So I bought a van. And now? Now…
I live in a small apartment and parking around my area is 1. unpredictable and shouty, 2. on the street, 3. without electrical power or any space to e.g. set out a toolkit. So it was clear I was going to have to figure out something else while I did the van conversion.
I asked around and: nothing. Seems everyone I know in Sydney lives in a flat and/or lives miles away from me. I googled, and found a few folks renting out their garages, people offering long-term studio/workshop rental –but all I need is a month or so– and also lots of lovely workshops/studios up STAIRS. But, of course: van. Hmmm. All I need is somewhere with vehicular access, a bit of space and security to lay stuff out, and electrical power to run e.g. a jigsaw.
And then on Gumtree I found an ad for an automotive workshop space that was PERFECT. It said:
- Workshop with 24hr access in the motor area of Alexandria. Approved for all motor associated activities EXCEPT PANEL BEATING. Area to suit 2 large vehicles with adequate shelving and storage. Join others of common interest in this complex, with easy access and close proximity to airport , city and expressway. Available on month to month basis, no lease and 1 month bond.
I paid $150/week cash for a smaller bay with shelving, which was just big enough to park my van in. As I was mostly available in the evenings and on weekends, when not many others were there, there was plenty of space around my little area to spread stuff around, cut wood, lay things down, etc. There was electrical power. I had shelving. There was a key code so I could just come and go and could be there late into the evening or early on weekends; there was also plenty of lighting around the complex, so it didn’t feel too scary to be there alone. There was a picnic table for sending out for Uber Eats — there’s really nothing food-wise around this very industrial area, and I often got delivery food so as to not waste van time. There were some very basic toilets, about which the less said the better. And as the workshop is next to the canal (I didn’t even know Sydney HAD a canal…), there were also some impressively muscular rats and some improbably puny-looking but ferocious feral cats happily picking off the rats. It was, in short, perfect.
And so I moved into the space and gradually met the others renting the neighbouring bays. They were fixing up golf carts to be used on movie sets, storing a Cadillac (that’s what’s under the dust cover), and rebuilding a fancy-looking motorbike. I also met the folks working for the main business that operates out of the space, a diesel mechanic called Andrew, who employs a bunch of other diesel mechanics including Dave, Will, and Thor. Together, these guys turned out to be an absolute GODSEND of practical advice, information, and the lending of tools.
I was a bit apprehensive at first at being in such a masculine environment, imagining it to be very blokey and very uncomfortable-making for me (a middle-aged woman who works in an office). But I was wrong. I think because these guys have absolutely nothing to prove (and particularly not to me) in terms of their professional capability/status or their blokiness, they were perfectly sweet and helpful without being at all explainy.
This was in stark contrast, though, to some of the other men I met along the way. This started on the first day of the conversion project proper, when I spent hours in Bunnings (which is Australia’s Home Depot). As I was looking for the right type of structural plywood, a stranger (customer, male, 30s) looked over at my clipboard and said, wow, wasn’t my task easier than his. Huh? As I was pushing a heavily loaded-up wood trolley with a wonky front wheel, another customer (male, 50s) stopped to instruct me on how best to push a trolley. Jackass. And then the same morning, in the tool section of the store, I noticed that the sales dude (20s) asked two men ahead of me what it was they were ‘doing’ and then asked me what I was ‘trying to do’.
That day, on the way back to the workshop, driving the van (still not at all used to it and feeling the tension of trying not to fuck it up), and with the van loaded up with expensive kit that I’m not at all confident I know how to use, I stopped for take-out coffee for me and for Andrew, as he’d bought me one in the morning. It was raining, pouring, and the cafe had stupid, slippery tiles on the ground outside the doors. And I slipped, ended up in a puddle with a sore knee, a river of spilled coffee seeping into my denim shorts. And I felt quite, quite overwhelmed with it all.
Was it feeling so far out of my comfort zone? Was it having to defend my right to even be a (relative) DIY beginner, even though I make and repair stuff competently ALL THE TIME and I’ve DESIGNED A CAMPERVAN FITOUT FFS! But I can’t help feeling that if I was a bloke I’d be excitedly toasting my own success here rather than feeling stressed out, hoping not to fuck it up. Was it because there I was, throwing a lot of money at a project with no real sense at all of whether it was an expensive folly and I’d end up chucking in the towel, saying, ‘nope, I cannot do this’?
It was all that. The money. The worry. The added pressure of doing this AS A WOMAN ALONE. That first, rainy day wasn’t a good day.
So in total contrast it was a wonderful to spend time with Andrew and Dave, who were perfectly unsexist, treating me like I knew what I was doing and that my project as just as worthy as anything they were doing. They generously lent me expensive tools and showed me clever little hacks (like using one spanner looped into another to give you more leverage). These blokes are just as ‘blokey’ as the idiots in Bunnings, but I think they’re much more secure in their own technical skills/identities (which is pretty much THE masculine identity in Australia), so they have no need to put me down.
But the theme of communicating with men who were trying to prove something recurred throughout the project. As I was working, any number of men would come by –customers of the mechanic workshop, friends of the guys, blokes from businesses around about– and they would pause and watch what I was doing and most would initiate a conversation. Mostly it was ‘observational’ and ‘confirming’, along these lines:
- MAN, OBSERVING ME CUTTING WOOD Cutting wood, eh?
- ME, WORKING, BUT PAUSED FOR A MOMENT Yep, I’m cutting [whatever I was cutting, say the floor template, which is in two halves]
- MAN Oh yeah? So you’re doing it in two halves?
- ME Yep, so I can get them into the van. Then I’m going to screw them down onto these wooden strips that I’ve glued to the floor [points to the wooden strips already in place on the floor of the van, oozing brown glue where they’ve been stuck down].
- MAN So you used, what, Liquid Nails [this is a commonly used strong, brown glue]?
- ME Yep, that’s right.
- MAN Oh. So then how will you run the cables under the floor afterwards? Did you think of that? (Rocks back and forwards on heels.)
- ME Well, yep, those are the cables, they’re already in this conduit right here, so yeah.
- MAN Yeah? Good onya. Cool project.
Variations on this theme started with one of the following openers:
- Campervan, eh? So you’re gonna travel around Australia? [conversation about how I’m not a backpacker and I work in Sydney so don’t plan chuck it all in and travel quite yet but hopefully one day, and yes my accent isn’t Australian but I’ve been here 15 years, and yes I live here, and yes I’m an Aussie citizen]
- Campervan, eh? So you gonna have solar? [conversation about solar panel specs, prices, pros and cons of fixed versus flexi solar panels, and the fact I’m doing a poptop so don’t want fixed panels]. Seems people are obsessed with solar.
- Is that a Renault Trafic? [conversation about pros and cons of different vans, see previous post…]
Now, none of these conversations was problematic and none of the guys was anything other than curious and well meaning (except for one asshat who didn’t seem to get that I REALLY didn’t need to stop and hear his dubious advice every time he swung by the workshop unannounced in his fancy car, which was every other day). But I did ask myself how the conversation might be different if I was a bloke. Maybe there would be fewer such chats (because a bloke working on a van is less of a curiosity?) or might it get more competitive, more silverback-gorilla, chest-beating, dominance-establishing type behaviour? Or maybe it would go down exactly the same way. I can’t know.
However, I’d done SUCH a lot of research, it turned out that I was able to have these conversations and sound more or less knowledgeable in discussions about, say, the relative merits of using thicker or thinner ply for the floor, or wool versus polystyrene versus foil insulation materials for the wall linings. I’m not sure actually any of the content was what mattered to these blokes, though, as much as the fact of my having researched it and knowing what I was doing and why, and letting them feel that they, too, could offer something to the conversation and talk about something a bit technical.
But on that first day in the workshop, and at Bunnings, I really didn’t know much at all. I had faffed around on a lot of websites and YouTube instructionals about van conversions, but in all truth I was raw, new, green, and nervous. I spilt coffee and I spilt tears. But meeting Andrew and Dave and others was an absolute godsend as they struck a fantastic balance of teaching me stuff while never making me feel like a doofus for not knowing. And for that alone the workshop was a fantastic find, although it was also perfect for what I needed in practical terms, too.
And so not only did I find a workshop, I also found a community.