At the end of the first lap of the third heat of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby roller rumble, an afternoon of punked-out and padded-up young women racing on roller skates on a long, nasty stretch of parking lot under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Williamsburg, things start to go a little haywire, as Rippin Kittin, one of the fastest girls in the league, #8 in the aqua, starts to pull way ahead of the pack, and Lil’ Red Terror, #19 in the yellow, makes a snap decision that Kittin’s going down. As the pack loops around the first of the three pylons holding up the highway that designate the track, Lil’ Red veers off course, skates under the chest-high plastic tape loosely strung between the pylons, and heads straight for her rival, helmet-clad head down and elbow pads at the ready for a solid clotheslining. Other girls, including Ginger Snap, #80 in the tan, follow suit, and by the third lap, although it’s clear that Kittin is the winner, it’s not clear at all if anyone else has even bothered crossing the finish line. The ref, a young man in the traditional black-and-white striped shirt of his role, grabs ahold of Ginger, and they grapple, he spanking her repeatedly, her arms wailing the air, until they tumble to the ground at the finish line, smiling and red-faced and swinging. In the meantime, on the other side of the pylon at the start line, the rest of the girls–not just from this heat, but from the first and second as well–all dive-bomb into a pigpile on the pavement, skirts and water bottles flying in the air, in a flurry of ripped fishnet stockings, sleeve tattoos, bleached and blue-tipped hair, kneepads, roller skates, sequins, safety pins, plaid minis, acid-washed minis, wife-beater T-shirts, under-eye black paint, and belts made of bullet shells. The crowd goes bonkers.
* * *
At the end of the day, as the crowd is breaking up and heading over to the afterparty at the nearby Union Pool bar, Lefty Leibowitz is describing how this league began. Lefty is not just the Gotham Girls Roller Derby’s announcer, he’s also, with Chassis Crass, #11 in the white, the co-organizer of this league. He explains that they came up with the idea separately a little over a year ago–both of them having heard about the other revival leagues springing up all over the country–and connected with each other over Craig’s List, the popular networking Web site. Lefty sports a brown suit, gray spats, dark cop shades, and buzz-cut short hair. He calls each race for the crowd–and rallies them to “sponsor” the girls at the betting table–over a bullhorn like an auctioneer on speed. “Our very own Vince McMahon,” one racer affectionately calls him, making comparison to the legendary impresario of the World Wrestling Federation. What did Lefty think was happening in that third heat?
“They’re just bad girls, you know?” he says. “They just like to raise hell.” When you’re in a race, and you start to fall behind, “you start to maybe get a little bit angry, especially if your arch-rival’s out there with you, sometimes maybe you’re looking to cut the corners a little bit, and these girls are no strangers to cutting the corners and breaking the rules. I mean, that’s what they’re all about, they’re out here to raise hell, and cause all kinds of trouble. The result that we see is total, utter chaos and brutality. There are definitely some feuds.”
Kind of like in the WWF? “Well, I wouldn’t say that,” he demurs. “Obviously, there’s an element of entertainment to this. That’s part of it.” The state that roller derby in the United States had devolved to by the seventies was–not unlike the professional wrestling of organizations like the WWF–staged, fake, and “not entirely legitimate.” But the young women who originally started the first revival league, in Austin, Texas, he says, who were “kind of punk rock girls,” didn’t know that. “They thought it was all totally straight-up,” he says. “So they did it for real. It was like a real competition. and that’s been the benchmark of all the new leagues that are popping up.” And although today is just a race, when the Gotham Girls have their first real roller derby game–as opposed to just a rumble–in November, it will be completely by the rules: no scripts, no storylines, “just hard-fought action.” Sure, there’ll be fights, he says. But it’s all real. It’s crazy–but it’s not fake.
And the individual rivalries will be “boiling over” in the team play, he says. “I’m a little bit scared to be there, because I know all these girls, I’m friends with these girls, I don’t want to see them get hurt.” There will be medics on hand, Lefty says, just in case. “I hope that no one’s seriously hurt,” he says, although he’s heard rumors of planned takedowns. “I hope that no one is gonna be taken out of the sport of roller derby. But this is always a risk when you get out there, on the floor, and you’re playing to win.”
* * *
Earlier in the afternoon, Ginger Snap is in the middle of describing the breakdown of who, exactly, is here to see the rumble–from the older folks who remember the original roller derby, to the college-age kids in love with the kitsch of it–when a tall young man with stringy hair and a scraggly goatee wheels up on inline skates. “Great idea!” he says. “What’s your agenda?”
“Our agenda?” says Ginger, skeptically, but with a smile. “Is to play roller derby.”
The young man, who introduces himself as Zen, doesn’t know what that is, so Ginger explains how the game works. Zen asks if it’s a new sport; Ginger explains that it’s been around since the thirties, “but the all-girl version started in Texas about three, four years ago, and now there are teams everywhere from Seattle to the Cayman Islands to North Carolina. Chicago just got one; Arizona has Phoenix and Tucson, and they play each other; LA has a huge group…”
“And you push each other?” asks Zen. “Kick each other, knock each other down?”
“Yep,” says Ginger.
“Right on,” says Zen. “Cool. Because I want to develop a new sport. With rollerblades. Maybe it’s not for girls, maybe it’s a guy’s version of roller derby–with paintball guns.” The participants would skate around a track, he says, and “maybe, like, shoot people, and maybe there’s ramps and stuff.” But he figures the guys in his brand-new sport could use some experienced derby girls as instructors.
“So why do you think this is only a guy thing?” asks Ginger.
Zen says, well, sure, he’d love to have female players in his paintball game.
“I’m sure that there would definitely be girls interested,” she says. Ginger excuses herself; she has to go warm up for the heat she’s racing in, the third and penultimate one of the day before the final championship. “This is my husband,” she says, introducing the man in the black-and-white striped shirt. “He’s the referee. Don’t tell anyone.” And she rolls off to get ready for her race.