Cemeteries and prisons. Two things that I’m strangely fascinated with. And as prisons go, Alcatraz is one of the most iconic. Standing on this side of the water, looking out across San Francisco Bay, it’s easy to imagine the desolation of life on the rock.
Back in 1775, Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala charted San Francisco Bay and named the island La Isla de los Alcatraces, which translates as the island of the pelicans. Alcatraz is the old Spanish name for pelicans, a word the Spanish borrowed from the Arabic القطرس al-qaṭrās, or sea eagle. It started out as a military prison and for 30 years (1933 to 1963) served the country as a federal prison. Although it’s been years since I was there, I can still remember sitting in a cell and thinking what life must have been like marooned on the rock with the bustling city of San Francisco visible just 1.5 miles across the Bay. So near and yet so very, very far.
In stark contrast, standing sentry, are squadrons of pelicans. Perched down by Pier 33, they watch as the tourists board the ferry to take them to the island. I was struck by their watchfulness. Reminded again of my cab driver who shared with me the privilege of noticing the unnoticed, I wondered at how much and how little some of us see.
Some species of pelican can grow to 70 inches and can have a wing span as wide as 10 feet. The chubby ones can weigh as much as 30 lbs. Big birds indeed. Using their elastic throat as a dip net, they catch fish and swallow immediately. The brown pelicans, the ones in San Francisco, get their fist by plunging from the air but others swim in formation and drive the fish into shallow waters – perhaps this is why they’re collectively known as a squadron.
Strangely fascinated by their graceful lethargy, I could have spent hours watching them. But I was on a mission. I’d come down to the Wharf in search of a Russian wedding ring. And I found one. And the little toothless Asian woman who sold it to me saw me coming. ‘Silver’, she said. ‘Will bring you luck. Fifty dollah. Plus five dollah sales tax.’ A little taken aback at the price, I tried in vain to see if it was stamped but I had the wrong glasses with me. Turns out it wasn’t. But I was a day late and a dollar short. I can only hope that her karma is in good working order.