Saturday, April 30, 2011

Al Capone Was Here

My leadership class voted: for our end-of-the-year day away, we would visit Alcatraz, eat at Hard Rock Cafe, and buy overpriced trinkets at Pier 39.

I hadn't been to Alcatraz in years; Will, my friend Alisha and another chaperone had never been. There were some logistics to consider, including the transportation of 22 twelve and thirteen year-olds through commuter traffic, all of us catching the same train at the same time, a long walk from the Embarcadero station, a boat ride, and a weather report that referenced "heavy winds."

But we made it, arriving at The Rock without a single student overboard. (Dear M, from the front office, had suggested that perhaps a few students could be left behind at the end...) It was sunny and clear, atypically beautiful San Francisco weather, and after a much-needed bathroom break (one of us, in particular, had been holding it since her morning latte, five hours ago), we climbed the hill and donned headphones for the audio tour.

Alcatraz, for anyone who doesn't know, was home to Al Capone (tax evasion), the Birdman (killing a prison guard), Machine Gun Kelly (kidnapping, failing to have proper permits for his signature weapon), and a host of other prisoners who vaguely resemble the gang from Shawshank Redemption. They lived in the tiniest of cells, ate their pasta with real silverware in the dining hall, staged uprisings and escaped on rafts made of stitched together raincoats. Or at least, three of them did, and maybe even made it.

Will and I brought up the rear, making sure no stragglers from our tour took a wrong turn. We were at the tail end, about to turn in our headphones, when an older man stepped out of the shadows and said, "Anyone want a private tour of Robert Stroud's cell?"

Um... yes!

I know what you're thinking: Don't take private tours from strangers, Paula. But this guy was seventy at least (yeah -- I could take him), and there ended up being six people in the private tour - Will and me, two of my students, and another couple who had possibly taken a wrong turn to the bathroom. Plus, this guy was clearly an authorized tour guide, because he had a set of keys, wore a badge that I couldn't actually read, and seemed to know what he was doing.

So we headed up a skinny set of steps marked "Authorized Personnel Only." The guide produced a massive key and unlocked a heavy gate, then locked it behind us when we had passed through. Was that really necessary?

"Regulations," he explained.

I started to get nervous.

My students were snapping pictures like crazy and high-fiving each other for being the Chosen Ones. Everyone else in our group had probably filed into the theatre for a screening of Capone-era footage, but we were in a secret wing that was basically off the Alcatraz map. It concerned me that the place was disintegrating: brush against a wall, and flecks of pale green, undoubtedly lead-based paint flecked off.

We found ourselves in the medical ward: a dentist's office, a pharmacy, a primitive operating room. I battled a sudden urge to give everything a good once-over with some Formula 409. How old was that fingerprint in the grime?

"This is where Robert Stroud, the Birdman, lived for eleven years," the guide said, and we entered a room that was spacious by Alcatraz standards. He could have entertained a dozen other prisoners here, easy. "He was your basic psychopath," the guide explained. "He killed a guard at Leavenworth... practiced cannibalism... wasn't even allowed any birds at Alcatraz."

Huh. I glanced at my students, but they hadn't reacted to "cannibalism." Maybe they didn't know what it meant; it hadn't shown up in our Vocabulary for Success workbooks.

We also got to see Al Capone's cell during his last, syphilis-ridden year on the island.

Will was giddy. "This is Al Capone's toilet!"

I also took note of Al Capone's shower, which was not as uncomfortable as one might expect.

"Here's where they filmed The Rock," the guide continued, leading us into a wider room lined with huge cells. There were a few rusty gurneys and wicker wheelchairs locked behind bars. "Over here is the TB ward. We kept them segregated from the rest of the population."

"Oh -- did you work at Alcatraz while it was in operation?" Will asked, at the same time I asked my students, "Do you know what TB is?"

"I worked out of my garage for 31 years," our guide said, vaguely. "I've been volunteering here for three years because They want to know where I am at all times."

Huh. Will and I exchanged a long glance. I looked back down the hallway to where a gate was locked behind us. I remembered the trouble the rioters had gone through to get that key.

I glanced at the time and gestured helplessly. Probably time to go... a boat to catch...

We shook hands all around and my students took a picture with the guide, their own private tour guide, as proof that they had a much cooler experience on the island than anyone else.

As for me, I was glad to be out in the open again, stumbling down the crumbling hillside to the dock. There's no way I was missing the boat.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hail to the King

Forgive me for not writing - but it's not really my fault.

Blame can be placed on the usual suspects -- three demanding pets, 136 Language Arts students, my novel revision, and of course... Henry VIII.

Here's what happened: I finished the excellent BBC series Wire in the Blood and, while scrolling through Netflix in a deep state of despair, I discovered The Tudors.

My grasp of British history is weak at best, despite tons of Shakespeare and a 2009 trip to England that included an excellent Beefeater tour of the Tower of London. The various Richards, Edwards and Georges are basically interchangeable in my mind (but so, to be honest, are Buchanan and Pierce and Fillmore).

That said, I have a sick obsession with Henry VIII, his six wives, the lone son and the daughters who were so inconsequential that they only stayed on the throne for half a century.

I was hooked by the end of episode one. Castles! Crown jewels! Jousting! And if the TV-MA status was initially off-putting, it's amazing how quickly I started yawning my way through the boudoir scenes of the king and his flavor of the week. All right, let's get to the good stuff -- like when Henry denies the supremacy of the Pope to get his divorce, thereby bringing the Protestant Reformation to England.

Essays to grade? Not when the Queen is exiled to the Fens.

Sleep to be had? Nah -- not when the country's best executioner has been summoned for Anne.

And illogically, I started rooting against history. I knew what would happen; I had memorized long ago the sad demises of the six wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived), but still I found myself hopeful. Catherine is too noble to be set aside! Poor Anne would give him a son if she could! Maybe there was some way sweet Jane could survive that difficult childbirth...

Between seasons two and three, foiled again by the Treick stomach, I spent a night shivering/sweating and dizzy with vertigo, unable to sleep because of my tangled 16th century nightmares of beheadings and courtiers. I'd drift off for a moment, then wake with a gasp, thinking, If if could happen to Sir Thomas More, it could happen to me.

Seasons three and four, tragically, were available by DVD only. I was forced to stalk the mailman, grasping the mail greedily as he approached. In the meantime I checked out a stack of books from my public library, which for probably my whole life has housed an entire shelf on the Tudors. It's possible that this obsession isn't normal, I thought, when the librarian asked if I was writing a research paper on Henry VIII. Walking through the park, I casually mentioned to Will that Anne of Cleves was granted the status of "sister" after Henry annulled their marriage. Will smiled tolerantly at me; perhaps he was wondering when I would finally change the subject.

Maybe "The Tudors" falls into that ambiguous "for better or worse" category; one of the strange future things about our spouse that we simply cannot predict. But Will rose to the challenge. Later that day, there was an early birthday present waiting for me - the last season on DVD. And that's where I'll be for the next week.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Some Day, Correcting the Wrong Person's Grammar Will Get Me Killed

I speak for my fellows: it's hard work being a grammarian.

We are constantly cringing, wincing and clutching our dictionaries to our chests. We battle dueling forces: the urge to blurt out a correction or the willpower to just keep quiet.

We talk Strunk and White; we quote from the scripture of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. We get emails from co-workers who should know the difference between there, their and they're; we can't take seriously a superior's remark that a situation is "unexceptable." (Wouldn't this necessarily mean that there is nothing to which she can take exception?) We vote for the candidate with the best grammar; we cannot, in good conscience, support someone who says "irregardless".

We are an ungrateful lot. We have a hard time accepting a thank you note that reads, "Your awesome!" By the same reasoning, we refuse to be offended by graffiti that reads, "Your a bitch." Not us, no; we are merely grammarians.

We stand tongue-tied when a colleague asks us to "pronunciate" a word; later, a student asks, "Does spelling count?" and we are baffled. Of course it counts. Can there possibly be a situation in the entire course of human history in which spelling has not counted?

We are often moody, wary, loathe to get involved. Who, anymore, wants a grammarian for a friend? We turn the same critical eye inward, flogging ourselves for typos in emails, offering extra credit for students who find our mistakes. We have a creed: Proofread twice, print once.

Stopped at a red light, we laugh at the message on a license plate holder with a grammatical error; isn't that akin to a misspelled tattoo? The driver, who possibly failed grade-school Language Arts, who likely has not read any good panda jokes, flips us an angry gesture. We stop chuckling, suitably warned.

Correcting the wrong person's grammar may well get us killed.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Short List of Things I Know Nothing About

1. Pregancy/childbirth.

2. Kissing up to the boss.

3. Dogs over 41 pounds.

4. Meat.

5. Doing my taxes.

6. Bananas, pickles, mushrooms (except the accidental taste of cream of mushroom soup).

7. Planning ahead.

8. Housewives - Real or imagined, Orange County or New Jersey.

9. Learning to let go.

10. A really good list of anything should have a logical end, preferably on a round number (10), but I'm feeling otherwise knowledgeable. I could at least fake a little bit of knowledge on most topics, at any rate. With a little luck, I could reach the low-hanging fruit ("I'll take Shakespeare for 100, Alex") and knock the socks off any fifth grader. So long as those fifth graders haven't learned to itemize deductions.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Seat by the Window

I have few requirements when I write at Starbucks. A venti skinny vanilla latte, so hot that I can only tease myself with it for the first ten minutes. Background noise that doesn't intrude too much on my foreground, typical of Starbucks' moody hipster blend. And always, always, a seat by the window.

Here's what I see today:

Two teenagers (seventeen?) sitting on the brick wall that surrounds the convention center fountain, sharing a cigarette. It's a boy and a girl, and I would guess that this is new love, this is we've-just-kissed-for-the-first-time-within-the-last-twelve-hours love. He rolls up the sleeve of his hoodie, reaches into the fountain and comes up, dripping, exuberant, with a handful of change. She takes his offering, laughs. They wander off down K Street. It's 7:19 a.m.

A fiftyish man carrying a plastic bag and - no kidding - a Walkman. He stops by my table on his circuit to the bathroom, sees my laptop and says, "Did you ever work for HP?" No, I say, smiling. He says, "They offered me a job once and I should have taken it. I should have taken it," and shuffles away. Five minutes later he comes out of the bathroom and asks, "Are you still here?" Yes - I think so.

A beautiful woman wrapped in a striped scarf. I aspire to be this woman. I would at least like to have this scarf.

A man in an NFL windbreaker with pop-up Dwayne Wayne glasses. He takes a call on his cell, which means he has to stop walking and lean against the car closest to him. This happens to be my car. I stop myself from rapping on the window and throwing him a gesture; when the call ends, he moves on, leaving a clean smudge in the middle of my accumulated Valley dust.

Pigeons. Tons of them.

A red Ford Contour that just stopped, stopped, in the middle of the street, despite traffic and a green light at K and 10th. I had recently watched an episode of Hoarders where the family's "treasures" (like boxes of expired cereal and yellowed magazines with curling pages) had taken over their house and the husband had to sleep in the car - so I instantly recognized the problem here. This was a hoarder's car, filled to the brim with crumpled McDonald's cups and things wadded up in plastic bags. The driver him/herself was a mystery, since the passenger window was completely blocked by trash. After about a minute of cars honking and swerving, the Contour moved on.

A large, kindly man with puffy bags under his eyes. Much older than me, I would guess, but as I age myself I find it impossible to estimate the age of someone else. The last time I was here he came by my table three or four times, leaning into my airspace, asking me what I was writing, what I thought of the music, had I been to the local, organic grocery store that just opened up a few blocks away? In other words, flirting. Today he gives only the tiniest, most embarrassed glance in my direction - he's with his wife.

What I don't see today, and almost miss: the crazy man. I probably overuse the word to refer to everyone from Charlie Sheen to the parent who thinks her daughter will still pass my class, despite empirical data and a very blunt email to the contrary - but this man is genuinely crazy. He holds a constant, one-sided stream-of-conscious conversation, like Kerouac would have sounded had he sat in a Starbucks and composed On the Road orally. Last week I had the pleasure of finding myself at the table next to him, which meant I had a front row seat for the "Riders on the Storm"/"Hotel California" lyrics, the muttered comments about Donald Trump, OJ Simpson, Tiger Woods, technology and everyone who walked past us. (I had a suspicious feeling that the "bull dyke" comment was somehow related to me.) Today it's quiet without him, and almost a little boring.

Which means I'd better get to work.