Friday, March 9, 2012

The 11:10 Larkspur - San Francisco

In a few moments, the commuter ferry will leave the coastal suburban haven of Larkspur and plow out into the cold blue San Francisco Bay. As it leaves Marin County, it passes within a few meters of the infamous San Quentin prison, recently the site of a day of action by local Occupy protesters, and daily the locus of uncountable acts of violence and humiliation. Drifting swiftly and comfortably by the floodlights, high stone walls, barbed wire fencing and barracks housing, how many of the passengers aboard this ferry are thinking about what separates them from their countrymen mere meters to port? How many have tried to connect to the (protected, naturally) SQSP wifi network that comes briefly into range? The few packets their device sends to a router somewhere on the outskirts of the prison are probably the most contact they'll ever have with the inside of one of the country's most notorious correctional facilities.

Like the Alcatraz prison island that our ferry passes to starboard a few minutes later, San Quentin represents both an uncomfortable reminder of the price society exacts for criminal behavior and an object of fascination on the horizon. Most communities keep their prisons far out of sight, the only glimpse of their existence a vaguely ridiculous highway sign encouraging drivers not to pick up hitchhikers. San Francisco, however, has two maximum-security prisons within an easy glance across the Bay; one has even become a tourist attraction, with hundreds of prisoners a day pretending to lock themselves behind bars that once held Al Capone captive.

How many people have ridden this ferry and later in life found themselves watching it through the narrow windows of San Quentin? There must have been at least one such person, but the demographics of Marin being what they are, this is unlikely to have described many people. What are their names? What did they do, or were accused of having done, that got them sent away? When they see the ferry, their regular seat filled by some blissfully-unaware 1%er listening to This American Life on his iPhone 4 headphones, does it inspire anger, sadness, regret, indifference?

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