Happy Juneteenth, a new federal holiday! And happy Summer Solstice! This week we celebrate the opening up of California and Santa Rosa from covid restrictions. I’ve taken off my mask to eat at a restaurant, I saw a movie at the Summerfield (In the Heights—it was great), and I flew on a plane to visit family in Washington. Holly and I took a road trip to Pismo Beach and we hosted friends for lunch in our house. The awfulness of 2020 is starting to fade, but we must strive to remember lessons it taught us about resilient viruses and fragile democracies.
Two exciting developments took place in our neighborhood in May. The first was the birth of two fawns in Linda’s yard across the street from us. I was out in the front yard when Linda called me over. She had been getting her newspaper when she saw the doe and fawns. The mom left for a bit to forage, but she came back later to fetch her kids.
The second thing was a fire. On a windy day I was visiting with neighbor Pam when we looked up to see clouds of smoke blowing by her windows. When we ran outside to see what was happening, the street was already full of freaked out neighbors.
“I’ve got PTSD from 2017,” yelled Renee. Our block was evacuated when the Tubbs fire bore down on the neighborhood.
Fire trucks were already at the scene extinguishing the blaze that had combusted in Howie’s front yard which had just been landscaped with bark mulch. Apparently a passing driver had thrown a cigarette that ignited the mulch. This set us all worrying that mulch might be the wrong landscaping material as, like good citizens, we replace our water intensive lawns. And so for us on Hyland Drive fire season began in May. It gets earlier every year.
Because she grew up here and is now in her 60s, my partner Holly has taken on the character of an old timer. Lately she’s been telling me that when she was growing up the wind didn’t blow as much as it does now. She also said it was always foggy in the summer; she remembers freezing her ass off at swimming lessons before the sun came out. She ran into somebody recently who also grew up here who corroborated her theory. Perhaps for climate change updates we should just ask old timers what the weather was like when they were growing up.
Fire season with its smoke and toxic air has caused us to depend on a plethora of apps for air quality. We like purpleair best because it uses air quality monitors installed by citizens. We got one and so we can look at the map and see what the air quality is right in our back yard within ten-minute intervals. People also install them indoors. The purpleair map usually shows people’s indoor air to be worse than outdoor.
Nowadays there are lots of online resources to check air quality, smoke, temperature, rain and thunder, clouds, waves—just about anything we can imagine. My favorite discovery this year is windy.com. The visuals are so cool. You can change the screen to show different aspects, but my favorite is wind. Here are some things I’ve learned from the visual image: It’s a lot windier over the ocean than over the land. The wind tends to hug the coast and it can travel either north to south or south to north. Once I watched while it changed direction! Also the app gives you ten days of previews. Our westerly wind tends to blow through the Golden Gate and then travel north unless it’s really windy. Then it can come right over the Coast Range, which generally stops it.
The offshore wind is another animal altogether, coming from the east. Diablo winds propelled the Tubbs fire in 2017 that burned 5200 homes here. Like the Santa Ana winds in southern California, our Diablo winds originate inland usually in the autumn when hot dry weather creates the worst fire conditions. The term Diablo wind first appeared after the 1991 Oakland firestorm in which the wind came from the direction of Mount Diablo in the east.
As fire season starts, we find ourselves in the middle of a historic drought. It’s always something, right? We citizens are doing our best to reduce water use, collecting shower water in buckets, letting lawns go brown and reducing irrigation to our gardens. Californians are practiced at this. I remember the first time I saw this sign in a bathroom: IF IT’S YELLOW LET IT MELLOW. That was in Sonoma County at a friend’s house during the drought of 1977.
Enjoy the longest day of the year. After June 21, the days shorten and nights lengthen. Rain will come with the darkness and I’ve got to admit I’m looking forward to that.
The Celts were a bunch of tree worshippers and their pagan holiday of Beltane featured a May Bush, decorated and shown off around town. The Celts celebrated the holiday with big smokey bonfires into which the May Bush was sacrificed at the end. Beltane, May 1, marks the Gaelic start of summer.
Our celebration was fireless and smokeless and we didn’t get around to decorating a May Bush, although I love the idea and think we should adopt it. But we celebrate by appreciating the flora and fauna in our garden and neighborhood. This spring we’ve been particularly appreciating our birds.
This is our fourth spring living and gardening here at Hylandia, and we’ve watched the behavior of our local birds change over that time. Now we see that some birds just visit our garden and some live here year round, becoming family of sorts. They no longer fly high over our yard, but swoop fast and low over our heads.
In the midst of our human pandemic the birds experienced their own pandemic, an outbreak of salmonella especially prominent among flocks of pine siskins. They migrated here because of a bird irruption, the greatest irruption of these birds on record, according to Audubon. The pine siskin is a finch that looks very much like a goldfinch, brown striped with yellow markings. But they were easily identifiable because they looked sick. Dying birds lay on the ground in our garden and the neighborhood.
On the advice of the Bird Rescue Center we took our feeder down, but now the pine siskins have moved on and Holly has put it back up. The fickle finches have returned to the feeder. They don’t live here, but they don’t migrate either. They roost elsewhere and only come in for eating and bathing. Robins occasionally drop in for a bath and jays are regular visitors.
Crows built a nest at the top of the big oak tree in the next-door yard and so we had crows visiting our garden often for about a month. By mid-April the chicks had fledged. The crows have disbursed now but for a time the crow noise was deafening. Baby birds don’t look babyish at all. They sometimes are even bigger than their parents. But you can tell the fledglings because they flap their wings asking to be fed. And very often we see adults feeding them. For the first time we saw crows coming down to our fountain to drink and bathe and just check out the yard.
The crow noise must’ve also inspired the mockingbirds around here. One was singing all night for a few weeks. He would stand on top of a telephone pole–mockingbird territory. Then he would do an acrobatic dance, jumping up in a somersault before coming back down to the top of the pole, singing all the while. Mockingbirds are loud but not boring because they sing lots of different songs. They have learned the song of the titmouse: sweetie sweetie. They’ve also learned the sound of car alarms although their version is more songlike than the actual alarm. Leave your windows open and they might keep you up at night.
We were delighted that the titmice chose our birdhouse to nest in this year. Once the nest was chosen the male’s call began to sound threatening and kind of rough, unlike his usual sweet song. He aggressively patrolled the yard, now his territory. Some people think crows in the garden scare away little birds, but nesting titmice and crows cohabited well here.
Oak titmice are year-round residents of the yard and so are California towhees. Here is something we have discovered this year: towhee sex is is violent and it happens in midair in a fast flurry of bodies and feathers. The birds make weird grunting sounds that we never hear from them otherwise. Their usual call is a boring and sometimes irritating cheep cheep cheep that can go on for hours and is loud enough to wake humans. Chimneys and rooftops are their territory. They scratch the ground, chicken-like, which to me is rather comforting.
Ok, I must admit a slight irrational prejudice against the towhees. More than once I’ve mistaken one of them for a rat in the garden. They move in a devious way like rats, scurrying with heads down. And they’re a similar brown color to the rats that live here. I do know this unfortunate resemblance is not their fault.
We have learned the beautiful songs of the Bewicks wren this spring but we’ve only seen one and assume it’s the male. He likes to eat lettuce planted in straw bales in the garden, and he sometimes comes to the feeder for suet. We have been anxious for him to find a mate, settle down and live with us.
Mourning doves visit most often in the morning and evening at dusk. We know that their nests can be found in unlikely places. In my San Francisco garden the female laid eggs in a depression in a flower pot on the back stairs. We could see everything. Sadly, so could the crows; the eggs were stolen. Here in Santa Rosa we haven’t seen them nesting, though our neighbor Linda told us they nested on her electric meter last year.
One day I watched an elaborate dove mating ritual. There was wing flapping and feather ruffling and head bobbing and something that looked like passionate making out where they would grab each others’ beaks and hold on while moving back and forth. It went on for a while. Then another time they just did it with no ritual at all. The couple, it turns out, only has to court once. They are a pair for the season.
Lately we’ve been delighted to see a pair of hooded orioles taking baths in the fountain. They do migrate south for the winter but have nested in the last two seasons in a bottle brush tree in the neighbor’s yard.
Bird behavior is so very varied, often we can’t even confirm our observations by looking these things up in our bird books or online (I couldn’t find anything written about towhee sex). But we are having great fun learning by observing.
In the 80s, when she was still drinking and cocaine was plentiful, Pat and I used to frequent piano bars in San Francisco.
The Mint on Market Street near the Castro was our favorite, a magical showcase where every night was a surprise. The piano player was a bearded mustachioed man who nevertheless enunciated so clearly that I could watch his lips and learn the words as he sang. Pat already knew the words to the songs in the Great American Songbook. She was seven years older than I, a generational difference in her mind. I had come of age in the 60s listening to rock and roll. She had come of age in the 50s listening to what we now think of as the American standards–songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer.
Prematurely gray, Pat was always seen as older and was often mistaken for my mother and I her son. More than once we were confronted by department store clerks telling her she could not bring her son into the women’s dressing rooms. At Macy’s Pat yelled through the door, “She’s not my son. She’s my lover.” That worked.
Cocaine allowed us to drink and still stay awake till late when singers from Broadway shows would often join us at the Mint. When a star or a known accomplished singer would come in, those of us around the piano would make way for them. The singer could choose any song (the piano player knew them all) and we would transition from a chorus to an audience.
The piano player stayed in a key fit for tenors, which made it hard for me to sing along. I’m not really a soprano and couldn’t quite reach the higher octave. But Pat, who sang tenor in a mixed gay and lesbian group, the Vocal Minority, was in her element. She has a lovely tenor voice—low for a woman.
The Mint was a center of culture for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, formed in 1978. There were a lot of them—100 had shown up for the first gathering—and they frequented the Mint often, making our musical experience especially rich.
Cocaine also made me talkative and I enjoyed chatting up guys at the bar. Piano bars still held a vestige of the previous gay generation, men who had had to hide their sexuality to keep jobs and live in the straight world. They seemed less exuberant than their younger brothers, quieter and more formal. They still spoke in gay code. They might refer to themselves as “friends of Dorothy,” but the words gay and homosexual were never spoken. You might find working class guys–a painter or gardener–sitting at the bar. I loved learning their stories.
One night I struck up a conversation with one of the younger guys, a well-dressed man in his thirties. I began asking him about his life. What drew him here? He said his lover had been a singer with the chorus and that his lover had died the month before. I kept asking. He kept answering. I learned that not only had his lover died but his three best friends had all died recently. I asked for details and he delivered. Maybe he was grateful to have someone to tell this to. I hope so. But for me it was too much to take in. So much tragedy all at once! What does one do with this news? I put my arm around his shoulder and thought to myself that I would be a bit more cautious asking questions in the future. I needed to protect my own heart from this clutch of pain.
In San Francisco in the 80s and 90s the “wasting disease” framed our culture. One of the singers in Pat’s group, a young man in his twenties, had been diagnosed with AIDS and had died only two weeks later. Castro had become the street of sorrows. Fragile men walked with the aid of canes and were pushed in wheelchairs. The local gay newspaper, the BAR, published the names of the dying weekly. We anxiously scanned the pages for our friends’ names. I learned that our favorite piano player, the guy with facial hair from whom I had learned the words to so many songs, had died. His name was Frank Banks and he hailed from Albuquerque where, as a teenager he had become pianist at the First Baptist Church. He had moved to San Francisco in 1974.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus has over the years lost more than 300 members to AIDS. In 1993 they took a photo with the seven still living members dressed in white shirts and the others with their backs turned to the camera, representing those lost to AIDS. In the 80s and 90s the chorus became a place for gay men to grieve together the loss of their brothers. Today the chorus still lives and continues to entertain audiences in San Francisco and around the world.
The Mint was one of many gay bars in the city owned by lesbian businesswoman Charlotte Coleman, who opened her first gay bar in San Francisco in 1958. It evolved into a karaoke lounge in the 90s and it’s still there. But I never went back. I knew it just wouldn’t be the same without the piano and Frank Banks, the piano player.
We never returned to the Mint, but Pat has never stopped singing. The Vocal Minority folded after all the men in that chorus died. Since then Pat has sung in several community choruses and a lesbian quartet called Out On A Clef, but never in another mixed gay chorus.
We both feel lucky to have been part of the flowering of gay culture in San Francisco and particularly at the Mint. It was the best and also the worst of times.
Al and I first met when I walked into the open door at Summit pump station. He was kneeling on the concrete floor painting one of the pump motors that supply water to the city of San Francisco. When he saw my figure standing in the doorway he jumped back, like I was there to assault him. That gave me a little jolt of power—that a man might be startled by me. Yeah, I thought to myself, I’m a big strong woman and men flinch at the sight of my form. But there was a safety issue. The pump stations are situated in remote parts of the city. And I wasn’t supposed to be there. Or, in reality, no one knew where I was at any particular moment. As the one electrician responsible for all the stations, I kept my own schedule, responding sometimes to complaints or work orders and sometimes just checking to make sure the electrical equipment was working.
“Hey,” he said, squinting at me in the sun glaring through the open door. “Who are you?”
“I’m the electrician. Who are you?” I answered. But I knew he was a stationary engineer. Painting motors is part of their job.
The corps of engineers worked out of the Lake Merced pump station where they reported to the chief engineer, Joe. I thought I’d met all of them at one or another pump station. But Al was a retiree just filling in for a coworker who was in rehab. I figured he was about three decades older than me, a small redhead still with a good bit of hair left. He reminded me of a leprechaun—little and cute. We liked each other immediately and over the course of a few months we became friends. Not the kind of friends who see each other outside of work. But we would share personal information that we might not share with others.
There was one other engineer I was tight with, Jesus, and he would sometimes meet up with me and Al at lunch break. Jesus was transitioning from male to female and had been taking hormones for a few months. He had saved up enough money for the operation and was in the process of scheduling it. Al told me Jesus had announced to their fellow engineers that he now wanted to be called Rosa.
“How did they react?” I asked, thinking that must have taken some courage.
“They looked at their hands and didn’t say anything,” he said. “Just some snickering.” Knowing that he was planning to transition, his coworkers had ignored Jesus and refused to talk to him. Now that he was Rosa, the treatment would be no different.
Jesus told me he had known he was really female from the time he was a child in Mexico. A generally happy person with a positive attitude, Rosa was positively delighted to finally be female, to be herself. I thought she radiated serenity.
I wish I could say the transition was seamless for me, that I found it easy to switch from Jesus to Rosa, but I found it difficult. I had gotten to know this person as Jesus and now it was like I was having to start all over again. The pronoun thing confounded me. Back in the day we feminists had pushed to rid the English language of male and female pronouns, but the idea never took hold. I dearly wished for those genderless pronouns whenever I screwed up, but Rosa was forgiving.
I was suspicious of most of the men at work. Let’s just say they didn’t welcome me, the lone female, into the fold. I tried to give them as little information about myself as possible, assuming it would be used against me. I knew that I could not be friends with these men. But I had begun to feel differently about Al and Jesus.
I learned that Al was married to a French woman, that they had no children. I learned that he had been around the world as a seaman. Like many of the engineers, Al had learned his trade in the Merchant Marines. I knew some things about the Merchant Marines—that the celebrated San Francisco Communist Bill Bailey had been one and that he was not the only commie. I knew that the mariners had performed a vital service in World War II, risking their lives to supply materiel to the fronts. I knew that, while they weren’t part of the military, the merchant navy had suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of the military. Their boats were always being torpedoed. Then, after the war, they were attacked and denied any benefits because they were all branded as communists, which of course most of them were not. They were just civilian patriots willing to risk their lives to protect the lives of others.
I knew enough to gain some trust with Al before asking but I had to ask, “Were you a Communist?”
All I got was a wry smile, enough to let me know I should stop asking questions.
But that was enough for me. I call myself a communist with a small c, more of a new leftist. I’m always delighted to meet up with the old commies, for whom I have great regard. They don’t always want to admit past affiliations. Most of the Reds were disheartened by knowledge of Stalin’s murderous legacy. Many were hounded for years by Hoover’s FBI. Jobs were lost and lives ruined.
Now it was 1985, the depths of Reaganism, which made all of us minorities jumpy and skittish and gave our detractors permission to be openly hostile. The AIDS epidemic was ravaging San Francisco’s gay men’s community while Reagan refused to even acknowledge the disease. Women—feminists–had come under attack along with anyone who didn’t fit into the back-to-the-fifties scenario. Immigrants, transgender people and communists too. Maybe that’s why the three of us gathered, just to know we weren’t alone.
Jesus, now Rosa, had begun presenting as female, letting her hair grow and wearing women’s clothes. But she didn’t really look that different than before. We all wore work clothes. My work outfit consisted of boots, canvas work pants, a T-shirt with a flannel shirt over the top, and when it was cold a wool-lined vest or jean jacket. A hard hat was not required on this maintenance job and I didn’t have to wear a tool belt. I carried my hand tools in a leather tool bag. And I drove a truck painted Water Department colors, Kelly green and white, in which I carried wire, pipe, benders and all the other tools and material I might need. Rosa, when dressed in work clothes, looked like me.
Rosa was the first transgender person I got close to, but I was not completely naïve. Ire had been raised in the tradeswomen community when we learned of a transgender female carpenter in our midst. She had transitioned after working as an already skilled male carpenter. She was getting work while we were frozen out because we were women. The contractor got to count her as an affirmative action hire. It didn’t seem fair. Then there was a continuing dustup in the lesbian community about a transgender sound engineer who worked for Olivia Records, the women’s music company. She had been trained while still male. We women wanted to do everything ourselves, but we didn’t have the skills because we couldn’t access the training. It’s possible that when the engineer, Sandy Stone, was hired, there were no other female sound engineers. Some lesbians were quick to attack the individual, but most of us understood that our real enemy was the system that discriminated against women.
At lunch one day Al told us some war stories. He said he had survived a torpedo attack where some seamen had died. I tried to imagine his life on those ships. I’d heard the gay historian Allan Berube’s lecture and slide show about sailors and soldiers during the war. They were all having sex with each other, especially the sailors. I knew Al wasn’t gay but I suspected he’d participated in gay sex.
I had allowed myself to relax a little with Al and Jesus. I came out to them. We talked politics. We all hated Reagan. I had started to feel comfortable with these guys.
Then one day while Al and I worked together he confessed that his wife no longer wanted to have sex with him and he was super horny. Did I want to have sex with him? It wasn’t as if men at work had not come on to me before. This was the typical way they did it; they would complain about their wives and that would be the opening. But I was shocked to hear this from my friend Al. I’d been solidly in the friend category I thought. Suddenly I was in the gal toy category. Or was it the whore category? Weird.
I said, “Al you know I’m gay. I’m not attracted to men.” Which wasn’t entirely true. I’d lived much of my life as a practicing heterosexual.
“Well, maybe you have friends who might want to have sex with me,” he said. And for a moment I actually considered the question. I definitely had horny friends. But who might want to have sex with Al? What would his personal ad look like? “65-year-old leprechaun seeks sex with any female. Age not important. Nothing else important.”
Then I was grossed out thinking my friend Al wanted me to pimp out my women friends. Then I was disappointed that our friendship was not what I had thought it was.
“So you only have sex with women?” Al asked.
“Well yeah. That’s what being a lesbian means. Maybe I’m not as sexually fluid as you. I know what y’all did on those ships.”
No response except that wry smile again.
That interaction changed my relationship with Al, but he may not have even noticed. Like many men he lacked a certain amount of sensitivity. On the other hand, his size and his politics—his minority status in the world of men—engendered more empathy than most.
So now I started thinking Al was like all the other guys. I stopped feeling so safe around him. Not that he might attack me. No, I was pretty sure I could take him in a fight. I was bigger and I practiced karate. It was more that he didn’t value me, didn’t see who I really was, and so might not understand the need for discretion. I did know that just because someone is or was a Communist does not mean they are not sexist as hell.
For a while I didn’t cross paths with Rosa. I still saw Al out in the field and he would fill me in on Rosa’s transition. The surgery had gone well and Rosa was back at work. She was happy, even as her coworkers continued to give her the cold shoulder.
“I’m having trouble re-learning Jesus’s name,” I confessed. “I’m just not good at it. I get all confused with the pronouns and I keep saying him instead of her.”
This time Al’s response was sharp and I realized he must be doing his best to protect Rosa from harassment by the other engineers.
“She is Rosa now,” he said, “and you’ve got to call her by her name.”
It was an admonishment and I took it seriously. Al was worldly wise and maybe had known other transgender people. He knew how to be an ally. Could I really be learning something from this old white guy?
Looking into ways that humans celebrate the turning of the seasons I discovered the Hilaria (plural of Hilaris). They were spring festivals celebrated by the cult of Cybele, the great mother of the gods, in Asia Minor and Greek and Roman cultures from about the 5th century BCE onward. Cybele’s consort, Attis, was born of her via a virgin birth and resurrected in the spring (sound familiar?). The day of this celebration was the first day after the vernal equinox, or the first day of the year which was longer than the night. I imagine there was a lot of laughing.
I write these pagan holiday letters eight times a year following the pagan wheel of the year, the annual cycle of seasonal festivals observed by modern pagans. Pagans and wiccans have divided the year into eight parts consisting of the chief solar events (solstices and equinoxes) and the midpoints between them, called cross-quarter holidays. Many of these holidays were stolen by the christian religion while colonizing and absorbing pagan customs. Think Christmas and Easter.
Wiccans have named the spring equinox Ostara with a nod to the ancient Tutonic goddess, but of course equinox celebrations have been practiced by humans for millennia. The Anglo-Saxon goddess is Eastre or Eostre.
I can call myself a pagan even though I don’t worship any goddess or god. Pagan is just a pejorative term used by early christians to refer to polytheists, animists or other non-christians. But modern pagans and wiccans have embraced the term and fashioned a religion of sorts. They borrowed the holidays from various pre-christian traditions. This earth-centered practice beats all to hell the christian teaching that humans have dominion over the earth and its animals (interesting that Genesis leaves out the plants).
I appreciate the wheel of the year because there is no beginning and no end. Life is a cycle. I find this a compelling way to look at and think about the year. The holidays are just far enough apart for my taste. They correspond with the seasons and the movement of nature. The next holiday is only eight weeks away from the current celebration. Now at Ostara I find it easy to think ahead to the next holiday, Beltane on May 1. What flowers will be blooming then? What will I be planting and harvesting from the garden? When will nesting birds be fledging?
One great thing about these holidays is we can make up our own. My version of paganism takes into account the earth and all its beings, not just humans. My version is anti-capitalist and all-inclusive. My personal Hilaria celebration begins on the Ides of March, maybe a bad day for Caesar but an auspicious date in my life.
One year ago at this time I had spine surgery at Oakland Kaiser, the last of the elective surgeries just as the pandemic was announced. We had our last restaurant meal on Piedmont Avenue and at the time I thought it might be my last out meal for months, maybe years (I was right). A year later, I’ve recovered from surgery and covid restrictions are being lifted. I’ve just had my first shot of Moderna vaccine.
It was on the Ides of March three years ago that Holly and I hired movers and said goodbye to our San Francisco home, Richlandia, moving to our new home in Santa Rosa, Hylandia.
And here is another reason the Ides of March is auspicious. We are selling the last of the property in San Francisco that I bought in 1980 with my then-collective house of lesbians. I lived there for 38 years. That three-unit building has been the center of my life for four decades. I spent nearly a decade (the 2000s) with my partner at the time, Barb, remodeling the units and turning them into condos with the help of tradeswomen friends, especially carpenters Carla Johnson, who died in 2016, https://mollymartin.blog/2016/06/12/losing-carla-jean/ and Pat Cull. See my blog posts about the building: https://mollymartin.blog/2017/09/16/still-standing/
When we bought Hylandia, we sold the condo we lived in and continued to rent the other two units. I was committed to never evicting anyone from their home, but I did want to get out of the absentee landlord business. Then, last month, both the tenants gave notice allowing us to sell the apartments.
I was so very attached to Richlandia, into which I put so much blood, sweat and tears. But because letting go has spanned years now, I think I’m ready. And the building, given new life by me and my tradeswomen friends, awaits a community of new occupants.
It is a time of new beginnings and as I write this I think What a cliché. Everyone is writing this. Still it seems momentous, life changing. I know that after this year of trump and covid and the fires and fascists assaulting our capital and Black Lives Matter uprisings and the growing throngs of homeless that things can never “go back to normal.” Nor do I wish for that. Life is a circle with no real endings or beginnings. I’m looking forward to what comes next.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why would you want to be a woman? We are discriminated against. The men we work with hate us. We get paid less. Why choose that?”
Jesus thought for a moment. “When I get in the shower and look down at my penis, I hate it. I feel like it shouldn’t be there.”
We were standing out in the corporation yard, away from our coworkers in the shops.
Jesus and I had worked together at the San Francisco Water Department for a couple of years and I was glad we’d become close enough for me to ask such a personal question. I was starting to get it.
But I was skeptical. “Jesus, you grew up with male privilege. How do you know what it will be like?”
“I know because I’ve already lived as a woman,” he said. “For three years.”
Jesus is a stationary engineer. His job is to maintain the pump stations for the San Francisco Water Department. I’m the electrician whose job is to maintain the electrical components of the system. We work out of a corporation yard in the industrial southeast part of the city. Each of us works alone but we often encounter each other out in the field at the pump stations. In a world of macho plumbers and engineers we gravitate to each other, more because we are different than because we are the same. We are both outcasts and we both must live within the dominant paradigm: a sexist and racist work culture with coworkers who believe we don’t belong there. It’s their territory.
It’s 1983. I’m a temporary worker with no benefits. I could be fired at any time with no recourse. I feel like I have to prove myself every day. I’m not out of the closet at work and I worry that this information might lead to a layoff.
The men think they can talk to me about Jesus. I wonder if they talk to him about me, but I think he is even more of an outsider than I am, transgender and Mexican. I’m a white lesbian and usually the only female. When you’re a double or triple minority you can never be sure why you are targeted for harassment.
“Is he gay?” They ask me. And I must try to explain transgender to these dickheads.
I know Jesus endures discrimination and harassment. The men he works with simply refuse to talk to him. They pretend he’s not there. I know from experience that this form of harassment takes a toll. It’s a way to get you to leave and it often works.
Despite all this Jesus appears to be the happiest person in the yard. He’s always singing or humming to himself and he has cemented a stereotype in my mind of Mexicans as people who smile through adversity. Yeah, I know that’s politically incorrect. I know that not all Mexicans are happy. Still, my brain forms stereotypes without my permission and I figure it’s best to acknowledge it, at least to myself. Jesus sets a good example for me. I tend to react to sexism and homophobia with anger. I can’t express it and so I walk around with the anger inside. And I take it home with me.
One day I’m assigned to work at the Lake Merced pump station in the southwest part of the city. That’s where the huge water supply pipes come in from the city’s Hetch Hetchy reservoir in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The pump motors here are 100 HP and they run on 4600 volts. (The highest voltage supplied to our homes is 220 volts.) The switchgear supplying the motors hums in a giant metal cabinet.
I’m the only electrician and it’s my job to maintain this equipment. But I’ve never been trained on high voltage. The union didn’t let women into its apprenticeship program and so I’ve learned the basics in a federal job training program and from experience. I easily passed the civil service test for electrician but I’ve never worked on more than 480 volt systems.
When the chief engineer orders me to diagnose a problem in the switchgear, I do my best to appear competent. In troubleshooting, the first step is to test. I pull out my trusty tester, a little black box with two wire leads and touch the leads to the live switchgear.
Electricians reading this will know what happens next–my tester is only rated for 1000 volts.
With an ear splitting bang the tester blows up and I’m thrown backward, landing on my butt on the concrete floor.
Jesus, the engineer on duty, rushes over, looking alarmed. “Are you ok?” He asks.
“I’m ok I’m ok,” I say. It’s the first thing we always say after a disaster, even if not true. The loud blast affected my hearing. It sounds like we’re under water.
I could have been killed. I could have been killed. Joe, the chief engineer, knows this. He has seen the explosion and he makes a quick exit, better to not be part of this.
The first emotion I register is embarrassment. I should have used the pole tester, rated for this purpose, but it’s a tool I’d never used before. I know I represent my gender to these men and my worth and work will determine their stereotypical view of women in their workplace. Their ideas of working with women will be based on me, until other females come along. My huge blunder will make all women look bad.
I’m embarrassed and I’m shaken, one minute regretting my mistake and the next thinking I could be dead. I could be dead. Stupid stupid stupid.
Jesus leads me into the chief engineer’s office where I try to recover, crouching in a corner on the floor, hugging my knees to alleviate the shaking. I could be dead. I could be dead.Jesus stays with me for moral support. And that’s when he tells me his story.
He grew up in a rural village and migrated to Mexico City where he learned the trade of stationary engineer, maintaining the systems in big buildings. Then he migrated to San Francisco, became a U.S. citizen and got a job working as an engineer for another city department. That’s when he first decided to transition from male to female. He was living as a female, taking hormones and contemplating surgery when he was in a serious car accident. After time in the hospital he decided to go back to being male. That was several years earlier. In his present job he has always been male, but word got around and his coworkers know he once presented as female.
But he’s not happy as male. This is not who he really is. He’s thinking again about transitioning. He’s saving money for the operation and figures it will cost about $10,000.
“I want to tell you something I’ve never told anyone at work,” I say. “I’m gay.” And with that a sense of relief fills me. I’m no longer alone here.
Jesus nods. “I thought so,” he says, “but thanks for telling me.”
This admission makes me feel I can ask him anything without offending him.
“So are you attracted to men or women? If you transition will you be a lesbian?”
“I’m attracted to women,” he says. “Gender is different from sexual attraction.”
“I know,” I say. “I don’t want to be a man, but I sure would like some of that male privilege.”
Jesus tells me he has gone to meetings of trans groups in the city, but he never feels like he belongs anywhere. He has no community.
To me this is tragic. I depend on my lesbian and tradeswomen communities to survive as an outsider.
“What was it like for you being a woman in the trades?” I ask.
“They assume a man knows everything,” he says. “That’s challenging, because of course we don’t. But we have to act like we do. It can lead to unsafe behavior. We’re all supposed to be cowboys.
“They assume a woman knows nothing. That has its own drawbacks. They refuse to pass on knowledge. They take your tools away and don’t want to let you do anything.”
The last thing I want to be is a woman who knows nothing. Nor do I want to out macho the boys, to act like I know something when I don’t. Doing that has nearly killed me.
Jesus would never say it. He’s too polite and gentlemanly. But I understand his point–stop acting like a dick.
I was laid low by politics this year, and especially the last few months when every day seemed to bring a new and more outrageous disaster. My file full of writing projects got fuller, but I couldn’t make progress on anything. It felt like a state of suspended animation. So I’m happy that other construction worker sisters haven’t let politics stop them from thinking and writing about our shared experience. Kahla Lichti is one, a young Canadian electrician with a blog that I read without fail (The Secret Life of an Electrical Apprentice) and the author of Shop Talk Trade Comics. Kahla got in touch recently to interview me for another online tradeswomen project, Move Over Bob. (Great name!) Here’s the link to her interview with me: https://www.moveoverbob.com/editorials/an-interview-with-molly-martin-lifelong-organizer-for-labour-feminism-and-human-rights?
The I-beam photo is of First Nation Canadian ironworkers. Left to right: Shyanne Smith, Piikani; Jealisa Pelletier, Oji-Cree; Tiffany Alexson, Cree; Jaimee Zoccole, Eagle Lake; Rose Pipestem, Tsuut’ina; Shay Prince Pequis, Cree; Melody Short Saddlelake, Cree; Charlotte Cummer, Metis; Jam Smith Piikani, Blackfoot
Sherman Alexie’s eulogy for his mother reads, “My mother was a dictionary. She was one of the last fluent speakers of our native language.” When she died the words died with her. He has one cassette tape of his mother and grandmother speaking together and singing a song.
My mother was maybe more like an encyclopedia. She collected the stories of old people on cassette tapes and in the 1970s she produced a public TV program on which she interviewed elders who lived in the Yakima Valley. I think some of those programs must be collected in the Yakima Valley Museum, but perhaps not. The words may have died with her.
After my mother died, I asked myself the question so many of us ask. Why didn’t I record her story? She told me stories of her life as we sat at the butcher-block table in our country kitchen drinking tea late at night. I remember the film the Lipton’s left on the white cup, but I remember little of what she told me. Why didn’t I just turn on the tape recorder? Was it because I didn’t want to imagine a world without her in it?
Now I wish I had a recording of my mother talking, saying anything, but although I have looked through my saved cassette recordings, I haven’t found one. She had an unusually low voice, a result of allergies, asthma and post-nasal drip. When she answered the phone, sometimes the caller thought it was a man talking. But she had been a singer in her youth and I imagine her voice as a young person to have been clear and high.
There was one time when I did record my mother’s voice. It was after my boyfriend, Mark, and I had driven across the country and back in 1976. She had lent us her car for the trip, a VW station wagon, which very nearly didn’t make it over the Rockies. It was a big sacrifice on her part, I realize now. The trip took a month. My relationship with Mark didn’t survive the trip, but I think we felt we had to put on a good face for Mom on our return. I recorded her asking questions of Mark about the trip. In the recording, Mark unleashed pent-up anger at her. His condescending answers tagged her as a bourgeois reformist liberal. I thought he was abusive. Later he wrote her an apology and she replied in a thoughtful six-page letter, he told me.
I tried to listen to the tape later and it just made me mad. I have a vague memory of throwing it away, thinking I couldn’t bear to listen again. But my memory is terrible, which gives me hope. Perhaps I only thought I trashed it. It could be saved somewhere in the cases of cassette tapes in the basement. I’m making my way through them and I’ve already listened to many. It takes time. You have to listen till the end, as something important may have been recorded there. I have listened to hours of nothing—musical performances that could have been opera very far away but translated to audience coughing and fidgeting.
Some of the tapes are ones my mother made, labeled in her perfect cursive. She recorded the Camp David Accords, signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978. She was sure the treaty, facilitated by President Jimmy Carter, signaled the end of Middle East discord. Sadat and Begin were both awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Three years later Sadat was assassinated. The tapes are imbued with my mother’s optimistic desire for world peace. I’ll probably never listen to them, but I haven’t been able to throw them away.
I have not yet found any tape with my mother’s voice, but there are cassettes I have yet to listen to and I think I remember where I stored them. I still have hope.
Walking around my neighborhood watching folks put up holiday lights, I have to stop myself from admonishing them to be careful on those ladders. I recognize this as a fear born of age and experience. As an electrician, and then a home remodeler, I spent many hours working on ladders.
As a new electrician I was fascinated by electrocution. I did some research and found that while electricians do die from electrocution, more often they die due to falls from ladders or being run into by trucks. I got more careful around ladders. Trucks too.
Most electricians spend a good deal of their working careers on ladders. Upgrading the electrical service where the wires come in to the building from the street was a typical job for me as a small contractor. For an overhead service we would mount the electrical panel and conduit on an exterior wall. The last job—connecting the wires at the top of the conduit—we did live from a ladder. Not a metal ladder, which conducts electricity and could electrocute you if the hot wire touched it. I was well aware that a direct shock from a live wire could also throw me off the ladder. I would die not from the shock, but from falling on my head.
Nowadays ladders are made of light materials and there are all kinds of newfangled designs and inventions making them easier to use. Back in the 70s when I worked with Wonder Woman Electric we had an old-fashioned wooden 40-foot extension ladder. The thing felt like it weighed a hundred pounds, but I was young and strong and I could handle it all by myself. You lifted it by pushing one end against a wall then picking up the other end and “walking” the ladder up till it was vertical. Then you carried it upright with a rung on your shoulder, one hand holding a lower rung, and your other hand holding a rung as high as you could reach. Carrying it was relatively easy unless you failed to keep it exactly upright. If it started tilting it was almost impossible to right the thing before it crashed into whatever was in its path, tweaking your back as it fell.
I know people who have died or been severely injured falling off ladders. Our friend Chris died only last year trying to secure a gay flag at his home. Emma became a paraplegic, falling from a tall tripod ladder while picking apples. I worked with Ron who ended up in a wheelchair after falling while tree trimming, and knew Jack who died in a similar accident.
I’ve fallen a few times myself. The first time I remember was while working in a residential garage. I had propped my eight-foot step ladder against the wall. Each step is a foot and I might have been up on the fourth rung, not very high, strapping conduit to the ceiling when the ladder started to slip down the wall. Now most people know—and I knew—that when this happens the correct response is to ride the ladder down the wall. Instead, my sympathetic nervous system overrode my brain and I jumped off, landing on my feet. I fell over and when I tried to get up I couldn’t stand. There was no pain.
The homeowner drove me to St. Luke’s hospital where they told me I had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee, that ACL injury that has plagued female basketball players. I butt-crawled up the stairs to our second-floor apartment and wasn’t able to leave for three months. If that didn’t make me wary of ladders, nothing would. Three months without work and no income. That’ll do it.
One time I was standing on the top of a three-foot ladder, it went out from under me and I landed flat on my back, sustaining not even a scratch. I knew—we all know—not to stand on the top rungs of a ladder, but I hadn’t felt like looking for a taller ladder.
Another time, at the top of a 32-foot extension ladder, I leaned backward slightly and nearly lost my balance. In that second I saw my life flash before my eyes. A fall from the height surely would have killed me. After that I made sure to tie off.
My most recent ladder incident happened in September. I was on the second rung of an eight-foot step ladder trying to pick the last apples on the neighbor’s tree that grows over the fence. I reached my left arm up and back, turning my head with it, and I lost consciousness. It was probably just for a second but I found myself with feet on the ground and arms stretched up, face up against the ladder. My body had just slipped down, my shins scraping against the lower rungs. Other than bloody shins I was ok. Just stunned. Here is something new that can happen on a ladder!
After that event I gained a new respect for the destructive power of ladders. Now I mostly stand below, holding the ladder for others. Our rule here: never get on a ladder without someone else here to hold it.
Advice from an old ladder climber: be careful out there. Those innocent looking ladders are killers.