Riding in Cars With Girls

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Jessica DuLong

Published June 10, 2002

Kate Lake gives us a memoir any lesbian can understand – one car at a time

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This is not your grand-father’s memoir. Kate Lake’s snappy little book – a collection of paintings, each accompanied by a short vignette – tells her life story as a series of snapshots, each episode embodied in a different car.

The book, Zero to Fifty: A Lifetime in the Driver’s Seat begins in her parents’ 1947 Plymouth sedan with a sisterly double dare to release the emergency brake to see what happens. Subsequent pages trace Lake’s life and loves through a string of vehicular landmarks. There’s the Chevy Nomad where she lost her virginity; the Dodge Dart her brother was tinkering with the summer he died; the cab-over semi she drove to earn extra cash; the red Subaru Outback that Mary, her lover of 10 years, still drives.

The book started as a painting project that was “just for me,” says the 49-year-old graphic designer. “I used to paint portraits for my friends, but they would say things like, ‘Why do I look so butch?’ or ‘I don’t have that many lines.'” She started painting cars because they “don’t talk back,” then scripted a short story to accompany each one. The series was a natural fit for a woman who, if not a card-carrying gearhead, certainly qualifies as an aficionado.

Lake took her first stab at auto mechanics at 17 when the Jeep she’d bought for $125 promptly died. She got into fixing it because “it never occurred to me that I couldn’t.” Watching her then-boyfriend, Sean, dive headfirst into an engine he’d never seen before convinced her mechanics was all about confidence. “It was my first inkling that men didn’t have this innate hormonal mechanical ability,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I could do that – anybody can do it.”

Soon after, she and Sean broke up. But Lake’s love affair with internal combustion never waned. “You make this little explosion, then the valve opens, the pushrod goes down, and so on,” she says. “It’s so magic. I think, ‘Who came up with this?'”

Just recently Lake replaced the carburetor in her ’68 Chevy three-quarter-ton pickup – the one she drives whenever she’s not tooling around Seattle in her beloved 2001 Audi Quattro TT, a car so newfangled she concedes she wouldn’t think to try to fix it herself. “They hide the engines now,” she says. “It’s sad.”