“The Brawl and the Tango,” nonfiction by Michael Reid Busk, appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of MQR.
The No Coast Derby Girls skate at Pershing Auditorium in downtown Lincoln, fifteen hundred miles from the Pacific, eleven hundred from the Atlantic, and two blocks from the Nebraska State Capitol, a domed sandstone tower locals call, with a mixture of affection and scorn, “The Penis of the Plains.” The building dominates the landscape like something out of The Lord of the Rings, but in lieu of a lidless all-seeing eye there’s a red pulsing light that warns away low-flying planes. That light flashes between the legs of the Sower, a nineteen-foot statue bestriding the Capitol’s dome, frozen in the act of scooping seed from his massive groin-level pouch. Inside, the walls gleam with mosaic murals portraying bull-necked Teutonic farmers harvesting golden fields, their sturdy wives and grim children pitching in. Manifest Destiny is taken seriously around here. Everything is goldenrod and indigo, vermillion and emerald, and the figures in their fertile landscapes hang foreshortened and humorless above the viewer like Titans. The style might best be described as Übermensch Socialist Agrarian. In fact, one of Hitler’s intra-bunker memos detailed his plan to move the capital of the Nazi empire to Lincoln after conquering the United States and to rule the world from its Capitol, under the aegis of the virile Sower.
Once inside the arena at Pershing Auditorium, the first thing you see is a wide burgundy velvet curtain hung from the rafters, which looks like an oversized version of something Vincent Price would have draped over his parlor windows. The plush seats are of identical color and fabric. The air is close, the smell musty: it’s the like the biggest, emptiest attic in the world. On the other side of the curtain is the roller derby loop, about a quarter the size of an outdoor track, and behind it is a deep wooden stage with three raised curtains—red, white, and blue.
From 7:20 to 7:45, two dozen women emerge from behind the velvet curtain. The youngest are college-aged, the oldest in their early forties. It’s a Monday night in late August, a few weeks before the NCDG championship bout, warm enough for them to arrive in the miniskirts, tank tops, bike shorts, and leggings they practice in. Shambling across the track, they wear the expressions of those who’ve just left eight or ten hours of work for two hours of play that feels a lot like work, and at the stage they greet each other wearily with nods and smiles and monosyllables, then set themselves down to lash on skates, to strap down kneepads and elbow pads and helmets. With customized wrenches they expertly tighten or loosen their wheels, adjusting their skates’ pitch and yaw and roll. For the sake of ankle support, the girls tie their skates tight, and blisters from the constant abrasion glisten with antibiotic ointment. Unlike the athletes on ESPN, this isn’t their profession, and the difference is unmistakable in these echoey fanless moments of transition between the job and the skate world.
With a show-and-tell combination of pride and bashfulness, Sylvia Bullet displays a new mouthguard her father gave her, which has a rare, useful feature: a central slot. She pops it in. “Now I can breathe through my mouth,” she says in her melodic, oboe’s voice, then demonstrates, sucking air in and shushing it out through the microchip-sized hole. “Except I feel like my teeth move when I put it in, like a retainer.” Not long out of college, Sylvia is tall and broad-shouldered and pale, with short curls the color of molten iron that twist and coil atop her head. Considering her appearance and her status as one of the league’s top players, it’s no surprise nearly everyone who’s been to the derby knows who she is.
At 7:45, the girls circle up for prepractice stretching. Someone has brought a kindergarten-aged daughter who scurries around them, occasionally pausing by one or another to ape their motions. The range of fitness varies, but some are limber as gymnasts, like Devilynn Wheels, who can stand lock-kneed in skates, bend at the waist, and press her fingers into the worn rubber floor of the rink. Her Gypsy features and complexion set her apart from her more typically Anglo teammates, as does her hair, which is complexly bobby-pinned into a sort of thatchy skullcap: months before she shaved her head and now her hair’s in that awkward in-between stage. As the skaters stretch hamstrings and glutes and lower backs – employing one aptly called the stripper stretch – some discuss preparations for the upcoming championship bout in mid-September. The little girl is now playing Duck, Duck, Goose with the circle. By 8:00, everyone is up and skating slow laps. Watching with me from the flotsam near the stage is newcomer Amy, who’s waiting for her gear to be shipped. She’s on the more wholesome end of the derby’s girl-next-door to death-metal-groupie spectrum, but her ears flash with tiny silver hoops, just like many of her teammates’.
Half- and three-quarter speed is slow enough for limited chitchat. The little girl is jogging laps too until someone barks at her to scram, at which she sulks back to the stage. Around the track, the pack speed is steadily increasing: if it were a movie, this scene’s soundtrack would be “The Hall of the Mountain King.” With mouthguards inserted, each face has a slightly bulldoggish cast to it. One of the recently arrived refs blows his whistle and shouts “hundred percent,” at which the skaters accelerate to full-bore sprinting. No talking now, just the clack of wheels on track, the whir of their spinning, and the snorts of people pushed to the cardiovascular edge. Eyeing the zooming flock, Amy looks daunted. After two minutes the ref blows the whistle and everyone decelerates. Kelly Ripa-Nipalov, the vocal captain of the Mary K Mafia team, yells “Nobody sit down, everybody keep moving.” There’s a cool-down lap. Huffing and flushed, the girls grip their hips or lace fingers behind helmets like conquered soldiers. After the lap they skate over to the stage and their water bottles; some don’t slow down until the last possible moment, then whip their bodies around in a dashing veronica, converting linear momentum into torque and stopping on a dime. The water break is quick. Almost before they sit down they stand again, leaving Rorschach sweat marks behind. Soon they’re lined up and Ripa-Nipalov, towering over most of the other girls, is passing out mesh tank-tops for identification during the scrimmage: red, blue, red, blue. In order to call penalties during the jams, the refs write girls’ numbers in Magic Marker on their sweat-slick shoulders: 9mm, 42, $6.99, 36D, 187, 750ml.
The scrimmage is violent. A number of high-speed mash-ups bring down two or three girls. Punky tomboy Chazzie Skateweather abuses her opponents indiscriminately, wearing an executioner’s grin or an adolescent scowl as her bent arms pop up into opponents’ ribs. During one collision Shiv falls hard on a knee, crawls out of bounds, and gingerly removes a kneepad, revealing a large scab re-opened and bleeding. Pain contorts her usually placid face, twisting her mouth into a grimace; with her grunts and strained breathing she sounds like a woman in labor, or like a prizefighter in the tenth round.
Even as she stares at Shiv, Amy says she’s not worried about injury: “My friends tell me I’m going to get hurt, but my biggest concern right now is picking the right skate name. I want something feminine but tough, sexy but not too cute.” Amy’s attitude toward her skate name is typical—they’re the crown jewels of the girls’ personae. Most names are puns, either feminizing the tough or toughening the feminine: Systa Wrecktomy, Miss Anthropy, Chantilly Mace, Sylvia Bullet, Champ Pain, Devilynn Wheels. And the names’ duality gets at the heart of the derby’s ethos. Call it “feminine machismo.” In a world in which many women are faced with an unfortunate set of either/or choices, the derby operates on the logic of both/and: sexual and smart, feminine and deeply, unapologetically violent.
In their bouts, the derby girls wear eye shadow, lipstick, and mascara, sport short skirts over fishnet or black hose strapped to garters, and when they clean an opponent’s clock, they don’t rush over to see if she’s okay. Derby means never having to say you’re sorry.
Like the Tour de France, roller derby is a team sport with one champion aided by the efforts of teammates: each team has five skaters—four blockers and one jammer distinguished by a starred Lycra swimcap worn condomlike over her helmet. Blockers block. Jammers score as many points as they can in their two-minute jams, the atomic unit of each period, with ten jams to a period and three periods to a bout. At the referee’s whistle, the jam begins and the blockers shuffle forward while jammers remain at their own starting line behind the other skaters. A few heartbeats later the second whistle blows, and the jammers are off, racing toward the blocker pack.
This is where things get tricky. The blockers want their own jammer to break through the pack unhindered and still vertical, but they also want to beat the bejesus out of the other team’s jammer. The other squad’s blockers want to do the same. This is an impasse. It would be simpler and less interesting if blockers were given carte blanche – simpler because they’d punch and kick and throw to the ground everyone wearing the opposing color, less interesting because the resulting apocalypse would leave every player flat and bleeding. As it is, making contact with elbows, forearms and hands is illegal, as are tripping, kicking, and pushing from behind. With these constraints, trying legally to clear paths for your jammer while not letting the other jammer through requires craftiness. It’s half brawl, half tango.
Skating through such a scrum is like navigating a slalom where the obstacles not only move but are eager to knock you down; it can be done but requires timing, grit, and a funambulist’s balance. After breaking through the pack for the first time, the jammers receive one point for each opposing blocker they lap, but every pass will be another gauntlet.
Previous derby incarnations have been less Tour de France and more WWE: old-school sports promoters and businessmen formed syndicates that fixed bouts and staged feuds, and skaters kowtowed to the vision of what league management thought would make good entertainment. The current all-female, grassroots revival of the sport in the past six years is radically different. Leagues are started by local women, portions of profits are given to charity, and the outcome depends on strategy, stamina, strength, and skill. In the past few years, the number of teams in North America has grown from fifty to one hundred and fifty, most of which belong to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.
Like most other leagues in the WFTDA, the No Coast Derby Girls have multiple teams: Gang Green and the Mary K Mafia, who have won the last three bouts. Since the league is small the teams practice together. They’re foes five percent of the time and friends the other ninety-five. The next bout is the league championship on 9/15. Beware the Ides of September.
Since the NCDG pay all costs out of pocket, filling seats is critical, and since it’s expensive to advertise through TV, radio, billboards, et cetera, they take it to the people, pamphleteering tailgates at Husker games, locally owned coffee shops, and, yes, the Nebraska State Fair, specifically the evening when rock legend Pat Benatar headlines.
At the fair dusk is a time of transition, as overwhelmed mothers and their squawking broods are replaced by stolid elderly folks and listless young lovers; moreover, by supper time, many fairgoers are stuffed with foot-long hotdogs, quarts of lemon shake-up, fried peaches on sticks, slabs of prime rib, and funnel cakes that weigh as much as family Bibles. Everything feels turgid, sleepy, entropy’s lukewarm aftermath.
Half an hour before show time, the bleachers sloping up from the stage are already overflowing, and after handing out fliers for the championship bout, some girls migrate to the side of the stage for a better view of Benatar. But no one onstage tuning and adjusting and mike-testing looks remotely like a well-preserved rock goddess. Instead the NCDG are met by the grungy sight of Brain Face, the opening act, a Norwegian metal band. The girls are disappointed even before the music begins. After it begins, they are very, very disappointed. They exit for the beer garden, and after a Bud Light, move out to work the crowd. Shiv and Sylvia Bullet operate in tandem, and while they’re both star jammers for Mary K Mafia, both lean bright-eyed hipsters with short edgy haircuts, their pamphleteering could not be more different:
Sylvia is a roller derby proselytizer, politely saying “Excuse me” to passersby, comporting herself primly, giving the impression of a door-to-door evangelist who’s just been smoothing out her skirt’s wrinkles on the porch. After introducing herself, she earnestly describes the derby, then invites them to the bout, handing over a flier as though it were a tract. Shiv on the other hand is a Hare Krishna, effervescent and beaming, skipping over the hard-packed dirt, her long arms swinging freely, half-singing her invitations, slipping fliers into fairgoers’ hands without warning, telling them only “Come to the derby!” before gamboling away to the next unsuspecting Benatar fan. They do target alternative kids—the ones with dreadlocks, limb-consuming tattoos, jeans either very baggy or very tight, gauged earlobes, tie-dyed shirts, nose-bridge piercings, black fingernails, belt-loop chains of Marleyesque length and weight—but they offer fliers to everyone, smiling at the grandfathers with suspenders hoisting Wranglers to midbelly, greeting the matrons in their muumuus, waving at the farm boys who’ve come to the city with their prize-winning steers and are eagerly anticipating the rock show. Their kindness to the aged and unhip isn’t surprising: while the girls occasionally complain about being stuck in the heart of the Heartland, they also hate the coastal stereotype of their state as backward and unsophisticated. Remember, their name is the No Coast Derby Girls.
Shiv is really getting into it, skipping ahead of Sylvia, barely tossing off a flier before moving onto the next person, giving peppy hoots and shouts like an indie cheerleader who’s downed too many fair-trade espressos. This is dimmed a bit when a half-drunk older man pulls her in for a hug then says, “I betcha weren’t planning on getting up close to old farts like me so we could cop a feel.” She gives a disgusted Lucille Ball expression, and without missing a beat says, “You’re right,” and extricates herself.
Soon after a leathery middle-aged woman darts over to Sylvia and Shiv with her arm locked around a young teenaged girl. From the woman’s roving eyes, jittery appendages, severe skinniness, and poor oral health, it’s quite possible she’s on meth. While the girl stares at her shoelaces, the woman beams and in a chipper Kalashnikov monologue she introduces herself and her daughter, tells the skaters how great she thinks they are, then says, “My daughter’s a wrestler,” squeezing the girl’s shoulder in a way that’s more appraising than affectionate. “She wrestles boys. She used to wrestle boys in school, knock ‘em into their lockers,” she adds, cackling. “We figured we should get her to wrestle without getting into all that trouble. So can she join the derby?” The daughter has remained impressively calm during all of this. Shiv’s eyes are golf balls. Sylvia manages to show interest in the woman’s anecdotes while expressing a silent, maternal concern for the child, and now, still poker-faced, she asks, “How old is she?”
“Fourteen,” says the woman.
“Well, legally, no one can join the derby until they’re eighteen,” says Sylvia, friendly but no-nonsense. “But you should come back in four years.”
“Okay,” says the woman, still talking through a grin, “we’ll do that.”
“Yeah, we’ll be waiting for you,” says Shiv, trying to make eye contact with the daughter.
More beers are bought. Behind the semitrailers and pavilions the gauzy western sky is the color of scrambled eggs. The heat has abated and, praise Odin, Brain Face has as well. The crowd on the edge of the bleachers is now five deep. From our vantage near the Budweiser stands, it’s impossible to see the stage.
Finally, to a roar from the NCDG and the rest of the two thousand–plus crowd, half of whom weren’t even alive during her halcyon era, Pat Benatar takes the stage. The woman with the wrestler daughter is sitting on a man’s shoulders behind the crowd, punching the sky with both fists. Onstage, Benatar’s in stovepipe pants, boots, trench coat, and gloves—all tight, all black. Someone has apparently yet to tell her it’s no longer fashionable to dress like Michael Jackson circa 1994. But the crowd doesn’t care. They sing or hum along to all the songs, even the obscure ones. They shout her name during lulls. They seem implicitly to forgive her for trying to stave off a middle-age that has already passed. They go Pentecostal when they hear the catchy guitar hook for “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” wax romantic a few songs later to “Shadows of the Night,” and in the thick close air that smells of sweat and meat and beer, it’s hard not to hum along.
Visually, feminine machismo might most vividly be expressed by Mary K Mafia’s logo. The background is pink, the words and images black. At the center is a large lipstick imprint, the full lips shaped like a Cupid’s bow. Behind the kiss is an intersection of two open switchblades, flanking it are a pair of Berettas, and above are big black stars. Circumscribing the tableau are the words “Mary K Mafia,” the letters leggy and bell-bottomed and bookended by broken hearts. Feminine machismo.
The trouble with the feminine side of feminine machismo is that many guys see fishnet and miniskirts as eye candy, which leads to the question of whether the derby’s growing popularity is the result of pandering to a male-dominated audience. What kind of sexy is the good kind of sexy? The root of this question is half a century old, for although the derby and alternative culture more generally take some of their cues from the eighties, the genesis of its aesthetic and attitude are the Eisenhower years. Beside the derby stand other current espousals of women’s culture of the fifties, in particular the recent stitching/knitting revival and the neo-pin-up Suicide Girls, whose website includes the statement, “Fed up with a tired and predictable definition of beauty, we Suicide Girls are dedicated to celebrating amazing, sexy women who fail to fit society’s mold.” The comparison might explain why roller derby and not the others are the darlings of indie culture. The girls don’t shy away from sexuality; to quote Amy: “We enjoy the attention, dammit. I think that’s empowerment as well. The men want you, desire you, but they can’t have you. And that feels good.” At the same time, sexuality isn’t the point: the point is a sport that requires strength and speed and endurance, a sport that takes a fierce delight in violence. Given needles, the girls wouldn’t knit a cardigan—they’d stab someone. Understandably, many NCDG grow peeved when asked if they’re just Suicide Girl–type eye candy, saying things like: “They always compare us to strippers: if you think stripping is degrading, roller derby must be degrading.”
“But it’s utilitarian. If we wore long pants, it wouldn’t work.”
“Like our point is to get guys off.”
“That might get them in the door, but every guy I’ve talked to after the bout is like, ‘Wow, that was really hard.’”
“A lot of guys compare it to football.”
“They’re not here to see scantily clad women—that would wear off soon.”
But even if they are there to see scantily clad women, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe—just like any other sport—all that matters is who wins.
It’s Thursday night, postpractice, and half a dozen of the NCDG are at Duffy’s Tavern two blocks from Pershing, sitting outside at a couple of green picnic tables. Miller High Life is the drink of choice. Along the walls are a number of posters advertising the upcoming championship bout, styled after fifties B-film promos—melting zombies about to paw shrieking girl Fridays.
In a way that’s genuinely considerate and nonperfunctory, Sylvia jumpstarts the conversation by asking Shorty how her week has been going. Shorty replies that her knee hurts but that the muscle relaxants she’s been taking have helped. “That, and a little sump’n sump’n,” she adds in her flat Nebraska twang, her hand wrapped around an invisible phallus, pumping up and down. Shiv’s fawnish eyes widen in embarrassment, while Shorty segues to her job at a gourmet popcorn store. “Scoop, bag, and toss. Eight hours a day. Sometimes,” she adds sarcastically, “you get to scoop, bag, and seal. This one old lady has the best job. I’m waiting for her to kick. She molds the chocolate.”
The September air is balmy and pleasant, but the real reason they’re outside is nicotine—most of the girls smoke at least occasionally, and most are doing it tonight. Shiv, who’s not, mentions a friend who has a conniption whenever anyone lights up around her, then she does an impression, squinting her eyes as though she’s been maced, waving the smoke away from her face in a way that’s both frantic and prissy, squeaking out little coughs, pulling the collar of her shirt over her nose then making irritated grumbling noises. By the end of the mime, everyone at the table’s laughing till they’re close to tears. Soon after Devilynn sidles up, drink in hand, and playfully bumps Shiv down the bench as she scoots in. Upon seeing a bout, a friend who’s an author said she was inspired to write a children’s book about the derby using animals for characters, and watching Devilynn prance in and take dainty sips from her straw—all half-dollar eyes and sinewy limbs—it’s easy to see why she was slated to be a giraffe.
When “Don’t Stop Believing” comes on over the PA, Devilynn hooks her arm around Champ Pain’s neck and they raise their drinks and sing along, rocking out with eyes squeezed shut, wearing mock grimaces of bittersweet longing.
With the High Life and smoke flowing fast, the conversation soon becomes freewheeling and nonlinear, often with multiple people speaking at the same time.
“Whenever I think of moving, I always ask, ‘Do they have a derby team?’”
“I don’t want to sound all Jerry Maguire-y, but it completes me,” says Champ Pain.
“Now when I’m not exercising for more than a day or two, I get the jitterbugs.”
“Women hold grudges. We’re psycho … don’t get me wrong. Men are fucked up too with their Peter Pan syndromes.”
“We have the tendency to be passive-aggressive.”
“Just a little bit,” adds Devilynn.
Then Champ Pain breaks in, her labret stud clinking on the rim of her glass: “But it’s like a female utopia. I just love the bitches.”
The banter goes on a while before the mood slowly settles, the effervescence of the Champagne of Beers giving way to its drowsiness. They begin to talk about their jobs. For a while after college, Sylvia worked at a group home, and for the year she was student teaching, Shiv taught classes of at-risk kids. Their stories are sobering, their attitudes progressive and deeply empathetic. Unsmiling now, Shiv says to the quiet table, “There was another teacher who had lots of wild kids too and sometimes he couldn’t handle it, and see, there was this closet in the back of the class and if a kid was being just too out of control, he’d lock the kid up in this little dark closet for like fifteen minutes until he calmed down. It happened all the time.”
Hearing this, Sylvia’s jaw clenches, and at the story’s conclusion she slams her palm into the picnic table. This is the only time I ever hear her raise her voice: “Dammit, if we’re going to save these kids, how is that going to happen if we lock up the ones who need the most help?” She’s scowling, her face burning pink, as though the kid in the story were her own brother. It’s obvious she has a real desire to help those who need it most, and it makes you hope she doesn’t spend the rest of her life in front of a computer screen.
The derby catches most of its participants at what psychiatrists might call liminal periods in their lives. Some work clerical jobs, like data entry for the state, a few are in grad school, a couple work midlevel office jobs, others are baristas at local coffee shops. Some were education majors in college, but not all of them currently teach. Half a dozen or more waitress part- or full-time. Most are not in jobs they would consider long-term. Most are single, most childless. Many are close to their parents, but most have chosen different paths than their mothers’. Although most are Nebraska natives, few want to stay in the state for the rest of their lives, but none has definite plans for moving. Many are dating more or less seriously, but even the steadier relationships seem quite a ways from the marriage track. Neither raising families nor racing up the corporate ladder, they seem unsure of exactly where their lives are going. “What the hell am I doing at the Coffeehouse?” is the way Shiv put it. On a different occasion Sylvia said of her job at a deli, “I’ve asked myself, over and over again, what am I doing here? I’m in a transitory period. Something’s got to happen.” She’s considering applying for a data entry job herself and wryly worries her life is starting to look like the part in Plath’s Bell Jar where the protagonist’s mother tells her she needs to learn shorthand in order to get work.
As we hear so frequently we’re dulled to its reality, the freedom and comfort of life in early twenty-first-century America are unprecedented, and I doubt any of the girls would swap lives with a pioneer wife and her predawn milking, greasy diet, and numerous risky pregnancies. But the concern over a lack of direction that Sylvia and Shiv and others expressed is par for younger Americans. Despite whatever’s been gained in Skype and Thai cuisine and IRAs, some amount of rootedness and purpose and community has been lost. For single women in particular, the years between teenage companionship and long-term stability in jobs or marriages can be bereft of female friends. What high school girls look forward to and married women reminisce about is more often than not a lonely decade.
Part of the derby’s popularity is that it can help restore some rootedness and purpose and community. As Amy said at one point: “I’ve been able to reconnect with women again. Even in college I only had a few female friends, but never a group of women. I think girls need that camaraderie at this stage in their lives.”
At the same time, the derby isn’t a cure-all. The biggest difference between watching the NCDG gearing up for practice and watching a high school girls’ basketball team do the same is that the teenagers think about life in the future tense, but the derby girls – five, ten, twenty years later – have seen some of that future fade into present and then past without necessarily knowing any more about the destination than when they were still too young to buy a legal pack of American Spirits. And it’s hard not to think about that without at least the teeniest bit of sadness.
Pain is one of the derby’s few constants. Old injuries nag and new ones constantly threaten. On the NCDG MySpace page, each of the girls’ profiles includes a “Favorite Injury.”
At a practice in early September, Shorty, who skates the way a mastiff sprints, buckles in the pack and skids hard across the rubber. Her favorite injury is separating her knees: “six times left, five times right.” Stoically she limp-skates off the track, one leg stiff as an axle, and at a water break, Kelly Ripa-Nipalov, easily the tallest girl on either squad, skates over as she’s trying to limber the leg up. Keep in mind Shorty’s moniker isn’t ironic, like Samoan nose tackles named “Tiny”—she really is short, maybe five feet on tiptoes.
How’s the knee, Shorty?” Kelly queries down to her.
“It won’t bend.”
“It won’t bend?”
“It won’t bend.”
Later in the scrimmage, amid heavy congestion along one of the straightaways, Botox Betty trips and goes down too fast to cushion her fall. The rest of the pack zooms around her, but Betty doesn’t get up. She doesn’t even try. The refs call an injury time-out and skate over to her while everyone else mills inside the ellipse. The injury barely seems to register on Shiv, who yawns, noticing the good attendance that evening: “It’s nice there are more people at practice. I feel like I can relax …” She folds her hands behind her neck and lies back as though stargazing, revealing the first few rungs of a tattooed ladder running up her right side. Her face has a comic actress’s plasticity, but now it’s absolutely still. “Hey guys,” she adds, rolling her head from side to side as though noticing everyone else for the first time. Just as men are more eager to follow other men if they’re tall and athletic, women pay more attention to other women if they’re beautiful, and if they date actors and artists and musicians. Shiv is, and does, and many teammates have circled around her, waiting to see what she’ll do next. She doesn’t need to feminize the toughness in her name because her femininity isn’t in question. As Betty breathes raggedly like a hurt toddler before it begins to sob, the refs whispering to her in soothing tones, Shiv now and again sings various cheers. Someone mentions a high-powered team whose girls skate underneath each other’s legs. Ever the organizer, and six-feet-one to boot, Kelly is soon standing motionless on the track, her legs a circumflex. With her Amazonian size, deep-socketed blue eyes, and inky mane of hair, her wide-legged stance makes her look like a comic book character. After a couple of miscues, lithe Systa Wrecktomy sails under without any problem. Cheering from the team. One of the refs has left to call Betty’s family. There’s a challenge put forth for Systa to skate under two girls. Someone volunteers Devilynn, and she skates out ten feet in front of Kelly. On her first try, Systa navigates through the two sets of legs successfully. Even more cheering. Just about everyone has their helmet off at this point, and Shiv looks over to someone and says, “Your hair’s getting long. I like it.” Sauntering over to Shiv, Kelly hikes up her skirt to show off a grapefruit-sized bruise high on her hip, a jaundiced brown spangled with violet.
At this, Shiv’s large eyes open dreamily, her lips part, her head tilting to one side as though involuntarily. Half the team is watching. She waits for a beat. “You’re in love,” she jokes, deadpan, looking up at Kelly. “You’re finally in love …”
A few minutes later Betty’s father arrives and with the refs helps Betty up so he can take her to the ER. Flushed red and weeping openly, Betty shuffles away, one arm pressed tight to her side. As she exits, her teammates turn toward her and give her a round of applause. Later I’ll learn that she’s fractured two sets of cartilage between her ribs.
It’s important to realize the other girls weren’t being callous but rather hypersensitive— Shiv wasn’t bantering goofily because she wasn’t aware of what was happening, but because she was. Her gallows humor was a savvy response to a fallen teammate moaning nearby. Everyone there knows the dangers of the derby—down-turned lips and cooing weren’t going to help anyone. All that would have done is make them a bit more afraid the next time, and in the derby you can only be as good as you are fearless. Today’s mother might give her child a kiss and Band-Aid on the knee, but Shiv was living a fiercer and more ancient maternity: Come back with your shield or on it. Every time there was a lull, filled by the sight and sound of Betty’s pain, you could see in Shiv’s eyes that she was screwing something a little tighter within herself before she came up with her next silly distracting comment. On a smaller scale, it’s like the story of an infantryman in Iraq about to storm an insurgent stronghold who turns to the guy behind him and asks if his fatigues make his butt look big.
The championship bout is on a Friday, and at the last practice on Wednesday night the atmosphere is light, almost giddy. During stretching there’s a conversation about the “blatant nudity” clause in the NCDG’s newly drafted rules of conduct, during which Champ Pain asks: “Would this make my Janet Jackson from two matches ago illegal?” Other people jokingly complain about not being able to flash the crowd anymore. Someone asks if this means she’ll have to start wearing underwear. Then Shorty pipes up and tells everyone she’s hosting the after-party. “But it’s going to be a VIP party,” she says a little angrily, “derby girls and friends of the derby only. If there’s anyone I don’t approve of, I’m gonna kick ’em out. There’s that one girl who started handing out prescription drugs the last time at my place, which I don’t have a problem with, but then she was flashing her titties at my boyfriend and offering him sex and taking off her clothes. If she shows up again, I’m kicking her out.
As they walk toward Pershing’s bike rack after practice, Sylvia and Shiv are bantering about the future. The two have been friends for a while, and they possess a certain odd couple’s rapport, Shiv’s goofy improvisational humor bouncing off Sylvia’s polite earnestness. After the championship bout, they’ll both play on the NCDG travel team, composed of top players from both squads. And they don’t have a name yet.
“I’ve been doing a lot of research on the suffragette movement,” says Sylvia, her red curls darkened by sweat and stuck to her forehead. She mentions a group called the Iron Jawed Angels, early twentieth-century radicals who were imprisoned and then went on hunger strikes so long their jailors had to force feed them through tubes. “Isn’t that amazing?” asks Sylvia. “I think that would be a great name for the team.”
“I dunno,” says Shiv, her head bobbing from side to side. “That’s cool and all, but what about Mad Maxines? I think that’s still my favorite.”
“But Iron Jawed Angels has so much history behind it,” says Sylvia, unlocking her bike. “I think it would be really inspiring to us.”
Shrugging grandly, Shiv says, “I just really like Mel Gibson movies.” She won’t be at the championship bout because she and her LA actor boyfriend bought tickets to Austin City Limits before the schedule was set, so she tells Sylvia, “You’re going to need to call me like all the time during the bout so I can get updates.”
“You’ll be at a rock concert and I’ll be in the middle of a giant arena that gets zero reception.”
“Well,” says Shiv, pondering this, “you can step outside when you’re not jamming, and I can just tell Van Morrison to quiet down for a second while I get the score.” They share a smile, then bid each other goodnight, and Sylvia begins leading her bike to the road, her curls sweat-darkened to the color of cherry cough syrup. When I ask her how she’s feeling about the bout, she says, “I’m nervous,” which is surprising, since on the track she always looks grim and unbreakable. “It’s nerve-wracking knowing you’ve got to go out there and physically perform in front of so many people. You want to be consistent. You build expectations and you want to go out and meet them.”
The event staff at the championship bout on Friday night wear red windbreakers, white button-downs, and conservative ties. The average age is around fifty-five. The men are pale, clean shaven, and whatever hair they have is neatly side-parted. The women look like what Pat Benatar is trying not to become. They are without exception polite and helpful and nonjudgmental toward the cadre of derby carnies about to swarm through the doors.
Broadcasting outside Pershing is a local rock station, the Blaze, and a DJ named John who’s trim, bald, gregarious, and himself a big-time fan. Although he’s intelligent and well-spoken, his radio persona is the Animal, and whenever he’s on air, he affects the voice of such DJs everywhere, a rapid-fire baritone gravelly with testosterone. As he does so, we’ll occasionally make eye contact, his expression somewhere between apologetic and self-deprecating. The angle he works is that Gang Green has lost the last three bouts and must revenge themselves tonight. His mantra: “Gang Green’s lookin’ for the Dubya. Gotta get the Dubya … yeaaaahhhhhh!”
Above the hubbub, coating Pershing’s west wall, is a giant mural, a tableau of doughy figures boxing, dancing, and bull-riding— the brawl, the tango, and a bit of Western madness thrown in for good measure. All about the air is turbulent, steely clouds above buffeted back and forth across a hot sun, the sky pregnant with rain. Inside Amy and other new girls hawk NCDG buttons, tee shirts, and pink panties screen-printed with the Mary K Mafia logo. After considering “Maggie Mean” as her skate name in honor of anthropologist Margaret Mead, Amy’s finally decided on the cute—but not too cute—Glitter Dunn.
Outside a young man, his face carbuncled with hoops and bars, dawdles with his daughter, a tiny five-year-old in a pink Mary K Mafia tee shirt and long brown pigtails. Standing opposite is an older couple, the man sporting a blond Vandyke, a black-and-pink-checked fedora, and a sleeveless pink tee shirt. He says: “I wanted to paint my beard pink, but it was too fucking windy.”
Standing behind his daughter, the young man says, “I’m gonna give you a beard,” then pulls her pigtails to the front of her face and ties them in a loose square knot around her chin. She giggles, but keeps her attention focused on the pink pom-pom she’s holding.
“It’s a weapon,” she says, stabbing an invisible adversary.
The Animal’s one extended tête-à-tête is with Gang Green jammer Chazzie Skateweather, who’s the youngest NCDG and has earned a reputation as one of the league’s bad girls. Tonight she’s wearing a four-inch upswept faux hawk and a snarl. Replying to a question from the Animal, she says, “I’m not getting kicked out of this game.”
“You think someone with a name like Chazzie Skateweather wouldn’t get kicked out of so many games,” he replies.
Chazzie replies with an expression scrunched with disdain. “Do you even know who Charlie Starkweather was?”
In the arena, a number of the girls are skating laps in uniform. The girls have taped Christmas lights to the inner and outer boundaries to better mark the track, a sickly green synthetic rubber that’s slightly springy and always looks dirty—and probably always is. Everyone’s wearing some make-up, from the light to the garish. Team-color-appropriate eyeshadow is particularly popular. Garters and fishnet hose are common. Mary K Mafia’s uniforms turn out to be pink-collared short dresses that look like they were stolen from a diner waitress’s closet during the Eisenhower administration. The overall atmosphere is playful and relaxed—girls skate under each other’s legs, chat and joke and generally ignore any interteam divisions. During a warm-up lap, one girl skates behind another while giving her a shoulder massage. As part of a Gang Green effort to win more fans, Devilynn is standing just inside the first set of doors, handing out lime-green glowsticks to spectators as they enter. She’s vamping it tonight in thick vermillion lipstick, her large hazel eyes coronaed with liner and kohl, looking like a heroine out of a Chaplin film, or at least as much as one can look flapperish in roller skates, six-inch black denim cut-offs, and an upper-arm tattoo of a woman morphing into a skeleton. She comes from a family of ten, and when a chunk of them arrive, she gleams and greets each with an excited hug.
Also here are the jittery woman from the fair, her husband, and her wrestler daughter. The woman now appears mellow to the point of boredom, while her daughter is deeply engaged in the goings-on about track and seems quite happy. If this were a black parody of a moralistic after-school special, the wrestler girl’s parents would die quick, painless deaths during the bout and the girl would be adopted by the NCDG, gaining the speed, strength, and skill necessary for derby glory long before she’d be legally capable of participating, then on her eighteenth birthday would emerge into adulthood ready to lead the No Coast Derby Girls to national triumph …
Later, as the Gang Green mascot Sam is skating around in his gorilla suit with a chartreuse bikini top and tennis skirt, he stops to greet a man wearing a shirt that reads, “Kong Is in My Pants.” They talk.
Many spectators are the sort of folks Sylvia and Shiv targeted at the fair, including a contingent from Iron Brush Tattoo, one of the bout’s corporate sponsors, who are themselves a walking advertisement. When two women who look like Methodists emerge from one of the tunnels into the arena and scan the scene, one of them actually says, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The other says: “I like those fishnet stockings. Those are nice.”
Like the Blaze’s playlist, the music inside the arena is Least-Common-Denominator Eighties Rock: Guns ‘N’ Roses, the Scorpions, Cinderella, and of course, Pat Benatar.
The derby has two announcers, one in his twenties, the other in his forties. The older announcer does the play-by-play and much of the color commentary. The younger announcer’s primary task is to interject sexist remarks every few minutes. Sporting dark pants and a navy blazer over a thin sweater, the older announcer has the bland good looks and deep tan of a golf instructor; before the match, he turns to the younger announcer, gestures toward his get-up, and says, “My kid said I look stupid.” The younger announcer assures him he does not. The younger announcer is lying.
After they introduce the players, to much hooting and hollering, the bout begins.
And it’s brutal. Multiple notches of violence higher than any practice. Each team’s strategy seems to be to cripple the other team’s jammer, legally or no. Devilynn and Sylvia in particular don’t make it through their first few jams without being knocked skates over helmet. Once, after Sylvia breaks cleanly through the pack, a teammate tries to give her a whip around a corner, but Chazzie intercepts when she’s at her most vulnerable, knocking her into the trackside seats. After extricating herself from fans who are energized rather than annoyed, Sylvia locks her jaw, her eyes frosting over. The older announcer, hereafter Pro Shop Steve, says: “This match is brought to you by Iron Brush Tattoo: Tattoos so good they make you want to tell the truth.”
Now, down twenty-two to thirteen, Gang Green has Shorty jamming. After maneuvering through the pack she sails down the straightway and is turning the first corner when Kelly Ripa-Nipalov accelerates hard on the inside and blindsides her. The hit’s legal, but it’s an absolute clock-cleaning, sending Shorty sailing. When she lands, she lands on her head. She doesn’t move. Quickly, one of the refs blows his whistle for an injury time-out. Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” is echoing off the rafters. No one is humming along. The refs are kneeling over Shorty, careful not to move her or touch her head. Behind me someone shouts, “Where the hell’s the penalty?” Huddled in clumps, the girls shake their heads. One of the refs leaves and soon returns with a large First Aid bag. The announcers start throwing tee shirts into the parts of the crowd that make the most noise. “Keep your clothes on, please,” says Pro Shop Steve. He’s not kidding. Some of Shorty’s family and friends are now hunched over her. Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” begins thumping over the PA. Not quite soon enough, one of the announcers realizes how inappropriate this is and quickly tracks forward to the next song. Behind me, another fan is saying into his cell phone: “It’s a definite elbow right to the face, and they did nothing. These refs are something.” Paramedics arrive and delicately secure Shorty’s head in a brace before lifting her onto a gurney and trundling her out. Since they can’t do anything else, the skaters and crowd clap as she exits.
At the beginning of the next jam, with Mary K Mafia leading forty-one to thirty-five, Devilynn’s jamming for Gang Green. As always, she skates with an effortless elegance, a piscine economy of movement, and her intuition for spotting and sliding through holes is second to none. There’s a magnetic brio to her personality on the track, the self-conscious derring-do of someone who knows she’s fun to watch, a theatricality that’s earned by the number of points she scores. This jam, despite a number of hard checks by MKM’s blockers, she stays on her feet. The emotional atmosphere is that of a circus after an acrobat falls off the high wire. Blockers from both teams crash and fall, but she swerves around them into the open, and even MKM fans cheer. Along the straightway, she grandly flourishes her arms like some Renaissance herald. She breaks through the pack cleanly on her second pass, and then again on her third, weaving her way through as though everyone else were standing still. By the time the jam is ended, she’s given GG their first lead, forty-eight to forty-six.
“Are you ready for some girl-on-girl action?” the younger announcer asks the crowd.
Sylvia’s jamming next, maneuvering through the pack in her plucky hard-nosed way, but just as she’s accelerating around a turn, she slips and falls face first. The crowd gasps and groan— no one wants to see the nice young men in white again—but after a few seconds she stands and skates inside the track, tugs the jammer’s cap off and sits down wearily. The first period ends soon after. During the intermission, as the bruised skaters exit to their respective locker rooms, half the crowd loiters near the track, listening to the intermission band onstage and drinking five-dollar Buds, while the rest mingle outside smoking.
Period Two is dominated by penalties. With Shorty’s ER trip, a number of lesser injuries, and some fans’ constant ragging, the refs begin to crack down and Gang Green bears the brunt of it. After four minor fouls a player is sent to the penalty box, and rarely during Period Two does GG have all its skaters in at the same time. Midway through the period, with Champ Pain jamming for GG, a hard check hurtles her down the track as though she were on a Slip ‘N’ Slide. Her skirt and tutu fly up, revealing a green lace thong beneath. The guy next to me says, “Oh yeah.” At one point, GG’s shorthanded by three, with only two skaters to the Mafia’s five. And MKM capitalizes, taking a ninety-one to seventy-two lead by the intermission.
The beginning of the third period is like the second—lots of whistles, Gang Green frequently playing short, enough sprawling knockdowns to kill nearly all the Christmas lights in the outside string. In the chaos of rock music, announcer chatter, fan shouting, and multiple refs blowing their whistles and pointing ambiguously, it’s hard to tell what fouls are called on whom, and even harder to see what jammers are made ineligible by stepping out of bounds: you can’t predict how many points the scorers will allot each team, and frequently during the third period, it does seem that Gang Green gets low-balled. Certainly the virulent GG section behind me thinks so; when the refs call a time-out to retape the outside string of lights to the track, one of the GG rowdies says, “He fixes them lights like he fixes the game.”
Devilynn scores nine in the next jam, cutting the MKM lead to 109–96. Then Champ Pain, looking like she’s about to asphyxiate, brings Gang Green into triple digits, 109–100. As “Wild Thing” follows “Bad to the Bone,” the younger announcer says, “There’s a lot of bumping and slapping over there.”
Before Champ Pain’s next jam a few minutes later, Chazzie skates over to her and bangs with both fists on her helmet, shouting wordlessly into her face, and Champ Pain, who’s having the bout of her career, scores five. 116–105.
There’s less than a minute left. Devilynn’s jamming for GG, and although this is the fifth or sixth time this period alone, she bursts off the line at the whistle, sprinting as fast as she did her first jam. She swoops through the pack untouched, barely slowing, then races around the corner to catch up with them again. The crowd is louder than it’s been all night. Twenty-five seconds left. This time, the MKM blockers are waiting. They shoulder charge her, sometimes from both sides at the same time. Improbably, she manages to stay on her feet, but ahead of her a MKM blocker checks a GG blocker directly into her path. With no space or time to dodge, Devilynn does the only thing she can do: she jumps. After sailing over her own fallen blocker, to even more raucous cheering from the crowd, she lands still upright. But now she’s at the inside turn, still full speed, and remaining inbounds seems physically impossible—the centrifugal force is just too great. But nearing the outside boundary, she squats low, leans in, tucks her right leg behind her left knee and rides on one skate around the outer curve of the track before slowing enough to stand and sprint down the straightway. She is the Anna Pavlova of the roller derby.
But the seconds are slipping away—ten, nine, eight—and as Devilynn’s nearing the pack one last time, the ref blows the final whistle. She collapses onto the track, exhausted, knowing it wasn’t quite enough. The final score is 116—111, Mary K Mafia.
Postbout, it’s a hugfest. Fans of both sexes wait with adolescent shyness to chat with the smiling sweat-wet skaters, and never is the reason for the derby’s popularity clearer: for sports fans used to watching doll-sized digitalized reproductions of their favorite players half-ass it until the playoffs, then bitch out Pulitzer Prize–winning reporters at postgame press conferences, the chance to press flesh with the stars and then have them ask you how you’re doing is to take a rolling dust bath in fame’s pixie powder.
Midway through the third period an unmistakable and increasingly violent drum roll on Pershing’s roof began, and just after the match ends, Pro Shop Steve announces, “We are in a tornado warning,” which leads to massive cheering from the crowd, including a sustained chant of “free beer, free beer …”
And outside, under the mural of boxers and dancers, delighted kids in pink and in green dance under the warm rain.
O’Rourke’s downtown is the opposite of the frat bars which surround it. The crowd is old, blue-collar, and curmudgeonly. Its two pool tables boast some of the finest games in Lincoln. No designer polos, no pretty girls, no University of Nebraska apparel. It’s an Old Style kind of place. With a reputation of having the last last call in Lincoln, it usually gets crowded around 12:30 and not before.
Tonight is different. Near the end of the bout, Pro Shop Steve announced O’Rourke’s was hosting the derby party, and by 9:30, with the first few of the NCDG beginning to trickle in, the place is as crowded as a pet-store guppy tank. A tall bald guy with vaudevillainous eyebrows asks hoarsely, “Where’s Devilynn? I got my voice all sexy to meet her.” In the corner near the pool tables, a tall woman in a pink wig is doing a stripper dance with her back to MKM’s gangster mascot, grinding against him and using his suspenders to considerable effect.
Kelly is one of the first skaters to arrive, and she immediately asks about Shorty. “Is she all right?”
I tell her what I heard over the PA late in the game, that she’s concussed but stable.
“I do feel bad, but it’s a tough game. I’ll call her in the morning.”
As Sylvia enters with a bit of a limp, an icepack on her shoulder, two drunk college kids start grappling nearby. One of them takes a swing and the other lunges at him, accidentally elbowing Devilynn in the back of the head. Before she can react, one of the regulars grabs the instigator by the collar and hurls him toward the door. The drunk kid turns around to protest, but Devilynn takes a few steps toward him and shakes her head sternly. All she says is “No.” It’s enough.
In the beer garden, a number of the NCDGs are chain-smoking and doing a post-op on the bout. At a table littered with Framboise Lambic bottles, two young women are arm-wrestling, their tattoo sleeves undulating with the effort of their muscles.
The response from the GG girls to the close loss ranges from minimal to devastating. Says Champ Pain: “I wanted to win so bad. I cried. I cried hard. I had to go home and get stoned before I came here.”
As the witching hour approaches, what was initially very high-quality pool becomes slightly less high-quality pool. Drink in one hand, icepack in the other, Sylvia hugs Champ Pain and says, “Thanks for showing us what you’re made of.” With the pink-wigged girl at its epicenter, the corner of the bar has turned into a dance party. Then “Billie Jean” comes on over the jukebox, and the crowd doubles in size to a hooting swarm. The bar is so packed it’s almost unnavigable, but Sylvia’s boyfriend makes his way through from the dartboard to check in with her. He looks like a cross between a young Jay Leno and an Orange County surfer—tall, big jutting chin, glassy eyes, art school ponytail. Seeing him, Sylvia bobs her head from side to side in time with Jackson’s syncopated lyrics and does a little soft-shoe. She wants to dance. Like almost everyone else in the place she’s a little drunk, plus exhausted and injured, and all she wants to do is dance to “Billie Jean” with her boyfriend. He’s not so sure. Not breaking eye contact with him she does the twist, as best as anyone can holding an icepack to one shoulder. He says he wants to keep playing darts. Resolved, she beckons him with a forefinger. Sighing, he steps closer, pulls a cigarette from a pack and places it between her parted lips. She smiles up at him with a half-lidded beer-happy sleepiness that’s just indescribably sexy. Together, they make their way out to the beer garden.
Despite her concussion, word has spread that the after-party’s still at Shorty’s, and at closing time, I hitch a ride with Kelly and Devilynn in Kelly’s car, scooting the championship trophy out of the way to make room for myself in the backseat. Kelly has to work in the morning, and she’s obviously very tired. She says: “The only reason I’m going to Shorty’s is because I gave her a concussion.”
At Shorty’s a couple dozen twenty-somethings are sitting on the hoods of cars in the driveway and on beat-up low-slung couches in the garage, talking slowly and occasionally getting up to pour themselves Dixie Cups of Bud Light from a keg. Between two of the sofas is a large red bong. Shorty’s already there, sitting with her camo-clad boyfriend. Kelly approaches. Shorty stands to greet her.
“How’re you doing?” Kelly asks.
“Not so good,” says Shorty. “The doctor said I have a mild concussion, but, but that hit, that hit was the best I’ve gotten all season.” Devilynn squeezes Shorty’s shoulder, looking more concerned than either of the other two. “Shorty, I’m so glad you’re doing okay. I was so worried.”
Shorty: “I’m still a little concussed, but I’m awake. It’s just like a migraine, but with more dizziness and more nausea. I started bawling because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to roll.” A chorus of sympathetic “Ahhhs.” Through a pair of large speakers, Jim Morrison is telling someone to love him two times.
Chazzie stumbles into the yard, having spent the last hour at a club, and sets herself down in the half-light of the front porch. She looks like she is having a good time, and after barking at everyone who walks by, she stands and begins reeling about, drink in hand, trying to pick a fight with someone from the Mafia. Absentmindedly, she spills some beer onto Devilynn, whose own Dixie Cup has already made several trips to the keg, and Devilynn pitches up, taunting her for being drunk.
“Hey, shut up,” says Chazzie.
“You want some, Chaz?” asks Devilynn, giving her Betty Boop eyes and pressing her finger into her lips.
“This is bullshit,” says Chazzie. “And I love it. C’mere.” Chazzie tackles her and they roll around on the grass. A guy standing by a car in the driveway says to hold on a sec and he’ll turn his headlights on them, but before he can, one of the girls rolls her eyes and says, “There are not going to be any chick fights tonight.”