Patrice Banks was an engineer pulling down a six figure salary when she decided to make a left turn and go down a whole new road. Tired of feeling that she was being taken advantage of every time she tried to buy a car or needed something fixed, she took matters (and a wrench) into her own hands and went back to school to study auto repair. In 2017, Banks opened up “Girl’s Auto Clinic,” or G.A.C. for short, a groundbreaking repair shop that caters to women. In addition to car repair, the clinic offers free workshops (pre-Covid) and advice including the fun Tuesday Tip tutorials found online. While waiting in the shop, clients can multi-task by getting a manicure, haircut and other beauty treatments on the premises. The Upper Darby shop has become a national treasure, featured on shows and in various mags. G.A.C. boasts a roster of mostly female mechanics and employees. This week we spoke to two of them, Abigail Ariza, the Digital Marketing Manager and Chelsea Camacho, mechanic, or as they say at G.A.C., “sheCANic.”
Let’s start with Abigail. Tell me a little about yourself.
Abigail Ariza: I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island. When I was in grade school my family moved to Allentown, which was like a little metropolis. It’s not Philly, but there’s a huge LGBTQ community there. And a big bar called The Stonewall that I used to go to.
How old were you when you came out?
I went to a performing arts school so I was with a bunch of queers and artsy fartsy types from the start, so there was never a big “coming out” or sigh of relief. I just brought home people I thought were cute and my mom was like, “Ok, whatever, that’s fine.”
And the fam?
I’m the middle child with an older brother and younger sister. My dad passed away when I was 13 so we were raised by my mom.
How did you lose him?
He was an alcoholic, so his liver just gave out. It was tough, especially since I was always involved with dancing, acting, etc. I was about to go on national television when I got the news. It was surreal, it just seemed like a nightmare that I wasn’t able to wake up from.
I’m sure. What were you like as a kid?
I was super energetic and talkative! Very much a people person. I was the class president and was lucky to have a lot of friends. My house was the party house. We would do a show and on the last night, we’d each steal a couple of cans of beer from our parents and everyone would come to my house to dance and have fun.
What did you study in college?
I studied communications. I didn’t want to get a fine arts degree, I wanted something I knew I could possibly get a job with right after school while still pursuing the arts. I got a job in marketing and loved it. It was fun and allowed me to take a lot of talents that I learned from being in front of the camera and incorporate them. It’s a thrill to use the skills I’ve accrued to support a Black, woman owned business. Especially coming from Howard University which was very female and afrocentric. To have it finally manifest here at G.A.C. is incredible.
So a Howard woman? You must be proud of your fellow alum, our Vice-president elect.
Oh yes, it’s awesome. Having someone so prestigious graduating from the same school as me, makes me think, “Hey, maybe I could be vice president someday!”
How did you meet Patrice?
I was working for the Get-A-Car company, and I was doing a project highlighting important people of color in the auto industry and I found Patrice and I was like, “What the hell! How did I not know about this incredible woman, and she’s right here in Philly!” I did a segment on her and shortly after that I was furloughed by the company due to Covid-19. I saw that she was looking for a digital marketing person and I said, “That’s me!” and here I am.
What makes G.A.C. so unique?
It’s not like any place I’ve worked before. Our mission doesn’t stop with fixing cars. It’s all about educating and empowering women. To a lot of women, popping a hood and getting grease under your fingernails isn’t sexy, but what is sexy is the confidence that you get from being able to lift up your hood and go, “No sweetie, I know what’s going on under here.” And if you do mess up a nail, we have a salon on premises to fix it. One of our most popular items is the “Glovebox Guide” which Patrice wrote. It’s a how-to book for women and it makes car talk fun and sexy, as an example, she compares car engines to vaginas. “What happens when you have fast-moving parts rubbing up and down with no lubrication? And that’s why your engine needs oil.”
What’s the story you hear the most?
We hear about women going to a mechanic and getting ripped off. We’ll ask the customer, “Did he show you the part he said he replaced? Or point out where he said the engine was leaking oil?” and the answer is no. We are able to show them the process and how to tell if the work wasn’t done. I’m an example, before I started working here, I went to a well known auto store up the street and got 4 new tires. I paid $80 extra for a wheel alignment and when I got the job here, one of the mechanics checked it and said, “Yeah, they never did it. They just slapped the tires on and charged you and here’s how you can tell…” So I paid $80 for nothing.
What’s the worst story you’ve heard?
There was a non-binary client who came in, their partner who uses he/him pronouns was tall and very masculine presenting. The client went to buy a car and took the partner to the dealership with them. The partner didn’t have much auto knowledge, but presumably because they were masculine presenting, the salesman kept directing all comments and questions to him and completely ignored the person who was actually buying the car. There’s a lot of misogyny in this industry.
And what do you do when you’re not working?
I have a dog named Ziggy, and my dog and my partner and I like to do little day trips. We were recently in the Poconos and did several walks. Ziggy is small, but he’s a pretty competitive hiker.
Play any instruments?
I used to play the ukulele.
My first boy crush was on my brother’s best friend TJ. TJ had the biggest crush on Neve Campbell, so then I hated her. My first girl crush was Olivia Wilde from “House.” I had a kissy dream about her and was like, “OMG, she HAS to like girls” and then there was an episode where she kissed a girl and I was like, “I KNEW IT!”
Strangest date ever?
When I lived in DC, I went out on a date with someone and the entire time, they kept talking about their older “Sugar Mama” and it was very confusing. I was like, “Wait, are you looking for me to be one too? Because I am in no way anywhere close to being able to be a sugar mama.” They ended up picking up the tab, so maybe they wanted to be my Sugar Mama? It was weird and I didn’t contact them again after that.
What are the words you like to live by?
I think the quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world” is something I try to aspire to.
Hey Chelsea, tell me a little about yourself. I know you’re from down south. Is Virginia really for lovers?
Chelsea Camacho: I’m still trying to figure that out myself! But it’s where my family is, so there’s definitely love there. Moving here for the job at G.A.C. is the first time I’ve been separated from my family. I’ve lived on my own since I was 19, but never this far away from my mom, my sister and my grandma. We’re just coming full circle because it was Thanksgiving weekend last year that I moved here. But I’m digging it.
It sounds like you grew up in a very female centric house.
One hundred percent! I have just one male cousin and a one-year-old nephew, so there’s a lot of estrogen flowing. Which is why I love being at the clinic, I’m used to being around strong, empowering women. My mom’s a nurse, and she has two sisters, one’s a doctor and the other is a physician’s assistant. My sister graduated from BCU with a double major and I’m the car doctor!
You’re all fixers of a sort.
Yes, it’s very humbling that I’m in their company but with my own little twist.
Were you always into cars?
Yeah, my entire resume is automotive in one way or another. My grandfather was a retired marine and he used to work on cars all the time. I grew up in a traditional family household, where a girl working on cars wasn’t encouraged, but my natural curiosity got to me and I tried to learn as much as I could.
Were you the kind of kid that took everything apart?
No, I was the kid who was either inside playing on my Playstation or outside playing football with the guys.
Did you play sports in school?
I did, I played basketball. I got my first hoop at two and played all through high school. I didn’t pursue college basketball because I realized that it was more of a hobby for me. I preferred working with cars.
Greatest sports moment?
My mother came to almost every game I played throughout my entire career, my finest time was a game where I scored over half of all the points we scored that day and she was there to see it.
What’s exciting about the work you do now?
Everything! I like the fact that I get to learn every day, and I can turn around and teach other women. It’s a completely different environment than you’ll find anywhere else in this field. It’s comforting to know that if you ask somebody for help, they’re not going to judge you or take a notch off your belt. It’s awesome because I can be my out-of-the box character that I am and not just have a career, but a passion as well. And being in a new state that I know nothing about is exciting, I can’t wait until things calm down so I can explore.
What’s a favorite story you’ve heard?
We often have mothers bring their daughters in who want to go into the auto industry and just want to talk with us. They know we’re a safe place to learn without some of the nonsense they might get in a male dominated space. It’s humbling to think that I might say something that could light a fire and start someone’s life path. A personal experience was a lady who came in because the repair shop down the road gave her a $300 plus estimate for brake pads. I took a look and the pads were about 70% healthy! I took pictures and showed her and it was shocking for us both. For me, I realized wow, this does happen, there are a lot of dishonest people out there. It made me want to work even harder to be able to spot stuff like that.
What do you like about Philly so far?
Not the drivers! Oh my goodness, you guys are so aggressive! But I like the diversity here, especially in the LGBTQ community. And Philly has an identity, throw out Philly and people go — Eagles, Flyers, cheese steaks. There’s not much to say about Virginia that’s identifying. I was so pumped to go to Philly Pride, but Covid threw it in my face.
What was an early sign that you were gay?
I knew from an early age, though I didn’t really come out until I was 23. I guess one sign is when I was dating my last boyfriend, I remember going to a restaurant and him holding the door for me. Then noticing a beautiful couple behind us with the guy holding the door for his girlfriend and thinking, “Man, I would love to be holding the door for her…” little things like that. I eventually broke up with him, I loved him but I knew that my love had its limits and it wasn’t fair to him. We’re still friends to this day.
Were you driving before you got your license?
No, I was a goody-two shoes! I didn’t drive until I went to driving school and got my permit, I didn’t drink until I was 21. I was by the book.
Do you speak any other languages?
No, I’m half Puerto Rican but my father wasn’t in my life enough for me to adopt much of the culture. I’m more familiar with black culture from my mother’s side.
A beautiful childhood memory?
My grandfather loved gardening and he would grow fresh vegetables in a big garden at his house. When the green beans were ready to harvest he’d put them in a big basket for me and my sister to shuck so my grandmother could cook them later. There was just something so peaceful about sitting there by my grandfather’s feet with my sister, he loved watching WWE so we’d have the sound of that in the background along with the sounds of my grandmother in the kitchen clinking dishes and pots. It was very zen in its way. A lot of what I do now, I attribute to my grandfather because he’s the one who fostered my love of cars. He passed away in 2014, so I relish those memories.
And I’m sure the food was good too, right off the vine!
Without a doubt. Thanksgivings were amazing.
My ex is Greek and her mother made Greek style beans fresh from her garden. I STILL miss them! I read that you were a Safety Service Patroller for the Dept. of Transportation in Virginia. What was the craziest thing you saw?
Oh man! I’ve come across all sorts of accidents and injuries, road rash, nightingales, even some fatalities, but the ones that stick out are the stupid ones, like the woman who got into a car accident, who called her mother to come and get her and the mother showed up on the scene in a car with stolen tags, so both cars ended up getting towed! Or the guy who I came upon who had three different license plates. He had a VA on the front, a California plate on the back and when I asked him to fill out some paperwork he wrote down a different one altogether! I called it in and turns out there was a warrant for his arrest. And here I was, the smallest one on our fleet out with him. He needed a jump, so I tried to stall by saying that I needed to recharge my jump box until the troopers got there. They arrested him on the spot.
Do you like being called a sheCANic?
I love it! I can’t wait to get a tattoo like Patrice’s! I’m 28 and I feel like I was fumbling through life until I was 27 and came here. As soon as I got here, I knew this is what and where I was supposed to be. Coming from a family of such accomplished women, I felt lost sometimes, but now there’s a sense of pride being here. My nails break at work because I’m not biting them anymore, it’s weird, but good. My mom taking screenshots of me in the background when the clinic was featured on Good Morning America! Even being interviewed by you, this is a crazy experience! I wake up and enjoy each day.
It must be nice to work in a place that’s honest.
Yes. We had someone who was told they needed new wiper blades and brought them in for us to install. I took a look and saw that the old wipers were fine, no streaks, nothing. It’s great knowing I could walk up front and say to the boss, “Are you sure you want me to put these on? They’re expensive, $50 wipers and there’s nothing wrong with the old ones,” and have them call the customer and tell them instead of a boss who says, “Just put them on so we can charge them and send them on their way.” It lets us sleep well at night.
To learn more, visit www.girlsautoclinic.com