I’ve saved my Timpkin Roller Bearing, that one-hundred-and-fifty-pound black cylinder, because it was given to me when I worked as a technical writer at Southern Pacific Railroad. It was 1985 when I first walked in that door, but I felt like I’d been thrown back to 1955. I didn’t see any women and the men sitting at desks were still wearing ties. It had been a long time since I’d been around men in ties but, hey, I’d just graduated from college, so what did I know. I was a twenty-one-year-old woman with frizzy hair, wearing jeans and carrying a backpack.
There were women there, of course, but they were in the back and called ‘assistants.’ At least they weren’t called ‘secretaries.’ At first, I imagined we were comrades when we smiled at each other, but then I saw two of them exchanging looks. I realized, sadly, that they probably thought I was full of myself because I’d been to college.
I sat at a desk in that room with men in ties and me, the only woman; and then I was told by an ‘assistant’ that Mr. Kenn wanted to talk to me about the Roller Bearing Installation Manual. I didn’t even know what a roller bearing looked like, but I jumped up and followed her.
Mr. Kenn was a balding guy whose stomach hung over his pants. He kept adjusting his belt as if maybe his stomach had gotten smaller but, of course, it hadn’t. “You’ll be examining the roller bearings and taking notes for the Manuel, Mrs. Steinberg. Just write down how they’re installed. Get the men to tell you what they’re doing and watch,” he said, staring at me with a confused look.
“Got it,” I replied. But I was getting cold feet. I’d never even changed a tire on my car.
Later I described everything to my boyfriend, Max. “What’s a roller bearing,” he asked.
“You know trains have wheels, right?”
He rolled his eyes. “Come on. You don’t have to work there, you know.”
“Thanks. But I don’t want you to support me. And I’m lucky they hired me given my skimpy resume with articles in the Jewish Bulletin and the Hayes Valley Library Newsletter.”
“You have many other things on your resume. There’s that news story that won a prize, “Blackjack on the Overpass, or was it, Solitaire?”— a riveting sketch of a guy playing cards while the cars whizzed by.
“Okay, okay. And I know you liked the opinion piece for The Bay Guardian, “Reagan Then and Now.” In that one I juxtaposed movie ads, like “Tropic Zone,” where Reagan kisses a practically naked girl, with his campaign ads. All I had to do was add, “Should he be President?” But I’m paid for this job,” I reminded him.
“Didn’t you earn something when you helped what’s his name?”
“Walter. Yes, he was the one with the newspaper collection going back to the 1920’s. You put that Post Dispatch article up on the wall, “The Way to a Man’s Heart,” with an illustration of a woman in an apron. I laughed, but I was pissed.”
“I know. But you took it down and put up one about the suffragette’s smashing windows and the Pankhurst group chaining themselves to railings,” Max pointed out.
“Exactly,” I said, remembering how Walter had an obituary about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, my favorite feminist writer — and, now, it’s in my desk drawer. I just took it one day. “You’re right, I loved that job. Although the money was pathetic.”
“I get it,” said Max.
The next day, Mr. Kenn took me down to “the yard” and introduced me to the men, “Mrs. Steinberg is our house technical writer,” he said.
“Ms. not Mrs.,” I replied, finally, trying to ignore the fact that my face was hot and red; “I’m looking forward to working with everyone.” There were smiles all around, but I couldn’t stop feeling self-conscious when the men thought I wasn’t strong enough to lift one roller bearing much less many, like them.
But after that, I had fun. The men were careful to explain what they were doing. They even paused to give me time to write. They had nicknames for each other, like “Ass-saver” for the guy who always saved the day, I assumed, or, “Beefy” for the chunky guy. Then, there was “Bubblegum Monster.” You can guess why. They called Mr. Kenn, “Bossy-pants,” behind his back, but it was good humored. By my second week on the job, they’d already dubbed me “Fluffy hair.” I knew that meant they had accepted me.
It was Mr. Kenn who was the slavedriver about re-writes. He was quick to point out my mistakes. And even when most of it was accurate, he wouldn’t mention the parts that were correct. It was always, “Check again,” with a frown.
It took me a year to write that manual and then, I stopped applying for newspaper jobs. I realized that if I wanted to be a journalist, I’d have to move to a small town and slowly build up my resume in order to get a newspaper job, here. So, I decided to become a professor instead. I knew it would be interesting and as long as I published in academic journals, I could finally be a woman who was heard. I can’t deny that it’s interesting and I’m a highly respected scholar, now, but, it’s less exciting than I’d hoped.
And, yet, when I tripped over my Timpkin Roller Bearing in the basement, today — the weight of it, all 150 pounds of it — spoke to me of all the things that I’ll never throw away. I’ve finally forgiven myself for stealing that obituary of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I thought I needed her as a lucky talisman, to help me make it in a man’s world. But then I found myself in the trainyard, hoisting a roller bearing on an axle.
S. Berenstein (she/her) is a fiction writer for half the week and a psychologist for the other half. She has published her work in Litbreak, Drip Lit, Literary Yard, Hot Flash, The California Council for the Arts Journal and more. Her flash fiction was listed under ‘Notable Stories’ in Brilliant Flash Fiction.