Why would you want to be a woman?

“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 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.

Move Over Bob

Dear Readers,

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?

And here’s Kahla interviewed on Move Over Bob: https://www.moveoverbob.com/editorials/kahla

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

Here’s to a productive and healthy new year!

Searching for My Mother’s Words

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.

My mom, Flo, and her mother, Gerda, reading Wm O Douglas’s book

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.

Killer Ladders

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.

Imagine No More Guns

Back in 1980 gun control was a big issue. Politicians and celebrities were victims as well as less famous citizens. After John Lennon was shot I had to admit to my mother that I had bought a hand gun, the same type that killed John. She was distraught. What could I have been thinking? I was thinking as a radical socialist lesbian feminist I might have to defend myself. I learned how to shoot at local gun clubs. I put the gun in a drawer next to my bed, but began to worry that a visiting child might find it. What if someone accidentally got shot with my gun! I soon put the gun far away out of anyone’s reach. My thinking changed, but the scourge of gun violence did not. Except that Mom is writing here about handguns rather than now-popular semiautomatic weapons.

She knew how to use a rifle. Did she shoot the buck while wearing pearls?

“We do have wild animals, but they are two-legged.”

Defending the “Young Punks”

I contend that bullets, bombs and mines are more to be deplored than garbage and stones (thrown by dissenters).

Paul Harvey pissed us off for half a century. During my childhood the right-wing commentator was on the radio twice a day on weekdays and at noon on Saturdays railing against welfare cheats and championing American individualism. A close friend of Sen Joe McCarthy, the Rev Billy Graham and J. Edgar Hoover, he supported Cold War campaigns against communists and opposed social programs as socialist. Advertisers loved Harvey as he could make any ad sound like news. Salon Magazine called him the “finest huckster ever to roam the airwaves.”

Millions of Americans who, like us, got their news and information from the radio, were subjected to his diatribes. Beginning in 1952, Harvey kept talking right up till his death at 90 in 2009. He always left us fuming. 

My mother got so mad at his attack on war protesters that she engaged her superpower—she wrote a letter.

She Wrote Letters

“What kind of people are we that we allow an immoral, useless war to continue when a child of six can point out that the emperor has no clothes?”

Sadly, the box of letters, saved in my brother’s barn, contained none of my mother’s letters from the turbulent 1960s. Most are from the 1970s. Flo writes here about being moved to tears in a state of depression and despair. She felt the burden of American foreign policy personally and would often call me, weeping for its victims. She anguished about her children and a whole generation of young people losing faith in democracy.

A Mighty Pen

My mother wrote letters. For her, letters were a means of communication, an art form, a way to express herself, and throughout her life one of the few ways an ordinary woman could make her views known.

Born in 1913, Florence Wick was a reader from the age of four. Like all grade school students at that time, she studied the Palmer Method, and she developed strikingly beautiful handwriting. An album made by a family friend contains letters she wrote at age six.

Besides regular handwritten correspondence to friends and relatives, Flo wrote letters to Congressional representatives, media people and writers commenting on their stories, and hundreds of letters to the editor of our local paper in Yakima, Washington. She’d had lots of practice. Taking shorthand and composing and typing letters was her job as a secretary.

I had thought all of her letters were lost, but while going through files helping my brother Don move to Canada we discovered a box containing copies of some of her letters. The earliest is a letter to the editor condemning bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, written in 1949. The last, disparaging toxic pesticides, she wrote a couple of months before her death on August 9, 1983. Most of the letters are from the 1970s. They deal with government policy; environmentalism; and the rights of women, minorities, prisoners and seniors. Many letters eloquently protest the war in Vietnam and its casualties.

My parents, Florence and Carroll Martin, on their wedding day 1947

My mother changed the course of her own life through letters. She told me that when she applied to work for the Red Cross during World War II, a college degree was a basic requirement. She had only a high school education but she made her case in a letter and was accepted. I’ve often wished I had a copy of that letter. Flo served in the Red Cross as a “donut gal” in Italy, France and Germany during and after the war, earning a bronze star. Although only two of her letters from Europe survive, the letters she wrote to her mother (her father had died in 1938) were passed on to a local newspaper reporter who turned them into reports from the front lines. Along with photos and mementos, these newspaper clippings were pasted into a huge album my mother made upon her return from Europe. The war had changed her. She had lost her fiancé to a land mine in 1944 and when she returned home it seemed Americans’ concerns had focused more on the dearth of gasoline and nylon stockings than the deaths of millions. People didn’t want to talk about the war. Making the giant album served as an antidote to her depression.

What strikes me about the letters is their universality and timelessness. I remember her phoning me to read me a letter she had written about war. In it she proposed that the government employ a department of peace instead of a department of war. “It’s great,” I said. “Send it!” “I did,” she said. “Twenty years ago.” Her letters illuminate conversations of her time, and they also instruct us now in the 21st century. I think they deserve to be read and I’ve scanned some of the most compelling to publish here.

1949: Re-read Emma Lazarus’ inscription

Attacks on immigrants are a common feature of American history. Flo was proud of her parents, immigrants from Sweden and Norway, and she wrote many letters with this theme.

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