Although I’d set aside three days for business meetings in San Francisco, everything was wrapped up by late afternoon on the second day. Having never been much of a workaholic, I didn’t grab a red-eye flight back to Toronto, but rather decided to spend the third day sightseeing.
I’d been fascinated with Alcatraz since I saw it portrayed in a number of gangster movies when I was a little kid, so it was number one on my list. When I stopped at the concierge desk in the hotel lobby to book a tour of the prison there was a young couple ahead of me booking the same tour. We were told a bus would pick us up across the street from the hotel at ten o’clock the next morning to take us to the Alcatraz ferry
After breakfast the next morning I wandered around downtown San Francisco for an hour or so, arriving back at the designated pick-up spot a bit before ten. The aforementioned young couple were the only other people waiting for the bus.
“You’re going to Alcatraz, too,” the young lady said, “you were right behind us yesterday at the concierge.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
From her accent I figured they were from Australia or New Zealand, so I asked, “Are you on your holidays?”
“No,” the young man answered proudly, “we’re on our honeymoon. We’re from New Zealand. What about you?”
“I’m from Canada,” I replied. “I’m here on business, but I have some extra time and as I’ve always been interested in Alcatraz I thought a tour would be interesting.”
The bus pulled up and we got on. The bus was crowded but we managed to find seats, although not together. However, aboard the ferry I found myself standing at the railing beside the honeymooners. It was a beautiful sunny day and we engaged in small talk as the boat plied its way to the prison. “What does Alcatraz mean?” the young bride asked.
“It’s an American Indian word that means pelican,” I told her.
A couple of minutes later we were close enough to the island that the graffiti Indian Power on the outside prison wall came into view. “What’s that about?” asked the groom. “A few years ago,” I answered, “after the prison closed, a band of Indians occupied the premises for quite a long time. Most of the graffiti was cleaned up, but for some reason that was left as is.”
“How do you know so much about Alcatraz?” the bride asked.
Unable to resist the temptation to be naughty, I said, “My father was a prisoner here.”
It was now the groom’s turn. “Good Lord!” he exclaimed. “What was his name?”
Wishing now that I hadn’t said a damn word, because I either had to admit I’d lied or tell another one, I unfortunately chose the cowardly option; I decided to compound the lie. I knew I couldn’t get away with saying my father was Robert Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), but then I remembered a book about the prison that I’d read a couple of years before titled On the Rock, which was probably how I knew the meaning of the word and the history of the graffiti. I also remembered that the book had been written by a former convict named Alvin Karpis.
“Alvin Karpis,” I said.
Luckily, at that point an announcement on the PA system advised us we’d be docking momentarily and that we should move to the back of the ferry. Realizing my little white lie was now not so little nor so white, I separated myself from the New Zealanders. As there were forty or fifty people on the boat, I thought avoiding any further contact with them might be the end of it. But, I was badly mistaken.
As we stepped from the ferry onto the island we were each handed a map of the prison and a Walkman containing a cassette. We were then herded to a staging area where a guide gave a brief outline of the tour. She told us she would guide us as a group, but if anyone wished to do so, after the first two stops, it would be perfectly in order to go at our own pace by using the map and listening to the information on the cassette. She emphasised if we did go at our own pace that we had to be back at the ferry no later than an hour and a half from now. Then she asked if there were any questions.
Someone put up a hand and asked, “Was Alcatraz a state or a federal prison?”
The guide replied, “It was a federal prison. And only the most dangerous prisoners were housed here.” Then she went on, “You may be interested to know that, even though Alcatraz was a United States federal prison, the longest-serving prisoner in the history of the institution was a Canadian by the name of Alvin Karpis.”
It went downhill from there.
“What was he in for?” someone inquired.
“Murder and kidnapping,” came the guide’s reply. Then she added, quite unnecessarily I now felt, “He was really a very dangerous man. Even the other prisoners were afraid of him. They called him Creepy Karpis.”
“How long did he serve?”
“Twenty-six years,” was the answer.
“Did he have any children?” asked someone else (not one of the honeymooners, I’m pleased to say).
My situation got worse still when the answer came, “Yes, one son.”
I made sure I was at the back of the crowd as we walked to the first stop on the tour but I was still able to observe here a discernible ripple of whispering among the group.
When we made our first stop to listen to the guide, a number of the group moved away from me, followed by more whispering accompanied by a few furtive glances in my direction. As I hung back on the walk to the second stop I saw one of the group hustle up to the guide and say something to her. Then I saw the guide activate her walkie-talkie and talk to someone for a minute or so. At the next stop, because no one would come within six feet of me, I stood out like the proverbial sore thumb.
When the group again moved on I just stayed where I was, thinking that this would be a good time to take full advantage of the go-at-your-own-pace-option the rest of the way. As I turned on the Walkman and attempted to match my location with the cassette’s narrative, another guide quickly approached me. I held my breath, wondering how I could ever explain being thrown out of Alcatraz.
“Good morning, sir,” she said, “would you like me to accompany you on the rest of the tour?”
Once again breathing, I managed to say, “No, thank you. I’ll just follow the map and the cassette from here on.”
“Do you have any particular questions or any particular cells you’d like to see? They aren’t all on the tour, you know. And, if you like, I can show you where the bakery used to be.” I didn’t understand the bakery reference but didn’t ask why she mentioned it.
“No,” I again reassured her, “I’ll be fine on my own.”
“OK, then,” she said handing me a small walkie-talkie. “But if you have any questions just activate the ‘talk’ button and I’ll answer you. You can turn this in with the Walkman when you’re leaving.”
I saw everything I wanted to and got back to the starting point a good half-hour before the rest of my group.
While I was handing in my two devices, the helpful guide once again approached me and said, “I hope you saw everything you wanted to.” I assured her I had. Then she said, “Your group’s ferry won’t be leaving for about forty-five minutes, but there’s another one just about to leave which you can make if you hurry.”
I happily hurried and was the last one to board, wondering who was more pleased: I, to get off the “rock,” or the guides to get rid of me.
On the wharf where we docked there was an Alcatraz tour kiosk at which I was able to pick up a copy of Karpis’ book. Re-reading it I discovered that his job in the prison was in the bakery.