The Netherlands

My first year in college I worked a stint as a waitress at Baxter’s, a local chain restaurant. It served your standard American fare outlined in sticky, glossy tri-fold menus. Next to the kitchen was a small faux wood parquet dance floor, dj booth and Karaoke machine. The dance floor was adjacent to a bar that floated in the middle of rubbery seafoam green booths.

The bar was meant to improve sales receipts by catering to the local college crowd at night. There were $1 well drinks on Mondays, Live Music on Wednesdays and Girls Night on Thursdays. I worked noon to closing. I waited tables until we stopped serving food at 8pm then I checked IDs at the front door.

Thursday Girl Nights were a bit of a misnomer. Every Thursday evening the manager imported 3 to 4 “girls” to strip down to skimpy bathing suits on the dance floor for the pleasure of men who watched and drank full-priced beer.

The ladies arrived every Thursday evening around 6pm. The girls would march resolutely into the restaurant in their street clothes and then change into their performing outfits in the women’s restroom. My job was to roust the women from the bathroom and prod them onto the dance floor.

I never spoke much with them. I figured there was a line between service professionals like myself and service professionals such as their selves. Though I did enjoy a bit of power when I would walk into the ladies’ room and announce in a loud voice, “Show time!”

The manager would get behind the dj booth and start up the stereo, signaling the girls lined up on the floor and the men standing around that the show was about to begin. Then, in a flurry of straps, sequins and strings the girls would slither to the floor and begin their strip tease. As the music pulsated and grew louder, men would emit a few cheers and then fall silent. The girls would shimmy down to their bikinis and contort so as to better demonstrate their wares. Technically, the women were not supposed to get fully nude but as bikini tops shifted and thong bottoms moved, the men got an eyeful. And so did I.

I had never seen women in this manner before. My girlfriends and I were the kind of girls who dressed for high school gym by changing underneath our clothes or in the stalls; the goal being, to show as little skin as humanly possible while changing. The only real live breasts I had seen up to that point were my own sorry buds. Except for those that 80s aerobic enthusiasts wore over their leotards, I had never even seen thongs before. For context, this was the early 90s.

What shocked me the most, however, was the dancers’ hairless bodies. They were like perfect seals out there dancing for $1 bills (this was a college town). How could they manage to bend over in thongs without exposing the tell tale signs of pubescence? Being of Mexican descent, I was in awe. I wasn’t allowed to shave my legs until I was sixteen. I hated my hairiness, but watching those dancers I began to feel a bit relieved. The only explanation to me at the time was that they were obviously born without hair and therefore predestined to lives as exotic dancers. Poor girls. At least with all my dark hair, I could be a scientist.

I didn’t learn until a few years later that there was such a thing as a bikini wax.

Because Toilets Run and Faucets Drip: Plumbing 101

Course: Basic Home Plumbing

Institution: Jill of All Trades

Instructor: Naomi Friedman

Location: San Francisco/Mission District

Price: $100

There’s nothing quite so harrowing as being intimidated by your hot water heater. I was getting into my car the other day when I swore it hissed at me. I turned around and stared at it. I realized in that moment that I didn’t have the faintest idea how to approach the 6 foot tin monster.

Later that evening, after wrestling a gob of hair from the drain in my bathroom sink (I swear I must lose enough hair every day to stuff a small animal), I decided that I needed help. I googled “plumbing classes San Francisco” and discovered a basic home plumbing course for women. I signed right up.

Our instructor was a plumbing contractor who lives in the east bay and has a self-professed love of repairs. I’m not sure that’s exactly what you want your plumber to tell you but I liked her enthusiasm for all things plumbing.

She started the class by asking the attendees (6 of us) what questions or issues brought us to the course. They were
1. Shower diverter
2. Running toilet
3. Hot water heater (this was my entry)
4. Installing a basin
5. Leaky faucet
6. Low shower pressure

She then distributed a hand-out with plumbing basics, including a history of plumbing. Early civilizations in Babylon, India, islands in the Mediterranean Sea and Rome had plumbing. Most pipes were made of clay at the time and women were often the manufacturers.

Next, we moved onto tools. You know you’re in a class for women when the instructor coos over baby bent nose adjustable pliers: “They’re just the cutest things in the world.” We covered the uses of a water meter key, channel locks or wide-mouth adjustable pliers, pipe wrenches and screw drivers. She wrapped up by emphasizing that “a big pipe needs a big jaw.” Indeed.

Familiarized with our equipment, we were each tasked with dissembling a faucet and finding its washer. A washer is a little piece of rubber in the faucet responsible for controlling the water flow. If it goes, you’ve got yourself a leak. It is easy to replace, however, if you know how to get to it. This is often not very straightforward. I, ever the eager student, stripped my faucet to within an inch of its life and indicted a poor unsuspecting piece of rubber with my screwdriver before the instructor set me straight.

I found this to be the best part of the class. Plumbing, in essence, is about solving mechanical problems. The mechanics of plumbing are really quite simple. What is more difficult is getting familiar with the various systems that support these mechanics. To get to know them you have to tinker. But who wants to tinker on their own plumbing set up? And most women know that if you have a husband, boyfriend or father within a one mile radius of your mechanical problem, you will not get a chance to tinker with it.

While I was decidedly the only woman in the class who receives regular manicures, I appreciated that I didn’t have to contend with a dude hogging the tools. Left to my own devices, I worked some screwdriver magic on a couple different faucet set ups and got the hang of it quickly. Our confidence built, we moved on to toilets.

As I’ve had run-ins with running toilets, I was already up on how they work. Most traditional style toilets use a ballcock (or fill valve) and float ball set up.

Alicia Morga plumbing 101

Fixing running toilets is usually just a matter of making sure the flapper (the black rubber stopper at the bottom of the toilet tank that allows water to exit the tank into the bowl) is sitting properly on its seat. We hovered over a disconnected toilet while the instructor pointed out components and explained their actions.

As we were a room full of women, we also talked hair and the havoc it wrecks on drains. Mesh drain plugs were highly encouraged. The easiest way to understand the location of a drain clog is to note how fast the sink fills when washing your hands. If it fills quickly, the problem is most likely in your trap.

Alicia Morga plumbing bathroom sink

For most sinks, you can actually go in and remove the debris in the trap yourself or use Drano (though she didn’t encourage the use of chemicals). If the sink takes a while to fill while washing your hands then the stoppage is likely in the wall and if that’s the case, Drano won’t help a bit. Her advice if the clog is in the wall? “Oh, yeah, then you call a plumber.”

We ended the day with hot water heaters. I cozied up to one and realized they’re not so tough. After step-by-step instructions on how to relight the pilot light, I was feeling positively cocky.

The biggest revelation was how the fix is often something really simple and plumbers get paid big bucks to come out and do something most home-owners could have done themselves. While I won’t be tinkering with my plumbing anytime soon, at least now I’m no longer afraid of my hot water heater.