in the house where I was born, with my elderly father, a man I once swore I would get away as soon as I possibly could.
I've had lengthy stays in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, working at dead jobs I couldn't stand in towns that had absolutely nothing going for them, dreaming of the big break, but I never took off for a place where I didn't have any friends, where I didn't have a job waiting for me.
Some days I feel like a statue in the park, where everything is changing around me and I'm standing still, slowly turning green while the pigeons crap all over me.
City of the Damned
And that's why it's good to look back on the Alcatraz trip. If you've never been there, I can tell you it is fabulous, a guided journey around the ninth circle of hell. You could quickly understand why people would try and escape from this place, even if they died in the attempt.
You had to wear these headphones with recordings that direct you to different parts of the facility, where you hear the details of major events from the perspective of both former guards and former inmates.
Unlike most prisons, which are built off in the boondocks someplace, far away from humanity, Alcatraz stands in the middle of a major American city, heart-breakingly close to all the best things in life.
One of the ex-convicts on the guide tape talked about a particular New Year's Eve when the prisoners, all locked in their cells, could hear the sounds of a party floating over from a nearby yatch club.
The contrast is so striking, the lowest of the low within hearing distance of the most privileged and pampered.
The convict said he and his fellow prisoners were determined to celebrate the new year and they got hold of pots, pans, metal trays--anything that could make noise.
And when the clock struck twelve, they went berserk, raising all kinds of hell to drown out the sounds of their more fortunate neighbors.
So here you had people with nothing, no hope, no future, locked away in one of the most hellacious spots on earth. And yet they could find cause for celebration.
Now I think of that man on the ferry and I realize he wasn't just telling me he was happy, he was also saying he had gone through some tough times, that paradise had not been given to him like a Christmas present; he had to pay for it with years of his life.
And while I can't get back the years I've wasted, or feel I've wasted, I can stop throwing away more time complaining, I can get out of the past, and away from this prison cell where I have confined myself for so many years.
I met another former Brooklynite on that trip to Alcatraz. As I got on the ferry that would take me back to San Francisco, one of the attendants, a middle-aged black man nodded to me and told me was from Brooklyn, too.
"Bed-Stuy," he said with obvious pride.
I wondered what had brought him all the way out here, to work at this place, but the ferry was pulling out in a few minutes and I confess I like filling in the gaps myself.
He had a real entertaining rap going and when four high school students boarded the ferry, he gave them quite a welcome.
"Congratulations, gentlemen," he said, "you have escaped the Rock."
And now it's my turn. I'm going to get out of this self-made prison. I'm going to bang those pots and pans and even if I never make to the yatch club, they're going to know I was in the neighborhood.
See you on the outside.