Carla Jean Johnson Presente

PreScript: The New York Times published my tribute to Carla in its year-end “The Lives They Loved” section:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/storywall/the-lives-they-loved-2016/stories/carla-jean-johnson?smid=fb-share

I was delighted to be asked to eulogize Carla at a memorial for her at the Bayview Opera House on July 23, which would have been her 57th birthday. The Opera House is just now reopening after a restoration which Carla, as head of the Mayor’s Office on Disability, had a big part in. Her office provided vital funding for disability access, and now wheelchair users can enter through the front door. Here’s what I said about Carla.

Photo of Carla by Anna Kuperberg
Photo of Carla by Anna Kuperberg

Carla Johnson was my bestie. I loved her. I introduced her to her wife Anna. Carla and I worked together as building inspectors through the 90s; we worked on each other’s old houses for decades (of course we had permits for everything). Together we negotiated the prejudices we faced as women in the building trades. There were many. Still are.

From the time she made her first cutting board in high school shop class, Carla Johnson wanted to be a carpenter. She quit school at Cal to follow her dream and didn’t finish college till years later. She became a builder, working for small contractors and for a women’s carpentry collective called Seven Sisters Construction.

Carla's CCC card
Carla’s CCC card

In those days, it wasn’t easy for women to get training (still isn’t). Carla learned the carpentry trade by reading. She told me she would just ask at the end of every day, “What are we doing tomorrow?” Then she would go home and open her carpentry books and the first thing the next morning she’d start throwing the terminology around. “So, we’re going to put the joists 16 inches on center, right. We’re going to start with the header joist.” She was assigned to be crew boss because she was the one who consistently showed up on time.

Later, she did maintenance on Victorian buildings for a property management company. She got a lot of love from tenants for keeping the systems going. She was a skilled locksmith. She could rehang a door that had been kicked in before the tenants got home from work. She could jerry rig the boiler so tenants would have hot water till the boiler repairperson could get there. Carla loved old buildings. She loved old houses, old trucks, old things. Things with some history in them.

With my friend Huli at the restored Bayview Opera House
With my friend Huli at the restored Bayview Opera House

For a time she had her own business, Carla’s Custom Care Construction. No doubt she worked on the homes of some of you in this room. Then she got a civil service job working as a carpenter at the Department of Public Works where she felt privileged to work on City Hall and other historic public buildings.

I didn’t meet Carla till after the saw accident that mangled her left hand and changed her life. It was shocking that such an accident could happen to her. She was the most risk-adverse safety-conscious person I ever met (a trait that sometimes drove her friends crazy).

She told me she couldn’t even remember the date it happened in 1992, which she said is a good thing for people with PTSD. She lost her little finger and she suffered through many long surgeries to repair her ring finger, and a year of rehab. She was disabled. She couldn’t earn a living as a carpenter anymore.

She told me the first thing that her workers comp attorney said to her when she got out of the hospital was, “I want to tell you about this new law that just went into effect.” Her employer had an obligation under Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide her with a reasonable accommodation–to place her in a job where she could still use the skills without the tools. That’s how she came to work at the Department of Building Inspection. Carla was happy when she was assigned to the Castro as a district inspector. She always loved working with “my people.”

One job of a building inspector is to perfect the art of saying no, not always an easy thing to do, especially if you’ve been on the receiving end as a contractor who has to do the job over after you fail inspection. Carla, with her quiet thoughtful demeanor, could say no and make you feel grateful for her advice.

She developed a reputation as a stickler for the building code’s technical details. Competent contractors who played by the rules liked her. Sloppy mechanics with poor workmanship hated her. Stairs are required by code to be the exact same height for a reason. Varying stair heights can cause falls. Carla carried a measuring tape and she used it. Our friend Nina Saltman just now told me about a job she ran that failed Carla’s inspection because it was a quarter inch off. She is not the only one who tells that story.

Carla became an expert on disability access. And she became a skillful advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. At DBI she saved us taxpayers money by resolving disability issues out of court. Then she moved over to the Mayor’s Office on Disability and she eventually was promoted to head that department.

When Carla called me to tell me she had just been diagnosed with stage IV metastasized breast cancer, I said, “I’m coming over now.” I ran the five blocks to find Carla and Anna standing in front of their house conferring.

“I need help,” Carla said when I got there.

“Anything,” I said, grateful there was something I could do to help my sick friend.

“I need you to get up on the roof.” She wanted me to accompany her to check whether the roofers who worked on the house next door damaged her roof. This was so very Carla. She wouldn’t be able to rest until she made sure her roof was sound.

Carla was fascinated by the details of city government. She would entertain herself during nights of insomnia by watching commission meetings on the public TV channel. I will especially miss talking about city government and politics with Carla over a beer at the Wildside or the Lucky Horseshoe. It was a topic that bored our wives and most friends.

Carla was the kind of civil servant all citizens want working for us, who understands she is there to make our lives better. But at heart she was a carpenter, a builder. She built a life that impacted so many of us, she built institutions, she built buildings, she built a marriage, a home, a neighborhood, lasting relationships.

We marvel at her legacy. And now those of us who are left must do the maintenance.

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A 1930s Poetry Scrapbook

Fishing was a favorite pastime in the 1930s
Fishing was a favorite pastime in the 1930s

In my quest to archive the papers stored in my mold-infested storage room, I this week photographed two albums made by my mother in the 1930s. My mother, Florence Wick, graduated from Yakima (WA) High School in 1929 ½ (no explanation as to why there were half-year graduations) at age 16. She had skipped ahead a year. From the dates I found in these albums, it seems she assembled them after graduation. The first date is 1929. The last dates I found are in 1941.PoemPage

One album is a scrapbook, mostly a collection of poems cut out of magazines and pasted onto the pages. There’s a typed list titled Keep Your Friends Friendly with penciled annotations. A handwritten poem titled Friends is also pasted in. It could be Flo’s writing, but I don’t think it is. There’s a typed “poem” titled I Like, which starts, “I like polka dots. And molasses. And Spanish antiques.” That piece also is annotated with question marks and underlining. It’s followed by a long list of likes that Flo has apparently added in uncharacteristic rather messy writing. It starts: “red ties, Dresden china, first editions,” and ends, “farms, horses and hay.”I Like

My mother was an avid reader throughout her life. Flo told us about sneaking books into bed and reading through the night with a flashlight under the covers when she was a kid. As a young person, she also wrote poetry and won at least one poetry contest, although none of her own poetry appears in this scrapbook. As an adult she collected volumes of poems that lived on a bookcase in our family’s living room. She must have schooled me in poetry because I remember arguing with a teacher in grade school about how a poem should be read (I knew the poem; the teacher didn’t). But I never appreciated poetry as my mother did.

KeepFriendsTucked into the inside cover of this scrapbook is a photo of a young man dressed in knickers smoking a pipe and holding what appears to be a fox kit in what looks like a rather cold, stark place with some houses in the background (I think this is her boyfriend who spent time in the Pribilof Islands, and I remember other pictures of him, but not what he was doing there). The one other picture is cut out from a magazine—a young woman trying to bait a fishing hook.FoxKit

One newspaper clipping tells of her father’s death of a heart attack at the age of 59 in 1938. Other pages cut from magazines contain instructive stories (“If you must run after a man…the really smart girl is the girl who, while joining in the chase, makes it appear as if she weren’t”). I think Flo cut these out not for the stories, but for the poems on the reverse side. If I were a dedicated researcher I’d read and analyze all the poems, but perhaps I’ll save that task for another day.

Writing to Mom about Sex Etc.

10-67Over the years a horrible sickening black mold has infected the room next to the garage where I’ve stored boxes of my old stuff. In order to access anything from that dark cavernous space I must wear a respirator and gloves. Now that I can use my iPhone to photograph papers and store them in my computer, I’m slowly archiving them. Chucking the mold-infected sheaves into the recycling gives me great pleasure.

1-17-69
January 17, 1969

I’ve imagined that the mold was introduced from items that had previously been stored in my grandmother’s root cellar/basement in my hometown of Yakima, I guess because the smell is similar. That’s silly, but it started me wondering about molds and how they travel. It might be stachybotrys atra (also known as black mold). Whatever type of mold it is, and there are more than 100,000 kinds, it is nasty and takes little time to activate my asthma if breathed in. Molds require moisture to grow. When we were remodeling this building in the early 21st century I discovered a crack in the foundation that allowed moisture

May 20, 1974
May 20, 1974

into the storage room. I patched it, but of course that did not rid the room of mold, and perhaps there is no way to get rid of it. Removing the contents might help.

This week I’ve been pulling out my mother’s papers to aid in reconstructing her life in Yakima and her work as a Red Cross Donut Girl in Europe during WWII. I still have Flo’s cardboard American Red Cross suitcase issued to her in Washington DC and then carried from Italy through France and into Germany during 1944-46. She saw the liberation of Dachau, so I suppose the evil mold could have traveled in the suitcase from Nazi concentration camps. It’s a theory.

74?
A Thursday in 1974
74
A Sunday in 1974, Seattle

When I opened the suitcase I found two scrapbooks that my mother had assembled in the 20s and the 30s, a sheaf of her letters, and a bundle of letters written by me to her in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. These I perused immediately. What a gift, that my mother had saved these letters! In the days when people wrote letters as a primary way of communicating, I wrote my mother often just to tell her what was going on in my life (long distance phone calls were expensive).

The letters span a period from the fall of 1967 when I first left home in Yakima to start college at WSU in Pullman (a 190-mile three-and-a half-hour drive away), up to the summer of 1981 after I’d moved into the house where I’ve lived ever since here in San Francisco. I haven’t yet counted the number of different addresses where I lived in Pullman, Seattle and San Francisco during this time, but it is certainly in the double digits.

10-23-76
October 23, 1976, San Francisco

The most frequent subjects of the letters were money—borrowing and paying back, the cost of things, not having enough—and job hunting. I’m glad for the mundane everyday minutia, what things cost in 1970,

“The prescription for progesterone that cost $1 to fill in Yakima cost $13 in Seattle. I should have sprung for the $6 bus ticket and bought it there.”

the many jobs I applied for and was rejected from (newspaper reporter, telemarketer, printer’s apprentice, waitress, library clerk, federal civil service, county extension agent, phone operator, bus driver).9-4-77

“Thanks for your help. Didn’t include you as a reference. It’s never a good bet to use a relative, especially your mother, no matter who she knows and how well respected.”

11-28-78I was struck by the close relationship between my mother and her daughter, the “never trust anyone over thirty” feminist revolutionary. No doubt this was the work of my mother’s efforts to maintain a bond, more than mine, but the letters make it clear that I depended on her for a great many things besides loans—support in whatever endeavors I worked at, help with writing, bouncing off opinions about politics and life in general. She was truly my rock and I hope I was hers.

7-19-77
July 19, 1977, San Francisco

Letters from 1967 through the spring of 1969 when I lived in dormitories (the only option for female undergraduates then) are filled with reports of studying, dating boys, finding rides home, gossip about people from Yakima and complaints about the cost of books and clothes. I’m surprised at how conventional I seemed, but I don’t think this was just a put-on for the benefit of my mother.

After I moved off campus in the fall of 1969, my letters expressed interest in “alternative lifestyles” and “building viable counterculture community institutions.”

I wrote about founding the League for the Promotion of Militant Atheism:

“College campuses need more militant anti-Jesus freaks.”

I wrote about politics and social change, racism, feminism, sex and gay liberation. I had embraced the unconventional.

So very many things changed during those explosive years, but some things never did. The last of these letters, dated 8/18/81, starts:

“Here’s some money I promised. Still looking for work.”5-5-77