words & images: Marcus Coker
Katherine “Kat” Abshere is eighteen years old. She sports short hair, rides a motorcycle, and is rarely without a pocketknife. Today, on a break from work, she shows up to Sweet Bay Coffee Shop with grease on her face and black stains on her hands. She is, after all, a mechanic.
“The strange thing is that I don’t have a strong background in cars,” says Kat, who lives in Fort Smith, Arkansas and works at IFC (I Fix Cars), a local garage. “Dad is a computer guy, and Mom is a nurse practitioner. When I started college last year at UA Fort Smith, I was planning to do radiography but switched to automotive technology because I like the surety of it, knowing that this is what this part does, that piece will do that.”
Growing up, Kat lived in a number of different states and countries because her stepfather was in the military. “For three years, we lived in Belgium, and that was probably my favorite. It’s a different culture, slower paced and less hectic than America. Teenagers are treated as adults—my friends and I would take the train to Paris for a weekend—that gave me a sense of perspective and allowed me to mature and grow up.”
As Kat talks about living in Belgium, traveling across Europe while on the track team, and learning to speak French, she reaches for her coffee cup with her grease-stained hand. “I get calluses and cuts, and grease just settles in. Whatever—I’m gonna get dirty again anyway,” says Kat, who seems unconcerned with appearances. “I used to play in the dirt as a kid. I’ve always been a tomboy. When I was two, my mom said I was just done with dresses. But my family has always been supportive of whatever I wanted to do.”
As a kid, Kat would play with skateboards. She’d take them completely apart, study the pieces, and put them back together. “I’ve always liked to tinker with things. That’s why I like working on cars. I get to use my hands, and it gives me time to myself. I tend to be pretty introverted, so I prefer to work alone.”
Women often ask Kat how she’s treated working in a field that’s predominantly male. “People don’t treat me any differently because I don’t accept any less respect than they would give Barry, my boss,” says Kat. “Regardless of gender, I’d get picked on for being young, and I work in a field that’s pretty aggressive in terms of ego. I’ll be elbow deep in grease, just going for it, and guys will stand over my shoulder and say, ‘What are you doin’ there?’ or ‘Let’s get you a cheater bar to take that tire off.’ I usually just have to be direct and say, ‘You’re standing in my light. I need you to go away.’”
Although Kat grew up across the globe, she used to spend her summers in Fort Smith with her dad. She graduated high school last year from Cabot, near Little Rock, and moved to Fort Smith afterwards to enroll at UAFS. One of her automotive instructors recommended her for the job at IFC.
In addition to school and the garage, Kat works at Goddard United Methodist Church helping take care of children. “We eat and sing and color in coloring books, something I actually like anyway. I just really enjoy being with them because they have that basic child perspective. It’s refreshing.”
Being around Kat is like that—refreshing. She’s upbeat, lighthearted, and cracks a lot of jokes. She could easily be a stand-up comic. “A lot of stuff in life is perspective. I’ve dealt with divorce, family deaths, and lots and lots of moves. Things have gotten broken in those moves. I’ve lost a lot of possessions. But I was lucky that my family raised me to think, What about tomorrow? This is temporary. It’s gonna go away.”
This summer, Kat will take one class—heating and cooling—at the university. In the fall, she’ll be back to ten hours a week at school and thirty hours a week at the garage. Kat’s plan is to obtain an associate’s degree in automotive technology, a two-year degree, and then become ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified. At that point, she may pursue specialty training in motorcycles and even open her own garage.
“I still have a lot of learning to do. You never stop training or learning different techniques. You just gotta know what you’re doing. If a wheel falls off or something blows up, someone could get hurt. So at school and at work, we always have someone double check.”
Kat suggests that everyone have an elementary understanding of car maintenance. “It’s one of those things you should be able to do. You should be able to brush your teeth and change your oil and put your socks on in the morning,” Kat jokes.
Maintenance basics include knowing how to change a tire, check tire pressure, check brakes and fluids, and spot leaks. “You don’t need to know how to fix everything, but be able to tell if something is wrong, outside of the check engine light. Be able to recognize clinking, clunking, whining, rattling, and hissing. Along with regular oil changes, that’s the most basic thing you can do to prolong the life of your car.”
Kat recognizes that going to a garage and finding a good mechanic can be intimidating, but advises finding someone that comes recommended or that specializes in a problem. Also, she suggests getting more than one opinion.
“Nobody wants to be taken advantage of or talked down to. Personally, I try not to belittle anyone for what they do or don’t know. When I was in Belgium, I was the one asking all the stupid questions, I was the one that was wrong all the time. So I understand what that feels like to not know something.”
As Kat gets ready to go back to the garage, she touches on a topic that goes far beyond her personal experience of being a female mechanic. It’s something that applies to all of us. “You know, you can’t be affected by what people think of you. I learned that a long time ago—being different, a tomboy. It’s something I’ve dealt with.
People are just different, and it’s a lot easier to accept those differences when you’ve been dropped into an environment where you’re the fish out of water. If you’ve ever felt little, it gives you a sense of how someone else feels to be little. That’s how you connect with people. That’s how you step into their shoes.”