Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy MLKJr Day of Service Inauguration Eve!

So I decided to do some gardening at the Island of Alcatraz for this fine volunteer day (i.e. national "Day of Service"). That is, since my employers are not racists and understand the importance of taking an entire day off in reverence of the great King. Anyways. Working through the Golden Gate Parks service, I joined about 60 volunteers in vegetation management duties. After four groups were sent to various spots (I would later kick myself for failing to join the Agave Trail group, who got to work on one of the most recently renovated areas to the south, facing the city) I was assigned to weeding ye 'ole rose garden on the shady east side of the compound. Shady as in there was a lack of sun, not as in, there were rastafarians trying to sell us ecstacy. While the flower bed I worked on did not contain roses, there were a few areas with rose bushes where, for seasonal reasons, the flowers had yet to bloom. My team leader said that no one has seen the roses bloom since the Penitentiary closed in '63. The island, or "Rock," became a park in 1972, yet no one has seen the roses bloom since there hadn't been enough money to revitalize the gardens until more recently. By the summer, park service men and women will finally see them bloom--which, according to my team leader, is going to be a real treat since they will probably be of some outdated 50s variety that you just don't see nowadays.

I leaned over the bed, reflective in my silence for a while as I ripped clovers and dandelion leaves from rich dark soil. I later began picking my team leader's brain. I found out that she lived in London around the same time as me, working at Kew Gardens. I also found out that she has found molded spoons in other gardens on Alcatraz, and that a maintenance man found a shiv in a drain pipe once. A few minutes later, someone found a rusty old oyster fork buried in the dirt. I frantically began ripping the little green buddies harder and digging deeper. I really wanted to find a shiv. 'By god if only I could find a shiv' I thought. It's probably best that I didn't find one, because I would probably keep it for myself and forget about it and find it hidden under a pile of post-it notes and collages and half-finished greetings cards in a desk drawer a few years later, forget what it was, and toss it out. I am like the anti-Indiana Jones. "This doesn't belong in a musem! It belongs with me!"

After about three hours of gardening, it was time to call it quits and we were all satisfied, having weeded and ripped it up so nicely that a massive flower bed looked barren and brown, dirt brown. It looked really ugly, but somehow made us all feel real good.

Unbeknownst to me and my fellow volunteers, we would soon be greeted by a park ranger that wanted to take us all on a special guided tour. He took us into the Pen, where we were able to walk near the cell blocks on the second floor, in caged corridors and to the prison's mini-chapel, guard's recreation room, and later up to the rooftop. It was a great tour, filled with anecdotes about the Indian occupation from '69-'71. I took a picture of some graffiti in the chapel and asked what it was; he told me it was probably from the wild parties that were held during the occupation. The IWW, the Hells' Angels, Jane Fonda--it could have been anybody. It was in blood red and I spotted a soviet symbol and a swastika. Jane Fonda probably did it.

Towards the end of our tour, our friendly park ranger guide said it was his great pleasure to give us this tour, and that he was very excited today. And the way he said it was so funny--he used almost the same exact words that our volunteer organizer from the beginning of the morning had used: "I'm not getting political...but...this is an exciting time for us. This is and exciting time for America."

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