Lost in Oakland II: Me and the Machines

VW repair manual

I worked at the Women’s Press Collective (WPC) from 1974 until 1977. The WPC was a flashlight battery of an operation powering a dynamo of social change. It gave voice to the genius of women, particularly lesbians, at a time when men owned most print shops and publishing companies and would never let our work see the light of day. I’m thinking particularly of the poetry of Judy Grahn and Pat Parker, the art of Wendy Cadden and Karen Sjöholm, the linguistic analyses of Alice Molloy, and others too numerous to mention here. The press ran on volunteer and low-paid labor and donations from women with extra cash.

Other small women’s presses, newspapers, and bookstores were springing up around the country during those years. We women had taken over RAT newspaper in 1970. Both the WPC and Baltimore’s Diana Press opened in 1972.

We were riding a tide of radical feminism and, though we didn’t realize it at the time, the high point of the post WWII economy. The average worker’s purchasing power had steadily increased, year after year, from 1947 to 1973. Then, in 1974, inflation outstripped wage increases, with a 5% loss in real income. The long downhill slide continued from there, throughout the Reagan years (with a few brief upturns), to the present day. But in the ‘70s, many of us could work part-time, live frugally, and still pay the rent. We could devote most of the week to art and activism.

Although I did operate some of the simpler equipment at the WPC, I never learned to run a press. This wasn’t for lack of ability, but lack of interest. I’d always been comfortable with basic tools—as I mentioned in the last post, I’d chiseled a hole in the wall of the building to accommodate an exhaust fan. A Polish woman I’d done typing for also asked me to do little mechanical tasks in her apartment and observed, when I completed them, “You Americans are born with screwdrivers in your hands.” But I didn’t want to be a printer.

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Around three months after I moved out west, my mother died. I felt very conflicted about accepting the few thousand she left me, as I hadn’t been the daughter she wanted. My younger sister lived with our parents throughout her college and grad school years, married a nice Jewish boy, had two children with him, and bought a house in the suburbs—while I was trying to organize the gay revolution. The last thing Mom said to me, before I moved across the country and she had that stroke, was “Get married! Get married!”

In the long run I wasted much of the money, but did buy two useful items, a 1968 VW bug and a stereo set.

I had taken driving lessons on a VW before leaving New York. The driving school was just north of Greenwich Village, in an area with lots of commercial truck traffic. Too young and foolish to be nervous around those behemoths, I just followed instructions and got my license without difficulty.

In Oakland, when my small inheritance arrived and I decided to buy a VW, someone steered me to Pat Davidson, feminist auto mechanic par excellence, and one of the most honest people I’ve ever met. She’d rebuilt the bug’s engine after its first 120,000 miles. Pat was even shorter than me, sturdy, with blonde hair and a ruddy complexion, and rented the basement garage of an apartment building for her business, Mole Hole Motors. “In 300 miles you have to bring it back for an oil change,” she advised. “I’ll teach you how to do it if you like.” Of course I said yes.

Thus began a series of visits for oil changes, tune-ups, brake adjustments, brake shoe replacements, and so on. I acquired enough tools to fill the trunk of the car, and two books—the official Volkswagen manual, and the Compleat Idiot repair book.

One day I’d been hiking at a regional park, thinking of my mother, and when I started the engine to drive home the tears blinded me. Trying to pull out of the parking lot, I slammed into a foot-high concrete post and bent the front axle. The car was still drivable, but just barely. We made it to Mole Hole. Pat and I jacked up the front end and removed the wheels—and then Pat lay on her back beneath the car and held the new axle in place with her feet, serving as a human jack, while I tightened the bolts.

I drove that bug all over the country and, years later, rebuilt the engine for a second time myself, before giving the car to an old friend.

During those first few months of automotive ownership, I also got it into my head to learn to fly. It was a dream I’d had since childhood, when I wanted to become an astronaut.

To be continued…

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