Friday, December 03, 2004


Just added a ton of shows over there on the right. Check 'em out.
The big house

Almost as soon as we hit San Francisco, locals urged us to do Alcatraz. The recommendations' general thrust was, it's touristy but great, and the audio tour is awesome. So on our last day in town, we headed for prison.

Unfortunately this meant our second trip to Fisherman's Wharf, the tourist district on the north edge of the city. Mention of Fisherman's Wharf prompts San Franciscans to roll their eyes, and for good reason: it's a gaudy, depressing thicket of souvenir stands and chain restaurants. A few days earlier I had dragged Ereck there so we could visit the Maritime Museum, a National Park Service site that has its charms. But one visit to the Wharf seemed like plenty. But Alcatraz beckoned.

We took the cable car from Powell Street, and when we disembarked we were at pains to figure out where to catch the boat to Alcatraz. Various touts loudly urged us to take their ferries, but we wanted the real McCoy, which eventually we found: the Blue & Gold Fleet at pier 41. We bought our tickets--$16 each for boat fare plus audio tour--and immediately boarded the good ship. After a brief ride across the bay, during which we eavesdropped on Australians sharing travel secrets, we stepped onto Alcatraz Island. A volunteer gave a brief speech, and then we entered a long, low, rather scary old room in which we watched a short video, which covered the history of Alcatraz Island: the early settlement, the prison era, the 1969 takeover by Indian activists. I enjoyed the film, though the prig in me was vexed by an abundance of typos in the subtitles.

At last it was time to tour the prison. A young man slung audio devices around our necks, and we entered the cellbock. What immediately struck me was how small Alcatraz is. Modern prisons are giant, rambling affairs, but Alcatraz is mostly just five shortish hallways, which have grimly humorous names like Broadway and Michigan Avenue. There's also a library, a dining hall and a cavernous shower.

People are right to rave about the audio tour. The narration is by former guards and prisoners (I thought one of the prisoners sounded like Bill Cosby, especially when he talked about how inmate Frank Morris dug his way out with "a spooooon"). The audio's production values recall National Public Radio's, and stereo is used unnervingly for sound effects like marching feet and slamming cell doors. As we walked through the passages, the narrators pointed out the cells of famous inmates like Al Capone and Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. We walked into several cells, which are small and painted green. (The toilets are filled with concrete, so don't get any funny ideas.) We also got to check out the inside of the hole, the collective name of some creepy isolation cells along the prison's west wall.

Once the tour was over we were free to roam the island, but there's not much more to see. Lots of the structures, like the warden's house, were destroyed during the Indian occupation, and their eerie ruins remain. Barriers and fences keep visitors out of many areas, but most accessible areas have stunning views of the city.

Visiting the Rock was unsettling. Our prison system is so fucked up, and one can only imagine what kind of horrors went down at Alcatraz. The fact that it's now a popular tourist attraction is mindblowing. Maybe someday there will be an audio tour of Abu Ghraib.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Computer world

It's complete: our household has made the transition from landline phones and DSL Internet to cell phones and cable Internet--and cable TV. So far, so good, though that last bit scares me a little. I keep flashing back to the time about eight years ago when I discovered my apartment had free cable, thanks to an oversight at the cable company. After a while, concerned friends had to bodily remove me from my abode just so I could get a little fresh air.

I'm relieved to learn that the one program I hoped to watch a lot on cable, old-school "Star Trek," is only aired by the Sci-Fi Channel on random Tuesdays and Sundays at 4:00 a.m. I had this idea that the Sci-Fi Channel's programming consisted solely of old-school "Star Trek" reruns, but it looks like I won't be watching much of this show--one of my all-time favorites--unless a Tivo somehow magically appears in our home (Santa, are you reading?).

I like the cell phones, which were indispensable on our vacation. I must admit, however, that I'm unnerved by how few calls I've gotten at my new number. I hope people--friends, clients, colleagues, potential employers--got my e-mail about the change, but in case you missed it, let me reiterate that my digits spell NOW GLIB.

As for cable Internet, we ordered a special from Charter: for three months our Internet access is very, very fast, and cheaper than the regular service. In March the price goes up, or we can switch to the slower connection. So far I have used our new abundant speed to watch a Kelly Clarkson video.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Shellfish heaven

On your next visit to San Francisco you must not miss Swan Oyster Depot, a delightfully old-fashioned lunch spot in the Nob Hill neighborhood. The watchword is amazingly fresh seafood, and it's served at a counter with only about a dozen and a half stools. We arrived at 2:30 on a Tuesday and had to wait a few minutes to sit.

We ordered a dozen oysters, which our friendly young waiter shucked right in front of us. The oysters were delicious with cocktail sauce, and also without. (I think eating an oyster on the halfshell is like tasting the ocean itself.) I had a bowl of fine, creamy clam chowder and then the combination seafood cocktail, which was a sundae bowl filled with fresh shrimp, prawns, clams and crab, all of it slathered with yet more cocktail sauce (next time I'll ask for the sauce on the side). Ereck had a combination salad, with roughly the same meats. It looked glorious.

Despite Swan's ramshackle interior, the food is not particularly cheap. With tip we paid about $50 for all of the above, plus half a loaf of sourdough bread and a cup of coffee. The prices made me think of Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, Miss., a tumbledown shack of a joint that charges an arm and a leg for the best steak I've ever eaten.

Seafood cocktails, salads and chowder make up most of Swan's menu, which is a charming, hand-lettered affair that hangs over the counter. You can also get a whole lobster to eat, and the smoked salmon platter looks tasty. We can, in fact, vouch for the salmon--a man was slicing a huge salmon right in front of us as we ate, and he wordlessly tossed us each a sample. Delicious.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Jiggity jig

We're just back from vacation in San Francisco! And my arms are beyond tired. We took the red-eye from California, and that was followed by a three-hour layover at Midway plus a flight to Madison on a plane that looked like something from a World War II movie. Happily, all of the preceding was quite pleasant.

I'll have lots to tell about San Francisco soon. I debated blogging from there or at least letting you know I would be away, but I worried that hooligans would be tempted if I announced to the blogosphere that our apartment would be empty for a week. Not that Back With Interest readers are hooligans, necessarily, but you can't be too careful these days.