Saturday nights are usually nothing special for me. I go to the bar, have a few beers, then come home and fall asleep next to my cat. It is the existence of someone who has learned to be content with life’s simple pleasures, at least that is what I keep telling myself. Never mind that it can also be described as what happens when a person has given up on life and wants to painlessly run out the clock.
So I decided that enough was enough and that I was going to break free of that rut I’ve been in. It was time to seize the day and grab all that gusto that old beer commercials said was out there just waiting to be had. The problem was that gusto-on-demand is not always readily available to someone who has adopted the phrase “fuck it” as his personal refrain. Fortunately, other people’s gusto can be enjoyed vicariously at reasonable rates.
If I were something approaching a normal person, becoming a slavish devotee of some mainstream spectator sport would fill this need quite nicely. All I would have to do is grunt out “Go Giants!” and my life would have meaning. Simple as that. Pity I’m not wired up that way.
If I am to follow a sport, it has to have some real zing. Major League Baseball falls short, despite the impressive chutzpah they show as a multibillion-dollar business that feels entitled to taxpayer money to build their stadiums. No, the special something I’m looking for inhabits a realm where tough tattooed women with nicknames borrowed from a zombie-apocalypse biker gang who skate around a flat track and slam into each other at top speed. For this, I need look no further than roller derby.
As luck would have it, I know a couple of women involved in the local derby scene. One skates on a team, another is a former player who is now a referee. Both are bartenders at the Argus. It’s really surprising that I hadn’t attended a bout (what a roller-derby match is called) before. Part of the reason was inertia. It’s a bit of a haul to get to Herbst Pavilion in Fort Mason, though much easier than when the bouts were held out near the Oakland airport. Another factor was a sneaking suspicion that the reality would not be nearly as cool as the mystique. The video shown at the bar wasn’t the greatest enticement either. With the camera mounted high and away from the track and no audio playing, the footage was about as exciting as watching a bunch of people do the Hokey Pokey.
Despite everything, I decided on Friday night to go to Saturday’s bout.
The following evening, I got off the 49 Muni bus at Van Ness and Bay about a half hour before the bout was scheduled to start. I had ridden up with two other bar regulars, Joe and Mark, who had decided to attend as well. Mark knew the fastest way to walk into Fort Mason from the bus stop, which was a good thing because three pints of beer and a bumpy ride on city transit meant I needed to find a restroom in a hurry. This wasn’t the Mission. It was the Marina. It’s perfectly fine for them to come to my neighborhood to publicly urinate but not the other way around.
When we arrived at Herbst Pavilion, I paid my $12 admission and made a bee line for me men’s room. Feeling refreshed and my business concluded, I went to a beer set up against the wall and bought myself a PBR. It was a pretty sizable crowd and pretty much all the seats were taken.
I wandered around the perimeter of the track and ran into Joe and Mark talking with J Crush, the bartender who skates for the Richmond Wrecking Belles. She usually stands about five-eight but with the added height from the skates she was six foot easy. Grinning ear to ear in her uniform, knee and shoulder pads, and helmet, she was very clearly in her element. After standing between Mark and me while Joe took a picture, she skated off to join her teammates. The bout would soon begin.
A woman’s voice came over the PA. The cavernous interior of the building created a sort of dampened echo that distorted her voice but she was still intelligible as she introduced the roster from each team. Names like Minnie Peril, Brawllen Angel, and Luv U Longtime all drew applause and cheers from the audience as they were announced.
As the bout got underway, I realized how little the videotape had done the sport justice. One thing was the sound. At about an equal volume with the Dead Kennedys and Gary Glitter piped in as background music was the rumble of skate wheels on the wooden track. Another thing is that this is a contact sport meaning the skaters do hit each other and they do fall down.
Of course, one might be disappointed if expecting the level violence seen in pro wrestling or the roller derby of decades past. The difference is that in its current form, roller derby put its emphasis on actual competition rather than scripted mayhem. To avoid serious injuries, the rules are very clear that body checks with the shoulder are perfectly acceptable but forearm smashes, clotheslining, and flying dropkicks are frowned upon.
Points are scored when the skater with the star on her helmet, the jammer, tries to skate past opposing players, the blockers, who try their best to prevent this from happening. I’m sure there is more to it than I gleaned from a quick look at the rules printed in the program I got at the entrance to to enjoy the sport as a spectator, that’s really all you need to know. If you see how the crowd gets to their feet when a jammer comes whipping around the track on a collision course with a bunch of real unfriendly blockers, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
In the end, J Crush’s team won but I was more interested in the spectacle than the final score. And what a spectacle it was, homegrown, a little bawdy, and very badass.
After the bout, more drinking was in order so Joe, Mark, and I shared a cab to go back to the Argus. As we passed the opera house, a couple of symphony goers who tried in vain to hail our taxi. Nothing doing. Tonight this cab was ours. Not theirs. Ours.