Last Woman Standing

“That,” Sally said, pointing to Mr. Fixit, the repair shop where old-fashioned upright vacuum cleaners stood at attention on Miller Avenue for over thirty ears, “is where I took my vibrator when I lived here.”

Sally had serious ovarios.

It was early November 1988. Sally was in the driver’s seat, driving Jeanette and Kathleen to dinner at my house. I had decided to have an early Thanksgiving dinner since it seemed inevitable that George H. W. Bush would become our next president. Clearly, we would not have much to be thankful for.

I met and became friends with Sally, Jeanette, and Kathleen when I joined the San Francisco Gray Panthers in 1979. I was 30, Kathleen 32, Sally 55, and Jeanette 62.

In 1979, The San Francisco chapter of the Gray Panthers was deep in a fight to preserve single room occupancy (SRO) rooms in the residential hotels in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Owners of the buildings were attempting to convert them into tourist hotels; if memory serves, rents went from $125.00 a month to $50.00 a night. The residents of the hotels were people who generally had no family connections: retired merchant seamen, widows who lived entirely on their husband’s social security ($200.00 a month), disabled people who relied on disability for income. Their only alternative for affordable housing was in towns 50 or 60 miles away, where they would lose the community they had built around the place they had come to call home.

The City had imposed a moratorium on the conversions because the loss of affordable housing was creating such a hardship on the residents, most of whom had been a part of San Francisco for most, if not all, their lives. To get around the moratorium, the owners (mostly foreign investors) would hire thugs to harass the residents into moving.

They sprayed disinfectant in the hallways, sending those with pulmonary problems to the hospital.

They set elevators to every third floor, forcing those with mobility problems to crawl up the stairs.

They locked out home health care providers and social workers, making it impossible for frail, ill people to get their medication and services.

A ninety-year old woman was served a three-day eviction notice.

Within a 30-day period, four residents of one of the hotels died.

This was not, shall we say, American exceptionalism.

The Gray Panthers, along with other community groups, successfully organized the residents of one hotel. The last time I went to a play at the Exit Theater, located in the heart of the Tenderloin, I walked by that hotel. It still exists as a residential hotel, though I don’t know much about what it is like.

I was part of other organizing events over my years with the Gray Panthers. Jeanette and I bonded over health care issues. When I called her to come to my home for a meeting I told her it was over dinner – potluck.

“Pot luck tends to be a bit potty,” she said. “Can you assign me something to bring?”

And thus began an extraordinary friendship with three women that was celebrated over dinners. Revolution was not going to interfere with the grace and intimacy of good food, good wine, and good conversation.

These were always very intimate evenings. Our discussions were not so much about politics as about what kind of a society we wanted to be a part of. “What a society,” Jeanette would conclude when we got particularly depressed about injustices and policies that threw the most vulnerable to the curb.

Then we would go to Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store on the corner of Columbus and Union for a cappuccino and a pastry made by the owner’s wife.

Sally and Jeanette were my mother’s age, but took quite a different path from hers. Though my mother had her own quirkiness, she pretty much followed the path that was expected of women following World War II. She married, had three children, went to work when her youngest was in elementary school.

Sally married, had a child, got divorced, got a PhD and got a job at UCLA as a professor of anthropology where, in 1967, tired of rushing downstairs to the women’s room between her classes, strode into the faculty bathroom, shouting a hearty hello to the back of dean of the department as she passed him at the urinal on her way to a stall.

She explored bisexuality, living with women as well as men. “The hard part is intimacy,” she said.  “It isn’t that men are assholes – it’s that intimacy is tough. The only difference between living with a man and living with a woman is that you go through more toilet paper when you live with a woman.”

Like I said, Sally had serious ovarios.

So did Jeanette. She never married, didn’t have the patience to teach a man of her generation about equality in a relationship, but took on the occasional lover. She had an illegal abortion when she became pregnant, a harrowing experience. She went to a liberal southern university, and when she worked in management during a strike, donated half her salary to the striking workers since she couldn’t join the picket line.

Kathleen and I were of the same generation. We shared the experience of growing up in families that venerated males, taught daughters their role was to support men. We struggled with how we could find love along with a role in the world. She was raised Catholic, and the Catholic never really left her. The pity was that the Church would not allow her to be a priest. As executive director of the Gray Panthers, she worked it as if she were a Parish priest (a good one – not one of the paternalistic ones), creating an atmosphere where all felt a sense of belonging while working for a common good. Most of the Gray Panthers were old thirties atheist radicals. She gave no sermons, just support and leadership where it was necessary.

As if being a woman wasn’t enough to put her at odds with the Catholic Church, she was also a lesbian, taking small steps into a relationship that eventually crushed her heart.

Sally died in 1994, shortly before her seventieth birthday – that’s a story for another time. Kathleen in 1995, shortly after her 47th birthday. Breast cancer took her. Jeanette died in 1998. She had asked me to have durable power of attorney for her health care decisions. When I asked her what she wanted, she said, “Pull the plug.” I did – again, that is a story for another time.

I am the last woman standing of this “four for dinner” group.

I can hear the conversations we might be having now. The armor they would be donning to take part in the fight once again for women’s rights, providing safety nets for the most vulnerable, working to get us out of Afghanistan.

Imagine how terrifying it would be to male legislators, so threatened by women’s sexuality that they want to limit access to birth control and choice, to come face to face with a woman who takes her vibrator to Mr. Fixit.

It is definitely time to woman up. To show some serious ovarios. I can feel the spirits of Jeanette, Sally, and Kathleen organizing over a dinner of good food, good wine, and good company.

A revolution filled with grace and joy.

4 thoughts on “Last Woman Standing

    • Gayl,

      Sorry it took so long to reply. I’m in the midst of selling a house and moving, so I’m a bit behind on — well — on everything.

      So glad you liked my post. Yeah, it took some ovarios for Sally to go to Mr. Fixit. That’s always been one of my favorite stories.

      Hope you visit the Writing Shed again.



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