Shifty-eyed, sepia-toned society ladies hold court in frames outside of the laundry room. Creepy carnival masks and saffron-saturated bookshelves stacked with seemingly every issue of National Geographic line the communal hallways.
My room has the strange feeling of mostly belonging to 1906, the year the hotel was erected to house displaced earthquake victims. Time is softer, wavier here, more of a possibility than an absolute.
On one wall, a framed Lady’s 1953 Birthday Almanac beckons, flanked by an equally enticing Swamproot Almanac Dreambook cover. A sizeable Victorian-era doctor’s bag monogrammed with “Dr. Malcolm A. Monaghan” or similar nomenclature, hangs directly above where I am intended to lay my head each night, threatening to decapitate me in the event of an earthquake. To the side of it is a glass box filled with vintage body piercing paraphernalia, which also looms ominously above my sleeping figure.
Unsolicited miniature boxes of Sunmaid raisins appear, arranged deliberately on a white doily on my nightstand.
In various corners of the room, I have begun a collection of flimsy, off-brand Dixie cups, which the maids meticulously cease to remove each morning. They serve as a rudimentary measurement for the shameful amount of complimentary Twizzlers and hot tea which I have consumed over the course of my stay.
There is an elegant claw-foot bathtub down the hall, which I am allowed to use. I never use it though; as I once allowed my imagination to travel down the path of various horror movie scenarios involved corseted, malevolent sea captain widows wrathfully submerging me. Irrational fear trumps the treat of a luxurious, long bath after day after day of pelting Northern California rain.
Instead, I cleanse myself in a wood paneled closet of a shower, topped by an Art Deco grate which the steam elegantly unfurls into, high above my head. I imagine someone looking down through the grate’s darkness, and double check that the odd, Victorian mechanism has fully locked, and that I am able to quickly unlock it if needed. The answer to both is no, but fortunately none of my fellow hotel guests walk in on me nude.
There is a smattering of foreign teens and Midwestern moms staying at the Hotel San Remo, but my favorite co-living companions are the silent, slightly mystical nonagenarians wandering about. I am pretty sure some of them live there permanently, as they enthusiastically gather around a 1996 desktop Dell in the lobby like they’re in their own living room and cavalierly don’t shut their doors while brushing their teeth in the uniquely placed communal hallway sinks. Wizened, liver-spotted, and of notably short stature (this coming from someone who is just under 5’2”), they physically evoke the elderly Bilbo Baggins right before he goes to Grey Havens.
“Hi!!!”, I squeal to Herman or Hildegarde, as we both wait to use one of the pull-chain toilets in the hall. He/she ignore me, and I am not sure whether it is due to poor hearing or a low tolerance for sprightly, sluttily-dressed blondes.
It is tempting to spend all of the next day in bed baking my body against the plug-in electric heater cranked to HIGH. But I already bought my ticket for today’s adventure, so I head to Fisherman’s Wharf to face a windy, nasty day. I layer a bulky sweatshirt under my favorite vintage red Lacoste raincoat and hope it will be enough. I forgot what it feels like to have my fingers grow numb as I try to send a text message.
The boat rocks outside as passengers brace against the wind. Being callously tossed aside by an unseen, icy force is my first memory of the infamous island known as Alcatraz. Maximum security prison, military fortress, and an ancient place of banishment for Native American people, who sensed that it possessed a dark force, Alcatraz looms in the historical/cultural memory as a harbinger of isolation and evil.
Weirdly, I wasn’t really scared to go there, in spite of its highly haunted reputation. Until we reached its shores, I’d assumed the tour I bought online would be more of a boat ride around the island perimeter, not a Ghost Adventures-esque solo, sensory exploration of each cell block.
In less than an hour, I had gone from the cozily creepy San Remo nestled in the hills of North Beach, to the infamous island just a mile or so from San Francisco’s shores. As passengers stepped off the dock, everyone broke off into familial pairs and groups of their own, and it was clear my exploration of Alcatraz would happen alone. There was no pear-shaped retiree tour guide in a Stanford sweatshirt clucking around to protect us. No rules, no boundaries, no sensible blue jeans.
I explored the outside first, and was mostly alone since it was raining hard. It was interesting and not particularly scary, in spite of my solitude. I took photos of a graffitied water tower, the charred remains of a social hall. A group of friends laughingly posed at the morgue and peered inside. I walked close enough to read the placard, but didn’t press my nose up against the glass as they did.
The wind went away as I approached the main building entrance and removed myself from the unceasing rain. But, when I slipped the padded headphones of the audio guide on and entered the first room of the tour, the shower room, a negative energy of a different frequency made itself known. As I checked Instagram and refreshed Facebook idly on my phone, I swore I could almost hear the voices of men, manifested through thoughts which did not seem like my own. They were strong, taunting, and overtly sexual. I felt uncomfortable and didn’t want to get too close to the main shower area or touch anything. Maybe it was just my writer imagination running wild, narrating what I assumed characters living in a prison would be like. As I do when meditating or practicing yoga, I surrounded myself with a protective white light through my crown chakra.
I didn’t look back, as I climbed the stairs out of the shower room, to enter the main cells.
The rest of the Alcatraz tour was informative and mostly uneventful. The audio tour instructed you how to walk through the main areas of the prison, while highlighting key events, such as an attempted escape where several guards and most of the attempted escapees were killed, as well as a successful, less bloody escape involving paper mache heads, DIY rafts, and disturbingly attractive prisoners.
The most historically haunted area of the prison, according to lore, is the row of isolation cells in the D block, where disobedient prisoners were locked in the darkness alone for hours or days at a time, slowly melting into insanity. The tour gives you the option to go in and enter the isolation cells by yourself, but I opted not to. Even walking toward one to take a picture felt ominous and heavy. I contemplated it for another moment, since the weather had turned and the area appeared bright and sunny. It was mid-day and I was surrounded by other DSLR-wielding tourists. What’s the worst that could happen? But then, a brave girl next to me went into one, swiftly ran out, and for five minutes straight, wouldn’t stop rambling about how scary and weird it was. I decided not to push my paranormal luck.
When I returned to my room at the San Remo Hotel that night, surrounded by preserved medicinal tincture boxes and yellowed books, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being stuck in some sort of late 19th/early 20th century time warp. Would “Creepy” Alvin Karpis tiptoe his way, as the audio guide had vividly described, into my nightmares that evening? What about the infamous “Bird Man” or syphilis-crazy Al Capone?
I slept with the light on.
Across my other San Francisco days, I didn’t deliberately seek out sites with grim histories, yet I somehow managed to stumble upon the tombstone grey lurking beneath their beige exteriors.
On yet another rainy day, an irregular ferry schedule stranded me for hours on the pilates-toned MILF mecca commonly known as Tiberon. I ate a cheap plate of Chinese vegetables from a surprisingly modest hole in the wall restaurant, then retreated to a bougie bakery to sip a $5 mug of hot coffee as slowly as possibly, so I can charge my phone.
“Tiberon is really boring”, someone later tells me. “The most interesting thing about it is that Robin Williams committed suicide there”.
I mark my 27th birthday, and the first non-monsooning day of the trip, with a long walk to Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge and back. I peer over the railing and am shocked by how low it is, a barely-there barrier seemingly made for disaster. I look around suspiciously to make sure that there are no jittery jumpers, or worse, jumpers who may accidentally take me over the edge with them.
An obsessive Googler, I possess an arsenal of facts about the bridge jumpers, none of them particularly pleasant. The survival rate of bridge jumpers is low, at about 5-8%, and all of those survivors still suffered from very serious injuries. Over a thousand people have killed themselves at the Golden Gate Bridge, but almost none choose to take their life at the more utilitarian, slate-colored Bay Bridge across the water.
“Committing suicide at the Bay Bridge is seen as tacky”, suggests one article about the bridge, that I read on my iPhone.
That particular phrasing rings in my brain for days.
My non-matching black/grey socks that I throw on after SoulCycle are tacky. My hot pink faux-fur Giamba coat (that I love but someone else says reminds them of “Burning Man”) is questionably tacky.
I didn’t realize that cracking your clavicle, severing your spine, and pummeling apart your pancreas, could be tackily executed, or not. To me, it just seems unbearably tragic, regardless of which bridge it happens on.
Maybe it’s normal to be hyper-aware of one’s mortality around a birthday. After all, who knows how many more of them you will be lucky enough to celebrate? Or, perhaps, my fleeting San Francisco fascination with the macabre was fueled by an unconscious desire to distract from the daily horrors of my mostly unemployed life.
After all, we as a society look to manufactured horror in order to escape reality. Who among us will truly encounter a chainsaw massacre or wrathful poltergeist? The real horror movies should be written about Type 2 diabetes and shitty severance packages and no-fault car crash victims. But nobody wants to complement their buttery popcorn with a side of statistically probable blunt force trauma and/or falling FICO scores, right?
Perhaps subconsciously seeking a less bellicose goodbye to the Bay Area, I elect to spend my final day hiking at the celestially named and verdantly majestic Angel Island. I want to commune with plants, inhale the fresh sea air solo, maybe even strip down for a freezing skinny dip in a mostly secluded grotto, if it feels right.
~Green goddess vibes~.
Roughly five minutes into executing the first of these ambitions, a handsome but much older gentleman asks to be my hiking partner.
“Um, I guess”, I acquiesce, not so eloquently. I really don’t want a hiking partner, but I try not to slam the door on opportunities that manifest so directly. Maybe it will be fun, and I can’t imagine the hike will take took long anyway. It seems like a pretty painless proposal.
What I assumed would be an hour hike ends up taking thrice the time. We are in the woods, alone, for hours. For stretches of time no one else comes by, sometimes not for 10 minutes and sometimes for more. For most all of the time, I wonder if he is going to pull a Dexter and set up a kill room in one of the abandoned houses or former immigrant barracks lining the trail. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I am glad that I workout everyday and am relatively strong for a woman who is the same height as most 5th graders. I know where to hit someone if they grab me, and I know not to let up. Although, this man alludes to a security background and is over foot taller than me, so I am not sure that it would really make a difference. I don’t own pepper spray or even a pocket knife. I feel dumb, vulnerable, and more than a little frightened. I call on every kind of spiritual protection I can think of, and make sure he knows I am watching his every move with a wide berth of space between us. I try to walk behind, in case I need to run or lunge.
The hiking partner is superficially a nice enough guy; attractive, well-groomed, and apparently affluent, based on the personal details he shares over the course of our three hour hike. But after visiting Alcatraz, I am acutely aware of how many psychopaths could also fit those same descriptors, and how easy it is to lie.
I think about the book, The Lovely Bones. I imagine myself as a ghost, watching the marriage of my parents crumble over the tragedy, watching my siblings cry, watching my friends get married and have babies, knowing it all could’ve been so different, if I hadn’t been so DUMB. My dad once told me that if our dog died, he would cry, but if I died before him, he wouldn’t even know how to wake up in the morning.
Instead of meditating with Gaia, I am in a constant, high-stress state of monitoring my surroundings to make sure he doesn’t assault me, or worse, mid-hike. Am I just being paranoid? I am not sure. I am still not sure.
I am the age of his kids, and something about the whole situation is off to me. I am giving off cold, disinterested vibes, and they don’t seem to impact his behavior at all. I can’t imagine my dad acting this way with one of my friends or contemporaries. Three hours of small talk is a lot. I tell him I have a boyfriend, even though I don’t. I just don’t have the energy or patience to pretend to be into anything I’m not into.
Whenever we pass guys my age on the trail, they smirk, assuming I am some kind of sugar baby, and it makes me feel embarrassed for something I never did.
After the three hour hike, we are still stranded on the island for an additional two hours due to the spastic ferry schedule. I am angry to have to wait, but also relieved to not have been bludgeoned on a remote stretch of the Perimeter Road. We are back at the main island center finally, perpetually surrounded by other tourists and park rangers.
Though I made it a point to ditch him as soon as we got off the trail and back to the central area, he finds me and sits at my lunch table. We eat together mostly in silence until I jump up and move tables due to spotting unsightly (and likely rabies-infested) vermin nearby. He follows me to the new table, even though I can tell the animal is not bothering him. I decide to be rude, and just up and leave as soon as I am done eating, without saying goodbye or other pleasantries.
About a half hour later, he comes up behind me as I charge my phone at the Ranger’s Station. He tries to talk to me about the weather and I am curt. When the ferry finally comes, after hours in the sun, I avoid sitting near him. As we get off the boat back in San Francisco, I hear him call my name and ignore it. He continues to say it over and over, so I turn around and he thanks me for hiking with him. I get the sense that he wants to say more and I will my body language and tone to be discouraging. I say a hurried “thanks” and a few other pleasantries back.
Then, I pause to let him walk in front of me, so I can disappear in the opposite direction while his back is turned.