The smell of a hundred women’s body odor. Like death, you either fight it or accept it learning to enjoy it. The sound of roller skates hitting and rolling across the wooden floor. Pump-up music as teams run through their drills. Your heart beating as you remember playing hockey as a youth. The anxiety of the unavoidable collision. Scoring a goal for your team. Exhilaration.
Jamburglar jumps from skate to skate, juking her way through four big women determined to crush her. She breaks through and skates around the track, solo. The crowd trumpets its approval. The four girls re-position themselves in Red Rover formation, Smaxl Rose is at the head barking orders. Jamburglar- less than five foot tall and wearing thick-framed glasses- circles back to the Defense, whose collective mass exceeds 700 pounds of raw female flesh- most of it covered in tattoos. Jamburglar breaks through a second time, scoring 5 more points for her team. I begin to cry. I am both sad and happy and end up crying for the whole next hour. It’s my first time at a Bout. I have no idea why I’m crying, but I am.
‘Bout’ is the name for a Roller Derby match. Like any sport, Derby has its own language, customs and signs. A ‘Jammer’ is the person who skates around the rink, attempting to score points for her team. Almost every girl has a nickname, a pun based on her actual name or position. Hence Jamburglar the Jammer and Smaxl Rose who plays defense. Even the referees have nicknames on the back of their striped jerseys, i.e., Frank Lloyd Wrong. This is the brilliance of Roller Derby: it doesn’t take itself too seriously. At the same time, it takes itself as seriously as a broken wrist.
At will-call outside the UIC Pavilion, I see two baby-boomers wearing matching red wind-breakers that have Smaxl Rose‘s name and number on it, carrying a small cooler filled with drinks. They must be her parents. I grew up with two older sisters who both played sports. I remember going with them to softball games and track events, the little-brother-hanger-on, crawling under bleachers past years’ worth of dust and fossilized gum. My parents were one of the few parents who went to almost every game. Some of the girls, their parents didn’t come at all. But the ones who did carried with them collapsible canvas chairs, well-worn thermoses, and jackets with their daughter’s name and number on it. I’ve always wondered what happened to the sports parents after their girls went on to college and they stopped having games to go to. Did they set their fan gear on a blazing raft and push it into Lake Michigan, or did they just forget it ever happened? Luckily for some, their girls come out of athletic purgatory years later, but in an unexpected form: Derby.
My girlfriend actually bought me my ticket. She was going to the game to volunteer. She works with the Chicago Women’s Health Center, an all-women’s health collective that operates on a sliding scale payment structure. Her mission for the day was to man a booth and pass out free condoms, lube and literature about the clitoris (Tip of the Iceberg, by Laura Szumowski). She also had free buttons with animated speculums on them that read “I did it myself at CWHC”. Think DIY gynecology. I put one on my shirt where it still hangs. At half-time, Julia walked down to the center of the rink and told everyone about the services CWHC provides and the lube they had today- just minutes after a bunch of kids ran a relay race bouncing across the floor on balloons. Another cool aspect of Roller Derby: it spans the gamut from family fun to queer studies, bros to bitches- they all come to watch the girls.
Let’s face it, Roller Derby isn’t as popular as other sports and it probably never will be. Nor should it, because all the sponsors are local companies like Hoosier Momma Pies and the people who go there really want to be there- they’re not the type of schmucks who score tickets to a Cubs game from their corporate overlords. Everything is DIY. Even the merchandise booth is staffed by the players themselves, sometimes just after they played, meaning the change they hand back to you is drenched in sweat. It was there at the merchandise booth where I asked for a brochure explaining the game (Derby is really confusing until you know what’s going on).
“No”, they told me, “we don’t have brochures…”
“I’ll show you”, said the woman next to me, “I’m visiting from out of town and have no one to sit next to anyhow. I’ll show you how it works”.
Her name is Allison. She’s from San Francisco and plays Derby there. She was in Chicago on business, but stayed an extra day, “because I just had to see the Windy City Rollers“. Let me tell you a little more about her, because I think as an individual she encapsulates the spirit of the game. She started playing three years ago, weeks after giving birth to her first child. On the day I cried, before getting there, she visited the top floors of all three of the tallest buildings in Chicago- just for the hell of it. That’s the Sears Tower (sic.), John Hancock, and Trump Tower. Aggressive. She sat next to me, beer in hand, patiently answering my many questions, as well as butting in to explain things I was oblivious to. Generous. She also shouted at the girls, with the girls, for the girls. After the games she ran up and congratulated them. She admired good play and scorned the slouches. Enthusiastic. In short, both Allison and Roller Derby are aggressive, generous, and enthusiastic.
Neither Allison nor my girlfriend saw me cry. The last time I cried like that was at a modern dance performance, actually, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I watched a woman embody the silence we adopt in the face of the constant bombardment of obligation, insult and information which is modern life. Or at least that’s how I interpreted it. Her eyes and mouth were wide open yet mute as she pulled herself across the stage like a schizophrenic contortionist. Which is exactly how I feel when I’m behind the cash register at work, while typing in a customer’s order while getting their coffee while starting a new urn of coffee while grabbing a quiche made by Hoosier Momma Pies from the microwave while, at the same time, getting rude looks and bad energy from the unending torrent of customers not realizing I’m the one who’s helping them. It sucks.
And it’s what I’m able to let go of as I watch Jamburglar squirt through the elbows and hips of her colossal foes. I see myself in her, and because she’s outside of me, I’m able to feel a level of compassion and sympathy toward her/me that I’m usually not able, either because I’m too proud or allergic to feeling sorry for myself. Watching derby, I recognize that I’m hurt. The anxiety, the rudeness, the collisions you cannot avoid. I’m crying for myself.
But then, when she breaks through- ahh! when she breaks through– it’s exhilarating. It’s freedom, sports and speculums all rolled up into one. On skates.