Work Boots Step Out of the Closet

“Come on you can tell me,” says Bobby. “Are you gay?”

Bobby is a machinist who usually works in the machine shop but today he is helping me change fixtures in the warehouse at the corporation yard. I’m the only electrician and sometimes I need a helper. There was no laborer available and I am up on a 16-foot ladder. 

The song by the Police, Every Breath You Take, is playing on the boom box he carries around with him. 

“This sounds like a song about stalking,” I say. “It’s a threat.” 

“Hmm, I never thought about it that way,” he says, “but I guess you’re right.”

I’ve been at the San Francisco Water Department for a few months and I’m getting along alright. Especially considering I’m the only tradeswoman there except for Amy, the only female plumber. Amy is out digging up the streets every day and so I rarely see her. Sometimes we convene a two-woman support group in the women’s restroom and it’s good to know she’s there.

MMatWork 2
Working at a Water Department pump station. My shirt reads WOMEN WORKING

I think about how to answer Bobby. It kind of annoys me that he would just ask me like that. But on the other hand I appreciate his directness. I like Bobby and he’s as close to a friend as I have among the men, but I know if I give him any information about my private life it will be all over the yard within 24 hours. Do I want all the guys in all the shops to know?

“That’s none of your business,” I reply.

Yeah, I’m a lesbian and my lover is Del, who works at Park and Rec. We were both female firsts—she the first carpenter and I the first electrician to work for the city of San Francisco. Being the first is always a burden. You are aware that you set the stereotype for all the women who come after you. You feel the whole of womankind rests on your shoulders. You know you can’t make mistakes but of course you do, and then you imagine all of womankind suffers.

Del is five foot two and slender but you don’t see her as small. Her wiry gray hair gives her a couple more inches of height. She’s got broad shoulders and large hands. And she gets power from her low voice; she sings tenor with a gay chorus, the Vocal Minority.

Del and I don’t live together but I spend a lot of time at her apartment on Potrero Hill with its sweeping view of the bay and downtown. At my place on Bernal Hill I have a roommate, Sandy, another electrician. She’s messy and has a lot of stuff and a coke head girlfriend I don’t like. So I often stay with Del. Truth is I can’t stay away. I’m mad for her.

Since I got in to the trades, my lovers have been tradeswomen. I can’t resist a woman with a toolbelt. The first woman I fell in love with was a carpenter. They say you either fall in love with her or you want to be her. For me it was both. 

I watch my lover Nancy build a house. She wears dirty blue jeans and scuffed work boots. Sweat stains mushroom on her T-shirt, which reads Sisterhood is Powerful, under a women’s symbol with a fist in its center. Sweat drips from her nose and rolls down the side of her face. Her sun-bleached curly hair sticks out from under her hardhat.

Around her hips hangs the heavy leather carpenter’s belt. It has a metal ring for the hammer and slots for the tape measure and various other tools, and pouches for the nails of different sizes. A two-inch wide leather belt holds it around her ample hips. It’s helped by wide suspenders. She grabs a handful of nails and holds them with all the heads lined up in one direction, flips them down and pounds them in to the wood with great efficiency. Tanned arms bulge as she sinks nail after nail into the sill plate. She is focused and fast, the epitome of strength and ease. When she takes a break, she rolls a cigaret and lights it with a match put to her boot. She sucks in the smoke with obvious pleasure and even though I’m super allergic to smoke and it will set me off coughing, that is the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen. How could a gal not fall in love with this image of power, strength, purpose. 

I was smitten and I’ve been smitten by tradeswomen ever since. And they are the only ones who really understand what I go through at work. A person’s got to have a partner she can whine to when she gets home.

Lately it’s Del who’s been having trouble at work. Dick, her foreman at the carpentry shop, doesn’t like women or queers. He does everything he can to make her work life difficult. If it weren’t for Dick, Del would get along just fine. She loves the work, not the harassment. She once overhead him call her a dyke. That’s a word we lesbians have reclaimed and embraced but he meant it in the old fashioned derogatory way.

Negotiating homophobia and sexism at work is a balancing act for us. You just know that the foreman will use any excuse to lay you off. Del knows this too, that we women must always keep our cool in these situations, but sometimes she can’t help herself. She just loses her temper and then even she doesn’t know what she might do.

One time she held off an attacker with a hand saw. If you swing it at waist level, they can’t reach you. She swung the saw in a fit of rage, acting without thinking. In that case rage saved her ass, but mostly when this happens she leaves the confrontation feeling embarrassed that she could not control her emotions. She tells me I’m much better at not losing my cool and she ascribes her rage to her hot Italian blood. 

I first met Del at a tradeswomen confab when I was working with the Wonder Woman Electric collective in 1978, but we didn’t get together as lovers until 1982 while we were organizing the first national tradeswomen conference that took place in Oakland the next year. We had both been working construction downtown before starting to work for the city of San Francisco.

“I lost my temper today and now I might lose my job,” Del told me one evening when I got over to her place after work.

By that time she was remorseful. “Why do I always lose my temper? How do you manage to stay so cool?”

I think the answer lays in the ways we learned to respond to stress and abuse when we were growing up. She was a caretaker type and I was oblivious. Del says she always felt like she had antennae, that she was super aware of her surroundings. I, on the other hand, would put on virtual blinders and just continue pretending nothing was going on. This method of avoiding conflict has served me well in the trades. I pretend not to see and often I really don’t.

Soon after we got together I accompanied her to visit her family in Chicago. Right away I felt at home. They are huggers, and loud talkers, people who like to cook and eat big family meals and who live in their basements, never using the living room upstairs where couches are covered with plastic. Her mother is part of a big Italian clan—all sisters except for one brother who is treated like a king but drowned out by loud women.

“Here’s what happened,” she said. “I wanted to get my paycheck earlier in the day than Dick wanted to give it out. I had an appointment and was leaving at noon. He was being totally obnoxious about it and I got really mad at him. I said “fuck it” and walked out without the paycheck. Now he’s trying to fire me for swearing at him. I wasn’t swearing at him, it was a general fuck-it.  Anyway, just an excuse to fire me.” 

“I’m scared,” she admitted.

“What are you gonna do now?” I asked, concerned.

“I don’t have a plan except to wait to see what he does next. Maybe it won’t go anywhere.”

A few days later Dick upped the ante. He set up a kangaroo court with his supervisors and friends in the yard who sat Del down and questioned her. She had no representation or support. It was just a set up. 

That’s when Del went above the foreman’s head. We knew that the director of Park and Rec was an out gay man. Tom had gained a reputation as a respected department head who gave a shit about workers. He was also a player in the gay South of Market scene who (we heard) had tattoos all over his body. He always wore long sleeved shirts at work. 

“Tom was absolutely great when I told him the story and showed him the daily journal I’d kept about the harassment,” she said to me. Soon after that Dick was fired. 

Our gay ally had saved Del’s job, but what would have happened had he not been there?

“Are you out on the job,” she asked me later.

“Well, no. It’s none of their business.”

Del is a proponent of coming out at work. She says it’s better to give the guys the information so they will just stop gossiping about you. For women it might actually be a plus to be out. It’s a signal that you’re not interested in them romantically and you never will be, a good way to stop come-ons. Telling them you’re married with five kids works too.

At the tradeswomen conference she gave a workshop to help gay women come out. 

“If we all come out we won’t be alone,” she says. “We’ll be supporting our lesbian sisters.”

She quoted Harvey Milk: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.” 

Del was pissed when I admitted I wasn’t out on the job.“What!” She exclaimed. “You’re still in the closet at work! Don’t you see why it’s important for us all to be out? How can you leave me hanging out there on a limb? I almost lost my job!”

She had a good point—several good points. I thought about why I’d stayed closeted. It was easier. I didn’t want to risk the wrath and disdain of my co-workers. They weren’t really interested in my private life and I couldn’t care less about theirs. It was hard enough just being the only female on the job. You imagine the worst thing that could happen. They wouldn’t physically attack me. But they could refuse to work with me just as one white guy in the machine shop had refused to work with a black guy. They could refuse to talk to me, a trick men used on women all the time to get them to quit. They could fire me. I’d been hired on as a temporary worker with no employment rights. I wasn’t safe.

But I promised my lover I would come out.

My electric “shop” was a windowless closet next to the machine shop office where my boss, Manuel, and a secretary worked. They were always trying to get me to fill in when she was out sick, which happened with regularity. I had made the mistake of answering truthfully when they’d asked if I could type. I’d refused and I hadn’t relented even when Dave, the auto shop foreman cried crocodile tears as he tried to type with hands missing several of their fingers. Somehow the guy was still able to work on trucks. But that was men’s work.

One day Manuel made a reference to my husband. That was my opening. I hadn’t had to wait long. 

“I don’t have a husband,” I said. “I’m gay.”

When you come out to them, men are either totally shocked or they tell you they knew all along. Manuel was shocked, but he recovered quickly. 

I didn’t have to tell anyone else. Word got around the yard. I heard one of the machinists, a religious nut, had moved me into the hated category. But he was someone I could avoid. 

Bobby was cool. “I knew it,” he said.

Race and Gender

Telegraph Hill – 1974

By Eric Johnson

I worked for Plant Bros. of San Francisco in the early Seventies.  After a probation period, they sent me to a jobsite that had just begun, in the shadow of Telegraph Hill, right by the waterfront. They had to completely overhaul an old grain warehouse and convert it into an upscale office building.  The location was great – you could walk at lunch-break over to the wharves, or just sit in a vacant lot and look at the Bay. And the building was interesting, especially as we began to mine our way into it.  It was a remnant of the industrial past of San Francisco’s waterfront, a brick five-story warehouse with rugged interiors.  We had to earthquake-proof it, tear up flooring, destroy the old freight elevator shaft, and then frame up the new sets of offices.  The flooring had been laid when mahogany was cheap, so we were cutting through two tongue-and-groove, inch-thick mahogany floor layers.  We burned out blade after blade of our skilsaws and spent weeks with crowbars ripping out and dumpstering the wood. Then re-flooring it with heavy plywood.

 This first month was not really carpentry, but I liked it. For one thing, I had an apprentice assigned to me – which was my first time having that responsibility. He was a young Chinese guy who I liked immediately. Eugene knew he was a token of integration for the union – there were less than ten Asian carpenters, and the local was under pressure from all minorities to open up. Eugene and I were attuned in the political culture of San Francisco in the early Seventies and we also both knew how to work with alacrity.  Things got even more interesting when they hired a Mexican-American woman named Inez Garcia. She was only the second woman in the union’s history.  I had worked with the other, at the General Hospital job. They had assigned her to simply push in all the snap-ties on all the forms, thus earning her the name “snap-tie Mary”. There was a quarrel in the union to get her boss to actually let her learn the trade.

 Now Inez was in that position, but it was more promising.  The foreman was civil to her and we formed-up a little team, with Eugene and I and Inez and an older Italian guy named Ron.  I was given the lead responsibility of cutting a big trapezoidal hole through all five floors for the new open stairway in the center of the building.   The foreman and I studied the blueprint, devising a way to place that trapezoid correctly in reference to the walls – then I explained it all and assigned us to different duties. It went ahead really well at first.  The challenge of the cutting was apparent and the two young recruits felt that I was teaching them things.  We had lively lunch breaks, and I started looking forward to coming in to work.

After the layout was agreed on, we built walls along those lines from the floor to ceiling, tightly wedged so that the weight of the floor above would be supported when we cut the shape out of it. We finished it late one day, and the next morning we were going to start the cut on the second floor. I woke up early with a clutch of anxiety. Something was wrong, I was sure of it.  I got to work early and studied the blueprint, stared at the lines, the walls…and suddenly knew what it was.  We had built one of the walls on the wrong side of our chalk line; it would be the width of the two-by-six too small! Oh shit, this will look bad. Good that I’d caught it before we cut through above, but… here we had this big twelve-foot-high wall we had to tear down. Luck was with me, as the foreman had to be at another job for the first hour. I told the others what we’d done, and they gravely considered it. I told them we had a slim chance to avoid detection if we all four went at this furiously; removing nails, sledge-hammering the walls over, adding some pieces to fill in, plumbing-and-lining it again…and re-nailing. So that’s what we did, everyone working twice as fast as usual… and just had the wall in place and nailed when the foreman came in. I was already upstairs laying out the cuts. He waved happily and we were home free.

Credit: Western Neighborhoods Project

Those cuts were not simple either.  Once we had lines snapped and were dead certain of them, we had to Skil saw through the double layers of mahogany. Then we confronted the huge joists, rough 4 x 12 timbers, some of them doubled-up.  The foreman got us a chainsaw, and after carefully extending the lines down over the angles of the joists, I started lopping them off, confident from my memory of doing the same thing on the roof at the Unitarian Church.  This all went very well, and we progressed upward the remaining four landings, making the same cut each time.  Inez and I became good friends, Eugene was becoming the job wit, and I was beginning to enjoy my own leadership. It was interesting to see the way what they wanted to have happen socially was allowing me to be more who I was. Not a leader with commanding certainty, but someone who would let others see my process, my confusions.  I could ask for help, and even make things fun.

The new elevator was going to be hydraulic, and it needed a hole as deep as the building was tall – for the piston to recede down into it when the elevator was on the ground floor. So there was a big drilling rig at the building’s edge, boring a four-foot-wide hole…sixty feet deep.  At thirty feet they hit some rubble. Pieces of the old waterfront fill.  Then there was stone.  The auger couldn’t penetrate it and they brought in a specialist.

 Mario was a Latino guy who was like a deep-sea diver. He was to be lowered down the hole with a jackhammer so he could break up the layer of stone. We saw him getting ready early the first morning and Inez asked him what the hell he was going to do?  It looked strange, the special winch they had for lowering him down, the cradle of canvas straps, the jackhammer hose, his oxygen mask.  He explained the whole thing as if it were routine, then says he never feels claustrophobic because he smokes a joint first. I had trouble understanding that part.  If I smoked a joint first, the last place in creation I’d want to be, would be thirty feet down a shaft too narrow to move around in. But he assured us it was the only way he could stay calm and focus on the simple task of it. I said, what if you space out and don’t realize you’re not getting enough air? He said he had a regular code of tugs on the rope and that they would frequently tug at him for response.  Jesus.  We watched him go down…and then felt the vibrations of the hammer.  He worked about a half hour and then they pulled him up, covered with dust.  He laughed at us, drank some water, and went back down again.  We talked about it all day, how…bizarre it was.  Mario was either a great hero …or a chump who would be dead tomorrow.

He didn’t die, but he did share his joint with Inez, Gene & me the next morning.  Two tokes was enough to make me want to go off wandering along the waterfront to study wave patterns and old fishermen. Gene and Inez were used to smoking more, and able to buoy me up those first few hours. The work we were doing was hilarious for a while. Gene started giggling at the stack of fresh plywood.  He said there were flies on it, it was ridiculous somehow.  I got a can of spray paint and wrote “ FLY WOOD” on it huge. We were hysterical. “Inez! Go get us a sheet of flywood!”  She exploded when she saw it. What fun!  But, but, … I was the lead man, I had to fight through this, I had to keep working and, like Mario, find somehow the even keel of bemusement yet purpose.  It wasn’t easy and I decided next day to pass on the offered joint. In fact it was fifteen years before I ever tried that again, and then almost fell off a roof. Not all of us are as talented as Mario.  At the end of the week we had decided that in truth he was a hero of the first order.  He had broken through several feet of hard rock and the auger went back at it.  Mario shook hands with a grin, and rode off into the fog.

Our foreman was transferred, and a new guy brought in. At first we liked him all right.  He seemed comfortable with the two young minority apprentices, and came over to yak with us often.  But after a week, he started being too comfortable…with Inez.  He kept her after work one day with a contrived duty, and a few days later switched her to a solo task, which broke up our team.  She was given the job of boring all the holes in the brick wall on every floor, that would allow the earthquake bolts to be set in from floor structure to exterior brick. There were hundreds of these to do, and one had to get down on knees or recline positions to hold the impact drill with any authority. It was…the worst job.  Each of us had done it for a few hours on other days, and at first we thought, well, someone has to do it, apprentices often get this kind of grunge work.  But then it went on the next day, and the next.  Inez came up to me after work and said we had to talk.  We went for coffee and she told me that Jim had propositioned her a couple of days back…and she had turned him down.  He was pissed and told her he would make life miserable for her unless she ‘dated’ him.

So that explained the sentence of hard labor.  Inez was furious, but she felt she had no grounds for saying she shouldn’t have to do the job.  Inez was really a rugged, working-class woman.  The last thing she wanted was to be perceived as whining about physical labor.  In fact, she was as strong as me, a formidable person – who also was not a bit afraid of Jim physically.  In fact, she was bigger than him. That made it even more disgusting.  He was unable to force her or convince her or attract her.   The raw power of the paycheck was what he had.  When she had complained that he was treating her unfairly with the hole-drilling, he’d simply said, “Okay; then date me or you’re fired!

 I advised her to go to the union in the morning before work. Apprentices are supposed to be instructed, for one thing. And then of course there’s the sexual harassment, a legitimate and potentially scandalous thing for the company. I told her who to see, the most reliable of the business agents, and asked if she wanted me to come with her. She said no, she wanted to be able to carry herself as a stand-up member of the local, not dependent on anyone.

Next day she was gone.  I called her that night and she said the union rep had taken her side with integrity and had called the company.  They agreed to transfer her to another jobsite and make sure she was treated fairly if there was no threat of a lawsuit.  Inez had agreed to this, but we both felt depressed.  I felt I had to apologize for the whole backward mob of jerks that populate construction work.  It was as if she had been a lantern in a cave, revealing our stupid scuttling ways.  Ugh. She told me to drop that rhetorical bullshit, that the only thing that depressed her about it was that she would miss all of us.  It was just one jerk, really… but one spoiled everything.

Jim was still foreman on that job for another two weeks – while we frosted him. Then, out of the blue, the union announced that contract negotiations had broken down and there would be a city-wide strike.  When that all blew over, I found another job.  Plant Bros. was tainted for me.

Eric Johnson is a printer who writes stories about his work as a carpenter in San Francisco.