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Open Topic - Wrenching

Illustration by Hernan Valencia

I’m an engineer who fixes pipes and pumps at a Strip hotel. I’m also a woman. Why is that still such a big deal?

It’s mid-July monsoon season, and the Vegas summer sky seems to swell with the threat of rain even through the tinted glass of the 17th floor. The air conditioner groans, attempting to cool a vacant hotel room strewn with sunblock tubes, empty bottles of liquor, and cash-out tickets, the largest valued at 14 cents.

There is also profanity. That would be coming from me. Knees gnashing against the bathroom floor, I torque my upper body against my hips, white-knuckling a pair of Channellocks clamped onto a stubborn bit of plumbing protruding from the wall beneath the sink. My head, elbows, and neck are contorted around a tailpiece. Beside me, a shattered P-trap smells like roadkill, and all I can hope is that this pipe shimmies loose before something vital in me does.

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I am 28 years old, a born-and-raised Vegas native, and an apprentice engineer who works proudly under the banner of the International Union of Operating Engineers. I am also, incidentally, a woman.

Did you picture me when reading the above? A six-foot-three redhead in an undeniably female body, Carhartt workwear, steel-toe boots, Hello Kitty earrings, and MAC lip gloss?

Most of my guests anticipate a male technician as well.

A typical call: “Hello! This is Hannah from the engineering team. I understand there’s an issue in your room. Is this a good time for me to drop in to resolve it?”

“Yes, send a handyman right away.”

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“I’ll be the one assisting you today, actually. I’ll be at your door in about 10 minutes!”

“Dear, I don’t need housekeeping. It’s my sink.”

Right. Gathering tools, parts, and my favorite plunger, jumping into an elevator, I brace for the awkwardness when the door opens. This man is not prepared to abandon the status quo. I greet him, enter the room, and begin to assess the issue, and he still stammers on about a handyman. Eventually, he leaves me to my task, which brings us back to the bathroom floor, where you’d find me sweating like a prizefighter dodging blows.

In my first three weeks at my property, it was all toilets, all the time. We were in the middle of a massive remodel, and someone had to strip the toilets out for the tile guys, then reinstall and caulk them. Though this wasn’t the most complex task, I was terrified of doing it incorrectly. My previous jobs were all service-related — food and beverage, mostly — and there are so many nuances that just don’t apply when you’re one-on-one with a piece of equipment that isn’t doing what you need it to. No amount of speaking sweetly to a pipe makes it less likely to leak. There is no quantity of cleavage that will make a live wire decide, You know, I was going to complete this circuit through her chest cavity, but who would want to ruin that sweet rack?

While there’s nothing glamorous about cinching toilets to the wall, there is a wonderful sense of satisfaction when you assemble something with your own hands and it works. In my year on the job so far, I’ve completed small plumbing projects, fixed broken toasters for the kitchens, assembled LED backlights for headboards, and ran countless room calls. Recently, one of my tasks was to climb into the ominously named “Vortex Pit” to figure out why a pump was failing. Without knocking the service industry, I’m quite confident that I’m having more fun than I ever would have slinging vodka-Red Bulls to nebbish hipsters.

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There was a time when getting ready for work meant makeup, hair, and a routine of mental gymnastics to prepare myself for the delicate dance of guest service. I’d spend a few minutes indulging my ego, reassuring myself of my charm, my beauty, my general worthiness to take up space. There are women who are unbothered by the game, who thrive behind a crowded bar, managing to be both efficient and coy, and I often stood in awe of them while rinsing blue curaçao out of my hair in the mop sink. But, as poetically as I can wax about bourbon cocktails and craft beers, I was simply meant to wield a wrench.

I knew I was on my real path when I started to feel invisible. Walking by a crowd of bachelor-party bros, Bud Lights in hand  — only to pass them completely unnoticed. Sauntering down a hallway, keys jingling, covered in fiberglass insulation, with an a/c motor swinging over my shoulder — without so much as a blink from the old married couple navigating a Rascal scooter into their suite. To be present, important, but unacknowledged is freeing in ways I still cannot quite explain.

In my liberation, there is still conflict. There are awkward conversations in bars with red-faced young men, who are turned off by the idea of a woman who “doesn’t need them.” They pout, resolute in their assertion that women’s liberation is a societal cancer. That all my “tinkering,” my pursuit of a pension and fair living wage, is simply a cry for help from my poor, withering ovaries.

I can’t even blame them for feeling the way they do. Our culture is structured to make women like myself look like exceptions to some innate natural law. It’s like living in a bad sitcom, the constant refrain of, “You go, girl,” from women, and the endlessly flummoxed men, heads wagging in disbelief at my competency. The damage is done almost equally by both parties. Women internalize the idea that I’m a novelty, that I’m somehow daring for simply doing a job. Men just generally underestimate women. Over-insistence that I’m a deviation from the norm sometimes just reinforces the norm.

It’s heartbreaking to live in a world where your success as a woman is tempered by the success of the men around you. I catch myself downplaying my accomplishments constantly, making self-deprecating jokes about my career choice, or my femininity, to comfort otherwise well-meaning men who haven’t yet opened their eyes to the fact that women are whole people. I could be mad, or use their vitriol as fuel for my own self-improvement, but any way I try to process their warped sense of gender, I come right back to the fact that I am not living my life for them. My ultimate comfort is the very autonomy they find so repugnant.

I’ve spent so much of my life in the pursuit of being seen the way I want that I forgot along the way that no one sees more of me than myself. So much of my life before this was about showmanship, about presentation. Now my greatest success is when I’ve solved a problem so well that no one even knows there was one.

The pipe will jiggle loose, and the guest will return later, tipsy, stuffed to nausea with buffet food, and barely notice that his sink is in pristine working order. Most people don’t notice the intricate details of property operations until something breaks. Most people don’t notice a stunning lack of women in a field until a few break through.

I’ve long maintained that feminism is a verb. Every time a woman picks up a tool, a book, a welder, a calculator, every time she walks into a room full of men and asserts her right to be there, we’re all better for it. Rhetoric is necessary, but so is metal fabrication, electrical engineering, carpentry, central plant operations, HVAC, and yes, plumbing. There will only be room at the table if someone makes the table first.