Irish Houdini conquers Alcatraz
It was July 1999 when myself and Dad decided to take the tour of Alcatraz prison, San Francisco.
True to legend, the boat ride to The Rock was distinctly choppy, raising the old questions about how the three men, who escaped in 1962, could have possibly made it to the mainland alive. The tour was headed by a frustrated stand-up comedian, who spent the duration of the boat ride repeating his joke that New York was full of Italians named Tony, simply because Italian immigrants in the 1920’s were required to wear badges that read ‘To NY’. I couldn’t tell what was more the cause for seasickness, him or the waves.
We arrived at the island soon after. It was the embodiment of bleakness—cold, blustery, practically treeless. Even the resident seagulls looked as though they were wondering why anyone would choose to disembark onto their downcast abode. We did as such, whereupon a subsequent guide bellowed at full American volume, ‘Welcome to The Rock! Those mugs might have slipped the net in ‘62, but you bums don’t stand a chance!’ I smiled politely in return as I walked past him, trying to dissuade the rising feeling of boredom that I felt on school excursions long ago.
With Dad at my side, we were led up the steep ramp from the harbor to the prison’s main entrance, where we were each given a cassette walkman with which to take the tour. I’d never taken an audio tour before, and as I put on the headphones, pressed play, and listened to the voiceover of ex-inmates commence, I felt as delighted as Benjamin Franklin with his infamous kite. Dad, known to root around with all things technology-related until those privy to the spectacle feel inclined to leave the room—bypassed the convenience of simply pressing the play button and proceeded to remove the cassette from the walkman, hold it up to the light and grumble that, ‘this bastard of a thing doesn’t work!’ With my eczema relapsing on cue, I decided, this time, not to be of assistance, but to push on independently with mind to meet up with him at the end of the tour. And so I did.
As a school kid that never enjoyed the everybody-behave,-listen,-and-stick-together nature of school excursions, I found the independence of taking the tour on my own exquisitely liberating.
At the centre of the prison, nicknamed “Broadway”, was the main prison hall—the grey ominous inner belly, constituted of stacked rows of cells where each night the prisoners would tuck themselves in with hearts full of broken dreams. Pouring into my ears were cell-by-cell descriptions from ex-inmates, talking of failed escape attempts, of the tears cried on New Year’s Eve when the wind would carry the far-off laughter from parties on the mainland, and of the dot-to-dot trail of the successful escapees of ‘62. With my love for the plight of Andy Dufresne hereby awoken, I couldn’t deny that I found the fugitive’s industriousness, their will-to-live being—to them—a higher authourity than that of their prison guards, and, ultimate victory, consummately satisfying. Recounted also, as I walked further along to the cafeteria—its entrance nicknamed “Times Square”—was the infamous dinner riot, when prisoners decided that 30 days in a row of pasta with no sauce, was 29 days too many. Al Capone, equally, was as great a focus on the tour as he was an alpha prisoner in his day.
After the cafeteria was the building that housed the solitary confinement cells. We were encouraged to enter one individually, to experience first-hand the desolation they specialised in.
I entered, warily, and with the darkness inside less like that of a forest at night, than that of a general anesthetic, I made awfully sure not to let the heavy door lock itself behind me. Its width was little more than an arm-span, and with my redundant eyes looking towards my ears, I clung to my in-ear ex-inmate as the only form of company on hand, as he explained—in an almost emotional voice—the lengths of time some of the less well-behaved prisoners spent in stir. He talked also of the things some would do to distract themselves from the mental torture; such as picking off a shirt button, throwing it on the floor, and spending the necessary time required to find it, before doing it all again. I was in there for a minute or less, before I felt a primal need to abort, but when I sneezed and in the deafening spray lost my bearings, I found the task of locating the door that bit more alarming.
We were next led out of the solitary cell building, through the prison exercise yard, and into the corridor of a smaller building where the tour concluded. Like cattle being driven into a shed, I watched the throng of nameless visitors take off their headphones and hand in their walkmans. I did the same, and figuring Dad would turn up sooner or later, I leaned against a nearby wall. But as the crowd thinned—and there was no Dad seen—I grew concerned.
I approached the tall security guard, standing in the corridor, and giving him a vague physical description, asked if he’d seen the old boy. With an air of concern less than heart-warming, he shrugged his shoulders and suggested I stand to the side. I did as ordered, and continued to chew my fingernails as the crowd withered down to the official wooden spoon taker, a short portly fellow, as much my father as my mother. Panic rose within me, and making the tour’s end worryingly official, the guard sectioned off the corridor with red cordoning rope, and hung off it a “do not enter” sign.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘my Dad is still on the tour!’
‘The last boat is leaving in twenty minutes, young man.’
‘Did you not hear me?’
‘I did, but it don’t change the fact none. You’d do well to make your way down to the harbour with these nice folk.’
Wondering if he had a certificate in unhelpfulness, I proceeded to walk away, but when the guard turned his attention to an old lady asking him a question, I quietly unclipped his rope and snuck back into the belly of the tour.
Inadvertently doing the tour backwards, I first walked through the prison exercise yard, but calling out to Dad was met with nothing but the sight and sounds of curious seagulls basking in the failing light.
Pressing onwards—in the nonsensical order of a frantic fox terrier checking its weemails in the park—I next made it back into the cafeteria, which apart from the ghosts of a thousand inmates passed, was utterly soulless. Everything about being in here felt wrong, and taking the advice of the goosebumps on my arms, I quickly kept on.
‘Dad?’ I yelled out as I walked briskly along the series of corridors in the Broadway prison hall. ‘Daaad?’ I yelled again, waiting for any potential unseen staff members to come out of the steelwork and reprimand me. But with the only response being the echo of my calls, neither him nor stranger was seen.
With about ten minutes left until the last boat, and knowing that with every footstep I was walking deeper into hot water if caught, I was split at seam with instinct to head for the harbour and duty to find Dad.
Getting angrier with him by the footstep—and further losing track of time—I wondered if the visual of seeing him rooting around with the walkman would be the last I’d ever see. But seeing in my mind, also, that of him locked in one of the solitary cells, I subscribed that blood was thicker than authority and pressed on to the building that housed them.
‘Dad?’ I hollered, closing its large main door when I entered. ‘Daaaaaaaaaaad!’ I squawked again, walking quickly along the row while trying each individual cell door. They were locked; making me wonder if behind one was he, laying in fetal position, or worse, playing the shirt button sanity game. The last cell door, however, was unlocked, and just for old time’s sake; I proceeded into the all-consuming darkness.
I stood there for a few seconds, allowing myself to feel the full force of the cell and Dad-stress combo, when a loud foghorn pierced the air. I could fair assume it was the last boat’s boarding call, or worse, departure call, and wondering if I was about to spend the night eating sauce-less pasta with ghosts, I proceeded to run towards the prison’s main entrance.
Struck by both the fresh air and the dark when I exited, I ran down the steep hill to the harbour. I arrived in a sweaty mess to see the loud guide from earlier pulling away a short walk-ramp from the pier to the boat, the boat idling in the bubbling foam from its engines.
‘Stop!’ I said.
He turned around and shook his head quietly to himself. ‘Hurry up kid! Are you insane?’
‘My Dad is somewhere on the island!’
‘My Dad! He never finished the tour! Can you help me find him?’
‘Kid, visitors, and even staff, are forbidden to stay on the island overnight!’
‘I get that, but he’s clearly lost, or worse has locked himself in one of the cells!’
‘And why would he do that?’
‘Because he’s Irish!’
‘Sounds like something an Italian would do.’
‘Can you help me or not?’
‘I’m sorry kid, but I have no choice but to order you to board this boat.’
‘But what about my Dad?’
Although his eyes offered traces of sympathy, he shook his head firmly. ‘It’s out of my hands, kid.’
Reluctantly, I boarded the boat, and stood pale on its stern side as its engines wound up and it slowly pulled away. In genuine disbelief, I watched The Rock shrink into the darkening horizon, all the while wondering if the disappearance of the old boy would become as infamous as the lads of ‘62. I wondered, also, if a league of armed police would resume looking for him at first light, and if he, like the Houdini hat trick, would ever be seen again.
But seen again he was, as still rooting around with the walkman—that he wasn’t, in fact, supposed to have pocketed—there he was standing on the mainland harbour pier. ‘Where the farck were you?’ he hollered as I disembarked.
‘Where was I? Where the farck were you! I nearly earned a night in there because of you!’
‘Well I’ve bloody well had chest pains because of you, ya prick!’
I shook my head, failing to understand how this was remotely my fault. ‘So are you conducting an autopsy on that thing?’
‘Ah the batteries in the bastard mustn’t have been working properly..’
I took it off him, and pressed the play button, whereupon it ever so magically came to life.
‘Oh,’ he said.
‘So did you even do the bloody tour? Or did you swim back?’
‘Nah, it was boring as bat shit. I felt like I was on school excursion.’
I exhaled heavily, having no choice but to submit to the notion of like father like son, and sensing as such, he waved his personal version of a white flag. ‘Well, we can have a blue, or a beer. Up to you.’
‘Fair dinkum, I’m gunna be grey before I’m 25. Let’s get a pint then.’
By David Kerrigan
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