This story was written for and told live for SRS and broadcast on Kboo September 8, 2014 for Steam Radio Syndicate.
I went to go work in a county jail just South of SF in San Bruno Ca. I was part of a small crew of fabricators that spent 4 months living in a hotel while we installed steel soffits in a newly constructed county jail. We worked long hard hours, and in our off time we took to touring San Bruno, which turned out to be kind of a weird place. Our hotel had been built on the grounds of the old Tanforan Racetrack, among many interesting things it was the place where Seabiscuit had raced. There was a little plaque in dedication to that history between our hotel and the Target store, but if that wasn’t enough to get you clued in, everything around was preceded by the name Tanforan as a vestige of history. The track had also been used by the military in WWI to house Japanese Americans during forced relocation, and in later years used as a motorcycle flat track. You could find photos of those days just about anywhere in town particularly at the local bars. On the west side of San Bruno were the dark green coastal hills that separated San Bruno from the ocean. Buckeyes, redwoods, and pines, blanketed by ocean mist and fog at almost any time of day.
If you venture South, just 5 miles, you find to the city of Colma, a small town that stretches along the railway where the dead outnumber the living. This is the consequence of an ordinance in 1900 banning the construction of cemeteries in SF. Everyone who was anyone went to Colma to rest. Once, we had a beer in an old bar there, and discovered the walls displaying articles and photographs of coffins floating in a Colma intersection during a flood. It was definitely an eerie place.
During the work day I was entering a construction zone no less interesting. Passing through a sheriff’s gate, I showed my ID, and neared the clover shaped building set against the hills. Even before I got out of the van I tasted concrete dust and fumes of industrial paint. Inside, each man standing had a lamp illuminating the dankness where they worked. Uncured concrete and glassless windows took in the mist at night and kept the building slate gray and damp. More than anything the light made everything darker, revealing something of an underground matrix. And no matter the job, any man’s tool could would ring in your ears for hours and bring the smell in your hotel room at night.
My job was to surround the cells, common spaces, and halls, with steel soffit for fire sprinklers.These areas were called wards. Each ward had about 100 double occupancy cells. They were curved creating an arced common room for 200 people. And though I worked with a partner, I often back tracked alone to put in rivets down the line. Many times I found myself drifting into thought, looking deeply into a cell, and for a moment, imagining what it would be like.
It’s not wider than an arms width in any direction. The wet gray walls feel cool and impressive, unexploited by anyone before me. There is a toilet and a sink but they’re not plumbed in yet. I sit down on the toilet and look out to the common space, its hazy with dust. A guard tower in the common space is in direct site and aside from a short concrete wall that goes up to my knees, anyone could see me there.There’s a shiny stainless steel soffit that runs along the ceiling to the back of the cell and turns… and in the wall to the back, is the a window. The opening itself reveals the vast thickness of the wall, maybe a foot or more. The inside edge is beveled, and it’s the room’s only ease. It’s tall but narrow, not wide enough to fit my head through. I get up from the toilet drawn toward it. Beyond the window the sun is setting, leaving behind twilight and bits of light on the trees making some places hidden and mysterious and others playful and loping. The fog folds with intent over the hill and toward me. It’s guiding mist so thick I can feel the drops on my face. And suddenly I arrive at this totally unexpected destination……free, out there, in the hills of San Bruno.