Mechanic Shop Femme Demystifies Car Ownership

I’ve never technically owned a car, a fact that surprises many when I share it, as I’ve lived in over a dozen different cities in the country. This has been possible through a combination of luck, privilege, and also just living in places with robust public transportation systems. Now, I live in central Florida, where traveling in a car is part of regular, daily life. Still, I’ve been able to opt out of car ownership — for now. My wife owns a car I have access to, and I work from home, minimizing my need to commute. But it’s unclear how long I’ll be able to avoid the life experience of buying a car, especially as I think about my future.

In many ways, I’m the perfect if unexpected reader for a book like Chaya Milchtein’s Mechanic Shop Femme’s Guide to Car Ownership: Uncomplicating Cars for All of Us — not despite my relative apathy toward owning and maintaining a car but because of it. Milchtein’s career in automotive education and the impulse behind this book are built on empowering people — especially women, queer people, and people of color — when it comes to making choices about cars, often an unavoidable part of adult life.

Weaving together straightforward how-to guides on basic car buying and maintenance with personal narrative from her own life and reported stories from others, Milchtein puts forth an accessible work of informational nonfiction that also seeks to directly confront the car industry’s rampant sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia, giving people tools to advocate for themselves. As a fierce advocate for her own work, she’s the right person to learn these lessons from.

On the eve of her pub day, Milchtein took some time to talk with me about the book, its origins, and her upcoming tour, where she’ll be visiting women, queer, and POC-owned mechanic shops rather than bookstores. Details about what cities she’ll be visiting as well as tickets to the events are available on her website.

McKenna Patterson Photography

Milchtein says she wanted to write her book because she felt that short-form content like one-off classes and blog posts about car education often lose the nuance. “I wanted to write a book so that I can provide a lot more of the details, a lot more of the nuance, a lot more of the, well, here’s one way, and here’s another way, and here’s another way that you can’t always provide through social media context,” she says. She also wanted to make a book at a relatively affordable price point compared to other car resources. The book is available for under $20 and in Kindle and audiobook formats, so it can be quickly referenced whenever needed. Those with a physical copy can easily store it in their glovebox, like one would with a standard car manual.

But this is no standard car manual: It’s one that includes a section teaching you how to say no to your mechanic, for example. Milchtein sees the book as a potentially easier way for folks to reference her teachings than trying to pull up her TikTok content (which is definitely worth checking out!).

In her introduction to the book, Milchtein writes she isn’t a mechanic herself but rather a mechanic interpreter. For over seven years, she has worked in repair and collision shops and dealerships in three different states. “My primary responsibilities were helping customers understand what was wrong with their vehicle and taking them through the process of getting their car fixed,” she explains. “And through that, I asked a million questions. I bugged the crap out of all my mechanics, and I was able to really learn how all of these car things work and then be able to turn it into easy to understand explanations for my customers.” That’s how she came to coin the term “mechanic interpreter,” based on her desire to explain complex car topics and language in ways that are approachable, respectful, thoughtful, and reflective of a variety of perspectives.

From there, she went on to teach classes on how to buy used cars, insurance, tires, and more, writing for various publications and growing her automative education career. This led to the book, which she had a unique experience with when it came to the writing and publishing process. After being interviewed for GO Magazine, a fellow queer writer told her she felt like she might want to write a book. She introduced Milchtein to her agent without even a book proposal in place yet. While that agent relationship didn’t work out long-term, Milchtein took matters into her own hands, posting on Twitter. “I said, ‘I’m an automotive educator and journalist, and I have the social media following and I want to write a book, and now I have a book proposal and my agent and I have parted ways, and I’m looking for a new agent, so if you know of anybody, let me know.’”

Milchtein laughs, saying she knows this is not the typical way to go about getting an agent. “But that is me,” she says. “If you put me on a paper, that’s me, I’m going to ask the hard questions, I’m going to get out there, and I’m going to advocate for myself because nobody’s advocating for me. I have to do it.”

“And you could put my Instagram videos pestering queer publications to notice me into that same category,” she says as a little wink-wink moment, and I appreciate the candor. Touché! Milchtein did advocate for herself to be covered by more queer publications, which is what led to this interview. I deeply relate to being a queer author who has to work hard at self-promotion, and Milchtein’s general ethos about putting herself out there is exactly the kind of confidence her book seeks to instill in car owners who might feel out of their depths.

And hey, putting yourself out there really does work sometimes. The evening of her tweet, Milchtein got a message from her eventual new agent who helped her sell the book.

“So I said, ‘Listen, I’m doing this for queer people, and I’m going to do it as a queer person, as an out loud, proud queer person. And if that’s going to make my life really challenging, which it has, then it’s too fucking bad.

Milchtein was able to bring a decade’s worth of knowledge to the creation of the book, which expertly weaves narrative with information. “I would sit down and I would write a section, and whenever I would get stuck or I just would get bored or I couldn’t seem to get through, I would jump to a different section,” Milchtein says of her nonlinear process. “I would try to alternate the things that were, quote unquote, a little bit harder, where it was a little bit more complicated to put the topics I wanted to in words that people can understand.”

Later, she added data as well as other people’s stories, collected in a detailed Google form she’d put together. “My goal was to make this the least like a textbook that it could possibly be,” she says. “It’s supposed to be like a regular person is sitting next to you and telling you about your car. And when you’re talking to me, I think you probably get that feeling like this is the way that I talk, this is the way that I educate, and this is the way that I put it into a book.”

This is true. She’s super personable and conversational in her approach to these topics, and that is reflected in the writing as well. The book is written in first person, and those stories collected from others via the Google form add a layer of research that feels very much like community journalism. This approach to craft for the book works well for someone like me, who is largely car agnostic. I share with Milchtein that it’s possible some of my hesitation about cars is rooted in the exact reasons she’s trying to unpack in the book.

“Or you’ve been told for years and years that you’re not capable,” Milchtein replies, “so you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m just not even going to try. I don’t know anything about cars. Why am I even going to try? I’m going to turn to whoever in my life has more knowledge, whether that is social media or that is a parent figure or a spouse or somebody like that who’s going to handle the car things for me.’”

It’s this context that has led Milchtein to write for places like AARP, empowering folks in their fifties or sixties who may have lost a spouse or otherwise never properly learned how to do simple car tasks to gain knowledge and do things on their own: “They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t taken my car in for an oil change in 20 years. I have no idea what to do or how to do it.’ So I really look at this book as a guide for the average car owner for regular people like you who aren’t out there trying to fix their cars in their driveways, who aren’t trying to soup up their vehicles, who do not have a passion for cars.”

Chaya Milchtein

McKenna Patterson Photography

“This book is not for car enthusiasts,” she continues. “It’s for regular everyday people trying to get to work, trying to get their kids to school, and trying not to waste money and be disrespected through the process of a fundamental part of most of our lives, unless we’re in New York and maybe a few other places.”

This leads me to specifically ask her about queer people and the ways the book can speak to them, especially since queer people are more likely to lose access to parents and other adult figures who might teach them the basics of car ownership and maintenance. Milchtein shares this story:

“When I just started on TikTok a few years ago, I got a comment on one of my videos, it was by a gay man, and he said something along the lines of, ‘Thank you so much for teaching me this. My parents were so focused on making me not gay that they didn’t teach me the fundamentals of being an adult.’ And it just stuck with me in such a way. It was exactly this definition of what I was trying to do. I am a queer person. I have been operating automotive education courses and community within the queer space for many, many, many years. And when I write a book or when I create social content, my primary audience, the audience that I am writing for, that I am creating for are queer people and women, and then everybody else can benefit from that education.”

When she sits down to write something, she explains, her primary concern is how it will speak to queer people. She uses all gender neutral language in the book and also doesn’t succumb to the sort of cringe pinkification and gender binarism of car manuals “for women.”

Recently, someone showed up in her comment section upset about the title of the book, asking why it’s only for femmes, why it’s specifically addressing queer people. “I tried to explain from taking their question as good faith, even though it wasn’t, that this book is not just for femmes,” she says. “Mechanic Shop Femme is my handle, it is my business name, it is who I am, it is my guide to cars. And the fact that I am a femme is part of my personality, and it’s part of the way that I express myself to the world. And when I decided to start this business about seven and a half years ago…I made a conscious decision to bring every single part of myself to my work, to be openly and loudly queer within a space where even being a woman is almost a distraction.”

“So I said, ‘Listen, I’m doing this for queer people, and I’m going to do it as a queer person, as an out loud, proud queer person. And if that’s going to make my life really challenging, which it has, then it’s too fucking bad. If you don’t take me the way that I am, then you don’t need this. I’m not going to put myself in a box. I’m not going to hide. I’m not going to build a space where my own communities don’t feel welcome and heard and respected.”

She adds there are a ton of queer people in the automotive industry, though they’re also often closeted. “When people say we need to make mechanic shops that are more inclusive, the call has to be within the house, it has to start with the shop and…the environment of the repair shop itself, of the dealership has to welcome women and queer folks to work there in order for that shop to then welcome women and queer folks as customers there. Even if women come in and they have a positive experience, if the women in the back aren’t being treated well, or if there are no women in the back, then how far have we really come?”

Right now, the automotive repair industry is broken, she explains. There aren’t enough mechanics to fix all the cars on the road, a problem that’ll worsen if things don’t change. And by excluding women from the conversation, the industry is only hurting itself. According to Milchtein, 85% of car-buying decisions in the U.S. are made by women historically, and women hold 1.5 million more driver’s licenses than men in the country. And the car industry rarely speaks directly to queer folks. “You need to serve us not just in the travel advertisements and on the beer commercials, but also within the repair shops where we’re getting our cars fixed,” Milchtein says.

Chaya Milchtein holding her book

McKenna Patterson Photography

For me, when thinking about queer people and cars, it’s difficult to get the internet meme that gays can’t drive out of my head, especially because it’s a meme that comes up a lot between me and folks I’m close with. I know a lot of people who hate the joke, even if it’s just a silly internet punchline, because it implies gays only exist in places where there’s accessible public transportation. Meanwhile, most of the rural, Southern, or Midwestern gays I know have been driving since perhaps they were even legally of age to do so. When I bring up the joke, Milchtein has an interesting response that pushes the conversation deeper, even pointing to some of the realities the humor is based on.

“I think that it’s a joke without nuance,” she says. “The nuance would be that queers live in big cities where there’s public transit where they don’t need to learn how to drive, and that queers are poor in those big cities and they cannot afford to buy a car and learn how to drive.”

“But yes, queers drive all over the United States,” she adds. “We drive. We definitely drive. You understand the reason for the joke, if you will. Many young queer people move to the big cities in search of community and find people that have just never experienced this. And many people have friends who have never driven before, and that perpetuates the myth.”

Milchtein’s wife is 37-years-old, and she just got her driver’s license a year and a half ago, because she was raised in Brooklyn and could not afford a car. Milchtein often meets queer people who indeed do not know how to drive and want to learn. She says she thinks there are a couple ways to go about learning how to drive as an adult, and it comes down to the reason why someone doesn’t drive in the first place. “If you do not drive because you’ve been poor or you’ve had really good access to public transit and it’s just never been a priority for you, then learning how to drive can look like getting adult driving lessons, going to a driver’s school, many of them offer adult driving lessons.”

If the reason you don’t drive is because you’re scared of driving, have anxiety around it, or have had bad driving experiences in the past including accidents, Milchtein suggests seeing a mental health professional to determine whether it’s a type of anxiety that can be worked through or if driving is just out of the cards for you.

In addition to addressing queer people directly in the book, Milchtein often introduces conversations about class. In the intro, she writes about her own childhood and young adult life, noting that the $7,000 2004 Buick Century she bought was her ticket out of poverty.

“I think a lot of people think of cars a luxury, as a privilege, as this entirely unnecessary expense that people are wasting their money on,” Milchtein says. “And I also think that most of those people have either never lived in a small city or have never solely relied on public transportation outside of the major metropolitan areas, and they don’t understand what an impact a vehicle makes on people’s lives. When you have a car, you have the ability to go to work outside of the range of public transit, you can work in hours that public transit does not run, and you can hold multiple jobs without having to spend two hours in each direction and on each segment getting to all of those jobs. Having access to a vehicle, a good vehicle that was well-purchased with a quality mechanic that helps maintain it can be the ticket out of poverty for a lot of people if it’s done right.”

She also cautions it could “be the crater that just gets bigger” in instances when folks purchase a vehicle that has problems one cannot afford to fix. There are so many additional expenses associated with car ownership beyond the car payments, maintenance, and fuel (or charging, in the instance of electric vehicles, which the book has an extensive section on). “If you live in New York and you buy a car, and you have not factored in multiple parking tickets a month, then you have not budgeted correctly for that purchase,” Milchtein provides as an example. “Unless you have a parking spot that you pay for that you have as part of your housing arrangement” — in and of itself an additional expense!

“So cars are a two-way street,” Milchtein says, perhaps pun intended. “And depending on how you look at it and how you prepare for it, it could be the best thing that ever happened to you, and it could also be the worst thing that ever happened to you.”

She adds she cannot prevent the worst thing that will ever happen to you, but her hope is to provide the tools, knowledge, education, and resources so you can become the most educated car owner you can be. “Getting a car can change your life in good or bad ways, depending on how you go about it,” she says. And the book really focuses on trying to make it a smoother and more informed experience for folks like me who feel overwhelmed when talking about cars.

Milchtein is on book tour right now, which for her looks different than your typical book tour. For the last three years, every April during National Car Care Month, she has featured women-owned and queer-owned mechanic shops across the U.S. and Canada as part of a social media series she does. She gets on Google with her team and look up repair shops that specify being LGBTQ-friendly or women-owned and does a bunch of research, cold emailing over 250 shops to ask them to be part the series. Last year, she featured over 20 different shops. So when she knew her book was coming out in April, she felt like the universe was telling her something. “We have to do it,” she says. “We’re going to go on a book tour that takes me to women- and queer- and POC-owned mechanic shops across the country.”

She then spent months on calls with automotive brands seeking sponsors to fund the multi-city tour. “And as a queer, fat woman that is not shy about my politics or about my identities on social media, it’s really hard to get those industry sponsors,” she says.

In the end, she was able to plan a tour to 16 different shops. She started yesterday at a trans femme-owned shop in Worcester County, Massachusetts. Her tour will bring her to Florida, Texas, and all over the Midwest where she’s based. She’s charging $5 a person, which will go to fund the Jill Trotta Scholarship. “Jill Trotta is my mentor, she’s a lesbian master mechanic, and she’s done so much for the automotive industry and especially for women and queer folks in the industry,” Milchtein explains.

The scholarship will launch in the fall of this year and will help finance women and queer folks entering the automotive industry — not just for tuition, as many people skip school for this kind of job training she explains, but for practical things like the right clothing that fits and for toolboxes, which she notes cost a fortune. The scholarship will work in tandem with the goals of her book, expanding access to car education by supporting more women and queer people who want to work in the industry.

Mechanic Shop Femme’s Guide to Car Ownership: Uncomplicating Cars for All of Us by Chaya Milchtein is out now.

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