Category Archives: Tradeswoman

Quite the character

image

Dark hallway in a giant parking garage where I've been working some days... It's even colder than it looks

I finally got together with that other queer female apprentice working for my company; let’s call her Jacky, for the sake of the story.

Jacky is quite the character, as I expected… I mean, she’d have to be, considering that she’s taking on this new electrical career at twice the age of our most of our coworkers Turns out she’s turning 50 years old this summer. FIFTY. Wow. Prior to her apprenticeship, she was a computer geek for a couple decades, and then more recently, a bus driver on the local transit system. I actually remember her, I realize now, from when she’d do the campus routes and come into the cafe I worked at in the university book store. She wore shorts, even when it was cold outside.

We talked about so many things, and generally had similar feelings and thoughts about our jobs, our company, our coworkers, our trade. It was good, to have the chance to share.

Like me, Jacky frequently hears this reaction from strangers when they learn what her job is: “You’re an electrician? That must be so hard!” And they invariably mean the labour itself, thinking it’s difficult to carry and maneuver heavy objects… Or else the math and physics involved, in figuring out power arrangements and trouble-shooting circuits. I’m not gonna lie to you: My job does tire me out, physically, and the problem-solving can be wretchedly tricky.

But! But what few people seem to realize is what’s actually hardest about the job: The social aspect of the workplace. No matter what, Jacky and I are just so alien, both as women and as queers. It was such a relief to hear her try to describe this. Yes, I kept saying, I know, yes, exactly, exactly. It’s nothing we can’t deal with, get over, ignore, or whatever… But it’s still a big thing, to try to navigate social situations where we can’t even hope of fitting in. Of course, I think we’re both got such distinctive personalities that we’re hardly the type to try to fit in anyway!

I asked Jacky what her goals are, what she wants to do once she’s got her Journey status. Does she think she’ll go for foreman? She laughed at my questions. “You forget,” she said. “That it’s totally different for me… I’ve only got 15 years left, really, to your 35.”

Huh. I’d never thought of that: Thirty-five years to go. Of course, I doubt I’ll be able to afford retirement at age 65, but it’s still an interesting concept. (And what would “retirement” look like for a person like me, anyway? Wouldn’t I keep doing all the shit I already do, only more of it?)

So no, she doesn’t think she’d like to be foreman. Jacky’s hoping to simply have a good wage and good work. Which, really, is all I’ve ever wanted too, though maybe with a little bit of adventure thrown in to keep me going.

Right now, Jacky is working on the construction crew that is putting in a new warehouse building at the naval base. It’s steady work through to September, which is nice for the bank account, she says, but a bit hard on the sense of freedom. She’d prefer to have some variety and flexibility, because it’s more interesting, and would allow more time for her own projects as well as short trips away. I can totally relate: My schedule is often all over the place, and I rarely know where I’ll be working from one day to the next, and I love it.

I hope that we’ll eventually get to be on a crew together, Jacky and I… With our company having so many apprentices and so many projects, it’s not particularly likely to happen, but I like to think about it anyway. In the meanwhile, I’m simply glad to know she exists.

Advertisements

Not the only one

image

My right hand, in case you were wondering how it's faring these days... It's easier to photograph the left one!

It was time for the annual hearing tests at work, and I left the construction site mid-afternoon to get myself down to the parking lot at company headquarters.  The testing trailer was set up there, and a few guys were waiting in line. I didn’t know any of them, except for a fellow who was in my Year 2 class at trade school, but we made small talk about our job sites and the beautiful sunny weather.

This is how the hearing test works: Two people at a time go into the trailer, where each sits in a little soundproof booth, puts on a set of headphones, and presses a button every time they hear a noise, for about 5 or 10 minutes.  It’s simple, but a good basic assessment.  For the record, my hearing has gotten overall worse since my last test in 2010, but only marginally-so, and it’s also better in different tonal ranges than it was… And it’s still excellent, according to the testing dude. “Don’t drive with the window rolled down,” he told me. “That’s why your left is worse than your right.”

Anyway, as I was waiting, the trailer door suddenly opened, and the previous two testees emerged. One was my foreman, and though we began to discuss the latest developments in my current project, I was completely distracted… Because the other person who’d just had her hearing tested was a woman.

And she was not just a woman, but a mid-forties woman who read to my eyes as queer queer QUEER.  I immediately made the connection between this unexpected apparition and the motorcycle parked next to the trailer. (And I was right: It was hers.)

She and I kept looking at each other, even though we were in conversations with other people.  Finally my foreman and I were done, and right away I turned to her, and we stared at each other for just a little bit of beat longer than socially-acceptable.

Then at the exact same moment, we both introduced ourselves, shaking hands and laughing a little over our awkwardness. “Oh,” she said, “Your foreman was telling me about you!”

“Huh,” I replied, looking over at the foreman, “And he’d told me I was the only woman working for the company…”

“No, there’s Shelly,” she said.”She’s doing school.”

“And Kami,” I told her, “Or at least I met her at the big mall site a few weeks ago; I’m not sure where she is now, though, because she’s not there these days.”

So we stood there and chatted like any other two apprentices or trades people, about where we were working and who we worked with and what might be coming next, all the while looking at each other. Of course I can’t speak for what she was thinking, but in my mind, I was saying WHO ARE YOU and WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE, completely beside myself with amazement.

I’ve gotten so used to being the only gay in the village!

In my daze, it wasn’t until after she rode away her motorbike that I realized I needed to talk with this woman outside of a work situation. Luckily, that evening I found her full name listed on a company email and then her profile on a social networking site. Which, by the way, confirmed my hunch: Yes, she is queer. She responded immediately to my message, and seems just as eager to meet for coffee. We’ve been playing tag ever since, as our work schedules keep changing… Such is the life of an apprentice, in my company, at least. I’m confident we’ll make it work for this upcoming week.

Am I adequately conveying to you how excited I am?  I mean, I realize that we may not actually like each other at all, or have anything in common… But I don’t need a new best friend, I just need another ally at work!  And to have someone else to talk to about the strange little things that come from being female and/or queer in our company, our city, our construction sites, our trade.

Also… I found her blog, because I’m nosy like that.  It’s under her real name, and is a travel journal from her cycling and motorcycle trips in various parts of the continent.  So, yeah, at the very least I know that we both like traveling and bicycles, which is a pretty damn good place to start.

I still hate construction.

The construction site gets so quiet after 3 pm. I’m working for another hour, but many other trades are gone for the day. It’s nice. I’m perched halfway up an 8′ ladder, wiring a complex control panel, near a floor-to-ceiling window that has finally been uncovered. Before today, the entire building was dark because of the thick white plastic shrinkwrap that sheathed the scaffolds around the outer walls. Now most of that’s come down, and I’m in line with the setting sun… Albeit with a terrible view of highway and ugly industrial buildings.

I still hate construction.  But now I know that there’s so much else out there, which makes it almost okay… At least, no where near as depressing as when I worked on the giant new hospital, on my first electrical job.  My crew has two different construction sites on the roster right now, as well as a million other small assignments in offices and institutions and the like, and so I’m not here every day, or even every week.

When I do end up having to put in several days in a row at this site, I really feel it… Not just in my body, but also in my mental state.  There’s just so much hopelessness around a lot of these other tradespeople, leaking from their pores along with the stench of cigarettes and shitty food.  I know, I know, stereotypes… And yet.  And yet there’s something there, you know?  A kernel of truth, about hard working class jobs, and lives, and the men for whom that is reality.  (Yes, it’s all men, I’m one of three women among the 300 or so workers here: There’s another electrical apprentice, and a drywaller.)

And as for how it affects my body, well… I spend a lot of time studying my hands, when I’m on breaks and when I’m washing up at home after work. The outer edge of each of my index fingers is cracked raw at the top joint, from pulling insulation off of wires.  The tips of each thumb are also split in two or three places, especially at the edge of the nail. I wear bandaids, layered with electrical tape for durability, and then paint them closed with liquid bandage each night.  I also use moisturizers all the time, everything from thick creams that come in a tube, to the handmade salve my friend gave me.  Does it help?  I don’t know. The cracks still happen.

Of course, my finger tips also cracked when I worked in coffee shops.  My hands were rarely as filthy back then, but regularly exposed to toxic cleaners and the acidic oils from coffee beans.  Was that any better than drywall dust and wire-pulling lube?

Overall, I’m not terribly bothered by the rough state of my hands.  I’ve never been one to wear nail polish, or maintain long nails, or even wear rings. (As of yesterday, I’ve started wearing my wedding ring on a light chain around my neck instead of on my hand when I’m at work, after hearing a totally awful story about an accident with another apprentice and his wedding ring catching on something… Too terrible to share, too risky to ignore!)  It’s just so weird, to watch them get rougher and rougher.  It’s one of the few changes I can actually see progressing as I continue down this path.  I know I’m getting  stronger, because I can now easily do things that were difficult a few months ago, but it’s not like I suddenly have rippling biceps or any other physical marker of this. My hands, though, they are looking like they’ve got a story to tell.

Tomorrow night is the company holiday party

Tomorrow night is the company holiday party, and I gotta tell you, I’ve been experiencing a bunch of anxiety over it. Adding to my stress is the hard time I’m giving myself for feeling anxious… The wretched voice in my head keeps saying “JUST DON’T LET IT BOTHER YOU!!!”

Which, frankly, is stupidly useless advice.

The fact of the matter is, it’s one thing to be out at work, and quite another to walk into a company event with my genderqueer spouse on my arm (and in fancy formal dress at that). For most folks I’ve met in the trades, the theory of my being queer seems pretty easy to accept, or at least it comes off that way. (Let’s avoid discussing the rumours of what’s said behind my back, shall we?) What I’m not too sure about is how my coworkers will react when they meet Oats: Luckily, she’s exceptionally house-broken and quite charming, but I know from previous experiences that she is nothing like what they are expecting.

(Why? Well, for one, she’ll look better in her suit than they do in theirs… But also because a lot of straight folks seem to expect me to date women who are femme like me, and Oats is instead a very dapper sir… Just the way I like ’em!)

So? Fuck ’em, right?

Right!

Except that this is my job, and this is my trade, and I actually really like it.

And every day that I don’t hear some homophobic remark, I get a little more tense, waiting for it to happen. Anticipating. Because after hearing so much anti-gay bullshit at trades school and at my old construction job and wherever else, I simply don’t believe that it’s not going to happen here.

Anyway. In all likelyhood, it’ll all be fine, we’ll have fun, no one will be rude to us, and nothing bad will happen. In all likelyhood, I’ll look cute in my dress and high heels, Oats’ll be the perfect handsome date, and we’ll win one of the outrageous door prizes that are totally outside our lifestyle. (Can you still use a Wii if you don’t own a television?)

Here is the best coping skill I’ve found: Every time I start into an anxiety spiral worrying about the bad stuff, I remind myself of all the people I’ve met in trades who’ve talked to me about the queers in their lives. From the way they’ve each approached me, I get the feeling that for a lot of these guys, it’s a big deal for them to talk about it.

Of course, for some it’s old news: There was the journeyman who casually told me that his son is gay and has too many piercings, which seemed to concern him more than the queer-thing… And there’s Astro, with whom I hope Oats and I will sit at the party tomorrow.

But I also had a trades classmate tell me how upset he was that his favourite cousin tried to commit suicide after the family reacted badly to his coming out. And on a more positive note, another guy at trades school wanted advice on how to best impress this bisexual girl he was crushing out on, when she invited him out a date to the local gay bar. Then there’s my coworker who revealed that when his mother married her girlfriend last year, he was the only one of his siblings to attend the wedding (which was now causing problems between them and him). I could go on, but you see my point: We’re everywhere.

Coming out at work, this time ’round.

You would NOT BELIEVE how much time I spent in washrooms, or rather in the ceilings of washrooms, where it always seems that the wiring I'm working on is right above a toilet. Out of the closet, and into a stall...

The first crew I worked with when I started my electrical apprenticeship job back in September was a bit odd.  At the time, I thought my two coworkers were typical of what I’d be experiencing in the company, but after being moved to a few different crews, I realize now that they are exceptions:  Silent, reserved, and socially-awkward, whereas the other dozen or so folks I’ve met are friendly, engaging, and interesting.  So, I didn’t come out as queer, with those first guys.  There simply wasn’t an opportunity, because they didn’t talk much.

From there, I was sent to a giant condo development for a day, where a large crew was working on the initial construction wiring.  Two old classmates from tradeschool were there, and it was great to catch up.  They, of course, know I’m queer, because I was pretty vocal in calling-out the rampant homophobia in our classroom.  No one mentioned it that day, but the journeyman I worked with implied that he knew, with some funny (and otherwise completely non-sequitur!) comments making it clear that he was cool with “teh gays”.  I really liked him, and was sad that we only got so brief a time together.

After that, I was sent to the mall construction site where I was for two weeks.  On my second day, I arrived to find that the foreman, the other apprentice and myself had been joined by another worker:  My buddy Astro.  We bear-hugged, and then just grinned at each other.  The other guys thought we were nuts, because we just couldn’t stop smiling.

Astro is the brother of my friend Starling, who is pretty much the QUEEREST PERSON EVER.  Well, in my life, anyway.  Starling is genderqueer, polyqueer, sexqueer, foodqueer, litqueer, cuddlequeer, bikequeer, lifequeer, just so so so queer.  We first met at the womens’ centre at the university many years ago, then both worked at the organic farm, and just generally have had overlapping lives for a long time.

Astro was actually at the hospital construction site where I first worked two and half years ago, but we never talked until we both got laid off and happened to be at the union hall on the same day.  I mentioned working at the farm, and Astro said that his sibling worked at an organic farm, and we quickly realized it was Starling.  We became friends on a social networking site, and he ended up coming to my birthday party a couple months later. That’s when I found out he’s an artist, a painter with a Fine Arts degree… He and Oats spent a part of the evening talking about her paintings, which cover the walls of our apartment.  I soon found out that Astro also shares my love of post-apocalyptic daydreaming, food preservation, dumpster-diving, and traveling, and has a similar push/pull relationship with academia.  He is soft-spoken and a little nerdy-looking, and more than a little weird and spacey, in all the best ways.

So anyway, to suddenly be working with Astro was an amazing gift.  Not only because he’s hilarious, but because I felt so safe.  I hadn’t been consciously tense about my situation before, but just knowing that I had a solid ally was a huge relief.  Also, it provided the perfect opening to come out to the other two guys, because it was natural that Astro and I would talk about Oats and her dreams of doing an MFA.

As easy as that:  At break one day, sitting in the food court, Astro and I started discussing the challenge of getting a gallery show, and so I told him about the small art gallery that Oats and I booked for our wedding last spring.  He laughed about how the owner confessed she wasn’t too into the paintings of spring flowers that happened to be on display during our rental, but thought that at least they’d be nice, non-complicated backgrounds for our wedding photos… Like Oats and I, Astro is not a fan of “nice, non-complicated” art.  Our other coworkers listened and ate their snacks and eventually when the conversation turned to a broader topic, they joined in.  No big deal, really… But enough of one, to make me feel better.

With my next crew, the one I’m with now, I came out to my primary coworker within five minutes of meeting him:  He commented on how professional my flashlight looked, and I told him that it had been my partner’s, from when she was a security guard many years ago.  Apparently, I told him, it’s the heaviest flashlight allowed without being classified as an actual weapon.  “Wow,” he smiled, amused, and asked to hold it, then it gave some swings through the air like a club before handing it back.

Again, no big deal… But enough of one.

After this, I’m sure word will travel fast.  Apprentices move from crew to crew throughout the company on a pretty regular basis, and everyone always asks who you know, who you’ve worked with, what you think about them… And I’m guessing my being queer will be a little factoid tacked-on to the things people say about me.  Of course, I’m hoping that they’ll also say I’m a fast learner and an easy-going, friendly co-worker, with a good sense of humour.  And they probably will, because I seem to be well-liked.  But I’m pretty certain that as one of very few women in a large trades company, my sexuality will be of interest.  Whatever, I’m over it.  I’m just glad to be out.

(If you want to read about me coming out a little at my first trades job, click here!)

A smartphone in my tool box

image

Shiny shiny DIN rail, awaiting installation

After years of using hand-me-down cellphones from my dad, I finally decided to get a brand new one of my own… And ended up with a pretty fancy smartphone.  It’s impossible to validate the environmental costs of this choice, so I won’t try.  Instead I’ll just assure you that I plan on using this new phone the same way I do most things:  Until it’s completely worn out.

Having a phone with a pretty good camera integrated into it has totally changed my work as an electrical apprentice! And not just because I can occupy myself with art projects during the slow moments… Though let’s be honest, I’m really into that.

But art aside: Now when I’m sent off into the far reaches of a building to find a sensor or valve or junction box hidden in a ceiling somewhere, I don’t have to rely on my memory of the layout or my hastily scrawled directions! I can simply take photos of the building plans, and bring them up to reference as I search.

image

It's amazing that this schematic now makes total sense to me, since it sure as hell didn't a couple weeks ago.

When I finally find what I’m looking for, I no longer have to struggle to explain to my foreman what it looks like, how it’s arranged, the specifics of its location:  Instead I show him the photo I took, so he can see for himself.

(…And therefore have confirmation that YES, the sensor is broken in pieces, YES, the valve isn’t connected to anything, YES, there’s no junction box at all and the fucking conduit just turns and disappears into the roof.  Le sigh.)

image

Why? Why no junction box? Why?!!

As an electrician working in established buildings, I’m often looking at wiring done by previous sparkies, and sometimes replacing things they’ve installed. So, it’s important to know how they wired a component before I remove it, for when I need to rewire the new one.

I always carry a small notebook with me, and even with the camera I take copious notes on everything I do, and really it’s easy to quickly jot what coloured wire was in which labeled connection. Still, it’s even easier to take a photo of the circuit.  I like to take a “before”, with the original component, and an “after”, of how I’ve installed the new one. And then when I’m rewiring the next 40 or so thermostats, I don’t have to translate my notes into something visual: I pull up the “after” photo, and make my new thermostat look like that.  I can also show it to my foreman and get his approval without him needing to physically visit the location of the component.

This is a thermostat, for realz.

I’m not about to start recommending that all electricians or tradespeople start carrying fancy communications gear, or even supposing that having a smartphone is making me a better electrician… Fuck knows I still have a loooooooong way to go in developing those skills!  But in a bunch of small ways, it really is improving my productivity (to use the corporate keyword).  It’s not that my note-taking or descriptive abilities are crappy, because I think they’re actually quite excellent (Seven years of university was good for something).

And yet as someone new to the trade, I don’t always know what I’m seeing, and so have trouble describing it…  Or I don’t even notice issues or errors that’re completely obvious to an experienced tradesperson.  Being able to take a quick photo and use it for my own reference or to explain stuff to my boss just makes my job so much easier.

Also, as mentioned previously, more fun… Because everyone needs to kill time when hanging out at the top of a ladder inside a dropped ceiling by taking ridiculous self-portraits.

I am serious. And inside your ceiling.

Why #2: Capitalism.

(For Why #1, click here)

Oh, hey, I live here.

This morning as I was getting ready for work, there was a piece on the radio about the skilled trades worker shortage. It’s a common theme, you’ve probably heard something about it: The journeymen are all speeding towards retirement age, and there simply aren’t enough apprentices coming along to fill the soon-to-be-available leadership positions. Listening to the on-air discussion, I grinned while lacing up my steel toed boots… Not only are there more and more trades jobs on the horizon, but us skilled trades workers are reaping the benefits of the effort of all those older workers!  These were mostly men, who negotiated contracts and wage standards meant to support their entire families, for which they historically were providing the primary income.  Which is to say, a “small” salary in the trades is a hell of a lot bigger than a “medium” salary in the world of administrative assistants… And let’s not even talk about the non-profit sector.

So here’s another reason why I chose to be an electrician: Because I wanted a living wage.

It’s fucking surreal sometimes, to really think about the fact that the best work I’ve done is also the stuff that’s contributed least to paying my rent. Earning enough money to not only cover my expenses but also get out of debt (and avoid getting further into debt) has been a huge distraction from all the excellent stuff I could be doing. You know when people say that they wouldn’t work if they didn’t have to? I simply don’t believe it. Oh, sure, I imagined they’d take a few months to veg out and clear their minds… But after that, I really do honestly have faith in the human desire to feel needed, to find satisfaction from doing something useful.  Wages get in the way of us finding our callings:  We’re too busy trying to make a living.

So anyway, yeah, capitalism’s not doing too well right now, in case you haven’t noticed.  Never having been a big fan in the first place, I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised:  It’s simply unmanageble, this twisted economic system.  Having said that, I’ve yet to visit the encampment of my local Occupy movement… Because I’m too busy working, at the first decent-paying job I’ve had in years.  How totally bougie of me, ha!

Seriously, though, it means a lot to me, to be able to count on making enough money for more than just my expenses…  And not just so that I can buy boots!  Hmmm… Actually, that’s a good example:  It’s a relief to be able to invest in quality footwear that will last me a couple years, instead of having to either continue to make do with the old (and literally crumbling!) pair or buy some crappy cheap thing that’ll need replacing in another few months.  It’s a small thing, but so important to my personal quality of life.  So: I have a steady union job, I’ll continue to get raises every six months as I gain experience, I’m learning useful skills that will make me increasingly employable, and I can afford decent boots…  This is how capitalism drove me to become an electrician.