My friend Marg was building a coffin for her friend Bob.
Marg was happy and excited that she could give back in this way, being a carpenter. But her project plans had to take into account her disability, a persistent back pain that had put an end to her career as a building inspector and that she now spends her life managing.
When we get together Marg and I often collaborate on inventions and engineer projects that never get built. But now she was actually completing one of them.
The funeral home had given Marg the dimensions of the concrete box that the coffin would have to fit into with the admonition that another coffin builder had exceeded the dimensions and at the burial the coffin had not fit.
At lunch with our retired carpenter friend Pat, Marg described her plan—a rectangular box rather than the typical hexagonal coffin shape. She used one four by eight sheet of plywood ripped lengthwise for the sides and ends. Another ripped sheet made the bottom and top. She made the handles with rope.
Pat and I represented tradeswomen and the 99%
Pat measures twice
Marg at the Women’s March with disability activists
“I had the lumberyard rip the ply for me, to save my back,” said Marg. “I can still use a Skil saw for short lengths but I don’t do ripping anymore.”
She screwed a ledger around the inside of the box so the bottom could just be dropped in and sit on the ledger. I’m an electrician, not a skilled carpenter, so I was proud of myself for knowing that a ledger is the ribbon of wood attached to the framing of a wall that the floor hangs on. I could totally visualize it.
“What size plywood are you using?” asked Pat.
“Half inch,” said Marg.
“Cross bracing?” asked Pat.
“Well, no,” said Marg. “I don’t think it needs it. I used structural plywood. Anyway, the coffin is now at the funeral home.”
Pat and I looked at each other and each knew what the other was thinking. I imagined the bottom piece of plywood bending with the weight of Bob’s body, the ply slipping off the ledger and the bottom piece along with the body falling out the bottom of the coffin as it was lifted up.
A moment of collective panic ensued. Marg frowned. She is a worrier.
“I’m sure it will be fine,” said Pat.
Marg’s description of her liberal use of glue and screws eased my concern.
Marg says there have been great strides made lately in screw technology. Hex head screws that go in easily and you don’t have to pre-drill.
“Remember when we didn’t have battery-operated drills?” I said. “I had to reach into my tool belt for a hammer and an awl to start the hole, and then screw in the screw with an old fashioned slotted head screwdriver. In those days we used ¾ inch sheet metal screws to strap our pipe to plywood. I had awesome forearms. People noticed my forearms.”
“Yeah, I had an awesome back till I fell off that ladder,” said Marg.
“And my knees were once awesome,” said Pat, who was recovering slowly from a recent knee replacement.
In my world of tradeswomen, unions, building trades, apprenticeship and worker safety, the appointments made by governors and presidents matter. The people who actually do the work of government, the staff that we community-based organizations seek to partner with, influence the success of our missions and the strategies we employ a great deal.
In the week after the election, comparing Trump to the one-time California governor, my good friend suggested that Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t so bad after all. He was pretty bad, I said.
My friend hadn’t had to work with people in the state government during the Schwarzenegger administration but I did and I know what happened in our state. It wasn’t just that our governor was accused of manhandling women and fathered a child out of wedlock with his maid. I would certainly prefer that men who have so little regard for women not be elected to office. But I’m most concerned with the people they appoint to government positions and the policies they promote and enact.
Before our Democrat governor Gray Davis was overthrown by a Republican cabal financed by Daryl Issa, I had been working with people in the Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) and its parent the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) to help women enter the construction trades through union apprenticeships. We rejoiced when one of our own was appointed to head the DAS, Henry Nunn, a black man who had been the apprenticeship director for the painters union. I had met him when we were interviewed together on a public TV program. By that time, Tradeswomen had been fighting with the DAS to pressure them to enforce state affirmative action regulations for decades. We had even filed a lawsuit against the department in 1981, which got us little. But Henry Nunn understood the necessity of overcoming the sexist racist hiring practices in the building trades and he brought on a staff that really cared about these issues. Our nonprofit, Tradeswomen Inc., built a great working relationship with these folks who took seriously their pledge to make working people’s lives better.
During Davis’ administration, we proposed to the DAS staff that we work together on projects promoting apprenticeship around the state. State regulated union apprenticeships offer the best training and highest paid jobs in construction. Among our joint projects was an apprenticeship fair for high school students that included women and girls that the DAS planned to roll out around the state.
After Governor Davis was recalled, Henry Nunn and his staff lost their jobs. Schwarzenegger, an actor with no government experience, essentially replaced department heads with the previous Republican governor Pete Wilson’s people. Republicans, in the state and nationally, have shown little interest in our issues or in enforcing affirmative action regulations. Under Republican administrations working people and tradeswomen have suffered.
When Jimmy Carter was president, tradeswomen were optimistic that new affirmative action regulations would increase our numbers, and they did. It turns out having the federal government in your corner is a huge advantage. We had reason to hope that women would soon achieve a critical mass in the construction trades.
And then came Reagan. At a recent exhibit of his photos of striking fruit pickers, journalist David Bacon reminded us that 40 percent of union workers voted for Reagan. Talk about voting against your own interests! Reagan had made his reputation as a union buster, so it was no surprise when the first thing he did was start busting unions. He also immediately began to dismantle and defund job training and affirmative action programs.
Tradeswomen saw that women and minorities were being targeted but still we attempted to work with the administration. At one point in the early 1980s, plumber Amy Reynolds even arranged for us to meet with Reagan’s Department of Labor representative, a guy named John Fox, who sat down with us in our tiny office in the Tenderloin. He seemed proud that he had had no prior experience with labor issues. He had been a basketball star (he said) who had worked on Reagan’s election campaign. Fox, and others in Reagan’s Labor Department we later met with in Washington DC, made it clear that their priority was to disempower unions. Because apprenticeship programs are joint projects of unions and industry, they intended to rid the system of union influence. They referred to construction jobs as “men’s work.”
Now, a month after the election of Trump, I suspect my friend is past hoping that he “won’t be so bad.” His appointments are looking far worse than Reagan’s. It’s fair to say that Trump’s appointments violate every ethical standard and it’s easy to predict that women, minorities, working people and all Americans except the 1% will be the losers.
“Why didn’t the women’s movement ever embrace our struggle to bring women into nontraditional jobs? I never understood that and I still don’t.”
Susie Suafai, a longtime tradeswomen advocate, posed this question to me at the Women Build Nations conference in Chicago last spring. I can’t always catch up with Susie in the San Francisco Bay Area so I was happy to find her sitting alone at the conference where 1500 tradeswomen and allies convened in Chicago April 29-May 1, 2016. I sat down with her and learned things about her that I had never known in all our 35 years of working together.
Susie is a large woman, now with graying hair, and still formidable. She punctuates sentences with a chuckle. I guess she’s mellowed as she’s aged, but I remember her as powerful, brusque, businesslike, intimidating and a bit cynical. It seemed to me that arranging a meeting with Susie was like consulting the Oracle. She was the goddess of employment development. Susie was, and is, the one who understood the big picture, employment trends on a regional scale. Early on she learned the workings of the apprenticeship system, and understood them better than the men who ran it. I remember a workshop that Susie led in the mid-70s. She laid out the complicated apprenticeship system for us tradeswomen activists, taught us who were the men in power and how to approach them with our demands. Susie was passing on what she had learned to a generation of feminist activists.
Susie Suafai came to California via American Samoa and Hawai’i. She was studying history at San Francisco State University and fell into a job at Advocates for Women when she was asked to help prepare women for apprenticeship testing in 1974. Advocates, in San Francisco, had won one of two demonstration grants from the US Department of Labor to see if women could be recruited to construction work. The other was in Denver, Colorado. These were the first two federally funded experiments to recruit women to do this work. Susie went on to help place hundreds of women into union construction apprenticeships in the Bay Area and she later became the director of Women in Apprenticeship Program, which had spun off from Advocates for Women in 1976. She also spent about five years in Los Angeles working at the Century Freeway Project recruiting women into the trades. Electrician and filmmaker Vivian Price made a film about that project, called Hammering It Out. Susie was planning to be a history teacher but she ended up being an employment advocate, and there are many tradeswomen who credit her with creating their careers.
We are about the same age. I’m in my mid-60s and I am retired as an electrician and an electrical inspector but Susie continues working at her trade of employment advocacy. She’s now working part-time for Tradeswomen Inc. to invent new ways to bring women into the construction trades.
Now, about Susie’s question, which is also my question: why didn’t the women’s movement embrace the tradeswomen’s movement? First, when people criticize the women’s movement for leaving out tradeswomen, I always object. I say we were the women’s movement and we are the women’s movement. I never felt separate from the women’s movement. I always felt like I was in the middle of it, like I was part of it.
Like Susie, as a young feminist I thought that employment was the bottom line for women. If you couldn’t get a decent paying job you could not be independent. A young woman in my history workshop at the conference voiced the issue. “If you have a good job, you don’t have to depend on a man. Once you have a trade, you can be financially independent.” It’s the same thing we said to each other in 1970.
My mother had very few choices and worked as an underpaid secretary all her life. My generation had some better choices but not many. Most often cited were teacher, nurse or secretary. In the 1970s I found other feminists who agreed with me about the importance of work. We founded organizations and allied with lawyers and advocates willing to help us fight for laws and regulations to end employment discrimination.
Though I participated in the other struggles of the feminist movement for abortion rights, for childcare, for equality in marriage, for an end to rape and discrimination, I still felt the jobs issue was primary. And for women who did not have access to a college education, trades jobs and jobs in the construction industry made a whole lot of sense. Ours was an anti-poverty movement. We talked a lot about what we called the feminization of poverty. Statistics showed that female single heads of households were getting poorer. We thought introducing women to trades jobs could reduce that trend.
Our issue was not at the top of the feminist movement’s list and I think there were many factors that contributed to invisibility. Partly it’s about class. The leaders of the feminist movement, mostly college-educated women, could not imagine themselves doing construction work and they probably did not have family members who were construction workers. Few of us knew how much money union construction workers made. For many Americans the idea of working construction was considered a step down. But workers with union contracts make more money than nonunion workers. And, in general, “men’s jobs” pay far more money than “women’s jobs.” Susie figures she would have made a lot more money in construction than she did in the nonprofit world.
It wasn’t like tradeswomen didn’t try to fit into feminist coalitions. I made many attempts to collaborate with other women’s organizations like NOW and like the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women (COSW) of which I was a member in the 1990s. They didn’t brush me off, but they already had other projects. COSW was focused on domestic violence, a cause championed by local lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and they had created a successful network of organizations. It made sense to not spread ourselves too thin. But at least I was able to expand COSW’s attention to the issue of on-the-job sexual harassment, a universal concern of tradeswomen.
Tradeswomen collaborated with feminist lawyers—in the Bay Area Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center—to secure rights to equal employment. In these efforts we had great success during the 1970s. We joined in coalition with racial minorites to fight the dismantling of affirmative action laws and regulations. In this, too, we were mostly successful. But having laws and regulations on the books is useless when they are not enforced, a strategy employed by Reagan/Bush. At that point the returns on our activism diminished, as did our support.
Funders didn’t take us seriously. I remember traveling to New York in the early 90s and meeting with the Ms. Foundation seeking funding for our efforts. The young woman I met with seemed anxious to find a way to not fund us and to get me out of her office. She categorized our organizations as “associations” and so not fundable. But I felt her rejection had more to do with other factors.
The barriers to women in the construction industry were seen as too great to spend resources on for too little gain. In fundraising meetings with the Women’s Foundation in San Francisco Tradeswomen Inc. was told that projects they had funded to support getting women into the trades had failed in the past and they had decided too few women were impacted by these projects. Many just did not think it was possible for women to do these jobs and to be happy doing them. But maybe that’s because most of the organizers couldn’t see themselves being happy doing them. They (and we) had internalized sexism and self hate. But organizers were also practical. They (and we) strategized to find ways to impact the greatest number of women.
A big part of our campaign to get women into the construction trades rested on the ability to get the word out to women about the money that could be made in these jobs. We needed the help of feminist and labor media to spread the word. Until the turn of the 21st century labor unions in the trades wanted nothing to do with us. We were accused of taking men’s jobs. But I think feminist publications could have made more of an effort to tell our story. Whenever an article did appear in a publication with a big subscription base (as in Ebony), hundreds of inquiries came in. High wages were a big draw. But traditional women’s magazines were only interested in matters of style, such as makeovers for women with “hard hat hair.”
Our fortunes changed after President Jimmy Carter left office. While some nontraditional jobs like bus driver began including women, we soon realized our efforts at integrating the construction trades were failing after Reagan took office in 1981 and began dismantling affirmative action programs.
Susie corrected me: “It’s true we lost footing during the second half of Reagan’s administration but we also made some headway in the first four years of his administration. At the end of the day, Title VII (of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) was and is the law of the land and we were willing to and are still willing to challenge under Title VII.” It’s this optimism that keeps Susie going, and the conviction that we can still improve the lives of women by helping them make careers in the trades.
In retrospect, whether or not we were dissed by the women’s movement seems a moot point. The women’s movement was an amorphous collection of activists with little money and few institutions. The partner with real money and power that could have helped our movement succeed is the federal government. The institutions we built in the 1970s never recovered from Reagan’s slashing of affirmative action and job training programs. I believe our efforts to bring a critical mass of women (at least ten percent) into construction trades would have succeeded if the Carter Administration’s programs that we fought so hard for had been left in place. As it is, the percentage of workers in the construction trades who are female has stayed at around two percent, roughly the same as it was in 1981 when Reagan took office.
Reporting on the Women Build Nations Conference in Chicago on May Day weekend: Two words: sensational and huge!
My old friend electrician Cynthia Long (IBEW Local 3 NYC) just texted me asking for news about the conference. Although it wasn’t her intention to guilt trip me, I felt bad for not having reported back to tradeswomen friends who couldn’t attend. Here are some highlights:
The climax for me was performing on stage for this gigantic audience of tradeswomen. My wife Holly and I wrote a song called Sister in the Brotherhood, and she accompanied me on the guitar. I was terribly nervous, but we didn’t blow it and that audience of rowdy construction workers liked us! Friends were kind enough to video our performance, and I will eventually figure out how to post the video on this site. (I’m old and tech challenged. It will happen). This week Donna Levitt brought me a copy of Organized Labor, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council’s newspaper. There was our picture on page 4! We feel like rock stars and the glow hasn’t yet worn off.
The conference was hosted by Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) and North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). A high point before the conference even began: CWIT’s fabu party at their headquarters and training center. I was delighted to connect up with old activists from way back and also meet young tradeswomen and CWIT trainees, many acting as greeters and volunteers.
Sisterhood T shirt
Nigerian tradeswomen activists and American tradeswomen friends
CWIT staff were fab hosts
The new generation of tradeswomen
Along with historian Brigid O’Farrell and sprinkler fitter Ella Jones, I gave a workshop called “Tradeswomen History: Learning From the Past to Change the Future.” We were able to include testimony from several “tradeswomen matriarchs” who are helping us learn from the past.
As it turned out we had a mini-reunion of some of us old tradeswomen activists from the 1970s and 80s. Carpenter Lisa Diehl, who’d been an organizer of Kansas City Tradeswomen, traveled from her home in West Virginia. She entertained us with stories of feminist actions from the bra burning banner hoisting days. Ronnie Sandler, carpenter and job training wiz, came from New Hampshire. Dale McCormick, the first female in the country to turn out as a carpenter who went on to win a place in the Maine state legislature and become state treasurer, represented Maine. We reunited with Paula Smith and Lauren Sugerman, two organizers from Chicago we’d worked with to put on the 1989 second national tradeswomen conference there. And some of the early tradeswomen organizers from Chicago were in attendance too, sporting t-shirts and sweatshirts from the 1970s.
Elevator constructor and activist LJ Dolin
Los Angeles IBEW Local 11 sisters in solidarity. Long-time activist Jane Templin (L)
Lauren Sugerman (L) and early CWIT organizers
Old timers L to R: Author Brigid O’Farrell, Sprinklerfitter Ella Jones, Carpenter Ronnie Sandler, Maine DOT advocate Jane Gilbert, carpenter Dale McCormick, electrician Molly Martin
This was the 15th Women Build conference and the 6th we have renamed Women Build Nations, including women from all over North America and other countries. It was the first in this series of conferences to take place outside of California and it brought in hundreds of women from the Midwest and other parts of the U.S. who’d never participated in the past conferences. Fifteen hundred tradeswomen of all crafts, allies and union brothers attended—the biggest tradeswomen conference ever!
My wife Holly and I just returned from a cruise to the Caribbean. I know, it seems like a pretty bourgeois activity, but this was a lesbian cruise with Olivia, a company that commandeers whole ships so lesbians can commune with each other, be ourselves and be out. Our ship, the Westerdam of Holland Line (owned by Carnival Cruise Lines), is one of the “balcony-laden floating condominiums” with stories of ocean-view staterooms. Cruise ships don’t have to be as seaworthy or built as strongly as ocean liners, which actually sail across oceans. Cruise ships sail in and out of the same port, and about a third of all cruises leave and return to ports in Florida, as did ours. I was ecstatic to be sailing with 1900 lesbians and figured there were probably many tradeswomen sisters among us.
Ft. Lauderdale Everglades terminal
Loading the ship
We Meet a Sister Electrician
One day at breakfast Holly overheard a woman talking about her work as an electrician. Finally, another tradeswoman! We joined her table immediately. Her name is Stephanie Jackson, she’s from Mobile, Alabama, and she works maintenance at a steel plant in the hot dip section where steel is dipped in zinc. She’s the only woman in her trade working there. She said she was married and having trouble paying bills when she got a job at a power plant through an affirmative action program. After working there for several years and training men who would then be promoted while she was denied journey status, she decided to look for work elsewhere (that power plant was later destroyed by Hurricane Katrina). She worked construction for several years—not her cup of tea—and then got the maintenance job at the steel plant. I was thankful my wife is good at eavesdropping.
I’d asked to meet with the chief stationary engineer and had received a formal confirmation note on Holland stationery, sealed and signed by the International Guest Relations Associate. Stephanie came with me to meet the engineer. He is Dutch from Rotterdam. Most of the crew is Philippine and Malaysian. We started in the control room where we asked general questions about the ship. It was built in 2004 in Italy, where most of these cruise ships are built. These ships are also built in a few other places in the world, but none are built in the U.S. and none are built in the Netherlands. Too expensive, said our engineer. Some of the new ships will hold over 6000 passengers, but Holland ships are smaller. The Westerdam is built for a maximum of 2,200 passengers. The crew numbers about 800.
My formal invitation
With Stephanie and the chief engineer
We Get to See the Guts of the Ship
Then we started down the metal stairs, Stephanie and I uttering exclamations of wonder periodically. Whoa! First we visited the shops: upholstery, carpentry, electrical, machine. These were the cleanest shops I had ever seen. The ship has a crew of eight electricians, with two people just charged with changing light bulbs. Lighting is slowly being changed over from incandescent and fluorescent to LED and new ships are manufactured with LED systems. Next we saw the bakery where bakers were weighing dough and prepping rolls for baking. Stephanie asked if she could take their picture and I could tell they had big smiles under their masks. The ovens and equipment are all electric, generated from the diesel engines and transformed down to 120/230 VAC. We saw the storerooms and staging area for deliveries. There are rooms for everything, including a florist’s refrigerator, which doubles as a morgue and must be emptied if someone on the ship dies. Presumably all the unrefrigerated flowers are then used to make a funeral wreath. Or maybe the remaining living passengers all get extra bouquets.
Engines, Transformers, Scrubbers
The electrical system and most of the other systems work like a big building except everything is way more efficient. We saw the engine rooms where 11,000VDC is generated. Then it’s transformed to 960VAC 3 phase. I didn’t take notes, so may be misremembering some of these numbers, but they were voltages neither of us electricians had ever worked with. The ship has four generators, plus an emergency generator, and five big transformers. There are two kinds of diesel used; the heavy diesel is used while out to sea, but it’s essentially refined on the ship using centrifugal force! One kind of fuel is heated and the other is cooled and the equipment doesn’t always react well to that changeover, which occurs with regularity. Because of a California law (thank you CA!), the diesel products of combustion must be scrubbed before being put into the air, so scrubbers were added after this ship was built. We also saw a jet engine, which is used only in Alaska because the Alaska law requires that zero smoke be emitted. However, even though it doesn’t make smoke, the engine is twice as polluting and the fuel is much more expensive. It’s quite beautiful to look at though. The Azipod propulsion system developed in Finland automatically guides the ship.
What Happens to My Poop?
The HVAC system is enormous and also super efficient. Heat exchangers create condensation, which is then pumped to the laundry. And the ship makes its own potable water from seawater, which is compressed, heated and then condensed! I can testify it tastes fine. U.S. health regulations require the addition of a small amount of chlorine. Then we got to the vacuum toilet system. When you flush, a powerful vacuum pump sucks up the contents of the toilet. Don’t flush while you are still sitting! We are cautioned not to put anything but paper and the waste from our bodies into the toilets or they will get backed up. Then a plumber will have to fish out the thing or push it further into the system where it is retrieved. Other waste can’t be left in the system because the ship treats its effluent with digestive bacteria. The effluent can be dumped in the ocean only when it reaches a high level of refinement. There are three levels, and three distances from shore that it can be dumped. (We are always level A, says the engineer proudly). The treated water that results is clean enough to drink, but there’s a rather unappetizing smell so we are not required to drink it. Whew! Other waste on the ship is recycled and we visited the garbage center where workers were dumping the contents of our wastebaskets onto a stainless steel table, sorting every bit of our garbage. Food waste is ground up and dumped in the ocean. Plastic is compacted and taken ashore. Paper is shredded and burned on ship. So remember, some worker must handle whatever disgusting thing you dump in the trash.
Every Day Something Breaks
There were so many systems I fear I’m forgetting them. I was surprised to learn that even large complicated maintenance projects take place at sea. But since cruise lines operate their ships 52 weeks a year in order not to lose money, maintenance must take place at sea. Every day something breaks, said the engineer. On this day technicians were designing a system to reduce problems from changing the two types of diesel fuel. We learned that the Westerdam will be in dry-dock next year and then will sail a different route.
Holly and I had a fine time at sea and now we’re very happy to be back on solid land (we both got a bit seasick). I loved meeting so many interesting women, but meeting Stephanie, another electrical geek, and touring the guts of the ship with the chief engineer was the highlight of the cruise for me. I hope to connect up with her again at the Women Building Nations Conference in Chicago April 28-May 1.
I’ll be posting more about the cruise on our travel blog: travelswithmoho.wordpress.com.
The culture of the construction site was manmade. No women had been involved in its creation and so we had to negotiate the best we could. I said to myself I had a father and three brothers, I should be able to fit in. I’d been a tomboy as a kid and thought I knew how to hang with males of the species. Every new job, each with a new group of guys, held new challenges.
I quickly learned that my coworkers thought women were incapable of doing the physically challenging work of construction. They brought to work a stereotype of women as whiny, useless, money-grubbing weaklings who needed a man to give them worth in the world. (Most of these guys were divorced and still angry at ex-wives). They repeated to me an old saying: If this work was easy, women and children could do it. Something told me that when they repeated it to each other, the word they used was not women.
“Cunt,” whispered the ironworker tying rebar next to me as I tied pipe to it. Then he quickly moved on. After I got over the shock, here’s what I thought: “Ironworkers are a bunch of cowardly sexist dickheads.”
My coworkers told me women weren’t good partners on the job because we couldn’t be trusted to hold up our end of a 300 pound piece of floor duct. We were all afraid of heights, we didn’t know how to swing a hammer and hit anything. We were just there to get a man. Our presence on the job would cost the contractor money since it took us twice as long to complete a task. When criticized we would cry, so they had to be careful what they said to us. (Too bad that didn’t translate to not insulting us.) Their worth was predicated on our worthlessness, our lack of merit. You are only as tall as the person you are stepping on.
I went to work each day with the objective of overturning the old stereotype. I was usually the only female on the job, and very conscious that I would embody a new improved stereotype. I worked hard, but was careful not to work so hard that I’d be accused of breaking down conditions and brown-nosing the employer. I tried to work just as fast as they did, but not faster. I picked up my end of the floor duct and used lifting skills to save my back, while thinking to myself that nobody should have to lift 300 pounds of anything. I was not afraid of heights, but if I had been, I never would have admitted it. I never cried, even when I felt like it.
A worker was welcomed into the construction culture in a backhanded manner. You didn’t know whether you were being dissed or included. Race and ethnicity as well as gender were called out with jokes and put-downs. How one responded was noted. You were supposed to go along to get along.
The men could be empathetic while at the same time expressing homophobia, sexism and racism. I tried to come out as a lesbian whenever the opportunity arose because I was convinced this honesty made the job easier for me. On one job I worked with a traveler* from Arizona. We were assigned to tape connectors and boxes in the trailer while we waited for the deck to be readied for the electrical crew, so we had time to chat. He told me his wife worked as a nurse in a hospital in Oakland and the place was overrun with faggots. She was disgusted. Here was my opportunity! I admitted to being a dyke and probably noted that fags were a lot more fun to work with than his sorry ass. At that he did an about-face. He needed to make a confession too. He acknowledged that he was an alcoholic, that he was in recovery and that he was letting me in on the secret. That made us even, and we were friends from then on.
Ethnic slurs were thrown at people with what seemed like a try at love. Wetback, Chink, Dago were used inclusively, like welcome to our club, this is your identity. If I didn’t object in the beginning, my nickname would be Girl. I objected, but not to every slight. You had to pick your battles. I let them know I wasn’t keen on sexist or racist remarks. No one ever said the N word in racially-mixed company, maybe because they didn’t want to risk getting the shit beat out of them. The exception was travelers who came from sister union locals in the South, but they only used the word when conversing with whites. Talking about football, one remarked, “I never understood why anyone would want to watch a bunch of niggers running around a field.” The Northern white guys on the crew were silent after that. Maybe they were seriously considering that football was no longer a white game. Or maybe they were silent on my account and would have agreed with the cracker if I hadn’t been there. I hope it was because they were so appalled they were speechless.
The Southern travelers were a different breed—bigots who bragged about killing cops and evading taxes. All white. The story was told about one guy that he kept a length of 000 wire under the seat of his truck and had once used it on a cop’s head. One day he drug up** and asked for his check. He was on the run, they said. White trash and dangerous.
That’s the way it was, and few of us minorities were exempt. On one job I had a Jewish foreman. I knew he was Jewish when others on the job started making gas chamber and oven jokes. Jewish men—at least out Jewish men—were rare on the construction site, although I knew many Jewish women who worked in construction. This guy had been a carpenter and later got into the electrician apprenticeship. He was a skilled mechanic and a competent foreman with an upbeat attitude. He let the jokes slide off.
The job was an interior remodel of the Hyatt Regency hotel in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center. Cozy and insulated, we worked on an upper floor of the high-rise, piping in the ceiling, running up and down ladders. The construction crew would assemble in the basement in the mornings and ride the service elevator up to our floor together. The hotel pastry chef, a stern Austrian, came to work at the same time and rode the elevator with us. He never spoke to us, we figured, because he thought himself better than a bunch of construction workers. An unflattering stereotype of Austrians immediately took root in my mind. Austrians equal Nazis. Our crew began to refer to him as Herr Pastry. My foreman always spoke to him. Good morning or how are you this morning. The pastry chef may have nodded but he never spoke or smiled. It became a game. The Jew would force the Nazi to acknowledge us lower class plebes (the irony was that we union workers probably made way more money than he did).
Our IBEW contract gave us a half-hour lunch break 12 to 12:30 and one ten-minute coffee break, which we took at 10 am. I usually brought a bagel with cream cheese for break. I’d be starving by 10 even after eating a huge breakfast at 7. On jobs where the ten minutes was taken literally, I found I barely had time to down the bagel, which required some chewing, and to wash it down with my thermos of tea. This job was a bit looser. Coffee break might last 15 minutes.
“It’s too short,” I whined to no one in particular while standing on a ladder with my head in the ceiling. The piece of EMT*** I’d just cut didn’t fit and I’d have to start over. “What a thing to tell a man!” came back to me from the Irish carpenter foreman whose head was the only one I could see up there. That made me smile. Irish guys—full of blarney.
“Break time,” someone yelled, and I looked down to see coffee being served in a fancy silver service with a huge plate of pastries beside it. The gift had come from the pastry chef, and for the rest of that job we had complimentary coffee and pastries at 10 am, thanks to the persistent civility of our foreman. My stereotype of Austrians crumbled. I’m still waiting for help with my prejudice against ironworkers and white Southern men.
*Travelers follow the work around the country when work at home is slow.
**To drag up is to quit the job.
***Electrical Metallic Tubing, a kind of pipe used in the electrical industry.
My story, Wonder Women, posted on this blog on 9-18-15, which takes place in a Tenderloin cross dressers’ bar, is based on true events. But I couldn’t remember exactly where the bar was, and I couldn’t remember the name of the bar. So uncovering the facts required some sleuthing.
Barry the bartender
Served by Jose inside Aunt Charlie’s
Aunt Charlie’s neon
I needed to find an old-timer who had been there. So I set about describing this gritty watering hole, as best I could remember, to every old codger gay guy I knew. Nobody could remember having been there, or maybe they just weren’t talking.
I had a vague memory that the bar was associated with Charlotte Coleman, who owned a number of gay bars in San Francisco from the 1950s through the 1990s. During the 1970s Wonder Woman Electric worked on the electrical systems in many of her bars as well as in her home in Noe Valley. I learned that Charlotte, in her 90s, lived in an assisted living institution in Vallejo. Then I was lucky to meet an old friend of hers serendipitously. Roberta, in her 80s, regularly visited Charlotte and offered to drive me there to meet her.
In the meantime, I discovered a website, Lost Gay Bars of SF, with a map made by a guy named Mike Stabile that shows the locations of gay bars in San Francisco from the 1960s through the 1980s. I needed the name of the bar or the address to use this resource. I was stuck. But Mike responded to my questions in a Facebook message. He thought the bar might be Aunt Charlie’s Lounge on Turk Street, still there, perhaps the very last of the old Tenderloin gay bars. I googled Aunt Charlie’s and found an informative web page with interviews of some of the old timers. http://www.auntcharlieslounge.com. Could this be the bar I was searching for? It looked just as seedy as I remembered. And Aunt Charlie’s still has drag shows! I had to go there.
By the time I could arrange to meet Charlotte, her health had deteriorated and new visitors were no longer welcomed. But I did get Roberta on the phone and described the bar to her. Sure, she said, she remembered that bar. It was called the Blue and Gold and it was on Turk Street. It was a black and white bar, she said, meaning it was racially integrated. It was Charlotte’s most notorious bar, site of nearly nightly fights and disturbances. “They broke the toilet regularly.” But the Blue and Gold made far more money than any other bar, Roberta remembered.
Blue and Gold! I had the name! I had the street! Now I could use the Lost Bars map to locate the bar. I quickly found the address: 136 Turk. The description on the website said the piano bar opened in 1947 and closed in 1993. The Blue and Gold had been right across the street from Aunt Charlie’s Lounge.
I chose a Saturday afternoon for a visit to Aunt Charlie’s, knowing that I’d be unlikely to stay up late enough to hit the drag show. The one hundred block of Turk Street still rates high on the funky list. But the bar’s regulars and bartenders welcomed us two old dykes and were happy to talk about the old days. Barry, who had tended bar at Charlie’s for decades, remembered the Blue and Gold, as well as dozens of other neighborhood gay bars, all closed. The building’s exterior had been covered in blue and gold tile, he said. (Nobody knows what the colors meant in 1947. A hangout for Cal alumni?) It has been painted over recently and it now houses the SF City Impact Rescue Mission. I noticed that the address is now 140, not 136, Turk.
The historic Cadillac Hotel
Graphic from the museum
Inside the new Tenderloin Museum
Feeling in a historical mood, we strolled the couple of blocks over to the new Tenderloin Museum, housed in the historic Cadillac Hotel. There we learned about the rich history of the Tenderloin neighborhood, including the gay and transgender scene in the 1960s. The Compton Cafeteria riot in 1966, “one of the first demonstrations against transgender and transsexual violence in San Francisco,” took place right up the street from the Blue and Gold. It was a fitting completion of my magical history tour. Tenderloinmuseum.org.