It’s been a long time since I celebrated the christian holiday of christmas. And from the looks of me in a whole series of family pictures, I hated the holiday even as a little kid.
My little brother Don and littler brothers Tim and Terry are always smiling, especially Don who was an adorable child (now old and still adorable). Why was I so glum? I wasn’t a pouty kid in any other pictures.
Clearly I was never a fan of christmas, but even less so after I left home and developed a critique of capitalism and christianity. I hated the consumer aspect but also the religious stuff. I joined theChurch of Stop Shopping, led by the charismatic Rev. Billy with backupby the incomparable Stop Shopping Choir protesting at malls on black Friday. I still avoid shopping after September (it gets earlier every year) because I can’t stand the holidaymusic played in stores.
In college, researching the history of religions, we learnedthat christians had stolen their holidays from pagans and those who had gone before. Christmas co-opted pagan solstice celebrations. They even stole the virgin birth thing. Why not recapture our history; there were so many ancient solstice traditions to choose from!
In the early ‘70s, we dissidents at the Rosa Luxemburg Collective chose to celebrate the Roman winter solstice holiday of Saturnalia. It was essentially a great big party. Traditional roles were reversed. Masters served slaves. Men dressed in women’s clothes and women in men’s. All were setfree of their marriage obligations and could have sex with anyone they wanted. The festivities lasted for a couple of weeks at least (no research here; just remembering). Of course, we had already dispensed with gender roles and monogamy so the holiday was really just a continuation of our chosen lifestyle. We cooked sumptuous feasts and ate a lot. We set up an aluminum tree with rotating colored lights in the Vulgar Americana Room. It stayed up all year.
Lately Holly and I have been adding to and making up our own traditions. They change every year because we tend to forget our brilliant ideas from the year before, but for many years now we have been celebrating what we call the Twelve Days of Solstice. The holiday starts on solstice, which this year is December 21, and ends on New Year’s Day.
We incorporate pagan rituals and customs—greenery and garlands, feasting and lights. Solstice signifies the return of light in the Northern Hemisphere, important to our animistic ancestors who worshipped nature. My Swedish grandmother set in her window a brightly painted wooden candelabra which looked very much like a menorah. Her decorations were figures of reindeer and elves made of straw. She made tree ornaments of fat candy canes wrapped in red and white tissue paper. And I still have the slender santa and elf figures that she hand knit and brought out every year.
This year we added some days to the holiday since the fullmoon appeared on Friday the 13th of December, an especially witchy occurrence. How did we celebrate? We planted winter greens and bulbs in the garden. We made apologies to our mother earth for what our species has wrought. We donated to the porta-potty fund for the homeless here. I archived some papers, an ongoing project. From the hot tub I watched the moon rise twice from behind cloud banks. We toasted our good fortune. And then, with Holly’s reminder that winter is for hibernating, we settled down for a long winter’s nap.
Wishing you a good solstice or as the Swedes say god yul.
Sitting in my favorite chair in the living room of my newly remodeled condo, I heard the violent breaking of glass. It sounded like someone was throwing bottles on the sidewalk with great force. I couldn’t see anything out the front window so I put on shoes and went out there. That’s when I saw flames shooting from the next-door neighbor’s window, broken by the intense heat.
The year was was 2009. After nearly a decade of work restoring and remodeling the three-unit building where I lived for 38 years in San Francisco, it nearly burned down that day.
I had brought my cell phone and immediately called 911. Someone had already called and the fire department said a truck was on the way. It seemed like it took forever but later I learned it had taken two minutes to come from our neighborhood firehouse at Holly Park.
A woman in a bathrobe emerged at a run from the ground level of the house next door. She had been in the shower when she smelled smoke. We knew that many people lived in the house. The owners of the single-family dwelling had divided it up into plywood cells with doors and locks, which they rented to Chinese immigrants, most of whom spoke no English. We had no idea how many people might be in the building.
After rehab, my house on the left
I should add at this point that I hate firemen. Not firewomen, only the men. And not the firemen of color. Only the white men.
Whenever we have occasion to honor firefighters, which is lately often as the West has been burning up every year, I stand back and think to myself, I hate these mofos.
When I tell anyone I hate firemen, the reaction is always shock. “But there are some good men.” And to this I say yes I know but they’ve gotta prove it to me, just as I had to constantly prove to my male coworkers over and over at work in construction that all women are not stupid and weak. In the meantime I’m sticking with my prejudice, formed by years of interaction with woman-hating racists in the San Francisco Fire Department. I may never get over it.
My hatred has roots in the decades-long fight to integrate women and people of color into the department, formed by listening to the stories of female firefighters who had to live in the firehouses where they were hated, denigrated, physically attacked and whose lives were in danger from the men they worked with.
The idea that firefighters are heroes to be worshipped not only had an unfortunate effect on the culture at the firehouses, inflating already overinflated egos. It also made opposing the white men more difficult. They used the positive stereotype to their advantage, calling on the testimony of citizens whose lives and property had been saved.
Before women fought their way in to the SFFD, men of color experienced a racist culture and lack of safety in the department. The first black firefighter entered the department in 1955 as the result of a lawsuit. The San Francisco fire fighters union, local 798, and its international affiliate, possibly the most racist union in the country, waged a campaign to keep minorities and women out of the department. Once they got in, the union and the white men did whatever they could to make their lives miserable. Swastikas, confederate flags, death threats, excrement in boots, tampering with safety equipment, discriminatory entrance exams were some of the tactics. Robert Demmons, a black firefighter, sued the department for discrimination and the lawsuit later included women and other men of color as plaintiffs.
Although agitation to include women in these well-paid jobs began in the 1970s, the first women did not enter the department until 1987. In the lawsuit, women were lucky to draw a judge who saw that breaking the gender barrier required strong measures. In 1986 US District Court Judge Marilyn Patel issued a consent decree requiring the department to hire ten percent women. The SFFD resisted the decree but they had to comply. The ten percent goal for women was met in 1997 and the decree lifted.
The person who files the lawsuit, whether in the trades or other professions, usually ends up dead or blacklisted, a martyr to the cause. Bob Demmons, who became president of the Black Firefighters Association, went to work every day thinking he might be killed. Several attempts were made on his life. We affirmative action activists thought Bob would end up as our martyr, but instead he was appointed chief of the department in 1996 by Mayor Willie Brown. The department was still a mess and Bob worked closely with women and other men of color to change the culture. He knew he would have only a short time before the union and racists got him removed and he moved as quickly as he could to bring in and promote more women and minorities. I think Bob did more than any other individual to make firefighter jobs available to women. He’s my hero.
We women did have a martyr, Anne Young, one of the first four women to be hired as firefighters, the first lesbian and also the first female lieutenant. Anne became the public face of women and so she endured the worst harassment.
I first met Anne at the Women’s Training Center gym in San Francisco where we both worked out. An electrician, I was involved in the fight for affirmative action, agitating to get women into the construction trades and other male-dominated jobs. She was 18 and already clear about her life goal. She was training to be a firefighter. Anne took entry exams at fire departments all around California and she landed a job at the Daly City fire department where she did well. But Daly City is small, with very few fires and emergencies. She set her sights on the big city of San Francisco.
Anne was smart and strong and she already had experience working as a firefighter. She easily passed the entrance exam and became one of the first women to enter fire college. Harassment started immediately. The day that the first women graduated, before they even started working as firefighters, white men were picketing out in the street, saying that women had taken jobs from them.
Bob Demmons and Anne Young began to collaborate. They both wanted a department that reflects the percentages of population that it serves, that could speak all its languages, that would have women helping women. By that time most of the calls were medical emergencies, not fires.
At the time women first got in, San Francisco’s 41 firehouses operated like a fraternity house row. Pornography was everywhere. Men watched porn on TV in the firehouses, which were scenes of hours-long cocktail parties and drinking contests. Bob showed Anne the granite wall with all the names of the firefighters killed in the line of duty. He pointed out names: “He was drunk, he was drunk, he was drunk.” They were dead because they were drunk at a fire.
Female firefighters constantly had to choose. Did you go along with the culture and drink with the boys, or follow the rules which disallowed drinking, and risk isolation? One woman drank with the boys and passed out at dinner. She was terminated, and the female firefighters support group failed to offer any support. They didn’t want to be associated with her.
Many women took the entrance tests and failed to pass. Many were terminated while on probation. One woman who made it in later committed suicide. The ones who stayed tried to be invisible, to not buck the culture. The other women in the SFFD did not necessarily support Anne.
As in construction, I don’t fault women for how they choose to survive. We’ve developed many survival strategies. You have a choice of joining the culture or objecting. The women who tried to be invisible and didn’t stick their necks out, who put up with the harassment or tried to be one of the guys, generally survived. Anne felt she couldn’t go along to get along. She felt pressure to make a choice every single day at work to represent every woman, represent every queer.
In the 1990s, before public shaming on the internet took hold, white male firefighters and retirees attacked females and minorities in a publication called the Smoke Eaters Gazette. They actually put in writing their horrible lies and distributed the paper to everyone in the department. We never learned who wrote and mimeographed it.
Anne was a union member, but when she found out the union was using her dues money to oppose affirmative action, she resigned from local 798 and joined the Black Firefighters Association, a slap in the face to the union and the white men.
A watershed moment came in 1988 when the women in the SFFD and Black Firefighters Association drove a fire truck in the gay parade, a first for the department, known for its homophobic culture. Anne Young was driving the truck. Cheers went up from the crowd. The black firefighters stood with the gay community politically in that moment. It took some courage for the straight black men to march in the parade. I was watching from the street and I cried. People on the sidelines were yelling, “Hey-hey, ho-ho, racism has got to go.” The guys were crying. Everyone was crying. It was an historic event.
Anne did well on tests. She had taken and passed many. When the lieutenants’ test came up she was urged to take it by the lawyers and the BFA (the consent decree was still in force). The chief of the department called her in to his office and told her she could have anything she wanted if she didn’t take the test.
In retrospect, she said, taking the lieutenants test and promoting was a mistake, the beginning of the end of her career. As a new lieutenant she worked a different firehouse every day. Some days the entire crew would call in sick, sending a clear message they didn’t want to work for her. Death threats were common. But when men on her crew tried to throw her off a roof, that was her breaking point. They could have gotten away with her murder. Firefighters fall off roofs. No one would have known she was pushed.
After that, Anne kept going to work, but she felt she could no longer do her job competently.
I’ve seen this happen to other women in male-dominated jobs when the everyday level of stress becomes too much for the body to bear. Your mind tells you to go to work but at some point your body rebels. You get sick or injured and you can no longer go to work. After she was nearly killed, Anne had what she called a nervous breakdown. One day she just couldn’t get out of bed. I think this was her body protecting her from harm.
Anne filed a lawsuit and there was a trial where she was called upon to paint the SFFD with a broad brush of discriminatory treatment. She didn’t get to talk about how much she loved the job, working with a team, saving lives. It had been her dream and she was really good at her job. She wasn’t able to focus on the good men who helped her. But, on the whole, even the good guys had refused to stand up for her and risk retaliation from the bad actors. They enabled the harassers.
Three years after filing suit, in 1995, Anne won the lawsuit and was awarded $300,000. But her career as a firefighter was finished. She lost her income, she lost her house. Trauma had infected her like a disease.
I thought of this history as I stood on the sidewalk and watched the house next door to mine burn. When the first fire truck arrived at the scene, the first firefighter who jumped off was a woman I recognized, Nicol Juratavac. She was working as a lieutenant that day. Among the firefighters were several women and men of color. One, a Chinese man, was the only person able to communicate with the next door building’s residents. Then a car pulled up with another woman I recognized, Denise Newman. She was working that day as a battalion chief. Of course, by that time in 2009 the chief of the department was a female, Joanne Hayes-White, appointed by Mayor Newsom in 2004.
Along with a congregation of feminist activists, I had shown up at city hall the day her appointment was announced. Newsom appointed a female police chief as well, which gave us all high hopes that the asshole culture could be turned around. And I do think some progress was made. Hayes-White stayed on the job for 15 years, long after Newsom had moved on up the political ladder. The SFFD women often clashed with her, but in general her policies and promotions were female friendly. Heather Fong, the police chief, hung in for ten years before the white men and the police union were finally able to run her out.
Wringing my hands and worrying that my newly remodeled building was about to go up in flames, I was grateful for the SFFD. And I had an epiphany: decades of fighting to make the department reflect San Francisco’s diverse population had paid off. The fire department had been integrated.
Now, a decade later, many of those first women have retired from the department with generous pensions. Some of them struggle with PTSD from years of harassment. Yes, the culture in the firehouses has changed for the better, but discrimination and harassment are still present. Anti-affirmative action laws passed in the 1990s make targeted recruitment illegal and make it difficult for California public safety entities to maintain the minimum number of women and minority employees that had been required by SFFD’s consent decree. There’s no guarantee that the department will not revert back to its old white male culture.
However, the new chief of the department, appointed in 2019, Jeanine Nicholson, a lesbian cancer survivor and also burn survivor, gives me hope that the department has changed for good. Still, I haven’t forgiven those white men.
I thank Bob Demmons, and especially Anne Young who sacrificed her career so other women could become firefighters. They were truly change makers.
I worked for Plant Bros. of San Francisco in the early Seventies. After a probation period, they sent me to a jobsite that had just begun, in the shadow of Telegraph Hill, right by the waterfront. They had to completely overhaul an old grain warehouse and convert it into an upscale office building. The location was great – you could walk at lunch-break over to the wharves, or just sit in a vacant lot and look at the Bay. And the building was interesting, especially as we began to mine our way into it. It was a remnant of the industrial past of San Francisco’s waterfront, a brick five-story warehouse with rugged interiors. We had to earthquake-proof it, tear up flooring, destroy the old freight elevator shaft, and then frame up the new sets of offices. The flooring had been laid when mahogany was cheap, so we were cutting through two tongue-and-groove, inch-thick mahogany floor layers. We burned out blade after blade of our skilsaws and spent weeks with crowbars ripping out and dumpstering the wood. Then re-flooring it with heavy plywood.
This first month was not really carpentry, but I liked it. For one thing, I had an apprentice assigned to me – which was my first time having that responsibility. He was a young Chinese guy who I liked immediately. Eugene knew he was a token of integration for the union – there were less than ten Asian carpenters, and the local was under pressure from all minorities to open up. Eugene and I were attuned in the political culture of San Francisco in the early Seventies and we also both knew how to work with alacrity. Things got even more interesting when they hired a Mexican-American woman named Inez Garcia. She was only the second woman in the union’s history. I had worked with the other, at the General Hospital job. They had assigned her to simply push in all the snap-ties on all the forms, thus earning her the name “snap-tie Mary”. There was a quarrel in the union to get her boss to actually let her learn the trade.
Now Inez was in that position, but it was more promising. The foreman was civil to her and we formed-up a little team, with Eugene and I and Inez and an older Italian guy named Ron. I was given the lead responsibility of cutting a big trapezoidal hole through all five floors for the new open stairway in the center of the building. The foreman and I studied the blueprint, devising a way to place that trapezoid correctly in reference to the walls – then I explained it all and assigned us to different duties. It went ahead really well at first. The challenge of the cutting was apparent and the two young recruits felt that I was teaching them things. We had lively lunch breaks, and I started looking forward to coming in to work.
After the layout was agreed on, we built walls along those lines from the floor to ceiling, tightly wedged so that the weight of the floor above would be supported when we cut the shape out of it. We finished it late one day, and the next morning we were going to start the cut on the second floor. I woke up early with a clutch of anxiety. Something was wrong, I was sure of it. I got to work early and studied the blueprint, stared at the lines, the walls…and suddenly knew what it was. We had built one of the walls on the wrong side of our chalk line; it would be the width of the two-by-six too small! Oh shit, this will look bad. Good that I’d caught it before we cut through above, but… here we had this big twelve-foot-high wall we had to tear down. Luck was with me, as the foreman had to be at another job for the first hour. I told the others what we’d done, and they gravely considered it. I told them we had a slim chance to avoid detection if we all four went at this furiously; removing nails, sledge-hammering the walls over, adding some pieces to fill in, plumbing-and-lining it again…and re-nailing. So that’s what we did, everyone working twice as fast as usual… and just had the wall in place and nailed when the foreman came in. I was already upstairs laying out the cuts. He waved happily and we were home free.
Those cuts were not simple either. Once we had lines snapped and were dead certain of them, we had to Skil saw through the double layers of mahogany. Then we confronted the huge joists, rough 4 x 12 timbers, some of them doubled-up. The foreman got us a chainsaw, and after carefully extending the lines down over the angles of the joists, I started lopping them off, confident from my memory of doing the same thing on the roof at the Unitarian Church. This all went very well, and we progressed upward the remaining four landings, making the same cut each time. Inez and I became good friends, Eugene was becoming the job wit, and I was beginning to enjoy my own leadership. It was interesting to see the way what they wanted to have happen socially was allowing me to be more who I was. Not a leader with commanding certainty, but someone who would let others see my process, my confusions. I could ask for help, and even make things fun.
The new elevator was going to be hydraulic, and it needed a hole as deep as the building was tall – for the piston to recede down into it when the elevator was on the ground floor. So there was a big drilling rig at the building’s edge, boring a four-foot-wide hole…sixty feet deep. At thirty feet they hit some rubble. Pieces of the old waterfront fill. Then there was stone. The auger couldn’t penetrate it and they brought in a specialist.
Mario was a Latino guy who was like a deep-sea diver. He was to be lowered down the hole with a jackhammer so he could break up the layer of stone. We saw him getting ready early the first morning and Inez asked him what the hell he was going to do? It looked strange, the special winch they had for lowering him down, the cradle of canvas straps, the jackhammer hose, his oxygen mask. He explained the whole thing as if it were routine, then says he never feels claustrophobic because he smokes a joint first. I had trouble understanding that part. If I smoked a joint first, the last place in creation I’d want to be, would be thirty feet down a shaft too narrow to move around in. But he assured us it was the only way he could stay calm and focus on the simple task of it. I said, what if you space out and don’t realize you’re not getting enough air? He said he had a regular code of tugs on the rope and that they would frequently tug at him for response. Jesus. We watched him go down…and then felt the vibrations of the hammer. He worked about a half hour and then they pulled him up, covered with dust. He laughed at us, drank some water, and went back down again. We talked about it all day, how…bizarre it was. Mario was either a great hero …or a chump who would be dead tomorrow.
He didn’t die, but he did share his joint with Inez, Gene & me the next morning. Two tokes was enough to make me want to go off wandering along the waterfront to study wave patterns and old fishermen. Gene and Inez were used to smoking more, and able to buoy me up those first few hours. The work we were doing was hilarious for a while. Gene started giggling at the stack of fresh plywood. He said there were flies on it, it was ridiculous somehow. I got a can of spray paint and wrote “ FLY WOOD” on it huge. We were hysterical. “Inez! Go get us a sheet of flywood!” She exploded when she saw it. What fun! But, but, … I was the lead man, I had to fight through this, I had to keep working and, like Mario, find somehow the even keel of bemusement yet purpose. It wasn’t easy and I decided next day to pass on the offered joint. In fact it was fifteen years before I ever tried that again, and then almost fell off a roof. Not all of us are as talented as Mario. At the end of the week we had decided that in truth he was a hero of the first order. He had broken through several feet of hard rock and the auger went back at it. Mario shook hands with a grin, and rode off into the fog.
Our foreman was transferred, and a new guy brought in. At first we liked him all right. He seemed comfortable with the two young minority apprentices, and came over to yak with us often. But after a week, he started being too comfortable…with Inez. He kept her after work one day with a contrived duty, and a few days later switched her to a solo task, which broke up our team. She was given the job of boring all the holes in the brick wall on every floor, that would allow the earthquake bolts to be set in from floor structure to exterior brick. There were hundreds of these to do, and one had to get down on knees or recline positions to hold the impact drill with any authority. It was…the worst job. Each of us had done it for a few hours on other days, and at first we thought, well, someone has to do it, apprentices often get this kind of grunge work. But then it went on the next day, and the next. Inez came up to me after work and said we had to talk. We went for coffee and she told me that Jim had propositioned her a couple of days back…and she had turned him down. He was pissed and told her he would make life miserable for her unless she ‘dated’ him.
So that explained the sentence of hard labor. Inez was furious, but she felt she had no grounds for saying she shouldn’t have to do the job. Inez was really a rugged, working-class woman. The last thing she wanted was to be perceived as whining about physical labor. In fact, she was as strong as me, a formidable person – who also was not a bit afraid of Jim physically. In fact, she was bigger than him. That made it even more disgusting. He was unable to force her or convince her or attract her. The raw power of the paycheck was what he had. When she had complained that he was treating her unfairly with the hole-drilling, he’d simply said, “Okay; then date me or you’re fired!”
I advised her to go to the union in the morning before work. Apprentices are supposed to be instructed, for one thing. And then of course there’s the sexual harassment, a legitimate and potentially scandalous thing for the company. I told her who to see, the most reliable of the business agents, and asked if she wanted me to come with her. She said no, she wanted to be able to carry herself as a stand-up member of the local, not dependent on anyone.
Next day she was gone. I called her that night and she said the union rep had taken her side with integrity and had called the company. They agreed to transfer her to another jobsite and make sure she was treated fairly if there was no threat of a lawsuit. Inez had agreed to this, but we both felt depressed. I felt I had to apologize for the whole backward mob of jerks that populate construction work. It was as if she had been a lantern in a cave, revealing our stupid scuttling ways. Ugh. She told me to drop that rhetorical bullshit, that the only thing that depressed her about it was that she would miss all of us. It was just one jerk, really… but one spoiled everything.
Jim was still foreman on that job for another two weeks – while we frosted him. Then, out of the blue, the union announced that contract negotiations had broken down and there would be a city-wide strike. When that all blew over, I found another job. Plant Bros. was tainted for me.
Eric Johnson is a printer who writes stories about his work as a carpenter in San Francisco.