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Why Willa Johnson Has a Grip on San Francisco Cable Car History

NBC Universal, Inc.

Every time Willa Johnson rolls out of San Francisco's cable car barn at the helm of one of the city's famous wooden ambassadors, she is in a sense history driving history. 

In the city's 150-year cable car history, Johnson is only the second woman, and the second woman of color, to work as a gripwoman.  And yet Johnson doesn't feel the weight of that history as she navigates the lumbering wooden beasts up and down the city's streets. 

"I didn’t grow up to say, 'Hey, I want to grow up to drive a cable car,'" Johnson said, reclining in an out-of-service car. "That wasn’t it. It just happened."  

For Johnson, life happened. Landing in the cable car fleet was just another unexpected point on a journey as winding as the Powell-Mason line. 

"I actually wanted to be a firefighter, but I applied many times and they never did call me," she laughed. "So this is what I got."  

Willa Johnson
Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
Willa Johnson, the second woman and second woman of color to work as a cable car grip, operates cable car 8 along Hyde Street.

Johnson was born in San Francisco's Fillmore District, raised in housing projects in a neighborhood once nicknamed The Harlem of the West – populated with jazz clubs and Black-owned businesses until 1960s redevelopment forced many Black and Japanese families out. 

Johnson's family moved across town to the Bayview-Hunters Point, where they opened a soul food restaurant on 3rd Street. If Johnson had loved cooking, she'd have lived a different story. But she didn't. So she got a job in the medical field working many years at Kaiser and Laguna Honda hospitals. 

But after many years, she was itching for change and pursued a job as a bus driver in the Muni fleet. She was daunted by the prospect of having to navigate a 60-foot bus through the city's chaotic streets, so she decided to try for a job as a conductor in the cable car division. Her co-workers didn't exactly wish her luck. 

"I even had people over at the other divisions say, 'Oh, you’ll be back, everybody comes back,''" Johnson recalled. "That kind of made me want it even more."

Johnson stuck it out as a conductor and eventually decided to try for the demanding front-of-car grip job – a job only one woman had ever held before. She failed to qualify her first year but came back the next year and got the job, demonstrating a tenacity to hold firm on her goals as well as the grip. 

"In the beginning I kind of felt like I knew I could do it," Johnson said. "I’ve always been a person determined to do what I set out to do." 

Fannie Mae Barnes, the first woman to grip a cable car would show up on occasion to dole out advice and even some gear.  

"She did come out and present me with some pink grip covers and encourage me and give me some tips," Johnson said, adding a chuckle. "And let me know that she was the first.

On a recent day, Johnson slipped into the front cab of Cable Car 8 and deftly slipped it out of the cable car barn and onto the Hyde Street route, eyes darting everywhere looking for hazards and cars, stopping the car after spying an orange cone too close to the tracks some 200 yards up the Jackson Street hill. 

"It’s a hard job," she said, yanking back on the grip. "It’s even a hard job for a man." 

Yet, Johnson loves the gig – the cool San Francisco air drifting past her face, the changing cast of tourists excited to witness the city aboard its iconic vessels.

With her stocking cap and a scarf wrapped around her face, Johnson said she's often mistaken for a man. She likes the stunned looks when the passengers realize she's a woman – and she's in charge. 

"If you actually get on on a nice sunny day, I’ve got my nails on, I’ve got my makeup on," she said, laughing. "They be whispering to each other, 'I know she’s not gonna drive this car.'"

Johnson pushed her way through the cable car's wooden ceiling all while raising four children. Two of her children went on to college. Her daughter encouraged Johnson to pursue what she now calls her proudest achievement.  

"Since I’ve been here at cable car, I graduated from junior college," Johnson said with satisfaction. "It was like 25 years after I got out of high school." 

Johnson doesn't think much about her place as a role model on the cable cars – presenting a different face in a male-dominated gig. She leaves the trumpeting to others. 

"We absolutely hope little girls around San Francisco and the Bay, around the world, will see women like Willa and are inspired to follow down that path," said Josephine Ayankoya, SFMTA's Racial Equity Officer.

If there's another point of pride for Johnson, it's in the fact she's doing what others didn't expect her to do in a job few others have done. Since she joined the cable cars, two other women are now working the grip. Johnson has become a sometimes mentor for them.

"It’s been a while it’s been going on, I’m still gripping," Johnson said. "I’m happy that I was able to prove people wrong about this."  

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