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It’s a Saturday night in a neighborhood just west of downtown L.A. known as Historic Filipinotown or Hi-Fi. Nearly two-thousand fans have traveled to a fifty-five thousand square foot warehouse that once cranked out ice-cream cones—a place affectionately dubbed The Doll Factory. This is the home of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls—the city’s all-girl, banked track, quad skate roller derby league.

Outside in the parking lot, gals in a red, yellow, and blue Hot Dog on a Stick Truck sell corn dogs and lemonade. A local pizza parlor dishes out slices, as a ska/punk band plays on a makeshift stage underneath a canopy of tall palm trees.

Among this crowd is just about every type of person you could hope to meet in southern California. Heavily tattooed biker boys and hipster girls with bright blue hair mingle with grandmas in wheelchairs and young high-powered Hollywood types. There are die-hard muscle-bound sports fans and folks so un-athletically inclined they’d likely guess Yogi Berra was a cartoon character.

Stepping inside The Doll Factory is almost like that first color frame in the “Wizard of Oz”—where Dorothy finds herself transported to a marvelous world of Technicolor fantasy. Derby Dolls, are everywhere—working the door, selling merch, wandering through the bleachers with raffle tickets. True to their name, many of these women are dolled up—in team uniforms or other costumes, in bustiers and hot pants, in wigs or face paint. There is no shortage of fishnet stockings.

As a DJ plays thumping electro-punk in the background, vendors hawk necklaces made out of old soda caps, paintings of pin-up girls with skulls for faces, and t-shirts that read “I’m Not Gay, But My Derby Wife Is.” Bartenders do brisk sales out of rolling coolers filled with tall cans of Tecate beer, all bathed in the pink light of a four-foot tall roller skate made of neon that hangs on the wall.

Suddenly, the lights dim and everyone flocks to track, a beautiful one hundred by sixty foot wooden beast designed and built by skaters, friends, and family. It’s shaped like the sort of track you likely ran on in school, but in this case the outer edges have been raised anywhere between three and five feet and propped up by a series of vertical rails and posts.

Fans crowd around every inch of the track and fill up bleachers and stands on all sides of it. Perched in a corner high above the track is a booth where two announcers introduce the two teams skating. On this night, the police-themed Sirens are facing off against the team that pays tongue-in-cheek homage to the Girl Scouts, the Tough Cookies.

The Sirens are dressed in dark blue skin-tight numbers no LAPD officer would dream of wearing while on patrol. The Tough Cookies are clad in short pleated skirts and button-down uniform shirts adorned with badges for busting heads and breaking hearts.

Skaters have names like Paris Killton and Feara Nightly, Gori Spelling and Venus D’Mauler. They’re fully covered in protective gear: helmets, mouth guards, elbow pads, wrist guards, knee pads . . . some even wear shin guards. They all move on roller skates as if they were born with wheels on their feet.

The crowd stands for the national anthem. At The Doll Factory, the “Star Spangled Banner” has been performed by everyone from celebrity transgender Alexis Arquette to a band of female kazoo players to Gene Simmons. Tonight it’s an adorable local singernamed Audra Mae with a sparkly smile and a voice like velvet. She belts the patriotic tune out like a modern day Bessie Smith.

By the time we get to “and the hoooooooooooooooome of the braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaave” the crowd is bouncing with excitement. The announcer, Evil E, ducks her head down to the microphone and asks the crowd, “Are you ready . . . for . . . roller derby action?” The audience explodes with wild screams as the moment they’ve all been waiting for finally arrives. Game on.

On a stretch of the track about six feet long, eight women—four from each team—position themselves in a group. They’re crouched low, eyeing each other malevolently, bodies pressed together tightly—as if they’re in an elevator built to fit only four. A whistle blows, and they take off together. As they skate, they slam their bodies against their opponents trying to knock each other over. This fierce and violent throng of women is called a pack.

Moments later, a second whistle blows and two skaters poised behind the pack take off in a quick sprint. These skaters are the point scorers called jammers. The jammers charge toward the pack and do their best to skate through it. They try to juke and jive past hip-checks and through human walls of skaters lined shoulder to shoulder. Once the jammers make it out of the pack, they race around the track and approach the pack again—this time for points.

A jammer earns a point for each member of the opposite team she skates by after the first pass. That’s why skaters in the pack try desperately to beat the living crap out of the jammer from the opposing team. They’ll do just about anything to make sure she doesn’t pick up any points. There are huge wallops, big spills, pile-ups, and collisions that make hockey look as tame as a round of nursing home shuffleboard.

And, there are points scored. Without any balls, bats, sticks, or nets, bouts are won and lost by the ability of women to pass each other on the track. Each time a jammer scores, the crowd goes insane.

At this Sirens/Cookies game, tension quickly mounts as each team takes turns eking out a small lead over the other. Finally, with just twenty-six seconds left on the clock, the Sirens are leading with a score of fifty-one to forty-eight. A guy dressed in a full body Cookie Monster suit runs back and forth in front of the bleachers—desperately trying to rally fans of his beloved namesake team.

And then, in the last few seconds of the game, the Tough Cookies pull it off, scoring enough points to win the game. The crowd rushes in, arms outstretched over the lip of the track, offering high-fives to skaters taking victory laps. The Sirens take a few laps too and the crowd is just as excited to cheer them on despite their defeat.

Afterwards, skaters exit the track to give sweaty hugs to friends, family, and fans. Then it’s off to the bar for the after-party where derby girls prove they take their celebrating just as seriously as they do their skating.

This is the sport of roller derby.


ALEX “AXLES OF EVIL” COHEN:  So, Kasey…roller derby is a pretty rough sport, right? I wouldn’t think such a sensitive writer as yourself could compete in such a brutal game!

JENNIFER “KASEY BOMBER” BARBEE: Have you seen these guns?! No, but seriously, roller derby IS a very rough sport, but even we sensitive writer types need to blow off steam sometimes. Roller derby skaters nowadays come from all walks of life. Also, there’s nothing to get your creative juices flowing like a little sanctioned violence.

 

What exactly do you mean by ‘sanctioned violence?’

Well, as you’ll see in our book, as rough as roller derby looks, it’s also a highly technical sport with reams and reams of rules to keep all that rough-and-tumble action safe. People like to ask, “So you just get to go out there and beat people up on wheels, huh?” Well…not exactly. The aggression in roller derby is as complex as the aggression in football or rugby, but also like those sports, it’s the big hits and sweet strategy that keep the fans coming back. It is also what kept me coming back season after season! I like to land a nice solid hit…who doesn’t?

 

Was there a particular moment when you just knew you had a rollergirl inside you?

I think she’s been in there since my adolescent local skating rink days. I was always getting in trouble for weaving a little too closely to the other kids on the rink. But as an adult, I think I knew I’d found my place the very first day I showed up for practice in 2003. I had no idea who I’d see in that rink parking lot, and I was really taken aback at how normal and friendly everyone was. They were very welcoming, and un-intimidating..and then they put on skates. They were loud, crass, hilarious, fearless and (in those early days) totally reckless! Then we went out for drinks a couple of days later and I realized that they were the exact same way at the bar! It was like being sucked into the most bad ass gang in the world.

 

How is writing like roller derby?

In both, you’d better get used to getting knocked down. But you practice and practice and practice until you realize that it’s not about how many times you get knocked down, but what you learn when you’re on your ass and how quickly you’re able to get back up and try again. Teamwork also helps a whole helluva lot.

 

Here’s a variation on an old favorite:  Granting them the skill to skate, if you could choose any 4 famous non-athletes living or dead to be your derby blockers, who would they be?

I’m not religious, but I’d say Moses would be pretty high on the list. If the man could part the Red Sea, I’m sure that splitting a pack of blockers would be a piece of cake. Bea Arthur – those shoulders would be destroyers! Joan of Arc – because if she’s willing to martyr herself for a cause, maybe she would make some good bait in the pack. And finally, Pam Grier. No one kicks butt like Pam Grier.

 

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JENNIFER “KASEY BOMBER” BARBEE: Axles of Evil, what a fantastic name! However did you come up with it?

ALEX “AXLES OF EVIL” COHEN: Well, I’m a journalist and back when I first joined derby in 2003, the phrase “axis of evil” was in the news a whole bunch. Also, I’m a vintage car buff (I own a 58 Edsel Ranger) so I liked the axles reference (and of course there’s the spiffy skating move called the axel). I’ve since discovered that Axles of Evil is also the name of a bad-ass bicycle polo club in Portland, Oregon. Haven’t met them yet, but I’d like to.


But you had a different nom du skate for a while, did you not?

Yeah, in 2005, I moved to Austin, Texas for a stretch where I skated with the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls. I was fortunate enough to be placed on the Catholic-school-girl themed team the Holy Rollers. They had an Axle Rosie and it would have just been too damn confusing. So I became Smother Theresa for two seasons.

 

Was the derby life different in Austin?

Definitely so. Each roller derby league has its own way of doing things – everything from rules to league structure to cultural traditions. They have a great custom known as the Last Supper where the two teams who are about to face off in a bout come together for a potluck meal and some bonding before the bloodshed. I remember showing up to my first Last Supper and being terribly nervous… until the door was answered by skater Venis Envy who was COMPLETELY naked. By the end of the evening, Venis had convinced most of us to go au naturel. A few bottles of vino later, we took a couple of group nudie shots together. It was a great night… Well, that is until I had to get lead paint removed from my house this year by a bunch of burly dudes. I came home to find my room utterly spotless, and the photos of us naked rollergirls stacked nicely on my dresser. Doh!

 

You recently wrapped up a West Coast Book Tour. How’d that go?

Super fun! We got to eat oysters, see old friends, and have a fantastic cocktail called a Unicorn Jizz (Absolut Mango, Triple Sec, Simple Syrup, Sweet and Sour and Grenadine)! It’s definitely rewarding to meet rollergirls on the road and find out how the book speaks to them – no matter what stage of their derby career they’re at. We did have one very awkward moment at a reading. A woman sitting in the back row was pulling a Sharon Stone “Basic Instinct” on us, flashing flesh-colored undies that really looked for a moment like Barbie genitalia…. I found it very difficult to make eye contact with our audience after that.

 

Finally, if you were a tree, what tree would you be?

A manzanita! They’re short, tough, little trees found in California with a smooth, mahogany-colored bark. Love those things.

 

 

You can always find Sixteen Candles playing in its perpetual cable rotation –- except when you need to.And because I need to as I write up my interview with Ernessa T. Carter, I have to resort to a YouTube clip of the ending.In it, the view tilts with the bootleg videographer’s head as Jake jogs across the street to Sam descending the church steps with the netting of her bridesmaid’s dress in her hand.You can see tchotchkes on a shelf beside the television, hear the offscreen squeak of the leather camera strap nestled around fingers and a sigh when the onscreen couple finally kisses.It’s like some kind of out-of-body experience, watching through this person’s lens watching the end of Sixteen Candles.It’s like I’m not me at all right now.Instead, I’m everybody who has ever seen this film.

It’s Carter’s all-time favorite movie scene, the one she’ll cue up, she tells me, whenever she’s feeling down.It’s also integral to the plot of her first novel, Essence Magazine‘s July book club selection 32 Candles, which grafts a Hughes-like tale of an outcast teen named Davie Jones striving for a glorious ending onto an Alice Walker-like landscape of poverty and abuse. Whenever Davie obsessively plays back Sixteen Candles, Davie herself might be abstractly united with everyone who’d ever dreamily slunk down at the promise of that kiss over the candles.Davie might be everybody. Or nobody.But in Glass, Mississippi she most certainly isn’t Molly Ringwald.And that realization comes about the time she’s running away alone in a muddied dress with the laughter of what seems like her entire school behind her.

Carter does more than twist a familiar story into the parameters of the real world in 32 Candles.She gives it a sequel, in a sense, so we can see how Davie’s early experiences motivate her like an “invitation to crazy” some fifteen years later.In doing so, Carter takes Hughes’ pinhole focus on white suburbia and widens it to finally fill a void for all the Davies of the world. On the verge of 32 Candles’ release I spoke with Carter about the novel, the Ringwald effect, Fierce and Nerdy, Derby Dolls, impromptu clothing design, and all things movie geek.